Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The System of the World by Neal Stephenson


Neal Stephanson's epic Baroque Cycle is either a trilogy that concludes with this book, or a nonology for which The System of the World provides three volumes—one in which the "final" volume, Crytonomicon, was the first published. Either way, Stephenson has written a complex network of story-threads, which he deftly gathers in hand in this book, to finish with a hefty braided hawser.

The voyage from Massachusetts to London on which Dr. Daniel Waterhouse sets out at the beginning of Book One, Quicksilver, ends with his stepping onto the London dock at the beginning of System. He has a multitude of daunting assignments in hand: reconcile the feuding philosophers Newton and Liebnitz; create a coding machine to use the Philosophical Language as the "program" for a Logic Engine for Tsar Peter of Russia; organize investment for the Newcomen engine—and find a non-Alchemical use for the Solomonic gold packed in the bilges of a certain cargo ship.

Waterhouse is not the only thread-holder heading for London, either. Peter Romanov, the Great Tsar, brings Baron von Liebnitz in his train. Eliza, Duchess of Arcachon-Qwghlm and Half-Cock Jack Shaftoe the Vagabond King also have gold-centered business in the city on the Thames. Eliza's young ward, Caroline of Hanover, perhaps soon to be Princess of Wales, is determined to visit the city with Eliza's young son. The ear-chewing Charles White is headed for a confrontation with Jack Shaftoe's one-time galleymate Dappa. Marlborough, Bolingbroke, and Roger Comstock vie on the field of politics, as the central question of the day is yet to be answered: will Whig or Tory triumph after the death of Queen Anne? Will the next King of England be French Catholic James Edward or Protestant German George?

Of course, we know from history how this question was answered, but Stephenson's tale rests on simpler matters. As the diverse elements of this world engine are assembled, the final output of the machine is not half so wonderful as its clinking, clanking roar. And as with Newcomen's engine, Dr. Daniel Waterhouse is the midwife-cum-investment broker who will bring the thing to life.

The three volumes of the first book, Quicksilver, were illuminated, networked, shot through with references to mercury: quicksilver, the symbol of communication and science (Natural Philosophy, as it was then called). The mercuric systems in that novel presaged the coming system of the world. In the two volumes of the second book, The Confusion, gold became amalgamated with that mercuric essence, as the strangely heavy treasure from the Solomon Islands became the property first of Vagabond Jack, then of an island queen. In the same way, Eliza's path mingled the quicksilver, Apollonian air of the German court of Hanover with the Dionysian, golden streams from the French court of the Sun King, Louis le Roi.

The final book must describe the sorting-out of all that is con-fused, and careful identification of the quicksilver essense that has been alloyed with gold in the currency of England. Currency. It can mean money or information, or—as in "state of the art"—technology. Like the legs of a tripod, these three currencies support the System of the World.

Thus, as the actors gather in London, awaiting them all is Isaac Newton, now Master of the Mint. His system is to make the golden coin perfect, uniform, and desireable above silver, so that gold throughout the world flows in shining streams toward England, bringing him any gold that is denser than the "common" metal. How could this brilliant man be so absorbed with coining the English currency? The simple answer is, he is not—it is the Solomonic essense in the heavy gold he seeks. Newton desires two things above all: the dense metal that will let him perfect his Alchemical research, and the recipes stored away upon Hooke's death.

Stephenson picks a careful path between obsolescences in the tone and approach of these 18th-century denizons, and the flavor of their speeach and style. We can see why Waterhouse the Puritan might become a Deist, why Newton the pure scientist might succumb to the allure of Alchemy, why Liebnitz the mathematical might, in the end, be a fervent Religionist. Their religious philosophy is one of many triples jousting for supremacy in this story. Another is the agriculture, trade in money, and the need for Power, whether from Newcomen's engine or the labor of slaves. A third (you knew there would be three!) entwines Tory with Whig at the top of society, with the Mobile (the Mob) as the third side of the triangle.

In the end, the triumph of The System of the World is the way in which Stephenson has let us inhabit the brawling, rowdy, sensual world of London at the brink of a new age, when the system of the world would change forever, and our world would be born.

I just couldn't wait for the paperback! DrPat's reviews of previous books in the Baroque Cycle:
The Confusion


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Robert De Niro and Phillip Seymour Hoffman: Flawless


I've learned over the years that a Robert DeNiro role will have lots in common with all the other characters he's portrayed in his distinguished career. This isn't to say that he is limited, but that in every role, we see the real DeNiro shining through from underneath. He shares that quality with such greats as John Wayne and Al Pacino.

So I was a bit tentative about the story in Flawless, the 1999 film in which he starred opposite Phillip Seymour Hoffman. DeNiro plays Walt Koontz, a tough-guy retired fireman who works as a security guard and lives in a seedy walk-up apartment across the airshaft from a room that always seems filled with flagrantly-gay drag-queens. The film quickly establishes Koontz as physically-oriented (he dances Argentine Tango with a woman he regards as a girlfriend, but pays as a hooker), and more than slightly homophobic.

Thus far, classic DeNiro. Then, in responding to a shooting in the apartment building, Koontz suffers a stroke that paralyzes his right side. This strong, self-sufficient man is reduced in an instant to a dependent cripple. He can't work, he can't dance. He can't bear to have his friends learn of his disability. Recommended to get singing lessons, he reluctantly decides to take the offer for lessons from the gay singer who lives opposite him. DeNiro's portrayal of the loneliness of stroke-victim Koontz, and his struggle to return to his former ability, is flawless.

And for once, the DeNiro beneath the role is harder to discern. He's still there, but Koontz is more apparent than DeNiro.

Hoffman, a standout in a secondary role in 1992's Scent of a Woman, has had experience in holding his own opposite a screen icon. (Al Pacino, who starred in that film. Interestingly, Pacino also danced Argentine Tango on screen.) Hoffman's performance as Rusty Kimmerman, a pre-surgery transsexual who brings DeNiro's crippled cop to understand that attitude and character are more important than a superficial perfection, is also flawless.

The two work together, not only to help Koontz recover some of his pre-stroke grace, but also to discover the murderers who shot up the apartment house the night of Koontz' stroke. The final denouement has Koontz returning (if somewhat less than perfect) to the dance floor, a little more clumsy than before—but much less frigid, less willing to judge others who are not flawless.

I've watched this movie three times now, and each time I see more nuance in DeNiro's performance. It's definitely worth adding Flawless to your DVD library.

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BlogDay 2005 passes, bloggers concentrating on Katrina, disaster relief


Nir Ofir is the initiator of BlogDay 2005. Nir envisions that in one long moment In August 31st 2005, bloggers from all over the world will post a recommendation of 5 new blogs (at the same time) - preferably blogs different from their own in culture, point of view and attitude. On this day, all blog surfers will find themselves leaping and discovering new, unknown blogs, celebrating the discovery of new people and new bloggers.
—Google's top match for BlogDay 2005, Smart Mobs

Self-described "innovation evangelist" and entrepreneur Nir Ofir conceived of BlogDay as a day when bloggers all over the world would visit, post about, perhaps even link to five new blogs of a type they might not have explored before. This idea came from the Israeli blogger's realization that he tended to spend all his time on his own blog.

Not to be outdone, Joho the Blog suggested an escalation: "How about if we link to 5 blogs from countries we don't know enough about?"

But for the most part, bloggers let today's Internet celebration go by unremarked. The blogosphere is focused on Hurricane Katrina, busy organizing disaster relief for the victims in drowned New Orleans and devastated Biloxi.

Perhaps that, after all, is the best recognition of BlogDay 2005.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Kicking the Musak: A Game with Song Titles


Overheard at lunch today: a rowdy bunch of hard-drinking suits playing a noisy game with the restaurant Muzak. It struck me that it might be just as fun to do here, with a slight amendment. Here's how it works:

Propose a song title, giving the name of the artist in a short joke or one-sentence story that plays off either the song's title or its best known lyric.

Some examples:
  1. "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?"
       What Elton John asked as his partner sat down on his lap.
  2. "I can feel it coming 'In The Air Tonight'... Hold on!"
       Phil Collins' apology after a curry dinner.
  3. "Blue Moon"
       Elvis Presley's complaint when a sudden cold snap that caught him in the outhouse.

You get the idea—I'm sure we can outdo a crowd of bank tellers and paper pushers!

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Weekly BlogScan: Blogging Katrina (Special Edition)

Hurricanes striking the eastern coast of Florida are a seasonal cliché. Floridians plan for them, stocking plywood and bottled water in preparation for each year's big blow. 1992's Hurricane Andrew notwithstanding (the "costliest disaster in U.S history" with 15 directly- and 25 indirectly-caused deaths and $30-billion in property damage, according to a St. Petersburg Times retrospective)—that experience shows. Florida usually weathers these storms.

Katrina, however, jumped the fence, running into the Gulf of Mexico with Category 5 force, heading straight for New Orleans. And the blogosphere watched aghast, and commented, and worried, and sprang into action to offer relief.

Blog watchers at Bloggers Blog reported the virtual storm."A Technorati search for Hurricane Katrina now [Monday] gives over 9,000 results. Nearly double the number we reported on Sunday... Humor writer Dave Barry even blogged about the event." (Barry, who lives in South Florida, writes, "The good news is, I'm fine. There's virtually no hurricane damage where I am. The bad news is, this is because I'm in California.")

Weather-sat photo of Katrina advancing on New Orleans, Image Hosted by

Katrina hits LA, Navy-sat photo from

At Rising Slowly, the "UK Weather Blog," coverage of Katrina began on Saturday, when the storm, which had already killed 5 in its first assault on the Florida coast, turned around and headed back toward the penninsula.

The blog GulfSails is dedicated to the hurricane; its sub-head now reads: "Located in New Orleans - I will be riding out Hurricane Katrina with a generator, some beer and the ability to post via cell phone after we lose hardlines. I will attempt at least hourly posts. Pictures will be available until land lines are lost." The blogger reminds us that "New Orleans is effectively an island and there are only three exits out of the city." An earlier post worried about the people left unevacuated due to a class-action lawsuit.
New Orleans Mayor, Ray Nagin... has been asked several times why he has not issued a mandatory evacuation of Orleans Parish. (All other SE Louisiana parishes have as of Saturday evening.) His replies have constantly been that he can't because of a legal matter that he has the City Attorney looking into... Apparantly, if he orders a mandatory evacuation, individuals who can not personally evacuate the city for whatever reason become the legal responsibility of the City Of New Orleans. The closest estimate is that there are 100,000 New Orleanians who have no personal transportation.

Poker-blogger adb_davoice, taunts Katrina on Random Musings of Mine with "Do Your Worst Biotch!" The blogger muses, "You know it's not going to be a good day when you live 3 blocks (literally) from the beach where JIM CANTORE from the Weather Channel is doing his updates. This guy is like a freaking hurricane magnet!"

Professional-looking HurricaneNOW is carrying constantly-updated coverage of Katrina and hosts a chat room for constructive comments and feedback. "In the meantime," co-founder Jeff Flock suggests, "consider a hurricane relief donation to assist the many victims of this devastating storm." HurricaneNOW's assessment?
Hurricane Katrina was one of the most powerful storms to ever strike the US. Our crew would normally follow the storm inland. However, because of the widespread devastation and flooding, we were unable to travel outside of downtown New Orleans. We are making all efforts to webcast, but it is technically impossible at this time.

Other blogs quickly sprouted posts with links to charities: Connie of Sugar-Shock Blog included links to seven, then broadcast an appeal to others in the blogging community to step up.

Nancy Terry at My Kingdom takes a different view of hurricane relief from Andalusia, AL. "Now that we have this 'Hurricane' coming," she wrote on Sunday, "the whole city is going to be in a state of shear panic. These people really need to find something more productive to do with their time than sit in front of the t.v all day watching the weather channel. Maybe they need to have more sex."

New Orleans trailer-park wrecked, Image Hosted by

Residents survey damage, photo from

Australian newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald online ( reminds us that it has been a long time since New Orleans faced such a storm.
New Orleans' worst hurricane disaster happened 40 years ago, when Hurricane Betsy blasted the Gulf Coast. Flood waters approached six metres in some areas, fishing villages were flattened, and the storm surge left almost half of New Orleans under water and 60,000 residents homeless. Seventy-four people died in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.

Paul at Wizbang (who rode out the storm in the gale-damaged Superbowl) is one of many bloggers who ring the knell of destruction in the aftermath of the storm:
  • 80% of the city is underwater... New Orleans proper has a population of about 500,000
  • Both Airports are underwater
  • An oil tanker is aground and leaking oil - 3 more "big boats" are aground
  • MAJOR levee break on the 17th street canal flooding both [New Orleans] and Metairie
  • The Southern Yacht Club burned and is completely destroyed
  • The High-rise bridge got hit by a barge and they don't know if it is safe
  • All of Slidell under water (population ~110,000)
  • Most of Metairie under water (population ~200,000)
  • About 50% of the "lower Northshore" (Mandeville, etc., population ~150,000) is under water
  • Gas leaks all over the city, many burning...
  • The Twin Span bridges are completely destroyed
  • ...they don't know about the safety of the Causeway

Meanwhile, political blogs took left- or right-eye views of the impending storm and its aftermath. While the Michelle Malkin blog concentrates on blogger reports of storm damage, John Aravosis of AmericaBlog writes "You fight disaster with the army you have left...," arguing that the deployment of National Guard units to Iraq leaves the US bare of amphibious vehicles that could be used to rescue people trapped by floodwaters. Noting Aravosis' comments, Steven Spruiell's Media Blog on National Review Online is not surprised:
Of course, left-wing blogs are using the disaster to take shots at President Bush, because, you know, if he wanted he could change the course of the hurricane with his secret neo-con weather machine. Don't you get it? New Orleans voted for Kerry!

And many bloggers are concerned about the impact on gas prices from the loss of the port of New Orleans. Donald Sensing links many of these economic concerns at his Tennessee blog, One Hand Clapping.
New Orleans [and] other nearby ports are major petroleum transshipment points; one news report I heard this afternoon said that 25 percent of the country’s petroleum passes through the New Orleans area. Louisiana is itself one of the most important oil-producing states...

The knell continues to toll, folks. And bloggers around the world are listening and passing the word.

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Monday, August 29, 2005

Birth of a Hero: Isabel Allende's Zorro


It is a testament to the strength of fictional characters when we seek to learn what they were like as children. In Isabel Allende's Zorro, the movie-serial icon of the 40s, TV icon of the 50s, and big-screen icon of five decades since, is revealed as he develops the traits that made him attractive to generations.

To me, who lived for two decades in the LA area, the Zorro legend has a particular appeal. Place-names and real historical figures mingle in these legends with fictional heroes and villains. The Robin Hood quality of Zorro made him particularly endearing to me as a child; long before I knew of La Cienaga and the Cajuenga Pass, I felt the satisfaction of seeing justice dispensed at the end of a blade by Don Diego de la Vega's alter ega, Zorro. In my childhood, Zorro and Guy Williams were inseparable. Even the brilliant performances by George Hamilton (Zorro, the Gay Blade) and Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro) in the role could not quite disabuse me of this. "They are actors," a younger me whispers. "You know the real Zorro is Guy Williams."

It took a book, this book, to finally replace my mental image of the Spanish hero in the Alta California. For the first time, I see the growth of Zorro in the childhood training of young Diego. I learn why his brother Bernardo (relegated to the role of sidekick in so many Hollywood renditions) is important to de la Vega's yearning for justice and his protective stance toward California's Indians. I meet and understand his childhood nemesis, Rafael Moncada, and learn why their contention has the power to endure into their adulthood.

For the first time, I understand why the bumbling of the doltish Garcia so often turned the tide in Zorro's favor. I see the long history that allows the Franciscan priest to extend the sanctuary of the mission to a thief's desire for escape. Even the map of Zorro's domain is made explicit.

Rich in detail and ambitious in scope, Allende's Zorro introduces us to the "real" person behind the legend. We follow the development of the two boys Diego and Bernardo, as they seek to define for themselves the sources of honor and courage, learning from Diego's fierce mother and Indian grandmother. We discover the love of mischief that underlies Zorro's later crusade against the oppressive governors of Alta California. Then we follow the two young men to Spain, where they learn new modes of "magic" and a new respect for justice in the house of the wealthy Tomás de Romeu.

Like any biography, some of its power comes from the presumed knowledge of the writer—and Allende speaks as a character in Diego's life, Isabel de Romeu, in the latter half of this tale. The character of Isabel is a perfect foil to the adolescent Diego: intelligent, capable, and endowed with the same sense of mischief and desire to protect the weak. (In fact, I got the impression that Allende was drawn to write this fictional biography so that she could enter the story of a childhood hero. Such is the power of her writing that the suspicion soon fades, and we accept Isabel de Romeu as if she had long been part of the Zorro mythos.)

Perhaps because the action is sumptuously detailed and partakes of those Thursday evening thrillers that glued us to the TV (pirates and grizzly bears supplement the usual fencing and whip-cracking), I found it reminiscent of the "original" Zorro tales I loved as a child. It was easy to drop back into that cliff-hanger terror. Will Zorro be discovered? Will the Alcalde's men catch him?

Will Allende write a sequel?

Zorro is top-notch, both as action fiction, and as an homage to the original. Once again, Allende has delivered—now, where's the popcorn?

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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Hot Men and Hot Water: Hot Six by Janet Evanovitch


Stephanie Plum's got trouble in Hot Six, the next entry in the continuing travails of Janet Evanovitch's New Jersey bounty hunter with attitude. Sure, Grandma Mazur has moved in with her (which really ticks off Joe Morelli). Sure, she's a self-admitted nymphomaniac. Sure, she has a serious doughnut jones. But I'm talking about real hot water, here.

This time, she's been assigned to bring in Ranger.

Yes, the same Ranger who's been tutoring Stephanie in the niceties (and nasties) of effective bounty-hunting, and giving her butterflies in the stomach over a bet he won, but for which he hasn't yet claimed his prize (Stephanie herself). Ranger is on videotape entering and then leaving an apartment building where a fatal fire broke out. There's a dead body, evidence of arson, and 48 hours of videotape that show no one else entering the building except Ranger and the victim. And Ranger's disappeared.

It's bad enough that Vinnie has assigned Plum to bring in her mentor, the "most dangerous man in the Burg." But she's got two sinister fellows following her around, threatening her with dire mayhem if she doesn't drop her pursuit. So, being Stephanie, she goes to the expert for guidance, Ranger himself.
   "Why did you skip on your court date?"
   "Bad timing. I need to find someone, and I can't find him if I'm detained."
   "Or dead."
   "Yeah," Ranger said, "that, too. I didn't think a scheduled public appearance right now was in my best interest."
   "I was approached by two Mob-type guys yesterday. Mitchell and Hobbs. Their plan is to follow me around until I lead you to them."
   "They work for Arturo Stolle."
   "Arturo Stolle the carper king? What's his connection?"
   "You don't want to know."
   "Like if you told me, you'd have to kill me?"
   "Like if I told you, someone else might want to kill you."

Hot Six may be a bit darker than previous Plum adventures. I found myself getting seriously worried that she might not make it this time. Even the looney bounty-hunting efforts of Grandma Mazur and the "ex-ho" Lula, and the introduction of Mooner, Dougie the Dealer, and the poop-productive pooch Bob couldn't lighten some of this action.

So at the risk of spoiling the suspense, let me assure you that Stephanie doesn't die. But you knew that anyway—after all, there are five more Stephanie Plum novels after this one.

Prior reviews by DrPat in the Stephanie Plum series:
One for the Money
Two for the Dough
Three to Get Deadly
Four to Score
High Five
Seven Up

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Katrina could alter Louisiana geography, Mississippi river flow


As Hurricane Katrina stalks the historic city of New Orleans, and massive evacuations are ordered, my thoughts turn to an already-stressed structure located several hundred miles upstream of New Orleans at the distributary channel of the Atchafalaya with the Mississippi River. The Old River Control structure was built by the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent the Mississippi drainage from switching to the steeper Atchafalaya channel.

Geologically, the Mississippi River has switched channels many times to build the Mississippi delta. Today, that change would mean stranding the port economy of New Orleans, with farmers and industries along the lower reaches of the Mississippi without the water they need. The expensive levee system erected along the Mississippi would no longer be needed, while a new levee system would have to be built on the Atchafalaya.

In addition, the Atchafalaya River could not accept the Mississippi flow without massive flooding of the basin's bayous, extensive relocations, and the upheaval of the social and economic patterns of the area. Since the completion of Old River Control in 1963, therefore, the Corps of Engineers has striven to prevent the river from jumping channels.

But the water will not be denied forever.

Since 1963, the coastal salt marshes, an important buffer for New Orleans against Gulf hurricanes, have diminished as the basin subsided. The Mississippi River continues to raise its bed in a natural process of stream-bed deposition, even as the surrounding ground sinks lower. The result is a city not only mostly below sea level, but also well below river level. Only the levees (whose bases have also been sinking) prevent the Mississippi from over-running its banks and flooding the streets, even in the driest season.

Also since 1963, the Mississippi has experienced several devastating floods. During the high waters of the Flood of 1973, water undercut the Old River Control structure and nearly swept away an entire sidewall. Rather than lose the control structure, the Corps let the water run through into the Atchafalaya basin, restoring the 70% flow to the lower Mississippi River only after the flood waters subsided. The record-breaking flood of 1993, even though its effects were mostly felt along the upper reaches of the river, also required the control to be let run, which further undercut the structure.

In John McPhee's marvelous essay, "Atchafalaya," published in his book The Control of Nature, he relates the first-hand account of the damage taken by the control structure in 1973.
When Dugie himself went to look at the guide wall, he looked at it for the last time. "It was dipping into the river, into the inflow channel." Slowly it dipped, sank, broke. The foundations were gone. There was nothing below it but water. Professor Kazmann likes to say that this was when the Corps became "scared green." Whatever the engineers may have felt, as soon as the water began to recede, they set about learning the extent of the damage. The structure was obviously undermined, but how much so, and where? What was solid, what was not? What was directly below the gates and the roadway? With a diamond drill, in a central position, they bored the first of many holes in the structure. When they had penetrated to basal levels, they lowered a television camera into the hole. They saw fish.

The flood of 1973 was a "40-year event," meaning that one might be expected, on average, every forty years. The inundation heading toward Louisiana on the fringes of Katrina, a Category 5 storm, could produce local flooding on the lower reaches of the river sufficient to allow the Atchafalya to finally capture the Mississippi. "Nothing says capture has to happen at Old River," McPhee was told by a local. "It could happen anywhere the two channels are close enough. It probably will someday."

New Orleans could survive the storm surge of Hurricane Katrina—however devasting—only to be hit with a second economic disaster, if the up-river rain causes the Corps of Engineers to lose their 42-year battle with the river at Old River Control.

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Folbot – A Geek's Kayak


About 9 AM on a sunny weekend with tides running in the right direction, you can find us at a put-in point, assembling a complicated-looking apparatus covered in heavy canvas from two suitcase-sized bags. We start with a layout of gear, no piece of which weighs more than 10 pounds—most are in the single pound-range.

Fifteen minutes of organized flurry, and voila! A kayak!

A two-person Folbot® Greenland II kayak geared for ocean expeditions, to be precise. For weekend paddlers in relatively calm water, we're ridiculous "over-boated" with the expedition gear, but the dream is that someday, we will be ready to explore the open ocean.

This is our windfall kayak, purchased when we came into enough money to fulfill our dream of having a folding boat. One of the beauties of Folbot is their practice of selling direct to the consumer. The standard craft today in this two-person model is under $2500. With a discount for buying in July (offered every year), we got it with the $300 expedition add-on for substantially less.

Folbot Greenland II two-person kayak, Hosted by

Our Folbot doesn't look this clean anymore!

Commercial folding boats designed like the Inuit kayak have been around longer than hardshell sport kayaks, with a 100th anniversary coming up in 2006. The earliest models featured frames of wood and a skin of rubber-coated cotton canvas; present-day craft use aluminum, high-tensile plastics and waterproof rip-stop Dacron canvas with a synthetic rubber coating.

Kayaks are usually reviewed on five qualities: Stability, Handling (including speed), Durability, Portability, and Equipment Detail. For folding kayaks, an additional parameter must be considered: Ease of Assembly.

Ease of Assembly: Most folding kayaks take 15 to 20 minutes to assemble, with practice. Critical differences hinge on whether one needs to learn a specific sequence of assembly, with a scale of forgiveness that ranges from 1 (most parts can be assembled in any order, sequences that do exist are obvious to the beginner) to 5 (rigid sequence, deviation makes it impossible to complete assembly).

Assembly of a Folbot is a 2 on this scale. The frame is partially-assembled in two segments outside the skin, then shoe-horned into the skin and locked into place with the remaining frame members. Aluminum coaming strips slide onto the edge of the opening and lock onto the frame with T-bolts. Frame members are labeled to indicate which position they fit on the base of the frame, but it's easy to mistakenly rotate them all—in which case, the coaming doesn't fit.

Stability: The inclination of a kayak to tip over to the side (capsize or roll) is called primary stability. Hard-shell kayakers learn a technique called the Eskimo roll, which is designed to let the kayaker right the capsized craft with them in it. (Secondary stability, or tracking, which reflects the craft's inclination to turn away from a straight-line path in response to waves and wind, is usually discussed under Handling.)

For Folbot, forget your roll-over training. The broad beam and inflatable sponsons of this craft make it almost impossible to tip. But make sure you learn how to get back into the kayak from the water—the eerie stability of the craft may tempt you to try standing up in it. An additional benefit from this stability is ease in stepping down into the craft from a boat dock. (In deference to my spouse, I won't mention the possibility of relieving oneself off the side during a longer expedition.)

Folbot showroom with several boats, Hosted by

Skinless Folbot frame, photo courtesy Folbot

Handling: The length and sleek finish of modern folding kayaks allows them them be quite speedy. A greater primary stability and better tracking is often traded for ease of turning, particularly in the longer two-person craft. You also consider the response to broaching and following waves and wind.

With a 17-foot length, the Folbot Greenland II zips along, especially with both of us paddling steadily. The broad beam (34 inches) means we have to reach out to avoid knocking knuckles on the coaming. In quiet water, our Folbot tracks well, but chops or wind mean a battle to keep it straight—we routinely assemble the foot-rudder to the craft, and this corrects the boat's handling for straight-line paddling. It also assists us in turning. Without the rudder, turning is a chore best done by a single paddler, with the other sitting idle; with it, you both keep stroking, and let the rear paddler steer.

Durability: People who've only experienced hard-shell kayaks sometimes look askance at a canvas-and-frame folding boat. Surely that can't be as durable as a solid Fiberglass craft! An argument to the contrary is briefly stated in a Canoe & Kayak Magazine review of folding kayaks by Ralph Díaz:
Durability is sometimes raised as an issue with folding kayaks. After all, they have soft sides. But folding kayaks have proved themselves in expeditions for nearly a century. Some models are used by special-operations forces from at least a dozen nations. If they weren't up to combat demands, the military would not risk using them. The hulls hold up well to abuse. When they are damaged, folding kayaks are easier to repair in the field than hardshells.

In addition to this overall durability, the Folbot company prides itself on a lifetime warranty for their craft, and they mean it. If something breaks during normal use, they replace it. The most common replacement item Folbot owners purchase is a $3 T-bolt and nut-knob, but you can replace anything that breaks, up to and including the skin. Our boat came with a repair kit that includes a skin patch-kit and several other items for emergency repairs, but so far we've only used the spare T-bolt.

Portability: Folding kayaks have two modes of portability: assembled and disassembled. The most-portable craft are easy to carry from assembly-point to the water, and light enough to portage around too-shallow waters. An additional factor for a folder is whether you would want to back-pack or carry it disassembled for any distance, to allow kayaking in remote areas.

Disassembled and stored in the two included bags, the our Folbot weighs a total of 62 pounds dry. (I swear it weighs 100 pounds wet, but that's because my arms are generally tired from paddlng by the time we're ready to disassemble the craft.) One bag is large-suitcase sized, while the other is military-duffel sized. Each comes with a shoulder-strap as well as a hand-grip, but I wouldn't want to carry either for a long distance. On a scale of 1 (a child could carry it) to 5 (after 20 feet, you wish you had a fork-lift), the Folbot is a 3.

Assembled, the craft really takes both of us to lift and carry. On our scale above, it would be 4 for us, though some less-sensitive paddlers might rate it 3. I would be reluctant to shoulder this boat, as light as it is, for any distance—the aluminum coaming bites deep into the shoulder. On the occasions when we've been forced to portage, a jacket folded into a shoulder pad was needed to prevent bruising. Carried between us, with each of us gripping the coaming on one side, the boat is an awkward mass. You need to pick your lift-point so the craft is balanced, and the sharp under-edge of the coaming bites into the palm. What's needed is a trailer or a pair of carry-handles, neither of which is standard Folbot equipment. (We bought a folding trailer for this purpose, and bungee it to the forward deck while we paddle.)

Equipment Detail: The standard Greenland II kayak comes with two 260-cm folding paddles (they come apart into two pieces), repair kit, two float bladders, two carry bags, and several short bungee cords that serve to tie down equipment to the decks. Two sleeves of hull material protect the exposed keel points when they are folded into the bag. The expedition package includes a spray-skirt, a coaming-mounted nautical compass, a foot-rudder assembly, perimeter bungees that surround the cockpit, and a mount for an upwind sail rig.

The boat is comfortable even for my large body, and is designed to have enough room for expedition gear—or for an extra passenger (child, dog, slender friend) and a fully-loaded picnic basket.

In addition to Folbot, other manufacturers that have been around long enough to build a solid reputation are: Klepper (the original folding kayak builder, in Germany), Feathercraft, Nautiraid (a French company), Long Haul, and Pouch (the other German folding kayak). We have paddled Klepper and Feathercraft kayaks, and they handle in much the same way as our Folbot. The price for these craft is typically much higher for the same kind of equipment, however. With the ironclad lifetime guarantee for Folboat parts, the cost-per-value comparision wasn't hard to make.

The bottom line, after all these factors are considered, is fun. The simple, fast assembly and "Gee Whiz" factor of the Folbot make kayaking easy and inviting, and the handling is beautiful in water conditions from shallow, fast-flowing rivers, to deep quiet estuaries and reservoirs, to the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay.

Under the twilight sky, each year for three years now, we paddle out on the Fourth of July to lie near the fireworks barge in Richardson's Bay, just off Sausalito. Rocked by the waves, we pop the cork on a bottle or two of late-harvest Zin, pour a glass for each of us (and several for the many other kayakers around us), lie back and watch the fireworks burst above us. Our toast to independence has several layers of meaning.


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Saturday, August 27, 2005

Complex: Ripley's Game with John Malkovich


Patricia Highsmith has been lauded for her creation of the sociopath Tom Ripley, but her novels have sometimes been poorly adapted to the screen. While both Matt Damon and the screenplay were brilliant in The Talented Mr. Ripley, her tense tale of the conscienceless killer as an older man, Ripley's Game, became a vague wandering saga of pointless violence and weird camera angles with Dennis Hopper in An American Friend.

Fortunately for all lovers of the successful psychopath, there is Ripley's Game, starring John Malkovich as Ripley. We recognise Ripley, even in a new body, even after so long. We know him instantly, that hair-trigger temper and murderous violence immediately masked by the quiet charm and creepy calm in his voice.

Ripley is in Berlin as the story opens, associated with a homosexual thug in an art scam. (There are hints throughout the story that Ripley's connection with Reeves, played by Ray Winstone, has been more personal in the past.) The deal goes sour, and Ripley's calm flashes into deadly offence when his client refers scornfully to "you people." Ripley bludgeons the man's bodyguard to death, then calmly walks out with both the art and the cash that had been intended to pay for it.

This brief scene, which occurs before the credits run, establishes both Ripley's role and Reeve's in the game to come. It also reminds us of the brutality that lurks, shallow beneath Ripley's veneer of civilization.

After the credits, we are told that three years have passed. Ripley is back in Italy, living in a beautiful villa, with a talented wife who plays the pianoforte. We think that he must be living quietly, content. Invited to a party by an English expatriot picture-framer, Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott), Ripley walks in on a devasting insult delivered by the man. "He's restored that villa until it has no life left," says Trevanny. "The problem is, he has no fucking taste."

There is an uncomfortable exchange between the two as Trevanny realizes Ripley heard his insult, and we almost expect an explosion from the American. (But when did Tom Ripley ever expose his nastier side to a crowd?) Instead, he plots a deep revenge. When Reeves comes to him with a proposition to kill some business competitors in Berlin (other mobsters, one assumes), Ripley recommends the "innocent lamb" Trevanny for the job instead.

As with the earlier movie, there are twists aplenty, but all these twists are in Ripley's head. Once again, an actor has succeeded in portraying the complex, despicable, but somehow sympathetic Tom Ripley. Even when we know he will turn in an instant to reveal the monster, we still are on his side. We want him to win. And we want Jonathan Trevanny to win too.

And that's the deepest suspense of all in this tale, because we know they cannot both win.

Stunningly filmed, beautifully adapted and excellently acted, Ripley's Game is one you will want to have in your DVD library.

The film was nominated for Silver Ribbon awards (Best Producer, Best Production, Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists) in 2003 when it was released, and this year for the Saturn Award for best DVD release. Ripley's Game was directed by Liliana Cavani, who also directed the elegant Nazi-Kabuki drama The Berlin Affair.

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Honor First: On Basilisk Station by David Weber (Honor Harrington # 1)


As an adolescent, searching for my sense of the right way to live, I encountered an icon in C.S. Forester's British naval officer Horatio Hornblower. For decades, Hornblower stood as my fictional ideal of leadership, principle and stoic adherence to duty.

Then in 1993, I opened my first Honor Harrington novel, On Basilisk Station, and Horatio was unseated by Honor. The two characters share more than initials; David Weber's Honor Harrington is, like Hornblower, an officer in a royal navy. Ms. Midshipman Harrington, like her 19th century counterpart, is a person of stellar principle and sturdy sense of duty. The likeness is no accident—Weber created Harrington as a deliberate homage to Forester's forthright Briton.

We meet Honor and her treecat Nimitz at Saganami Island, the academy for the Royal Manticoran Navy. This navy is spaceships, and Manticore is the home world of a small empire. These two elements, along with the telepathic treecats of Honor's homeworld, constitute the primary differences between Horatio's navy and Honor's. This frees Weber to tell the story—and Weber is a past master at military SF.

Honor's days at Saganami Island as a midshipman, told in retrospect, are important to the back-story, and serve to establish her character, as well as that of her nemisis, Pavel Young. Where Honor is of yeoman stock from a "rural" world in the empire, Young comes from the nobility of Manticore. Honor's innate honesty and courtesy are easily contrasted with Young's bullying and his sly approach to the truth. Subtler differences between them become more obvious with time. (And we have time; ten novels center around Harrington.)

Due to a naively unpolitical choice made by Harrington while an ensign, Honor and the crew of her command are "exiled" to the unpopular backwater posting on Basilisk Station in a light cruiser whose conventional weapons systems have been gutted and replaced by a nearly-useless experimental weapon. Worse, Pavel Young, in command of a second ship, is posted there as well—and he's in nominal command of the picket. Honor's distaste at taking orders from Young is carefully disguised in their interaction, however. She knows where her duty lies, even if she is prevented from doing it.

When Young seizes an excuse to abandon his post and take his ship back to Manticore for "repairs," Honor takes charge of the reduced picket, using her officer's pinnace as a customs boat, plus assorted remote unmanned robot craft, to "do her job" on the station. Parsing Young's parting command in the broadest possible way, she diligently sets out to fulfill the Navy's stated goals for Basilisk Station, careless of who she offends along the way.

When the People's Republic of Haven (the "Peeps"), a neighboring empire who've long been in contention with Manticore for the station, sweep in with battleships to overwhelm the tiny "garrison," Honor is ready. No light cruiser could ever win against a battleship—but Honor is not willing to step back from the fray. Her pitifully underarmed and overmatched ship may not win, but she is determined to delay her opponents long enough to allow backup to arrive from Manticore.

Despite the modern technology, battle action in On Basilisk Station is reminiscent of that of both Hornblower's navy and British Army conflicts in South Africa (the Zulu wars) and Afghanistan (the massacre of the British garrison at the Kyber Pass). This is due in large part to Weber's constraining definition of space-flight technology in the "Honorverse"; bands of force that allow ships to traverse wormholes also prevent spherical battle action. Honor's Navy, like Hornblower's, is vulnerable in a single plane only.

This might have made the Honor Harrington novels mere space-opera echoes of the Forrester classics, except that David Weber has really considered the spherical nature of a space battle. It dictates the strategy ship captains must consider in battle; if Honor cannot be killed by a hit from below, she can also turn her ship to interpose its "belly bands" between her and incoming fire. She must maneuver her own vessel to permit shots which will penetrate her enemy's bands of force. Further strategic advantage is gained from intelligence in a light-year wide field of battle.

The combination of thrilling battle scenes with a graceful, forceful, intelligent main character with a core of steel make the Honor Harrington novels my favorite for rereading. If you haven't encountered On Basilisk Station yet, I envy you—you have a wonderful experience ahead of you! Prepare to be conquered by Honor Harrington.


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Mozart's head gone in wax museum theft


Salzburg, Austria, has many museums that feature Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born in that city. A life-size wax figure of Mozart displayed as part of the "Next to Mozart" multimedia collection, though, is currently without its head, according to reports from the Salzburger Fenster.

Only the head was taken from the figure, which was displayed on the fourth floor. The original wax-work is a unique piece, and the stolen head is valued at over $18,000. The theft occurred sometime between when the museum was closed last night and when it opened this morning at 9 AM, when the loss was discovered.

Composer's heads are a valuable commodity. Haydn's head was stolen from his corpse before burial for phrenology studies. It wasn't returned to his grave until the 1950s. The skull of Mozart was removed from his pauper's grave (again, by a phrenologist). Mozart's skull resides on a private shelf in the "Mozarteum" in Salzburg.

It is doubtful if modern-day phreonologists are behind this theft, however. The stolen head may closely reproduce Mozart's likeness, but until a wax artist is able to borrow the skull from Mozarteum director Roland Hass, Mozart's identifying skull-bumps remain safely behind closed doors.


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Friday, August 26, 2005

Weekly BlogScan: Lance Armstrong, Icon

The trouble with being an icon, as Lance Armstrong knows from seven years of winning the Tour de France, is that, along with accolades and kudos, you also attract iconclasts. There are people whose immediate reaction to any idol is to search for the feet of clay they presume must exist.

Hence, the latest in a long series of allegations by French sports daily, L'Equipe.

Stuart Hughes points out in his blog Beyond Northern Iraq that two five-time Tour winners, Eddy Merxx and Miguel Indurain, have both come out in defence of Armstrong. Hughes, though is more concerned by Armstrong's chumming up with President Bush.

At Attytood, blogger Will Bunch also takes off from Lance's association with the President. "Why do you think they call them dopes?" couples the allegations against Lance with George W. Bush's college cocaine use and battle with alcohol. Bunch's left-eye view of the two men's meeting on Bush's ranch in Crawford is clever, but he missed a bet—no mention of Cindy Sheehan.

At Smart Guys Sports, "Bub's World" for August 25 tries to make sense of the doping allegations from a unique analogy with golf: "...if Jean Van de Velde had ripped thourgh our most sacred golf courses and won on them repeatedly, would we be accusing him of doping, [using] hot drivers or doing nasty things with the Olson Twins? ... L'Equipe and [its] parent company that runs the Tour de France are seeming to do that with Armstrong..."

Lance lifts 7 fingers for 2005 Tour

Lance in 2005 Tour, from Rugged Elegance blog

Of course, there's no bias at PaveFrance! (Its subhead is The British Need More Parking.) Blogger Damien reacted to the initial report in Monday's L'Equipe with "The French are bad losers, poor sports, and boorish hosts." The follow-up post contains much more information, along with the conclusion.
During J.M. Barrie's 1904 stage play Peter Pan, audiences clapped Tinker Bell back to life. But it was only make-believe. In France a nation vainly wishes Mr. Armstrong's ruin into being. But it is only make-believe.

NetLiberty Roy posted his personal defense of Armstrong from his perspective as a student of the cyclist's winning attitude. sentence from Lance in that article continues to spring me to explore my limits in ways my Type-A superachiever mindset never sprung me before. "If you ever get a second chance in life, you've got to go all the way." Lance easily could have said, "Heck, cancer has wrecked me..." ...he had a pretty good case for hanging it up. He was already a cancer survivor, so in his mind, he was already a success... But he forgave himself for all of those reasons, and gave himself a second chance—a new reason—to go for it all again. "He was a champion, and when it's time to call it a day, champions don't sneak out the back door," said his personal coach Chris Carmichael.

FatCyclist discovered in watching the 2005 Tour that his loyalties were more complex than his spouse's: "I want the underdog to win, but am not willing to stick with him once it's clear that King Kong has crushed the life out of him. In the end, my loyalties are with those who most earn my admiration." In pursuit of this thought, he wrote a "Tour de France Personality Test. Question 5 read:
What percentage of riders in the Tour de France do you think—in your heart of hearts—are cheating, either by doping, blood transfusions, or hidden tripwires to make the competition suddenly and without warning or cause fall from their bikes (see David Zabriskie for details)?
  • 0% – they're all clean: I just put this here in order to be comprehensive. I don't think anybody believes they're all clean, though, so am not going to make up something about what this says about you.
  • 1% – 20%: You believe, in general, that people are good and want to do the right things for the right reasons. You furthermore believed in Santa Claus a full two years after the rest of your classmates.
  • 21% – 40%: You consider yourself tough but fair. Others consider you a fence-sitting nancy-boy.
  • 50% – 100%: You suspect everyone of everything. You assume the worst of everyone, and think that this protects you from being taken advantage of. In reality, though, you're just being paranoid and tend to make yourself a target of practical jokes. You were the kid in school who told everyone there is no Santa Claus. Jerk.
  • "Hey, you skipped 41% – 50%!": You are anal retentive and are furthermore taking this way too seriously.

Can't Stop the Bleeding's July 25th post was written about Armstrong's historic seventh win in the Tour, but has some cogent comments that bear on the latest accusations. "I read an article a few years ago in which Armstrong attended a Stone Temple Pilots concert and ate exactly three (3) Doritos from the backstage spread... I don’t know how many of you have the discipline to limit yourself to exactly 3 Doritos (nor can I vouch for Armstrong having done so without the aid of illegal substances)..." The blogger went on to propose several accomplishments that would be equivalent in difficulty to Armstrong's feat. My favorite:
Kobayashi Wins 5 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Titles
I think you could make a case for Kobayashi being the Lance of Competitive Eating. They’ve both won a signature event on foreign soil, been subjected to scurrilous doping allegations, and each have a training regimen that would kill a normal human.

Finally, David Johnsen posts in DJWriter his irritation at "The Tired, Old Lance Armstrong Question" about the cyslist and performance boosters.
When Armstrong finished third on Brasstown Bald in the Tour de Georgia, did anyone say that Tom Danielson and Levi Leipheimer beat him because they had better drugs? When Ivan Basso finished with Armstrong ahead of everyone else on two tough mountain stages at last year's [2004] Tour, did anyone question Basso's purity? ... Other people say that Armstrong must be using some kind of incredible new drugs that no one else knows about, drugs that they can't find through testing. While I am skeptical of the pharmaceutical industry, I find it hard to believe that someone would create an undetectable superdrug just for Armstrong.

I make no secret about my own doubts over the veracity of L'Equipe where Lance Armstrong is concerned. I would suggest, though, when one swings a sledge to smash the feet of an idol, one had better make very sure not to drop the hammer on one's own clay toes.


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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Lance Armstrong: Doping allegations are "slimy journalism"


Lance Armstrong appeared tonight opposite King and Bob Costas in his only planned TV interview to speak to allegations of positive tests for a banned performance-enhancing drug from samples frozen in 1999, which were reported Monday by French sports daily L'Equipe.

Armstrong's assessment of the allegation was unequivocal. "It stinks," he told King and Costas, calling L'Equipe's report of the test results "slimy journalism."

"The testing lab seriously violated WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] protocols." He repeated the same flat statement he's made for seven years, that he never used EPO or any other doping agent during his professional cycling career. Prompted by Costas, Armstrong did agree that EPO was part of his chemotherapy during his epic battle with testicular cancer, but "the last time I used it was late 1996"—well before his first win in the Tour de France in 1999.

Armstrong then listed some of the problems with the lab tests and L'Equipe's allegations.
  • There were 17 "B" samples left from Lance's drug tests, taken at various stages during the 1999 race. EPO takes 2 to 3 weeks to disappear from the body, so if one was positive, all 17 should have been. Yet only 6 were supposedly found positive.
  • Testing protocols were not followed as to monitoring. There is no way to determine now how the samples were handled prior to testing, who had access to them, or even whether the tests were performed correctly. When tests are run during a race, the entire testing process is monitored.
  • No one knows how frozen samples change over time, and that's what the "B" samples are supposed to be for: experimentation. But when they experiment on a "B" sample, the lab is supposed to get permission from the cyclist to experiment, and the results are supposed to remain anonymous, according to WADA protocols. Neither of those protocols were followed. Armstrong suggested that this breach of protocols suggests that other testing protocols may also have been ignored.
  • Although the EPO test was not officially accepted until 2001, it was in use in 2000, and the entire Postal team was tested for the presences of the hormone. In fact, the team was tested four times in surprise random tests outside the racing season. If Armstrong had been skating the edges of testable doping by using this banned substance because it couldn't be detected, they would have caught him in 2000.
  • Armstrong was fast and strong in 1999, but even faster and stronger in 2000 and 2001. Since he certainly wasn't using EPO after the commencement of regular testing for it, as shown by the almost daily negative test results during these Tours, it's more likely the test is in question, rather than his clean results in 1999.

But the strongest reason he gave for discounting the results of the B-sample tests from France was heartfelt and honest, and totally typical of the iconic cancer survivor. "A guy who comes back from arguably, you know, a death sentence," Lance said earnestly, looking directly at Costas, "Why would I then enter into a sport and dope myself up and risk my life again? That's crazy. I would never do that. No. No way."

Armstrong repeatedly said that his focus was no longer on cycling, but on cancer research and survivorship. In a recent visit to President Bush's Crawford ranch, the topic of doping "never came up," according to Armstrong. "I asked him for a billion dollars," for the War on Cancer, he said.

The entire transcript of Armstrong's interview is available for Paceline members at LanceNews. To join Paceline, a free subscription, click on The Paceline at


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Reality Bites: Family Channel's Kicked Out


Reality TV is a iffy venture. Some views of the real world are innovative, exciting, and informative; some are depressing, disgusting or alarming. Examples of the latter include The Surreal Life ("When the stars fall from sight... this is where they crash.") and Family Forensics.

Kicked Out, though, belongs firmly in the former set.

The premise is that parents of an adult son or daughter living the slacker lifestyle at their home, sponging meals, gas, and maid service, finally snap and kick the kid out. The debut episode had 24-year-old Verion Payne kicked out by his parents, Walter and Velida Smith. Payne had it good: Mom picked up after him, cooked his meals and did his laundry. He had a wide-screen TV and video games, a car and a wannabe approach to his desired career designing handbags. What he didn't have was a job or any motivation to get out and get one.

His "kicking out" was managed carefully, though. A la the Discovery series While You Were Out, the back-scenes crew brought three storage containers, into which Walter and Velida loaded all Payne's belongings, except for one pillow and one suitcase of clothes. He returned home to find his bedroom converted to a home office.

Worse news: as they bid him goodbye on the doorstep, Mom took away his cell phone, credit cards and all his cash. He was provided with keys and directions to a small apartment, and a sleeping bag for the first night. Payne's stunned reaction must have been wrenching to his parents, but they stuck with the program.

His new apartment was small, but seemed larger because it contained no furniture. The next day, he got his first assignment (delivered by his parents via a closed-circuit TV). He had a budgeted amount of money to go get "something to sleep on, something to eat off of, and something to sit on." Payne had no time to sulk or be depressed about his changed condition—he had marching orders!

Outside, though, he found his car out of gas. Under the rear bumper was a note from Walter and Velida, reminding him of all the times he'd returned their cars empty. Next to it was a small gas can. He had no choice but to hoof it to a gas station and buy enough to fill his tank. Finding furniture within his budget and getting it up the stairs to his apartment and assembled took the rest of the day.

His next assignment was to shop for groceries and make his own meals according to menus prepared by his Mom. She said, "Left to himself, a meal is a bowl of cereal," to explain why this planning was necessary. He walked away from the store after an $84 payment with new respect for the cost of eating well. This was nothing, though compared to his reaction to an additional assignment: to do his laundry, which had been left at his parent's house. We watched the crew speed by and drop four large bundles at his door as his Mom dropped the challenge on him. "Oh, by the way, I've put some of your Father's things in as well," said Velida. "They're on your front doorstep."

Payne's distress and confusion at the laundromat was obvious, and woke new respect for the job his Mom had been doing. Back at the house, he tried making a meal, and finally sat down to eat at midnight. As he picked at the gummy pasta, he confessed to feeling his failure, and began to sniffle, "I took so much for granted that I shouldn't've."

This could have been just as uncomfortable for the viewer, but it wasn't, for the same reason that the acid criticism and embarassing candid video of the "victims" on TLC's What Not to Wear aren't. We put up with the shock value because these are people who need the motivational kick and guided reorganization they're getting.

And like the "burgled" homeowners in It Takes a Thief, the shock has a curative effect. To break free of a comfortable habit of slacking, a major boot to the rear is required. Tough love, indeed.

This one's worth watching.


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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Attribute, Link and Self-Host: The Essentials of Image Posting

With the ubiquitous digital camera has come a meteoric rise in the number of images available on the Internet. You can find pictures of anything on the Web now, much of it published with no copyright reservation or restriction. So it's all up for grabs, right?


I won't belabor the obvious by telling you it's never right to simply take a copyrighted or copy-restricted image for your own post. You already know that. But for all those other images. there are two additional issues involved in using them responsibly: hotlinking and attribution.
At the bottom of this article, you'll find some HTML code ready to cut-and-paste into your posts, to make responsible image posting a little easier.
HOTLINKING (or inline linking) is the practice of leaving the image file at the owner's site where you found it, but having it viewable in your own post. The problem with a hotlinked image is this: each view of the image on your site entails the use of bandwidth from the original hosting site—bandwidth theft is the term that has been coined for it.

Theft may be too strong a word for this bandwidth demand, since each site has the option to deny such links. (Blogger-hosted websites limit inline views to a few occurances; this is why hotlinked images from a "blogspot" will disappear from your post after a few minutes.) But when the owner of an image feels you're out of line with your hotlink, there is a simple revenge available—the image can be swapped to something that will embarrass the hotlinker. I've seen egregiously hotlinked items replaced on the original site with everything from a lewd photo to a "note to the bandwidth thief."

DrPat's signature image: Jupiter's Red Spot

Image courtesy DrPat at Paper Frigate

The solution is to host your own copy of the image. Self-hosting images avoids any accusation of bandwidth theft—and there are lots of sites that make this easy and free. TinyPic, Kodak Ofoto and flickr are popular services. I myself use ImageShack, because it offers a Firefox extension that allows me to point to an image and upload it to my hosting account with a right-click.

Most image-hosting services show or give you the URL for your image. For my signature Jupiter Red Spot, for example, the URL is

Thumbnail of Red Spot image created by ImageShack

Click to expand image

ImageShack recommends thumbnails be used instead of the full-sized image, and they will automatically produce one for images above a certain size and resolution. The great advantage to you of using these thumbnails is that you don't have to edit your image to reduce its size. If you're using MicroSoft Paint, the image editor bundled with Windows, this can be a serious advantage.

The downside? ImageShack sells advertising (just as BlogCritics does), and some of those ads open ClickAd windows. If you have your browser or adware manager set to deny or automatically close ClickAds, you won't even see them—but readers who click on your thumbnails will.

Once you have your image host account set up, it's time to embed some images into a post. For your own photos and other digital creations, you don't need to include an attribution and a link to your own site. But we're all interested in increasing traffic to our own sites, and that's why attribution is a courteous and professional thing to provide for images you use—even your own.

ATTRIBUTION on the Web is a two-part practice. My first image above has a "courtesy" attribution to let the reader know who granted permission to use the image: Image courtesy DrPat at Paper Frigate. Alternate credits might name the photographer, when you know the name (Photo by Bruce Means), or credit the site owner (Photo from NASA GRIN). This is a standard photo attribution, much as you would see in a magazine or newspaper.

LINKING (or hyperlinking) to the original site is the second step in responsible use of someone else's images. Unlike hotlinking, an external link opens the page to which you have linked your image, letting the reader visit the original site and view the context in which the owner placed the image.

-Sun on Creek- by Ben Cummings

Image courtesy Art Lover of Math Moiré

Because it boosts visits to image-owners' sites as well, few bloggers and Web publishers object to the use of their published, non-copyrighted images when you link the image to their site. (It's always a good idea to ask first—a simple eMail will remove all doubt whether the image owner will allow you to use it if you link it to their site.)

This photo of an acrylic painting by Ben Cummings, hosted on the Math-Moiré blog, is linked to the website where I found it. In this case, I had already requested and received the owner's permission to use the photo, so I gave Art a "courtesy of" attribution.

Are there public-domain photos and other images on the Web that you won't need to ask permission to use? Sure. Google "free photo"—the top choice is, which has fairly liberal rules for hotlinked use of their extensive gallery of images. The sunset-limned tree picture centered below was supplied by

-Tree, Sunrise, Northumberland- by Ian Britton, (c)
Photo by Ian Britton (c)

HTML CODE for images is below. To use it, highlight the code, copy it and paste it into your post text (I put it at the end of a paragraph so it will align with the following paragraph), then make the following substitutions:
  • Replace LinkURL with the URL of the source site*.
  • Replace NNN with the desired width. (I use 240 to 300.)
  • Replace imgURL with the URL for the image on your own host.
  • Replace ALTtext with a brief description of the image, for those who can't or don't load images.
  • Replace Caption with the caption you desire. Don't include any quote marks or returns in the caption.
*For thumbnail images, this must be the host site, not the original site, to allow viewers to click to expand the image. The Caption for a thumbnail should be "Click to expand image" or "Click for larger view"

Right-aligned images with the text wrapped around them (like the Red Spot above) can be added to your post with the following code.
<p style="float: right;"><a href="LinkURL/" target="_blank"><img width=NNN src="imgURL" alt="ALTtext" border="0" hspace="10" vspace="3"/></a><br><i><small><center>Caption</center></small></i></p>

For left-aligned images with the text wrapped around them (like the Red Spot thumbnail) use the following code.
<p style="float: left;"><a href="LinkURL/" target="_blank"><img width=NNN src="imgURL" alt="ALTtext" border="0" hspace="10" vspace="3"/></a><br><i><small><center>Caption</center></small></i></p>

Centered images with white space right and left of the image are the easiest of all. Many image-hosting services will give you code to do this minus the centering tags, link to original site, and the image size. You could simply cut-and-paste. But centering formats the image in a pleasing way, and the code below also lets you include attribution information.
<center><a href="LinkURL" target="_blank"><img width=NNN src="imgURL" border="0" alt="altTEXT" hspace=10 vspace=3 /><br><small><em>Caption</em></small></a></center>

Courteous, professional image posting requires just a bit more effort. Apply the Golden Rule, and realize that, just as you would want your own creative writing efforts respected, the simple steps outlined above will extend that respect to photographers and those who create graphic images.


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