First NASCAR race

I went with my son-in-law, Mark, to the New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, NH, to see my first ever NASCAR race. I’ve enjoyed motor racing since I was a kid, both in the UK and USA, but I’ve always gone to “road courses”: I like to see drivers turn left and right!
The race was sold out (the NHIS seats 91,000 101,000), the weather was warm and sunny, and it was a good race. The only frustrations were the number of cautions (a dozen, each requiring track crews to come out with ambulances, wreckers, and street sweepers to clean up the circuit), and the stupid restart system which deliberately mixes slower, lapped traffic into the pattern. The effect is to significantly penalize the 3rd place and subsequent drivers compared with the first two. Only after the very last caution of the race, a couple of laps from the end, was there a simple uncomplicated restart, and it led to some really close racing.
I had a dilemma: who to cheer for? I know little about the NASCAR circuit, and have no strong affiliation to any team, driver, or sponsored product(!). On the other hand, watching a sporting event “in the abstract” isn’t very satisfying. Needing a hat, I wandered over to the trailers selling memorabilia and decided on Matt Kenseth, last year’s champion in a Ford “Taurus”. (They use the names of street cars, but don’t be fooled.) I bought a hat and a model car, (shown here) and returned to my seat to watch the race. Matt had qualified poorly, back in 31st position. It was fascinating to watch him fighting his way up through the field to 4th place, coping with lapped traffic, overcoming a mistake in the pits, and so forth.
And just for the record, Kurt Busch (Matt’s team-mate) won the race from Jeff Gordon, with Ryan Newman (who led for the first 170 out of 300 laps) coming in third.
I’ll be going again. Thanks, Mark!

CD of the week: Soul Calibur II Soundtrack

OK, this one is weird. Soul Calibur II soundtrack CD cover
I enjoy videogames, although I’m not very good at them. I don’t want to have to learn lots of complicated stuff in order to play. If learning is required, I’d rather apply it to something a bit more important. That’s why I gave up on Final Fantasy X; I couldn’t be bothered to learn how to play three-dimensional water-polo, with complicated rules, just for a game.
Some years ago I saw the original Soul Calibur game on the Sega Dreamcast, and I was mesmerised. It’s a 3D fighting game: oriental swords, axes and nunchuks rather than fists or guns, and characters ranging from hulking monsters, to ninjas, to anime-style Japanese schoolgirl heroines. (And then there’s Voldo, of course.) Gorgeous graphics, good A.I., playable at various levels from mindless “button-mashing” to intricate 10-click combination moves. I bought a Dreamcast just to play Soul Calibur. Eventually my Dreamcast died, Sega got out of the console business, and I put it all behind me.
Recently Sega released Soul Calibur II on all the major consoles, and I bought a PlayStation 2 just to play it. (OK, I do play a few other games, but 90% of the time it’s SC2.) Visually, it’s gorgeous. Playability is perhaps a little inferior to the original, but there are some nice new modes to explore.
But one of the aspects that really grabbed me was the music. (Yes, this really is a CD of the week entry!) It borrows familar themes from the original Soul Calibur, but there’s a lot of wonderful new music. Eventually I bought a Japanese import of the soundtrack on eBay.
So what kind of music is it? It’s a glorious pastiche: an amalgam of all kinds of musical styles, from John Williams-style triumphal marches to dark atmospheric passages that might have escaped from the Twilight Zone, to pastoral tone-poems. At times it’s a bit reminiscent of Sibelius’ Karelia Suite. And it draws upon musical styles (or, more often, cliches) from all around the world – flamenco from Spain (oddly the theme for a French swordsman), swirling music from an Ottoman bazaar, and characteristic pieces from China, Korea, and Japan. And the major themes are presented in many different arrangements, from full orchestra to delicate piano-violin duets.
It must be odd doing the music for a videogame. It has to stand up to incessant repetition (so the CD contains lots of relatively short passages that can be assembled in various ways), and it has to reinforce the gameplay, so consistency is important. Hardly anyone will actually listen to it, of course. And the rest of the project is so expensive that the budget for the music is pretty good; no need to skimp. Combine with a Japanese attention to detail (and, it must be said, a complete lack of musical inhibition or conventional ideas of taste), and the result is extraordinary.
And why did I choose this for my CD of the week? I have a CD changer in my car, which uses a 6-CD cartridge. I realized yesterday that the Soul Calibur II double CD has been in the cartridge for the last four months. Other CDs have come and gone, but SC2 became my own soundtrack. Odd, that.

A phone feature I'd really like

Whenever I’m hosting a meeting, I always ask people to turn their cellphones to vibrate mode. This reduces distraction, but it doesn’t help when someone does receive a call: they have to answer it in furtive whispers as they scramble towards the door. Here’s a better way:
1. Incoming call, phone vibrates, callerid displayed.
2. Press key on the phone. This picks up the call, mutes the speaker and mic, and plays back a recorded message. Examples of messages:
“I’m in a meeting right now, but I do want to talk to you. Please stay on the line while I excuse myself and step out of the meeting.”
“I’m sorry, but I have guests and it’s not convenient to talk to you right now. Your callerID information has been saved. If this call is urgent, press 1, and my phone will page me. Otherwise, press 2 to leave me a voicemail message.”
Nokia? Ericsson? What are you waiting for?

Dude, where's my blood pressure?

As I blogged earlier, we went to see Control Room yesterday. When we got home, the DVD of Outfoxed that I’d ordered had arrived. We watched it this evening. It was good (though not as good as Control Room, which was quite brilliant), and it left me feeling very angry – which is the point, isn’t it? It’s worse than Berlusconi in Italy, because at least everyone knows that he’s a crook who uses his media empire for illegal purposes.
Anyway, the next time some slimy Fox pundit-masquerading-as-a-journalist begins a comment with “Some people say…”, watch out – a bunch of people are liable to throw up.

Hippocratic oaths for software designers

This is a rant. If I’m going to be responsible, I guess the rant should eventually get turned into a bug report. But I’ll start with the rant.
I hate autocorrection. Automatic hyphenation, automated spellchecking, automated URL completion, automated correction of capitalization…. I’m not saying that I don’t make mistakes that need correcting: what I find is that autocorrection gets in my way, interrupts my thinking, and – overall – makes me less productive.
Now I’m sure that some people, somewhere, must like it (although I hear more complaints than compliments for it), and I’m not opposed to making these features available. What makes me furious is that they are turned on by default. Every time I encounter a new spreadsheet or word processor, I get bitten by the “feature” and have to take the time to turn it off. And how should I turn it off? That’s another source of frustration. In OpenOffice, things like automated capitalization and hyphenation are specified in Options->Language Settings->Writing Aids, while things like word completion are in Tools->Autocorrect, and configuring spellchecking requires you to start a spellcheck via Tools->Spellcheck->Check and then use Options to change its behavior. (Then remember to cancel the spellcheck!) (OpenOffice is not unique in this: it follows Microsoft’s lead slavishly in this respect.)
OK, you’re saying, but it’s just a one-time frustration. It’s not a big deal. Wrong. Consider the situation that the Register reported a couple of days ago in a piece entitled Excel ate my DNA. Scientists imported genetic data into Excel, Excel “autocorrected” it, and the result was unrecoverable data corruption:
The errors are introduced because some genetic identifiers look very like dates to Excel. If the spreadsheet is not properly set up, it will convert an identifier, such as SEPT2 to a date: 2-Sep. The conversion, the researchers say, is irreversible: once the error has been introduced, the original data is gone.
I’m sure that these researchers installed MS Office in good faith. I’m sure that the installation program never asked them, “Shall I enable a bunch of options that may lead to silent data corruption?” And now they’re screwed.
Software designers need the equivalent of a Hippocratic Oath, combined with Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. I do not expect my word processor or spreadsheet to change my data in any way without first asking me if I want it to do so. Out of the box, all automated corrections should be turned off. No exceptions. First, do no harm. (And one day someone will test the legal disclaimers in the software licenses, and the whole “repudiation of liability” nonsense will be exposed. But that’s another discussion.)
So which Bugtraq category do I file this under?

Preaching to the choir… or not

In today’s New York Times there was an op-ed piece by Nicolas Kristof entitled Jesus and Jihad. In this piece, which Kristof admits he had reservations about writing, he shares with us some scenes from the Left Behind series of evangelical thrillers. He writes:
These are the best-selling novels for adults in the United States, and they have sold more than 60 million copies worldwide. The latest is Glorious Appearing, which has Jesus returning to Earth to wipe all non-Christians from the planet. It’s disconcerting to find ethnic cleansing celebrated as the height of piety.
If a Muslim were to write an Islamic version of “Glorious Appearing” and publish it in Saudi Arabia, jubilantly describing a massacre of millions of non-Muslims by God, we would have a fit. We have quite properly linked the fundamentalist religious tracts of Islam with the intolerance they nurture, and it’s time to remove the motes from our own eyes.
In “Glorious Appearing,” Jesus merely speaks and the bodies of the enemy are ripped open. Christians have to drive carefully to avoid “hitting splayed and filleted bodies of men and women and horses.”

He concludes:
Many American Christians once read the Bible to mean that African-Americans were cursed as descendants of Noah’s son Ham, and were intended by God to be enslaved. In the 19th century, millions of Americans sincerely accepted this Biblical justification for slavery as God’s word – but surely it would have been wrong to defer to such racist nonsense simply because speaking out could have been perceived as denigrating some people’s religious faith.
People have the right to believe in a racist God, or a God who throws millions of nonevangelicals into hell. I don’t think we should ban books that say that. But we should be embarrassed when our best-selling books gleefully celebrate religious intolerance and violence against infidels.
That’s not what America stands for, and I doubt that it’s what God stands for.

Obviously as an atheist I find the last couple of words incoherent, but overall this seemed like a very sensible – and very relevant – commentary. And so, as an inveterate blogger, I wanted to blog about it. And then I wondered who might read it. I think that most of the people I know well would agree with Kristof that the popularity of these books says something important and disturbing about America. But would any Left Behind enthusiasts read this, and if so what might they say? Could any kind of dialogue follow, or is that a futile idea? Would we even speak the same language?
Curious. And troubling. [Cached]

The Control Room

We went to see The Control Room today. Highly recommended. If you didn’t realize that the Jessica Lynch story was released in order to bury another news item, you need to see this film. If you didn’t realize that the US deliberately targeted three separate groups of journalists in Baghdad, and why, you need to see this film. If you’ve already forgotten the things that people were saying at the time of the invasion, and need to be reminded of how they sound against the backdrop of over a year of fighting, occupation, torture, and chaos, you need to see this film. In fact, you just need to see it. Period.
(And don’t just take my word for it. Last time I looked, the Rotten Tomatoes rating for this film was 97% fresh – 75 critics positive, 2 negative.)
Update: If you have seen the film, you might be interested in this piece in Salon about Lt. Josh Rushing, the press officer at CentCom.

Self-perpetuating stereotypes

Reading Terry’s blog (which everyone should do, not least to get an Iraq veteran’s perspective of some of the unbelievable stuff which is going down these days), I came across a link to this thought-provoking essay by Dawn Taylor on the other side of sexism: the “men are jerks, and they can’t help it” nonsense that you encounter every day. And I was reminded of the strange story on Yahoo! Oddly Enough about how blondes do worse on intelligence tests after they’ve been exposed to “dumb blonde” jokes. This stuff is not innocuous: it changes the way people think and act.

Our worst fears

Back on June 11 I posted an entry entitled This is a blog entry I hope I’ll be able to delete. Weeks went by, and I began to hope that Sy Hersh had got it wrong after all; that the things to which he’d alluded were unsubstantiated. But today Salon Magazine has posted a piece entitled Hersh: Children sodomized at Abu Ghraib, on tape.
WARNING: It’s pretty upsetting stuff.
UPDATE More info here at Boing Boing, including new info from European sources.