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ISIS and mass shootings

I link to this article in Wired because I think it's on to something, but either Koerner buries the lede or he misses his own point to an extent.

I see the act of mass shooting in the USA, sociologically, as having reached the point of being a fully realized public ritual: the shooter, authorities, politicians, media, and the public—we all play our roles almost intuitively, without even having to recognize the degree that formality and performance shape our behavior. I cannot fathom what draws certain violent men to want to play the part of the shooter in these tragedies, but I am certain that these are not people suddenly "snapping" in frustration: these attacks turn out on investigation to have been planned over a substantial period of time. Each one draws inspiration from the ones before.

What ISIS has done here, using social media to promulgate instructions on maximum armaments and a fidelity pledge, is they have adopted and extended this ritual to serve their own terror and propaganda agenda. The "open sourcing" of violence is not innovative. It's not always described this way, but particularly in the middle east we've seen a pattern for years of suicide bombers and other violent actors who simply strike on their own, and then various organizations "take responsibility" after the fact. In the current case, ISIS planners have perceived an existing self-destructive flaw in our culture (the tendency for certain unbalanced individuals to be drawn to the role of mass shooter) and exploited it to be both more deadly, and more plausible for them to claim credit for. They have, essentially, weaponized our own culture of gun violence and turned it against us.

No one—least of all me—likes to acknowledge this, but the demonstration of tactical and strategic ability here reaches genius levels. Plainly, this intelligence is entirely twisted and evil, but I don't see a way to deny its brilliance. My great concern is that since 9/11 I have seen little sign that the leaders deciding our responses to this threat have anything smart enough to match it.

Dog and kettle

A teakettle always sits on top of our stove, even when we aren't using it. As a result, this kettle is almost constantly covered with a thin coating of oil, from frying and sautéing things nearby. It's a rather nice kettle, and deserves better, but there always seem to be more urgent priorities, and that's just how it goes I guess. Perhaps having a lightly greased tea kettle on our stove at all times says something about the kind of people we are.


In any case, our dog died today, and this evening I took the kettle over to the sink and washed it by hand with great care. I suppose the latter detail of this little narrative doesn't directly follow from the one preceding it, but I can't bring myself to say the two facts are not connected.


The other day, I made it sound like building an EPUB file from the PostgreSQL Manual under Mac OS X was really difficult, but it turns out I was wrong about that. I just had to get over my reluctance to resort to MacPorts. With that out of the way, you can just go:

sudo port install docbook-dsssl \
                  docbook-sgml-4.2 \
                  docbook-xml-4.2 \
                  docbook-xsl \
                  libxslt \
                  openjade \
cd postgres-9.4.4/
cd doc/src/sgml
make postgres.epub

Et voilà!

On the other hand, I also figured a way to make it even easier (for certain values of easier) and keep MacPorts out of the mix, using a purpose-built Docker container, with the docbook toolchain installed from Debian and the configure && make taken care of during the build. If run with a local directory mounted in to a volume, it just spits the finished EPUB out at you and exits. I posted it as a snippet on Bitbucket.

Of course, now that I've gone through all this, you don't have to. You can just grab the 9.4.4 (latest stable, as of this writing) PostgreSQL Manual from me. I also plan to post again if there's an update.

Rough for Internet

I notice that the predominant style across a lot of the internet—particularly on blogs and social media—strives to come across as always casual and conversational, to the point of being colloquial and chatty. Indeed, the online world spawns its own colloquialisms rapidly, which I think adds to the lightweight, offhand effect. Nearly all internet-mediated discourse can come to seem frivolous, even when the subjects being discussed may be serious. I think it is this sort of thing that gives some commentators the impression that the cultural impact of the internet is negative: that it degrades, debates, and diminishes the public sphere. As though the medium itself could be destructive in general of the human capacity for serious thought.

I don't buy the latter view at all. I am well aware of all kinds of web-based publications, forums, and other outlets that provide all manner of profound thought regarding important events, issues, and ideas. Even what we might historically term the Suck house style, although its influence is widespread, is far from always resorted to. There is a whole gamut of journalism, literature, discussion, commentary, and criticism from sources both amateur and professional or somewhere in between. And as I've already mentioned, even at its most arch this typical chatty style can still be a vehicle for profound substance.

One thing I really notice a lack of, however, is a self-conscious avant garde of Internet messaging as a practice. So-called "Weird Twitter" is the one notable exception I can think of recently. I recall fondly when sites like http://jodi.org and http://superbad.com seemed like key contributors to the emerging disembodied landscape of the Web. It's possible, of course, that I'm just not keeping up with this stuff as much as I used to. In researching this section, I noticed that http://net-art.org is still around, and both of the sites I mentioned earlier remain available online as well (whether or not they are still getting updates I am not sure).

The thing that really brought all this on, is I started wondering if anyone is using the blog as a format with the kind of formalism-as-examination-of-the-form such as Samuel Beckett brought to the theatre or Joyce to the novel. Where is the boundry-testing blog that challenges what a blog can be so that blogging can become something more than it has been? What would the blogging equivalent of Finnegan's Wake look like? I'd like to see that, although I don't think I'll be trying it myself.

Bill Frisell's Remarkable Joke

The show was in March, 1992 at the Hot House, then still in Wicker Park. I went by myself. It was supposed to be Wayne Horvitz's band "The President" and the Bill Frisell Band, but there was a terrible snowstorm that night, and several of the musicians were stuck circling the airport, unable to land at O'Hare. Frisell, Joey Baron, and Bobby Previte were the only performers who made it to the club. The crowd was pretty tiny, too - it was a small room anyway, but only few dozen people decided to brave the weather.

I remember having to take a Red Line train from Rogers Park all the way downtown and switching to a Blue Line to get out to Damen and Western. When I first got out there, the club was delaying the start of the show, I think hoping that more of the band might make it. I remember to pass the time, I decided to take the train back downtown and wander around the nighttime Loop in the snow. I stopped to throw a few snowballs at the Picasso sculpture at the Daley Center, then headed back to see what was happening.

By the time I got back there, Frisell had started playing an extended solo improvization, which was followed by a completely brilliant, lengthy drum duet. By the time the drum set finished, I think it was already past 1am, but the crowd was not giving up on getting an encore. Finally, all three musicians returned to the stage, and Frisell stepped over to an onstage microphone, saying only, "You people stay up late here!" They played a couple few tunes together, and in the middle of a sort of quiet part of this one piece, Bill Frisell walks over to the mic again, and without any introduction or preface went into telling the following joke:

So, there's these two guys at a bus stop, and one of them has his pants down, and the other guy has his finger up the first guy's asshole. Now, this third guy comes along, and seeing this... this Grotesque Display, he asks them 'What are you doing?' And so the guy, the one with the, uh, the finger, he says 'I'm sorry, it's just that you see my friend here is feeling very sick. I'm trying to help him throw up.' So the third guy hears this, and he's like 'Aw, no - that's... that's not the way you... you're never going to get him to throw up doing that!' And the guy says 'He will once I put my finger down his throat.'

And, bang - Frisell turns away from the microphone and goes straight back into playing his guitar while everybody in the room tries to figure out how to laugh and wince at the same time.

How to fry an egg

If I may be allowed a small boast, I think I'm greatly skilled at making both pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches. Satisfied with my mastery of these staples of the griddle, I was feeling disappointed in myself that I couldn't make a better fried egg. I mean, they were OK, but nothing great. I tended to accidentally break yolks, and over- or undercook compared to what I thought I wanted. Even when things went smoothly, I still didn't feel like they were truly great eggs. Something was missing, and I wanted eggs that turned out as pleasing as my grilled cheeses tend to.

So I got to work. I read some articles about how to fry eggs, tried some different techniques, and over the last few months I've fried a lot of eggs and think I've learned a few things. I was pleased to find out along the way that, at least according to legend, Ferdnand Point used the humble fried egg as a litmus test for would-be chefs. I guess I'm not the only one impressed by the Point anecdote; it seems to come up in just about every article about how to fry eggs on the entire Internet. The best overall and most varied and detailed survey of methods I've found online is this Felicity Cloake piece in the Guardian from November last year. It covers most of the techniques and pointers I picked up elsewhere, all in one place – including telling the Point story.

As I say, I didn't end up sticking with any one method, but gathered all this advice (a lot of which, I must say, is pretty similar from one source to the next anyway) and found what works best for me through trial and error. I don't know whether my eggs these days would impress M. Point, but I confidently say they are at least finally worthy of my pancakes. There are three main lessons that I want to pass along here, along with one optional piece of advice.

  1. Use plenty of butter.

    Seriously, use more butter than you think you should, by a wide margin. Even now that I have already told you to use more butter, you probably have an idea of how much butter you think you should use to have as much as I'm telling you. Now, use even more than that. The thing to remember is that you want to be actually frying the egg in butter, not just using the butter to keep the egg from sticking to the pan. It's a medium, not just a lubricant. There should be enough melted butter in the pan for the egg to settle down into.

  2. Use low heat.

    Again, you should defy your own expectations here to the point where it makes you a little uncomfortable. As much as I've urged you to go overboard with the butter, you should set the heat under your pan in roughly inverse proportion. Point suggests the butter shouldn't even foam at all. I find I'm happier with the result if I allow the butter to foam, but only slightly. I do want some crisping of the edge of the white to occur. Still, better to err on the side of too low than too high. The biggest Ah Ha of this whole process came with the discovery that, while I'd learned to cook eggs over moderate heat long ago, I'd nevertheless been aiming at too high a heat for many years, leading to all sorts of difficulties. Everything about cooking eggs got easier and yielded better results when i started turning down the heat. My sense of 'moderate' had not been moderate enough.

  3. Crack the egg into a dish before putting in the pan.

    It gives you a chance to discard any broken yolks and try again, and gives you better control over how the egg goes in the pan. Since I started doing this, my fried eggs look tidier, and are more likely to keep the yolk near the center instead of off to one side.

  4. Cover the pan while the eggs are cooking.

    I'd have to say I consider this one optional, because I don't always do this myself. I must admit, when I don't cover, it's generally because I'm too lazy to find the lid in the cupboard. Which in turn, obviously points to I'm also too disorganized to keep my frying pan lids in easy reach. Everything turns out okay without covering, but I'm more apt to flip the eggs for Over Easy instead of leaving them sunnyside up. When I have bothered to cover them, however, I have never been sorry, and all my very best eggy results – including a couple of nearly miraculous, pro-caliber ones – have been cooked under a lid. I think it just helps the topmost part of the white gel more quickly and evenly.

The real trick, of course, is to get the whole white as completely cooked as possible while leaving the yolk as runny as possible. So, besides the points listed above, there's a timing issue, which I can't say I've mastered with the consistency I aspire to. I still tend to overlook more often than not, to varying degrees. Once they are out, of course, a little salt and pepper, and enjoy while they are hot. I usually dice mine up completely before I start forking them up. A lot of mornings, I just have eggs and coffee, but adding some buttered 9-grain toast and bacon is superb, especially on the weekend.

My own thing

Sort of a follow up to my previous post – I had wanted to mention that, aside from making a vehicle for overcoming my fear of writing, part of what's at stake for me here in choosing simple tools and a new format, is that I wanted to get back to self-hosting. In a way it was something I had been meaning to do for longer than I care to admit, but what finally got me to start really taking action on it was when Instagram sort of infamously changed their TOS.

It's not that I'm really so worried about privacy on the internet. The way I figure, if that's really your big concern, about the only thing to do is avoid posting anything at all. I suppose it's partly because I've worked on databases behind web sites for a long time now, and seeing the sausage being made makes me more comfortable with the process. A lot of information that may be personally revealing at the individual level is really most typically either analyzed in aggregate, or any individual targeting is handled algorithmically. In other words, in the end personal data is handled impersonally. I suppose for some people that's the whole problem in a nutshell, but for me as I say it's more or less a nonissue.

In a lot of cases, it also seems to me like a reasonable trade-off. Instagram or Facebook or whoever is providing a service I enjoy at no monetary cost to me. I understand that what allows them to profit from that is selling facts about their users to advertisers or other interested parties, so I'm more or less willing to let them do that so that the service remains available to me. It strikes me as fair enough, most of the time.

That said, I do find something satisfying about hosting my own stuff myself. (Of course, there are compromises here, too. I don't really host this site on my own hardware, I use a hosting company. Still, I'm paying them, so the storage and bandwidth count at least as something like rental property.) I like knowing how the software works behind the thing. Ever since mp3.com went belly-up, I've always preferred to handle my musical output this way. I fooled around with putting tracks on Myspace or an artist page on Facebook, but mainly if there's something I want people to hear, I just put audio files on my own site, and link to them. Seemed like time to apply that to more than just music.

So, I'll still be using Facebook and Instagram and even Soundcloud and the rest, but at the same time I got to a point where I felt a little tired of handing my thoughts over to outside agencies with agendas of their own, and missed running the show myself. I wanted to have my own little corner of the internet that no one else is selling advertising on, and fill it up with words. So here it is.