Saturday, September 30, 2006

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Tokyo Rose, American Hero

Oh, just read about it here.

What makes me happy at the end of a heartwrenching story is her pardon by President Ford in 1977 -- perhaps this even makes up for that other pardon -- and the fact that Iva Ikuko Toguri lived another 30 years as a free American woman, her name and reputation vindicated. Honestly, sincerely, I'm proud of my country for that.

If you ever hear any of her actual broadcasts, or what remains of them, or those of the other women called "Tokyo Rose" it's obvious they could never have been taken seriously by the servicemen they were intended to demoralize. So I'm not at all surprised to hear that she was deliberately subverting her own broadcasts, making them comical and ineffective; it's obvious just listening to them. I knew they were hilariously funny the first time I heard them...long before the real story came out.

If I may hamfistedly tie this in with a parallel to recent events...consider what a soldier faces on the battlefield. The heat, the blood, the illnesses, cramped quarters, unprotected vehicles, lack of proper equipment, lack of body armor, improvised explosive devices in the road, other people trying to kill you every day. Don't you suppose those things are a greater threat to troop morale than any propaganda broadcast could be? Do you imagine any soldier would ever say "Sure, my best friend just had his face blown off, and my shirt is spattered with his brains...but hearing a political candidate criticize the Commander in Chief is what wounds my fragile, delicate sensibilities?"

Anyway. In wartime, Iva Ikuko Toguri did much good for her fellow Americans and no demonstrable harm, faced terrible hardship and personal risk to save lives, and we should honor her memory as a true American hero.

Update: Read a more detailed account of her true story here.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Pirate double feature

Bad movies and popular fiction over the last century or two may want you to think of all pirates as being crazed Englishmen, with or without heavy layers of mascara...but some of the most notable pirates in history were Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 (or their descendants) seeking revenge for the Inquisition, or seizing booty as funds to buy safe passage for still more expelled Spanish Jews. From

One such pirate was Moses Cohen Henriques, who helped plan one of history's largest heists against Spain. In 1628, Henriques set sail with Dutch West India Co. Admiral Piet Hein, whose own hatred of Spain was fueled by four years spent as a galley slave aboard a Spanish ship. Henriques and Hein boarded Spanish ships off Cuba and seized shipments of New World gold and silver worth in today's dollars about the same as Disney's total box office for "Dead Man's Chest."


Another Sephardic pirate played a pivotal role in American history. In the book "Jews on the Frontier" (Rachelle Simon, 1991), Rabbi I. Harold Sharfman recounts the tale of Sephardic Jewish pirate Jean Lafitte, whose Conversos grandmother and mother fled Spain for France in 1765, after his maternal grandfather was put to death by the Inquisition for "Judaizing."

Referred to as The Corsair, Lafitte went on to establish a pirate kingdom in the swamps of New Orleans, and led more than 1,000 men during the War of 1812. After being run out of New Orleans in 1817, Lafitte re-established his kingdom on the island of Galveston, Texas, which was known as Campeche. During Mexico's fight for independence, revolutionaries encouraged Lafitte to attack Spanish ships and keep the booty.

But in the 1958 film "The Buccaneer," starring Yul Brynner as Lafitte, any mention of the pirate's Jewish heritage was stripped away.

If the prospect of Jewish pirates conjures up images from a Mel Brooks movie, or possibly the voice of Jackie Mason saying "What, you want I should collect pieces of eight?" while an elderly Jewish bubbe admonishes "By you, you're a me, you're a pirate...but by a pirate, are you a pirate?" that's only natural. But, see, it's also part of the problem. That sort of thing is a beloved part of Jewish heritage...but the editing of popular culture to remove Jewishness from any other historical context besides humor and Holocaust survivors deprives Jewish people of the full opportunity to be, you know, people.

Someday I'd like to write an action story about a Jewish pirate. Might be interesting to have a pirate story with some motivation beyond saying "Arrr, Jim-boy! Avast, ye swabs!" And yes, there'd be Jewish humor in it...but he'd also be a swashbuckling action hero of the high seas who was totally cool and menacing.

I mean, everybody realizes both Kirk and Spock were Jewish, right?

And speaking of piracy, Engadget reports that the Diebold AccuVote-TS machine can be opened with a key from an ordinary hotel minibar. This article includes links to instructions on what the vote pirate can do once the machine is open.

Now that it's been revealed how insecure and easily compromised these machines are, how pathetically simple it is for any corupt official to hijack an election using these voting machines...part of me is almost hoping we'll see a massive, coordinated effort to subvert an election. Can you see how simple it would be for a few dozen vote hackers to synchronize their efforts and insert an obviously fraudulent name -- Mickey Mouse or Jack Kirby or Jean Lafitte -- never seen by the voters, but magically "elected" by an overwhelming majority as Governor or Senator? I wonder if anything short of this would send the message to everyone that voting machines controlled by a private company with insufficient security and which leave no verifiable paper trail are nothing short of a license to end democracy. If vote pirates struck at Diebold and opened them to the public humiliation they so richly deserve, at least the problem couldn't be ignored anymore.

And of course, a side benefit would be the public humiliation of an administration which claims to venerate the concept of "security" but does absolutely nothing to ensure the security of our most sacred rights and principles. Times like these may call for outrageous gestures to expose the sanctimony and hypocrisy of those in power. In other words, it sounds like a job for the pirates!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Krazy kaptions

"It was Earth all along! You finally did it! You maniacs! Damn you all to hell!"

(Explanation here.)

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Losing threads

This morning I found out that someone I liked a lot was dead, and I feel weird about it. This was someone I met in person only once, when he visited New York more than a decade ago, then corresponded with heavily for some time. We communicated in the form of written letters -- you know, the kind on paper -- but strangely enough, we never made the logical transition to staying in touch with e-mail. Instead, we fell out of contact right at the time we both got regular net access in our respective homes. So that's a bit counterintuitive right there...but that's not why I feel so weird about his death.

This guy had a much bigger impact on my life than he ever would have imagined. His girlfriend had been a friend of mine in the UK, but I didn't meet him while I was living there. He came to New York to play a gig with his band when I was working in music journalism (and simultaneously acting as roadie for a local group, as mentioned in the previous post) and he turned out to be a big comics fan. At that time, I had been totally estranged from anything to do with comics or comics fandom for about five years -- a string of bad experiences had left me feeling the need for a clean break -- but he and I got to talking about then-recent stuff in comics he was enthusiastic about.

One of those things was Alan Moore's 1963 miniseries, which had come and gone while I wasn't looking. He insisted that I was exactly the sort of reader who would best appreciate it, and that I had to check it out. (In the event, I was never quite as enthusiastic about that miniseries as he was, but I've reread it often and it always makes me think of him.)

Armed with a bunch of similar recommendations from him, I set foot in a comics shop for the first time in five years. I didn't find issues of 1963 right away, but I did find several issues of something called The Jack Kirby Collector -- this guy was also a big Kirby fan, and had tipped me off that big things were afoot in fandom following Kirby's passing -- and I bought each issue they had in the store. That plus some other tips from my new friend were my first steps back towards the world of comics and comics people. A lot of stuff I do now, including this blog, came about through a chain of events leading unbroken from that guy prompting me in that direction.

So it's a bummer to learn that he's gone. But what makes it so weird is that I found out today by reading this:

Jenni Scott offers a review of the Andy Roberts Memorial Comics Collection housed at the National Art Library in England’s Victoria and Albert Museum. (Link via Bugpowder’s Pete Ashton.)

...and that's how I learned Andy Roberts died on June 12th 2005 in the Intensive Care Unit at The Royal London Hospital following a road traffic accident on Bethnal Green Road six days earlier. I didn't mistype that. I've just found out he was dead fifteen months after it happened.

Over the years, I'd kept one eye on Caption, the Oxford-based small press/indie comics convention with which Andy was involved -- but apparently I wasn't paying attention over the past year or so, or I'd have noticed that link. But I'd certainly thought of Andy more than once over the past few months, and I'm at a complete loss to explain why it never occurred to me to try and find him online long ago to renew our communication. (Mind you, there are a lot of Andy Robertses out there.) I'm glad I told him several times how much I loved his music, his comics, and chatting with him...but I wish I could tell him again.

To me this is a fresh discovery, but to everyone else who knew Andy it's old news. So in addition to feeling bad about his death, I also feel like a pathetic idiot for being so clueless and out of touch. But, you know, it happens.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Birth of a startup chime

In a past life (about five to ten years ago) I did some work in the field of computer user interfaces: designing application skins, studying the work of user interface guru Donald Norman, getting into heated personal arguments with the creator of the Mac OS Platinum appearance, that sort of thing. Prior to that, however, in another past life I worked as guitar tech/drum wrangler/road manager for a touring rock group. Whenever I change careers, it's like Doctor Who undergoing regeneration: never any logical progression or incremental change, just radical shifts -- but I digress. The point is, there aren't many occasions when the interests of these two past lives overlap. Yesterday, I came across one...

I'm a Mac partisan in a big way...but lately I have to admit that Windows has a number of interface advantages over the current Mac operating system. There are things I would never have noticed if I hadn't been spending a lot of time lately helping new switchers make the transition from Windows systems to their first Macs. It's heartbreaking for a Mac partisan to hear a former Windows user complain "But I used to be able to do this on my old computer" and have to admit that no, there isn't any easy way to do this on a Mac. And one of the areas in which Windows has been kicking Macintosh ass is the use of sound in the user interface. Microsoft sound feedback has been a lot more immersive and aesthetically pleasing (though somewhat antiseptic) than the piddling few system beeps and alerts of Mac OS X.

The startup chime for Windows 95 was composed (or designed, if you will) by no less than Brian Eno, one of the greatest visionaries in music and one of my musical idols. Knowing that he worked for the enemy sears, I tell you. (A further essay on Eno's work for Microsoft can be found here.)

MS is still pushing back the release date of Windows Vista -- Apple's Leopard is still on schedule, thank you very much -- but there's been some spurious controversy in the techie world about the company's plan for its startup chime. Oh yes, in the user interface scene, we obsess over these details. And following that ongoing discussion led me to discover this video of Robert Fripp doing a recording session for the Vista startup chime last November.

Fripp has been a frequent collaborator of Eno as well as the leading light behind the prog rock outfit King Crimson. If you've never heard anything else of his work, you know the distinctive guitar lead of the Bowie song "Heroes" and you'd recognize the Peter Gabriel track "Solsbury Hill" from, like, a hundred movie trailers. He's also the founder of a unique school of guitar teaching called Guitar Craft. I've seen him perform live many times and have met him personally once. He eschews any kind of theatrical showmanship, and I was actually a bit scared of him because he presents an almost Vulcan exterior. (Surely I couldn't actually speak to him! He'd sneer at my sloppy thinking and illogical words!) But in private, he comes across as surprisingly relaxed and even cheerful.

Fripp writes about the circumstances behind working for Microsoft here:

Steve Ball of MS approached me several months ago to produce a series of exploratory splashes that might be used as part of the new MS Vista OS, currently under development. David & I recorded several at DGM & sent them off to Steve for listening. As is well known, the other half of Fripp & Eno produced the opening splash for Windows 95. There is, therefore, a logic in approaching the Venal One, quite apart from the personal connection. And, in business, personal connections are not everything; just, nearly everything.

The personal connection: Steve Ball is a good friend of mine, a Crafty from the early period of Guitar Craft, a resident at the Red Lion House, and a guitarist with whom I have shared many stages, modest accomodations & van drives with The League of Crafty Guitarists.

Steve left MS in 1999 to be a part of the BootlegTV project which raised $4 million in venture capital, spent it, and closed the doors when IT went into downturn during 2001. Should anyone have reservations regarding players in the music industry, please know that venture capitalists provide an entirely new dimension in liberal education.

Last November I was visiting Seattle with Slow Music. Steve, knowing this, suggested that I extend my stay by two days & visit Redmond; work in the MS studio with him; and look at developing several splashes as discussion-documents for Vista. The fee, for one day of my time in a city I was visiting, was less than that for Eno’s for Windows 95 splash; and represented more net worth for this working player than the previous two weeks of Soundscaping on the road...

A basic principle of my professional life is this: work with people, not companies. So, in Redmond I was working primarily with my pal Steve, who works for MS, and who was the producer on the job.

Vista is a great leap forward for 89% of computer users. I found the Vista team motivated, committed, positive, friendly & supportive. And if working with a motivated, committed, positive, friendly & supportive team held a governing imperative for much of my professional life, then most of the early years of KC would never have happened.

Okay, that last bit smarts -- my Mac partisanship has taken a further kick in the balls -- but the MS team still strikes me as soulless and antiseptic. Nonetheless, it's fascinating (to me, anyway) watching some of the process behind creating a sound that many millions of users will hear many thousands of times a year. For those who find it equally interesting, here's the video of Robert Fripp sitting on a very squeaky chair while playing guitar and manipulating a formidable array of electronic gadgets.