Serenity Green
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Here’s a common question: Why doesn’t Joss Whedon’s Firefly have any Chinese people?

The backstory for Firefly is pretty simple, China and America expanded into space and were the dominant cultures as the resources of Earth were exhausted. Humanity left for a new solar system to make its home and along the way the two cultures fused into the amalgam depicted in the show.

Leaving "Earth that Was"

Why, though, does it depict a culture with Chinese style, language, and art without any Chinese people? Is it cultural appropriation? Outright racism? The vagaries of casting?

No, no, of course not. In the proudest tradition of fanwanking, I’ve discovered an entirely in-universe explanation. There are dark hints of the answer to this question.

In the episode Shindig, River (who knows government secrets she’s not supposed to) has a minor freakout and tears the labels off some cans of food. Book helps settle things down, saying “She didn’t harm much. We’ll have a few mystery meals.”

Tearing the labels off cans
Mystery meals

But what a dark expression for such an innocuous comment.

In the pilot, May lays out the ship’s amenities and says they offer “protein in all the colors of the rainbow”. So the fare must be pretty bland, Book soon says “The important thing is the spices. A man can live on packaged food from here ’til Judgment Day if he’s got enough Rosemary.”

Talking about spices

Later in the show it becomes clear that Book isn’t all he seems to be — he has a government ID card that gets him prompt service from otherwise hostile bureaucrats and a bounty hunter claims he’s not really a priest.

Jayne, armed as usual

The character Jayne, though, is exactly what he seems. Big, dumb, strong, tough, and heavily armed. Mostly dumb. He has a hard time keeping up in conversations.

And yet Jayne speaks and understands Chinese fluently, never even a pause when he or another character switch languages. Does this guy look like he spends his evenings curled up with a language workbook?

No, clearly he’s learned by osmosis, and it’s not cultural osmosis. Let’s put the pieces together.

Government secrets, dark mutterings from someone who’s not who he claims to be, multilingual morons. And endless cans of protein.

Yes, it’s what you’re thinking. The Americans and Chinese may have left Earth together, but the Chinese never arrived. The Americans turned on them and, using the technology behind Spam and other abominations, manufactured canned protein from their companions.

This cannibalism is the darkest government secret, the reason River lost her mind and tries futilely to destroy food while a hidden government agent downplays the outburst.

The Firefly movie, Serenity, revolves around River’s knowledge of an atrocity the government has kept secret for years or decades. Maybe River uncovering shocking secrets was going to be a recurring element of the series. With the show canceled, we’ll never know. But at least now we know why there are no Chinese people on the show.

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American culture has a big hang up for authenticity. Either something is or it isn’t. “Faker” or “wannabe” or “sell-out” are considered strong insults.

I’ve been pondering authenticity a fair bit lately. As this is my thought process we’re talking about here, of course I got to the topic through a totally ridiculous path. Watch this if you’re too old or (worse) too young to know the song Total Eclipse of the Heart:

It’s a song about love and longing. Yeah, the tune is definitely a product of the 80s, but she performs well and the lyrics tell her story in an interesting way. It may not be Shakespeare, but it paints the scene, sets a mood, and was catchy enough to be a hit.

I want to compare it to this cover by Hurra Torpedo:

Featuring a monotone singer, percussion on kitchen appliances, and blue track suits, it’s definitely weirder than the original. In some ways it feels more authentic than Bonnie Tyler singing and swaying. She’s a professional musician with a solid backup band. Her video is a deliberate, well-executed show.

This cover is awful, but it’s a couple of guys that think they’re pretty hardcore rockers. The lead singer has to do his own backup because the backup singer is trying (failing) to keep the beat by demolishing an oven range. The set is an austere corner with a rough tromp l’oiel to make it appear more substantial. The camera is pretty consistently pointed away from every crescendo. But the low production values make it more authentic because it’s not a carefully considered consumer product, it’s just a performance.

But then there’s this other cover by Hurra Torpedo:

Joke blown. There’s footage from several concerts, it’s professional edited, the band engages in premeditated spontaneity to appear wacky. This video was cut from a fake tour that Ford financed as part of a “viral” campaign. (There are some other awful clips from their mockumentary on YouTube, if you’re curious.) In their Total Eclipse cover video, that couple seconds of intro and outro is the logo of a Norwegian variety comedy show roughly similar to Saturday Night Live. It was a gag from the start, but it works very differently when divorced from that context.

The joke is that it appears to be a couple guys who have no idea how uncool they are but are playing their hearts out anyways. It’s a great joke, pretty much everyone nervously laughs their way through their first viewing while wondering how the performers could think this was possibly a good idea. It’s funny because it’s playing with our notion of authenticity. It’s not nice to mock people who are enthusiastically, genuinely bad because they’re being true to themselves in the attempt.

That brings us to the last video, a cover of the cover:

Bonnie Tyler was actually completely inauthentic. Total Eclipse of the Heart was created by a professional composer and producer who tried to sell the song to a few other singers before her record label bought it and had her perform it. The song was created to sell some cassette tapes, not capture the expression of a heartrending emotion.

This last video, though, is completely authentic. It is what it appears to be: two friends covering a funny video they saw online. They’re not professional performers — they don’t even look at the camera (probably to avoid cracking up). It’s honest, it’s done decently, and it’s plain fun to watch. The singer’s trying to do the accent, they’re confused about who’s doing the backup, the percussionist nearly knocks away the pot he’s crashing.

Is this what authenticity comes down to when the Internet gives everyone a global distribution platform, that all commercialization is proof of inauthenticity? Does authenticity stop being important when we’re all drowning in terrible but terribly authentic self-produced media? I don’t know the answers here, I’m just pondering out loud.

(Now, of course, you have to ask yourself if I authentically thought this was a topic worth pondering or if I’m a jerk who just wanted to get Total Eclipse of the Heart stuck in your head. Maybe you should just be glad I didn’t bring up punk, a genre hamstrung by its notions of authenticity…)

Google Zombies
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Google has hired a bunch of my friends and professional acquaintances, and I’ve met a few more from the growing Chicago office, and a number of them are zombies. Conversations run like this:

Me: Hey, did you hear about [random technical development]?
Googler: Yeah, it’s real cool. Especially for [slightly offbeat application].
Me: That’s an interesting idea. Hmm, especially if you wanted to use it for [related research topic].
Me: I mean, that would work out great. It would have an [interesting performance characteristic], especially for large datasets.
Me: Hmm, do you think it might fix [persnickety sub-problem] if you also use [other technique or product]? I think it’s likely…
Googler: [deafening silence and refusal of eye contact]
Me: Hello?
Googler: …braaaaaains…

OK, the last line is whimsy, but the rest is the verbatim compilation of a dozen conversations. Google employees get distracted by mentally rereading their NDA and figuring out what they can say, can’t say, and can’t say that they can’t say. It just gets worse if you keep talking and extrapolating (that is to say, holding a conversation) because you’re giving them O(n2 interrelations + m potential suggestions from them) more topics to analyze. I’ve never quite managed to crash them, but I imagine it’s entirely possible given the NP nature of conversations.

The fellow coder who inspired this post by pointing out the blank stares to me must remain anonymous due to their recent zombification.

Programming Is Like Sex


  • One mistake and you have to support it for the rest of your life. (Michael Sinz)
  • Once you get started, you’ll only stop because you’re exhausted.
  • It takes another experienced person to really appreciate what you’re doing.
  • Conversely, there’s some odd people who pride themselves on their lack of experience.
  • You can do it for money or for fun.
  • If you spend more time doing it than watching TV, people think you’re some kind of freak.
  • It’s not really an appropriate topic for dinner conversation.
  • There’s not enough taught about it in public school.
  • It doesn’t make any sense at all if you try to explain it in strictly clinical terms.
  • Some people are just naturally good.
  • But some people will never realize how bad they are, and you’re wasting your time trying to tell them.
  • There are a few weirdos with bizarre practices nobody really is
    comfortable with.
  • One little thing going wrong can ruin everything.
  • It’s a great way to spend a lunch break.
  • Everyone acts like they’re the first person to come up with a new technique.
  • Everyone who’s done it pokes fun at those who haven’t.
  • Beginners do a lot of clumsy fumbling about.
  • You’ll miss it if it’s been a while.
  • There’s always someone willing to write about the only right way to do things.
  • It doesn’t go so well when you’re drunk, but you’re more likely to do it.
  • Sometimes it’s fun to use expensive toys.
  • Other people just get in the way.

Developing With Evil
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No comments

allaryin: whee…
allaryin: i’ve been given a job to put a simple email address subscription form on a site
Harkins: sounds pretty easy
allaryin: and… as far as i can tell, the server has neither php nor perl :P
allaryin: i’m running out of options :P
Harkins: cgi, baby
allaryin: for db access?
Harkins: Or change the target of the form to a server you control running PHP/perl that saves the data and redirects back to the other server.
allaryin: yeah…
allaryin: but i really don’t want to commit any of our server resources to their site :P
BSDCat: I think a ‘simplicity’ fairy just lost its wings
Harkins: Or make the form GET and write a cron job to scrape access.log.
allaryin: …
allaryin: wow.
Harkins: Yes, I’m evil.
allaryin: it’s beautiful really
Harkins: bwa
allaryin: but yes, evil

It’s, Like, Symbolic
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In a nice coincidence (though I’ve been reading Robert Anton Wilson lately and am tempted to yell synchronicity), my music player gave me Flower by Liz Phair (the better version, from Girlysounds) and followed it up with Marigold by Nirvana. They’re both slow, quiet songs (and Flower has the added bonus of being delicously obscene).

It got me wondering — how many flower-related songs do I have that are slow and quiet? The answer, surprisingly, is all but one of them. If this were the 80s I’d have to make a mix tape of them, but apparently blog posts are the modern version of the mix tape.

  • Ben Harper – Roses From My Friends
  • Johnny Cash – The One Rose
  • Cranberries – Daffodil Lament
  • Eels – Daisy of the Galaxy
  • Eels – Daisy Through Concrete (not upbeat, but noticeably livelier than the rest of this list)
  • Garbage – So Like a Rose
  • Meiko Kaji – The Flower of Carnage
  • Nirvana – Marigold
  • Phair – Flower
  • Smashing Pumpkins – Lily (My One And Only)
  • Queen – Lily of the Valley
  • Tom Waits – Flower’s Grave
  • Tom Waits – The Briar and the Rose
  • Tom Waits – The Last Rose of Summer
  • Tom Waits – Trampled Rose

That’s a decently-large run of songs, and Tom Waits is apparently a big fan of the sub-sub-genre. It’s pretty damn funny that so many artists thought “Hm, flowers are beautiful, pretty, and uplifting, so I’ll be outré by writing a morose song about them. My soul is so dark!” I’ll have to give the last words of this post over to the Rolling Stone, who recognized this for what it is:

For another [pitfall], there’s the inevitable song about the serial killer who dresses up as a clown, which symbolizes nothing about American life except the existence of creative-writing workshops.

Playing With Fire

I managed to iron twelve shirts without once burning myself on the iron, go me!

But I set off the smoke detector while frying bacon.

What a Blog Post is Missing
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1 comment

This 37signals blog post is missing one thing.

It’s not talent. It’s not ideas. It’s not money. It’s not marketing. It’s not technology.

It’s exposition.

Newsflash: You’re Not Good Enough
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No comments

The excellent humorist Jay Pinkerton just wrote about Men’s Health magazine. It’s a lighthearted but wholly accurate look at a common magazine formula.

The first third of Men’s Health, it turns out, is helpfully devoted to every single minor irk, itch or irritation you’ve experienced today, and why it’s cancer and is excited about killing you. Having trouble sleeping at night? Depression, and also probably diabetes. OR cancer.

The only thing Pinkerton misses is that Men’s Health isn’t an abberation or novelty, every women’s magazine has followed this formula for decades.

There are no such thing as beauty magazines. Their only goal is to make you feel insecure, jealous, and greedy so you buy more of their advertisers’ products so advertisers pay them more money. It’s really that simple. There are no mustache-twirling corporate media moguls cynically orchestrating a conspiracy to make you feel like you need to buy more crap, but that’s only because mustaches went out in the early 80’s.

Life: ,
1 comment

I’ve always loved English’s hyper-specific words like defenstrate (to throw something out of a window) and borborygm (a rumbling noise caused by shifting air in the bowels). Something about them is deeply and indelibly funny.

English needs a verb meaning “to forget to attach a file to a mail”, especially to be used as an exclamation expressing surprise, dismay, the right level of apology, and the assurance that this was a one-time happenstance. (Not that I’d ever need to use it, of course.)

Anyone got a good suggestion? (I’ll take other humorously specific words, too, they’re always good.)

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