Sourcelight I

Using winter break to clear out some old blog entries that I started but never finished.

Netflix, the DVD rental-by-mail outfit, offers a movie recommender. I used it for about a year before it went into a software update that took forever. During that time, I subscribed to Netflix for four months before deciding that I couldn't afford the service. Maybe I'll try again in the future.

Netflix had a couple of interesting quirks that were new to me. First, there recommendations were ranked so that the top of the list would be the discs where my prediction was most positively variant than the average prediction. So, a film that was rated very poorly by the average population, but moderately well by my aesthetic neighbors, a movie such as Firehouse, would end up at the top of my recommendations list.

The other interesting thing about the Netflix recommender was its rating scale. On a 1-5 star scale, three was slightly positive, and two stars was the neutral rating. I think a zero-rating was also possible, but this allowed for more granularity in positive ratings then negative ratings.

The Netflix recommender was out-of-commission a great deal of the time. I'm pretty sure that they have made significant changes to the recommendation engine, but, to be honest, they also made it nearly impossible for non-subscribers to reach the rating system not long after I bailed on Netflix. But interestingly enough, Blockbuster had also installed a ratings system.


Theme I: The Fat Lady

In the lst 18 months, I had the odd sensation of watching my BMI creep down from the "obese" classification to "overweight." I'm not entirely sure how this happened, though it probably has something to do with being happier about what I'm doing with my life, combined with the fact that I no longer work within 25 feet of vending machines.

During that span, I also read three novels about three women who are overweight.

  • Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner
  • Too Much Temptation by Lori Foster
  • Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie
Now, the knock on romances featuring the zaftig is that they usually feature weight loss as a positive experience, a sign that the woman has turned the corner and made the right decisions in their lives. Not so with these three.

Good in Bed is not so much of a typical romance. It features Cannie, an entertainment reporter working for a Philadelphia newspaper. Cannie is big, but she doesn't let it bother her until she experiences a semi-self-inflicted crisis of confidence. Even though Cannie seeks to lose weight as a balm to her relationship woes, it doesn't happen, and her life starts pulling together. When the drop in pounds finally happens, it is portrayed as unhealthy, the result of emotional shock.

Too Much Temptation plays much more like the typical romance novel. Grace doesn't let her weight alter her own self-image as a person, but, like Cannie, she assumes that it will handicap her own mating prospects. When some handsome rogue takes an interest in her, she doesn't lose a thing except for her inhibitions.

Finally, Bet Me is probably the most fun of these. Minerva is overweight, and has a mother who does not fail to remind her of the fact. As Calvin falls for her, he feeds her Krispy Kremes and chicken marsala. Take that, Mom. This is the book I recommend of the three, if simply because Crusie is the best of these three authors at banging out hilarious dialog.

I think I've reached the point where any further weight loss is going to require some actual work on my part, and it would probably be a good thing. But, in other ways, I've already got my happy ending.


Add Yourself to the Do-Not-Call List

In the latest e-mail from the Kerry campaign, encouraging early voting for us Iowans, we get this additional reason for having our say the early way:

And there's an added bonus: Voting early takes you off of the get-out-the-vote phone lists. This means that you will receive substantially fewer phone calls before the election.

Here's your GeoHawk public service: this link will tell you, by county, where in Iowa you can do your early voting.


Political Discourse

I found this at Daily Kos, and it appears to have originated at Mad Magazine. Pretty depressing. After watching the Kerry campaign respond to Bush's unusually candid comments about winning the "War on Terror," I think it is probably fair to say that the Dem's would stoop this low as well. They just wouldn't have the money to buy as much airtime.


Cutting Class

Jim McGee is talking about the goals that the makers of "technology-enabled" learning tools should be setting for themselves. Citing the Internet Time Blog, he includes their anecdote of the success of one program:

The Advanced Computer Tutoring Project at Carnegie Mellon University claims even higher performance gains among Pittsburgh high-school students studying math. Did the students like it? One swore at a teacher so she'd get kicked out of school for a couple of days -- during which she learned geometry with her unrestricted time online.

I remember that in high school, I was pretty aware of situations where I thought I could be learning more effectively outside of the classroom. In Chemistry, I figured that casually but explicitly linking my sullen mood with the explosive potential of the class subject would get me sent to the counselor to shoot the Socratic breeze, a please-don't-throw-me-in-the-briar-patch situation. This was 17 years ago, and I suspect the type of counseling these days would be of a much more targeted and unpleasant nature, so don't try this at home. If swearing can do the trick, that seems to be the way to go.

High school kids have a pretty good idea of what they need to learn to meet their immediate goals. That this may not coincide with their ultimate goals is not surprising. But soon, next week, I'll be back in a lab, teaching VB programming, and it seems like there has got to be better ways to do it than stepping through a sample exercise. We'll see how it goes.


Getting Political on Ya

Dante, a friend of ours from college has jumped off another cliff, err run for Congress. He needs money to get on the ballot. He's running for the Nebraska Greens. I guess that's how I like my Greens, all cute and local, and not egomaniacal/national.

If my wife had a blog, she'd be writing something frantic about Bob Herbert's item about suspicious investigations in Orlando. I'm afraid I don't have the energy to get that exercised. Still, the creepy part is where Herbert links the current police activity with historical patterns of black vote suppression. But hey, it's the police. They can get away with that sort of thing, right? Otherwise we'd have anarchy, right?


The temperature where popcorn burns

It seems like we've taken forever to see it, but Sharon and I finally dragged our cynical carcasses up to Cedar Rapids to see the Fahrenheit 9/11. For some reason, the Collins Road outfit lost their print for a week, but it's back now.

The audience for the matinee was almost all seniors, so we got to eavesdrop on chatter about VA hospitals. I have to admit, everybody's said everything that needs to be said about the movie. I guess I'm always a little surprised about what moves me in Michael Moore movies and what irritates me. Cheap theatrics irritate me: harrassing congres people and conspiracy theories drive me nuts. For instance, Moore posits that our efforts at rebuilding Afghanistan were half-assed to facilitate the development of a pipeline that would be big oil's wet dream. But pipelines are famously easy to disrupt (see Iraq), so how would nothing less than the total domination of the Afghan landscape by the mighty forces of Western capitalism be adequate for the task. Afghanistan may be a fiasco, but I think we can lay the results at the hands of greed and incompetence rather than a sinister conspiracy of Taliban leadership and the Bush crime family.

Since I'm kind of "meh" about Messy Mike Moore, I guess I'll have to rave about a couple of other neat related things. First off, the playhouse where we saw the movie is an interesting venture. The Collins Road Theatres is an independent five-plex that plays second-run mainstream and slightly off-mainstream fare. Prices are $3 - $4 dollars which are low enough make it worth the gas to drive up north. The space is not snazzy: it is carved out of a dying strip mall, and the interior isn't that amazing, but it is clean, and food prices are merely unreasonable instead of being outrageous. But the place is fun: the manager gives out free concessions in a pre-show announcement, and the staff are cheerful. This weekend, they were in surprisingly elaborate costumes for the MDA fundraisers this weekend. What CRT lacks up in decor, they make up in spirit, value, and much needed counterprogramming.

One of their unusual choices is showing the documentary, Control Room. Sharon and I caught this at the fabulous Tivoli theatre in St. Louis. You take your opportunities when you can get them. It's a nice contrast to Fahrenheit 9/11, an attempt to explore the different points of view coloring the coverage of the beginning of the War in Iraq, with a special emphasis on the people working behind-the-scenes at Al-Jazeera and in the media center at CentCom. Everybody gets to say their piece, nobody is ambushed (except the Al-Jazeera office in Baghdad, by US bombs). Nobody drives around an ice cream truck.

So that's my recommendation. Go see Control Room at Collins Road Theatres in Cedar Rapids. Don't do anything else.


The Recommendz Recommendation Explanation

A couple of months ago, I reviewed the extremely experimental Recommendz recommendation system. If you remember, my main complaint involved that fact that rating movies requires a considerable investment of time because the user must also rate "features" associated with the movie besides rating the movie itself.

Now, at the top of my recommendation list is the trivial teen comedy What a Girl Wants. So, if I want to know how this particularly inane film turned out to have a predicted 9.19 score (out of 10) for me, I can find out what features led the system to that conclusion.

In the case of the Colin Firth/Amanda Bynes family film, previous viewers report that it is "bizarre", "stupid", and "stylish." Now oddly enough, these are cinematic traits that I have expressed appreciation for in movies like Eraserhead, Cabin Boy, and The Fifth Element. And this is the apparent result.

I think we need to fine-tune the meaning of "stupid."


Little Things

Sharon, who is staying for a month in St. Louis, is having her limited research time truncated even further thanks to the Day of Mourning. Just in case she's feeling guilty (Ha!) about not being in a mourning mood, there's this little list that I found on Iowa Citian John Deeth's blog.

Then we have Nicole and Dan, trying to set up an independent art-house cinema. Their living one of my dreams, you know, the one that seemed even more far-fetched than going back to school and trying to earn a PhD.


Do You Like Him?

Sharon and I were sharing a scoop of ice cream in a parking lot somewhere in the suburbs of St. Louis, and there were two couples that we overheard talking politics. A younger couple in their forties, and an older couple, probably parents to one of the younger ones. They all looked like they were fairly well off.

The younger man was arguing that it was time for change, that Bush had screwed up the war and the federal budget. Even though I agreed with him, it was obvious that he wasn't gaining any traction in the conversation. Political discussions often seem like that to me, so I don't usually engage in them unless I'm hoping to gain some insight into an opposing point of view.

After a few minutes of being harangued, the older woman laid out what she obviously thought was her trump card: "But your guy, do you really like him?" Huh. Actually, she sounded like she had him there, because the haranguing kept going on, but spinning off in several directions.

After four years of a purportedly "likeable" president, I think I'd rather have somebody in the office that I don't want to have a beer with. What is "likeability" anyway? I "liked" Gore better than Bush, but then, he projected a thoughtful demeanor as someone who liked to challenge his own thinking. This was a sharp contrast to the constant moral certainty from Bush.

I suspect that this is all more of a matter of people projecting their own ideals on their political avatars, mixed in with the careful image management of the campaigns. But anybody thinking Bush or Kerry "is a regular guy, like me" is insane.

As for Kerry, no I don't like him. I "liked" Dean, with his floundering on the religion issues and his earnest wife. Kerry's displays of macho sportiness drive me up the wall, especially the Harley-Davidson. Still, that doesn't seem nearly as phoney as any of Bush's "environmental" photo-ops, or his "compassion" visits to highlight the work of government programs just before the White House hits them with crippling budget cuts.

So, pick your aloof, phoney, elitist, poseur jerk. You're going to get one either way, so maybe you should, I quess, vote on the issues, or as an evaluation of the current administration. No matter how likeable "Dubya" is, he's brought us raging deficits, turned Iraq into a terrorist breeding ground faster that Saddam Hussein could, ruined our international credibility in all areas except destructive capacity. I don't care whether the president is "like me" or not, because somebody "like me" is not ever going to run for president.


Base Ball in St. Louis

I just finished ten days in Missouri helping Sharon with some of her research. It was a pretty enjoyable trip, though we only have one laptop, and it is getting to the point where I really don't like to leave my own machine. I don't want to litter her machine with my stuff, and it's kind of a drag trying to remember to move over all of my work.

Still, our first hotel room had a neat view of the Old US Courthouse where Dred Scott's case made a stop on its way up to the Supreme Court. Behind it, you can see the stadium where the Mariners will lose yet another series later this summer.  Posted by Hello We also made a trip out to Jefferson City, so I got to see the Missouri capital.

Since this was an educational trip, here are some things that I learned:

  • Hotels with free breakfasts are more likely to have free broadband. I also learned that I'm capable of making irrational choices in order to continue to have access to the broadband.

  • traveling BBQ festivals have not gotten any better over the last few years. Especially if they are run by Clear Channel. And food prices at these things have gotten very confusing.

  • Historical re-enactment now has a athletic twist with the creation of Vintage Base Ball teams. This looks like fun.

  • For some reason, there is no marker at Fourth and Market commemorating Mollie Fitzgerald's saloon, where female "beerjerkers" were regularly arrested during the late 1860s for having bad reps and serving beers, despite their possession of the requisite licenses.

  • 2004-05-28


    A few years ago, the operator of RatingZone checked in to the AlexLit-related newsgroup at sff.net, and asserted that he had the collaborative recommender that would kick all others to the curb. Or some such claim. Feedback from the group was swift. Defensive or not, most thought his database of ratable books was too thin. Also, RatingZone only allows ratings of books, so that folks used to making distinctions between the quality of different parts of a book had to figure out how to make an aggregate judgment.

    The RatingZone official responded that they were prepared to field most requests for new additions to their title database. The decision to allow only ratings for books instead of stories is probably a user issue: most people would think about the specific items that they could check out or purchase.

    So, RatingZone is out there. Besides offering recommendations for books, you can also get recommendations for movies, music (albums only), TV shows, Radio Shows, Magazines (and newspapers), Retailers, Web Sites, Restaurants, and Travel Destinations. It is not clear whether your preferences in one area are used to offer predictions in another, though I suspect not.

    All items can be rated on a scale of 1 to 10, and you can use different drill-down browsing methods to find what you want to rate. RatingZone does a halfway decent job of adding new movies, but, since late 2003, has stopped adding items in their other categories. The movie system will offer recommendations pretty quickly, and will make fairly conservative predictions that will hold for a while. This suggests that they only update recommendation lists on an irregular basis, or that new ratings are slow to be coming in. I've found that my top recommendations make for an interesting blend of old and new, obscure and well-known, and provides a good mix of genres. Currently, RatingZone is recommending Pixote.

    RatingZone will not give you recommendations on specific items, only generating a recommendation list. I like their movie service and let it influence my viewing choices, but, I cannot recommend any of the other categories because of their decision to neglect those fields.

    The system is operated by a marketing consulting firm by the name of MediaChoice. According to a February press release, The "Affinity Analysis" technology behind RatingZone is currently being used to allow casino "gamers" to rate slot machines. MINI-DISCLOSURE: I participated in a study by MediaChoice ostensibly to test the appeal of a mid-profile science fiction novel release, for which I was compensated with two more paperbacks. None of the three books rocked my world, though I am disappointed that no more opportunities like that have cropped up. Its nice to get free things every once in a while.


    Hamady at the Library

    Any terrified "art snobs" that find themselves drawn like moths to the zapper to witness and be terrified by each and every one of the Herky on Parade statues will eventually find themselves at the home of the Dick Tracy Herky. Now, Dick Tracy has, I thought, been culturally dead after the movie came out, but I guess there is a semi-local celebrity connection -- Max Allan Collins scripted the strip between 1977 and 1993. And gee, now there's another Iowan running the strip.

    But, if you wander into the building a bit further, you'll find an interesting show in the library's underplayed (and kind of hideous) exhibition space. Walter Hamady's books are very impressive-looking in person, even under the library's life-sapping fluorescent lights. If anything, it. The paper in the books is handmade "Shadwell", and the illustrations are mechanistic or natural. He'll use woodcarving, collage, embossment, rubber stamps to create the write environment for the writing of himself or his collaborators (including Denise Levertov).

    Probably the best picture from the exhibit page

    At one time, I ran, with my future wife, the literary magazine at Evergreen. I'm proud of what I was able to do with the magazine, which was mostly resuscitate it, but, from a creative standpoint, I was mostly content to degrade the production process by transferring the layout to desktop publishing. We'd long given up embossment, though I did have fun reproducing a four-color block print artwork into one-color for a cover (with the approval of the artist). But that was a technical accomplishment.

    I find myself looking at this blog. It's fun "publishing" like this, but it sure doesn't look like much. I've never been much for fancy web design, but let's see if we can spruce up the place a bit.

    UPDATED: Added image, links, and modified a few sentences for tone.


    156 Years Ago

    Weather once more bright and beautiful altho’ very warm. Business was not so very bad, not even as much so as I anticipated for the present season. I did not have much time to devote to my French during day. In the evening I was too tired to do any thing at it. So accepted Mr. Brown’s invitation and went to the Atheneum with him. Mrs. Wilkinson continues [as] the presiding Star of the House, her acting in the Italian Wife was very good. We did not stay for the last piece before going home however we did indulge in a ‘Julip’ at the U.S. Hotel for which I had to fork over. To bed 11. Exp 25c.

    This is from a diary of a Cincinnati merchant that my wife found at the Missouri Historical Society. Apparently, the author, one Joseph J. Mersman, was just as meticulous about describing his activities when he was more interested in visits to the bawdy house than the theatre. I was intrigued how his writing sounds more like a like a blog posting. By the next year, he was in St. Louis writing longer but less frequent entries chronicling his responses to the recent events of the day. News of the New York City Opera House Riot is fed through his innuendo filter, while he tells a gripping tale of the St. Louis waterfront fire that deserves the Hollywood treatment. Weekly Exp: $1.50

    Cannie Chameleon

    Okay, I had a very complicated system to determine which books I was going to read in my spare time. As that time became very sparse this last semester, and some books, traveling books, were becoming rather urgent, I've had to reprioritize my TBR stacks (four of them) into one, with overdue bookrings at the top.

    I got the Krakauer book out the door a couple of weeks ago. Next up was Jennifer Weiner's Good in Bed, which, I guess, has really fired up the whole American "chick-lit" scene. One thing I like about Weiner is her eagerness to embrace her genre label, and stand up for it. Check out her blog, SnarkSpot, for a spirited takedown of Erica Jong's sidewise glance at "chick-lit."

    While I enjoyed Good in Bed, it was one of the few books where I wished for a bit more depth in the male characters. They fall into the demon/saint category. Of course, Dr. K sees past Cannie's snarky facade to see her inner wonderfulness, but I guess I can't see why her did made his choices. I was expecting something from that storyline, and all I got was an explanation for Cannie's emotional neediness. I don't want to be the kind of father that Cannie had, so I was hoping for some sort of insight, besides "Don't be a jerk", into why Jennifer Weiner thinks a guy would abandon one set of kids to create a new batch. Eh. Oh well. Not like I was going to get everything tied up in a nice wrapped package.

    Still, I gave it a "Really Good" at AlexLit. And the book is off to New Hampshire, and I'm off to the next book in the stack.


    Herktacular Herktacular!

    The latest big thing in Iowa City is the "Herkys on Parade." The next biggest thing, apparently, is vandalizing them.

    I guess it seems not surprising at all that this was about to happen. The collection of "acceptably creative" modifications to a local icon just seemed inevitable. I mean, Chicago started it, but once you have towns like Lawrence, KS littering their streets with Jayhawks, or Cedar Rapids sprouting a decorated series of "American Gothic" statues (okay, I liked this set), it was inevitable that Iowa City would have to do their own unispiring version.

    And while the vandalism is a little depressing, I've never seen a variant of this project where the statues wear so much actual clothing, or carried props that look easily removable. The rapid-response theft of these items is just not surprising at all. I just wish the vandals had a sense of creativity themselves. Maybe the lack of pranksterism is inspired by the vapidity of so many of the statues.

    There are a couple of really spiffy Herkys. I'm partial to the Gargoyle and Bigfoot Herkys, with their messed up eyes. Galactic Herky (aka Darth Herky) is kind of fun, though it reminds me of the pep band's overuse of the Death Star Theme from Star Wars at the basketball games. The American GotHawk is another amusing twist on the painting. On the downside, we have Herkules Herky, Realtor Herky, Uncle Sam Herky. And for sheer inevitability, we have two Jackson Pollock-inspired Herkys, one Marilyn MonHerky, an Elvis Herky. The Ben Franklin Herky makes me think more of a Patrick Henry thanks to his pose. "Give me an expensively renovated football stadium or give me death!"


    Looks at Books

    ... as opposed to actually reading them.

    This semester has killed, so I've got a couple of bookcrossing bookrays that have stayed at our place for far too long. I finally got Krakauer's book out the door this week. Krakauer's book filled some gaps in my understanding of the history of the Mormons and the United States, though I wish he had taken a closer look at the social and economic lives of the early settlements. Instead, we get episode of violence followed by another episode, and so on.

    Antonia Forest died last December. AlexLit has been plugging her series of young adult novels, 13 written over 35 years. Most of the novels follow the children of the upper-class Marlow family as they work their way through a prestigious boarding school and several harrowing holiday breaks. The children are intelligently portrayed, and the more serious of them are as inclined to theological wandering as Linus van Pelt. For the last couple of years, AlexLit has been pushing The Player's Boy at me, the first of two books concerning one of the Marlow ancestors. Escaping from an untenable school situation, the boy fakes as Shakespeare's nephew, traveling with the theatrical troupe. In this manner, Forest got to replay a few of her favorite themes: the joys of the theatre, and Catholic faith in Anglican England. Oh, and there's some violence, so there seems to be a theme to this post. There often seems a mournful quality to stretches of Forest's novels, and they are so keenly described. I guess that's why I follow the computer's advice and keep coming back to them.

    With all this talk of religion, I should note that Krakauer closes Under the Banner of Heaven with an interesting statement of his beliefs, which echo mine surprisingly well. He takes a largely agnostic approach, with an appreciation for the appeal that religion has for addressing the mysteries of life. Here's another interesting statement of beliefs, which also make for a pretty good read.



    DanC has moved his family out to Ames, IA, one time home of Neal Stephenson. And look, the neighbors had a welcoming party!

    Good luck at your new home, Dan, Heidi and Anna


    Pigs and Features

    Both of these efforts add a pretty significant twist to the basic premise of rating movies and getting predictions. The first, MoviePig, doesn't actually ask for specific rankings. Instead, the user is asked indicate preferences between movies, building a ranked list as they go along. In this, it seems to exist as the extreme version of the old Movie Critic site's "Sanity Check." But, because the ranked list isn't tied to any labeled values ("One-Star" / "Hated It"), you end up creating complexity in your ratings that you've never seen before. Fortunately, you can cluster movies together, though this isn't intuitively obvious. MoviePig also compresses your ranked list to fit on screen, though you can force it to uncompress a particular section.

    You can ask MoviePig for a prediction on any film in its database, and generate recommendation lists. Topping the list of current releases for me is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (a match with MovieLens), which it places between the clusters marked by School of Rock and Intolerable Cruelty.

    MoviePig's interface is drag-and-droporific. Everything is drag-and-drop, including picking a film for prediction (drop it on the pig), and everything is done through Flash. The ranked list gets confusing if you try to reflect any subtlety in your selections, which is encouraged. All this makes it easy to get started, but you can start ranking and getting predictions before you create a userid, which may add to the confusion. Between the so-easy-it's-difficult interface, and the fact that MoviePig's movie database only contains movies released from 2000 and later, I can't say that I expect to make regular use of their system.

    By attempting to make entering of opinions extremely easy, MoviePig is addressing one of the main criticisms of collaborative recommenders. Mainly, that entering ratings for a bunch of movies is a pain. Recommendz moves in the direction of making the entry of opinions even more difficult.

    Recommendz requests input from the user on a per-movie basis. For each movie, the user enters an "overall rating," as well as the option to select from a list of 40-plus "features" that can be associated with the movie. After selecting the feature, the user identifies the quantity of the feature in the movie, i.e. "There is 0/10 of Adam Sandler in Moulin Rouge" or "There is 8/10 of music in Moulin Rouge" and then the user is expected to rate on a negative-to-positive (neutral allowed) scale how the feel about the quantity of the feature in the movie.

    As you can guess, many of the features are very inappropriate. The system allows users to suggest features that don't already exist for any movie. But for this information to be valuable, data needs to be associated with one of the other movies. In this sense, you are giving Recommendz a more nuanced picture about why you feel a certain way about a specific movie.

    Recommendz is an academic project based at the Mobile Robotics Lab at McGill University. The premise is that this detailed information will allow the system to generate better collaborative recommendations. And I have to say that I am not displeased by the recommendations that I have received from them, but data entry is a big headache. There is no way that you can do bulk data entry to get started. It requires a minimum investment of twenty-minutes to figure out the interface and rate enough films and features (including rating some movies you hate) to start getting results.

    UPDATE: I have added these two recommenders to my sidebar. I mentioned this weblog as a possible resource to my Knowledge Discovery professor, so it seemed best to add them to the list.

    Page 23

    This seems to be another one of those weird things going around. Maybe it'll get some of my juices flowing.

    "The number of permutations of the four letters a, b, c, and d is clearly 4! = 24."
    -- The fifth sentence on page 23 of Probability and Statistical Inference, 2nd Edition by Robert V. Hogg and Elliot A. Tanis

    Hogg and Tanis, sitting to my right, seems to be closest by a matter of centimeters, just barely beating out Neil Gaiman's American Gods on my left.

    I picked this "meme" up from one of the many Microsoft Blogs collectively syndicated at Weblogs @ ASP.NET, where it seems to be doing the rounds.

    The meme says:
    Grab the nearest book.
    Open the book to page 23.
    Find the fifth sentence.
    Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions


    And I Didn't Eat One Krispy Kreme

    It may seem odd that a Yorkie-eater like myself would have a favorite romance novel author. After all, I'm not really a member of the romance target audience, Gender Quiz results aside. Still, my girlfriend was really into romance novels, and, I figured I should give it a try. After all, that which would not kill me would only make me stronger, right? Or leave me mutilated. But still, she had me try out local author Jayne Anne Krentz, an author of contemporary romances who specialized in witty banter, Seattle-area settings, and characters with very odd names. I then signed up for a mailing list to find new authors, and was quickly recommended Jennifer Crusie, who wrote Harlequin Temptations with ferocious humor. Over time, Crusie's taken the leap from series romance to hardcover "mainstream" novels. The jump allowed her to build stronger secondary characters and relationships.

    So her latest, Bet Me, goes pure romance. There's no murders or otherwise mysterious events. It's mostly just dialogue, food, animals, and more good dialogue. The nutshell: Minerva Dobbs, freshly dumped by her boyfriend, overhears the jerk making a bet with another jerk that Jerk B can't get her into bed in four weeks. Figuring that it would be good manufactured karma, Min decides to string Jerk B along so that she has a hottie as a date for her sister's wedding. Except that Jerk B, Calvin (Calvin and Dobbs!), is not so much of a jerk, and Min isn't so much of a wench. But we knew that, right? The requisite consumerist obsessions in the novel: good food (especially chicken marsala), Krispy Kremes (yes, there's a Krispy Kreme sex scene), funky shoes, and diets. I consider it a victory of personal will power that I manage to survive two days of post-Bet Me Krispy Kreme Kravings unscathed.

    Also tried a Higgins Clark novel, a mother-daughter co-production. It may not be fair to judge these two on their collaboration, and on a Christmas novel, no less. On the other hand, they must also take the blame for engaging in such gimmickry: a 55,000 word novel for $18. In the end, Deck the Halls featured uninteresting characters (alarmingly enough, we're talking a protagonist from each author), disappointing plotting, unfunny dialogue, and no sense of suspense. I can't see myself trying out either of these authors in the future.


    Cat blogging

    In the good old days when Kevin Drum wasn't getting paid for his blogging, he would tantalize his regular readers with images of cats. Fortunately, I don't have a digital camera, or I would feel obliged to paste images of Milo all over this blog. Maybe a picture of him being carried away by the vicious geohawk.

    So, with a lack of my own images, I thought I'd just take the opportunity to comment on a couple of links. The New York Times informs us that we've been showing undue fondness towards these things for far longer than we originally thought. Yes, the cat person vs. dog person conflict predates the Egyptians.

    And then, there's our fantasy cats. A few years ago, I inflicted on myself Rejar and Mine to Take, parts 2 and 3 of Dara Joy's insanely bad "Matrix of Destiny" series of science-fiction/romance novels. The books feature a race of alien hunks, The Familiars, who, besides being fabulous lovers, also shape-change into animals that resemble largish domestic housecats. I thought that these books sold pretty well because they achieved a small bit of notoriety in the romance world, and Joy has written several books outside of this series.

    But apparently Madame Joy must now resort to self-publishing the next installment. This is a huge mistake, because we now know what these alien hunks look like in the author's eye. Yes, she did her own cover art. I actually approve, because, frankly, when the space alien hero of a romance novel is pictured on the cover, he usually looks distressingly human. Or as human as a romance novel cover model can be. So this is kind of refreshing.



    Movie Critic

    A lot of recommenders begin and end their lives as part of corporate research tools, with the possibility that the tool will end up being marketed to clients. One of my favorites was the LikeMinds system which was tested through a website called Movie Critic (tm). Movie Critic had a simple and fast interface, and it was also used, from what I remember, on Cinemax's website. LikeMinds ended up in the hands of Macromedia, and I suspect that it has been integrated into some larger products. It is no longer a highly visible product, but one outfit, calling itself MovieCentral, built itself from the Movie Critic system (and even allowed users to import their old ratings). And then folded.

    Movie Critic generated preconfigured recommendation lists, as well as a prediction for almost any movie (along with a confidence score). With those predictions, it would also tell you where your prediction stood in relation to users average ratings (i.e., you will like this better than most people). Finally, the one really cool thing that Movie Critic did before it shut down was that it let you do a sanity check. This is useful when there is a large range of possible scores to give an item. In this case, what Movie Critic would do is generate a list of 13 movies, one for each possible score, and you could then correct as necessary.

    I also liked the cute Ward Sutton cartoon at the top of the page.


    Blockbuster Out, Sourcelight In

    Blockbuster used to offer video recommendations on their website. As of 31 March 2004, they are no longer offering that service. Fortunately, Sourcelight, the firm that operated the Blockbuster recommender, is still operating their own service on their website. I've replaced the Blockbuster recommender with the Sourcelight one on by blogroll, and I'll be reviewing them both shortly.


    Speaking of misogyny

    My friend Elly returned from a recent trip to the UK. In appreciation for our invading her house and enjoying her superior cable package, err, keeping an eye on her cat, she has gifted my wife and I with an assortment of purportedly British foods. Okay, I can buy the Ginger "biscuits". The pate, well, that seems more, well, European. But the "Yorkie" chocolate bar. Or maybe that should be a Yorkie "chocolate" bar given the EU chocolate labelling spats.

    So, it's not for girls. I haven't been able to figure that one out. Of course, there's also a warning on the side: Do not feed to birds! Now, I'm rather terrified of this thing. Is this the Nestles equivalent of suet? Maybe the actual chocolate content is so low that we can, however, feed it to dogs.

    A chocolate bar marketed to the readers of Maxim. I would never have believed it until confronted with the evidence by my own eyes.

    An animal uglier than the geoduck

    Cerebus has come to its end. Wow. Like many commenters, I gave up on it in the middle of the "Guys" story. As it happens, budgetary reasons caused a massive pruning in my regular comic book purchases, and, when it came time to evaluate the little gray guy, the misogyny and the tedium over-weighed the innovative storytelling. I haven't been bothered to pressure the surprisingly responsive local library to carry the phone books. Now that it's over, I find myself oddly curious about how it ended up, tempered by reports scattered around the web that it just doesn't get any better.

    So, what did I get from reading Cerebus? I learned to look at Oscar Wilde in a different manner. I learned to appreciate the personal struggle in creating your own work. Cerebus challenged, but ultimately did not change, my thinking about my own personal philosophies. At one point, Dave Sim did a real service by showcasing the work of other self-published comic authors in his own book. From this, I later checked out Bone. And finally, Cerebus taught me to cut my losses: there was no need to keep throwing $3 every month on a purchase that had shown itself to be increasingly dull and irritating.



    The University of Minnesota has been doing work with collaborative recommenders for more than a decade now. Their original project, GroupLens, was a system for using collaborative filters for recommending Usenet messages.

    In 1997, Compaq shut down their own collaborative movie recommender ("EachMovie") and made the datasets available to public researchers. MovieLens piggybacked on the original interface (lists of ten movies with a drop-down allowing you to rate the movie from 0 to 5 stars), but has since added many features.

    The database of movies on MovieLens is not comprehensive but new movies are added pretty regularly, and the database administrators are very responsive. The recommender frequently made recommendations using half-stars and users are now allowed to rate movies in half-stars now. You can create a wishlist, and you can also form "buddy" relationships with other users and get joint recommendations. Finally, MovieLens allows users to see how many votes have been collected for a particular movie, and whether the prediction made for the user differs from the average vote.

    MovieLens is an academic tool, and users are frequently asked to participate in research projects. Recent experiments have looked at the relationship between message board activity and likemindedness, or have paired up users to participate in a "Family Feud"-like trivia contest. Many of the papers that have resulted from these experiments are posted at the GroupLens site. GroupLens also makes datasets available to other researchers.

    The recommendation lists generated by MovieLens seem to be mostly based on the predicted score, without much concern for "confidence." As a result, the list seems fairly volatile and the top recommendations are often for relatively obscure movies. In this sense, I consider the recommender to be "daring." I generally use MovieLens' list of All Movies for All Genres to inform my video rentals. Recently, the recommender suggests I pursue the documentary Cinemania, about New York City film geeks. I use the Wishlist to keep track of movies playing locally, in case I ever get to see a movie again. Starsky and Hutch was this week's recommendation. As always, maybe these things should be taken with a grain of salt, though I will also point out that the student-run art theater is closed for spring break.


    Dawn of the Democrats

    Dan C. took a bullet for his wife and went to the county Democratic Convention in her stead. I ran pretty hard to get out of that duty myself, but, had I realized that it was the first weekend of spring break, I might not have been so fearful.

    Afterwards, he takes a nap, and wakes up thinking brownies, lemon bars, and zombies. I'm sure there's a connection. Hmm. Maybe better not to go to that convention after all.


    Friends: Not quite enough for a sitcom

    To the right, I have made a pathetic start at a blogroll. To begin with, we have friends that have weblogs. By way of introduction, the first blog, Slumberland, is by Wendi Dunlap-Simpson, an ex-roommate who has had an surprisingly large impact on my career choices. Immediacy is operated by Glen Engel-Cox, a DC-area writer who maintains the AlexLit neighborhood lists. Dan C. is the smart and sensitive husband of a friend that I met, very awkwardly, from a fanlist. Finally, "Dodo" is an undergrad at the University of Iowa who is goading me into adding comments. She runs several blogs, but Pure-Essence.Net seems to offer a good mix of the personal and the technical.

    I'll probably be adding more to that list as I find other of my friends, old and new, on-line.


    Spalding Grey

    I guess I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Spalding Grey was one of the first truly cool things that my new cool friends in college introduced me to. Swimming to Cambodia was for me, the perfect moment. He didn't seem hip, he didn't seem trendy, he was just a guy sitting behind a desk who thought he had a story, with maybe a few digressions, that you just might find interesting.


    10 Songs

    Oh goody! A blogland metoo craze. Immediate Glen has passed this one along: Set your entire MP3 collection to random, list the first 10 songs played. This is supposed to say something about me. Yeah, right.

    1. Space, "Growler" (from Spiders)

    2. Massive Attack, "Group Four" (from Mezzanine)

    3. Michelle Shocked, "Anchorage" (from Short Sharp Shocked)

    4. Kylie Minogue, "Can't Get You Out of My Head" (ten years ago, if you told me that I would ever listen willingly to this woman ...)

    5. Scott Joplin, "Maple Leaf Rag" (our wedding recessional)

    6. Negativland, "U2" (from U2)

    7. New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, "Chromatic Freylech" (from Manichalfwitz)

    8. Brak, "I'm a Cucumber" (from The Brak Album: Starring Brak)

    9. Chemical Brothers, "Hey Boy Hey Girl" (from Surrender)

    10. Brave Combo, "Do Something Different" (from A Night on Earth)


    I'm a One Night Stand!

    Twice I've taken the damn "Gender Test" The first time, I heard about it from a mailing list for fans of romance author Jennifer Crusie. That was about six months ago.

    This time, the link was referred to the Data Mining course that I was taking as an example of a classification problem. Both times I took the test, it determined "with 100% certainty" that I am a woman. Woo hoo. The test claims to be learning, but not, apparently very well.

    If there's any consolation, they graphically represent your position in a map of datapoints, though I think the graph is suspect. Any way, I'm not dead center in a sea of pink, just floating in some weird border space. How "comforting." Maybe I should lay off the Jenny Crusie. And her with a new book coming out in a couple of weeks.


    Feed Me

    I have added a site feed in the links. It is Atom formatted.


    The Hawkeyes won today. There's rationalizing. Each time they win, I'll write up one of my links on the right. Good thing the season gets tougher.

    Alexandria Digital Literature is a site that sells DRM-free eText, specializing on material that had, at the time, been out-of-print. Published authors included Vonda McIntyre, Robert Silverberg, William Sanders, and others. DRM-free? Customers were expected to complete a survey that verified their understanding of and willingness to comply with an "Honor System" method of protecting the author's rights.

    I believe that function of the site is still operating, but I haven't tried it in a couple of years. I will say that I've enjoyed most of what I purchased from them. Even better was that I enjoyed the stuff that AlexLit predicted that I would enjoy, especially stories like "Elvis Bearpaw's Luck" by William Sanders.

    I found AlexLit in 1997, and it had been functioning for a bit before that point. The basis for the story predictions is the collaborative recommender that they have in place, nicknamed "Hypatia." AlexLit asks you to rate stories as the basic rating unit. For instance, each of the stories in the Starlight 3 collection is rated individually. On the other side of the scale, The Lord of the Rings is rated only once, instead of a rating for each book. You should start by rating the works of your favorite authors, though Hypatia is happy to serve up a list of well-read (and taste distinguishing) works if you just want to start rating. Once you have rated 40 stories, Hypatia is willing to make recommendations for you, both from the AlexLit's marketplace and from her ratings database.

    The quirks: AlexLit does not ask you to rank on a numeric scale. Instead, you choose from descriptive words ("Dreadful", "Boring", "So-so", "Enjoyable", "Really Good", "Excellent", and "Fabulous"), though the user can change this. The recommendations are presented with both a predicted rating and a confidence score. Think: "I predict with High confidence that you will find Tom Stoppard's script Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to be Excellent." Recommendations are presented in lists, which can be sorted by prediction, confidence, or a weighted combination. The user also has the option to raise and lower the confidence threshold that a story needs to make a recommendation list -- i.e., items on a "Reckless" list only need "Wild Guess"-level confidence to qualify.

    AlexLit is open in two very unusual ways. First, the proprietors make clear that predictions are based on the ratings made by your two-hundred "nearest neighbors." Users can even see how their neighbors have rated specific stories. The specifics of matching neighbors have not been revealed, nor have the specific weighting rules used when making predictions. Also, users are allowed to enter new storypoints into the database themselves, as opposed to making requests to system admins.

    The website has a small core of users who share access to a message board. Some have used single datapoints to identify themselves as "neighbors," a relationship that is not necessarily reciprocal. Because AlexLit mostly sells Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, there is a bias to the database -- I have had to go elsewhere to look for romance novel tips. Romance has a presence in the system, just not amongst my neighbors.

    AlexLit is currently operated by the Seattle Book Company. I thought I knew what Seattle Book does, but their mission is murky enough that I can't tell you. The system appears to be mostly stable, with a few glitches, but if it goes down, it can take weeks for the designer, David Howell, to hear about the problem and fix it. He does have other priorities now -- some of which involve actually making money, I would guess.

    So what does AlexLit recommend for me? Well it depends on my mood:

    The "Reckless" recommendation is for the young adult novel, "The Players' Boy" by the late Antonia Forest.
    If I am merely looking for something less daring, I should check out "The Princess Bride" by William Goldman.


    Not About Howard Dean

    I promised my sister-in-law that I would put the link up to this. It's a cat gender-guessing quiz. The "Bonus" is an obnoxious MIDI file of "Lovecats."

    Some of the stuff from the 80's that appealed to me then has completely lost its hold on me. For some reason, I haven't completely been able to shake the Cure thing.



    Political Pooper Scooper

    Tom Schaller at DailyKos has a pretty good account of his caucus experience. Todd Dvorak of the AP offers an account similar to my own. In fact that is my precinct, and my wife, Sharon, provided the quotes for his lede.

    This has been a pretty hectic week, and I've been trying to digest everything that happened. Our caucus was pretty bitterly fought, and I think it would be useless to deny that there's hard feelings. I've been coming up with my own spin on what happened, trying to accentuate the positives.

    Those positives? Well, he did better than Gephart, which seemed to be a large part of our organizational goal. Did that, though the price was pretty high. Turnout seemed pretty high, which is a great thing to see if you are "small-d" democrat. Both Kerry and Edwards are taking it more strongly to the president, including some of the ideas that Dean promoted.

    But still, even though Dean came in second in Johnson Country, you can't but feel like you got your butt whipped. I found my old Night of the Mary Kay Commandos Bloom County book just before the caucuses. Milo looked pretty wrecked the day after the election, as Opus, the "political pooper scooper" carried him off. Okay, I felt more like Milo than Opus.

    UPDATE: Schaller's expanded on the "how" Kerry won in Iowa in this piece for The American Prospect Online. The question is, though, does Kerry have similar operations in place for the rest of the country? Does he have the money and time to set them up? Part of what drew me to the Dean campaign was their approach for using technology to recruit and organize their volunteers, but the technology game that Kerry's folks played was far smarter, and also very interesting. Also updated to a better link for the AP article.

    Precinct 9: A Grizzly Lesson in "Caucus Math"

    What went wrong? Well, I was defninitely one of those arm-folded semi-passive Dean precinct captains that Tom Schaller described. I'm not enough of an extrovert to go out and try and make the hard sell. That said, when everybody in the room seems to have an "Anybody but Dean!" attitude, it is hard to get past that.

    Dean people got recruited to do the registration, which mean none of the hard core Deanies were in the main room to keep things running tight, or to keep up persuasive pressure.

    304 people present in the precinct meant that 46 supporters were necessary for a candidate to be viable. From what I could tell, the dozen or so Gephart folks were kept in line by a pretty good whip who snarled at us any time we came near. She attached her group to Edwards instantly. The handful of Clark people split between Edwards and Dean. The big chatter of the night was over the Kucinich crowd. Dean got a couple, three coudn't stomach moving to Edwards and just left, while the rest went to Edwards.

    I can't say that we didn't try to get some of the Kucinich people from Edwards, but we didn't try very hard, and since they were willing to overlook Edwards' sponsorship of the authorization resolution, there didn't seem to be much point. So, at 8:00, when the secound round of counting was to occur, we stood at Kerry with enough for 3.64 delegates, Dean 2.61, and Edwards with 2.55.

    What follows was the ugly and acrimonious. According to "Caucus math," we are to determine actual delegates by rounding up, but since this meant we had allocated one extra delegate, a loser would need to be found to lose their extra delegate. The Edwards captain figured that three more supporters would put him over Dean. So he went to the Kerry people and convinced them to release three of their supporters to Edwards, as this would still allow them to round up.

    Us Dean people protested, since this happened after 8:00, but before the end of the realignment period was officially called. Resentful of this anti-Democratic measure, Kerry and Edwards supporters protested our protest, and the caucus chair made a call to the county chair. After about 15 minutes, the caucus chair announced that the post-8:00 count would be used. Now, Kerry was at 3.55 delegates, Dean 2.61, and Edwards with 2.63.

    Now, caucus math is tricky. The actual rule for determining the loser when too many candidates are rounding up for their delegate count is that the one with the fraction closest to .5 is the one that loses out. So, in giving up their three supporters to Edwards, the Kerry crew ended up giving up much more. A caucus that was going 4-3-2 Kerry-Dean-Edwards, ended up going evenly three ways. I don't know if that was what the Edwards captain was hoping for, but I know the Kerry people were ticked off. They challenged the outcome, and lost. Apparently, the Kerry people were afraid that someone's head was going to roll in their camp over this.

    A note on the math: some people have observed that Dean's people were ill-trained and poorly prepared for the caucuses. I think this is fair. Pre-caucus strategy seemed mostly focused on getting our '1' into the caucus, but the campaign seemed to be oblivious, or unconcerned about the fact that many of our supporters were finding themselves disenchanted by our nearly assaultive wave of phonecalls and doorknocking.

    Furthermore, the Kerry people showed up with a spreadsheet to figure out just how many supporters they would need to "round up" to the next delegate. I believe the Edwards people had this information as well. I calculated these numbers as soon as I found out the official caucus attendance, but that was time that I should have been doing something. I don't know, being persuasive I guess.

    The fact that all three of our teams had these numbers probably contributed to our little drama at the end, because I don't think any team really planned strategy to that level. I can figure the math to find the minimum number of supporters to round-up to the next delegate, but, when other precinct captains asked about this at our training, we were told not to worry about it -- "just get your people in the door. If you can do that you'll be fine!"


    Rally Tally

    As I commented before, in Iowa City, the campaign offices are pretty close together. And the first local hires seemed to be students (or recent grads) taking the same political science courses. So, the young staffers seem to be more into the "my rally was bigger than your rally" chatter.

    Still, the Dean political veterans that normally appear to be above this stuff seemed pretty proud of the effort when they packed the Main Lounge at the Memorial Union tonight. This is where mid-sized musical acts play, and there were so many people there that they asked the Perfect Storm out-of-state volunteers to step outside so that actual Iowans (and potential caucus-goers) could get in.

    The crowd was pretty excited, too. Joan Jett performed and sounded great. We had speeches from Janeane Garofalo, Tom Harkin, and somebody from the SEIU, and then Dean. All in all, there were an alarming number of high-fives. I did get to shake Jett's hand, so I thanked her for her support of Home Alive. She had a sticker for The Gits on her guitar. Oh, tomorrow's the big day, and I'm exhausted.


    At first, I thought it was all about breakfast sausages

    So, here I am in Iowa, it's the beginning of the school year, and I'm under the insane impression that I have free time (in lieu of money) to invest in the Iowa caucuses. At that point, Clark seemed pretty appealing, but there were too many mysteries about him, including whether he was going to run or not.

    In Iowa City, we have a dying downtown mall. The advantage to this is that all the campaigns take advantage of the temporary rental space, and you can go and window shop for your candidates. "Retail politics" taken to a new level, right?

    So, who's got the excitement in his office, who's got a record of standing up to the Bush administration? Who had actual experience in reaching his goals, and had made tough and politically dangerous positions that didn't doom him to irrelevance? The guy whose name made me think of breakfast, Howard Dean.

    Now we're getting down to the wire in Iowa. I've been told that, as soon as the results of the caucuses are announced in Des Moines, the campaigns are going to vaporize all evidence of their existence in the mall. All that will be left are the MeetUps. What a melancholy feeling.

    Give 'em hell Howard!


    Dude! No! Dude!

    The Dude, Check This Out beta was blogged by Cory Doctorow yesterday. The premise: a combination of collaborative recommendation software for web content, with social networking software (a la Friendster). Unfortunately, the interface is insane - you need to download yet another IE toolbar (designed to resemble a sushi bar). In order to enter your approval (no negative recommendations), you need to create a blog posting about an item, at your Dude blog. In their terminology, this is "to Dude" something. Oh, the pain.

    So, I have two complaints about this thing. One, it's irreverent format is painful to read and look at, says he of the blah blog. The interface is insanely awkward. The knock against collaborative recommenders is that users don't want to spend their time entering the huge amount of data required to generate remotely respectable results. The solution here is to use the social networking as a motivator for entering data.

    The other complaint is that the tone of the site will create an excessively self-selecting audience. The complexity of the interface, which assumes familiarity with the concepts of blogging and a desire to mess around with your browser, will filter out a lot of users. The extremes to which they extend the idea of "Dude, Check This Out" seems another user filter. This filtering, I think, will lead to a homogenized recommendation which match the Dude profile instead of my own. We'll see. I haven't been motivated enough to try "Duding" something yet.


    Geez, it's hot in here. Does that light need to be so bright? Hmm.

    My name is Brian. I got my undergrad education at The Evergreen State College where the mascot is the Geoduck, which is, for all intents a purposes, a giant clam. I'm now working on my graduate degree at The University of Iowa, where students purport to be Hawkeyes. There do seem to be a lot of hawks around here.

    If I follow through on this at all, I will be posting on personal stuff here. Since I am an instructor, course material may appear on this page as well. We'll see.

    I'm not graphically inclined, so this may be a disappointing blog to look at. I would be very surprised if the quality of the text content is enough to compensate.