Archive for June, 2008

Sunshine, and sound design

June 30, 2008

I saw Danny Boyle‘s moody and stylish science fiction thriller Sunshine the other night. As with everything from Boyle—from heroin addicts to flatmates trying to murder each other to zombies to saints—it was…intense. The setup—a spaceship, inauspiciously called Icarus II, heading straight toward the sun—is perfect for overwhelming imagery, and Boyle takes full advantage of it. Alas, the plot didn’t really justify the intensity. I had a bit of an “oh, is that all?” reaction to some of the crucial plot devices. I think at the very end it wanted a bit of 2001-style transcendence, but couldn’t really get there. 2001 itself only did that by becoming more or less incomprehensible in its final reel, something Boyle (and screenwriter Alex Garland) weren’t quite willing to do, opting instead for a more standard thriller device (of which I’ll say no more). Oh well. Maybe this is a film best seen stoned, so that you wouldn’t have to worry about the plot at all.

I did appreciate the shout-outs to 2001, Alien, and best of all—wait for it—Dark Star (no beach balls or surfboards, though). Apparently there are also references to Solaris, which I’m ashamed to say I’ve never seen—in the little bit of commentary I saw, Boyle said that no “serious science fiction movie” can escape the shadows of 2001, Alien, and Solaris.

Among the things I liked both most and least about Sunshine was its sound design. The sound was as overwhelming as the visuals were: Boyle hits you hard with both the music and the incidental grungy spaceship noises. The overall impact was, I think, intended to disconcert and annoy—I was reminded of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. And that it did, to great effect. I’m all for disconcerting annoyance, but what I didn’t like, in my pedantic nerdliness, was the fact that the exterior shots of the Icarus II were as noisy as the interiors. I can’t help compare that to 2001, where the exterior shots featured only silence, music (the initial exteriors of the Discovery are accompanied by a singularly beautiful piece from Aram Khatchaturian‘s ballet Gayne; it turned me on to Khatchaturian), and, during the ill-fated spacewalks, breathing. I understand that 2001‘s pristine and minimalist sound design would not have worked in Sunshine—I doubt it would work almost anywhere else; minimalism is hard, and I imagine it takes a Kubrick-like genius to pull it off—but it is the superior work of art.

This weekend on NPR I heard an interview with legendary sound guy Ben Burtt, the man who gave us the sounds of the light saber and R2-D2, and now WALL·E. Asked what movies he hadn’t worked on whose sound he admired, he named 2001, for its minimalism. I felt vindicated.

This Week in God: Pew, Obama, and Dobson

June 29, 2008

I’m not really sure what the much-publicized Pew “Religious Landscape Survey” really shows—quite possibly that surveys don’t capture religious views all that well, religion being the sort of thing that doesn’t really lend itself to multiple-choice questions (or is that just my religion?). But it’s fun to try to take it at face value, and note that, for example, 15% of self-described atheists are at least “fairly certain” that there is a “God or Universal Spirit”—what must Richard Dawkins make of that? Possibly more relevant, and certainly more ballyhooed, is that 57% of Evangelical Christians say that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” This is considerably more tolerant than most observers seem to expect. I like to think that it’s confirmation of what I’ve thought for a long time—that the most prominent and noisy evangelical leaders (all we godless northerners, including much of the pundit class, usually see) are lousy representatives of their respective faiths. In my experience most evangelical Christians are altogether more tolerant, sensible, thoughtful, and just plain better than the ones that get all the press.

As if on cue to make my point, James Dobson chose this same week to dig up and hurl invective at a two-year-old speech of Barack Obama’s. It’s hardly surprising for the Dobsons of the world to spit venom at the Obamas, so there’s little point in saying to much about the kerfuffle itself—although someone really ought to point out that Dobson’s whine

What the senator is saying there, in essence, is that I can’t seek to pass legislation, for example, that bans partial-birth abortion, because there are people in the culture who don’t see that as a moral issue…And if I can’t get everyone to agree with me, than it is undemocratic to try to pass legislation that I find offensive to the Scripture. Now, that is a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution.

completely misses the entire point of Obama’s speech. Obama indeed says almost the exact opposite, that people should be guided by their faith. What annoys Dobson is that Obama doesn’t think he shouldn’t expect to get his way without making a better argument than “because I said so”:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what’s possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It’s the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

This little tempest in a teapot is, I think, bound to help Obama—no one who would take Dobson seriously is likely to vote for a Democrat anyway (and Dobson doesn’t like McCain either). Meanwhile, behold the backlash.

I wonder if Dobson’s real motivation here is that he’s afraid—not of fire and brimstone or the Rapture or the triumph of Satan, but simply of losing his own power. A liberal who is embraces his religion, and who doesn’t looks ridiculous doing it, threatens to destroy the tissue of lies by which Dobson and his ilk keep their positions. Quoting an article in the current New Yorker (only the abstract is available online, apparently):

…the cultural attitudes descended from the fundamentalist resistance to modernist thought, such as a distrust of science, a rejection of institutional solutions to poverty, and the notion that evangelicals are the saving remnant of Christianity and the American tradition. Religious-right leaders have perpetuated these attitudes and done their best to see that evangelicals continue to regard themselves as an embattled subculture.

The last thing the leaders of the religious right want is for their followers to realize just how religious America is.

Guns, Guns, Guns!

June 27, 2008

Everything that can be said about DC v. Heller was probably said yesterday, and will probably be said again today, so I’m not sure why I’m bothering with this post. That said:

First off, I am neither enormously pleased nor enormously disappointed with the decision—I’m a flaming liberal, but I also like guns, so my gut reaction to the actual result averages out to “meh.” I’m more interested in the argument itself, and in the spectacle of 157 pages of opinions (on top of untold volumes of academic articles and polemics and amicus briefs and—shudder—blog posts) trying to make sense of one short sentence.

I agree completely with Publius that Scalia and Steven’s dueling opinions, both allegedly originalist, are a great argument against originalism. In this case (as, I imagine, in many other less angry-making ones) I don’t see any reason to think there was any original intent—my takeaway from the existence of more explicit drafts of the 2A was that the result was a compromise specifically intended not to settle issues just like this—and insofar as there was one it’s no longer meaningful, being inextricably grounded in long-since abandoned notions, e.g. that standing armies are bad, that militias composed of more or less all able-bodied men are good, and that those able-bodied men are responsible for providing their own guns. The question “WWJD?”—What Would James Madison Do?—has no answer.

So what we get is, as Jack Balkin writes, “living constitutionalism” pretending to be “originalism.” Actually, I’d be less kind than Professor Balkin: what we get is Justices’ personal preferences pretending to be the results of impartial originalist reasoning. And of course Justices make lousy historians, cherry-picking only the bits that support their (necessarily ahistorical, see above) positions from a large, ambiguous, and confusing historical record. As Sandy Levinson writes:

If one had any reason to believe that either Scalia or Stevens was a competent historian, then perhaps it would be worth reading the pages they write. But they are not. Both opinions exhibit the worst kind of “law-office history,” in which each side engages in shamelessly (and shamefully) selective readings of the historical record in order to support what one strongly suspects are pre-determined positions. And both Scalia and Stevens treat each other—and, presumably, their colleagues who signed each of the opinions—with basic contempt, unable to accept the proposition, second nature to professional historians, that the historical record is complicated and, indeed, often contradictory. Justice Stevens, for example, writes that anyone who reads the text of the Second Amendment and its history, plus a murky 1939 decision of the Court, will find “a clear answer” to the question of whether the Second Amendment supports a “right to possess and use guns for nonmilitary purposes.” This is simply foolish. Justice Stevens pays no real attention to a plethora of first-rate historical work written over the past decade that challenges this kind of foolish self-confidence, as is true also of Justice Scalia.


June 22, 2008

I’ve been trying to digest the minimalist redesign of James Bennett‘s and Ryan Tomayko‘s blogs. On the one hand, wow, cool, I’m all for ruthless simplification and streamlining. On the other, I sort of feel like I’m looking at a web version of a Dogme 95 movie, adhering to the rigorous asceticism of a borderline-sadistic Lars von Trier, if Lars von Trier were a web designer.

First, what I like. God knows most web pages (including my own; I at least of the excuse of being a talentless amateur) are far too crowded and busy and horrid. Even discounting the worst of the web—epilepsy-inducing flashing ads (because of which I use an ad-blocker) and the horrors of MySpace (is it really possible to actually read one of those sites?)—there is just too much crap on the typical page. Streamlining is good, both aesthetically and functionally.


There is a point to a certain amount of “administrative debris.” Like everything else, the web does have certain standards, even if they’re vague and flaky and stubbornly anarchic. When I land somewhere I expect to be able to figure out where I am—I expect there to be some sort of overall site title up at the top of the page somewhere. Breadcrumbs are nice; they give me a nice feeling of being able to figure out where I am. On a blog, I expect a certain amount of familiar navigational administrivia to allow easy poking about. Landing on James and Ryan’s blogs I didn’t see those things; I was confused for a while. It wasn’t even completely obvious I was looking at blogs.  After having looked at them for a while I’m still a bit uneasy, even as I’m very impressed. I feel a little like I’m visiting an exquisite Mies van der Rohe building, but don’t know how to ask where the bathroom is.

Ryan and James’ basic philosophy, borrowed from the great Edward Tufte, is

The idea is that the content is the interface, the information is the interface – not computer administrative debris.

Anything that isn’t conveying some sort of actual information is ruthlessly excised. There is nothing left to take valuable screen real estate and attention away from the content.

Now that is a noble goal. One of the great things about the web is that hypertext really does allow a pretty close approximation of that, if only web designers can be persuaded to use it (read what RT has to say on the subject). But I’m not persuaded that taking the philosophy to its extreme is a good idea. Not everything you might want in an interface has an obvious analog in the content. Shoehorning links into not-quite-obvious places can lead, if not to outright confusion, to a certain loss of clarity.

Take for example, the approach both Ryan and James take to a “home” link. Rather than using the relatively contentless word “Home,” or even a title, they link through their names. But that’s not what I expect. I expect the name to take me to some “about” page, maybe with some amount of information about the author, but probably not to the familiar place that tells me what the point of this site is and what all might be there—which is what it actually does.

Another problem with this strict minimalism in an environment like the web, in which there just aren’t a lot of resources (e.g. there’s only half a dozen workable fonts you can rely on all your users having), it’s difficult to differentiate your site. I’m not talking about the aesthetic outrages marketers commit in the name of “branding,” I’m talking about simple identification. When I’m web-surfing I want to be able to figure out where I am without thinking about it.

Minimalist web design also has other pitfalls. Given nothing but typography to work with, a minimalist designer really has to get the typography right—and that is difficult. James Bennett’s site, for example, has overlong lines. See also some intelligent discussion of typography in his afore-cited post and its comments.

I seem to have written one positive paragraph and six negative. That is not at all an accurate reflection of my actual reaction! I just had a lot more to say about what I didn’t like than about what I did. If by some miracle the web design world would move in their direction life would be better (and if some of their practices became more standard some of my objections about being confused would go away). Really I’m impressed, and am trying to absorb some good practices from these. But I’ll certainly never be as rigorous as they are. Were I a real designer I’d go for a more softcore approach. Some examples of things I like:

  • The atheist website I’ve mentioned before—although really it could use some paring, and its lines are too long.
  • Anticlown Media’s About page. They’re the geniuses behind The Superficial, I Watch Stuff, and Geekologie (decidedly non-minimal sites, but I like them anyway).
  • Some, but by no means all, of the “examples of great web typography” in I Love Typography, here and here.

James Bennett quotes Antoine de Saint Exupéry rather disapprovingly:

In any sort of discussion of minimal or minimalistic design a certain quote, attributed to Antoine de Saint Exupéry, is inevitably bandied about:

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

At first this seems like a brilliant insight into the heart of the design process, but it really turns out to be bullshit. because the point at which there is nothing left to take away is the point at which there is nothing left, period.

A commenter helpfully provides the quote in context:

And now, having spoken of the men born of the pilot’s craft, I shall say something about the tool with which they work, the airplane Have you ever looked at a modern airplane? Have you followed from year to year the evolution of its lines? Have you ever thought, not only about the airplane, but about whatever man builds, that all of man’s industrial efforts, all his computations and calculations, all the nights spent over working draughts and blueprints, invariably culminate in the production of a thing whose sole and guiding principle is the ultimate principle of simplicity?

It is as if there were a natural law which ordained that to achieve this end, to refine the curve of a piece of furniture, or a ship’s keel, or the fuselage of an airplane, until gradually it partakes of the elementary purity of the curve of a human breast or shoulder, there must be the experimentation of several generations of craftsmen. In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.

In context, there’s something to this, albeit not necessarily immediately applicable to web design. “There must be the experimentation of several generations of craftsmen,” he says—“stripping a body down to its nakedness” is a laborious process. The simplicity he’s talking about is not merely a matter of stripping things away, but of finding out what is truly necessary, of getting as close as we can to the Platonic Form of whatever we’re doing. Attaining simplicity is not simple.

Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl: Now with A-List Talent

June 22, 2008

How ever did an American Girl movie rate such a cast and director? Money, I guess. I almost want to see it, just to see what happens when Patricia Rozema—she of that creepy Mansfield Park and the great I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing–collides with American Girl sensibilities. I suppose some Julia Ormond–Jane Krakowski action would be too much to hope for…

Teach the Controversy

June 22, 2008


[This design particularly warms my heart because an elementary school teacher did in fact tell my class that God put all those fossils in the ground to test our faith. That’s public education in the Bible Belt, c. 1973.]

McCain and FISA and wiretapping

June 7, 2008

John McCain, according to some (including the Obama campaign, naturally), may be a wee inconsistent in his statements about presidential power and FISA and wiretapping and telecom immunity. Orin Kerr disagrees, citing differences between statutory and constitutional power. I’m afraid Professor Kerr’s response is far more intelligent, subtle, and nuanced than McCain deserves. For all his vaunted straight-talkiness, McCain is a politician, and does what politicians do—that is, he panders to whatever audience he’s talking to, saying as little of substance as he can as ambiguously as he can.

And let’s not forget complex legal analyses mean little in a political campaign. Most people cannot distinguish “unconstitutional” from “I don’t like it,” let alone from “in violation of statute.” If McCain and his handlers really did mean their various statements to hinge on the distinction, they certainly went out of their way not to say so.

Professor Kerr’s friend Marty Lederman writes far better than I can, so I’ll close with a quote from him:

Let’s give the McCain folks credit: they have managed to say just about everything and nothing at all — all at once! The statements really have a kabuki-like feel to them. My favorite is this quote from a McCain spokesman to Charlie Savage: “To the extent that the comments of members of our staff are misinterpreted, they shouldn’t be read into as anything otherwise.” That’s a classic. Please don’t try to parse it — life is too short.

South Carolina Believes

June 5, 2008

South Carolina’s legislature has approved “I Believe” license plates;image the anodyne art on the plates makes explicit the object of said belief (hint: note that the picture is not of a Star of David. Or a crescent. Or a Darwin Fish, or a Flying Spaghetti Monster). For reasons spelled out in this NPR story (which cites Americans United for Separation of Church and State, among others), that’s pretty obviously bad and wrong. I’ve no objection to public displays of faith, even tacky ones (especially tacky ones, actually), but c’mon, people, that’s why the good Lord gave us bumper stickers!

Meanwhile, I see that Tennessee wants Bible classes in schools. That would be fine if the classes taught the Bible as literature, carefully avoiding all endorsement of Christianity (or Judaism, as if that would happen). But I’m from Tennessee. Trust me. That’s not what they’d do.

Baghdad on the Potomac

June 5, 2008

When I first saw this I thought it was an unfunny joke. Eugene Volokh’s initial reaction: “…I see no way this could be legal.”

Debugging JavaScript, now in Opera

June 5, 2008

JavaScript is a neat little language, but (like countless others, apparently) I find it a real pain to debug. Part of my problem is me. I’m relatively new to JavaScript, which isn’t yet as embedded in my brain as, say, C++ is. I still suck as a JavaScript developer. But I refuse to take all the blame: part of the problem is the tools. Firebug and Firefox’s JavaScript Debugger (a.k.a Venkman) are both useful, but both are buggy and annoying—for some reason I have a terrible time with both getting breakpoints to work reliably. And the less said about the Microsoft Script Debugger the better.

So last week I downloaded a beta of Opera 9.5 which includes an alpha of Dragonfly, Opera’s new suite developer tools (I have no idea why they called it an “alpha”; possibly they wanted to sow confusion to frighten away the rabble). And so far I’m pleased. It does have a few bugs—resizing the source window doesn’t immediately redisplay correctly, expanding/collapsing/expanding objects in the frame inspection window doesn’t work—but nothing major. It’s also missing some fairly basic features, or has hidden them fairly effectively—there’s no watch window, and no way to display all breakpoints(!). But overall I’ve found it very nice.

It’s also got me using Opera more generally. I still prefer Firefox, for reasons that I’ll try to enumerate at some point, but Opera certainly has its merits.