Thursday, November 08, 2012

Diderot's Diary Is Dead. Long Live Diderot's Diary!

After twelve years, I'm putting this iteration of Diderot's Diary on ice.

The new WordPress version of Diderot's Diary can now be found at the previous URL — that is, (or for short) — but it won't contain any posts from before September, 2012. Everything I've blogged up to that date will remain here in a frozen, archival state.

Why the move?

It's mostly a process of decluttering. Over the course of its decade-plus existence, this Blogger-hosted version of the blog had accumulated a lot of messy excess code in the form of hacks or ephemeral bells and whistles. Every change of design (three times in total, if memory serves) brought with it new, finicky tweaks to get the old text and images to render neatly. For the past nine months I've been dreading making the long-overdue switch to a new design template for that very reason. In the end, it was simpler to start afresh with a more versatile platform than start the slog of retrofitting all over again.

In addition to revamping Diderot's Diary, I've attempted to declutter in other ways by creating a companion Tumblr that will serve as a catch-all for everything that doesn't quite mesh with long-form blogging.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


EBERT directed me (along with countless more of his nearly 600,000 Twitter followers) to this post titled "On Hulu and Respect."

I followed the link expecting a short bout of eye-rolling over Hulu, but that, as it turns out, was the subject of an earlier post by the same author. This more recent one didn't just express irritation over the fact that Hulu — even (and especially) the paid version — dishes up repetitive, annoying ads and then claims in impenetrable corporatespeak that it's doing you a favor by letting you choose which ones you want to watch; rather, the post looked at why Hulu behaves in this way. And it boils down to lack of respect for the user.

Hulu, of course, isn't the only company that denies its users respect. Samsung is another that springs immediately to mind. This is a hastily snapped, slightly distorted photo of the "Smart Hub" on our primary TV:

Smart Hub
The bottom half is the only portion of the TV that I feel is actually mine. The top half is taken up almost entirely by what Samsung deems important, including rotating ads (yes, ads on a high-end TV; the one in the picture is for the Yellow Pages) for new apps and – get this – Samsung's SmartTV line. That's right: the SmartTV that you already own displays an ad for itself.

The strip of app icons above the virtual fold is labeled "Recommended." By whom? Of the six, I only use Netflix regularly, and during one so-called upgrade this was swapped out without my consent by a Home Shopping Network app. Quite unbelievably, an angry tweet of mine seemed to get the message across.

Top center is "Your Videos," which aren't really my videos at all. It always has a red New badge next to it. What's highlighted here are movies that are available through some of the services on the SmartTV (e.g., Vudu, Blockbuster) with the exception of Netflix, which is the only service many of us subscribe to. In other words, it's of no use to me and is consequently a waste of screen.

To the right of that is "Samsung Apps." This also constantly boasts a red New badge. It's been featuring those same icons for months now. Another waste of screen. Plus the information it has to fetch and download increases the time it takes to load the Smart Hub.

This no doubt tedious point-by-point dissection is meant to prove a larger point. That is, if the user were taken under consideration at any time during the design process, this Smart Hub layout would be completely different. No executive or engineer seems to have asked, "How will people use this TV?" Instead it was, "How can we bombard the user with messages to get him to buy more?"

The irony is that those ads often have the opposite of their intended effect. When I'm comfortable and content with a device or a service, I tend to explore its features and, yes, even buy content and software/hardware to maximize those features. When I'm feeling pressured by hawkers, I either exit or simply block it out. Hence my avoidance of Hulu except in cases of dire necessity (Portlandia, to name one).

With the SmartTV, I almost feel as though I have to brace myself for this onslaught every time I click on the remote's Smart Hub button. My own TV treats me — by design — like an unthinking automaton, ripe for a shakedown, who responds to flashing images by pulling out his wallet. If this is truly Samsung's opinion of its users, then it is a low one indeed.

To pull the lens back a wee bit further: We see this lack of respect for the user played out elsewhere, and not just with Hulu, or content services in general (think Netflix's recent Qwikster fiasco), or even consumer electronics (e.g., Microsoft, Sony). You'll find it in newspapers. TV sitcoms. Internet and mobile phone service providers. The 10 o'clock news. Politics.

And it's not just the often lamented "dumbing down." There's a level of condescension for the user that borders on contempt. Inveterate cynics will say that this attitude is warranted, and I can't say I'm in total disagreement, but my greater conviction is that everyone, producer and consumer alike, is better served when our dealings proceed from mutual respect.

For a start, I'd like to see a change in the philosophy of Hulu and Samsung whereby, as a general rule, the average user is considered an intelligent human being whose time is as valuable as his money and whose private sphere should not be intruded upon without good reason.

At the heart of such a philosophy would naturally be respect. Just a little bit. Sock it to me.

Friday, December 30, 2011


I'M CHANGING my domain and website host (from GoDaddy to FatCow; and no, it's not because of GoDaddy's support of SOPA/elephant shooting/sexist Super Bowl ads, although none of that endears them to me in the least), which means that this site might be in limbo for a few days as I bring all the DNS entries up to speed.

Not that an interruption to normally scheduled service would be anything new around here. Normally I take time around the start of the new year to reflect on basic stats: how many annual posts, how that relates to previous years, which ones brought the most traffic, and so on. With just seven blog entries over the last twelve months — the second-lowest year since I started this blog eleven years ago(!), and that's only because the year with the fewest posts, the first, only included the months from October to December — there's not much on which to reflect, expect perhaps the reasons why I only managed seven posts in twelve months. Which isn't something that can be rendered quite so easily in percentages and hit counts.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Postscript to the 2130Vn That Didn't Arrive Posthaste

Back in March, I wrote a review of the DrayTek 2130Vn router and closed by saying that I would "post a postscript posthaste" if my caveats were addressed in a subsequent release of the firmware.

Although it's taken me much longer than "posthaste" to say it, they were. With the final release of the 1.5.1 firmware, the WAN connection issues have been fixed, VoIP call quality has improved slightly, uptime has extended into months, and restarts seem to take far less time than they did before.

But if pressed to put forward a lingering issue, it wouldn't take more than a nanosecond for me to cite call quality. That applies to the newer 1.5.2 firmware (thanks to Tony for the heads up) as well, which has been in release candidate stages since mid-September.

As I've said before, there are a number of concatenated links in my personal VoIP chain (i.e., a SIP provider such as sipGate accessed via SIPsorcery, which in turn is accessed via the DrayTek), and therefore this problem might not be one that rests solely with the Vigor. However, I do notice less delay, fewer dropouts, and less echo when I forgo the DrayTek and call through my iMac and Telephone with a Bluetooth headset. These quality issues are particularly acute when the other party is on a mobile phone (which is more and more common) or, strangely, a pizza place. I've never been able to make it through a conversation with, say, the folks at Pizza Rita without having to repeat myself a number of times. Yet everything is fine when I call from my mobile.

For VoIP and other optimization, another commenter pointed out this blog by DrayTek reseller APB Tech, which features walkthroughs for common setups (e.g., VLANs, filters, QoS) and configuration recommendations. I can't say that their post on preserving VoIP call quality did much to help my situation, but it certainly didn't hurt, either.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Salvaged: Ben Olson, author of Sperm! The Musical

THESE are the unabridged answers provided by Ben Olson, author of Sperm! The Musical, which is showing at the Panida Theatre in Sandpoint, ID, on August 19 (i.e., today), 20, 26, and 27. I interviewed Ben for The Inlander; the article appears in the August 18-24 issue.

Sperm! The Musical posterOn his previous play, Death of a Small Town in the West, being politically charged and those politics carrying over into Sperm!

It's true that Death was politically charged. It was influenced directly by my lifelong frustration with Sandpoint trying to turn itself into a haven for the rich. It's a common story with "resort towns" with lakes and/or ski hills. Artists and locals give the town character, realtors and developers exploit that character, sell it as kitsch, and pretty soon the whole town is walking tiny dogs in sweaters and wearing those designer workout suits made of crushed velour. The heart of the town dies.

The whole premise behind Death came when I was brainstorming fantasy ways to cut Sandpoint off from the rest of the world. One idea was to release massive quantities of sewer rats on the city streets and let the townsfolk run screaming wild in fear. Although I liked that one, the idea of bombing the three bridges that connect Sandpoint with the outside world won my heart, and that's what Death was written about — a foolhardy attempt to take back a town from the greedheads using violent force.

I used comedy for a couple of reasons, mainly because I love to make people laugh. Also, comedy cushions taboo subjects. The sting isn't quite as sharp. I didn't want to alienate anyone for gratuitous purposes. I wanted them to laugh with each other at their foibles as a town, but when the laughter died down, I wanted them to really think about the underlying message in the play, that these small towns are in fact dying as they grow into the promises written about them in real estate brochures.

Sperm!, on the other hand, wasn't written in a sense of anger and frustration. It was right after the opening of Death when I began mulling over the idea of doing another play. For one reason or another, I really loved the idea of having a play set in a sperm bank. The setting was ripe for possibilities.

At first, I just had fun with it. I tried to make the tone light and easy. A feel-good kind of play. But, as usual, controversies found their way in. I started opening big cans of worms: abortion, genetic modification, sperm mutation therapy, worldwide sterilization. Once again, I used comedy to make light of these issues that normally divide the population. And once again, the audience will have a chance to laugh, but — hopefully — they'll take away with them some of the more important points that rise above the absurdity. It's this intrinsic message, which each member of the audience will have to decipher for themselves, that drives this play and everything else I've written.

On the reasons for his success so far in Sandpoint.

I've been pigeonholed as a bit of a troublemaker in Sandpoint for my active dissidence in regards to realtors, developers, tourists, and general assholes that muck things up. When it came time for PR, instead of fighting against that stereotype, I rolled with it. I created more controversy. I hired artist and journalist Zach Hagadone to illustrate my poster for Death, and it ended up as a scene of the Long Bridge — a very iconic Sandpoint landmark — with a huge explosion and smoke billowing out from it. With the poster for Sperm!, I asked Zach to draw a scene from the play: the hero husband and wife blasting a couple of killer mutant sperm monsters with a shotgun.

Part of me wants people to be shocked, to look at these images and try to figure out how a play will cover such strange subject matter. Part of me wants them to be confused, curious, excited, maybe even a little outraged. Most of all, I like to affect people. I love when people ask me the title of the play. "Sperm!" I tell them, and then I watch a wry smile come to their face and listen to the gears grinding inside their heads. I don't want anyone to be bored, or to walk out with a shrug. I'm aiming for love or hate — to hell with the middle ground, apathy... it's all crap. It's for that reason, I think, that such a large amount of people bought tickets for Death, and for the same reason will come see Sperm! It's not just another play. We really hung our balls out there on this one.

On the Sandpoint, ID theater scene.

There used to be quite a theater scene in Sandpoint. There was an acting troupe that went under the name of Unicorn Theater Players in the '80s. They put on a lot of good plays. Over the years, the troupe burned out and vanished. Theater in Sandpoint lagged. Plays were produced, and it wasn't that they were bad, they just weren't interesting. Attendance was scarce. I have never been particularly into theater, but I recognized that it was a medium that needed a big shot in the arm. Sometimes I'll see that a torch has been dropped, and for one reason or another I feel the need to pick it up. It was like that with me and theater.

One thing I saw was that plays weren't making much money. They usually made just enough to pay expenses, sometimes drawing a small profit. I wanted to change that. I wanted to show that you could write your own play, cast it, and produce it on the main stage of the Panida Theatre — which is such a beautiful venue — and make a good profit. And that's just what happened last year. We covered all of our expenses on opening night with three nights yet to go. I even got to pay out the actors, give donations to the Panida for much-needed restorations, pay my director and stage crew, and keep a little for myself. It's unheard of for a writer to actually make money writing. Unheard of. But it happened.

To answer your question, yes, I think there is a theater scene on the brink of taking off in Sandpoint. The talent is certainly here.

Whether or not my first play had anything to do with this resurgence is up for interpretation, but what I do know is that there is new blood, new passion behind theater now. It's not just a bunch of menopausal women in heavy makeup giving heady soliloquies anymore, it's a chance to experiment with taboo subject matter, to push a few limits, to change the very nature of an average person's theatergoing experience. I mean, the play's called Sperm! for chrissakes.

On the benefits and hurdles of community theater.

Community theater is actually quite liberating. There aren't really any rules or an established order. In fact, people have no idea what to expect when they buy their ticket. When you use this to your advantage and blow them away with something fresh and new, they love you even more for it.

I'm continually impressed with the caliber of talent that Sandpoint produces. The fact that we find most of our actors at open casting calls is proof that there are even more would-be actors and artists out there, just waiting for an opportunity to discover a new side of themselves. Plus, in community theater, there aren't so many prima donnas. Ego is put in the backseat. It becomes more about the experience, where each person finds their part to play and adds to the whole. I like that. I couldn't be happier with the actors in Sperm! And my director, Andrew Sorg, is absolutely amazing at what he does. I like to think of him as a magician. Keep in mind, before Sperm! and Death, I'd never actually written a play and only attended a few. The challenge for him was to transform all of my words and intentions onto the stage and add that extra crank of the wheel to make it work. I rely on Andrew heavily, and he always comes through for me.

On small-scale versus large scale.

I do enjoy the small-scale environment. I was born and raised in Sandpoint, and while I've lived in a lot of big cities and traveled at large around the world, I always come home to where life makes sense to me. It seems like we do something different here in the Northwest. We get something more than the rest of the masses. I have no confidence in a populace that elevates idiots to the top and ignores true talent. If you doubt that statement at all, take one brief look at the music industry in the U.S. right now and then go bash your head against the wall.

There are thoughts to send Sperm! on the road, starting with a run in Portland (Oregon) to see how it does, but I'm on the fence. I really like the idea of showing my work in Sandpoint alone. It was born here, it should live here. I could see a production in Spokane or Coeur d'Alene, though.

On choosing fertility as his subject.

I'll admit, I began writing Sperm! because of the comic potential. I saw how the comedy in Death really won over the audience every night and I thought, That's it, just keep them laughing. While I was still formulating the idea for Sperm!, several of my friends started trying to have children. I always laughed at that "trying" part. I imagined them both suiting up with headbands, stretching and doing jumping jacks before making love. It was then that it dawned on me that fertility was just as funny as it was serious. And it is a serious thing. I've seen the joy that it brings, and I've seen the sorrow that comes when it is taken away. It turned out to be a great subject matter to cover. Sperm is the seed of life, after all, no matter how gooey and gross it is.

On his love of musicals. Or not.

In all honesty, I can't stand musicals. I've never liked them, either on stage or film. Something about a bunch of people suddenly breaking into song and dance... it always creeped me out a little bit. I thought it would be funny to write a musical for people who didn't like musicals. Make all the songs ludicrous. Make the subject matter even more ridiculous. What I've found is that, even though I thought I was making a parody, Sperm! has become a full-blown musical on its own. When I asked Brian Hibbard (of the band Tennis) to compose the songs, I knew that he would hit a home run, but when I listened to the music for the first time, I realized that they were much better than I'd expected. They were actually good. All at once, the parody became real and now lives somewhere in the ether between.

On the underlying message in Sperm!

Beneath all the absurdity and dark comedy there is a very crucial message in Sperm! that does speak to the human condition. As a general rule, I've always had a doomstruck view of our humanity's efforts on earth. Not to say that I've been a pessimist all my life, but faced with the looming weight of history over our backs, it's hard not to think that we're all going to burn up someday like so much rubbish. My method of dealing with this inhumanity is to bury it inside my work, making it so that one has to sift through the traps and whistles and laughter to find the kernel of truth that is always there. I want people to find it. I need people to find it. And while I enjoy hearing a full house laughing at the jokes onstage, they're really just gimmicks that I've installed to distract you. I mean, underneath it all, this play is really about the most serious thing imaginable: life and the continuation of it (and, of course, the callous attitude towards that very survival). The comedy is just the sugar that helps the medicine go down, to paraphrase Mary Poppins.

Doing anything creative in Sandpoint carries with it a whole host of challenges. While more and more people are starting to realize what our town has to offer, they are only seeing the surfaced half-truths that come out of banal invented awards like "Best Small Town to Live in the Country" as well as decades-old stereotypes that arose out of events like Randy Weaver's standoff at Ruby Ridge and Mark Furhman moving here. There is such a strong underground arts scene in Sandpoint, but nobody outside of town expresses any interest in discovering it. Most of the time this doesn't bother me, but sometimes I wonder if they'll ever realize what they're missing.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Cock Blocked

ON A hike through Palisades Park this morning, we started on the steep climb down to the waterfall only to find this fellow blocking our path:


Yep, one of those fearsome feral forest fowl. Some folks in these parts say they wake up to find their coyotes missing by the dozens.

Another couple had in fact warned us about him beforehand, though at the time we didn't think that the patrolling rooster would pose much of a threat. But he made it clear to us, Gandalf-like, that we would not pass, and with two young ones in tow, we decided to save the grandeur of the canyon waterfall for another day.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Tune In, Drop Out

Kai Nagata explains Why I quit my job (at 24):

[T]here was a growing gap between the reporter I played on TV, and the person I really am and want to become.


What the Murdoch model [at Fox News] demonstrated was that facts and truth could be replaced by ideology, with viewership and revenue going up. Simply put, you can tell less truth and make more money. When you have to balance the interests of your shareholders against the interests of the viewers you supposedly serve, the firewall between the boardroom and the newsroom becomes a very important bulwark indeed.

The rest makes clear what we already know from Neil Postman et al or at least suspected. That is, in the cynical and desperate scramble for profits, the news media has infantilized public debate and in turn given policy- and decisionmakers (not always one in the same) carte blanche to act in their own narrow self-interest, not that of the greater good. And some good people, like Nagata, feel so sick and disheartened at the slimy duplicity of it all that they are compelled to abandon an otherwise "promising" career.

His anecdote in the context of the larger NotW scandal makes it all too clear that we, the public, are the biggest loser in this self-perpetuating downward spiral, and the sole winner — a word I use loosely — is the conscience-less privileged in search of short-term monetary gain.