Good Melville passages from Billy Budd

terence stamp as billy buddI started reading Billy Budd last night. It is Herman Melville’s last book, published posthumously 40 years after Moby Dick. One thing I like about reading Melville is that I have to read carefully and decypher because he loads so much meaning and metaphor into it. I liked the following passage, a description of the aloof intelligence of Captain Vere:

In this line of reading he found confirmation of his own more reasoned thoughts- confirmation which he had vainly sought in social converse, so that as touching most fundamental topics, there had got to be established in him some positive convictions, which he forefelt would abide in him essentially unmodified so long as his intelligent part remained unimpaired. In view of the troubled period in which his lot was cast this was well for him. His settled convictions were as a dyke against those invading waters of novel opinion, social, political and otherwise, which carried away as in a torrent no few minds in those days, minds by nature not inferior to his own. While other members of that aristocracy to which by birth he belonged were incensed at the innovators mainly because their theories were inimical to the privileged classes, not alone Captain Vere disinterestedly opposed them because they seemed to him incapable of embodiment in lasting institutions, but at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind.

With minds less stored than his and less earnest, some officers of his rank, with whom at times he would necessarily consort, found him lacking in the companionable quality, a dry and bookish gentleman, as they deemed. Upon any chance withdrawal from their company one would be apt to say to another, something like this: “Vere is a noble fellow, Starry Vere. Spite the gazettes, Sir Horatio” (meaning him with the Lord title) “is at bottom scarce a better seaman or fighter. But between you and me now, don’t you think there is a queer streak of the pedantic running thro’ him? Yes, like the King’s yarn in a coil of navy-rope?”

Some apparent ground there was for this sort of confidential criticism; since not only did the Captain’s discourse never fall into the jocosely familiar, but in illustrating of any point touching the stirring personages and events of the time he would be as apt to cite some historic character or incident of antiquity as that he would cite from the moderns. He seemed unmindful of the circumstance that to his bluff company such remote allusions, however pertinent they might really be, were altogether alien to men whose reading was mainly confined to the journals. But considerateness in such matters is not easy to natures constituted like Captain Vere’s. Their honesty prescribes to them directness, sometimes far-reaching like that of a migratory fowl that in its flight never heeds when it crosses a frontier.

Due to the wonder of the Internet, you can read Billy Budd in its entirety online.

Greasemonkey script for Lewisville / Farmer’s Branch Library Lookup

Greasemonkey is an add-on for Firefox that lets you change how you use particular websites and the web in general. For example, you can use a Greasemonkey script to strip Adsense ads from every website you visit or you can change the way Gmail works using GM Scripts.

Anyway, I took someone else’s library lookup script based on Jon Udell’s original Library Lookup project, added some code to use Lewisville and Farmer’s Branch’s OPAC to do an ISBN search from Amazon. So, what this means is that if I’m looking at books on Amazon, in the background the script will find the ISBN and then do an ISBN search in both the Lewisville and Farmer’s Branch Public Libraries to see if they have the book. If they do, it will present a link on the Amazon page where I can click through and reserve it at the library. Download the LVPL / FBPL Library Lookup script here. See the screenshot below:

For my friends in Austin, someone else already took time to make a version of the script for the Austin Public Library.

Since Jody works at the library, I often spend time there reading magazines and newspapers. All the good information with none of the guilt at buying something I’ll throw away soon thereafter. Particularly good for things like Business Week, the WSJ, and Investor’s Business Daily.

Updated: There’s a related script that adds a WorldCat link to Amazon book pages, so that when you click the link for any particular book, WorldCat will search all nearby libraries for the book. Google Book Search is also adding WorldCat links for any book that is accessible online. Unsuprisingly, they are not providing these links for books where you only view a preview as they have some arrangement to make money with the publisher in those cases.

The Age of Sail, the English Civil War, the Restoration, and so much more

Ever since starting Neal Stephenson’s amazing Baroque Cycle series, I’ve been in love with the 17th century. Stephenson brings it all to life in a story that is historical, but also entirely fictitious, almost like historical science-fiction, although that sounds more boring than this is. It is actually the best series I have read in a few years. Very different from but on par with George R.R. Martin’s recent blockbuster series, A Song of Ice and Fire. I actually find the Baroque Cycle to be much richer since it has the benefit of using actual history to flesh out the plot and the world and I find the author more erudite and skillful in his use of language. The characters in the Baroque Cycle are either real historical figures such as Isaac Newton or Christopher Wren or entirely fictional creations of the author. Each of the three books of the series was published originally weighing in at around 800-900 pages, but since coming to paperback each volume has been split into three additional books for a total of nine (I think). Go to your local used book store or buy the original used hard-covers on Amazon. It’ll be easier to keep up with and it will save you money.

While reading the series, I found myself poring over Wikipedia engrossed in subjects I knew nothing about, like sailing history, tall ships, 17th century history, types of carriages, historical figures, etc. For example, I had no idea Winston Churchill was the direct descendant of a central figure in English history, John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough. This is just one of the many things I learned while reading this series. I also spent several delightful hours reading about wigs, Whigs, William Prince of Orange, Gottfried Leibniz, thief-takers, Louis XIV, Raskolniks, Robert Hooke, and much more.

If you want to submerge yourself in a place both familiar and utterly foreign, this is the thing for you.

Ahoy, flukes!

One Sunday night about a month ago, I was in the Half-price Books skulking around for something to read. Not being particularly optimistic or venturesome by nature, I couldn’t decide what I wanted, so I just paced around the store waiting for inspiration to strike. It didn’t.

Thankfully, an employee came over the intercom to announce that the store would be closing in ten minutes, and, that if we wanted to transact business we should get our collective asses in gear. I didn’t want to end the night without a book, so I ran over to Literature and grabbed the first thing that had a high probability of being good (and cheap). This turned out to be a thin paperback of Moby-Dick, complete with a 1960’s-style woodcut illustration of Captain Ahab on the cover. It cost me all of twenty-eight cents.

Almost every night for the past several weeks, I have propped myself up in bed to read Moby-Dick. It has been a revelation in many ways, and I have been pleased to jettison my preconceptions of the thing in exchange for actual experience. For such a small book, it delivers more than whole piles of other books. It is as deep and rich as the ocean itself, soaked with Melville’s humor and vitality. Melville devotes entire chapters (although all his chapters are brief) to various asides on whaling, whale biology, history, and seafaring. The entire first part of the book is a bibliographical list of places where whales appear in literature; from Jonah’s Leviathan in the Bible to Michel de Montaigne and Hamlet.

I have learned a few things as well:

  • The Pequod’s first mate, Starbuck, is the inspiration for the coffee chain. This means Starbucks stole their name from Moby-Dick. Somehow, this is not surprising.
  • Moby-Dick is based in part on a real albino whale by the name of Mocha Dick.

I’m still reading through the book, but one thing I’m starting to realize is the widespread poverty of modern language and literature. With so much being written and talked about, there is so little being said that has any lasting value or charm. Living in the information age is like living in the age of crap. It makes you appreciate those rare individuals who express things well. I’ll have to remember that the next time I go on about something unimportant: Speak less, say more.


  1. Read Moby-Dick online for free at Project Gutenberg.
  2. Moby-Dick entry at Wikipedia

Into the Wild

Into the WildOne of the auditors at work who often inhabits the cube next to me recommended a book he had been reading, “Into the Wild” by John Krakaurer. I picked it up while on lunch and read it over the next two days. It’s the tragic tale of 24 year old Chris McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, an intelligent and educated young man with existential angst and wanderlust, who lived off the land of rural Alaska for one summer before succumbing to starvation and injury from mysterious causes and dying alone inside an abandoned school bus where he had been camped. You know going into the book that he dies. The book is really about trying to unravel his motivations and reasons for living such a perilous life on the fringe. Why did he feel so uncomfortable in his world and with himself? Why did he feel so strongly about proving himself against nature and reality? What experience did he hope to achieve?

It’s also about growing up and searching for meaning, the relationships between fathers and sons, the individual and society, the siren song of idealism against the inhumanity of reality. It’s about life and ultimately failure.

Tips on Getting Started With Web Design

Designing and creating websites is not difficult. As with anything else, with enough practice, experience and knowledge of the basics anyone can be a “web designer”. The important thing is to start somewhere and work from there. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Learn basic HTML. HTML is not a programming language. Writing HTML is not programming. Disavow yourself of this idea immediately. It only creates a mental barrier for people like me who are intimidated by math and programming. While HTML has some things in common with classic programming languages (like the use of its own rules and syntax), it is better to think of it as a formatting language since you’re just using HTML to change the appearance of what would normally be just text and pictures. The great part is HTML is super simple. Really. If you’re a total newb where HTML is concerned bookmark They have great beginning tutorials and even little sandboxes where you can write and render (view the output) HTML all in one place.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Build your own starter website. Volunteer to build one for someone else. This is how everyone starts out. It’s fun, low pressure, and it’s for yourself. Make a website where you can putter around and change things any time you feel like it. Don’t hold yourself to an unrealistic standard by comparing your site to everyone else’s. Remember, you’re just a beginner, and you have a lot to learn. You’re going to make a lot of crap before you make something halfway decent. When we’re kids, we all start out drawing stick figures and sausage-headed people. Then gradually, with practice, you start filling in the blanks and progressing. It’s the same thing here. Don’t start out comparing yourself to the people who’ve been doing this stuff for 15 years. If you stay after it, you can be be better than 90% of people within days or weeks.
  • “Plus it.” The biggest thing that will help you progress with designing and building web pages is knowing when something does or does not look good. I’m not talking about having good taste. I’m talking about knowing when something looks like crap. If you have high standards for how something should look, it will drive you so crazy when something does NOT look good that you will push yourself to figure out how to make it look better. This sense of dissatisfacton is central to the learning process. Walt Disney had a standard phrase he used to squeeze the best work out of his artists. He would tell them to “Plus it.” Even if you think something looks pretty good, “plus it”. Push it a little more.
  • Steal Learn from other people. As the old saying goes, good artists borrow, great artists steal. Everything you need to learn, someone else has already learned. Use their knowledge and benefit from their experience. Don’t just borrow what other people know, steal it and make it your own. If you see something cool someone has done, right click their webpage and “View source” to see how they did it. This shows you the unrendered source code, which is the blueprint for how a website is put together. Acquaint yourself with every good resource you can get your hands on and soak it up. I’m a big believer in mental osmosis. If you listen to other people talk and write about something long enough, you’ll gradually pick up little lessons and bits of knowledge and experience. Here are a few places that will speed your education: Webmasterworld (a great place to ask questions and lurk), StyleGala (check out what the cool designers are building), A List Apart (the unofficial academic journal for ‘web designers’). There are tons of other equally good places. Just start reading and cribbing from your fellows. 99% of the ‘web designers’ out there are unremarkable (myself included). Do not be intimidated.
  • Know a few good tricks. Most web designers have a bag of tricks they use over and over. Little things like how to build a website that looks good, but is actually very simple. For example, check out Cameron Moll’s pretty website. As a well-known web designer, he knows how to make things look pretty sharp, but if you look closely you’ll see that his site is actually not that complex. It’s basically a header image, a background, and a two column CSS layout. There are a few complexities, but it doesn’t get much easier than that. If you look at this project he did recently, you’ll see that he uses many of the same tricks. While the site looks very nice, the actual architecture is not that difficult. It’s a navigation element, a large header, and three columns beneath the header. Cameron’s most effective trick is that he’s a whiz with Photoshop, which makes everything else he does look pretty snazzy. Most good designers are very good with Photoshop. I highly recommend spending lots of time in that application as it can account for 60-75% of your success with clients and projects. In my experience, most of the actual ‘designing’ is concepted and performed within Photoshop anyway. I don’t even mess with the HTML part of a project until everything is created in Photoshop. This guy has a similar workflow, which he outlines here. Buy, borrow, or steal a copy of Photoshop if you don’t already have one. It’s a necessary tool that everyone uses.
  • You don’t need books or classes. You need to work. Some people will inevitably disagree with this, but I think books and classes (especially on web design) are almost universally worthless. Why? In any class, you are usually either way behind or way ahead of everyone else. This is a bad place to be. The teacher’s job is to make sure everyone gets through the class together, so you’ll usually only end up learning the very basics. Someone else is always more stupid than you are and holding everyone back. Furthermore, most people who write books and teach classes are not that great. The great designers are out designing and creating. Writers on the other hand are not paid to simplify and teach a subject. They’re paid to trick people into buying massive, expensive books that have no resale value. Most truly great designer / writers freely part with their pearls of wisdom to any with the ears to listen. They’re not interested in foisting more unreadable, unnecessary garbage onto the world to further confuse people who just want to learn. There are a few good classes worth taking, but try very hard to learn on your own first. If you spend 1-2 hours a day just playing around building webpages and graphics, you will eventually learn everything you need to know.

I hope you find some of these tips useful. Remember that you can do anything anyone else can do. Do not be afraid to make mistakes or ask questions.

Weird moment of iPod synchronicity

This is strange. Like a thousand chimpanzees DJ’ing. I have exactly 5,115 mp3’s on my iPod. I was just sitting here at work listening to it shuffle through stuff. That should be random, right? Anyway, “Me, Myself, and I” by De La Soul came on, THEN when that was over it was immediately followed by “Freak” by George Clinton. Think about that for a minute. The De La Soul track samples heavily from “Freak”. What are the odds that the next track in a random playlist would be the sample source of the previous song? My mind is blown.

According to AskMe, the odds are 1 in 26 million or so for this particular scenario.

Attention board game geeks: Settlers of Catan

Every month at my apartment complex there is a “game night”. It’s hosted by this couple who work for a group called “Cares”, a non-profit that tries to build community in large apartment complexes. The idea behind Cares is that if you make the complex feel more like home the tenants will want to take better care of things and stay longer. That saves the landlord money.

We have a young married couple on site who run all the events. They’re very nice. My guess is the complex gives them a free or sharply discounted apartment in return for their services. I can see the point behind trying to build community in a 300 unit complex, although every time I go to a Cares event there are usually fewer than eight people and most of them are regulars like me who can only be coaxed from their apartments to play board games. The last couple times I’ve gone it’s been a total sausage party, 4-5 guys and occasionally a couple women playing Scrabble. Out of the three times I’ve gone in the last three months, we’ve played Risk once and Settlers of Catan twice. I’m new to Settlers of Catan, but it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played. It’s Chess meets Risk. Although there is no combat, it is very strategic and competitive. The basic idea is to get to ten victory points before anyone else. You start out building roads and villages and each village gives you one point and helps you to collect resources like ore, wood, sheep, timber, and clay every time the dice are rolled. These resources help you build or buy development cards. Like Chess, there are several ways to win, and as you play you will see the most popular strategic gambits: the race for the longest road (2 victory points), the race for the largest army (2 victory points), etc. Many people go all out for the development cards, which like Chance cards in Monopoly can often throw you some sort of bonus. For example, there is a card called “Monopoly” that allows you to strip all of one resource out of every player’s hand. The game itself is relatively new as board games go, having been created in 1997 by a small publisher, so many people have not heard of it. It will become one of those classic games, if it hasn’t already. It’s that good.

Poking around online, I stumbled across a free knock-off of Settlers of Catan called Sea3D that you can play over the Internet. It’s a direct translation of the game into digital form produced by Jason Fugate, a programmer at EA in Chicago. It even just looks like a board game on your computer since it uses 3D representations of the game pieces complete with wood grain. In addition to a fantastic iteration of Settlers, Fugate created a ladder ranking and online game matching system, so you can actually compete against players from all over the world. The game application allows you to host your own Settlers matches as well as join games hosted by other players. In some ways, I wish I hadn’t found this because I’ve spent several hours playing since last week. Last night I laid awake at two in the morning trying to figure out why my strategy using the sheep port didn’t pan out. I think I’m coming out too strong in the beginning which results in unwanted attention from my opponents who check me with the Robber and slow me down. The Robber is placed on a tile whenever someone rolls a 7 or plays a Soldier card. If the Robber is on one of your tiles he can keep you from producing resources until the piece is moved.

If you’re interested in playing The Settlers of Catan Sea3D is be a good way to start. It’s still more fun to play in person since you can enjoy the petty little rivalries and arguments that inevitably take place as players become frustrated watching their fortunes change.

Golden Age Music

The 1960’s was a golden age for popular music. It was a time where diverse musical influences bubbled out of the larger culture and melted together, especially black and white music. I don’t think you can say the same about any time since then. Today, due to cultural fragmentation music exists in isolated ghettos. With the exception of one-off experiments by the likes of Jay Z and Linkin Park or anomalies like Eminem, it’s all segregated. Sure, white kids listen to rap and hip hop, but no one is really listening to and grooving on the same stuff… cross-pollinating. I was reading Wikipedia about one of my favorite singers Lou Christie (born Lugee Alfredo Giovanni Sacco) whose biggest hit is “Lightnin’ Strikes”. It went on to describe a rumored interracial relationship between him and Diana Ross while they were on tour with Dick Clark. That would never happen these days. Everyone is too busy reinforcing cultural walls and stereotypes.

Five word movie reviews

I’ve watched a few movies since the weekend. I went on a rental spree at Blockbuster since the Netflix process requires too much of my patience, and these are a few things I’ve seen since then.

Four Brothers – These four guys can’t act.

Wedding Crashers – Owen and Vince are old.

Thumbsucker – Good movie. Great ensemble cast.