APRIL 1999 Part 1
I am, it seems, a sexist swine. Got an ANGRY letter today from someone who took massive red throbbing UMBRAGE to my description of tropical fish: so thin dumb & lovely they could be the trophy wives of rich old men. I was accused of Machismo, and a retraction or apology was DEMANDED. My answer was, in essence: No. I was unable to glean the exact nature of the complaint, but I guess my sin was suggesting that it is possible - theoretically, of course - for women to be dumb. It’s interesting how this works nowadays. It is permissible, even laudable, to write a column lamenting how rich older men dump their dutiful wives and families for thin fluffy Chanel-soaked arm candy. But it is not permissible for a male columnist to point out that some gorgeous tropical fish have the same attributes that make a woman attractive to a shallow, gonad-driven man.

The only satisfaction these episodes give me is the knowledge that every little lingo-tyro is inevitably purged by someone with an even purer definition of the truth. Petty orthodoxies spin inward, not outward. I always smile when I see the T-shirt that reads “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Rosa Luxembourg, I think. Well, Ms. L, you won’t have a choice in the matter. Even if you get exactly the revolution you want, it will soon give way to the Anti-Dance Brigade, who themselves will harbor a secret delight in humming. And they will be purged by those who insist that Humming wastes time that could be spent building the future. And so on, and so on, until all the interesting people are in the gulag and the brutes & morons are running the show.

So no, I’m not going to apologize, because it would encourage the end of Western Civilization. Not that it needs any help.

Another warm day, but a bleary one. Slept poorly. Had dreams where I was slated for execution - some sort of involuntary euthenasia. The nurse came in and said it was time to fill out the paperwork - wills, disposition of estate, etc. - and I protested that I wasn’t allowed a drink. I really, really wanted a big frosty Bourbon at that moment. But apparently I was able to opt out of whatever situation I’d gotten myself into, for I soon found myself packing frantically for a trip to Cozumel. I was late for the plane, late for the cab, late for everything, stowing shorts and flipflops in my Star-Tribune bag.

Woke with a mood of sullen gloom. Walked the dog, went to work, thentook the dog to the vet for his annual shots. Was horrified to learn that he’s hit 60 pounds. That’s a six-pound gain in two months. How? Has he been ordering pizza while I’m out? It’s possible; the phone has the number for Davanni’s programmed into the speed dial. He knows the word pizza, and should I say it around dinner time he goes to the window and watches for cars. No, that doesn’t explain it. Even if he had an Astro voice, the Microsoft Phone’s Voice-Command System (all hail Microsoft!) would not recognize Rizza. It can’t be the lack of exercize; he gets over an hour of walks per day. It’s not the treats, because we’ve been out of dog biscuits for a while. It’s not the Jell-O. (I let him lick the cup when I’m done with my mid-Hawaii 5-0 Jell-O Ration.) Perhaps it’s all the leftovers my wife feeds him. She can’t resist that beseeching look. If I gave her that pathetic expression, she’d laugh, but when the dog puts on that woeful look he gets a pound of scraps.

No, can’t be that, either. Wonder what the problem is.

Heard a fascinating bit on NPR this afternoon: speech recognition for dogs. Several developers are working on devices that translate BARK BARK into speech. I’m suspicious, and wary; as much as I want to know what my Jasper is saying, I get the basic idea already, and would be saddened to know that the bulk of his conversation consists of FEED ME and WE GO OUT PEE SMELL NOW. A few software designers have created devices that translate particular timbres into common basic phrases, but it seems a subjective matter - i.e., some human has to decide what particular barks mean, and in the absence of a qualified Doolittle it’s all guesswork. But the radio interview had a moment that nearly made me gasp - the dog was barking, and his collar-CPU said GO OUT NOT A BAD DOG GO OUT GO OUT in a robotic voice. The developer explained that the dog had been a tough one to housetrain, and had been told that he was a bad dog when he relieved himself inside.

Okay: let’s grant that this was an accurate transcription of the barks. On one hand it was immensely sad - the dog was a fully-grown adult, but still felt it necessary to insist he was not a bad puppy. Would the dog spend his whole life pleading to pee, making an argument against what it believed its owner assumed it to be? But on the other hand, what if this was what the dog was saying? It’s not the sort of thing you expect your dog to be thinking. There’s a danger in this; the relationship between people and dogs can change if we find out what they’re really thinking. But it will change for the better.

When I got home, Jasper said nothing. As usual. I get a welcome that’s enthusiastic and thorough and silent.

London has already sprang forward into Daylight Savings Time. So I learned tonight when the BBC called to do the weekly interview. I was sitting at the kitchen table, talking with my wife, having given exactly 15 seconds to what I would say on the radio. They usually call in advance to ask what my topic will be, and I grab for the first idea that bobs to the surface. “And what will you say about this?” they always ask, and I always reply I haven’t the slightest idea. A few minutes before they call I scrawl some notes, but you don’t want to deliver a monologue. It sounds too pat and prepared, and if the host wants to interject it can throw you off. Best to wing it. And since that’s the case, I wung it an hour earlier than usual. This time, however, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to say.
I suppose if the BBC broadcast here in the states, and I knew they were hearing the show in, say, Fargo, I’d get the usual flop sweat, but it almost seems like an imaginary radio show to me. These sharp people with charming accents call up, and we chat, and I go back to work. Tonight I discussed Easter Candy, and performed an experiment in Peeps Deformation: I dropped the collected works of Julia Child on a Peeps chick to study whether or not it would keep its shape or remain squashed. This is what happens when you’re in the kitchen and shoved onstage: you grab any props you can. There were Peeps, there was the Child book, and if some insomniac in Glasgow got a laugh out of it, I’d be . . . surprised. But happy.

A storm in the margins tonight; I can feel some sort of mean stern weather muttering in the distance. Anything but snow, please. I’ll take a month of rain. Just no snow. Talked to my Dad tonight, and parts of NoDak were hit with a foot of new snow - true cruelty at this time of the year. When the calendar turns over to April, something in the back of your mind cries Ollie Ollie In Free from snow. Tornadoes, yes. Rain, sure. But 12 inches of the white stuff makes the heart sink like a hot coal through a fresh drift of snow. Enough, you think. We get the point.

Watched "The Spanish Prisoner." There is only one problem with a David Mamet movie, and that's David Mamet. Visually, the movies are nothing special; the plots are always smart and sharp. They're cold - watching and listening to his movies is like gargling diamonds. Keen dialogue, but it's always run through the Mametizer, a device that drains inflection and natural rhythms from the speech. I pity anyone who picks up a Mamet movie without knowing that the author is renowned for his, uh, unique style of dialogue; you'd just think that everyone is a really, really bad actor.
Example. Here are two film noir characters, a man and a woman, ordering coffee:
A (Male): Cuppa joe.
B (female): Make that two. (Cigarette drag.)
A: No sugar. (Looks at B.)
B: (Exhales.) Fine by me.

Here's two Mamet characters ordering coffee:
A: I'll have -
B: Coffee is good, don't you think? They say it's the best thing in life.
A: I'll have a regular. Black.
B: That's what they say.
A: Black coffee. And you? I -
B: Latte.
A: I don't mean to -
B: French.
A: French.
B: It's a French word. I took French in high school. I expect everyone did. Silly word, isnt it.
A: I - silly. Yes. It's -
B: People should just say coffee if that's what they want.
A: I don't - I don't mean to presume. Coffee?
B: (long, bemused look.) Coffee it is, Mr. Ross. You don't mind if I call you that.
A: I don't -
B: Some do.
A: They do.
B: They do.
Repeat until the mechanistic aspect of contemporary conversation is established beyond a doubt.

You get used to it after 20 minutes, and by then you're hooked on the plot. Or at least I am. My wife's opinion: eh. But "The Spanish Prisoner" is a classic Sting movie, Hitchcockian (of course, all movies with an innocent man drawn into a Web of Intrigue are Hitchcockian) and tautly executed. The hero, however, seemed to be doing an impression of an ambulatory Charles Krauthammer. The casting of other roles had some bright spots: Ricky Jay, master of playing cards; Steve Martin, who seemed to be auditioning for the same role in a better movie; and a woman whose last name was "Pidgeon," and surely is related to Walter: you could see it in her eyes. Also the Married with Children guy, whose name escapes me - Ed Something. He was good in this film, for what he had to do, but that doesn't make up for seven years of sneering, goggle-eyed crapola buffoonery on Fox.
But, what would?

Okay, okay: I am the most credulous moron in town, guaranteed. But I have an excuse. Friday I wrote about an NPR piece on dog-speech recognition, and many Bleat readers (including one whose e-mail I lost in a system crash - sorry) gently reminded me that the piece aired on April Fool's Day. In retrospect, it was of course a prank, but let me tell you why I fell for it:
1. It was indistinguishable from every other NPR light feature - the affectless voice of the interviewer, the carefully selected ambient sound, the earnest cultured expert, the edgy-voiced Wired contributor reading his review, the twee self-congradulatory tone of the whole enterprise. In shape and sound it was just like a dead-serious piece on a man who's spending his career recording the phlegmy hacks of Appalachian coal miners for a Library of Congress project to document the history of industrial lung disease.
2. I did have a suspicion - a small dim twinge of doubt - when the Wired writer gave an URL for a dog-speech site. The URL was typically interminable, but they always give long URLS on radio as if everyone's sitting there with pen and paper eager to jot something down. At work I tried what I thought I remembered - caninespeech.com - and the browser said "...contacting caninespeech.com." Ah hah! Then it gave me an error: connection refused. When I tried the URL at home it said that no DNS existed for caninespeech.com. Whassup wit'dat? as the kids say. Well, I don't know. There is a long & involved explanation involving proxies and firewalls; don't ask. Suffice to say I thought it was real.
Well, I've learned. No more falling for pranks and hoaxes anymore.

Sunday: got up early, watched for Easter Bunny; must have scared him off, since there was no candy in the house this morning. It was a lovely day, and it felt like spring had pushed down roots into the cool dirt for good. My wife raked and I took down the Christmas lights. I woke hideously late, having stayed up later than ever: I got stuck to the sofa last night, pasted flat by the insomniac wind, and couldn't move. Compounding matters was the time change, meaning that it was an hour later - I winced when I tiptoed to bed and saw the clocks. But at least I changed them all. There are 14 clocks in the house. Correction: there is one actual clock and 13 timepieces embedded in various devices. All the computers reset themselves - although the PC had to tell me that it did it, and would I mind checking to see if it was right? The Macs made the switch and kept it to themselves, except for the hapless Basement Mac; it has a battery problem, and thinks it's 1956. It's disconcerting to do a get-info on a file and discover it thinks it was born in the UNIVAC era.

Speaking of computer contrusions: I spent Saturday afternoon fumbling blindly through another web-construction problem. I wanted to make a map that would show a picture of a building when you moused over its position. After much trial, error & bad language I accomplished this, only to find that it works in IE4 but not Netscape. My fault, I'm sure; I believe there's DMTHL, floating boxes and other voodoo involved, and the code involved is both jumbo-sized mumbo to me. (The page is for my upcoming and not-at-all-hotly-awaited Fargo site; experts curious to see how I screwed up can go here.)

All else: the Gallery of Regrettable Food 2.0 has its usual Monday update. My apologies.

Greetings from the plague house. My wife has a cold - one of her typical bugs that never really turns into a cold, just makes her sleepy and achy for four days - and I think I have it too. Of course, I always think I have everything. This morning I noticed a crust of dried milk around the new container of 0% homogenized, and for the rest of the morning I was convinced I had ingested Old Milk, which would lead to food poisoning. I've thrown away bottles of salsa if the pop-up lid didn't pop-up with an audible sound.

Anyway, I feel sleepy and achy. Took a nap this evening, and get whapping the snooze bar; it felt so good to slumber with the wind and rain roaring outside the window. Then I realized that since my wife was out of sorts, I'd have to walk the dog tonight. So out into the wind and rain. It's a Rule: your desire to end the walk as quickly as possible is directly proportional to the dog's inability to squat & deliver. We were walking through the woods, alone, along the swollen creek, and the rain had washed away all the wondrous and helpful poop-triggers dogs seek. He was like a blind man on hands and knees feeling for the cold moist belly of a toilet, and finding only bricks, sandpaper, concrete blocks. Jasper headed up a hill, nose running up some odorous seam; I followed, slipping on the muddy bank, poked in the eyes and nose by tree branches. I was listening to the Mische Broadcast on KSTP, thinking of the days when I used to follow Tommy's program; I could see him in the studio, I could see myself in the old studio, doing the show. Seems like a million years ago. Ah hah: the dog has found the spot. He stops - squats - and a car roars around the corner, destroying his concentration. Jasper walks on. The wind increases. It's 9:20; at the time, I'd be making the turn where 35W intersects with Interstate 94. Clyde the Producer does the weather. Sounds like Clyde has a cold. There's one going around.

We cross the street. Jasper finds a lawn fully illuminated by someone's front window, and in full view of the people within, he delivers. Scoop. Back home.

Paw drying time. Some dogs are shy about their paws; touching them is an unexpected and unwanted intimacy. Jasper always reacts like a minister who's had a parishioner put a hand down his pants. But I just did the floors, and I'm not going to have four-toed tracks all over. (Previous versions of canids had five toes. I learned that from the X-Files we watched last night. That's about all I learned, other than what Garak from Deep Space Nine looks like without makeup.) Inside. No rope games tonight; plague has hit and we are weary.

My wife is in bed and the dog is on the sofa. If I feel like this tomorrow I will probably go into the office and write a column, hoping for that late-afternoon surge of inspiration. I'm supposed to go to the Midwest Petroleum Jobber's Convention tomorrow night - the first real sign of spring - but I may just have lunch with Dad & brother-in-law on Wednesday. Experience teaches me that they want to make a straight line from the supper to the blackjack tables, and I don't want to intrude. Last year I stayed for all of half an hour. (It was rainy.) The year before, I now recall, I went for lunch, for the Massive Buffet, and sat with Dad and some well-weathered old oilmen from the Dakotas; it was a raw day. The year before that we all went to the dinner, but Mom was around then. Good dinner, but the testimonials and awards (for such things as the cleanest restroom in the territory. Really!) are less than compelling. The year before that I met Mom in the cocktail lounge for coffee. The year before that . . .

It goes back 20 years. Ever since I came to Minneapolis the family has showed up at the Bloomington Radisson for the Midwest Petroleum Jobbers Convention. Every year I forget about it; every year it rolls around again, I think: of course. And lately I think: again? A year gone, already?

As I've said before, dogs know not the accumulation of time. It is their greatest failing, and their greatest blessing. They know the now.

And now I am finished with this for the day. +