The Cost of Convenience

People are forwarding an email around the Internet, laughing about it. A lady hit “reply” when she meant to hit “forward,” and wrote some rather unpleasant things to the wrong person. I find it hard to laugh, because I’ve made similar mistakes, and the only thing that saved me is that I happened to make those mistakes with innocuous messages.

Granted, in this case the lady reveals a particularly ugly side of herself. But one big lesson to be learned is that convenience comes with a price. Every time we make something easy, we also make certain kinds of mistakes much easier than they were before. In the days of writing letters, we had to write the name on the envelope ourselves, look up the address and write it, etc., even if we were replying directly to a letter we’d received. It was still possible to put two letters in the wrong envelopes, but it wasn’t nearly as easy as it is today, when we can just click “reply” or “reply all” or “forward” and away it goes.

The next time someone shows you a dramatic new convenience, take time to think about what new kinds of mistakes you’ll be making soon.


Elliotte Rusty Harold (everyone’s favorite geek with three first names) just released his answer to Java XML APIs: XOM. I can’t help but laugh. Not because it’s not good, or not a good idea – at first glance, it looks very nice. I laugh because about ten years ago I was working with an API called XOM: the X/Open OSI-Abstract-Data Manipulation API.

Elliotte’s XOM certainly has a better acronym expansion: XML Object Model. Here’s hoping the API itself is as big an improvement over the original XOM.

Quicksilver hints

I don’t know what got me thinking about this todayperhaps it was the Yahoo headline Still No Sign of Fifth Harry Potter Book—but I went looking, and found the first hint I’ve seen about the release of Neal Stephenson’s next book, Quicksilver. Apparently it’s expanded to three books, the first of which will arrive at the end of July next year. (The other two are scheduled to appear at six-month intervals after that.)

It could still slip, of course, but the transformation into three novels rings true: shortly after the release of Cryptonomicon, Stephenson talked about his next book and said it was nearly finished, but that there would actually be several books in the loosely coupled series begun with Cryptonomicon. Since then, however, he’s been saying stuff like “ I have this book I want to finish, and I’m a long way from finishing it.” It’s been clear for a while that there was some sort of major change in direction for Quicksilver, so maybe this explains something of what happened.

“My power is made perfect in weakness”

My wife and I watched The Fellowship of the Ring last night, for the first time since we bought the DVD. I realized some things I hadn’t before.

Much is made of how Sting glows when orcs are near. But when they’re at Balin’s tomb and the attackers are approaching, Gandalf draws Glamdring with a flourish, and it doesn’t glow at all. That would’ve been such a simple detail to get right.

The only thing in the movie that I think is dead wrong is the portrayal of Galadriel. Perhaps the gift-giving scene (restored in the special extended edition) will serve to soften her somewhat … but I still don’t see the point in making her seem so menacing. In the books, the characters’ fear of her came from a realization of her power, combined with the almost irresistible allure of her beauty, kindness, and hospitality. They feared that their judgment was being clouded.

The one place in the book where she does (perhaps) take on a distinctly menacing tone is when Frodo offers her the ring. That was overdone in the film, but at least there it’s just a matter of degree. She does, for whatever reason, deliberately try to give Frodo (and the reader) a glimpse of what the ring would do in her hands, and what she would do as its bearer.

Thinking about that scene, I realized something about its significance. Tolkien made if very clear that he hated allegory, but that’s not to say he disliked books with moral or spiritual lessons; he merely felt that explicit allegory left the readers feeling that they’d been preached to. Tolkien’s Christian values do show through in The Lord of the Rings, and Galadriel’s temptation is a good example. It doesn’t work as allegory … Galadriel doesn’t have enough in common with Jesus to see an allegory of his temptation there. But the episode is one of a series in which we see powerful people undone – or in fear of their undoing – by the ring. Isildur. Gandalf. Boromir. Aragorn.

The point, I think, is that Frodo is suited to the task before him precisely because he is weak. He neither seeks power nor does he have power that the ring would seek to exploit. Middle Earth’s best hope lies in entrusting the ring to someone who is morally strong, but physically nearly powerless.

The greatest pop song ever recorded

I usually scorn statements like that. When people ask me about my favorite movie, for example, I usually can only narrow it down to 3 or 4, and my favorite song or band depends on my mood. But today, eating lunch in Jason’s Deli, I heard Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, and I was reminded that I believe it to be greatest pop song ever recorded.

On first listenand second, third, and beyondit sounds like a catchy pop song, and little more. But I’ve been hearing it for 25 years now, and I’m still hearing things in it that I’ve never heard before. It’s simple in structure, but complex in the details and in its influences (e.g., its quotation from Horace Silver’s Song for My Father). I’ve never heard a song so perfectly crafted, where everything—the words, the music and the arrangement, the singing, and the musical performancesall work together so seamlessly to support each other and tell the same story. Even the guitar solo is whiny, bitter, and desperate, for pete’s sake.

The lyrics are typical Steely Dan: skeletal, allusive, cryptic and ambiguous. It’s just one side of a conversation. But the music fills in the gaps. We hear the anguish, the backpedaling and saving face, the desperation and the pathetic attempts to hide it, the heart in the throat, and the frightened anger. And at the end, we hear the door slam and the deflated resignation. It’s all there, and it’s a whole package. It’s so perfectly disguised and devoted toward the service of the song that most listeners never notice.

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