Shannon and I drove down to southern New Jersey last night from Boston — now that we’re married, we’ve started with the Official Splitting Of The Holidays lifestyle, and since Thanksgiving was with my family, Christmas is with hers. We got in around midnight, and settled into the living room with her parents only to discover that they were watching Jason X, a flick that turns out to be a serious contender for the title of Worst Movie Ever. For those who aren’t unfortunate enough to have been afflicted with Jason X before, let me give you the short version. (Warning: if you actually care about having the plot of this turd of a movie ruined for you, don’t read the following paragraph.)

Jason Voorhees — the man behind the hockey mask who terrorized summer campers throughout the early 80s, and was finally killed only to be dug up and reanimated as a zombie by a bolt of lightning — is cryogenically frozen by the government as punishment for his murderous crimes. In the year 2455, a group of students stumble upon his frozen corpse, take it on an interplanetary space ride with them, and decide to thaw it. Of course, this sets the stage for death and mayhem in space, and ultimately lead to a showdown between Jason and an android who has been transformed by one of the teens into a terminatress (but only after he first transformed her into his sex toy). She blows Jason’s leg off, then his arm, and ultimately his head… but nanotechnology on the spaceship rebuilds Jason into an indestructible killing cyborg. After a few tension-filled scenes of barely-clad teenagers running in fear from the slowly-walking, machete-wielding cyborg, the students are rescued by another ship. (In the course of events, the terminatress android gets decapitated, and her student-cum-lover spends the rest of the movie cradling her still-talking head in his arms and stroking her hair. Really.) As things happen, though, one unfortunate schmuck is left floating in outer space and wrestling with Jason, and manages to force him to reenter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up. The movie ends with a teenage couple’s makeout session getting interrupted by “a shooting star,” and them deciding to investigate as the viewer sees a clip of Jason’s now-metallic mask sinking to the bottom of a lake… setting the scene for another installment of this painful series of movies.

Honestly, I wish I was making any of this up. I’d imagine that Jason X is the kind of movie that makes aspiring L.A. screenwriters pissed that they can’t get their scripts read.

Oh, great — two more government agencies appear to have been lapping at the warrantless search bowl for the past three years. According to David Kaplan over at U.S. News and World Report, the FBI and the Department of Energy have been performing radiation monitoring at over one hundred sites in and around the Washington, D.C. area, in many cases going onto private property without warrants in order to set up the surveillance equipment. It also looks like, at times, they’ve extended the program into Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas, New York, and Seattle, and that many of the people who have been caught up in the surveillance have been U.S. citizens.

Seriously, what does it take for the people of this country to start caring about how power-hungry our government has become?

A little learning experience this morning, complements of an hour of my life I’ll never get back: if you look at Internet Explorer 6 even slightly askance, you’ll turn on its “Quirks Mode” rendering engine, and screw up your carefully-designed website in ways you can’t even begin to imagine.

The full story: about two weeks ago, I found myself debugging a pretty complex set of new procedures I added to a database-driven app I’ve written in my lab. At some point, I wanted to see the database query that was being generated by a subroutine, so I added some code that wrote the query, inside HTML comment tags, to the top of the generated page (so that it would be viewable in the page’s source but not on the rendered page). With that, I was able to figure out the problems I was seeing, fixed ‘em all, and cleaned up after myself. Nearly all my programming takes place on my Powerbook, with Firefox and Safari as my browsers; testing out the pages that were affected by the subroutine, everything looked great, so I was happy.

Now flash-forward to today: as I’m sitting in clinic using the Windows 2000 and Internet Explorer 6 machines that adorn our workroom, I go to my app and notice how badly everything renders. Literally, things that should be centered are flush to the left, text sizes seem to be randomly distributed throughout the range of huge to itty-bitty, and blocks of content are overlapping each other willy-nilly. I grab my laptop, start debugging the layout of the page, and can’t for the life of me figure out why some things work perfectly and others don’t, and naturally start searching Google Groups for answers. I didn’t find much that applied to what I was seeing other than a few posts that mentioned IE’s Quirks Mode, so I viewed the source of the page and realized that the one thing I had neglected to clean up was the debugging code I put in, and it was still being output at the top of the page’s source. Apparently, that’s all it takes to activate IE’s quirks-based rendering engine, because once I removed that debugging string, everything returned to normal in IE 6.

I’m posting this as much as a reminder to myself as for other people; never assume that your debugging code is totally silent, and never ever expect IE to exhibit predictable behavior.

Since I pointed yesterday to Bruce Schneier’s piece on Bush’s use of the NSA for domestic spying, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also send you his way to read today’s piece on what the spying means for privacy rights, and for the idea of Presidential power. It feels to me like nobody’s stated the issues more clearly and forcefully:

The result is that the president’s wartime powers, with its armies, battles, victories, and congressional declarations, now extend to the rhetorical “War on Terror”: a war with no fronts, no boundaries, no opposing army, and — most ominously — no knowable “victory.” Investigations, arrests and trials are not tools of war. But according to the Yoo memo, the president can define war however he chooses, and remain “at war” for as long as he chooses.

This is indefinite dictatorial power. And I don’t use that term lightly; the very definition of a dictatorship is a system that puts a ruler above the law. In the weeks after 9/11, while America and the world were grieving, Bush built a legal rationale for a dictatorship. Then he immediately started using it to avoid the law.

This is, fundamentally, why this issue crossed political lines in Congress. If the president can ignore laws regulating surveillance and wiretapping, why is Congress bothering to debate reauthorizing certain provisions of the Patriot Act? Any debate over laws is predicated on the belief that the executive branch will follow the law.

Schneier’s piece is chock-full of legal analysis and precedent that demonstrates how illegal the wiretapping efforts of the Bush Administration are, and provides tons of links to other peoples’ analysis of the program and the Administration’s stated justifications for it. One link, to Scott Rosenberg’s view over at Salon, is also worth a read, for the first postscript as much as for the rest of it.

Poynter Online noted yesterday that (the companion website to the Boston Globe) has hit the milestone of one million registered users. The blurb also provided a few demographic breakdowns, such as the fact that 67% of registered users live in New England, but it disappoints me that they didn’t provide what I think is the most important demographic — that somewhere around 3.4% of the registered user accounts are me. (Seriously: how many people actually register on news websites as themselves? How about when the registration process requires a gender, a home zip code, a household income, and employment information? I’d be willing to bet that variously knows me as an impoverished septugenarian student, a wealthy pre-teen lawyer, and a middle-aged, middle-class architect…)

Add my voice to the chorus recommending that everyone read Bruce Schneier’s essay about the Bush Administration’s illegal use of the National Security Agency for domestic wiretapping. If you haven’t been keeping up to speed on this story in the past week, Schneier’s piece will catch you up, and help you understand how far across the line the Bush Administration has strayed.

Am I the only one who has been getting more and more frustrated with the inability to tell what Amazon itself sells (and conversely, what one of their partners sells) until you’re way too far into your search? Over the past two or three weeks, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on Amazon, and I have yet to find a way to perform a search for something (say, iPod accessories) and see, in the resulting list, which products will actually be sold and shipped by Amazon. For example, follow this link to the CD player category and tell me how you know which products are being sold by Amazon — you can’t, at least without clicking on each and every one of them and hunting for the “Availability” section.

To me, the difference between buying stuff from Amazon and from one of their partners is pretty big. For one, my Amazon Prime membership only entitles me to free two-day shipping on products sold and shipped by Amazon itself, so by enticing me into a Prime membership, Amazon has given me a tangible interest in preferring them over their partners. In addition, Amazon’s own listings have reasonably reliable in-stock information, and if I have any problems, I’d be dealing directly with Amazon for the replacement or return. Contrast that with my experience with a few of Amazon’s partners over the past year, partners who couldn’t care less about my Prime membership, who have generally unreliable in-stock information, and who make it variably difficult to contact them when there’s a problem with my order.

In the end, I’ve found myself visiting other online retailers a bit more this year than I did last year; the free shipping promotions most ecommerce stores are offering during the holiday season take some of the value out of my Amazon Prime membership, and the difficulty of figuring out who’ll be fulfilling my order takes a bit more value out of a visit to Amazon. Maybe they’ll figure this out over the next year, and Christmas 2006 will be a different story.

Wow — after decades and decades of hunting, it looks like scientists at Penn State have identified at least one genetic mutation that accounts for the difference between black and white skin color. (Washington Post coverage of the paper is here.) Even at the very scientific medical school I went to, it was an oft-repeated statement that skin color had no genetic basis, but that always struck me as an odd thing to say; what the hell else but genes would account for that fundamental a heritable difference between two groups of people? It’s nice to know that, once again, the gene theory won out in the end!

After nearly a year of using TextMate, I have to say two things: it’s a unbelievably fantastic application, and the folks over at MacWorld are nuts for choosing TextWrangler over it for an Editors’ Choice Award. If you’re writing code on a Mac, and using anything but TextMate to do it, you’re missing out.

What a great use for Ask MetaFilter: a guy found a digital camera in New York City, and in an effort to find its rightful owner, he posted a few of the pictures to Flickr and then penned a post asking for help identifying the people in the images. A Flickr user has already identified the restaurant; let’s see how long this takes!

Update: looks like it isn’t going to work out, mostly because a few idiot members of the website Digg started complaining that the person who found the camera was infringing copyrights and otherwise violating the people’s privacy by putting the photos online. It’s amazing how idiotic people can be.

In the Atlanta airport, now: I’m sitting in my gate, waiting for my plane to board, and the teenage girl at the end of the row of seats is not only listening to her CD player at a volume that makes the music audible to half of the gate’s occupants, but is also loudly (and badly) singing along as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.

Odd behavior, that.

(Update: as the gate area has become more crowded, she has chosen to double her volume. Odder behavior, that.)

Hey Old Navy, Gap, and Banana Republic: Mike Rundle has a message for you. I gotta tell you, I’ve now helped two people move to Mac laptops in the past year, and at least one of them has since told me that he has essentially stopped shopping on your websites, given that you don’t give a crap about supporting the default browser on his machine. Alas.

The thing that makes me happy with the entire brouhaha over gay marriage is that it’s continuing to expose as total crap the notion that the institution of marriage should form the basis for granting hundreds of rights to specific people. (You know — a married couple gets to inherit each others’ possessions, make decisions for each other, gain custody of children, that sort of thing.)

For example, take the Manhattan Supreme Court Appellate decision from two days ago, saying that gay couples have no fundamental right to marriage. The panel of judges came to that conclusion after, in part, finding that marriage laws are based in their ability to ensure the production of children; their words are as follows:

Marriage promotes sharing of resources between men, women and the children that they procreate; provides a basis for the legal and factual assumption that a man is the father of his wife’s child via the legal presumption of paternity plus the marital expectations of monogamy and fidelity; and creates and develops a relationship between parents and child based on real, everyday ties. It is based on the presumption that the optimal situation for child rearing is having both biological parents present in a committed, socially esteemed relationship. The law assumes that a marriage will produce children and affords benefits based on that assumption.

No matter how you feel about this notion, if one takes it as true, why then should childless heterosexual couples be afforded any of the rights of marriage? Why should the courts deem them worthy of the title, and confer upon them those things that it excludes from homosexual couples simply because the latter cannot pair up to produce children? Parse it even further — what about couples that marry, intend to procreate, but find themselves unable to do so? Should their marriage certificate be revoked?

The remainder of that paragraph goes on:

It sets up heterosexual marriage as the cultural, social and legal ideal in an effort to discourage unmarried childbearing and to encourage sufficient marital childbearing to sustain the population and society; the entire society, even those who do not marry, depend on a healthy marriage culture for this latter, critical, but presently undervalued, benefit. Marriage laws are not primarily about adult needs for official recognition and support, but about the well-being of children and society, and such preference constitutes a rational policy decision.

Why, then, do married couples get to inherit each others’ belongings well after their children have left the nest? Why don’t we make each and every right that our various levels of governments grant married couples contingent on the production of the first child, and then terminate ‘em all as soon as a couple’s youngest child reaches the age of 18? Reason: because this is all complete horseshit, an attempt to perpetuate a social custom under the guise of something with greater meaning. Until we as a society can separate the notion of a couple making a commitment to each other from the idea that that commitment has some larger (mostly religious) meaning, we’ll continue to see dubious justifications like this coming out of our courts, and continue to commit injustices against those who happen to make a commitment to someone of the same gender.

If you’re curious about just how bad the American health insurance system has become, wander over to Blurbomat and read about Jon, Heather, and Leta being rejected because, you know, they actually have needed health care in the past. Fortunately, there are a lot of great suggestions in the ensuing comment thread about how people like them — and like a whole slew of others — can go about actually getting reasonable insurance.

I wish that whenever I cancelled a subscription to something on moral or ideological grounds, the move generated an Associate Press wire news article

I’m jealous of the people who’ll be able to (try to) go to tomorrow’s Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals hearing in Gilmore v. Gonzales; to me, it really is one of those court cases that might define liberty in America.

For those who don’t recognize the case title, Gilmore v. Gonzales is John Gilmore’s lawsuit against the government for being banned from flying without providing some form of identification. It was originally filed in 2002 (then named Gilmore v. Ashcroft), and was dismissed by the U.S. District Court in northern California on jurisdictional grounds; so far, the government has refused to even disclose the text of the law requiring identification for airline travel, and has requested sealing of all government evidence in Gilmore’s case. (The Ninth Circuit denied the motion to seal evidence, the DOJ asked it to reconsider, and the court has yet to rule on that motion.) To me, the notion that we have a government which claims that there are laws by which we must abide but which we cannot read is pretty offensive… we’ll see how the Ninth Circuit feels.

Today, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, an attempt to demolish a 20-story building failed to topple the structure, instead causing it to sink into its own basement. (A QuickTime movie of the whole thing is here.) The building, the Zip Feed Mill Tower, is thought to be the tallest in all of South Dakota; a weblogger, Hoby Brenner, has already posted to Flickr a bunch of pictures of the now-tilting structure. It’s a bit frightening that a building that tall can tilt that much without just crumbling to the ground!

The best sign that I’m getting older is that today, rather than savor the first real snowfall we’ve had this year in Boston, I immediately started to dread the endless shovelling and tiresome parking battles that begin today. Last winter, I had to wake up an hour early most mornings so that I could go outside, clean off one or two cars and shovel them out of the snow, come back inside and shower, and then frequently head back outside to discover that a snow plow had buried us behind a new wall of snow — not fun at all. And since I live in a little community with minimal to no on-street parking, even the ethic of not taking a parking place that someone painstakingly shoveled out for themselves sometimes goes out the window, meaning that I also spent a good deal of time trying to find the person whose car was snuggled tightly into my spot. The forecast calls for even more snow tomorrow morning, which makes me want to crawl into bed and come out in April.

me at 3

Shannon and I spent a huge chunk of this afternoon cleaning up our house, and I found a cache of pictures my grandmother sent along to me from her collection. The one above is one of them, and I really like it! I’m not sure why I like it so much, though — maybe it’s the total bowl-cut, or the ringer-T (of which I still own about a dozen!), or the brooding look I’ve got going on. In any event, there I am at the tender age of three, about fifteen years from figuring out that that hairstyle wasn’t gonna cut it.

Wow, did I really disappear from the web for the past week and a half? Sorry ‘bout that; between finishing a push to get a new feature set added to one of my lab applications, spending the Thanksgiving weekend with the family, taking a quick day-and-a-half trip to our nation’s capitol, and getting ready for an upcoming conference, I’ve been a bit underwater. But in that time, I’ve learned a slew about the object models of both Javascript and PHP, taught my two-year-old nephew to say “queso dot COM!” whenever he sees me, stood on the spot in Union Station where I nearly screwed up the earliest days of my relationship with Shannon, and remade enough PowerPoint slides to fill my quota for the next decade. And I get to stay in town this weekend, for the first time in what feels like twenty years, so I’m looking forward to getting back to work here!