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My Archives: December 2004

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Rewiring Is Fun
Posted by CKL @ 09:42 AM PST

We saw GrooveLily's Striking 12 last night and absolutely loved it. The run has been extended through January 8th at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, so if you're around in the next two weeks, make some time to go see it!

What is it? Well... the tagline for the show is "A Rewired Version of The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen." It's kind of like Patrick Stewart's one-man show of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, but with three people, more music, and a hipper attitude. It's also a little bit like Rent, what with all the New Year's angst and serendipity. It's hard to describe. Just go see it. You can thank me later.

In fact, GrooveLily the band defies any standard description. There's a drummer (Gene), a keyboard player (Brendan), and an electric violinist (Valerie). They play original songs that are witty, emotional, and true, but not easily pigeonholed into one genre. Their website tries to explain thusly:

Imagine a drag race: in one car, Madonna, Dennis Miller, Sting and Randy Newman. In the other, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Hornsby and Steely Dan. GrooveLily is the music playing on both radios: smart pop with electric violin, keyboards and drums.

I wish they could come up with a more concise blurb, but even this one sells them short. "Smart pop" barely scratches the surface. I mean, hell, "Weird Al" Yankovic is "smart pop." And I wouldn't be surprised if Herbalife is already selling sugar-free, low-carb "smart pops" that help preschoolers learn algebra through hypnosis while they sleep.


And don't you mess around with Google
Posted by CKL @ 08:45 AM PST
"Google is blocking searches launched by Santy.A, a new Internet worm that targets servers running phpBB, a popular electronic bulletin board software package, according to a statement from the company. Without any native ability to scan for vulnerable computers, Google's action halted Santy.A's spread, according to antivirus companies."
-- PC World

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

DRM! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.
Posted by CKL @ 12:10 PM PST
Driving to work this morning, I heard a news report about how the San Jose Library is now offering audio books for download through their web site. Cool, I thought. Then they mentioned how you could use portable mp3 players to play the audio files, and they would "expire" after three weeks. How are they enforcing that? I thought.

I should have known: "digital rights management" (DRM), using Microsoft's Windows Media Audio (WMA) and yet another software application you need to install just to play these damn files.

I can't say it any better than Cory Doctorow already has, so I'll just quote him:

The same thing happened to a lot of people I know who used to rip their CDs to WMA. [Microsoft] sold them software that produced smaller, better-sounding rips that the MP3 rippers, but you also fixed it so that the songs you ripped were device-locked to their PCs. What that meant is that when they backed up their music to another hard-drive and reinstalled their OS (something that the spyware and malware wars has made more common than ever), they discovered that after they restored their music that they could no longer play it. The player saw the new OS as a different machine, and locked them out of their own music.

There is no market demand for this "feature." None of your customers want you to make expensive modifications to your products that make backing up and restoring even harder. And there is no moment when your customers will be less forgiving than the moment that they are recovering from catastrophic technology failures.

In the same talk, he goes on to make the general point that there is no market demand for a media format that does less than other formats. No one wants DVDs to have more restrictions on how you can play them. The only reason that consumers need to put up with these wacky "intellectual property" runarounds is because of content monopolies protected by old laws that haven't kept up with new technologies.

I refer you to Niven's 9th Law: Ethics change with technology. And so does business. It will happen, sooner or later, whether Hollywood and the RIAA and TV networks like it or not. Think of it as evolution in action.


Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Posted by CKL @ 06:22 PM PST
Further proof of the insanity of modern art:
There's an artist ... who kills CATS, mice, doves, RABBITS, and other animals, mutilates their bodies, and then takes their photographs. She's on exhibit, among other places, at the Wetterling Gallery in Sweden. She has taken the top halves of five white mice and made them into finger puppets. She beat a cat to death with a stick. And this is called art. This is not only inhumane, but morally reprehensible.
-- djkitty
I made the mistake of viewing a photo from the exhibit, of a black cat's severed head and tail attached to a vase, and now I feel sick. I wonder if the artist (who will remain unnamed here; no publicity for you) had pets as a child. I'm guessing not.

Human perception is easily warped. Our concepts of "other" are shaped by many things, not the least of which is childhood experiences. Think "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" from South Pacific and "Children Will Listen" from Into the Woods. If you're immersed in it while growing up, you think it's normal.

DeeAnn and I have discussed this before: what constitutes a person? Our cats are part of our family. They're people. Generally, I define "person" as "a sentient entity with whom I can have meaningful communications." (Important: that's can, not necessarily do.) I'm not debating the nature of intelligence or playing Turing Test games; if something seems like a person, for practical purposes of my interaction with that something, it is a person. I'm only as smart as my brain.

Anyway. To me, both cats and humans are people, so the death of a cat is tantamount to the death of a human being, and thus carries the same moral weight. But, as cold as it may sound, how much I care about a particular person depends on a variety of factors. Do I know the person? Do I like the person? I'd care if a member of my family died, but Scott Peterson? Not quite so much.

I didn't know the dead cat we found in the road, but I cried for him. I didn't know the Jews at Auschwitz either.

Back to the original topic. The gallery in question has this to say for itself:

Is it permissible to kill animals in the name of art?

... One can, of course, choose to think that it is always wrong to kill animals in the name of art. That nothing can defend [this artist]. But if you feel more doubtful, we would very much like to explain [the artist's] reasoning, and how we at Wetterling Gallery argue when we exhibit her art.

Art arouses thoughts and poses questions that are necessary. [Necessary? Says who? -C] [The artist's] beautiful pictures are frightening in the same way that many other beautiful things hide some sort of suffering. One can enjoy beautiful exteriors, or one can go beneath the surface and find things that perhaps you do not want to know about. If [these] pictures had been repugnant, it would have been easy to reject them. But now they are so beautiful - and the insight into the reality behind them gives rise to thoughts about people's shallowness and double standards. Many of us eat meat, wear leather or use make-up that has been tested on animals, without this arousing especially strong reactions. But when a picture shows a dead rabbit, all hell breaks loose...

Gee, defensive much? Perhaps the adage about beauty being in the eye of the beholder doesn't translate well into Swedish.

I worry, not so much when obviously crazy people spew, but when other, seemingly rational people subscribe to that spewage. This is-- not to put too fine a point on it-- how genocides get started. When the guy standing next to you is no longer a person, when it becomes okay to kill him for an arbitrary cause, ya got Trouble. With a capital "T" and swastikas.

There's an episode of Star Trek, "Devil in the Dark", which submits that once you can understand another creature's point of view, you must treat it with appropriate respect. Orson Scott Card's Ender books deal with the consequences of not being able to communicate with an "other." It's certainly possible that you'll still go to war even when you do understand the other's point of view (and disagree with it), but it's inevitable if you don't even make the attempt.

I'm not saying we can eradicate prejudice or bigotry, but we should, by now, know better than to teach it. We should know better.


Friday, December 17, 2004

How Much For Just The TV?
Posted by CKL @ 11:14 AM PST
Here's your sticker shock moment for the day. Maybe you should sit down first. Are you sitting comfortably? Right.

It will cost at least six thousand dollars for me to upgrade to HDTV.

Not going to happen anytime soon, obviously, but I did some research this month because I was shopping for related home theater accessories (an A/V receiver; I chose the Denon AVR-2805). And I can now report, with confidence, that HDTV is still way too freakin' expensive.

Of course, your mileage may vary. Here are the criteria I used for my research:

  • Aspect ratio: 16:9 widescreen. This may seem obvious, but there are 4:3, direct-view (CRT) HDTVs out there. Why you'd want one of these, I don't know.
  • Screen size: At least 40" diagonal. My current set is a 40" widescreen (but not HDTV), and I'm not willing to downsize.
  • Native resolution: 720p == 1280 x 720 pixels, progressive (non-interlaced) scan. This immediately eliminates any CRT-based rear-projection sets, since they convert everything to 1080i (1920 x 1080 pixels, interlaced scan). Dude, if I'm going to go HDTV, I'm not going to settle for an interlaced display. Motion artifacts really bug me. (There is one 1080p set on the market today, made by Mitsubishi, but it's huge-- 82" diagonal-- and the list price is-- are you still sitting down?-- $20,000. Not a typo: TWENTY THOUSAND DOLLARS. That's insane.)
  • Display type: DLP microdisplay. No screen door or burn-in effects like LCD, and not as ridiculously expensive as plasma. My life doesn't revolve around black levels. Newer DMDs reduce rainbow artifacts significantly.
  • Tuner: Don't need one. I just want a monitor. Input will come from TiVo, DVD player, Xbox, or VCR, and HDTV signal tuning/decoding will eventually happen upstream, probably in a satellite receiver box. By the same token, I also don't care about built-in speakers-- I'll use my own audio setup, thank you.
  • Services: Professional, ISF-certified calibration by Robert Busch of Busch Home Theater. He's worked on my last two primary televisions, and is worth every penny. If you're going to spend thousands of dollars to get a big-screen TV, you can cough up a few hundred more to get it calibrated by a professional.
  • Accessories: DirecTV HD receiver with TiVo. I don't watch live TV, so this is a necessity. I'd probably want more storage, too, so why wouldn't I get the 600GB unit from Weaknees? Well, maybe because the box itself costs $1,500, not including any subscription fees. Or because it won't do HMO. Or because I'd have to endure the hassle of switching from Dish Network to DirecTV. Sigh.
  • Other: Of course, once we have an HDTV in the house, I'll want to upgrade the secondary, bedroom TV, too...
Okay, so maybe it'll only be around $4,000 if I don't get a second HDTV for the bedroom, and stick with my standalone Series2 TiVo. That's still an awful lot of money.

The funny thing is, I emailed the aforementioned Robert Busch to ask his opinion of some sets that looked good to me-- 50" DLP HDTVs that retail for around $3,000-- and he suggested I look at the InFocus ScreenPlay models instead. Price? Starting at $6,000.

Definitely not going to happen anytime soon.


Thursday, December 16, 2004

Earthsea in Clorox
Posted by CKL @ 11:41 AM PST
I recorded the Sci-Fi Channel's Legend of Earthsea miniseries, but haven't watched it yet. I'm setting my expectations even lower than before (Kristin Kreuk in a starring role? gah!) after reading the commentary by Ursula K. LeGuin, author of the books on which the miniseries was, to hear her tell it, very loosely based:

"My principal feeling about it is one of sadness, loss. An opportunity thrown away, at great expense. I'm sorry for the actors. They all tried hard. I'm sorry for the people who think they've seen Earthsea, but saw a stale, senseless rehash of bits of other fantasy films instead. I'm very sorry for my readers who tuned in thinking they were going to see a film version of my books. To you readers, I apologise. I love movies, and I did want to see an Earthsea movie, so I fell for it. I'm sorry! We'll do better next time."

I read A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness years ago, and am sorry to say I don't remember them all that well. But I was also lucky enough to do a quarter-long writing workshop with Ursula LeGuin and Pat Murphy in 1995, and I have tremendous respect for both of them. I'll probably watch the miniseries, but will definitely find and re-read the original Earthsea books.

As they say in Hollywood, the only bad publicity is no publicity.


Friday, December 10, 2004

Willow weep for me
Posted by CKL @ 03:22 PM PST
Just as writers moved back and forth between "Buffy" and "Angel" in [Joss] Whedon's Mutant Enemy production stable, the same seems to be true in [J.J.] Abrams' little corner of the Disney lot.

"It's cool," Abrams says, "that the 'Lost' writers' building is right across the way from the 'Alias' one. I'll be looking for [David] Fury, and Fury will be in [Jeff] Bell's office, talking about an episode of 'Lost' or 'Alias.' I'll go over and be at 'Lost,' and Drew Goddard wrote an episode of 'Lost,' so Drew will be over there -- crying, I think."

"He's a very weepy man," Bell says.

"He's tall and weepy," Abrams says.

"Evidently," Bell says, "it's not easy being tall and handsome. There's a lot of weeping going on."

-- Zap2it


Thursday, December 9, 2004

Posted by CKL @ 01:19 PM PST
I just bought and downloaded the "Angel digital EP"-- 10 tracks from the upcoming soundtrack CD-- from the crappy Fox Music store, which is "powered by" the unbelievably user-hostile Navio web service. Can't be that bad, you say? Oh, yes, it can.

First of all, in the top left corner of every freakin' page is this helpful information:

IE 5.5+, Flash 7+, 1024x768, WMA media player

Every page. Whether you need it or not. Every page. As far as I can tell, it's there to rub your nose in the fact that you've agreed to jump through an unreasonable number of hoops just to view the goddamn web site, which was clearly built by sadististic egomaniacs.

And then there's the actual commerce system. It requires IE and Flash. If you don't have Flash installed, you have to reboot after installation to make it work. Annoying. Once you do have it "working" (I use the term very loosely here), you get a barely-visible icon on the right side of your browser window. It hovers over your scroll bar, which is the only way I was able to locate it-- by the dead area on my screen which normally should do something when I click on it.

Oh, it gets better.

That icon is a Flash object, which expands when you click on it into a tiny, non-resizable rectangle in which you have to do everything commerce-related-- create an account, login, save your payment info, and purchase whatever you've put into your shopping cart. EVERYTHING. There is no alternative interface, as far as I can tell; every single link on the web page-- I'm not kidding here-- is a javascript function, even simple links to static info pages. That's right, everything is javascript. Why? Well, that's the question of the century, isn't it?

Finally, to add one more insult to injury, you can't pay with real money. Oh no. You have to buy "Fox Dollars" and use those to purchase your items. Repeat after me: What the fuck? I have to enter a credit card anyway, the conversion rate from US Dollars to Fox Dollars is 1-to-1, and I'm never going to use this fake currency for anything else. Why force me to go through this extra step?

What's more, after I've purchased my music, I have to download it one track at a time-- nope, I can't just grab the entire album-- THROUGH THE CRAZY FLASH INTERFACE. Which involves:

1. selecting the "my stuff" view to see what I've bought;
2. double-clicking the album name to see the tracks therein;
3. double-clicking on a song title in the miniature window;
4. finding the miniscule "play/download" link;
5. clicking that;
6. waiting for ANOTHER browser window to open which "authorizes" my download; and
7. finally, getting the download dialog box from my browser so I can open or save the file.

After all that, I've got ten "protected" WMA files on my computer. The music's great-- I knew it would be-- but I certainly wouldn't have gone through this for most of my music purchases. It was time-consuming, annoying, and if it wasn't Angel, I would have given up pretty much immediately.

If you're a record company wondering why your digital music sales aren't taking off, I'll save you the consulting fee and tell you: it's because your e-commerce system sucks. iTunes is the best one I've seen, because it lets me do what I want: find music and buy it. It doesn't get in my way, it doesn't force me to install crap, it doesn't require that I learn a completely new interface which is worse than the one I'm used to.

Anyway. You can hear a 30-second WMA sample of track 2, "Start the Apocalypse", which is underscore by Robert J. Kral. If you want to buy the album, for the love of Joss, WAIT until it's actually released and get the CD. Trust me. No one else should have to suffer as I have.


Wednesday, December 8, 2004

PalmSource Goes Native
Posted by CKL @ 10:50 AM PST
PalmSource Acquires China MobileSoft, Will Develop Palm OS for Linux
PalmSource today announced entry into an agreement for the acquisition of China MobileSoft Limited (CMS), a leading Chinese mobile phone software company with business operations headquartered with its wholly-owned subsidiary, MobileSoft Technology (Nanjing), in China. PalmSource has also announced plans to work closely with the Linux Community to develop a version of the Palm OS that will run on top of Linux.
An operating system that runs... on another operating system?

Let's do some more research. A-ha!

An open letter from PalmSource to the Linux community

Q. How will Palm OS for Linux be implemented?
A. It will be a software layer on top of the Linux operating system...

Q. Why are you calling it Palm OS for Linux? Isn't that like saying you have an operating system on top of an operating system?
A. "Palm OS for Linux" is not the formal product name, it's just a description of what we're developing. Our software is known as Palm OS and we wanted to keep continuity with that.

I see. It's just marketing doubletalk. Basically, PalmSource is giving up on developing a lightweight operating system and trying to surf on top of the Linux/open source movement and benefit from that. Which is not necessarily a bad thing-- look at Mac OS X-- but it must be a sad day for all the former BeOS engineers, and any developers who drank the "Zen of Palm" Kool-Aid all those years ago.

Monday, December 6, 2004

We are the Ferengi
Posted by CKL @ 04:54 PM PST's Confessions of a Car Salesman, in which a journalist describes his undercover experiences working at two Los Angeles-area dealerships, is a great read. For the impatient, here's the bottom line:

"[I]f the salesmen aren't the bad guys, who is?

"Having been a salesman myself, I began to view the managers and dealership owners as the real culprits. While salesmen play people games with the customer, the guys in the tower work the numbers with computers, their eyes fixed on the bottom line. They can see at a glance what kind of profit they are taking from the customer and they do it any way. Furthermore, they bully the sales staff, encouraging them to manipulate, control and intimidate customers while they take the lion's share of the profit...

"By itself profit is a positive word. But in the car business, the dealership's profit is the consumer's loss. I'm not suggesting that the dealership be run without a profit, but in one case I heard about, the dealership made a 16 percent profit on a $25,000 car. That meant the consumer, the average Joe buying the car, paid about $4,000 too much."

-- Chandler Phillips


Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Off the Grid
Posted by CKL @ 12:25 PM PST
Oh, it's nice to have Internet access again.

Just got back from Thanksgiving in Meridian, Idaho (just west of Boise) with DeeAnn's mother and her live-in boyfriend. Aside from the cold (it snowed one day), carcinogens (they both smoke), and total lack of connectivity (they don't even have a computer), it wasn't bad. We played lots of games, I read one complete novel, watched the first three episodes of Alias on DVD, and finally saw The Big Lebowski. Speaking of which, loved the dream sequence set to the song "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)"-- by Kenny Rogers, of all people. Who knew?

And yes, I'll admit I didn't give Alias a fair shake the first time around. Based on the early hype, I had been hoping for something a little more serious, more John Le Carre than Ian Fleming, but now that I'm more attuned to the comic-book style (and also digging J.J. Abrams' new series, Lost), I have to say it's pretty cool. The pilot introduced and described characters as part of the story, not just clunky exposition, and the plot moves along briskly. Never a dull moment, as they say, although some of the situations do strain credibility at times. Favorite character? Marshall. As if you couldn't have guessed that.

Perhaps as a synthesis of all those various inputs, here's an idea for fictional nanotechnology: repair robots in your bloodstream which detect and destroy any foreign bodies introduced therein. They'd protect you from any weird chemicals which might be injected-- poisons, truth serums, knockout drugs-- and could also unclog your blood vessels of cholesterol or other things that might stick to the walls. The only problems are finding somewhere to take all that garbage where it can be safely and efficiently excreted, and making sure the nanobots don't remove any substances that might be beneficial, like oxygen. It'd also be a great hangover cure-- drink as much as you want, then just press a button on your keychain remote to start up the blood-bots. Wait a few minutes for your blood alcohol to come down to legal levels and drive home. Just make sure you leave the 'bots off while you're drinking, otherwise you're making your liver work for nothing.

Also, we saw National Treasure Monday night, and I laugh at Roger Ebert's complaint:

"The central weakness of the story is the absurdity of the clues, which are so difficult that no sane forefather could have conceivably believed that anyone could actually follow them."

Not that the movie was any great shakes, but the clues were not difficult to solve by any stretch of a Gamer's imagination. I mean, they weren't even Game hard, they were treasure-hunt junior level, mostly single-layer riddles. IMHO, the only implausibility was that anyone would use Yahoo! search instead of Google when they're racing against time to find the answer to a riddle.


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