Friday, November 28, 2003


Three weeks after moving in, we finally have internet access in the house. I'll resist the urge to use multiple exclamation points, lest I be revealed as overly dependent.

We'd had a cable modem in the old place, so as an existing customer I expected a fairly easy transition. This is because I'm new to planet earth and I don't know how things work here. I was thrown off because Comcast is "a cable company dedicated to changing the way you think about your cable company."

When we moved in, cable TV was already working, but my cable modem couldn't connect. A nice tech came out and said he just had to remove a filter from The Green Box Out Front and we'd be all set. However, he found The Green Box to be a foot deeper in the soil than it was supposed to be. The tech said he couldn't open it, and illustrated by pulling on the front panel.
"No problem," he said, "I'll just transfer this to Construction, in a couple days they'll send out a truck and raise the pedestal. Then they'll remove the filter and you'll be all set." Still giddy from the oxygen levels on this planet, I bought into his scheme.
Thus began three weeks of Fun on the Phone, in which we were ensured, time after time, that we'd hear from people who, in retrospect, I suspect never existed. The snickers in the background should have tipped me off.
Today, a different nice tech came out, and within several minutes he determined two things. First, it's really easy to open The Green Box despite its depth in the soil. He just pulled on the rear panel, not the front one. Thus, the filter was trivially accessible all along.
Second, he found that the filter wasn't in The Green Box anyway, but was instead in a panel in the side of our house, protected by obscure Flat Head Screwdriver technology.
So it was a wild goose chase, or possibly a red herring. I'm too busy to figure out the difference, because I'm so online now.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Fractions of an acre.

The house is almost entirely unpacked. All that remains is the office, which is a big mess, and half of the garage, which is filled with empty boxes. I haven't bothered to set up the office since Comcast is seriously dragging their feet on our internet service. It's kind of sad that I don't feel much need to set up the computer in the absence of connectivity.

Emma's first birthday party was Sunday, and we had a bunch of people over. (Well, about 14 people, but that's a lot for us.) One person saw our back yard and said "Whoah, it's like I'm back in the midwest!" That was either hyperbole or a very bad memory. Ours is a very nice yard by the standards of this area, but it's nothing compared to elsewhere. The bay area has lots of ways of distorting your perception, and this is one of them.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Five fingers, five binary digits, 0-31. Obviously.

Not normally the kind of thing I go for, and quite a bit later than everyone else, but I finally got around to taking The Geek Test. Some friends of mine scored in the 30's and 40's, so I figured I should find out where I fall.

I'm at 23.27416%: Geek. I scored high in the computer-heavy sections, but a lot of the rest was left blank. A few random things like "I watch documentaries" and "I've read [Asimov/Lovecraft/Tolkien]" and "I've studied a language on my own."

'Course, there was only one check-box next to "I program." I suspect that, if I could put the appropriate number of checks next to that, I'd score much higher.

And they didn't even include "I have a weblog", "I've written my own weblog framework", or "I've created a programming language specifically for web programming", all of which should rightly cast me into the bowels of Pathetic Geek Hell.

Unless "I'm married" and "I have a kid" can reduce your score. Dunno.

Monday, November 10, 2003

Ah, homeownershiphood.

I've discovered a surefire way to make it rain. All I have to do is move.

Earlier this year we moved from a one bedroom apartment to a two bedroom apartment in the same complex. We asked two friends to help, and they generously obliged. On moving day, it rained.

This past weekend, we moved into our new house. We had scheduled a truck and one of the aforementioned friends to help us move. On the day (Saturday), it rained. A lot. We moved quickly, though, dodging raindrops, so there's no water damage to speak of.

The funny thing is that it doesn't rain very often around here.

Anyway, we're sleeping at the new house now. We're still battling to get phone service hooked up, which is worrisome since we have all sorts of deliveries and service installations coming in the next few days. Plus we need to hire an electrician to deal with crappy wiring and pest control to deal with minor dryrot and some engineers to do seismic retrofitting (all of which which we knew about when we bought). Plus we should figure out what's up with the garage door (it doesn't open consistently).

On the plus side, the baby seems to love the new house, and has had no trouble adapting. 'Course, maybe she just thinks we're on vacation and is expecting to return "home" soon. Or maybe she's too distracted by all the boxes and general disarray, and the fact that her parents are too busy to say "Emma, don't climb on the pile of CD's, DVD's, VHS tapes, and casettes! Stop throwing them on the tile floor, I don't care how cool the sound is." It's like a field day for her.

Plus the stairs. She loves the stairs. And she's surprisingly good at using them, for somebody who can't even walk consistenly yet. We still stand nearby as she goes up and down, but we pretty much never have to intervene. Survival instinct: check.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

It's a good thing you happened to hire them, then!

It's a month old and has been covered elsewhere, but this quote can't get too much coverage:

"The best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world."
   -George W. Bush, September 2003

An ugly blue tarp, as seen from space.

I'm a big fan of aerial and satellite photography, and was thrilled to discover the original TerraServer several years ago. Though its datasets are black and white and a bit dated, it's still amazing to see familiar areas as photographed from above.

There's now another site called TerraServer, with more recent datasets, including some in higher resolution and color. I'm not sure if it's a successor to the old one or a competitor, but this one offers access to very high resolution data (1 foot in some areas) for a fee. Still the same basic interface, though: web form that lets you search for an address and then click to pan or zoom.

It occured to me that the web is hardly the optimal platform for applications like this. (I happen to believe that it's not the optimal plaform for any application, but that's another discussion.) Specifically, I suspected that a local application could let you zoom and pan smoothly over datasets like this, by fetching image tiles on demand from a server. It's such an obvious idea, I figured somebody must have done it.

Turns out I was right.

I asked a friend of mine if he knew of such an application, and it he grinned. "I worked on one once." TerraVision is a cool open source app that does exactly what I expected: it lets you browse multiresolution image/elevation datasets on the earth interactively. You can load more than one dataset, to provide coarse data over a large region, and more detailed data in specific areas. It all works in a small memory overhead by managing a multiresolution cache of tiles.
TerraVision can fetch tiles on demand from a server or operate from datasets on the local disk. Unfortunately, there don't seem to be any active TerraVision servers out there, so you're left to download the handful of datasets they provide (or convert your own from USGS data.) In the bay area, for example, I was only able to browse 25 meter terrain data, which isn't enough to resolve individual houses. Still, very cool, especially for an open source app.
Kiril also pointed me to a more polished commercial app that does the same thing. Last night I tried a free 7 day trial of Keyhole LT, and was blown away. Because it's a commercial app, they provide a server with really high resolution data over most major cities, and coarser (but decent) data elsewhere. If you live anywhere near a major city, you can probably zoom in to see your house.
Keyhole also lets you do address queries (like MapQuest), which makes it easy to find familiar places. I spent several hours last night exploring all the places I've been, continually amazed at the detail in their dataset.
For example, the house we just bought is easily discernable in Keyhole. In fact, behind the house there's a bright blue rectangle, which I realized is the blue tarp on top of the awning in the back yard. As seen from space!
If you have a Windows machine with any half-decent graphics hardware I highly recommend you check out Keyhole LT. (It works on my laptop with Intel i815e, so it'll probably work on your computer too.) Find your house. You'll thank me for it.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Mi casa es mi casa.

Things are finally falling into place. We made an offer on a house two weeks ago, and only now are we done with inspections. Things were touch-and-go for a while because inspection did turn up a zombie infestation.

Well, not zombies, but still something creepy. In the crawlspace under the house, our inspector noted an unusually thick layer of efflorescence (salt deposit). That's a sign of moisture leaching out of concrete (or in our case soil), evaporating, and leaving mineral deposits behind. A little efflorescence is common in basements the world over, but this is a thick layer. Two inches deep in some places. We were concerned that it represented a serious drainage problem under the house, or an adverse condition of the soil.

Some other issues came up as well, and we ended up extending the inspection period so we could bring out some specialists. Things were stressful for a while, but as of last night all of the issues have been resolved. The house, its foundation, and the supporting soil appear to be in great shape, so we're going through with it. We'll close escrow on October 30th, and move in soon thereafter. We're psyched.

The pictures at the right are of the front, back, and two shots of the backyard. These were taken during the general inspection (hence the ladders), and so the cars and paraphernelia are not ours. The house is 4 bedrooms, 3 baths, 2-car garage, 1867 sq. ft.

(For the curious: the soil expert says the house was built in the wettest year ever, and the moisture probably worked its way out over the next season or two. Though he's "never seen anything like it", he claims it's of academic interest and little else. Whew.)

Tuesday, October 7, 2003

Insert Arnold Joke Here.

Ack! While I wasn't paying attention California flipped out and elected Arnold as Governor! At least, that's CNN's projection, already reported as fact. (I actually was paying attention: I voted today, even though we're in the midst of house inspection hell.)

My only hope is that Arnie is as socially liberal as he claims. The pundits claim he'd never survive the scrutiny of the right wing in the primary of a normal election. That gives me some hope.

As for fiscal policy, it's mostly voodoo to me. Lowering taxes and spending pretend money doesn't sit well with me, but since I'm one of the ones that benefits (in the short term, at least) from lower taxes, I'd love to be proven wrong. Plus, I have no choice--Bush is already doing it to us.

Serve us well, Mr. Schwarzenegger.

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Mbrbl gweeflrbl.

That's the sound my brain's making, inside. We just bought a house. If all goes well (for example, if inspection doesn't turn up a zombie infestation), we'll be living there in early november.

More details when my brain works again.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Scissors For Hands!

I liked Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Now's he's publicly badmouthing Bush's foreign policy, which can only endear him to me more. I suppose I should go see Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

And the Wonka Remake, when it comes out.

Saturday, August 30, 2003

Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.

So thrilled was I that Fox lost their ridiculous lawsuit regarding Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, I bought a copy the day the book came out. I felt a little uneasy, knowing I was buying it largely because of the lawsuit. That's why I was giddy when I found the book really deserves the attention. I suspect it would have reached the #1 spot with or without the lawsuit, though any opportunity to see Fox News look even stupider is fine by me.

The book is great. Franken is a riot, but more satisfying than the humor is the chronicle of ignorance and outright dishonesty of today's most reprehensible--and powerful--public figures.

Franken (backed by a sizeable Harvard research team) speaks with clarity and confidence. He also speaks with humility, and more than once apologizes for exploits he took a bit too far. But this only serves to underscore the unrepentant, arrogant figures that the book takes to task.

I found only one chapter a bit slow ("Operation Chickenhawk: Episode One"), but it was soon followed by a wonderful comic strip ("The Gospel of Supply Side Jesus") which more than made up for it. Overall, the book is a quick read, and well worth it.

Friday, August 8, 2003

Wednesday, August 6, 2003

It was coincidence.

I don't usually read Foxtrot, but was amused by Monday's strip. Tuesday's installment was kinda cute, too. But today's makes me very, very happy.

Saturday, July 19, 2003

That <i>specific order</i>? Oh, then that's okay.

Please tell me this is a joke. Metallica is claiming rights to the chord sequence E, F. Says Lars Ulrich:

We're not saying we own those two chords, individually - that would be ridiculous. We're just saying that in that specific order, people have grown to associate E, F with our music."

We're also coming to associate complete idocy. Keep it up.

Update: Probably a hoax. My bad. See the comments.

Friday, July 18, 2003

Only the integers really matter, anyway.

Buried in yesterday's Slashback on Slashdot was a link to an incredibly cool project. But I usually skip Slashbacks, so I didn't notice it.

Luckily, when I got in this morning, The Degree Confluence Project was on my officemate's screen. This project seeks photographs from every integer latitude/longitude intersection on the planet. They have all but a few in the United States, Europe is pretty well covered, and they have other interesting spots including 0°, 0°. Amazing.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Plummeting... Plummeting... Reload.

I've had a hankering for a new PS2 game recently, and a few days ago ended up buying Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness. I seem to remember that I enjoyed the first game on the PC in college, so I figured I'd give the latest installment a try.

I've only had a couple hours to play, and so am not very far in the game. It seems reasonably cool, but I've found several glaring errors that make me hesitant to put much time into it.

First, within ten minutes of starting, I hopped over a little fence (at Lara Croft's request, since I was still in the tutorial phase of the game), and found myself trapped in Collision Volume hell. Lara was walking endlessly against a fence and wouldn't respond to any movement controls; I ended up restarting.
Then, a few levels later (in the Parisian Ghetto), I found a doozy. The level is broken up into several zones, each loaded separately. There's no visual distinction between the zones--the game just fades to black when you hit certain spots in the streets, loads from disc, then comes back in the same spot. You can see past each load point before you hit it, which suggests that each zone has some of the geometry from the surrounding ones. That way, it feels like one big continuous level.
However, at least one of the load points is buggy. The polygon (or whatever it is) that triggers a zone change is not big enough. As you run down the street, approaching the load point, if you happen to wander through the deep doorway on the right, you can get completely around the trigger. This allows you to enter The Land Beyond the Load Point. In this land, everything seems normal at first, but after several yards you suddenly fall through the floor, and then plummet forever into the blue abyss. The best you can do is reload from your last save point.
As far as I can tell, The Land Beyond the Load Point contains a fair bit of geometry from the zone beyond (to achieve aforementioned seamless effect), but very little of the collision geometry. Reasonable enough, as long as you can never get there. But I did, and not by doing anything tricky--I was just walking around, exploring doorways.
Ugh. I wonder if I can expect the whole game to be this buggy.

Sunday, July 13, 2003

Can dogs actually get scurvy?

I've been vaguely aware that a movie called Pirates of the Caribbean was coming out, and though I know I've seen trailers for it on TV, it never registered in my mind as the sort of thing I'd ever need to see. You know, the trailers were sifted out by my visual system along with the commercials for herpes medication and whatever variant of Mountain Dew they're trying to sell these days. (XTreme Bacon and Chives!)

Then, on Friday, I found out they were screening Pirates of the Caribbean at work, and that several of my friends were going. Never one to buck a trend, I followed along.

Turns out it's a fantastic movie. I'm not sure how well the plot would hold up otherwise, but Johnny Depp really carries the film as a ridiculous badass/moron of a pirate. I had a lot of fun. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 9, 2003

Getting the compiler to talk.

A year or two ago, I worked out a way to compute memory alignment restrictions for data types in C/C++. It's a macro/template trick, which is definitely the sort of thing that should make you wary in general. However, it's turned out to be really useful, and I've never seen a better way to get the same effect.

Every person I've shown the trick to has felt a vague sense of unease. “I don't think I'd trust that. Will that work in all cases?” Even compiler guys have said this.

Well, recently I worked out a proof that it really does work in all cases. Well, “all cases” being “all cases that do not involve a blatantly buggy compiler”. I worked out exactly what I'm requiring of the compiler, and it's not much. This proof makes me worry less about using the trick in real code.

Mostly for my own edification, I've written a little paper about the technique. I'd love to get people's input, either about the technique itself or the way I've explained it in the paper. If anybody's seen the trick before, let me know.

And if any of you know some compiler guys or language nuts, send it their way and ask if they buy my argument.

Here's the paper:

Tuesday, July 8, 2003

And I just made out with your girlfriend!

And now, some blatant link propagation. Noah points out an excellent Tom the Dancing Bug strip. I approve.

Even sneezing. I'm serious.

Today is one of those days in which I'm reminded how many of my daily activities depend on the participation of my lower back. (Answer: all of them.)

On a related note: If you're ever tempted to carry your 24-pound baby on your back in one of those carrying packs while you vacuum the apartment, don't.

Monday, July 7, 2003

Get it out of the way early.

I finally got around to reading the text of the Public Domain Enhancement Act, which was introduced by Lofgren in late June, influenced in part by the Eldred Act Petition.

Based on the original proposal, I'd been wondering about an apparent loophole. It occured to me that a copyright holder could decide, at the time of initial publication, to submit for extension immediately instead of waiting the 50 years. This would preemptively extend the term whether or not the work ended up being commercialy viable. At a cost of only $1, it's hard to imagine a self-interested copyright holder who wouldn't try this.

Thus, I assumed the Act would somehow prohibit early submissions. For example, the window for extension might be between 49 and 50 years after publication. But the Act as written only says "[t]he fee shall be due 50 years after the date of first publication," which seems to allow for submissions the day after publication.

Maybe that sort of thing doesn't need to be in the Act, and it would arise when the Register of Copyrights "establish[es] the procedures." But if it doesn't, then the Act is basically useless.

Even if they enforce a narrow submission window, there's the chance that a company will spring up which offers, for a low price today, to automatically extend your term 50 years from now. This too would make the Act effectively useless. Is there any way to prohibit that sort of thing?

Wednesday, July 2, 2003

Maybe <i>that</i> would help me overcome my Fear of Plummeting.

As I sat in the cramped seat of a United flight last week, watching the LCD text on the AirFone™ embedded in the seat in front of me, I had trouble understanding the phrase "Send 12 emails a minute!" I mean, I understood the phrase, but I couldn't comprehend how they considered this a feature. I'm pretty sure I could transmit more than 12 emails a minute by waving semaphore flags out the plane window.

This led me to wonder why internet access from planes is so slow, and for that matter, why planes don't have 802.11b access points on them.

Well, it looks like my next flight will need to be to Sweden.

Thursday, June 26, 2003

I'm <i>sure</i> I'm smarter than the car seat. Maybe.

Just staggered in after 11 hours of travel (though only 5 1/2 hours of actual flight), returning from two weeks of family time on the east coast. And this was special air travel: our 7 month old tagged along, as did her 50 tons of paraphernelia.

I'm exaggerating. We packed pretty light, and Lord knows the baby handled herself like a pro. Each way, she only cried for two or three minutes during landing: flying east, because she was bored, and flying west, because we woke her up to put her in the car seat.

Which brings me to the only blight on an otherwise flawless Baby Travel experience.

See, we have this wonderful fancy expensive car seat, and we didn't want to buy another when we got to the east coast. Plus, we wanted to use it on the plane. Thus, Car Seat was among the paraphernelia we lugged.
It was my job to install and uninstall the car seat as appropriate. Normally this isn't a big deal, and on the plane it went in without much trouble. (The seat belt passes through a sturdy channel near the back of the baby seat.) After I tightened the belt, though, I noticed a problem. While seat belts in cars have the buckles on the side, airplane buckles are in the middle. And while car belt buckles usually release with a button, airplane belt buckles usually release via a big pivoting faceplate.
These two factors made the car seat easy to install, but hell to uninstall. The buckle, buried in the depths of the car seat channel, was difficult (though not impossible) to reach. But the buckle's faceplate, nestled tightly against the side of the channel, didn't have enough clearance to pivot. And no pivot, no unbuckle.
Upon landing, I wrestled helplessly with the seat for ten minutes, and soon began to wonder if the airline would just like to buy the damn thing from me. Finally, though, I twisted the mess enough to wrench the plate open, and then worked the buckle free. Bruised but victorious, I plodded out of the plane as the last flight attendants were leaving.
On the flight back, hoping to avoid such a battle, I tried to find a different way to thread the belt. This resulted in several variants of Jammed, Unusable Car Seat. Soon, and for the first time in my life, I was That Guy Several Rows Up That is Keeping the Plane from Taking Off, Dammit. Don't you hate that guy?
On the verge of a nervous breakdown, I managed to summon a flight attendant, and got him to show me how the belts release at the anchor point. (In addition to the buckle, seat belts can detach from the seat. There's a little sliding thing that reveals a hook that just comes off.) This got me out of Jammed, Unusable Car Seat, and made a much more reasonable installation possible.
This would all have seemed less insane if they'd actually let us board a little early. Remember the good old days (like, a few months ago) when they'd offer for Families with Young Children or Special Needs to board at the same time as First Class? Well, word got out that I finally have a kid, so they put a stop to that luxury. We boarded with our seating section, which meant I had about four minutes to install the car seat before I became That Guy.
But, um, other than the car seat thing (can you tell I'm bitter?), it was a great trip. And, as with all good trips, the best part is finally coming home.
Mmmmm... Home.

Wednesday, June 11, 2003


Via Lessig Blog, Cabinet Magazine has a chilling graph showing the effect of various term extensions on the public domain. (If you can't read the captions, check out of the PDFs at the bottom of the page.)

Sunday, June 8, 2003

Consummate Post-It&trade;s.

It's exciting to see that the cult classic status of Trogdor the Burninator has earned him a place in the history of MIT Hacks.

If you don't know about Strong Bad or Homestar Runner, shame on you. First watch this. Then this, this and this. Then maybe some of this, then back to this, then over to this. At that point, you're ready to watch everything here, probably starting with all of these, from bottom to top.

Only then will you be forgiven.

Saturday, June 7, 2003

Now go mix me a drink.

A recent entry on In Passing makes me happy.

It also makes me happy to live in an area where things like this are overheard.

Friday, June 6, 2003

Grinding Nemo

Dan Lyke mentions an SFGate article about how a flushed fish would definitely not survive all the way to the ocean. (This has some relevance to events in Finding Nemo.)

But Dan went the extra mile, and contacted a sewage grinder company for more info.

Thursday, June 5, 2003

I'll have to work on that one.

I've become a big fan of foosball in the last couple years. I'm even half-decent, though there are people at work that can still trounce me readily.

And then there are people like this. (Via memepool.)

I hope you don't mind: I'm recording our conversation.

Ed Felton has an excellent post about conflict of interest and privacy expectations in blogging. Specifically, if people behave differently around journalists than they do around non-journalists, how should they behave around bloggers? What about when everyone's a blogger?

Wednesday, June 4, 2003

It's the Hollis/Amtrak line, you moron.

There's this bus that runs near my work. Like many buses, it has a little matrix of LEDs on the back that can spell out a few characters. This particular bus chooses to display two letters: "HA". And they blink on and off every couple seconds.

So most days I end up behind this bus, and it laughs at me. Derisively, I can only assume. In my mind, I hear the cold, cruel monotone of a Speak and Spell™ mocking me: "HA... HA... HA... HA...".

The bus. It knows my secrets.

What can you get for a dollar?

If you haven't already, please sign the Eldred Act petition.

In the wake of the disappointing Eldred v Ashcroft decision (which upheld the latest round of copyright term increases), Larry Lessig is pushing for a new kind of reform. Corporations are unwilling to uphold their part of the copyright bargain, and the government seems unwilling to force them to. Perhaps we can't expect profitable works to pass into the public domain as promised, but what about the thousands of unprofitable, unused works which remain locked up in copyright by default? Vast portions of our culture and history are inaccessible and unusable, just so that a handful of works can still profit.

The Eldred Act aims to fix this. The idea: charge $1 to extend a work's copyright beyond 50 years. Corporations unwilling to relinquish control would pay $1 and continue to profit, but any work which is not specifically extended every five years will pass into the public domain.

If you believe in the importance of the public domain, please sign the petition.

Monday, June 2, 2003

70 Million Smackeroos.

Finding Nemo has made 70.6 million dollars in its first three days of release. This breaks all sorts of records, including biggest opening weekend for an animated film, biggest opening day for an animated film, and biggest single day (Saturday) for an animated film. (The above number is a projection made early Sunday; later today we'll find out what the exact number is.)

I didn't work as much on this film as I did on previous ones--I've been working on tools for future films. And in any case, I'm a simple purveyor of rendering software--not a screenwriter, animator, or other kind of artist. But I'm happy to work alongside the kind of people who can make such fun, beautiful movies.

And speaking of fame on the merit of association: my baby girl Emma is in the credits, in the "Production Babies" section right near the end. Watch for it!

UPDATE: 70.6 was just a projection. The final numbers are in: 70.9 million.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

Scorpion Monkey.

Some family came to visit recently, and brought a gift for our baby girl. It's a plush monkey with crinkly parts, a mirror, and a nose that plays music when you press it. It's a great toy, and our baby seems to love it.

However, every time I look at it, I can't help but think it looks like a scorpion. The fact that there's a big smiley face on its back (and that one of its claws is a banana) just seems to make it creepier.

Oh well. Scorpio-phobia is just one of many traumas that come from living in Texas for too long. And it really is a great toy.

Saturday, May 17, 2003

This seems like a perfect spot.

A couple weeks ago I noticed some strange skidmarks on the freeway near here. They're dark, as if some serious rubber was burned, and they loop all around, changing directions, spanning several lanes, going both with and against the direction of (legal) travel. It looks, at first glance, as if an 18-wheeler fishtailed and spun around madly for a while, but it's hard to imagine how a legitimate accident could have achieved such a complicated skid pattern.

Today I saw another skid pattern, a half mile west of the first one. This one is more straightforward: it's a spiral about the radius of a car, looping over itself several times, with one tail leading off to the side of the road.

I assume this means someone's doing doughnuts on the freeway at night. Is that, like, a thing that people do?

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Silly Serpent.

I sort of wish I hadn't seen this. Now all of you get to wish you hadn't seen it.

Anybody heard of tongue splitting? I hadn't. Maybe I'm just out of the loop.

Monday, May 12, 2003

Sucking on a magnet.

I don't know why I find this strip so funny. (Every once in a while, Red Meat adopts drawn-by-child style for a strip or two. That's not the part I find funny here, though I do like the words "shavve" and "stubely".)

Friday, May 9, 2003

Powered by!

I'm curious about people's views on website clutter. I'm thinking specifically about weblogs, the vast majority of which have multiple columns, their sidebars filled with gadgets and logos and links. Often, it seems, people design their weblogs to double as their own homepages, and so they include calendars, weather reports, syndicated newsfeeds--all irrelevant to the vast majority of visitors. Why don't people make a separate page for themselves, filled with all their favorite gadgets, and leave the main page for content?

Even those sites that show restraint still tend to litter their front pages with links to other weblogs. I don't see this as a bad thing--it's part of how we network, and how we find new material to read. Hey, my ego is fed by inbound links as much as the next guy's. But I'm curious--how many people think that peer links need to be on the front page, taking screen real estate away from the primary content?

Part of my problem, I suppose, is I'm so hostile towards advertising in general. The modus operandi of advertising is to lurk near content; when people seek out the content, they're exposed to ads. Sidebar links and logos aren't really part of a site's interface--they're advertising. They're not what visitors seek out, but they're exposed to them anyway.

The beauty of the web is that it's primarily "pull", not "push". Readers seek out what they want, when they want it. But every bit of secondary information you cram on a page is being pushed on users who pulled on something else. Is it necessary? Is it healthy?

Of course, many sites offer XML-based syndication, which means you can make your own interface out of other people's content. I think that's wonderful. But a front page still serves an important role: it's what draws and engages new readers who have no reason (yet) to syndicate your site.

I recently ran across a CSS example site that shows how to make a 3-column layout in CSS. They call this layout "The Holy Grail", which boggles my mind. Does this make sense to everybody but me?

ADDENDUM (17:12 PM): I know advertising is not always bad: when it gives you information you're happy to have, everybody wins. And of all the things to advertise, friend-blogs are possibly the least intrusive and most likely to benefit visitors. Mainly, I'm curious how many people think it's worth the screen real estate to put these on the front page. (At first glance, the answer appears to be "everybody".)

Dude, it's a <i>metaphor</i>.

It seems somebody got a grant to let several monkeys type at a keyboard for a month. The monkeys (being monkeys) mostly attacked it and defacated on it, and the researchers (being researchers) still found high-falutin things to say about it.

Thursday, May 8, 2003

Picasa 1.5 Review

This entry documents my experience with the Windows photo management app, Picasa. The one-line summary: incredible interface: "good"; proprietary data storage: "bad". Upcoming version 2.0 promises to fix the latter while retaining the former. Read on for details.

One of the first things I did after installing XP was look for photo management software. I wasn't looking for a system for presenting photos on the web; that's the sort of thing I can write myself, and would want to incorporate into my existing site infrastructure. Instead, I was looking for something to make importing, organizing, annotating, searching, and printing easy on my local machine.
Importing and printing, in particular, are awful in Linux. USB and PCMCIA, the two main ways to get pictures onto my computer, have always been flaky. USB devices never seem to hot-swap gracefully, and PCMCIA devices frequently hang my laptop. As for printing, I have an excellent Canon S900 photo printer, and have had nothing but grief trying to get it to work in Linux. All of the above work flawlessly in Windows.
(Okay, now I'm sounding like a Linux detractor. In fact, I very much prefer living in Linux; it's just device support that's lacking. And to be fair, it's not Linux's fault. Devices work in Windows only because companies write device drivers for Windows.)
So I knew that in Windows the digital photo experience would be better. But I can't claim to have done an exhaustive survey of photo management software, because I fell in love with the first one I tried. A friend of mine, Mike Herf, works on a product called Picasa. There are good and bad points about it, and I'd like to share them both.
Picasa is a slick little program, very tightly coded, very fast. It does all sorts of gratuitous scaling, swooshing, shadowing and fading--the sort of thing I usually hate because it wastes CPU cycles for no good reason. However, it never seems to slow Picasa down, and it doesn't actually take away from the experience, so I'll forgive it for swooshing.
Picasa is an entire photo management system, from importing all the way to emailing and printing. A crucial feature (and one I hadn't seen before, though I wouldn't be surprised if it's common) is the "tray". The tray sits below the main interface, and lets you hold onto a group of photos destined for some operation. The photos can come from anywhere in your collection, so you can search or browse at will, populating the tray as you go. This is distinct from the standard shift-click/control-click selection mechanism in Windows, which gets blown away any time you click on anything.
Picasa groups images by "album" (usually a Windows folder), but provides a single, scrollable view containing all your photos in chronological order. This lets you whip rapidly through thousands of photos, all thumbnailed, all gratuitously drop-shadowed, with no delay. Very nice.
You can also assign any number of keywords to an image, and then search by keyword later. The search is obscenely fast; all matches appear the moment you hit Enter. If you're missing the theme here, it's "speed".
If you use a Windows mail client, Picasa will happily open up a new message and attach (optionally scaled) versions of what's in the tray. This simple, obvious feature is a big deal for our family: it lets us pore through the hundreds of pictures of our baby, choose several, and send appropriately scaled versions off to family without going through several apps in the process.
Despite its graphical gratuity, Picasa's interface is near-perfect for my needs. Unfortunately, the program has one serious flaw. It considers the image files on disk off-limits, and so stores all of its data in a proprietary database (not in the original files). This includes search keywords that you assign, image operations that you perform (like rotations or red-eye reduction), and album reorganization. (This last one means that your Picasa albums can diverge from the actual organization of files on disk. It gets confusing fast.)
To be fair, some people would consider this a feature. Some people believe their image files are "sacrosanct" (as Mike put it), and so don't want Picasa to mess with them. But I'm convinced that proprietary databases are the Root of All Evil, particularly when the app won't let you export the data. (Picasa won't.) If, someday, I choose to switch to another app or another platform, I can bring the pixels over, but not all the organizational data.
This flaw makes me hesitate to recommend Picasa. As it is, I've held off annotating my own images, unwilling to commit the results to the Proprietary Database Abyss. The good news: Mike tells me that Picasa 2.0 (in the works) is willing to actually modify image files. It'll let you reorganize the files on disk, and will store search keywords in the JPEG headers (where they belong). He also says it will be able to convert over your existing keywords and other data, so perhaps I should stop worrying and start annotating.
All in all, an excellent program. As long as I'm in Windows Land, I plan to keep using Picasa, and I eagerly await version 2.0.

Wednesday, May 7, 2003

The Blessed Zalman.

Dan posted a link to Overclocked Jesus performs miracles faster, he says, with me specifically in mind. I didn't find the headline funny, but once I saw the little processor fan strapped to Jesus' head, I was won over.

Once more into the Confessional.

Okay, deep breath. I can do this.

So. I've been running Linux on my laptop for the last couple years, but a couple weeks ago I bought a copy of Windows XP to replace it. I know, I know. There's nothing you can say that I haven't already said to myself in fits of self-loathing. But I have two good excuses.

  1. Linux runs fine on my laptop, but power management support is just not there. I've never been able to, for example, suspend the laptop while in Linux. Support for CPU throttling and LCD dimming (both important for battery life) are also sketchy. I finally decided I wanted my laptop to behave like a laptop, with useful little features like an on-screen battery meter and power profiles that switch when I unplug the AC adaptor.

  2. Our growing collection of digital photos is becoming a pain to manage in the few questionable open source programs I've found. I've written my own scripts to do a lot of what I want, but I really need a setup that's pleasant for my wife to use as well. Windows offers such programs; Linux does not.

Having heard great things about XP from almost everyone I'd asked, I'd actually been planning to buy XP for a while, but had kept putting it off for fear of Product Activation. That's the feature of XP that says "If you don't contact our servers soon, this product will stop working, mwahahaha." On principle I refuse to give my personal information to companies who don't really need it, and Microsoft is at the head of that list.

Microsoft insists that Product Activation (unlike registration) doesn't require any personal information--it's just a cryptographic handshake thingy--but I'd read somewhere that reactivation (which is necessary when you change your computer's hardware) does require personal information.

After some more digging, it looks like I was mislead, and reactivation appears to be anonymous as well. At least, I think it is. In the end, I decided that, if Microsoft wants to store an integer in a database saying my CD is being used, that's fine with me.

So I bought a copy, and I'm running it. And what's worse: I'm enjoying it.

There. I've said it. I like XP. 'Course, whenever I want to do programming-type things, I find Windows just gets in the way. That's what telnet and ssh are for. But otherwise, it's nice to have an OS that actually supports all the hardware I own.

I feel so dirty.

Monday, May 5, 2003

If only there were standards for this sort of thing.

Yuck. In IE, the green background of the title logo above renders as a slightly different shade of green than the page background, even though they're given the same value. Mozilla and its kin all get it right.

Meanwhile, several of the page templates on this site are still the default Movable Type ones, including some that IE gets completely wrong. (Like, the text doesn't show up unless you sweep-select it.) I'll get around to fixing those as time permits.

Also, all the old entries have now been imported along with all relevant images from the old site. Some intra-site links are broken. Again, will fix when I can.

Reefer Madness.

Via Flutterby, what Grand Theft Auto would be like if it took place in San Francisco.

Finally back!

After a physical move down the street, two virtual moves (from a server in my living room to a hosting service, then to another hosting service), and endless procrastination due to an in-progress overhaul of MonkeySpeak's codebase, I caved in and decided to switch to Movable Type. (Previously, the site was based on my own PHP/MySQL code.) All in all, I'm happy to be using a solid and complete codebase, and one which is not subject to my own fleeting spare time.

So, welcome back. Please forgive the bland decor--I'm working on it. In the meantime, I wanted to get the site back up, as a symbol of progress and as evidence that I haven't given up completely.

Oh--and once I figure out the format Movable Type wants, I'll import the entries from the old codebase.

Tuesday, April 8, 2003


I'm in the process of moving MonkeySpeak to a new hosting service. (The previous hosting service was a computer behind our living room couch.) Sometime in the next 24 hours, as the DNS changes propagate, this old site will be replaced by a
new, slightly less interesting site.

My plan is to overhaul the site as I move it over, so it may take a couple weeks
for the site to be usable again.

Thursday, April 3, 2003

Such a nice-looking couple.

Forgive the mindless link propagation. Scott McCloud links a touching music video. Well worth watching.

It comes from some freelance filmmakers whose site complains, on every page, that I don't have the most current version of Flash. Rrgh.

Their video is excellent, though.

Wednesday, April 2, 2003

Monkey X Mystery Attack!

Noah pointed me at, in his words,

Best. Comic. Ever.

At least, as measured by frequent use of the word "monkey." Which seems as good a metric as any, really.

Friday, March 21, 2003

Heat Pipe. Wicked.

I bought a fancy new machine a couple weeks ago, and I must share.

I've been lusting after Shuttle's little SS51G case for a while now. It's about the size of a toaster, and comes with a small form factor Socket 478 motherboard. The motherboard has integrated video, audio, and ethernet, and there are USB and firewire sockets on the front and back of the case.

Because the case is so small, heat management is a challenge, and so Shuttle has a very cool liquid-filled heat pipe that conducts heat from the CPU to a fan on the back of the case. That fan and a small one on the power supply are the only fans in the system, which (they claim) makes it a fairly quiet system.
The small size, built-in ethernet, and clever heat management have made me eye this as a replacement for my aging Pentium-Pro 200 server (which currently runs this site). I finally got around to buying one recently, along with a 1.7 Ghz Celeron (the slowest, cheapest CPU available for Socket 478), 256MB DRAM, a cd burner, and a super-quiet Seagate 80 Gig Barracuda drive. The grand total, including shipping (from Tiger Direct): $582.
The system is up and running Redhat 8.0, and I'm in the process of migrating MonkeySpeak's services over to it. (Everything's moved now except for the websites, which are still on the PPro). It works great so far, with only two real issues.
First, it's not as quiet as Shuttle made it sound: the fans are pretty quiet, but there's a fair bit of case rattle. Pressing my hand on the case quiets it down, which makes me believe that some strategic padding may solve the problem.
If I can resolve the case rattle, I think it'll be hard to hear the machine from more than a few feet away.
Second, the integrated (SiS 651) video has had issues. In XFree86, It's only recognized as Generic VESA, and runs at 56Hz. That's headache territory for me. The image is also distorted on the edges of the monitor. I know Shuttle's early cases had video issues, but I'd heard that they'd been resolved in recent models. To be fair, I haven't spent any time trying to resolve the video issues, so it's possible that some driver fiddling and monitor tweaking would set things right.
In any case, I'm running the machine monitorless (and keyboardless and mouseless) as a server, so the video issues don't affect me at all. And if I were using it as a desktop machine, I'd probably use the case's AGP slot to put in some real video hardware. (Though I hear that the 200W power supply may not be enough for today's power-hungry video cards. So it may be this case isn't cut out for real video work.)
All in all, I'm very impressed with the system. Except for the case rattle, I'm in awe of the construction. Everything is machined beautifully, everything aligns flawlessly, and the internal layout is very well thought-out. If you're in the market for a little server machine, I highly recommend it.

I suppose it's better than rounding down.

I have a question for you smart people.

I've written a clever little script that takes an ordered inclusion/exclusion list of paths for backup, then figures out how many cd's it would take to back the whole thing up, partitions the data, and burns that many cd's. It puts an index file on every disk, so you can always tell which disk to go to for any given file.
Later I'll write a script that can read the index file and restore a subtree, prompting for each relevant disk as needed.

It's very straightforward, but there's one problem. I'm currently accumulating file sizes in bytes to figure out how to partition files onto cd's, but I know some sort of disk block rounding will occur. (Every file, no matter how small, will take 1k or 4k or something). Plus I'm sure there's some amount of ISO 9660 filesystem overhead which I should account for too. If I don't account for these things, I'll end up trying to fit more on each cd than can actually fit.

So my question is this: Is there any principled way for me to account for block size rounding and filesystem overhead when I'm working out how many files I can cram on a CD? Or should I just give up and just leave a 10% buffer for "overhead"?

Friday, March 7, 2003

Housing. Why else smile at the words "double pain"?

[Posted by Noah:]

Hello, this is Noah. I bought a house recently and mentioned it on this forum.

I'll be having another party at the Disaster House on March 14th. If you've got the URL from the last party, hit "reload" there and you'll have all the information for the new one plus some nifty new disaster pics. I plan to continue announcing parties at the same URL, so you can hit "reload" for the next party's info in a couple of weeks.

If you don't have the URL and want to be invited then e-mail me at my Yahoo address, or as angelbob at Tom's domain name. It's a very open sort of affair and you're welcome to forward the information liberally to folks who might want to show up.

We'll be continuing our tradition of a mystery guest from Pittsburgh showing up at the party, and possibly our host-in-a-Utilikilt tradition as well.

Tuesday, March 4, 2003

It makes my brain feel all tingly.

Today I finally got around to setting up a wireless network at home. With no evidence that brand makes a difference, and with mostly positive experiences with LinkSys in the past, I opted for the LinkSys WAP11 access point and WPC11 PCMCIA card for my laptop.

Yes, I know I'm several years behind the curve. But I like it that way, in part because hardware tends to work in Linux several years after it comes out. As usual, I benefitted enormously from google-gleaned expertise. I never would have figured out the obscure /etc/pcmcia/hermes.conf stuff on my own, but after that incantation, things just worked. As we speak, I'm basking in the warmth of 2.4Ghz radiation.

Mmmmmm... 2.4Ghz...

Saturday, March 1, 2003

Fred Rogers on fair use.

From Boing Boing, the late Fred Rogers on fair use, in his congressional testimony defending the VCR:

Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been 'You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions.' Maybe I'm going on too long, but I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important.


I went to school at CMU, which is a couple blocks from the studio where the Neighborhood was filmed, and we'd even hear of Mr Rogers sightings in our neighborhoods (Oakland and Shadyside) from time to time. It always felt good, knowing he was around.

What a great man. He will be missed.

Friday, February 28, 2003

I need me one of them zero gravities.

Forwarded by Tom Duff: an after-hours experiment on the International Space Station yields an incredible result: plain water can form thin films in zero gravity, like soap films on Earth. Excellent animations are available.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

It could happen to <i>you</i>.

Today I read the slashdot article My Short Life As An Unintentional Porn Spammer with the same detached amusement I reserve for all spam-related anecdotes.

Then, several minutes ago, my wife called me, confused by the appearance of 19 bounce messages in her Yahoo! inbox. The bounces are in response to some diet-related spam, faked to look like my wife sent it.

Coincidence or vast interplanetary conspiracy? You decide.

Thursday, January 30, 2003

It's cheaper than a phone psychic, too.

Via LawMeme, Jack Balkin has consulted the I Ching on the future of copyright extensions, and The Oracle
has spoken.

Friday, January 24, 2003

Boy, You can say that again...

[Posted by Kevin:]

I was checking my mail this morning and finally realized the irony of the title bar on my screen. I use MS products for most of my computing needs, despite the fact that I strongly dislike the privacy and monetary policies of Microsoft. I have tried numerous OSs and window managers (even replacing the shell of Win2000 several times), as well as ISPs and mail clients. Right now my needs are best served by the products I use, unfortunately, they happen to be mostly MS based. Despite that, I have a healthy suspicion of MS products and can directly appreciate the irony of the below image.

MSN Mail - Trash Can - More Useful Everyday

Thursday, January 16, 2003


When the slashdot article

The D Language Progresses
appeared last weekend, I didn't expect
anything useful from the article comments ("This language will change
the world!" "We don't need another language!" "Beowulf Cluster!"), but I
took the opportunity to check out the latest language spec.

I'd seen the language before, and I approve of the general goal: create a
statically-typed, compiled, garbage-collected, module-based language which
is as similar to C++ as possible while excising the nastier bits.
If it were complete and well-supported, that's the kind of language
that I'd seriously consider switching to. However, a look through the spec revealed a language feature that's all
too common, and which makes me cranky.

On the list of C++ "features to
drop", D mentions

  • Creating object instances on the stack. In D, all class objects are by

RRGH! This is true of too many otherwise promising languages. Several
native value types are supported (int, float,
string, etc), but
user-defined value types are prohibited. Instead, all user-defined types
are "by reference", which means every class instance is heap-allocated individually.

For most of the programs I write (graphics, physics, etc),
int, float, and string aren't the only value
types I'm interested in. What about 3-dimensional points? Matrices?
Colors? These value types all simplify programming enormously,
especially when combined with operator overloading
(which D does support, incidentally). I'm not suggesting that D should support these natively; these
are just the sorts of custom types I expect to be able to
create with the class mechanism.

And it's important for these types to be true value types, and not
"by reference". Why? Because I commonly pack thousands of
instances into arrays for transport and manipulation. If all class
instances are "by reference", then arrays of those instances are
actually arrays of pointers, not arrays of the objects themselves.
The objects themselves get heap-allocated willy-nilly, and memory
coherence goes all to hell.

(It doesn't have to be this way, I suppose. You could prohibit instances on the stack but support
tightly packed instances in arrays on the heap. But
I see no evidence that D does this.)

The D documentation justifies its decision thusly.

This eliminates the need for copy constructors, assignment operators,
complex destructor semantics, and interactions with exception handling
stack unwinding. Memory resources get freed by the garbage collector,
other resources are freed by try-finally blocks.

True enough, though I'd much rather have "complex destructor semantics" for some objects if it means I can pack thousands of them into an array.

'Course, I'm really just saying "D doesn't seem appropriate for math-intensive,
very data-heavy applications." And perhaps that's not profound, or even
interesting. After all, garbage-collection is similarly
ill-suited to manipulating enormous datasets since dead
values don't get deleted right away. But I like garbage collection in general. I guess I want a language where some values can be garbage collected,
with other deleted explicitly. Or where large
structures can be tracked differently by the garbage collector, so they get deleted right away.

So my complaint may be irrelevant to D. But it still makes me cranky, because the only language I've found that's good at data-heavy stuff and general-purpose app work is C++. And C++ is, well... C++.

Soon we'll have the world's most buff penguins.

The penguins in the San Francisco Zoo appear to have been brainwashed by six newcomers. Since the new arrivals, all 52 penguins now spend all day swimming in circles, to the point of exhaustion.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Another drop in the bucket.

Today I wrote to my representative in support of Boucher's Fair Use bill. The letter is here.

I won't hold it against you if you write to your representative, too. If Tuesday's BSA/RIAA/CSPP agreement is any indication,
corporate backing for the Boucher bill may falter, and
so constituent support is more important than ever.

No good.

Sigh. Via Lessig Blog, The Supreme Court has upheld the Sonny Bono Copyright Extention Act, 7-2. One majority opinion, two dissenting opinions (Stevens and Breyer).

I join thousands of others in thanking Larry for his effort, and for inspiring so many to care about the issue.

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

"C'mon, let <i>us</i> decide."

Today the RIAA, the Business Software Alliance,
and the Computer Systems Policy Project announced an href="">agreement
on issues of digital copyright and piracy. The agreement is touted as "significant...cross-industry coordination", and is painted as a landmark compromise between former rivals.
However, this agreement--which, notably, did not involve consumer interest groups at all--is bad news.

Some background: The RIAA has generally supported
measures like the proposed
CBDTPA, federal legislation which would mandate
copy-protection hardware in all digital devices. This bill represents an even larger threat to consumer rights than the already-passed DMCA, and has earned ridicule and loathing among consumer groups and computer geeks alike.

The technology industry has, by and large, spoken out against the CBDTPA, arguing that government-mandated technology would stifle innovation and increase production costs. Some have taken this as a stance against digital rights management in general, though
should shed doubt on that interpretation.

Meanwhile, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA) has been pushing legislation
that would reverse some of the damage done by the DMCA by making explicit certain consumer rights, including fair use, in the context of digital content.
This bill has met with acclaim in the internet community, but support from the tech industry has been lukewarm.

Today's "truce" makes it clear why. In the announcement, the RIAA agrees to oppose legislative mandates such as the CBTDPA, and in exchange the tech companies agree to pursue DRM technologies and to oppose fair use legislation such as Boucher's bill.

[H]ow companies satisfy consumer expectations is a business decision that should be driven by the dynamics of the marketplace, and should not be legislated or regulated.

Think about what they're saying. They're saying that fair use, the long-established doctrine that protects consumer interests, should not be enforced by government mandate. Instead, market forces should decide what protection, if any, is granted to the public.

As appealing as that may be to our capitalist sensibilities, it's well established that the Market is no panacea.
As much as we hate regulation, market forces are notoriously dysfunctional in industries dominated by several huge players. When entrenched interests may limit innovation according to their designs, market forces offer no protection for consumers--or for other potential
innovators. Does that sound at all familiar in this context?

What's worse, market forces offer no guarantee of balance when the nature of the market changes suddenly. Today, the consuming masses literally don't know what they want. For all its enthusiasm, the public hasn't yet grasped the
significance of the Internet. The possibility of a collaborative culture of information hasn't occured to most people, and so they don't know that it's something worth asking for. (How many broadband customers have even noticed that their uplink speeds are crippled?)

If we want to find out what that culture would be like, we can't leave it up to "market forces". Not when that culture threatens the livelihood of the biggest players in the market.

UPDATE: Interestingly, the BSA has taken down their article on the agreement, mere hours after posting it. An article expressing reservations about Boucher's bill is still there, though. A separate article on today's agreement can be seen here.

UPDATE 2: The PDF file describing the "policy principles" of the agreement is still available.

Monday, January 13, 2003

Our strategy is to biggify while also dumbifying.

There's a growing suspicion that the promise of the Internet is to eliminate the need for distributors and publishers entirely. When anybody can publish to everybody for cheap, and when the googles of the world can play matchmaker, what purpose do the weasels in the middle serve? They only drag us down.

Futher, it's oft speculated that the mental inertia and impotent flailing of the content giants will only speed along their timely demise. I'm generally skeptical of this claim, though. These are the brilliant businessmen who built the most powerful industry on the planet. They're bound to catch the cluetrain eventually, right?

Apparently not. According to the New York Times article Music Industry Braces for a Shift (free reg blah), hard times may lead the industry to

  1. Consolidate the major labels (from five to three) to reduce overhead; and

  2. Reduce the total number of artists signed, so they can "focus their bets more".

So the problem, as they see it, is that there's too much creativity out there, really, and it's just
holding them back. *cough*


Thursday, January 9, 2003

Bargain, not balance.

I hadn't seen Richard Stallman's essay Misinterpreting Copyright before. It's very good, especially the bit about the "striking a balance" myth. Read it.

He also points out that we should measure the effectiveness (and necessity) of copyright extensions by the number of actual works produced, and not by what copyright holders say they want. (Of course they want more power. What else would they say?)

It's amazing that so much of the copyright debate is centered around what makes copyright holders feel good, and not on what actually seems to promote creation. Not that it's easy to measure that sort of thing, but anything would be better than taking their word for it.

Wednesday, January 8, 2003

Getting a head start.

Via Copyfight: Yesterday Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA) reintroduced his fair use rights bill for the new Congress. That he introduced it so soon in the new session suggests that he takes this seriously. Here's hoping that more of Congress follows suit.

Visit airport, get fondled <i>free</i>!

Via Lessig Blog, Penn Jillete stands up to federal airport thugs with interesting results. Contemplating a lawsuit, he says

[F]reedom is kind of a hobby with me, and I have disposable income that I'll spend to find out how to get people more of it.

Sadly, in the
follow-up article he concludes that a noisy lawsuit might do more harm than good. Oh well.

Tuesday, January 7, 2003

I can't believe this story keeps going.

In 1972, 7-year-old Steven Stayner was kidnapped by convicted child molester Kenneth Parnell. After being held captive for 7 years, he escaped, and Parnell went to prison--for only five years. Steven's story was told in the 1989 TV movie I Know my First Name is Steven.

In 1999, three Yosemite tourists were found dead, and then a Yosemite nature guide was found beheaded. Several months later the killer
was caught
. It was Cary Stayner, Steven's older brother. He offered a confession in exchange for child pornography, claiming that if he had had access to child pornography, he probably wouldn't have committed the crimes.
(He didn't receive the pornography, but confessed anyway.)

Four weeks ago, Stayner was
sentenced to death
, though under California law it will be automatically appealed.

Meanwhile, last friday, Kenneth Parnell (now 72 and living in Berkeley) was arrested for allegedly trying to
buy a child

UPDATE 2003-01-09: He seems to have confessed. Yikes.

Make this ad go away!

Today Slashdot had an article about a site about Star Wars action figures in the 80's. Not too interesting unless you're seriously into collectibles. I'm not.

However, I'm happy to report that the site brings up a popup ad for, of all things, popup blocking software. (Sometimes it serves a different ad, but if you reload a couple times you'll probably get it.) That means someone, somewhere, felt that popup ads were intrusive enough to be worthy of elimination, but not intrusive enough to keep them from using them themselves.

It's like distributing ads for brick-proof car windows by wrapping them around bricks and chucking them through car windows.

'Course, this only happened because the version of Netscape at work doesn't block popups. Silly Netscape.

Thursday, January 2, 2003

I want a bumper sticker that says "Offscreener."

While playing around with Phoenix, enjoying its toolbar-free gesture-driven fullscreen mode, a thought occured to me. Phoenix, like most apps nowadays, is themable: You can choose from many aesthetically different (but functionally identical) appearances. I've had the distinct feeling for a while that themability like this is not just silly and pointless, but that it's a sign of a deeper problem. I've generally dismissed it, though, as "too many programmers with too much time on their hands".

Still, I'm a sucker for eye candy, and so I tried out
several of Phoenix's (quite attractive) themes. Then I moved on. Later, operating happily in Phoenix's fullscreen/gestural mode, I realized that all of the themable interface elements were now hidden, and so the
themability was completely moot.

The deeper problem, I realized, is this: Programmers spend so much time tweaking the appearance of interface elements, it doesn't occur to them that the control could be anywhere other than onscreen. With so much work put into bevels and drop shadows, why wouldn't you show it off?

Well, for one thing, many people (let's call them offscreeners) prefer keyboard controls, popup menus, and other mechanisms that don't take screen real estate away from the actual content. And while it's possible for an app to work both ways, it's rare for it to work well both ways.

If you want to support efficient offscreen controls, it's not just a matter of adding keyboard shortcuts and popup menus. Nobody benefits from obscure, undocumented key shortcuts--not even diehard offscreeners. Common operations should be easily accessible, gestural when possible, and keyed by context. Less common operations should be less simple, but should be accessible through the same simple mechanisms--hierarchically when necessary. As much as possible, all controls should be amenable to "muscle memory": repeated use of a feature should teach your hands--not your eyes--how to access it.

This last point is critical. For offscreeners, the visual system is engaged with the content, while the hands perform operations on the content. The visual system shouldn't be pulled away from the content to perform common discrete tasks: that's what the hands are for. For less common operations, which the hands may not know well, it's sometimes necessary for the visual system to be sidetracked to search for the control. But the result of that search should be something meaningful to the hands, so that soon (after several uses) the visual system doesn't need to be sidetracked any more.

This is the whole point of radial menus, of course. With a traditional menu, you may quickly memorize how to reach some deep, nested menu item. But navigating such a menu still requires you to aim the mouse at specific menu rows, and so still requires the attention of the visual system. Radial menus, on the other hand, allow quick, simple movement with no aiming required. They're visual-system-friendly, but can be operated entirely by the hands as well.

I'll say it one more time: Efficient offscreen control isn't about memorizing obscure sequences and shortcuts; it's about teaching the hands to work without the help of the visual system. The visual system has more important things to do. (And so, for that matter, does the mouse, which is sort of the liaison of the visual system in the computer. The mouse should not be distracted from its spatial work to perform non-spatial tasks.)

Finally, it's critical for all operations in an application to be accessible in the absence of onscreen controls. Too many applications have keyboard shortcuts (or popup menus) for most, but not all, of the app's features.
This is an offscreener's nightmare. Offscreen control can't be an afterthought, or some important aspects will inevitably be missed.

In short, a powerful offscreen interface takes planning and effort. And the incessant themability of modern apps makes it clear that that effort isn't high on anybody's priority list. Enormous toolbars, sidebars, menubars, status bars, floating toolboxes and tear-away menus are the norm. It doesn't bode well for us offscreeners.

Wednesday, January 1, 2003

May I never see another toolbar.

I'm now officially in love with Phoenix, one of the various browsers based on the Mozilla page-rendering engine "Gecko".

Why? Fullscreen mode + auto-hide toolbars + context-sensitive radial menus = one virtual desktop with nothing but web page, navigated via gestures. No toolbars, menus, or borders wasting screen real estate. No multiple browser windows (thanks to tabbed browsing, also hidden and navigable via gestures). No popups (thanks to, er, popup suppression.) Beautiful.

I decided long ago that having more than one window onscreen is overrated, and that toolbars are stupid. The screen should be devoted entirely to content, not application infrastructure, and definitely not to windows half-obscured
by other windows. Sadly, most apps--open source apps in particular--are careless with the number of windows they open. The Gimp, for example, is an interface nightmare. A new dialog excreted every few seconds, usually on top of the content you're working with. Blech. (And I say this as a diehard Gimp enthusiast.)

Phoenix is the first app I've seen in a while that's really compatible with my lifestyle. It makes me happy.