Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Mysterious Lake Baikal Ice Circles Visible On Google Maps!

In a recent Wired article, I read about a circular region of melted ice that ISS astronauts spotted from space in a Siberian lake. It's almost certainly caused by some upwelling of heat from the Earth's crust, however no one really knows what's going on. For grins, I went and checked out the Google Maps sat view of the region and it's not during the winter. Instead, it shows lots of dark blue water. But when I took a screenshot and ran it through The Gimp's "Colors -> Auto -> Equalize" filter, I got the picture to the right, showing that the region appears in a slightly different color, even when the ice is melted! This is probably due to differences in dissolved gasses or salinity caused by the heat, but I'm no geologist, so I'm not sure. It's just interesting that Google Maps has had this data all along and no one knew.

You'll notice a region to the lower right that is a very different color of blue. It looks like this is a seam between two different sources of images. That's where a more detailed set of (probably aerial) photos begin. The main region is a lower-rez and probably older set of photos that I believe were from the original satellite images that Google Maps began with.

Update 2009-05-27: Similar features can be seen around the northern circle that was identified in the Wired article, when using the Google Maps images. However, much more telling is the fact that the location pictured above was the epicenter of a magnitude 6.2 earthquake late last year. I think that makes it fairly likely that this is a geothermally active area and that the circles could indicate escaping gasses or related events.

Note: the image to the right is from Google Maps, and reproduction of the image is governed by Google's copyright and licensing. It is used here only to illustrate a matter of academic interest.

Monday, May 25, 2009

I'm In Love With the Maine Coastline

Maine coastline in Kittery
A view from the Maine coast.
From Misc Photos

There's so much to love about Maine, but I'm always amazed by its coastline. The jagged rocks and sandy beaches are as wonderful a contrast as the weather which ranges across the full gammut of New England's "if you don't like it, wait a minute" patterns.

The picture above was taken at the Fort McClary State Historic Site in Kittery. Too many people go to Kittery for the outlet stores. I think that visiting the nearby coast should be required of anyone shopping at those stores.

Ogunquit Breakfast: Bread and Roses Bakery

I'm in Ogunquit, Maine for a wedding and popped into Bread and Roses for a bite to eat.

I've been here once before on a previous trip and I'm just in love with their muffins and little quiches. If you're on the streets of Ogunquit and find yourself looking for food, skip the big restaurants and try something simpler.

If you ask for a plate, they'll give you one, which makes it easier to take your goods out to the small tables on the side of the building and watch the foot-traffic go by.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Mt Welch In the White Mountains: iPhone Panorama

view from Mt. Welch in New Hampshire's White Mountains
View from Mt. Welch and the Waterville Valley
From Mt Welch hike 2009-05-17

This lovely picture was taken from my favorite mountain in the White Mountain chain in New Hampshire. The mountain is called Welch and the spot is on the Dickey / Welch trail loop. The high point that you can see in the picture is the summit of Mt. Welch and the low point is a cliff that overlooks the Mad River and the Waterville Valley. I just love to go to this mountain, and I try to make it at least twice a year. It's a wonderful spot for just hanging out, taking night photographs, watching meteor storms, and the like.

What really pleases me about this photo is that it was taken with my new iPhone (the old one just died a month after its warranty expired). It's a composite panorama of over 30 individual pictures that I took immediately on arriving. I stitched them together using the free autostitch demo.

CHDK for PowerShot Cameras

A sample of what CHDK can do in a darkened room.

Last night I tried out CHDK for the first time. This is a third-party software suite for the Canon PowerShot line of cameras. It allows all sorts of interesting things that the PowerShots don't allow by default. For example, the picture to the right was taken in a nearly pitch-dark room with an 80-second exposure. The PowerShot can only do 15 seconds out of the box.

But there's far more. CHDK includes tools for multiple histogram modes, "zebra" flashing of blown-out regions, and even a scripting language in which you can write your own code to control the camera! For anyone who wants to be able to carry around a small camera that's capable of taking complex shots, this is the tool that will let you do it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wrong Again: The WoW Arena

Long ago I swore I'd hate World of Warcraft Player vs Player (PvP) combat. Then I discovered battlegrounds. They're fast, fun and a great group activity. I was hooked.

Years later I'm doing the arena for the first time, and though I still feel that tactical play is not as fulfilling as strategic play, I was wrong about the arenas having no appeal for me.

Blizzard did a great job putting this together, and the only complaint I have is that your first day will suck, as the system callibrates your level of skill and gear. Once again, WoW is a better game than I gave it credit for.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Licensing Primer For Gamers

For those who aren't long-time open source software developers, especially gamers who write mods or addons (see my previous article) I'd like to provide a quick Q&A to answer some of the questions (and misconceptions) I've seen come up recently. I want to emphasize that I am not a lawyer, but these topics are fairly general, and I believe I'm fairly safe in providing a basic intro. You should read the licenses you apply to your software before you do so, of course.

Question 1: "Are open source and public domain the same thing?"

Answer: Not at all. Public domain works are works that have had their copyright expire, revoked or were not eligible for copyright protection in the first place. Open source software, on the other hand is copyrighted and that copyright has one or more owners who retain the rights with respect to that software. Just because you've allowed others to copy your work doesn't meant that you don't retain control of it. For example, you're the only one who can offer that work under other licensing terms or transfer the copyright to another party.

Public domain licensing (see below) is not open source licensing, though it has some properties in common. That's important to remember.

Question 2: "But don't you give up your rights when you license something as open source?"

Answer: All licenses (regardless of how proprietary they are or are not) represent compromise between the copyright owner and the licensee, but copyright status of a work doesn't change because it was licensed under open source terms. It only means that you've allowed re-distribution and modification of the work.

Question 3: "Can I change the licensing terms of my open source software?"

Answer: You can if you are the sole copyright holder. However, if your software is made up of code that you wrote and code that others wrote, unless they signed ownership of their changes over to you, you do not have sole ownership of the final result, and any change of license must either be allowed by the licensing terms under which they made their changes or must be agreed to by them.

Question 4: "Can someone modify my program / mod /addon and redistribute it without my name"

Obviously, this depends on the terms of the license, but in the case of all of the open source licenses that I know of, no. One exception is public domain software. There's some controversy as to what constitutes public domain software and if you can, in fact, release your own code to the public domain, but as so many developers claim that their code is PD it should be noted that PD software has no copyright, and thus can be claimed by and controlled by anyone.

Question 5: "Why would I want to open source something I worked so hard on"

That's a question no one can fully answer for you, but there are some advantages: it makes it easier and more attractive for others to contribute to your software; if you ever stop maintaining your software, others can pick up the ball; having an open source project under your belt is a nice resume item; and mostly, it just helps to build a sense of community around your software.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Dollhouse Likely To Be Renewed

After the amazing season finale of Dollhouse, I was pleased to hear, today, that it's likely to be renewed. For those who haven't seen Dollhouse, here's the scoop: imagine if a company found a way to wipe out a person's personality and "upload" a new one. What would it be used for? At first, like all new technologies, it would be used to satisfy our baser interests. "Dolls" as they are called are given slave-like personalities and sent into various sorts of "gratification" roles with rich clients.

But soon, anyone with this technology is going to realize that they have the keys to the kingdom. Don't like someone? Wipe their minds and have them run around singing your praises for the rest of their lives. Want to live forever? Have your memories and personality put into another body (willing or not). It's scary stuff, and our heroes (a doll named Echo (Dushku) and an FBI agent named Ballard (Penikett) who's out to save her) are caught up in the machinations.

Season one started out rocky. Episodes 1-5 probably aren't worth watching if you're a new viewer, but 6-12 are knock-outs. If you go to iTunes, Hulu or Amazon to pre-order the DVD, I recommend seeing episodes 6-12 first and then going back to see 1-5 if you feel you need to complete the season. Episode 13 may or may not air. It's not the season finale (that's #12), but rather an epilogue that hints at what will happen in the future and might even give some clues as to a possible spinoff series.

Update: Dollhouse was officially renewed, and will remain on Friday nights.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Ultimate World of Warcraft Boss: Open Source Software

This is going to take a bit of explaining, but the sad state of affairs in the World of Warcraft community appears to be that open source software has been branded the enemy, not by some powerful corporate machine, but by the users that play the game.

It all began with a language called LUA, you see. LUA is a wonderful little language designed for embedded scripting. Blizzard adapted this language (ironically enough, an open source project, itself) to their immensely popular game. It serves as the scripting interface for nearly everything that a user can control in the game from user interface to casting spells to communication with other players. There have been thousands of addons written in LUA for World of Warcraft, and the vast majority of them have been released under open source licenses, though that may now be changing...

You see, these addon authors need some way to distribute their addons. Blizzard provides no official support in this area, though they condone and even encourage the authoring of addons. Instead a number of hosting services such as Curse and WoWInterface have sprung up. There were others, but some shaking out occurred during the downturn to the point that really only those two remained. And then along game WoWMatrix. They indexed all of the extant mods, provided a universal downloader that worked with everyone's site and generally seemed to be solving the problem. The problem was they were also rather unscrupulous. It's not clear if they didn't understand what they were doing or simply didn't care, but the allegations from several quarters ranging from simple failure to credit authors to modification of licensing terms on addons. This went on for some time, and eventually the hosting sites started to notice the bandwidth drain from users who were not using their sites to browse for addons (no ad revenue) nor were they using these sites' services to update the addons (no subscription revenue), and so the financials were not working out as well as they had. Was it actually a critical problem? I'm not sure, but the net result was that they clamped down on all external updating software, kicking off a storm of controversy.

Having contributed to Slashdot for years in the 1990s and early 2000s, I know what happens when you have a large community of technical and non-technical people who engage in debates that involve software licensing: insanity. However, this insanity reached new heights. Here's one example of a user trying to explain open source licensing on the official forums:
Open source is a LICENSING scheme that, like all licensing, relinquishes part or all of an author's copyright. -Nyxia
But, it gets worse. Because of this debacle and the arguments over how or if WoWMatrix violated copyright and various licenses (which is actually quite difficult to judge given that they did not, at least in some cases that I'm aware of, host addons themselves, but only hosted index information), the villain in the conversation came to be open source licensing itself. Time after time, users have been lept upon for attempting to discuss addon authorship in terms of open source development models because of the WoWMatrix incident. Worse, many authors who were distributing their addons under open source licenses have now moved to a cryptically blank, "all rights reserved," entry in the required "Licensing" field in the index information for their code.

This is a sad move, not only because it hampers legitimate attempts to maintain outdated addons by third parties (something that has been done time and time again in the WoW addon community), but because it doesn't actually address the problem. Any addon licensed under the GNU General Public License, for example, must retain all authorship, copyright and licensing information, unchanged, with every version distributed by the original source or any downstream recipients. If WoWMatrix changed this information, then they were obviously already in violation of the terms of any addons distributed under the GPL. Changing to a more restrictive license doesn't change that fact, and only hurts the community.

I found out about this because I made the mistake of trying to solve an orthoganal, but related problem: the lack of a decentralized distribution mechanism for addons in the wake of these recent changes. Hopefully, as I get my prototype system working, some of the ire will have died down, and addon authors will come to realize that they didn't want to shot themselves or their fellow developers in the feet to spite WoWMatrix.

Monday, May 11, 2009

World of Warcraft: Toward a better addon infrastructure

[ note: this proposal has been updated in order to improve tone and add in some additional material that resulted from conversations with WoW addon developers and users ]

It used to be that there were a fairly large number of sites that hosted WoW addons. It also used to be that there were 4-5 reasonably well-maintained programs for updating them. Some, like WUU, worked well with all manner of sites. Some, such as Curse, provided download access only for their own service, others were open to all services.

That's changed of late. Consolidation was followed by exclusion of external download clients which was followed by reduction of non-pay functionality in the proprietary download clients. Some of this happened because of abusive third parties which I don't want to discuss here. Many addon authors are fine with this. Many users are fine with this. I don't question their wisdom, but I do see an opportunity for a better way, and because I have considered distributing my own addons someday, I'd like to make there be more options and flexibility for developers while improving my lot as a user.

Here is the proposal:

Developers of addons sign up with the hosting service of their choice. Services that are not purely WoW-related, and which have more liberal download policies than existing WoW hosting services include:

Each service will have to be analyzed to make sure that the intended patterns of access won't violate their terms of service, but I'm pretty sure that services like Google simply won't notice the impact while Sourceforge might. We shall see. Some mod authors already use some of these services, so there's nothing terribly new, here, so far.

Anyway, returning to infrastructure. The next phase is to build a map of these addons. This is not an end-user consumable item, and shouldn't be confused with existing attempts to make lists of addons. Instead, it is a structured document (in JSON, XML, whatever) that represents a method for developers to communicate with their users and inform them of what they provide and how they wish to provide it.

A short list of items to be included in this structured document include:

  • Name of addon
  • Official URL
  • Bug reporting URL
  • General public release direct download URL
  • One or more pre-release direct download URLs
  • Logo direct download URL for display in download clients
  • List of addons enclosed (for UI bundles and addons in several parts)
  • Licensing type

There need to be two points of access for this file: one is a read-only point that allows addon download clients (such as Curse or WUU) to pull down the entire list. The second must allow read-write access in a secure way that allows addon authors to update their hosting and versioning information. A simple RESTful interface should be sufficient to provide both interactions, and could easily be hosted by a small GAE or EC2 service. Someone might even donate the resources to run such an app, but the cost should be nominal even if it has to be hosted on donations because it's not providing access to individual addons.

[ side note: previous versions of this proposal suggested that the document/database should be licensed in such a way that one valid use was to create a third-party Web site based on it. I now believe that this would be a mistake, and that it should have a license more like the IMDB database: allowing free access to it, but not use in creating Web sites. This is to improve communications between users and developers and avoid hurdles in users providing feedback and bug reports. ]

For the service, we must establish authorship in a secure way. There are many ways to do this, but I think we'll have to start by placing all existing addons into the database as dummy entries, but establishing that a given authorship claim is valid can be complex. Most likely this will have to be accomplished in much the same way as search engines validate ownership of Web sites: by providing a "cookie" that the owner must place within the addon. This means that only addons which have a working direct download link will be "claimable". All others will remain dummy records, preventing other users from claiming authorship of a new addon of the same name.

The last component would be modifications to popular downloader clients such as WUU to enable access to the central data and developer repositories. This would need to include the ability to play nice with each hosting provider's means of access (perhaps as simple as downloading via HTTP or as complex as cloning a repository and extracting a given version, depending on the service). Along with this, we would also need a simple command-line tool (preferably that works under Windows, Mac and Linux) that allows authors to submit their updates without having to cobble together their own queries.

I think the benefits of such a system would be massive. For starters, end-users wouldn't have to go to several different sites in order to update their installed addons. For users with 50+ addons installed, this is a great boon. For developers it provides a way to initially select whatever hosting service best suits their needs (note that existing developers may not, at this time, see any direct benefit, nor particularly care; that's ok). For hosting sites, the situation is more complex. Of course, they would prefer not to have more competition from sites that have been doing project hosting for years. However, I believe that in the face of strong and open competition, these services will be made better and stronger. In the long run, I think it will help them as much as developers and users.

The linchpin is the centralized repository. [ note: can even the repository be distributed... sure, but I think that's version 2, as it introduces lots of complexity ] It needs to be rock-solid and very, very simple (complexity breeds downtime). I intend to start working on a prototype system, running from my home network for now. That prototype will be released to a few friends. If you're an addon author or download site maintainer, please let me know if you want to get involved by posting to this article on essays.ajs.com (I'm going to mirror this article in a few places).

Friday, May 8, 2009

Star Trek Review

Last night I went to see an 8PM showing of Star Trek in the Boston Common Lowes Theater. I have to say that J.J. Abrams knows how to target an audience and make a summer movie. Star Trek is not, by any means, a perfect film, but it certainly is one of the better Trek films. To avoid spoilers, let me just say that this is the story of Kirk and Spock and how they first met. That's a loaded statement, but it adequately sums up the core of the film.

The casting is spot-on. Pine is a new kind of Kirk, but not one that's difficult to accept as a close parallel to Shatner's. Quinto is a perfect Spock. I've heard some reviewers say that he's "too Sylar," but I think that's more a matter of their preconceptions of the actor than anything else. One thing to remember about Spock is that he was an emotional powder keg. Like it or not, it Spock spent much of the TV series letting spill the emotions he claimed not to have, and so it's with that view of Spock that you have to walk into this film. His emotions drive him, while his cool logical facade is just that.

Winona Ryder as Amanda Grayson is an interesting choice that I would not have predicted would work out well, but she turns out to be an excellent selection. The only casting that I wasn't fond of was Simon Pegg as Scotty. I think Simon Pegg is a wonderful comedic actor, but I was not entirely thrilled with Scotty being turned into a parody of his former character. It's a small thing, and happens far enough into the movie that it's not too distracting, but it does merit mentioning.

The film is rather deliberate about aiming for summer blockbuster status. It has an almost poetic rhythm that you can measure out: action, action, action, comic relief, action, action, character drama, comic relief. That pattern repeats over and over again throughout the film, and like a poem or song that's trying to keep the meter in the face of a difficult turn of phrase, sometimes the film tries too hard to keep this rhythm. There are scenes which have no real place in the film except to keep the action beat. This certainly keeps up the audience's adrenaline, but upon reflection, it makes for a less coherent story.

To sum up, before I get to the spoilers, Star Trek is a good Trek film and a good summer action film. It has great special effects, and is very tightly written for the most part, but it suffers from a deliberate effort to capture a new audience who don't particularly care about these characters and will come, instead, for things blowing up and people getting shot with phasers.

Spoilers Below!

As has been known in the fan world for some time, this is a Star Trek Franchise reboot. With James Bond or Batman, you just start telling a new story and the audience will follow along, but there are over 25 seasons of Star Trek television and 10 movies to consider when trying to keep up with Star Trek's continuity. Simply starting over would be very difficult on the audience, but continuing to tell stories in that universe is a nearly insurmountable task for writers. Either they need to spend more time learning about Star Trek than learning their trade (think about what kind of writer that gets you) or they need to use stunts like the one Voyager employed to move the action outside of the continuity... at which point you are left wondering why you bothered to call it Star Trek.

Along comes J.J. Abrams. His insight was simple: Star Trek has time travel. It's a deeply ingrained part of the mythos, so why not use it. In the first few minutes of the story, Kirk's father is killed on the day of his birth. This sets the time line on edge and allows for an angrier and more troubled Kirk. It also sets in motion the events that will lead to turmoil for Spock. This is all well and good, and as is openly stated in the film (in case you didn't get it on your own), this means that all bets are off and the characters and events we knew are gone forever (except for Spock whose older self from the previous timeline is now permanently present in this new Trek universe).

Anyway, the idea is simple. The execution is somewhat tortured. Essentially everything that Abrams wanted to accomplish for the franchise is accomplished in the first 10 minutes. Everything else is a "getting to know you" story, and sadly that leaves the villain in a rather uninteresting spot. In one sense that's OK because as villains go, pissed off miners (not to be confused with Kirk as a pissed off minor early in the film), aren't very interesting villains anyway. He's also in a ship which appears in no way to be Romulan, and yet we're supposed to accept that it's a Romulan ship. Sure, it's a mining ship, and that means it would look different from their military ships, but there's simply no rationale for this hybrid between a Babylon 5 Vorlon vessel and a Lovecraftian chrysanthemum. But I digress...

The Kirk/Spock relationship is well played. I could accept nearly all of their interactions, but Kirk alone is a problem. He's too angry, and frankly that doesn't play well, here. He simply would never be given a shot at being an officer until he learned to calm down and lead. Leadership is, in fact, something Kirk has to learn on the fly in this movie, and that feels wrong. Worse, he's given a ship to captain at the end of the film. Sure, he just saved Earth, but he's simply not ready to take on the administrative and personal leadership role of being captain of an important ship in the Federation's fleet. Of course it was going to happen, and there's really no way around it, but it still felt wrong.

Bones plays almost no role in the movie. He's there to get Kirk onto Enterprise and then crack wise about Spock's green blood. Now granted, that was most of his role in the series, but the movies typically treated him a bit better. It's sad because I liked the actor that played him, and I would have liked to see more of him as a character in the movie instead of a vending machines for racial insults.

So I may sound like I didn't enjoy the film, but let me be clear: I'm being critical because I actually liked it, and my prediction about Abrams was correct: his problem is that he can't execute on an idea after a certain point (e.g. second season of any TV series he's done) and a movie offers him the perfect opportunity to do what he does best and get out before it stops being interesting. Hopefully he'll do only one more film or simply hand over the reigns now. He's set up a new generation of trekkers and that's an accomplishment, but if Star Trek movies become another one of his long teases, I and many others will become disenfranchised as quickly as we were brought back into the fold.

In terms of other films, I'd place this one directly adjacent Star Trek IV, which I consider to be the second best of the series. It was no Wrath of Khan, but it was a solidly good Star Trek film and a very enjoyable summer blockbuster.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Star Trek: The Quest for a Younger Audience

Tonight's (or tomorrow's depending on who you listen to) Star Trek movie won't be the first time that Paramount has tried to update their aging property to attract a younger audience. Back in 1997 David Hines posted to several Usenet newsgroups a modified version of a Paramount press release. The release detailed the addition of a cast member to Star Trek: Voyager named 7 of 9. This character was played by an actress named Jeri Ryan. While fans might have cut the casting choice some slack, the press release dashed all hope that anything other than her figure had been considered. It was so blatant an attempt to change the demographic of the show to favor younger males, in fact, that a full Mystery Science 3000-style script was the only resort. And so I present you with the only link I can find to this fine example of creative fan scripting:

MiSTed: Press Release on New Voyager Borg Character

If anyone can find the original post, rather than the re-quoted version, I'd much appreciate it.

The Tubes Are Clogged

2nd story walkway with the Akamai in background

2nd story walkway with the Akamai in background
From Misc Photos

Ever wonder what happens when the Internet's series of tubes gets clogged? Apparently, they call in this guy....

World of Warcraft Mod Review; Carbonite

World of Warcraft is the only MMO I know of that provides tools for overriding the entire user interface. This has lead to a profusion of "mods" that are unlike those for most games. Many games will let you write content such as levels. Of course, in an MMO that's not practical. In EverQuest, you could replace the user interface specification, but that only let you move elements around or re-skin them. In WoW, for example, there's a number of mods that help manage quests in a variety of ways. Some are simple. Some are rather gigantic. The most sweeping that I've seen to date is called Carbonite.

Originally a for-pay mod, recent changes in Blizzard's policies resulted in Carbonite becoming free to download in full. The mod provides most of the features that I used to get from QuestHelper, Cartographer and SimpleMinimap, but it does quite a lot more in some areas. The features I've been using include:

  • A re-vamped quest tracking UI
  • Guides to most quest locations
  • Auto-rescaling minimap that shows quest destination and current location
  • Waypoint arrow showing direction of next objective
  • A trailing line on the minimap that shows you where you've been
  • Google Maps-like world map (like Cartographer 3)
  • Integration with Atlas for instance mapping
  • Detached and freely movable minimap button bar

These are just some of the things it can do, and I'm still learning to use the mod. It's very slick, and really feels like something that's being done professionally. However, there are some problems.

For starters, the UI configuration is a mess. Learning how to lock any given window is an adventure, because it's different for each. The main configuration menu is a maze of options, and it's not always obvious what's being referred to. For example, "minimap" sometimes refers to their replacement minimap and sometimes refers to the classic minimap which can be optionally embedded in theirs or left as a stand-alone along side Carbonite.

Outside of configuration, gathering is difficult with Carbonite at first. You really have to get used to the rescaling of the minimap and learn to control it. I've also had some problems with importing my various gathering node maps into it, although the options are there. After a night of frustration, though, my miner was back to top form and mining away, though still populating some nodes in Icecrown that had gone away.

One really positive thing about Carbonite: footprint. I saved about 30MB of overhead going from Cartographer/SimpleMinimap/QuestHelper to Carbonite.

Overall, I'd say this mod is worth the pain of transition from something else, but it's a huge time sink to adapt. I'd suggest that you try it out at a time when you're not being asked to lead a raid or otherwise rely heavily on your UI for anything important.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


A desert at Finale
A desert at Finale
From Misc Photos

Finale is a dessert restaurant that I went to for a friend's birthday party in Harvard Sq. If "dessert restaurant" makes you think of the Cheesecake Factory, disabuse yourself of that notion immediately. The entree menu here is fairly restricted, and the focus is really on the deserts. Of these, there's a range between indulgent and simply artful, but the name of the game is sugar and chocolate. If you enjoy the two, prepare yourself for an evening of pleasant surprises.

Speaking of Midnight Star Trek Showings...

I'm not 100% certain what the deal is, but in all of the ads I've seen and on IMDB, the official release date of Star Trek is May 8th (Friday). However, many theaters are showing it on the 7th at normal times (I'm going to see it at 8PM). Why the odd timing? I suspect that what's going on is the movie studios coming to terms with the midnight showing phenomenon. To date it's been a fairly standard practice that for highly anticipated movies, the theaters will have a showing at one or two minutes past midnight on the night/morning before the release. Because technically this is still on the correct day, they are obeying the terms of their contract, but it's harder to get the right kinds of media buzz going at 1AM than it is at 8PM.

The end result is a wide release on the announced date with "select theaters" (I'm sure there's a lot of negotiating over what it takes to be "select") showing it on the day before.

Anyway, this lead to my selecting an 8PM showing tomorrow night, and while I'm very excited, I have to say that I'm a little scared. For over a decade I've wanted Paramount to clean house, get rid of the old guard that had turned Star Trek into the Vulcan Oiling Show and do another movie with a sense of purpose. Now it looks like that's what we might have, and my enjoyment of Star Trek is at a cusp. Either I'll come out of this film eager for the next in the franchise, or I'll likely be done with it... we shall see.

Back In the Day: Greyhawk Cosmology

I used to be a pretty serious D&D player, and for the most part, I was glued to the Greyhawk setting as the backdrop for my games. In one of my longer bouts of ambition, I put together a map of the Greyhawk Cosmology. This was as comprehensive a list as I could develop at that time, given the resources I had, of the gods and other deities and planar beings of power in the world of Greyhawk.
It was a rich set of sources to draw from. The back-stories for malevolent evils such as Tharizdun were perfect for antagonist cults and the like. In fact, everything about the cosmology was ripe for story-telling. The only thing that I was frustrated by was the lack of new source material, especially when Wizards of the Coast shut down Paizo's ability to publish Greyhawk-based Adventure Paths.
Today I look back and wonder if I'll ever have the ambition to put a Greyhawk game together again. It's so much work, but I love the setting and every time I've worked with it before it's been worth the trouble.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Onion Dishes Star Trek

The Onion's videos don't usually impress me (I prefer their articles and radio news), but this one was just brilliant. A co-worker just forwarded it around the office, so I figured I'd share with the Web (if it doesn't render correctly, embedded in my blog, go to its original location):

I'm going to go see the movie on Thursday, as I wasn't able to find listings for local midnight showings the night before. Hopefully this will be the first Trek since IV that will be worth seeing on opening night....

The "Follow Me" Push

Google provides a gadget for social networking on blogs. You'll see it to the right in the sidebar, labeled "Followers." As of now, this blog has 5 followers. I'd like to keep that growing so that we represent the community of folks interested in this blog. So whether you're interested in the photography or the geeky topics or the politics or whatever, please follow this blog, post a comment or subscribe via RSS and we'll try to grow our little corner of the world into something more.

Meanwhile, here's what I have planned for the future:
  • Obviously, I want to get out into the woods and take more mushroom pictures
  • Next, I have some articles on Perl 6 coming
  • I'm also working on a set of tools for combining Google applications in new ways... a sort of API mashup. I'll have more in the next month or so
  • I've also been thinking about blogging more about the state of World of Warcraft. I don't play as much as I used to, but the mod-writing scene for that game continues to fascinate me, and I'd like to have time to say more about that
I look forward to sharing with all of you. See you in the funny pages!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Mushroom Photography Season Approaches

An Amanita mushroom button
From mushrooms

In past years, I've taken quite a few pictures of mushrooms, but the last two years have been a bit light. Part of that is the weather, which has been rather dry, but part of it is just how little I've made it out into the woods. Hopefully, this year I can change that. I've already spotted morels outside of the Marriot Hotel in Boston (yep, right on their mulch there were three of them), and a few scattered spring mushrooms around the city. I'll be trying to make a run up to the White Mountains in New Hampshire soon, but if I don't at least I'll make it to the Middlesex Fells Reservation, which is just north of Boston.

If you live in the Greater Boston area and haven't made it to either Blue Hills or the Fells, you really should. The trails there range from pleasant walk to serious hike and there are some views of the city and of the surrounding area that just can't be beat.

For mushrooms, I usually go to the southern part of the Fells (see map to left) for the great view and lots of different kinds of terrain that support mushrooms. If you walk north from here, you eventually come to the sheepfold, which is a lovely pasture used as a dog park. Around there you find many types of field mushrooms and there are many swampy areas that support mushrooms as well.

For species that prefer moving water, the eastern Fells has a great waterfall area that's fairly easy to get to from a parking area on North Border Road.

The key thing is just to get out there and enjoy it!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Google's Detractors

In my recent article about being a canary in Google's coal mine, I wanted some links for articles about Google as a privacy problem. This lead me to a site called Google-Watch. Now, to be fair, there's always going to be someone who says that any given service is going to rot your teeth and make the county lose the trade war. It's not surprising that Google-Watch exists, therefore. It is a bit surprising, though, that for a site with so much to say about Google, they don't actually cite anything of interest.

So what is Google-Watch? It seems to be run by Daniel Brandt, a detractor of Google's who apparently first got into blogging about the evils of Google as a result of a dispute over his ranking on the search engine (note that I am extracting this background from Google-Watch-Watch, a site which has a clearly stated bias, so your mileage may vary). In essence, the site is a pool of articles about the evils of nearly everything Google does. Scanning books? Evil (but there's a more balanced view of the good and bad of it available). Page ranking the Web? Evil. Offering free email services? So evil that even sending mail to a gmail account terrifies him to the point that he can't do it. He really is a one-issue guy, and has no room for a middle-ground.

OK, so on to some specifics. He quotes some ancient history:

A blogger puts up a spoof page on 29 May 2003 announcing a "Nigerian Email Conference." By June 6, this spoof has 105,000 hits. Most of these are due to Slashdot, a geeky forum with lots of noise and juvenile humor, dripping with PageRank, which mentioned the spoof on June 1. But there are also 600 links in Google for "nigerian email conference" by June 6, picked up by the "freshbot" as it made its way down the repetitive link panels on various blogrolls. The geeks at Google love Slashdot, so Slashdot's little chuckle even shows up on Google News.

This example is one of the best examples of his lack of perspective. What he's reporting as a failure on Google's part is the ebb (and presumably flow) of the popularity of a bit of Web humor. Slashdot, one of the original "web logs" (from which the modern term "blog" derives) is a geek-friendly news side full of Internet technology news, humor and science. Slashdot was, independent of Google's page rank which came about a year after Slashdot began, an instant sensation among the technical crowd and so popular at one point that its "Slashdot effect" was known for killing Web sites by linking a news story to them and crushing their servers with an influx of curious users. Death by popularity was one of the greatest ironies of the early Web.

So his claim is that there's something wrong with this picture. That somehow because the site was humorous, there's something wrong not only with it becoming popular but with a news site covering it and Google tracking the news site in Google News. There's certainly some value in calling out Slashdot as a less than fully serious site, but I don't see why there's a problem here beyond the need to improve organization of content in Google News.

But it gets better. Allow me to quote once again:

Google-lover Jimmy Wales scolded me when I tried to delete the Salon and watch-watch links from Wikipedia. Mr. Wales is already rich, and knows that someday Google will make him even richer. Wikipedia is the world's most-scraped site. Google loves Wikipedia — those scrapers have to grab content from somewhere so that they can show Google's ads on their pages. Everyone gets rich, except for anyone who gets slimed by the process.

That's right, now we're attacking the founder of the world's largest repository of legitimately valuable Web-based information on topics ranging from physics to history and everything between. He's attacking Wales because he wasn't allowed to delete content from Wikipedia which he found to be objectionable. So on the one hand the problem is that Google's secret agenda is putting your privacy and data at risk. On the other hand, the problem is that Wikipedia's public agenda isn't letting him remove information from the Web.

There's something about Wikipedia and folks with an axe to grind. They seem to attract each other. I've never seen a Web ranter about any single-minded cause that hasn't decided that Wikipedia is the enemy. Interestingly, they usually move on to Google. This guy just went about it in the other direction.

Anyway. Google detractors exist, and I've been one at various times. I don't want there to be one search giant. I don't want there to be one email/voice/calendar integrator. I want there to be other good services out there, but while Microsoft and others fight for the ability to lock in users and provide minimal service, Google keeps adding in new and innovative features. They experiment (voice mail transcription certainly isn't perfect, but it's free and in my mailbox, so I'm not complaining about the rush-to-market), they tinker and they contribute back. Thousands of open source projects are fostered and contributed to by Google. They're truly helping to make the computing world a better place.

In essence, I'd ask Mr. Brandt: what have you done to make the Web more useful? Did you invent a better search engine? Write an open source phone operating system? Or is the only difference between you and Google the will to try to see your dreams through to reality?

Movie Titles: One Letter Off

In a recent podcast, Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo (who I've blogged about before) explored the idea of a word game where you take a movie title, remove one letter and the come up with a description for that movie. The results were often quite humorous, so I thought I'd come up with some of my own.
  • Ulp Fiction - Dangerous moments in storytelling.
  • The Ark Knight - The Knights Templar discover the lost remains of Noah's Ark... hilarity ensues.
  • The Empire Trikes Back - A Star Wars sequel that takes place after a galactic ponzi scheme leads to financial ruin.
  • Ear Window - One ENT specialist's first-person account of the medical industry.
  • The Usual Suspect - What this sequel lacks in suspense it makes up for in unusually drawn out story-telling.
  • Psych - The murders never really happened. It was just a hotel-keeper's mother's bad dream.
  • The Sience of the Lambs - What herders lack in spelling capabilities, they make up for in controlled studies of livestock
  • It's a Wonderful Lie - After deciding to end it all, a local man comes up with perfect suicide note that blames his woes on everyone he's ever interacted with.
  • Seen - Does dropping a number count? Well, if it does, this thriller will treat you to every tired surprise ending cliche you've seen in every other movie.
  • Lord of the Rings: The Two Toers - While short and possessed of deformed feet, a race called Halflings manage to save the day.
  • WALL* - Werry Animated, Lifelike and Likable. Sure to make a ton at the box office!
  • Forest Ump - If you build it in the middle of the woods, they won't come.
  • A Clockwork Range - Mircowave repair is at the heart of this feel-good film!
  • China Tow - One man's story of the attempt to get an impounded car back in Hong Kong.
  • Terminato - Twister and Terminator franchises combine in this sequel to watch!
  • Requiem Or a Dream - Though depressing, it's hard to figure out if the events of this film actually happened.
  • Das Bot - Web site crawling bots center in this story of military intrigue in World War III
  • Aging Bull - Otherwise known as Rocky IX
  • Modern Ties - The lonely neckware vendor in love
  • Meropolis - Little mermaid is grown up and trying to run the public works department in her family's kingdom.
  • 2001: A Pace Odyssey - The film that takes on the question: could it have been any slower?
  • Full Meal Jacket - I don't care what it's about, but I think I don't want to watch it!
  • Mr. Sith Goes to Washington - Star Wars prequel that takes place on Earth. Jedi and Sith battle for your vote!
  • Raveheart - The sequel to Go!
  • Hotel Wanda - A kindly couple run a hotel and nothing unfortunate happens. A sadly overlooked film.
Well, that's all I have time for. Have a good night!

Being a Canary in Google's Coal Mine

I have a number of friends who either won't use Google's tools or resist doing so on the basis that Google is becoming the one-stop-shop for all of the personal data on everyone's lives. My friends aren't the only ones that have concerns, either. I appreciate the concern, but I also think that Google is doing a good job at aggregation and that's not something we should disincentivize. Instead, the thing to do is to have some people really dive into Google's services and find out where that leads them.

I've signed up for:
  • Blogger (this blog)
  • Gmail
  • Google Docs
  • Google Reader
  • Google Apps (my ajs.com domain)
  • AdSense
  • AdWords
  • Google Health
  • Google Calendar
  • Webmaster Tools
  • Analytics
  • iGoogle
And probably some others that I'm failing to think of. The point being that I've taken the plunge and I'm using these services on a daily basis. Google is part of my life now. I'll continue to update this blog from time to time, not as a booster, but as a canary... hopefully one of many. Feel free to check back from time to time and see how it's going.

I'm also working on some tools for combining Google's services in useful ways. My first experiment is a tool that will create a new blog, using the comments that I put on shared articles on Google reader. I'll update here about that as it becomes available.