Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Don't be your own worst enemy: A lesson I'm always learning

When I was young, I felt as if I didn't have control over my life. Part of it was social. I moved around a lot and never developed the sort of friendships that most kids use to build the social skills that they later use without thinking. Instead, I just seemed a bit ... retarded (and I mean that word in the clinical sense in which I was introduced to it when I volunteered in a special needs class in grade school).

As an outsider, I latched onto the few things that could act as a social crutch: being funny, being weird. These things at least made people pay attention and sometimes react positively. I also suffered from what was never correctly diagnosed as attention deficit disorder (ADD), and the memory problems that came with it were often a source of additional strange behavior. For example, I would carry around a giant gym back full of every book I might need because otherwise I would always forget to have any given book for a class.

As I grew older, these odd tics mostly melted away. I met enough people who were in the same boat, socially, in college to catch up and develop some social skills. But some of the tics stayed and became part of my persona. One of them was the urge to be strange enough to get noticed. The number of times in my life that I've created a situation that made me strange in order to stand out are... well, difficult to count. I've probably spent upwards of a working year explaining myself or trying to get a bureaucracy to cope with some strangeness or other. Why? Because it's how I roll, to use a phrase that's more modern than I am.

I suppose I should just be glad that I never did anything too permanent. I never changed my name to something obviously made up. I never got myself plastered with tattoos. I'm generally free of any major fits of poor judgement.

Now that I'm getting older and I'm starting to see those places where I've deliberately made my life difficult, I'm starting to unwind them, but let this be a warning to others: if something seems like a great way to draw attention, think carefully about why you want the attention. Don't tilt at windmills if you don't have to. At the same time, fight the good fight for your individuality if you must. There are times and places for it, but like all of life, there is a middle way.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Dangerous Software Gaming Essays: My four blogs

I'm currently actively maintaining four blogs. This is my random thoughts blog where I'll continue to post about things like politics, science, media, and so forth. Some of my posts will continue to be essay-like, and some will be more traditional blog posts in a mix that I'm sure what few readers I have have come to expect...

In addition, I have three much more laser-focused blogs that will get less frequent updates:


Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Last Airbender movie review

The Last Airbender didn't suck. There, I said it. I put off seeing it for a long time, since the TV series was one of the few anime-style (I believe it was an American production with Korean animation) series that I've truly loved. The last thing I wanted to do was tarnish that memory with a crap movie, and everything I'd heard seemed to indicate that this was exactly what M. Night Shyamalan had done to it. Not so.

That's as much as you get without spoilers. From here on in, I'll assume that you have seen either the TV series or the movie. If not, go watch the TV series, and if you love it, see the movie, but don't expect a lot.

First off, let me be clear: I didn't think it was a great film. Casting was poor (though, to be fair, finding children that can carry an entire and relatively heavy movie is nigh impossible) except for Dev Patel and some supporting characters. The boy cast as Aang was acceptable, but not perfect. Part of my problem with him, though, was the writing, and I'll get to that. There was also a rush to tell the entire story of the first season. Frankly, this is where the movie made its largest blunder. If they had done a 2-movie set with the first and last half of the first season, then I think we could have seen a really great pair of films, but as it was we introduced and rushed past many interesting characters from the first season, just to get to the Northern Water Tribe. This had to be done, because Sokka's love is introduced and killed there... an arc which requires at least some time to explain and create an emotional resonance for. As it was, her death still felt artificial and rushed.

So, what did I like about the film? Clearly M. Night had a deep respect for the visual pallet of the series. He kept an awful lot of sets from the first season and they look beautiful. The core story is all there, and though there were some subtle changes, I mostly liked how it all played out. No one's back story was really broken, so much as just bent in places. Little bits of humor were much appreciated, especially Sokka's, "I always get wet!" Appa and Momo have sadly tiny parts, but what little we see of them is as fun as ever.

M. Night's writing has to be a major topic, here, though. He just turned what could be argued is the best children's drama of the past decade into a barely passable live-action film. It's not that he's a bad writer, but I think that he gets far too absorbed in certain aspects of a story or film, and he's just not that director that can write and direct his own work. This is made clear as he repeatedly has characters repeating themselves or consoling each other with platitudes that fall short of the dialog he was starting with. He has problems with pacing, structure and dialogue which simply cannot be ignored. Next time, Mr. Shyamalan, can I humbly suggest you get yourself a script doctor? Ask Joss Whedon (whose script doctoring is legendary). At the very least, he can probably point you at someone well worth the trouble.

Anyway, see the film and expect nothing. It's a fun popcorn movie and if you can get past the rushed storyline and late introductions of major characters, it will be worth seeing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why physical stores are better than online

I don't like online stores, but I love them. Until recently, I couldn't figure out why this was. I love the convenience and I feel like I get a better deal online than I do in a store, but for some reason I have this very low-level desire to go to a store to shop instead of loading up Amazon, eBay, Google Music or what-have-you. Why is that?

The other day, it finally occurred to me, and when I saw Tim O'Reilly's recent post about publisher ecosystems and the closing of Borders I thought I should post my thoughts on the topic. I suspect that many people love physical stores for the same reason, but can't quite put their finger on why.

Ok, so short answer: physical stores have a greater selection.

Yes, I understand that that's absurd, but it's actually true in a sense. The online stores that I use tend to have vastly larger selections. In fact, the smaller and more specialized they are, the larger their selections are within those niches. The Paizo store, for example, has the broadest supply of Paizo Publishing products that I know of (kind of obviously). So, why would I go to a store to look for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook? Well, I wouldn't, but when I want to browse, that's another story.

Browsing online is fun, in that I can navigate through items quickly without having to stoop over and look at the bottom shelf or otherwise contort myself to find cool things, but there's a shift in the power dynamic. In a physical store, the vendor puts everything they want to sell out on the shelves. Sometimes they might put out dummy items (like empty DVD cases), but in terms of browsing, I have everything right there to look at, and I can look at whatever I want, regardless of what the vendor wants me to buy (e.g. what has the highest margin, or what wholesale vendor they're trying to bump up to a larger order size). Sure, they can strategically place items in end-caps and on eye-level shelves, but ultimately I'm going to look where I want for what I want.

In an online store, the vendor decides what I'll see unless I do extremely specific searches. There might be items that they have for sale that, due to a desire to steer customers elsewhere or oversight, I'll never see. In fact, I can't know what all the books for sale on Amazon are at any given time. There's no master list that I know of, and certainly no wall of titles that I can just glance over and let whatever grabs my eye do so.

It's this subtle shift in the power dynamic where the online retailer isn't required to show me everything that's "on the showroom floor" that I instinctively dislike about online shopping. Maybe the last book on the end of the bottom shelf was just the one I was looking for, but would never have remembered the title or author.

Of course, when it comes to books, I can pick up a book in a bookstore and glance through the entire thing. Online, vendors simply can't get publishers to agree to such a thing (heck, they never would have agreed to it in physical stores if customers were willing to buy sealed books... but they're not).

Monday, November 28, 2011

Hugo: When 3D goes wrong

I was invited out by a friend to see Hugo. He chose the time, and I didn't think to question it. Only when we got there, did I realize it was the 3D showing. I despise 3D in live-action films. It's not always a travesty, but it's never as good as either 2D live-action. 3D animation, on the other hand, can work well. How To Train Your Dragon was, in my opinion, the best case to date for 3D in film. It actually added depth to the film, and not just to the scenery, but that's something I've never seen in live-action, and have serious doubts I ever will. If I do, it will likely be in Steve Jackson's The Hobbit, but I'm not holding my breath.

Anyway, we went in to Hugo and I settled in to watch not 1, not 2, but 3 trailers for 2D-to-3D conversion films: Star Wars, Titanic and Beauty and the Beast! This bodes ill for 2012... Then Mr. Scorsese's film began. Let me first say that the movie is wonderful. I love the story, the tour of early film history that the story revolves around, and I even loved a little bit of the 3D work when it came to flashback sequences around the makeshift movie studio. I didn't care for the security guard character. He was meant to be comic relief, but he came off as a misplaced character from another film whose sole job in Hugo was to keep the kids awake through an otherwise leisurely paced film. Ben Kingsley... what can I say? He's profound as Georges Méliès. When he breaks down and cries, he manages to pull me in and make me want to weep like no other actor I can think of.

But there was the damned 3D. It's not terrible for the full length of the film (other than the annoyance of wearing sunglasses to watch an already dark film). But there are some shots that recur over and over again that feel terribly gimmicky. The pendulum for the main clock in the train station is not as interesting, I submit, as Mr. Scorsese seems to think it is. Also, snow, dust and other motes floating right in front of my face aren't interesting. They simply make me want to look away.

Overall, I'd say Hugo is worth seeing, but not in 3D.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Golden Age is over, long live The Golden Age

Recently, on Google+, David Brin said simply:
"Stop mythologizing the past. The golden age we dream of is only in the future--and only achievable by moving forward."
While I agreed with his general sentiment, I disagreed with the generalization, and said so. This sparked some debate with other followers that I thought I'd try to capture and clarify, here.

In my reply, I pointed out that some areas, such as personal electronics, seem to be on an escalating trajectory of improvement that is bringing increased quality of life to vast numbers of people. However, at the same time we have substantial changes to established areas which are profoundly negative. For example, food and music are two art forms that used to be taught pervasively and are now taught to a shrinking minority of enthusiasts. As the public becomes less educated about these art forms, the pinnacles of experimentation and exploration in these arts will diminish. It's not that there won't be great musicians and cooks, but overall we'll produce fewer of them, making fewer advances to the state of their respective arts.

In fact, I think it's safe to say that the golden age of food was either the 19th or 20th centuries, depending on the part of the world you are looking at, and it's likely that the 21st century won't make the same inroads except in less developed nations where the majority of the population still prepare most of their own meals in the home, and thus continue to share and teach their techniques as a cultural heritage.

For music, I think that the problem is not as uniquely tied to the developing world, but the real source of experimentation will certainly stem from cultural blending the way it always has, especially in the folding of Asian, Middle Eastern, African and South American music into the global culture (a process which began in earnest in the mid-1960s and continues to this day).

So, there are still good times ahead, but when you over-generalize about a "golden age" I think you're always likely to be wrong at some level (probably many).

Cheap DVDs this week

Keep an eye out on Amazon this week for cheap DVDs. For example, the Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection which contains movies 1-6 is down to $40 while The Lord of the Rings: Trilogy (Extended Editions) is $50! Nice for gifts or just picking these up for yourself.

Also, don't forget to peruse my list of top indie films that are available for streaming as well as on DVD...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"What's hot" considered harmful

If you log into Google Plus and click on the "hot" link on the left hand side, you'll see a stream of articles that have received a large number of +1s from users. But is this useful? I contend it's actually harmful, here's why:

Back in the day, we used to expect news to come in large batches, once per day, either in the evening news or a newspaper. As information distribution became easier, we've increased that to a nearly constant stream of data in the form of 24-hour news channels and various Web-based feeds. The problem is that there's no more going on in the world, and so we have to turn up the gain on what "hot" means. For example, right now in my Google Plus "what's hot" feed, I see:

Now, none of these are useless articles (well, perhaps some) but there's no real sense of what "hot" means, here. In the long run, the harm comes from the overload that we all get trying to keep up with what's actually interesting in the world. Why do these fluff pieces float to the top? Because there's no sense of what "+1" means. I might "+1" an article about a cat jumping really high and a gas explosion in my home town, but those two don't have equal meaning.

Google is a company that knows how to manage information, so you would think that between Reader and Plus, they would find a way to analyze and digest for you, not just articles that others or you would find interesting, but articles that actually have a deeper connection to the real world and events taking place. For example, news of the evictions in New York of the Occupy Wall Street folks or the death of a world leader are not just "hot" but "important."

Perhaps there should be a "what's hot" like feed that doesn't try to stay full all the time, but rather attenuates the flow of noise down to just those few updates. Tailoring it to interests is fine. It's entirely possible that there are folks out there who find the release of a new iPhone far more compelling a current event than the fall of a fascist dictator, and that should be reflected, but it's the desire to "keep the pipe full" that's causing problems, not the weighting of topics.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Immortals: A bad movie in a bad theater

A friend that I saw Immortals with argues that whatever my impression of the film, it's probably a slightly better movie than I give it credit for. His reasoning, which has some merit, is that we saw it in the Revere, MA theater, which is apparently run by people who don't know how to work a light switch. After requesting that they turn off the lights twice, we gave up. Between the lights and the 3D sunglasses, the movie looked very dark, and that really ruined ... well, not much. There really isn't much to this movie.

Here's the short version of the review: don't bother.

The long version after the break...

Monday, November 7, 2011

Why do we argue about text editors?

Google for "emacs vs. vi" and you'll see a torrent of pages that claim that one text editor is superior to another. Supporters of vi will claim that emacs is huge and bloated with unnecessary garbage that's unrelated to editing. Supporters of emacs will claim that vi is just a toy, capable only of the most basic text editing, and falling short whenever a complex task appears.

The waters have gotten muddy, of course. Nowadays, emacs is a fairly small application compared to behemoths like a browser or an IDE like Eclipse. Similarly, there are newer, beefier versions of vi such as vim that provide many of the features that emacs users claimed were essential to emacs's superiority over vi.

So, why do we argue about which is best? Wouldn't it make sense to learn all of the editors out there and then make an informed choice as to which to use in any given environment? Well... yes, but we don't argue about editors for rational reasons, and therefore (much like religion) we can't easily come to rational choices about their use.

I think the problem becomes much clearer if you compare a text editor to a spoken language. Speakers of American English will tell you that "colour" is spelled wrong, but this was a gradual change that occurred over the course of the 18th century, splitting the American and British spellings. Clearly, what we're dealing with is a spelling error that occurred in the United States and then became entrenched. So, why hold onto this error? Why not just normalize the language now, across both regions? Because language isn't used just to communicate. In fact, probably just as important is its use to help distinguish those who are from other subcultures, and thus not immediately trusted as "us".

The same is true for editors. We argue about them because they are the tools we use to communicate our thoughts. The parts of our brains that discern "us" from "them" on the basis of language aren't aware of the idea that we're using our editor to communicate with a non-sentient machine. Those parts of our brain just experience the routine process of turning thoughts into communication. So, when we consider another editor, we immediately recoil because, to part of our brains, that feels an awful lot like becoming a traitor to our people; abandoning the marker that shows which social group we belong to and picking up a new, alien language.

It doesn't matter that none of this actually applies, it's just a quirk of the way we think about communication.

So, the next time you run into someone who tells you that, "emacs sucks, vi rules!" or visa versa, just tell them that they need to spell that "emaucs"...

Monday, October 31, 2011

Grimm and Once Upon a Time

I've seen a fair amount said about the two shows. Obviously, this is a case of one network having gotten wind of another network's show. It's not so much "copying" that goes on as that the studios have tons of projects that have been proposed at any given time, so when they hear "modern day fairy tales" then can quickly greenlight whatever they have in the proposal stage that's similar.

The similarities aside, the two shows are radically different, and I think they'll appeal to different crowds. Grimm looks to be a police procedural with fantasy elements (Buffy the CSI Werewolf Slayer) while Once Upon a Time is more like LOST in many ways (large cast, stranded in a strange place, flashbacks) and definitely the more daring concept.

My problem with both series is that the writing is good with a few painful bumps along the way. Fantasy is hard to get right and fantasy melded into the modern day is even harder. But both Jane Espenson (Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Torchwood, Once Upon a Time) and David Greenwalt (Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Grimm) are alumni of the genre, so I expect that they'll both bring what they have to bear over the long run.

I've heard people ask, "where is Once going to go once everyone remembers," but that doesn't concern me. A few things to keep in mind: while the major first-season villain is likely the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla), I very much doubt that she will end up being the "big bad" for the series as a whole. Right now, my money is on that being Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle) or perhaps whoever he's working for...

Grimm is also setting up quite an interesting set of villains. Without spoiling things too much (as there are some heavy spoilers to be had) the villain that is introduced at the end of the pilot will obviously put a spin on the series. I imagine that villain is going to be a one-to-two season focus and then they plan to broaden the scope of our hero's "hunting".

I'm probably going to stick with Once for now, but I'll come back and check out Grimm once the DVDs are out.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Obamacare has to go

I think most Americans will agree with me that Obamacare needs to go. It's a dangerous and uncertain plan that looms over American businesses at a time when this country needs growth in order to extract itself from a terrible financial crisis. However, I also think that the majority of Americans understand that the status quo in healthcare isn't working, and we need to fix it. Thankfully, we don't need anything as radical as Obamacare in order to fix it.

The problem with our current health care system is that it pretends not to be a universal health care solution, but it actually tries to function as one. Medicare acts as a catch-all, paying for those who cannot afford health care when they are brought to an emergency room. Sounds reasonable, since that's a life-or-death decision, but in reality, people who can't afford coverage wait until their conditions are life threatening, and then the go to the emergency room, there to be covered by Medicare. They don't do this because they want to live off of the public dole, but because it's the only option they have.

So we end up paying far more in emergency room expenses than we would otherwise (vastly more) because these patients can't afford the cheaper coverage before hand that would let them see an out-patient doctor for an infection or broken bone.

Obamacare tries to patch this up by intruding into people's lives with a giant government plan. Instead, what we need is to involve the free market. Open up options to people to allow them to subscribe to the plan of their choice where they can afford it and to provide some kind of market-sourced solution, not a giant government bureaucracy, when they can't. To help individuals to work together to get costs down, we can leverage employers by having larger employers who can already afford insurance, subscribe to the plan of their choice from the provider of their choice. Again, the market will solve an awful lot of these problems for us.

For smaller employers, we need to remain hands-off so that they have the chance to grow and flourish to become the Googles or the Amazons of tomorrow!

There are some other concerns. No matter what side of the abortion issue you're on, I think it's fair to say that Americans are divided enough that our national health care strategy should't go to pay for it. Resolving contentious issues should never be done through giant bureaucracies!

Also, the existing Medicare system should be modified to work more closely with this new, market-driven plan. That allows the government to save a substantial amount of money on Medicare and transition those services to the lower-overhead system.

To everyone who's giving me an "amen" on this anti-Obamacare rant, I'd just like to say one thing: I kind of lied. The above is a description of the Obama Health Care Plan. All of the cries of "uncertainty" and "government takeover of health care" are basically just a smoke screen to prevent you from thinking rationally about what is really the only rational solution for a country that is so heavily invested in the idea of the free market. If that were not the case, we could cut costs and improve quality of care by going to a Canadian or British single-payer model, but there's no sense pushing such a model in the U.S. right now.

The limitation of the Obama plan is that it doesn't really address many of the outstanding issues with Medicare and Medicaid coverage, but that makes it an incomplete plan, not a useless one.

If you want to understand the Obamacare plan better, and really have a handle on where it does and doesn't live up to what we should expect, see my previous article about the bill before it became law.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Oil and Gold: What will the end of fossil fuels bring?

I just came across Charles Stross's posting about the end of fossil fuels boding the end of space exploration (or at least a massive slowdown).

I have to disagree, but the topic brought up a lot more thinking about fuel and our economy than it did about space, at least for me. The man he's quoting calls the end of fossil fuels an, "unprecedented transition," but of course, it's not. Our original fuel (and building!) material of choice was wood. When wood ran out (understand that when we talk about a resource "running out," we mean that it became difficult enough to use that it was no longer the ideal source) we moved on to a combination of iron and oil. Interestingly enough, this lead to a massive explosion in both out economy and technological growth. One could argue that if wood were a much more rapidly replenished resource, we might not have had a space race, or at least it might have come much later.

So, what will the end of fossil fuels bring? We can't really know, but one thing it won't bring is the end of our desire to expand, learn and explore. Will that be in space, or will we decide to go to the bottom of the oceans or into the Earth's crust first? I don't know. We have a lot of 3-dimensional territory to explore and exploit. What I do know is that running out of oil will be a fast process when viewed in the long term, but probably slow enough that we'll transition to something new, just as we did before.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thinking about The Avengers' trailer

If you haven't seen the trailer for The Avengers yet, here you go:

All set? OK, let's talk about what it says about the film. Joss Whedon's name is on this one, and there's something he does better than, I think, anyone else in Hollywood right now: he uses other people's material. Buffy drew on vampire movies and it didn't apologize for them or "reboot" them. It had one thing to say: what if the cute blonde in the alley kicked the monster's ass? Beyond that, it just rolled with the genre. When he did Firefly, he didn't constantly rub your face in the fact that it was a planet-of-the-week show, a concept pioneered by Lost In Space and Star Trek, but that's exactly what it was. He didn't need to tear apart the Star Trek idea and tell you he was doing so; it was its own show, and proudly part of its genre(s).

So, what does that bring to The Avengers? I think the primary thing it brings is a respect for the existing films. Tony Stark's (Iron Man) snarkiness comes through loud and clear in this trailer, making it clear that the humor of the first Iron Man movie (and to a lesser extent, the second one) inform his story in this film. It's not going to be a case of "re-imagining" Iron Man and making him Joss Whedon's Iron Man, and that's really important. Whedon's voice will come through loud and clear without having to beat us over the head with it, so he can use what the other films gave him.

On the down side, we get only a taste of Loki, but he does have that Master/Evil Spike (Buffy: The Vampire Slayer) sort of feel to him. The overwrought arch villain, which is something Whedon does well but his best villains have always been the very slightly sympathetic sociopaths like Saffron (of the Our Mrs. Reynolds and Trash episodes of Firefly), The Operative (from the Serenity film) and of course, lovable Alan Tudyk as the deeply disturbed killer, Alpha in Dollhouse. These maladjusted but brilliantly competent characters who could easily have been the hero, but for some wrong turn in their pasts, are what I look forward to in any Whedon work. Indeed, we even get to see the creation of one such villain in what I think is Whedon's best work to date: the farcical, musical short film, Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog. So, it's with some disappointment that I note that so far The Avengers lacks that sort of villain.

A few other observations: others have pointed to all of the civilian eyes pointed at the sky in this trailer. I won't divulge the currently hot rumor as to why that is, but suffice to say that there may be quite a lot of plot that you don't get wind of, here. Also, I'm not yet sure what they'll be doing with Black Widow or Hawkeye, but my guess is that they're going to be the cynical military types at first who our super-powered heroes need to win over in order to create a real team. That can feel tried and worn or it can build a sense of larger purpose. We shall see...

And when talking about S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, we can't skip over Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson. With his shaved head and long, black leather jacket I can't help but be reminded of Fishburne in The Matrix. Especially as he's coming out of the helicopter with his extra-large collar. The facial hair and the eye patch are the only things that make him not a caricature of Morpheus. Still, Jackson was a brilliant choice, and leather coat or no, he's entirely capable of playing Nick Fury to the fullest.

The trailer is clearly about the Iron Man character, and I expect you'll see a new trailer every month or two, now, that will focus on each of the others. I can't wait for the Hulk-focused trailer. His story is probably the trickiest in the movie, and can fall flat quite easily.

One last note on Downey: I'm always impressed with his comic delivery, but the "genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist," line is delivered with such ease and yet the sense that he's thinking about it and ticking off the boxes in his head... it makes it feel like wit and not just ego. Stark hasn't thought about the answer to that question before, and he's probably just as surprised by the answer as we are. That's comic gold, and it's what Downey delivered over and over in the first Iron Man movie. I can't wait for more.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Azam Ali, Niyaz and Vas

I've been following Azam Ali for years, now, ever since she was the lead vocal in the duo, Vas. She is, according to Wikipedia, an Indian American of Iranian descent, and she has two qualities that make her a knockout performer: a beautiful, sultry and mysterious voice combined with a sense of ethnic heritage that stems from the parts of Persia and India that we very rarely hear much about in the U.S.

Her recent solo album, From Night To the Edge of Day, embodies the fusion of her heritage perfectly. There's an Indian sensibility to many of these songs, but it's unlike any Indian music I've ever heard because of the Persian influences.

If you check out her most recent work, I also highly recommend you look into Vas (who I've only mentioned in passing, here, before). This was the original group that I heard her in, before she left the "alternate worlds" duo to be the lead of Niyaz. I don't think I've ever heard her sing in English, which is kind of interesting, since she's certainly capable of it, but I'm not certain that I'd enjoy her performance as much without the ethnic distance that I feel from it. Listening to a Niyaz or Azam Ali song is like taking a vacation in an exotic corner of the world.

Azam Ali's music has also been featured in a number of films and television shows from the songs Whirling from Prince of Persia to Svarga from Fight Club (neither one of which is available on the soundtracks for those films, sadly). Probably her most recognized work is a small but memorable vocal part in the fight theme from Matrix Revolutions, Navras by Juno Reactor.

As you can tell, I really enjoy her work, and pretty much anything she's involved in, I'll probably get around to listening to at some point. Hopefully, a Niyaz tour will come to my area someday...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Spies Like Us makes Austin Powers cheaper?

I just noticed that the Austin Powers collection has some odd pricing on Amazon. The Blu-Ray edition of the Austin Powers series is $20.49 right now. The regular DVD version is $10.99. However, the collection of the first three Austin Powers moves plus Spies Like Us (no, I have no idea why) is $9.99. So the studio will effectively pay you $1 if you're buying the Austin Powers movies to also watch Spies Like Us. Interesting...

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Passwords and XKCD

I feel as if I'm walking into a trap. Randall Munroe is sort of a folk hero among geeks, and when I saw his recent comic about password strength, I was, at first, thrilled. Here's someone who knows how to communicate to the masses exactly what they need to know: they choose poor passwords, and could just as easily (or easier) choose strong passwords that they could remember.

I understand where he's coming from, and he's right on some level, but let me explain to you what the layman heard:

If your password is a space-separated list of four English words, no one will ever be able to crack it!

Sadly, there's even solid proof that that's the case. Here's the first example I've seen of a "password" generator based on his approach: XKCD Password Generator.

All I can say is /facepalm.

OK, so those of you who might not get what's going on, here, this is what he's saying:

When you try to make a very strong password, your first inclination is often to try to maximize the complexity of the password from a human perspective. This works very well if you're willing to memorize, say, 13 completely random characters from all over your keyboard. However, most people can't reasonably memorize such a password.

So what most people do is try to come up with something that's difficult to "read" but follows an easy-to-remember pattern. As Randall correctly points out, this is a losing game, and often results in passwords which are relatively easy to guess using simple attacks.

However, his approach is to choose your password from a list of about 17,592,186,044,416 possible passwords made up of four English words. That's a pretty strong password compared to a lot of the kinds of passwords people typically use, but if you're comparing it to the gold standard (randomly selected characters from all of the 95 characters you can type on the typical U.S. keyboard), then you would only need about a 7 character password to make up the same number of possible passwords. 7 character passwords became relatively trivial to crack when I was still new in this industry, and now even 10 character passwords are looking shaky, just in terms of what it takes to crack the perfect password.

So, is Randall right? Well, yes, sort of. However, the best approach would be to combine all of the best strategies for passwords that are easy to remember, not allowing your attacker to know what kinds of passwords to try. Throw in one really odd word to your four. Change up a common saying. Make your password something that's fun to type. Take a simple phrase and censor it out by replacing a word to two with asterisks in a way that makes it sound funny. Combine the first name of a character with part of a quote they're famous for. Draw some ASCII art.

All of these are individually fairly weak strategies, but when you're creative about every password, it's nearly impossible to use any one scheme's weaknesses against you. If you are a target, specifically, this is a strong defense. If a large number of users are being targeted, then there's a larger problem you have to solve, and more attention to detail may be required to solve the problem.

Here are some examples of pass-phrases that you might use. Think of your own clever ways to twist up the keys on your keyboard and be unpredictable. There are still many useful ways to attack your passwords, but it's going to be much harder than if you choose a simple four-common-word password.

  • "David had a little ham..."
  • "d00dz, it's full of stars!"
  • "CaPsLoCkWoNtHeLpYoU"
  • "10qpalzm -- qwerty"
  • "dayO dayayayO, dayl1te come"
  • "<-- I'm with them -->"
  • "Are doomed to repeat it who fail to learn from history those"
  • "[(@)(@)(@)(@)(@)(@)(@)]"
  • "I'm mad as **** and I'm not going to **** it any more!"
  • "Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator Marvin"
  • "Just one uncommon lexeme"
  • "!!1 thousand X yes!!"
  • "._-*-_.o0O*!"
  • "Star Wars of the Roses vs. Kramer"
  • "Sufficiently large values of +/-n"
  • ">->O XKCD O<-<"

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Tea Party Recession

So, phrases like "there is a lot of forced liquidation" and "it's only one rating agency; if others follow that would be a bigger problem," (from The Wall Street Journal) are making me grind my teeth today. This is not because the economy is breaking in a fundamental way that we have not seen in my lifetime, but because, and I say this with a fondness for conservatism as an ideal, this entire fiasco is a politically manufactured event that resulted from, as Sen. McConnell put it, placing the number one priority on making sure Obama is a one-term President. I'm not saying the Republicans wanted to trigger a depression, which we might be on track for, now; but I am saying that you don't set a political goal as priority number one as the country slowly extracts itself from a recession.

Let me also be clear that I wasn't entirely against the idea of using the debt ceiling as a wedge. We've known for over a decade now that we needed to control certain elements of our spending that were out of control, and instead of controlling that spending we increased it over the last 10 years and instituted a series of deep revenue cuts which magnified the problem. Then, when recession hit, we spent our way out of it, further rubbing salt in the wound. We needed a political wedge, but when a reasonable plan, or at least an excellent start to one was worked up by Boehner and Obama, that should have been where we planted the flag. Yes, we still needed more work, but it was the first time I'd heard someone admit that we needed "both parties taking on their sacred cows." That quote is from Obama's address to the nation. Boehner was, at one point, willing to discuss such a radical plan, not because it was good politics for either party, but because it was good governing and the kind of compromise that benefits the nation.

The Tea Party, however, forced his hand. A compromise could be seen as Obama "winning," and first-term Tea Party Republicans would almost certainly be in jeopardy in their first re-election bids. They would never sign on to such a deal.

Revenues were a sore point because many had signed oaths that they would not raise taxes, and even closing tax loopholes was seen as a violation of that pledge, regardless of the fact that massive tax cuts constituted a defacto increase in spending which it was impossible to account for without pillaging critical services.

Now, we have S&P saying that Washington's unwillingness to address revenue shortfalls was central to their downgrading U.S. debt. I've addressed, previously, why such a move was disastrous and why it was critical that we avoid it. Yet, here we are. The Tea Party and revenue oaths brought us here, and there's no contingency plan. In a decade or two, we'll recover from this. We might see very hard times until then, but we'll recover. Americans are resilient in the face of adversity, but I just wish we hadn't been forced into that adversity in the first place.

I'm a moderate who really lives on the Democratic side only by virtue of a handful of social issues. And yet, here I am: forced to view the current batch of Republicans as, quite literally, the enemies of the value of my currency. I would really like them to think about that, but I doubt it's going to happen.

There's a pattern to the Obama Presidency. Health care legislation was an omen. Obama compromised deeply out of the gate, scuttling the plan for a single-payer system on-par with Canada or the U.K., where health care costs are around half of what we spend in the U.S., per capita, for far less coverage. Instead, he proposed an extremely conservative, market-driven, insurance-based approach where existing insurance companies would control most of the system (for an excellent, point-by-point rundown of the health care legislation, see PBS's breakdown, which I've discussed previously in early 2010). So, what did conservatives, knowing that health care is actively bankrupting the U.S., do in response? They pledged to repeal this icon of socialism (!), with no alternative plan for the future of health care in the U.S., which would return us to a state where we would be the only wealthy nation that didn't have a comprehensive approach to health care.

The pattern is that Obama tries to compromise, but the goal of his opposition isn't legislative. Whatever line he draws in the sand, no matter how deep into conservative territory it is, that is the battle line, and Republicans are not allowed to cross it, even if they would have done so before Obama got there. That's not governing. That's not even effective politics. It's just mindless antagonism.

As a result, there's only one thing to call the resulting recession (or depression or whatever this becomes): The Tea Party Recession. This is the outcome that the Tea Party fought for. This is the tearing down of the status quo that they desired. It might well achieve the goal of Obama being a one-term President. We might end up with President Romney (essentially the architect of the heath care plan we ended up with) as a result. But ultimately, this economic result must be the sign that they carry along side their other political slogans. They need to own this result because they fought for it.

As a side note, we're not going to solve this problem until we reform voting in the U.S. Plurality voting (where everyone gets to vote for one option and the largest number of votes for any one option wins) is broken. It's been demonstrated mathematically and in practice that it forces a two-party system. If we want to get away from polarizing politics, we need strong parties that represent the spectrum of views held throughout America. We need to dump our polarizing voting system and institute something like an approval voting system (where everyone votes for every option they like, and the largest number of votes for any one option wins). There are other options to be sure (from Instant Runoff Voting to much more esoteric systems), but which option we choose isn't the concern. Changing the voting system is not a solution, but it's the right first step. If we did that, the Tea Party would be a vocal fringe that the Republicans wouldn't be saddled with. There would actually be a Socialist Party on the left, and compromising with centrist Democrats wouldn't be seen as a slippery slope toward the far-left, because there's a political buffer there.

The next step, of course, is to change the way we seat members of Congress, but a more party-representation model is probably not going to be helpful until we first address voting.

So... can we start working on this? Can we move the ball forward now that the current system has been proven poisonous?

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Android App experiment has failed

My experiment was this: spend 3-4 months doing Android App development, and see if I could make enough profit to justify continuing down this road of freelance development, professionally. The answer is no. The hard fact of the matter is that in 1 month of active use of my first free app, it has made back 1/25th of the money that I sunk into advertising it. Also, in a little under a week, with $50 sunk into advertising, my first for-pay app has 3 installs at $1 each.

While I'm sure that I could continue to put out apps and would eventually see more revenue than this, it is increasingly unlikely that I will see revenue on which I could make a living wage.

Failure is part of life, and I've learned a new programming language and a fairly complex platform in the process, so I don't feel the last 3 months have been a waste, but now is the time to go back to work and start making some money again. I'll leave my apps out there and submit bug fixes from time to time. Who knows. Maybe at some point, there will be a surge of interest...

Budget Control Act 2011: A quick read (part 1)

Here's some points that come immediately to mind on reading the text of the compromise bill that's being pushed to end the debt ceiling fiasco (for which I seriously hope there is a price to be paid for everyone in Congress who decided that political points were important enough to hold a gun to the economy over):

    SEQUESTRATION: This appears to be a cut-and-paste from an existing law.
  • (3) MILITARY PERSONNEL: I'f I'm reading this right, the idea is that, should the president use existing authority to exceed set spending levels to pay military personnel, there's an automatic debit against all other segments of government. An interesting idea. In practice, I'm not sure how it will work.
  • Then there's a lot of implementation detail including who reports the numbers to whom.
  • (A) EMERGENCY APPROPRIATIONS; OVERSEAS CONTINGENCY OPERATIONS / GLOBAL WAR ON TERRORISM: This section seems to exempt budgetary items that Congress and the President agree on labeling as being for military contingencies and the "War on Terror". Which, in practice, probably means the military budget is off the table. That probably renders much of this legislation fairly toothless for anything but reducing entitlements.
  • CONTINUING DISABILITY REVIEWS AND REDETERMINATIONS: It looks as if this section sets hard-caps on how much Social Security expenditures can grow by, effectively applying a tourniquet to the failure of the Social Security Trust Fund (funny story, that trust fund was already spent by forcing it to buy U.S. Bonds, so had we refused to raise the debt ceiling, and had to choose whose bonds to pay off... Social Security would have been one of the parties hoping they wouldn't get defaulted on). The hard-caps on Social Security growth are 623 million in FY 2012, 751 million in 2013, 924 million in 2014, 1.1 trillion in 2015, 1.2 trillion in 2016, 1.3 trillion in 2017, and 1.3 trillion ongoing each year through 2021. There's a similarly large amount that's specified as a cap on fraud and abuse control expenditures.
  • (D) DISASTER FUNDING - This section sets some guidelines on what disaster relief is, how to measure what a reasonable amount of money to spend on it is, and exempts that amount from automatic adjustments.
  • This bill says that it replaces and repeals "Section 275 of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985"
  • Also that, "Sections 252(d)(1), 254(c), 254(f)(3), and 254(i) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 shall not apply to the Congressional Budget Office." That might be a formality of replacing that law, but more reading would be necessary to determine that.
  • (d) EMERGENCIES IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: Interestingly, this section locks in a definition of expenditure increases which includes revenue reduction (e.g. tax cuts). This is a good thing, as it's impossible to control costs without including a measure of what the available funds are and how they are constrained at the same time.
  • (e) ENFORCEMENT OF DISCRETIONARY SPENDING CAPS: This section basically says, "you have to comply with these rules, or your bill can't even be debated."
  • SEC. 106. SENATE BUDGET ENFORCEMENT: If I'm reading this right, the Senate Committee on the Budget needs to submit a balanced budget. So, perhaps (and I'm not 100% on this), the preceding sections deal with the laws that set out exceptional conditions under which the budget can be modified, and this section sets out the requirement that you have to start balanced?
  • TITLE II—VOTE ON THE BALANCED BUDGET AMENDMENT: This section just says that there needs to be a vote in the November-December timeframe on a balanced budget amendment. The only thing that scares the daylights out of me, here, is that the "join resolution" is essentially rammed through as a matter of procedure. What does this mean? It means that no matter what the House and Senate pass titled, "Joint resolution proposing balanced budget amendment to the Constitution of the United States," a joint resolution has to be formed. In theory this is a normal part of lawmaking where the House and Senate versions are merged, but this section strips out some of the controls over how broad and sweeping that reconciliation can be, and how much control anyone has over what goes into that "compromise." In theory, nothing new can get tucked into it, but in reality, there's no real controls here, and we're talking about our Constitution! The states still need to ratify whatever mess comes out of Congress, but there's no chance to edit the Amendment after this stage.

OK, that's it for now. I'll try to digest the rest late tonight or tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Android AsyncTask management

Warning: Coding ahead...

Releasing my own Android app has taught me an amazing amount about Java, Android and the state of commercial app libraries in general. I now have a deep and profound respect for what I considered "trivial" apps, just a few short months ago.

My first app, which still isn't in its final release form (though it's on the Android Market in beta form) had one pretty large problem: it loads images, and at times it would get stuck, forever downloading an image. The solution was to actively manage tasks, of course, but I'm new to Java, and I didn't know much about its task management facilities. I had assumed that it was fairly straightforward, and I would simply:


Alas, that's not it. as I quickly discovered, the AsyncTask class's cancel method is more of a hint. It tells the task that it should wrap up what it's doing, by setting a semaphore (or whatever the underlying mechanism is) and it's the job of the child task to check in with the isCanceled method and react accordingly.

This presented a great deal of complication for me. When the user presses the "back" button or clicks outside of the progress dialog to cancel a download, I don't want to leave a stranded download going, but the download code isn't mine, it's part of the BitmapFactory class. How can I tell it to stop what it's doing? The solution is fairly complicated, and I hope that I'll refine it or find there's a better way over time. Here's what I arrived at (after the break):

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Why defaulting isn't an option

I was in a hotel room tonight, so I found myself channel surfing, and Bill Maher was on. His guests were trying to understand the urgency of the debt ceiling crisis (a crisis that exists only because our politicians choose to make it a crisis). Several times they got confused, with one guest arguing that it didn't matter if we defaulted for a short period, because it would just trigger increased interest rates, which the Fed could just turn around and modify.

His confusion surrounds the imprecise use of the term, "interest rates." There are a lot of interest rates that the government interacts with. One of them is the prime lending rate, which is the rate at which banks loan money (it's actually a starting point which can be modified by circumstances, term, etc.) The prime lending rate is based on the rate that banks will charge each other for a loan, called the federal funds rate. This rate is currently 0-0.25%, which means that banks are essentially loaning each other money without or with very low interest, allowing prime lending rates of approximately 3.25%.

That's the number that Bill Maher's guests were talking about, but it has nothing to do with the debt ceiling crisis (at least directly). To understand why, we need to look at a second type of loan: treasury bills are IOU notes that the government writes over short periods of time. An investor buys one of these T-bills for some amount less than they are worth and in 3 to 12 months depending on the T-bill, they "mature", meaning that the government pays off the investment at its face value. So, if you bought a $1000, 3 month T-bill for $990, you would make a $10 (1%) profit in 3 months when the government paid it off.

The rate is based on a number of factors including supply (the amount the government wants to borrow) demand (the amount investors want to invest) and the risk that the note won't be paid off. In the case of the U.S. government, that risk is considered to be as near to zero as it is possible to get in the realm of investment. Because U.S. government debt is considered the standard for low-risk investment, much of the market is geared toward treating the T-bill rates as a baseline.

A change to that baseline (e.g. because of a single default) would radically change the investment landscape in a way that we can't fully know, because it's never happened before. This is because investors (not the Fed) would not be willing to buy T-bills at the same rate. So, what's wrong with a higher interest rate on our debt? Well, for starters, it means that all of our current projections for the federal deficit over the next several years would rocket up. What's more, all of the large, institutional investors (including nations) who buy U.S. debt would have to scramble to determine if it even made sense any longer, or if they should be buying someone else's debt, possibly reducing demand, and further driving up interest rates. The impact of this on the value of the dollar, inflation and other aspects of our economy is a matter for debate, but it would likely produce a shock wave through every aspect of the economy.

Ultimately, the U.S. would continue to find buyers for its debt, but not before the market had to absorb a fundamental shift in its underlying assumptions at a time when we're just coming out of a major recession. Such economic turmoil at a time like this would be very likely to trigger a return to recession or worse. It could also destabilize investment firms, causing another wave of failures. During the last wave of failures, we relied on the U.S. government's excellent credit rating to borrow funds to see us through the crisis. That, of course, would be changed this time around.

So, as you can see, the "interest rate" on T-bills is very different from the Fed-controlled federal funds rate, and the lack of concern showed on Maher's program is just the result of a misunderstanding about how much impact this process could have. I'm no economist, and I'll admit to ignorance on some of the details, here, but what's important to understand is that ignorance is the basic problem, here. We just don't know how bad this would be because it's unprecedented. We just know that it's a pretty awful idea, and there's no excuse for not paying our bills.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Google+ problems with apps

If you are having a problem signing up for Google+ and you use Google Apps along with a regular Google/Gmail account, try copying the invite link, and then signing out of your Google Apps account, and then visiting the invite link. This worked for me.

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon review

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon was a good movie.

OK, now that I have your attention, let me explain. I've seen better movies, but I haven't seen a better Transformers movie, and even when compared to blow-em-up summer tentpole movies, this one is pretty excellent. First, let me cover its flaws, and then I'll get into a spoiler-free list of what I liked.

The biggest problem with this film is its running time. At 157 minutes, it's about 45 minutes too long, at least. The plot isn't that complicated, but there are a lot of moving parts, and every character has their establishing scene, some cute jokes and a later thread in the climax. There's some weak scripting work here, where a good and disciplined screenwriter could have combined some of those threads and still done justice to all of the characters.

That said, there are some characters that need to go, though. The parents just aren't funny, and I know everyone loves the goofy spy, but I'd forgive Bay if he flushed this character down the drain. Ditto the cutesy tiny Autobots.

The replacement hot babe is forgettable. She seems capable of saying her lines, posing and screaming on command, but she's never given anything else to do, which is a shame. Perhaps less time spent on her underwear and more time spent using her like a Doctor Who companion would have helped negate the need for a good deal of Sam's parents and his own whining. Speaking of Sam's whining, the alternating whining/bravado thing gets old around minute 7 and stays that way until about minute 155.

So, why did I like such a flawed movie? Where to start? It's a 3D movie that's enriched by 3D, but absolutely doesn't need to be seen that way. It's funny. The sheer volume of self-aware, self-referential, and genre in-joke one-liners in this movie is shocking. The CG is art. Flat out, art. If you come away from this movie saying, "great CG, but there's no art to it," then you're just stuck in the mid-20th century. I'll grant that, like the great album covers of the 80s, Transformers's art is communicating in the language of male teen heroic fantasy, but it's still art.

I'm also stunned by the cameos, great supporting characters and some of the nods that are made to previous appearances. Just reviewing IMDB (no spoilers) you have Leodard Nimoy whose last Transformers appearance was in the 80s animated movie as Galvatron. There's also John Malkovich and Alan Tudyk, both of whom could probably get me to go see a movie I would otherwise avoid, and they don't disappoint, here.

The action scenes are truly impressive. There's one slow-motion sequence that's pure genius, and must be seen to be believed. You'll know it when you see it, but just in case you were not sure, it involves a tire being batted aside.

My only real complaint that I voiced coming out of the movie, besides the running time, was the physics. Yes, I know that it's a fantasy, and we're not supposed to be questioning the physics, but it's pretty glaring. There are times when Sam should be turned to paste because he's experiencing G-forces far beyond what a human can tolerate. There are the usual stupid "run through window and live" scenes, but it's even worse, here. Still, you didn't go in expecting accurate physics, right?

Overall, I'd give it about 4 out of 5 stars. Much as I enjoyed it, I can't reasonably give a full 5 stars to a movie that drags on as much as this one does.

PS: Bonus points to anyone who points out at least 2 Star Trek references from this film in the comments.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Cumin and Chili Con Carne

Cumin plant and seeds
from Wikipedia
A friend of mine is allergic to cumin and recently claimed that cumin is a recent American ("Tex-Mex") addition to chili con carne. Further, he claimed that most chili did not contain cumin. I had to look into this, because I know food history can be confusing at best, and this was likely not the whole story. After some investigation, I found out a lot about chili powder, chili con carne and Texas culinary history that I didn't now. Here's the highlights:

So, Chili Con Carne doesn't always have cumin listed as an ingredient, but this is misleading.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Evolution: False dichotomy

I just suffered the pain of watching a YouTube video that featured the Miss USA contenstants responding to the question, "should evolution be taught in schools?" Sad does not begin to cover it, but of course it's unfair to expect these women to be able to speak cogently on every topic... they're not running for political office or the dean of a college. There are some central themes, though, that everyone should understand, and I find myself wondering why they're still so hard for people to grasp.

(embedded video first, then my take, below)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hardest Trivia Questions Ever: Part 3

The third in our series (Part1 and Part 2 are still available) aims for quality over quantity. I'm hand editing all of these now. If you haven't read the others, each question is formulated based on an entry from the "Did you know" section of Wikipedia.

Q: ____ of the 10th Parachute Battalion was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions during the Battle of Arnhem?
A: Captain Lionel Queripel

Q: Rogier van der Weyden's painting (c. 1435, pictured) may contain a self-portrait of the artist as Saint Luke, displaying his affinity with the patron saint of the arts?
A: Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin

Q: anti-communist activist ____ pledged to shave his well-known Solzhenitsyn beard if Moldova united with Romania?
A: Gheorghe Briceag

Q: Iñigo Ed. Regalado wrote the novel ____ in 1921 when adultery was a sensitive topic in Philippine literature?
A: May Pagsinta'y Walang Puso

Q: the ____ (pictured) is the tallest dam in Austria?
A: Kölnbrein Dam

Q: ____ was given a diamond ring as reward for being Bonnie Prince Charlie's food taster?
A: Samuel Ward

Q: Saint John Sea Dogs defenceman ____ continued to play for the ice hockey team even after they fired his father as head coach?
A: Nathan Beaulieu

Q: many Buddhist temples in Japan have a hidden ____?
A: roof

Q: the Sultan of Johor's Oxford-educated wife, ____, earned her degree in Chinese studies and advocates the use of English in Malaysia?
A: Raja Zarith Sofia

Q: Temple Owls men's basketball player ____ has been called "Pepe Sanchez with a jump shot"?
A: Juan Fernandez

Q: ____ served the longest term as mayor of Albania's capital Tirana in the pre-WWII era?
A: Ismail Ndroqi

Q: blues legend ____ made his broadcast debut playing live gospel music on WGRM in Greenwood, Mississippi?
A: B.B. King

Q: the Hymn to Enlil is part of a sequence of Sumerian scribal training scripts called the ____?
A: Decad

Q: the 1562 Danish-Russian Treaty of ____ has been called a milestone in European history?
A: Mozhaysk

Q: ____ was appointed as vice president candidate for the Ricardo Alfonsín ticket for the 2011 Argentine general election?
A: Javier González Fraga

Q: Emily and Anne Brontë's ____ was an early form of science fiction?
A: Gondal

Q: ____ earned a PhD in Belarusian literature before becoming the vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights?
A: Ales Bialatski

Q: in Bach's cantata for Pentecost Monday, ____, a verse from the meeting of Jesus and Nicodemus (pictured) is paraphrased in a unique duet, illustrating the theme exaltation?
A: Erhöhtes Fleisch und Blut, BWV 173

Q: the Californian commune ____ was founded using money from both entertainment industry executives and from an LSD deal?
A: Black Bear Ranch

Monday, June 13, 2011

Android roadbumps

As some of my readers know, I'm writing Android apps. It's been slow. The Java learning curve is actually fairly steep (at least as compared with high level languages I've been working in like Perl, Python and so forth). Just to give you a taste of what you have to look forward to if you want to do some Android development, here's what I've been fighting with today.

First, I had a really silly problem. I had a list and I'd defined a callback called onItemSelect for it. I set a breakpoint in this method and ran the app under the emulator. Click. Click. Click... nothing. I kept going over the code and trying to figure out how this could happen. Click. Nothing. Damn!

So then I was just messing around in the emulator and accidentally hit the scroll wheel. Bang! My callback is invoked! After scratching my head for a second, I had a brain storm. I checked to see if there was an onItemClick callback, and indeed there is! What onItemSelect does is apparently handle selecting, but not clicking on an item. What I'm not sure of is how you could manage to select an item without clicking on it outside of the emulator... honestly, I can't figure out of this is even useful. Maybe if you used the D-pad to navigate a list...

Then, I was trying to write a class that handles a download for me. It needed to take two parameters that represent callbacks. Now, Java is kind of neurotic about insisting that there's no such thing as a function, so when you want to do something that's clearly functional like passing around a callback, you have to do it in terms of an object oriented behavior like sub-classing. I can't begin to explain how horribly wasteful this is in terms of coding and efficiency, but let's just get past that. Here's what I tried to write:

Class file

import B;
class A {
  public void registerCallbacks() { B.OkCallback() {
      public void callback(String result) {
        // do stuff with result
    new B.FailCallback() {
      public void callback(String message) {
        // deal with failure represented by message

And in B:

  class B {
    public void execute() {
      // do stuff
    public abstract class OkCallback {
      public abstract void callback(String);
    public abstract class FailedCallback {
      public abstract void callback(String);

Ignoring the obvious duplication (since it wasn't that simple in my real code), there's only one error, but it's a really hard thing to find if you're new to Java: "static" is required on the definition of both abstract classes. I'm not entirely sure why you would ever define a non-static, abstract, nested class, but I guess there's some application for declaring child classes... still, it seems like this kind of runaway syntax is just absurd. To give you an example, let's look at a hybrid functional/OO language like python:

  from B import B

  def handleResult(result):
    # do something with result
  def handleFailure(message):
    # do something with failure message
  class A(object):
    def registerCallbacks(self):
      B.registerCallbacks(handleResult, handleFailure).execute()

Python file

  class B(object):
    def execute():
      # do stuff...

Notice that, not only is the code simpler, but the extra layers of object-creation, subclassing and all of that noise are gone from the call stack. You pass a function to B and it invokes it when needed, with the appropriate parameters.

Even in Perl, functions can be passed as subroutine references and invoked by the caller. In C and C++, function pointers aren't the same thing at all, but for simple callbacks, they work well enough.

Java is fundamentally flawed in this way, and I'm hoping that they crank out a version 8 or whatever, wherein they finally give up and allow real functional programming.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Tracy Morgan's Rant

In case you're not aware, here's what happened: Tracy Morgan did a standup routine where he said some ugly things about homosexuals in Tennessee. His comments included referring to homosexuals as God's "mistakes" and saying that he'd stab his son if he came out of the closet.

So, now the Intertubes are abuzz with pro- and anti-Tracy Morgan rants. The ones that seem to be gaining the most traction are from Roland S. Martin, a CNN analyst, who supported Morgan; and then there's Wanda Sykes, a fellow African-American comedian who is also a lesbian, and disagreed strongly with Martin, engaging him in an informal debate on twitter.

A few points before I weigh in:

  • Lots of folks want to talk about Morgan's right to say what he likes. This is kind of absurd. Whether you feel he should or should not have included the material in his routine, it's pretty clear that there are lines we don't cross without consequences. I don't think anyone seriously thinks Morgan doesn't have the right to say these things, but many believe that the public should be outraged by them.
  • Martin's defense has some interesting rabbit holes in it. He uses Carlin as a defense, since Carlin had a routine about the word, "nigger." A worse comparison could not possibly be drawn, of course. Carlin was a wordsmith of the highest order whose satire changed the way a nation viewed their own language. Morgan isn't satirizing the gay and lesbian community, he's being crude and insensitive because it might get a laugh.
I imagine that it's pretty clear what I think of Morgan's comments. What might not be so clear is why I'm posting this in his defense. Morgan is a comedian. I happen to think he's not a very good one, but that's not relevant. A comedian's job is to push us right up to the edge of what we're willing to accept in a social context, make us uncomfortable and then play with our sense of balance. Morgan shoved his audience over the edge, and that was a mistake. He apologized for making that mistake. It's a professional hazard, but if he doesn't make the mistake again, it's in the gay and lesbian community's best interest to demonstrate restraint and graciousness in this situation.

I would like Morgan to say something about the impact his comments might have on young men and women who are closeted. His words may well have hurt them more than he can imagine, and issuing a heartfelt apology to them would go a long way. Hell, if he really wanted to turn this around, now might be a great time for him to do his own "It Gets Better" video...

So, while I think Martin's evaluation of the situation was poorly thought out, and while I do agree with those that called for (and got) his apology, I'm not sure why people are going overboard, here. Morgan isn't a politician or a reporter, he's a comedian. That doesn't get him out of having to apologize when he crosses the line, but I think it affords him an easier acceptance of that apology.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Film rating and review in the US and UK

I've been listening to Mark Kermode's film reviews for a few years now, and one of the things that I find really fascinating is the British perspective on ratings and review of films. In the U.S. the MPAA has a relatively secretive process by which films are reviewed, and that process has come under fire for decades now as being too lax in many areas and overly restrictive in others. I never really thought there was much wrong with the MPAA until I saw how the British system worked. Now I wonder how we became so entrenched with what is clearly a second-rate system.

Here's how their system works: The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is an independent organization which represents the film industry, somewhat like the MPAA. However, they publish general details of the selection criteria and general makeup of their "examiners" staff and have an extensive library of reviews which go into extreme detail on each of their decisions. Parents who want to determine if a film is suitable for a child can easily scan these detailed descriptions and come to their own conclusions based on their own values. This also gives the average moviegoer and citizen the opportunity to see how a film was judged and what criteria are being used to assign ratings. If a film receives a restrictive rating that moviegoers think was incorrect, they can provide detailed feedback to the BBFC, responding point-by-point to the ruling. Another interesting difference between the MPAA and the BBFC is that the MPAA is a film industry lobby and engages in a number of anti-piracy efforts. They are supported by their industry members. The BBFC, on the other hand, is a ratings board only, and are supported by the fees they charge to review films which are based on running time (and thus the amount of their time spent watching the film).

Let's look at an example. If I go to the MPAA's Web site, and select "Find a Film Rating" I'm sent to "" a Web site which the MPAA runs, which says the following about linking to their site, "You may not link to any portion of the Site from any other web site without first obtaining the specific written permission of the MPAA, which permission may be withheld in the MPAA's sole and absolute discretion." You can find that on the site's terms of use page. The site is entirely Shockwave Flash, and does not allow the selection or copying of text. If you search for "Thor" you see several titles, including the recent "Thor (2011)" which has next to it, "Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence." That's it. There's no other details on the review process. If you click on the title, you're taken to the IMDB, a commercial site run by which lists the film-makers and sometimes lists plot details, but more often than not, these details are not focused on potentially objectionable content and may be blank until a film is officially released or longer.

By contrast, the BBFC has a plain old, standard HTML page which has no linking restrictions and which allows copy-and-paste just like any other normal Web page. They have an entry for Thor 3D and Thor 2D. I selected Thor 3D. At first, you are only given a simple, "Contains moderate fantasy violence" but there is a link with a disclaimer that tells you that clicking the link will show the full review with potential spoilers for the film. That extended review, which I include here only for comparison, and with any spoilers edited out, is as follows:

THOR is a fantasy action film based on the Marvel Comics superhero. Thor is a powerful but arrogant warrior and heir to the throne of Asgard. However, his reckless actions spoiler and he is spoiler. This gives spoiler, an opportunity to spoiler. The film was classified '12A' for moderate fantasy violence.

The BBFC's Guidelines at '12A'/'12' state 'Moderate violence is allowed but should not dwell on detail. There should be no emphasis on injuries or blood, but occasional gory moments may be permitted if justified by the context'. The film includes several scenes of moderate violence, including kicks, punches, and a couple of headbutts. However, the violence is generally fantastical in nature and most commonly involves either superheros or non-human characters (eg the spoiler). The only fight scene of note that is set in the real world occurs when spoiler. The blows delivered are quite heavy, featuring crunchy sound effects, but there is no discernible blood or injury detail. Sight of impacts is hidden and the action is extremely rapid, with the emphasis firmly on Thor's attempts to spoiler. Earlier in the film, there is a fight scene between spoiler, during which spoiler is stabbed spoiler. The end of the spoiler, which is covered in blood, emerges from spoiler's back, after which spoiler is carried off by spoiler. However, spoiler recovers quickly and this brief moment of bloody detail occurs within a clearly fantastical context. The film has a generally light-hearted tone throughout and this helps to diminish the impact of the violence.

THOR also includes scenes of moderate threat. Spoiler are potentially scary and intimidating. However, the threatening sequences, which are neither frequent nor sustained, are broken up by other material, including comic interludes. The film also contains some very mild language, including the terms 'dumbass', 'God' and 'hell'.

From that, I could imagine many parents deciding that they thought the film was unacceptable for their children, while many others would decide the exact opposite. The point is that they would have that choice.

In a perfect world, I'd like to see the MPAA bring BBFC-style transparency to their process and provide:
  • A stand-alone group which is funded by fees charged to review films
  • Hiring guidelines for reviewers and other staff
  • Demographic and industry background information about reviewers (in general terms, not per-reviewer)
  • A freely quotable list of their reviews with a reasonable terms of use policy
  • Complete details of reviews that allow parents and others to make their own decisions
I don't think any of that is pie-in-the-sky thinking, and if the MPAA can't manage to make such changes, then perhaps it's time to pass the torch to a less industry-insider-controlled body.

It's not a ratings board's job to come up with decisions that everyone will agree with. That's impossible. Instead, it should be their job to provide the public with enough information on which to make an informed decision about what constitutes appropriate entertainment for themselves and those for whom they are responsible. The BBFC may have its faults, but it does essentially that. The MPAA does not.