Monday, December 20, 2004

Sound business practices

Wednesday night, my DSL line quit working. Not just an inability to log on - the blinkenlights on the DSL modem were indicating problems even establishing a connection.

Called Earthlink support line on Friday, and we established there was no dial tone on the DSL line, and that I should contact my local phone company to have them fix the line.

Now, here's the problem: My "local phone company" doesn't provide my DSL line. See, the deal originally offered by Mindspring (before Earthlink bought them out) was $50/month to cover both the physical DSL line and the ISP service. Granted, I assume they contract the physical line out to local companies, but I've never dealt with that local company, whoever they might be. My payment goes direct to Earthlink. Someone from Covad originally installed the line, but now (4 years later), there's no listing for Covad in the local phone book.

I explained this to Earthlink service reps. Repeatedly. In no uncertain terms. I probably talked to 8-10 different people. Most of them didn't understand what I was telling them (that, from my point of view, Earthlink is both my ISP and the telco that provides the DSL line itself), and the ones that did understand it refused to believe it. I did finally get someone who somehow figured out that they needed to get their local installation techs to deal with the problem. They said they would call me back Saturday morning (it's Monday - still haven't heard from them), but also transferred me to talk to someone right away. Of course, the nice electronic hold lady voice told me that "right away", in this case, meant after a wait of "greater than 30 minutes".

Unfortunately for them, in the time it took to get to this point (actually half the time, since she started about midway through the call), Brenda had gotten Time-Warner on her cell phone and arranged for them to set us up with cable modem service, at a better price. Which made it sort of pointless to sit there on hold for half an hour, beyond the hour or so I had already been on the phone, getting increasingly frustrated and irate.

It's a shame: Earthlink has been a perfectly good ISP for four years, up until we actually had a problem. Their tech support line pissed away that good will in an hour and a half. Basically through a stubborn inability to deviate from their pre-written scripts, which weren't written to cover my specific situation.

Anyone care to hazard a guess as to whether that support was in-house or outsourced?

Unfortunately, this does mean I'm without internet access at home until the 31st or so, although since we'll be out of town for most of that time, it's not as bad as it could have been. It did make for a somewhat tense weekend.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Great Moments in Unbiased Journalism

Nope, no liberal bias here.

In this article, "Preserving Family Peace at Holiday Dinner", about what to do when a family member makes an offensive remark at dinner, Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Gayle White inexplicably takes the opportunity to remind everyone about that time Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond:
Some of the country's top political and religious leaders have had to decide what to do since Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss) made a statement that seemed to support segregation to a room full of partygoers.

So in the middle of an article about how to handle awkward comments during holiday visits with the family, the author takes a 3-paragraph detour to bash a former Republican Senator.


Holiday Fun Pack

Every year-end wrap-up list you're likely to need, all in one place.
Particularly fun are the Top 10 Web Diversions (as well as her 2003 Top 10 Web Diversions).
It's a Wonderful Life, In 30 Seconds, And Re-Enacted By Bunnies
"Did you check the list?"
(Terry Pratchett, Hogfather)

Friday, December 10, 2004

"Jesus didn't turn people away"

CBS and NBC have refused to broadcast a 30-second commercial produced by the United Church of Christ, because it's "too controversial": It basically points out that the UCC, unlike many other denominations, welcomes gay couples. So the UCC has filed petitions with the FCC to deny license renewal to a couple of CBS/NBC affiliates in Miami.

Now, I like the UCC commercial, and I agree with their message. I don't particularly like the idea of forcing networks to sell commercial time and air ads they don't want to air.

I do find CBS's policy a little baffling: They say they won't accept "advertising that touches on and/or takes a position on one side of a current controversial issue of public importance" (funny, I could swear I remember seeing ads fitting that description on CBS in the weeks leading up to the election). I also find it hard to believe they never run "advertising that proseletyzes on behalf of any single religion".

So it seems to me that they're being rather arbitrary in refusing to accept this particular ad. In a perfect libertarian utopia, though, they would have the right to be arbitrary. And the fact that you're reading this is an example of how that would be OK - the UCC is still getting their message out through other means, and the CBS/NBC refusal to air even generates publicity itself.

In our non-utopian world, the legal argument might have some merit. Basically, in earlier rulings, the USSC relied on the existence of the fairness doctrine to say that although there is some requirement that FCC licensees (TV stations) serve the public interest, including discussion of issues of public importance, networks couldn't be forced to sell air time. But the UCC argues that the FCC has stopped enforcing the fairness doctrine, so the court needs to re-examine the issue, which I would agree with, based on the case law cited in the petition.

I don't think TV stations should be under any obligation to "serve the public interest", but if we're going to insist that they are, then I agree that rejecting an ad specifically because it takes a position on an issue of public importance fails to uphold that obligation.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Bad Santa!

Sex offender playing Santa accused of indecent act with girl portraying elf
"You live and learn, even with Santa," Withrow told The Daily Courier of Forest City. "We'll have to do criminal background checks on whoever plays Santa."

"Live and learn," indeed. There was certainly no reason to do criminal background checks before now. After all, who could have predicted that a child molester might try to get a job as a department-store Santa?

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Tangible Disproof of Marxism

In a comment on my last post, Kwik2Jujj provided a link to a site that sells Origami Boulders. I find this particularly interesting, because I have, for years, used a thought experiment employing essentially this very thing as a disproof of the labor theory of value upon which so much of Marx's economic theory is constructed. Simplifying greatly, the labor theory of value says that the value of any commodity is ultimately determined by the labor that went into producing it.

So: Imagine a famous artist. This artist locks himself in his ivory tower for a year, and, at the end of that time, emerges with an Origami Boulder (i.e., a crumpled-up sheet of paper), which he then offers for sale to art collectors. The artist claims that he spent the year in his ivory tower meticulously folding this Origami Boulder into this precise configuration, one painstaking crease at a time.

How do the art collectors place a value on this item? According to the labor theory of value, if the artist is telling the truth about how he produced it, its value would be one person-year of labor. That is, one person expended a year of labor to create it.

But what if the artist is lying? Suppose that upon locking himself in his ivory tower, he took a sheet of paper, crumpled it up randomly, and then spent the next year in his tower playing videogames? By the labor theory of value, this Origami Boulder has virtually no value whatsoever (say, ten person-seconds of labor).

And even worse: Suppose the artist emerges after his year of isolation with two identical, indistinguishable Origami Boulders. One of them, he created on the first day in the ivory tower by randomly crumpling up a sheet of paper. The other one, he created by carefully examining the randomly crumpled sheet, and painstakingly reproducing it fold-by-fold. When it was complete, he put the two Origami Boulders into some sort of opaque rotating-drum apparatus and then pulled them out, so that not even the artist knows which Origami Boulder was randomly crumpled, and which was meticulously folded. Can they now have equal values, even though one required vastly more labor to produce than the other?

Personally, I tend to agree with the more Austrian-school theories about value being subjective, and that in any exchange, each party exchanges something of lesser (subjective) value for something of greater (subjective) value, so that (subjectively) each party to the exchange benefits, or else they would not have carried out the exchange at all. And I recall someone somewhere, discussing the value of "collector's" items, saying that any such item is worth exactly what someone will actually offer to pay you for it, no more, no less, regardless of what an appraiser might say.

Applying that to the Origami Boulder, it should be easy to see that they are worth precisely what people are willing to pay for them, which would depend on variables such as how popular/respected the artist is, how well it is marketed, etc. In the final hypothetical of two identical boulders, they would likely be valued identically by the market, except that both of them together would probably be worth more than twice as much as either by itself, because they are more interesting as a set.

It all sort of makes me want to add an Origami Boulder to my list of things I want for Christmas. Which, of course, by increasing the demand for them, increases the "value" of the things themselves...

Friday, December 03, 2004

Book Report

(plus some filler that's bound to offend someone)

I don't actually remember To Kill a Mockingbird as having quite this many ninjas and laser swords in it, although I always did like the climactic space battle between the pirates and the Mockingbird Armada.

And, with the holidays all up on us, you may want to order a S'Mores Nativity Set. Then the whole family can gather together, sing Tom Waits songs, and ask each other, "Hey, who ate Baby Jesus?"

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The New New School Prayer

Rush Limbaugh the other day read to his listeners the "New School Prayer" that the high school principal got in trouble for reciting to his school in Athens, Georgia recently.

For the benefit of Mr. Limbaugh, and others who may have trouble grasping why some people might object to that poem being read by an official to students in a public school, I present a slight rewrite. Would you mind a high school principal reciting the following to his students?

Now I sit me down in school
Where [goat-slaying] is against the rule
For this great nation under God
Finds [devil worship] very odd.

If [the Litanies of Satan] now the class recites,
It violates the Bill of Rights.
And [any creature I disembowel]
Becomes a Federal matter now.

Our hair can be purple, orange or green,
That's no offense; it's a freedom scene.
The law is specific, the law is precise.
[Demonic conjurations] spoken aloud are a serious vice.

For [blasphemy] in a public hall
Might offend someone with [any] faith at all.
In silence alone we must meditate,
[Lord Satan’s] name is prohibited by the state.

We're allowed to [be polite] and dress like [Jesus] freaks,
And [leave un-pierced] our noses, tongues and cheeks.
They've outlawed guns, but [kids can still carry the] Bible.
To quote the [Necronomicon] makes me liable.

We can elect a [chaste] Senior Queen,
And the [Platonic friend], our Senior King.
It's "inappropriate" to teach [soul-selling contract law],
We're taught that such [moral education should be left to Ma and Pa].

We can get our condoms and birth controls,
Study witchcraft, vampires and totem poles.
But [*real* occultism is] not allowed,
No word of [Crowley] must reach this crowd.

It's [not scary enough] here I must confess,
When chaos reigns the school's [blessed].
So, [Beelzebub], this silent plea I make:
Should I be shot; My soul please [drag below to crew an infernal trireme in the sulfurous lake]!


Note that I left uncorrected most of the idiotic misunderstanding of Constitutional law and history from the original. I think it's sufficient to point out here that students can do all the praying in school they want to, silently or aloud, to the entity of their choice. They just can't make it part of an official or mandatory school function.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


Australian Idol Mixup

According to statements issued by BigPond, a "human error" caused the URL for the Web site of the winner of talent quest Australian Idol, Casey Donovan ( to be substituted with the URL of the dead gay porn icon Mr Casey Donovan (

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Headlines of Unread News Reports

Without reading it, I assume this article is about an Ozzy Osbourne concert:

Explosion at bat factory rocks Springboro

Oh, the Humanity!

Dangerous toys ID'd
Consumer safety group picks its 10 worst of 2004, toy industry shrugs off list.

Some of them make sense: The usual choking hazards from buttons and things. I can see how toddlers on trampolines might cause concern.

But this one is just comical:
3 Gun Squad Set - UZ-1 Commando Machine Gun

Age Recommendation: "Not for children under 3 years"
Warnings: "CHOKING HAZARD-Small parts. Not for children under 3 years"
Manufacturer: 411 Toys
SRP: $14.95 (set of 3)

WATCH says: "In today's world, there is no excuse for outfitting children with realistic toy weapons designed to produce dangerous and unnecessary thrills."

Children experiencing thrills while playing? Dear God, no! AAAAAUUGGGHHH!

EDIT: Ok, that's just too good to let go. I'm going to change the title of my blog now...

Monday, November 15, 2004

Let the healing begin

There should be a government program of some kind to pay for this sort of thing:
A post-therapy John Kerry supporter spoke out about her trauma treatment for the first time this weekend, saying Florida psychologist Douglas Schooler took her from the depths of despair over President Bush’s victory to a new lease on life.

Movie Roundup

This weekend's movie roundup: We didn't make it out to see The Incredibles, but we did watch a couple of DVDs.

Around the World in 80 Days - This was the recent version, with Jackie Chan as Passepartout. Enjoyable fluff. Jackie Chan still stages some of the best martial arts scenes around. Here, he uncharacteristically includes some "wire work", but it is relatively unobtrusive: Rather than the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sort of flying trapeze routines, Chan uses wires to allow his stunt people (and himself) to do impractical, and even unlikely things, but not quite physically impossible things.

The Day After Tomorrow - A real howler; an uproarious comedy, although I don't think they meant it as one. Still, it's hard to believe they weren't giggling when they not only introduced Cancer Boy as a serious character, but just to kick the pathos up a notch, made him blind. And reading Peter Pan, no less (well, not reading exactly, since he's going blind, but "remember[ing] the story from the pictures" he can just barely see). And that's without even getting into the ludicrous "science" behind the story. I'll just point out the not-very-prominant credit at the end, saying the story was inspired by a book co-written by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber, two utter nutjobs who ought to stick to their more credible stories, like being abducted by little grey aliens.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Better Living Through Chemistry

Sodium Party
LOX Barbecue (from a mirror site, since the powers-that-be made him take down the original page)
Purple Smoke
Assorted Demos
Liberty is about protecting the right of others to disagree with you.
(Solomon Short)

Thursday, November 11, 2004

I wonder what they'd do with The Passion of the Christ

People in a few cities, at least, won't be corrupted by that filthy movie, Saving Private Ryan.

I think the following paragraph may be the most perfect illustration of the absurdity of the recent FCC enforcement that I've seen:
Cole cited recent FCC actions and last week's re-election of President Bush as reasons for replacing "Saving Private Ryan" on Thursday with a music program and the TV movie "Return to Mayberry."

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Stage 3: Bargaining

Ah, here comes the bargaining...
I thought [...] I would invite libertarians to join...the dark side of the force. I mean, the Democratic party. It is...your destiny (spooky wiggling fingers). Look at me, reliable Democratic voter! I support 2nd amendment rights, think drugs should be legalized, support means testing of social security, and think running permanent trillion-dollar deficits is a bad idea.
So what do you say, Libertarians? Feel the love. Feeeel the love. I'm not the only Democrat who's like this. No, there's, like, 100 of us! OK, 5. Still, don't you want to feel the love? OK, this is my last concession: I kinda like Rush. I mean, in an ironic way, but still.

Monday, November 08, 2004

They need spikier hair, though

One of the games I'm currently playing is Lord of the Rings: The Third Age (for the PS2), which bills itself as "the first console RPG set in Middle-Earth", which is certainly true (there were earlier RPGs based on FotR and TTT, but they weren't on consoles). Quick summary: It's Final Fantasy X in Middle-Earth. In more detail, on the plus side:

  1. It may be a blatant rip-off of Final Fantasy X in terms of gameplay, but that means it's a pretty good game they’re ripping off.

  2. Taking an essentially fun system of play, and moving it from a generic sci-fantasy world into Middle-Earth is a good thing. It’s inherently more fun to run through Moria than to run through Generic Dungeon #219.

  3. One cute, creative feature: "Evil Mode" – after you’ve completed a chapter, you can go back and play through several of the battles from that chapter as the bad guys. Mostly, it's a way of obtaining some bonus stuff, but it's sort of neat to be able to go back and kill those goody-two-shoes heroes you’ve been playing as.

  4. Good graphics. Everything matches the look of the films pretty well, and it has a very good sense of scale. There are some great scenes up in the mountains around Caradhras where you can look out and see the massive range of the Misty Mountains stretching off to the horizon, and places in Moria where you can look across a vast pit and see precarious stairs which you can then work your way over to and climb around on.

  5. It has footage from the movies, so those cutscenes are of rather higher quality than you usually see in videogames.

However, there are also some problems:

  1. It has footage from the movies, so those cutscenes are all things you've seen already. The footage from the movies also doesn't particularly advance the story of the characters you're actually playing. It fills in some small amount of history, and lets you know what the Fellowship is up to, but has little to do with the story you're playing through, which is meant to be a parallel story to the quest to destroy the ring.

  2. That story, so far, is pretty thin. You start out as a Gondorian who's trying to meet up with Boromir for some (so far) never-adequately-explained reason. Some other characters join up quickly for, as far as I can tell, no reason at all except to become an adventuring party. They might just as well have had everyone meet in a tavern and overhear a strange man talking about treasure in the mountains... There is a tradition in console RPGs of some mind-blowing plot twist about halfway into the game, so maybe there's something interesting ahead, but I'm not counting on it.

  3. That adventuring party isn't The Fellowship, but boy, the characters all sure look familiar. They managed to resist the temptation to include any hobbits, amazingly enough, but otherwise the characters you play are the aforementioned Gondorian (i.e., Boromir), a Dunedain ranger (i.e., Strider/Aragorn), an elf healer/swordwoman (i.e., Arwen), and a dwarf axe fighter (i.e., Gimli). I gather that later in the game, Legolas-with-the-serial-number-filed-off joins the party, and I think one more human character I don't really remember. Probably PseudoFaramir or Not-Eomer or something.

  4. The characters' personalities are probably similar to the "real" characters, but I wouldn't really know: There's virtually no character interaction. The longest conversation I've seen so far was Don't-Call-Me-Gimli telling Aragornish to be more respectful of the ancient Dwarven relic axe he picked up off of an altar in Moria and tossed from one hand to the other. Shortly after that, they opened an ancient crypt deep in the ancestral homeland of the Dwarves, and Gimli-like's entire emotional response was approximately, "Hey, neat, a new axe I can use!" The longest interaction with people outside the adventuring party was some elves thanking us for driving the orcs away from their caravan. Maybe that will change once I get past Moria and into Rohan or Gondor.

  5. Peeking ahead in the strategy guide, it appears that they were not able to resist the urge to make the Obligatory Big Final Boss Battle a fight with, yep, Sauron. Given that the game is specifically based on the films rather than the books, I expect this means the climax of the game will be all of my characters gathering around the base of a huge dark tower with a burning eye at the top and swinging their swords at it (and I am suddenly reminded of Lancelot taking one swing at the wall of the French castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Sauron will probably attack by shooting flames out of his eye or something. Yeesh.

  6. The skill advancement system is broken. The basic idea isn't bad: Each character has a couple of skill trees, which you advance along by earning skill points. You earn skill points by actually using your skills. The problem is that every use of a skill costs "Action Points", whether it is a physical combat move or a magic spell. Because of the advancement system, although every character has a basic, free attack move, it's never a good idea to use it, since doing so doesn't earn any skill points. Which means every action in combat costs AP. Which means every character, fighter and spell-caster alike, needs to beef up the stat that controls how many AP you have, especially considering the skills often have absurd AP costs (one character's first skill in one area costs 75 points to use, and it must be used about 20 times to earn enough skill points to acquire the next skill in that tree), and AP restoration items are relatively rare (healing items are easier to find). To make up for this, characters' HP and AP are fully restored every time they go up a level (which is separate from skill advancement), and this tends to happen about every 2 or 3 battles.

  7. Instead of a magic system tailored to the world, they have what appears to be a pretty uninspired air/earth/fire/water/light/shadow system, just like every other console RPG. Among the problems with that is the fact that in Middle-Earth, even assuming there are more than a handful of entities in the world capable of using magic, the only ones who would use "shadow" (i.e., evil) magic would be servants of Sauron (well, Morgoth if you wanna go way back, which we won't if you don't mind and I ain't askin').

Having said all that, on the whole, I'm still enjoying the game, largely because it's inherently cool to do things like climb the delicate spiral staircase to an elven shrine in the forest, and walk through the halls of Moria, following the still-burning footsteps of the Balrog chasing after Gandalf and the rest. Although that leads me to wonder, since they got Ian McKellan to do voice-over narration as Gandalf for the movie footage, whether those cutscenes will suddenly be without a narrator voice after Gandalf falls, and then bring the voice back when he returns in white?

No, probably not. That'd be too creative, wouldn't it?

(One more bonus point if you can identify the "hidden" film quote in this post. Collect them all! Trade them with your friends!)
(However, no bonus points for identifying missing diacritic marks on the Tolkien names. I'm just too lazy to look up the proper HTML codes for them.)

Thursday, November 04, 2004


Well, I've run all the tests I can run on the software I'm testing right now, until they fix the broken stuff, so here are some cute bunny pictures.

This is Suzi, who we've had for a while (there's another cute picture of her up in my Renderosity gallery, see the link in the sidebar):

And here is the new baby, Buster, who Suzi helped us pick out last Saturday:

Brain In A Jar

No kidding. An actual brain-in-a-jar. And it can fly a plane.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

I'm Looking Forward to the Bargaining

"Coping with the 5 stages of grief and bereavement"

Kerry has conceded
"It's over.
For now."

George Bush's America
"Yes, the modern Republican party consists of nasty bigots and liars and the media rarely bothers to point out just how nasty they are."

Presumably still to come:

"Because all of you of Earth are idiots!"

"You see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!"

Someone posted this on Slashdot:
Before the election I was disgusted by Bush, but now I'm disgusted by our entire country. I can only hope that he'll break things so badly that people out in the midwest/south will be forced to start thinking.

Nothing like rational discussion between reasonable people with honest disagreements on the issues, eh?

(OK, granted, Slashdot isn't the place to look for anything like that, but this sort of thing is hardly rare these days. And two bonus points if you can identify the source of the other quotes I used. Not that it's an obscure source...)

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Beer: Too Important for Politics

Voting for Beer.

Depressing election day

Well, let's see, Bush is a dick, Kerry is a pussy. Badnarik, the Libertarian Party nominee, is a major loon. Can I discard all my cards and draw a new hand?

Meanwhile, as of a few minutes ago, Ohio is 60%-40% in favor of the stupid goddamned amendment to the Ohio constitution to make sure people who love each other can't get any of the benefits associated with being married. I guess I can hope the precincts that haven't reported yet are really gay, but I doubt that's likely.

And yes, I do mean "can't get any of the benefits", not merely "can't get married". The wording of the amendment includes the following brilliance:
This state and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance or effect of marriage.
There has been some question raised whether this could actually prohibit the state from even offering medical or other benefits to unmarried domestic partners of state employees.

Friday, October 29, 2004


The Great Old Pumpkin
The Insects from Shaggy

That second one isn't actually all that good, but I thought the gang ought to be represented in some way. And let me interject here that I am rather disappointed in the "fanfic" community, with regard to Lovecraftian crossover stories. The only Lovecraft-Scooby crossover that seems to be available is basically just a big dirty joke, and I can't locate a single Lovecraft-Nancy Drew crossover story at all.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004


Tricksy prehistoric hobbitses!

A couple of things:

1) Five years ago, there's no way a mainstream science article would have used the description "hobbit-sized". Such is the power of cinema.

2) Sometimes, scientists disappoint me. I mean, given an opportunity like this, finding a 3-foot tall adult prehistoric hominid, they name it Homo floresiensis after the island where they found it? C'mon, guys! It never occurred to any of you to name it something like Homo frodoensis or Homo hobbitis or something? You could have been the heroes of geeky paleontology students everywhere.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Lovecraftian Architecture

Take a look at this page about the Ryugyong Hotel, and ask yourself whether it might be a blessing for helpless mankind that the structure remains unfinished and unoccupied...

He talked of his dreams in a strangely poetic fashion; making me see with terrible vividness the damp Cyclopean city of slimy green stone - whose geometry, he oddly said, was all wrong - and hear with frightened expectancy the ceaseless, half-mental calling from underground: "Cthulhu fhtagn", "Cthulhu fhtagn."

...he dwells only on broad impressions of vast angles and stone surfaces - surfaces too great to belong to anything right or proper for this earth, and impious with horrible images and hieroglyphs. I mention his talk about angles because it suggests something Wilcox had told me of his awful dreams. He said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours. Now an unlettered seaman felt the same thing whilst gazing at the terrible reality.

God rest them, if there be any rest in the universe. They were Donovan, Guerrera, and Angstrom. Parker slipped as the other three were plunging frenziedly over endless vistas of green-crusted rock to the boat, and Johansen swears he was swallowed up by an angle of masonry which shouldn't have been there; an angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse.

(Quotes from "The Call of Cthulhu")

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Oh, Good God

What a surprise: They've started early voting in some places, and they're already having computer problems with the new touch-screen voting machines. I predicted this back when they first started talking about electronic voting as a way of fixing the "problems" with the paper ballots that we encountered in 2000. For at least the first few times computerized voting machines are used, they will have even more problems than the paper ballots supposedly had.

Why did I make this prediction? Because I do quality control on computer software for a living. I know, for example, that it is theoretically impossible to find every bug before software is released, no matter how much time or money you spend testing it (at least for non-trivial applications).

And now we have this:
At the Tamarac branch public library, where voting stopped after the computer glitch, Sally Zwanger, a poll watcher for the Kerry campaign, claimed the problems reflected the inability of Gov. Jeb Bush's administration to fix voting problems left over from the 2000 election.

"The worst thing to hear was, 'I support Kerry, but I can't wait in this line,'" she said. "We are having a repeat of 2000, and it's only in Florida that this could happen. This administration would do anything to ensure that he [Bush] stays in office."

Oh, shut the fuck up. It was Democrats like you who demanded doing away with those "obsolete" punchcard ballots in the first place, because you didn't like the way the counts and recounts came out in Florida. No one is being systematically disenfranchised, you've just pressured various states into jumping boldly in with a computerized voting system that's still in beta testing, at best. And no, it's not "only in Florida that this could happen." It's anywhere that uses electronic voting machines. And it's not because of the administration's " fix voting problems left over from the 2000 election", it's because A) (being charitible) there are some things about the system that cannot be tested except under conditions approximating full production rollout, and B) (being not-so-charitible) the companies producing the electronic voting machines have not used industry best practices in developing the systems.

Remember Hanlon's Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. Among the systematic problems with most/all of the electronic voting systems I'm aware of:

  • Most of them are running under some version of Windows. This is a more complex operating system than a dedicated voting machine needs, and is notoriously insecure to boot.
  • The code has not been open to peer review. This is ostensibly for security reasons, but open review tends to make software more secure, not less (e.g., Linux vs. Windows).
  • Insufficient testing. They needed more of both internal alpha testing and beta/deployment testing. These networking problems should have been resolved long before reaching the stage of actual voting.

Monday, October 18, 2004


Headline on "Bush, Kerry win newspaper endorsements". I realize this isn't the first time that a news organization has reported on what other news organizations are doing, but this did strike me as one of the most useless, content-free headlines in journalistic history.

Meanwhile, Brenda & I did go see Team America: World Police. Yes, we laughed mightily. The biggest criticism I think I have would be that they recycled one of the songs ("It's a Montage") from an episode of South Park.

Also, just to continue a bit from my last post, now that I've seen the film and watched the episode of "Ebert & Roeper" where they review it, and that TV review makes it clear what Ebert's objection to the film actually is: He's upset that it makes fun of Hollywood celebrities. Either that, or he's feigning offense so that all the stars skewered in the movie will still talk to him.

The problem is that the film's criticism of celebrity activism is entirely valid: Movie stars, due to their fame, are granted the means to express their opinions to the masses, but this does not also bestow upon them any special insight into global politics. Much of the time, what they say is not an informed opinion, but a knee-jerk liberal response. That's just as deserving of ridicule as an uninformed, knee-jerk conservative response, but among celebrities, you generally only get those from marginal country/western musicians.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Team America: World Police

I haven't seen it yet (we're probably going this weekend), but I have read Roger Ebert's review. Apparently he didn't like it much - he gave it one star.
The plot seems like a collision at the screenplay factory between several half-baked world-in-crisis movies.

Um, well, I'm guessing that would be because they are parodying half-baked world-in-crisis movies, rather than making the film a serious exploration of geopolitics.
When first seen, Gary (voice by Parker) is starring in the musical "Lease," and singing "Everyone has AIDS." Ho, ho.

I guess Ebert hasn't seen Rent, then? I laughed at the idea of a Broadway-musical "Everyone has AIDS" song, because I recognized that they were making fun of Rent, even before I read this and found out the musical in this movie is actually called "Lease". The only reason I can think of that you wouldn't think this was funny would be to object to it as a laugh at the expense of people with AIDS, rather than a laugh at the expense of Broadway musicals (and Rent in particular). Well, that or, you know, just having a poorly-developed sense of humor, but since I know Ebert finds at least some funny movies to be funny, that doesn't seem possible.

He also suggests that the puppets are creepy-looking. Obviously, this is because he has never seen the original "Thunderbirds" TV series (in his review of the recent live-action movie version, he said "I had never heard of the series and, let's face it, neither have you."). They're very much like the "Thunderbirds" puppets in appearance and articulation. I rather doubt that's an accident.
If I were asked to extract a political position from the movie, I'd be baffled. It is neither for nor against the war on terrorism, just dedicated to ridiculing those who wage it and those who oppose it.

Well, I think both sides tend to be pretty ridiculous, myself, so I guess I would appreciate this more than Ebert. I think that "both sides are ridiculous" is a perfectly consistent political position. Heck, I even think Libertarians are pretty ridiculous sometimes, and I am one.

But perhaps the problem here is not that the movie doesn't convey a political position, but that the political position it conveys isn't simplistic, and can't be reduced to "for or against the war on terrorism". In other words, that the film's political position is neither of the two that Ebert recognizes (although, come to think of it, who's "against the war on terrorism"? I know of plenty of people who are against the war in Iraq, but that's not exactly the same thing. Or at least, those who are against it don't think it is, which is the main reason they are against it).
The White House gets a free pass, since the movie seems to think Team America makes its own policies without political direction.

I suspect that's parodying another characteristic of "half-baked world in crisis movies", since those often have groups (Mission: Impossible) operating without any apparent input from the president, and when there is a president in them (Independence Day), they're always deliberately vague about the political persuasion of said president. The movies they're parodying are resolutely apolitical, even when the politics involved in what they're doing would seem to be unavoidable, because they don't want to alienate half of their potential audience by identifying either side with either the Good Guys or the Bad Guys in the movie.
I wasn't offended by the movie's content so much as by its nihilism. At a time when the world is in crisis and the country faces an important election, the response of Parker, Stone and company is to sneer at both sides -- indeed, at anyone who takes the current world situation seriously. They may be right that some of us are puppets, but they're wrong that all of us are fools, and dead wrong that it doesn't matter.

You know, people felt much the same way about Duck Soup when it first played in theaters, just after WWI. That it was inappropriate to use war as a subject for humor. Now it's considered one of the greatest comedies in the history of cinema. But basically, Ebert's objection seems to be the same: It is inappropriate to be making jokes about this subject.

Because Ebert never directly addresses whether the film is funny, he only says that it is offensive. It's interesting, actually, to look at Ebert's own "Great Movies" write-up on Duck Soup, where he says things like "There is a kind of admiration for material that dares something against the rules and yet is obvious, irresistibly, funny." He apparently doesn't find TA:WP irresistibly funny, and I wonder whether that is because he doesn't find transgressive humor funny unless it is sufficiently far removed from present experience that it is no longer quite so transgressive, or whether it is due to its poking fun at his own political beliefs.

Given his recent history of rating politically-motivated films, I can't help wondering whether Ebert:
1) Would have found the film funnier, and given it 3 or 4 stars if it had ridiculed only the current administration, and left the anti-war crowd unscathed.
2) Would have found the film more offensive, and given it 0 stars if it had ridiculed only the anti-war side, and left the hawks unscathed.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Phone Rape?

TV Host O'Reilly Accused of Harassment:
Both sides filed lawsuits Wednesday, with the woman, Andrea Mackris, saying the commentator had phone sex with her against her wishes three times.

How, exactly, does someone have phone sex with you against your wishes? The term "phone sex" implies more than just a single rude comment, which means that at some point during the "phone sex" process, she could have hung up the phone. For that matter, "phone sex" usually also implies a certain level of interactivity. If it's just one person talking, that's not really "phone sex", it's just an obscene phone call.

Now, I don't mean to suggest, based solely on this, that this woman's harassment suit has no merit. It could just as easily be sloppy wording on the part of the reporter writing the story. Goodness knows there's plenty of that in the world of journalism these days.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Infinite Shelf Space

Here's a really interesting Wired article about a phenomenon that might be the start of a seismic shift in the entertainment industry, away from purely hit-based economics and toward a more niche-based market, as online delivery and ordering eliminate the constraint of physical shelf space. For example, they point out that a Barnes & Noble generally carries about 130,000, but that over half of Amazon's book sales are from titles outside of its top 130,000. Now, there's probably a selection effect going on here - Amazon is selling more of those titles because customers can't just grab them at their local Barnes & Noble, and thanks to Amazon's discounted rates, it's usually advantageous to order from Amazon rather than to place a special order at a local store. So the article may be somewhat overestimating the size of the market for niche products. But the article does make some very interesting points, and ones that I've made before.

For example, they suggest that video/computer game companies could offer old, outdated games, with no support or guarantees, as, say, 99-cent downloads. I've posted about this before - I believe there is a market for "nostalgia" games that is not currently being served (at least, not legally). It's intellectual property that is currently making its owners absolutely nothing, and (usually) long ago covered the development costs (or else was just written off as a money-loser), so they have nothing to lose by offering it online for a few cents more than the cost of server space and bandwidth. As long as you charge enough to cover those minimal costs, anything above that is pure profit, just sitting there waiting to be grabbed. I'd actually go even further, beyond the "old games" part of the market. I have a feeling there are quite a few people out there who would be willing to pay, say, $50 or $100 for an older, out-of-date, but legal version of something like Maya or 3DS Max. No printed documentation, no technical support, just the software. Production costs are minimal (CD duplication, assuming you don't just offer it as download-only), and it isn't as though old versions of your software are making you any money now. I may have more on this particular subject in the future.

The author of the Wired article does perhaps underplay the distinction between online merchants who sell or rent physical artifacts, like Amazon and Netflix, and those who deal in purely digital information, like iTunes. Still, that distinction will narrow as things progress. With the advancement of things like print-to-order, even those who want physical, bound books will be able to get them without the seller having to spend money on storage space for them.

(And once again, Frank Zappa was way ahead of his time. In his book, he talks about a system he proposed, back before there was even an internet, where people would buy music through some sort of recording device hooked up to the phone. He could never get investors interested in it, though...)

Friday, October 08, 2004

They called me mad, but I'll show them! I'll show them all!!!!!

I know I’ve done the whole megalomaniacal arch-villain thing before, but to celebrate the fact that someone has finally released a computer game wherein you play one, here are a few more related links:

Badguy, the Magazine for Villains, Archfiends, Mad Scientists and other Evildoers
Here’s a useful source for the obligatory robot army.
Handy reference to keep track of your rivals.
Some interesting ideas to distract pesky heroes.

"Five exclamation marks, the sure sign of an insane mind."
(Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man)

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Great Moments in Unbiased Journalism

Ok, before going to read this CNN story, see if you can guess, from the following excerpts, what the headline on this story is:

Based in part on interviews with Saddam, the report from the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group also will conclude that he wanted to acquire weapons of mass destruction because he believed they kept the United States from going all the way to Baghdad during the first Gulf War.
The report also will find that Iraq made strenuous efforts to evade U.N. sanctions and pursued an aggressive strategy to try to get them lifted, which included subverting the U.N. oil-for-food program… the report will name names of individuals and countries that illegally did business with Saddam.
Other U.S. officials confirmed to CNN Tuesday that the report from the Iraq Survey Group will cite evidence that Iraq's intelligence agency used clandestine labs to manufacture small quantities of biological weapons in recent years, although probably for use in assassinations, rather than mass casualty attacks.

Ready for CNN's headline?
"Report: No WMD stockpiles in Iraq"

Now, granted, I've only quoted the bits in the story that focus on Bad Things that Iraq was doing. But I did that to make a point, that when you’re summarizing the key points of a document, it's very easy to control how it sounds by deciding which points to select as "key points" to include in the summary.

MSNBC reports on the same story, under the headline "Report discounts Iraqi arms threat". In the CNN version of the story, the first bit I quoted came from the second paragraph. In MSNBC's version, you have to get to paragraph seven before they even mention that Hussein intended to reconstitute his weapons programs as soon as he could get the UN sanctions lifted.

Fox News, reporting on the same story with the opposite bias, says "Report May Undercut Bush's Iraq Rationale". I particularly like the "may" qualifier in there ("You never know, just because it concludes there were no WMD stockpiles, doesn't necessarily mean it undercuts the reasoning behind the war..."). They also prominently feature White House spokesman Scott McClellan saying "that Saddam Hussein had the intent and the capability", while MSNBC, for example, tells us that according to their sources, the report itself concludes that "Hussein had the desire but not the means" to produce WMD.

Fox, however, does something interesting that the others do not: They juxtapose a series of quotes from Bush (and Chaney) made before the war next to a list of the things US forces actually found over there. It's not exactly flattering. Although if you wanted to get all Clintonian about it, you could probably parse Bush's statements in a way that would make them be technically not untrue, just mere overstatements.

All of this illustrates why, when anyone asks me what they can do to be an informed participant in the political process, I tell them that one of the most important things you can do is make sure you get your news from multiple sources.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Sky Captain and the Princess of Mars

First of all: I haven't yet seen Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Frankly, what few clips I've seen in on TV remind me of the FMV cutscenes from mid-nineties computer games like Wing Commander III. OK, the resolution is better, but still, the whole live-actors-composited-into-CGI-backgrounds thing just feels similar to me.

But, it's been getting generally very good reviews, which makes this all the more interesting: The director of Sky Captain, Kerry Conran, appears to be attached to A Princess of Mars for his next project. I know Joe will be interested in this...

Interestingly, there is a post on IMDB about this saying that Conran became involved after Robert Rodriguez became ineligible to direct after resigning from the DGA, which was apparently a result of a dispute with them over Sin City:
6) Rodriguez is currently sharing directorial duties with Frank Miller and Quentin Tarantino. While Rodriguez and Miller will be co-directing the entire film, Tarantino will only be directing certain scenes of The Big Fat Kill. Rodriguez was contacted by the Director's Guild of America on the first week of shooting. He was told that having more than one director on this project is a big DGA no-no. Rather than take Miller or his name off the project, he told the DGA to get bent and quit the guild.
(from the FAQ posted at IMDB)

Friday, September 24, 2004

Recedite, plebes! Gero rem imperialem!

Are you losing sleep at night because you're worried about the fact that those new electronic voting machines are so insecure even monkeys can hack into them? Then maybe what you need is a new bed to help you feel safe and secure.

I, for one, welcome our new monkey overlords, so I'm just going to go have a sandwich.

If we would learn what the human race really is at bottom, we need only observe it in election times.
(Mark Twain, Mark Twain's Autobiography)

Internet Junkies

Another study about internet addiction and the associated withdrawal symptoms.
Participants in the human experiment were deprived of the web for 14 days, and found themselves quickly succumbing to "withdrawal and feelings of loss, frustration and disconnectedness".
While this cruel "qualitative" torture was inflicted on just 13 households containing 28 guinea pigs, a broader "quantitative" trawl of 1,000 web addicts found that 48 per cent of respondents could not go without the internet for two weeks. This unwillingness to even contemplate disconnection from the digital world was confirmed by Yahoo! chief sales officer Wenda Harris Millard, who reported: "This study is entirely indicative of the myriad ways that the internet, in just ten short years of mainstream consumer consumption, has irrevocably changed the daily lives of consumers. This is true to the extent that it was incredibly difficult to recruit participants for this study, as people weren't willing to be without the internet for two weeks."

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Parenting Tips for Complete Boneheads

Brenda and I watched the last half of the Dr. Phil special last night... If these parents are in any way representative, there’s going to be a whole lot of people growing up in the next generation with absolutely no concept of how Real LifeTM actually works. There was one mother who literally buys her 4-year-old daughter everything she asks for. Her husband took her credit cards away from her, and actually gives her a daily allowance in little envelopes... which she said she cheats anyway by shifting money from one envelope to another. And why does she do this? Because apparently she doesn’t want the girl to be "traumatized", and because she’s afraid of what other people think of her when the girl starts throwing a tantrum in the store. "Other people in the store think I'm beating her, the way she screams" (to which I, personally, would respond, "Has anyone ever actually come up to you and accused you of beating your daughter? No? Of course they haven't, because everyone knows kids throw tantrums, and what those people are actually thinking about you is 'Why does she let her kid get away with that crap? What a lousy mother she is, not even able to win a battle of wills with a preschooler'").

Dr. Phil's advice: Take away 99% of the kid's toys and stuff, and either put it in storage or, better yet, donate it. Keep the few things the girl actually plays with regularly. And I would tend to agree with that advice, except that he didn't give her a good explanation of why she should do this, and I suspect that the result is that nothing will change—either she'll give in and give the toys back, or she'll buy the kid new toys. Because the real reason she needs to do this is not for the kid's benefit so much as for her own. She needs to see this kid throw the worst, god-awful, screaming tantrum fit she's ever had, and survive it. She needs to see that when the kid doesn't get her way by screaming, eventually she will get tired of screaming and stop. And then she'll get over it, probably a lot quicker than mom expects. And, for obvious reasons, this (being basically the first time that throwing a fit doesn't work) is going to need to happen at home rather than out at a store somewhere. But because Dr. Phil didn't tell her any of that, that the main reason for doing this is to train herself to resist the kid's tantrums, or even give her any idea of what to expect when she does it, I suspect that when the kid starts throwing her fit over mom taking her toys away, mom isn't going to be able to go through with it.

And then there was the woman whose 3-year-old son watches 9 hours of television every day, because "it's so easy to just leave him in front of the TV, so I can get work done around the house..." Twit. This is someone who didn't want an actual child; she wanted an ornamental bonsai child she could set out on display on the coffee table when they have guests over: "See my kid? Isn't he adorable?" I guess it hasn't occurred to her that she could get just as much done with the kid playing in the yard, or in his room, or wherever, as she could with him watching TV. Dr. Phil's obvious answer: Get rid of the TVs. Get them out of the house. Of course, there are a couple of problems with that. For one thing, mom's reaction was a facial expression along the lines of "Oh, well, that can't possibly be a serious suggestion, he's just exaggerating to make a point or something", so I'm skeptical she’ll actually do it. I have a feeling the idea of actually not having a television is inconceivable for her. For another thing, this teaches the child that mom is so weak-willed, she can't actually say "no" to him, and it teaches him that if temptation is available to you, at all, it's impossible to not give in to it. Only by making temptation physically unavailable to us can we resist its lure. These are not good lessons.

And I have to say, for all Dr. Phil's reputation as no-nonsense and brutally frank, Brenda and I don't think he was nearly hard enough on these airheads. We decided we probably wouldn’t make very good Dr. Phils, except maybe for people who are only motivated to change by being ridiculed and abused (at least verbally, although there were a few of them who could have used a good thwack on the head with a cricket bat).

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Random Quote seen on Slashdot

"Open the iPod and play The Doors, HAL"

Cultural differences

From a gossip column:
Brit hottie Paul Bettany likes his language salty. “He uses the word ‘c’ [word] more than anybody I’ve ever met, mostly for guys, but he completely uses it like he’s saying the word ‘water,’” Bettany’s “Wimbledon” co-star Kirsten Dunst said while promoting the flick. “I mean, he has the worst mouth ever.” . . .

Maybe someone should explain to Ms. Dunst that, in Britain, the 'c' word doesn't have quite the same stigma that it does here. It's still a "dirty word", it's just not considered quite so beyond the pale across the pond. At least, that's what I've heard.

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

This opinion column provides some nice examples of the economic principle referred to in the title of the post: That when the economy as a whole grows, everyone in it benefits.

My personal favorite:
Seventy-six percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, 30 years ago, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.

Of course, in all fairness, I should point out that this paragraph is completely inaccurate:
Overall, the typical American defined as poor by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not overcrowded. By his own report, his family isn't hungry, and he had sufficient funds in the past year to meet his family's essential needs.

The author appears to have simply taken a bunch of items that individually appear in more than 50% of poor households, and stuck them all together as if they were items that all appear together in more than 50% of poor households. In reality, the "typical American defined as poor" probably has one or two of the things in that list, but I would be surprised if more than a very small percentage of them had all of these things, as it is presented here.

As a rough estimate, make the simplifying assumption that these items are independently and randomly distributed among poor households (they wouldn't be, but I don't have any other data to go on). You can them multiply out the percentages of each of the things listed in that paragraph for which percentages are given: Car, air conditioning, microwave, two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo (for those given as only "more than half", I assumed 55%). What you end up with is that, assuming a purely random distribution, only about 6% of poor households would actually contain all of these things together.

Unfortunately, the author of this column has buried the valid point ("Most of America's "poor" live in material conditions that would be judged as comfortable or well-off just a few generations ago.") in favor of attempting to make a point that is much less supported by the evidence he cites ("While this individual's life is not opulent, it is equally far from the popular images of dire poverty...")

Monday, September 20, 2004

True awesomeness.

Show tunes. Pure genius.

Oh, My Dear Sweet Lord...

From the FAQ posted at IMDB:

"Sin City is based on a series of black & white crime/drama comics created by Frank Miller"

"The leads for the stories are Mickey Rourke (Angelheart, 9 1/2 Weeks, Barfly) as "Marv" in the first segment followed by Bruce Willis (Die Hard, Moonlighting, 12 Monkeys) as "Hartigan" in the second with the third segment featuring Clive Owen (The Bourne Identity, Gosford Park, King Arthur) as "Dwight"."

"We will meet Kevin (Elijah Wood), an angel-faced mute with an affinity for wolves and a taste for human flesh. Then there's "Iron" Jack Rafferty (Benicio Del Toro from Traffic), hero cop and all-around scumbag. Also, there is Jr. Roark (Nick Stahl from Terminator 3), degenerate spawn of the powerful Roark empire"

"[Robert] Rodriguez is currently sharing directorial duties with Frank Miller and Quentin Tarantino."

"As per Rodriguez's preference, Sin City will be shot in high definition video, not film, and then digitally changed to black & white with spot color added here and there for visual effect"

Friday, September 17, 2004

It be that time of year again, me hearties

Aye, Jim-boy, International Talk Like a Pirate Day be fast approaching. Arrrrrr! Avast, ye scurvy dogs!

Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.
(Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi)

Monday, September 13, 2004


Brenda came home from the hospital, so while she rested, here are some things we/I watched this weekend:

The Ladykillers: Very good. I’m not sure what it is about the Coen brothers, but every film they’ve ever made (with one exception), as I’m watching it, I’m just filled with glee at seeing something so incredible. The one exception, at the moment, is Intolerable Cruelty, but I’m reserving judgment on it, because I’ve only watched it once so far. Some of their movies take a couple of viewings to appreciate fully. For example, I don’t think I really "got" The Big Lebowski the first time I watched it, but when I went back and watched it again, I suddenly understood what they were doing, and realized how great it actually is. So for now, I officially have no opinion about Intolerable Cruelty yet. But The Ladykillers was immediately very enjoyable.

Lost in La Mancha: This is the documentary that was intended to be the making-of special on the eventual DVD of Terry Gilliam’s movie, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Unfortunately, what it ended up being instead is a documentary about Quixote running into so many problems, they literally shut down and abandoned the project two weeks into production. There were only about 5 days on which actual filming occurred. A real shame, too, because from what can be seen, this looks like it was going to be a really great Gilliam movie. When they put that armor on Jean Rochefort, boy, he just looks like a perfect Don Quixote.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

My exciting weekend

Brenda (my girlfriend/domestic-partner/whatever-you-want-to-call-us) is in the hospital; she had a heart attack late Sunday/early Monday around 1:30-2:00 am. They pretty much immediately went in with a heart cath and put in a stent (they were finished and had her in a room recovering by 6:00 am). They’re expecting to keep her in the hospital for 4-5 days.

So if I don’t manage to get a post of fun stuff up by Friday, it’ll be because I’m a little preoccupied this week...

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

On Emus

I recently came into possession of an old NES console. Basically, Brenda ordered it on Ebay because it came with a Burgertime cartridge. She used to play Burgertime with her mom on their old Intellivision, and her mom passed away earlier this year, so I think she wanted it for the memories, basically.

Now, of course, being who I am, I thought, "Well, what's the point of having a game console with only one game?" So I went to a local store that had used NES cartridges, and got a stack of classic games for about $30.

Which leads naturally to a discussion of emulators. There are emulators now for the PC that will let you play old games from most of the old consoles, as well as arcade cabinet games, and even old computers like the C64 and Apple II. The emulators themselves are legal; distributing the games is not, because the games are still under copyright.

The "emu scene" has various positions on this. One is that copyright protection on software lasts too long, given the nature of the industry (anything more than a couple of years old is hopelessly obsolete), so therefore these games ought to be public domain. Another is that some places will remove any games if the copyright holder requests they stop distributing them, but otherwise it's OK because the owner obviously doesn't care, since the games no longer have any market value anyway.

My position is that the very existence of the "emu scene" proves that the games do have market value, even if the value is low, and that the companies that actually hold the copyrights on these games ought to be taking advantage of that, instead of ignoring the entire potential market. I see it not so much as people stealing from companies, as companies failing to recognize an opportunity to make money. Releasing old games for emulation would cost them virtually nothing: The emulators are already programmed, and are generally at least free, if not open source.

For example: Say you have an open-source Sega Genesis emulator (I assume there actually is such a thing for the sake of argument). Sega could legally release a CD-ROM containing the emulator and any number of games to which they own the rights, which would allow PC users to play those old Sega games. Since they didn't have to write the emulator, and obtaining game images off the original media is relatively easy, and they paid for the rights to the games long ago (and have long since covered that expense), their cost to release such a thing would be little more than the cost of reproducing and packaging the CDs, which would be no more than a couple of dollars per disc, total.

Would you pay, say, $10 to be able to play all the old Sega Genesis (or whatever) games you grew up with again on your PC?

Heck, they could probably adopt an approach similar to the legal mp3 sites (iTunes, etc.), and sell downloads of individual game titles for a buck or two. Again, their cost per game is virtually nothing (server space, bandwidth, and store software, divided up among all sales). That might work better for something like MAME, which is not open source. It's free, but it specifies in the license that it can't be sold, which means that putting it on a commercial CD-ROM would be questionable. But there would be nothing wrong with the copyright holder on the games putting up a free download of MAME, then selling the games themselves.

There might be some resistance to overcome from the existing "scene", who are used to getting stuff for free (though illegally). But the legal mp3 sites faced the same resistance from the P2P crowd, and they seem to be doing OK so far.

There actually are a handful of commercial packages, now - like there's a collection of a few old arcade games for the PS2, and that duplicate of the Atari 2600 joystick that plugs into the TV and has several 2600 games built into it. I just think they're underestimating the "nostalgia" market, or failing to realize how cheaply they could serve that market, or both.

I will say one other thing: I have no great moral problem with people distributing games illegally. It's a slight dilemma: I don't go quite as far as the people who want to do away with intellectual property altogether, so I do respect copyright ownership to some extent. However, I do think that copyrights have, over time, become far too protective (largely thanks to lobbying from companies like Disney).

But pragmatically, I fear that if old software is not distributed, the history of video games could face problems similar to films. A lot of old films are basically lost to us today, because the only prints in many cases were destroyed by the movie studios in order to make room in their storage facilities, or to recover the silver from the film. Similarly, old TV shows are often lost. Many of the oldest Doctor Who episodes, for example. I have a CD of rare Charlie Parker recordings. Some of them are old wire recordings people made off of live radio/TV broadcasts that otherwise went unrecorded. Recording them was doubtless illegal, but if they hadn't done so, these performances would be lost forever, including things like Charlie Parker performing with Miles Davis in his backup band. I gather there was also a cache of recordings of old Honeymooners episodes discovered in someone's attic some years back, including a bunch that hadn't otherwise survived.

There have already been some significant losses of computer games. Ultima 7, widely regarded as one of the best RPGs ever produced, for example. While the executables still exist, the source code was apparently lost or deleted when Lord British and the rest of the Ultima team left Origin, possibly just out of spite. This is a problem because Ultima 7 won't run on most modern computers - it used a weird home-grown memory manager under DOS that doesn't work with any of the Windows 95/98/2000/XP OS's. There's a group of fans working on a program, Exult, which lets you play Ultima 7 under Windows, and Lord British and others on the Ultima 7 team support them, but they're hampered by the lack of source code. For one thing, the Exult group had to basically guess at a reconstruction of the combat system from Ultima 7 - it's not fully documented in the instruction manual, none of the programmers they've talked to remember the details of it, and now there's no way to consult the original source code.

Now, since I am of the opinion that computer games are essentially a fledgling new art form at this point, I believe that someday, people are going to want to see some of these old games for the same reasons people today want to see old silent films, old jazz recordings, old TV shows: Both to enjoy them for their own sake, and to study the history and development of the art form. It would be a shame if those games had not been preserved for posterity, when that time comes. And wide distribution is one of the best ways to preserve things like that. It increases the likelihood of finding a cache of stuff in someone's attic.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Can anyone help?

I'm looking for a specific T-shirt, that I've seen people wear occasionally. It's sort of a parody of the famous photograph of Che Guevara that you see all the time on shirts and posters, only instead of Che, it's one of the apes from the old Planet of the Apes movies (not the new one...), wearing a beret and everything.

Anyone out there have any suggestions where to look for such a thing?

Friday, August 27, 2004

Election-poll coverage that's actually meaningful

Anyone interested in following the horse-race aspects of the upcoming election may be interested in this electoral-college-based site. The person who runs it is a Kerry supporter, but that doesn't seem to get in the way of the numbers (it just pops up occasionally in his commentary). What he does is takes state-by-state poll results, as they are reported, and uses them to construct a map of likely election results using the electoral college votes. So instead of the totally irrelevant "dead heat" national poll results you get from most of the major national news outlets, you can see that, for example, right now Kerry leads, 270 to 259 electoral votes.

AvP Rant

First, let me just say: I haven't seen Alien vs. Predator, and have no intention of seeing it in a theater. I've heard too many bad things about it, but here's the main one:

Alien vs. Predator fills me with dread. What bothers me isn't the concept, it's the director. The Alien movie series had always had a tradition of getting young, talented, not-very-well-known (at the time) people to direct them: Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise), James Cameron (Titanic), David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club), Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children, Amélie). For AvP, they got Paul W. S. Anderson, whose resume includes such works of cinematic art as Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil. Which makes me suspect this is more of a videogame marketing movie than anything else.

The concept itself has an interesting history. In Predator 2, there's a scene where Danny Glover's character ends up inside the Predator's spaceship, and finds a "trophy room" – a wall of skulls. If you look carefully, in the quick pan across the wall of skulls, you can see that the set designers included, as an in-joke, an elongated skull such as one would get out of one of the Alien movie aliens (sort of like how, in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Watto's junk dealership has a pod from 2001 in the pile, and there are some E.T. aliens visible in the senate). Just a cute gag in the background for the geeks to spot.

Meanwhile: Dark Horse Comics acquires the comic-book rights to the Alien series. A couple of years after that, they also, coincidentally, acquire the comic-book rights to the Predator series, and they release some comics in both of these worlds, fleshing out a lot of the background of these alien species. Now, since comic-book companies tend to have a lot of geeks on staff, someone there remembers the Alien skull in Predator 2, and they come out with an Alien vs. Predator comic. People who were less geeky, and hence were unaware of the in-joke reference in Predator 2, see this as just a cheesy marketing gimmick, but the comic sells well anyway.

Well enough, in fact, that [whichever company it was] worked with everyone necessary to get the license to produce videogames based on them. People who were even less geeky than the comic fans, and hence were unaware of either the Predator 2 reference or the comic books, are completely confused by this Alien vs. Predator concept that just came out of nowhere, but the games sell well anyway.

Well enough that, now, it's come full circle and there's a movie. People who are even less geeky than the videogamers, and hence were unaware of all of this history, see this as a completely cheesy marketing gimmick, and inevitably compare it to the Freddy vs. Jason movie. A comparison which, in my opinion, is unfair: Freddy vs. Jason really was just a case of "hey, we own both of these horror franchises, let's mush 'em together, that should sell some tickets."

My only issue is that instead of following the Alien tradition and getting a bright young visionary director, they seem to have just hired whatever hack they could get to work quick and cheap, which just reinforces the belief that it's a cheesy marketing gimmick.

Now, just don’t get me started on that Will Smith Fights Robots movie (I refuse to call it by the name they used).

I got nothin'

Very little caught my eye this week. There's this Museum of Hoaxes that’s sort of fun. It can also be fun to laugh at bad Japanese/English translation.

Other than that, the internet’s been running dry this week. So, here are some Terry Pratchett quotes instead:

It's a popular fact that 90% of the brain is not used and, like most popular facts, it is wrong. Not even the most stupid Creator would go to the trouble of making the human head carry around several pounds of unnecessary grey goo if its only real purpose was, e.g., to serve as a delicacy for certain remote tribesmen in unexplored valleys; it is used. One of its functions is to make the miraculous seem ordinary, and turn the unusual into the usual. Otherwise, human beings, forced with the daily wondrousness of everything, would go around wearing a stupid grin, saying "WOW" a lot. Part of the brain exists to stop this happening. It is very efficient, and can make people experience boredom in the middle of marvels.
(Terry Pratchett, Small Gods)

"Well, yes, but -”
(Terry Pratchett, Hogfather)

"And there's the sign, Ridcully," said the Dean. "You have read it, I assume. You know? The sign which says 'Do not, under any circumstances, open this door'?"
"Of course I've read it," said Ridcully. "Why d'yer think I want it opened?"
"Er...why?" said the Lecturer in Recent Runes.
"To see why they wanted it shut, of course."*

* This exchange contains almost all you need to know about human civilisation. At least, those bits of it that are now under the sea, fenced off or still smoking.
(Terry Pratchett, Hogfather)

Friday, August 20, 2004

In honor of H. P. Lovecraft's birthday

Cthulhu for President – Why choose the lesser of two evils?
More of Cthulhu for President
Plush Cthulhu
Plush Elder Gods?

(Ok, that last one isn't technically Lovecraft-related, but they struck me as Things that would not look out of place next to a Plush Cthulhu.)

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Jesus Rice-Caked Christ!

Boy, if this isn't emblematic of everything that's wrong with the Catholic Church today, I don't know what is.

Let's try this one...

Alright, I'm getting a little fed up with the technical issues that keep popping up with my blog over on Blurty, so I'm going to try this one for a while. Joe seems to be having success with it, so I'll see how it goes.