Year: 2006

Casino Royale

If you thought the old Casino Royale was an anti-Bond movie, you’re right. But in its own way, the new Casino Royale, made by the “official” James Bond movie-production company, is almost as much an anti-Bond movie. On balance, it is much better for it. It throws away many of the conventions of typical Bond movies.

The opening credits are especially fun to watch, despite the absence of scantily-clad women, and the classic Bond theme is completely absent until the closing credits. Improbable gadgets are generally missing, and Q is on holiday. Admittedly, the cellphones all have screens with HDTV-like resolution, and Bond does have a defibrillator that’s about the size of a paperback book, but other than that, there’s very little technology that’s beyond what’s available today, with a little bit of movie gloss—Bond is using cinematic versions of Google Earth, GPS, etc. Mostly, I suspect, this is because everyday technology has come so far, and is so pervasive that people might be less willing to suspend disbelief on anything that pushes today’s limits too hard.

Bond’s main talent in this movie is his ability to tolerate repeated and severe ass-kickings. The bad guys in this movie are all really tough, even the anonymous ones. In a typical Bond movie, 007 will quickly and easily punch out random thugs and send them packing with lines like “the little fish I throw back.” Not here. The bad guys higher up the totem pole are not trying to take over the world or ransom the UN for the sum of (pinky to lip) one million dollars, they’re just trying to make a profit as it self-destructs.

This movie is also unusually talky for a Bond movie, necessary to show him developing a relationship, which is also unusual.

While I liked it overall, the movie did have some problems. The first reel or so feels like a series of disconnected events. They aren’t—there is a connection between them—but something in the storytelling doesn’t quite establish that strongly enough. You have to pay attention to the low-energy scenes (while you catch your breath after the high-energy ones) to keep things straight. Some implausibilities are explained after the fact with throwaway lines.

Overall, though, I like it as a movie on its own merits, and as a Bond movie. It’s a curious thing that, with any kind of franchise movie, one tends to evaluate it in terms of how it relates to other pictures in the franchise, not just as a standalone piece.

My mom’s turkey recipe

To set down for time immemorial and Google, I present herewith my mom’s method for making a turkey, with stuffing, with my own minor tweaks. In this recipe, the bird is cooked on a charcoal grill. This has the benefit of freeing up the oven for things like pie, and it tastes great. There’s also the element of risk, since the grill is a less-controlled environment, so you get a little thrill when everything turns out well.

For a 14-lb bird, this recipe will take about four and a half hours, so budget your time accordingly.

Stuffing ingredients:

  • Bread cubes: two bags unseasoned stuffing cubes, or dried cubes from one loaf of bread
  • Onions, three
  • Mushrooms, 1 lb
  • Rice pilaf mix, one box
  • Walnuts or pecans, two handfuls, chopped

All these quantities are negotiable, and you can make any additions you see fit (raisins, rosemary, celery, etc)

Begin by removing the neck and giblets from the turkey and simmer them for at least one hour. Coarsely cube the onions and mushrooms, and lightly sautée them. Start the rice pilaf mix.

Now would probably be a good time to get your charcoal going. Use one of those starter chimneys, not starter fluid. You don’t want your turkey tasting like fuel.

Once the giblets have simmered for one hour, put the bread cubes in a large mixing bowl and moisten them slightly with the giblet-water. Add the rest of the stuffing ingredients and mix them together well.

Rinse the turkey in cold water thoroughly and drain off. Thoroughly fill both the body and neck cavities with stuffing. Pin the skin down over the neck opening. There should be enough stuffing left to fill a small casserole dish. Put a light coating of olive oil on the bird.

The charcoal should be ready by now, so prep the grill. I have one of those grills made out of a 55-gallon drum turned on its side, which is ideal for this, as it gives you plenty of room and a side-opening. You are going to be using indirect heat, so you want to place your charcoal in a single heap off to one side, in a location where it will be easy to replenish.

Lay a sheet of tinfoil down on the grill away from the heat source, and place the bird on this. You’ll probably want an assistant for this part.

Allow 15 minutes of cooking time per pound, and allow an extra 15-30 minutes to take into account the added weight of the stuffing.

Every 30 minutes, add another 10 or so briquets—don’t let any more heat escape than necessary. Every hour, rotate the bird 180° to even out the cooking.

You might want to wrap some potatoes or sweet potatoes in tinfoil and throw them on when you’ve got 90 minutes to go.

At 60 minutes to go, and at 30-minute intervals thereafter, check the turkey’s internal temperature: it’s possible that it’s already done. Use a probe-type thermometer. Internal temperature measured from the top should be at least 165°F, juices should be running clear, and the skin should be the color of dark honey. If the turkey is done but you aren’t ready for it, set it as far from the heat as possible, cover it with a sheet of tinfoil, and stop adding charcoal.

East Austin Studio Tour

The East Austin Studio Tour is going on this weekend. Gwen and I hit a lot of the stops today, and saw a hell of a lot of cool stuff.

Some highlights: Gnome figurines by Meg Stone (Prentiss took the same picture as I did). Sacrilegious robot art by Veronica Ceci. Cherie Weaver’s whimsical art (the one place we dropped money this year). And of course, the excellent journals and cookies from my neighbor Mychal and the paintings by my neighbor Jen Balkan (who also makes robot art, but not sacrilegious).

If you’re reading this on Sunday, hop on your bike now and check it out.

Adventures in backup

I’ve got an aging external hard drive that I’ve been using for backups for some time now. It’s been getting kind of clogged up, and when we returned from Spain, it took a few tries before it would spin up. That was the kick in the pants I needed to move forward with a plan to get a network-attached storage (NAS) box.

I spent a lot of time reading the reviews at Tom’s Networking. It looked like there was no one product that offered both of two key features: two disk bays for RAID-1, and support for the Appletalk File Protocol (AFP). (I know that I could have dropped $600 on a four-bay box from Infrant, but I literally don’t have room for that, much less the budget or the need.) I decided to compromise on a “bring your own disk” one-disk box from Synology, DS-106e, which at least supports AFP. Eventually I can get an external box to plug into the DS-106 and backup my backup.

Getting this working has been a bear. The main point of this exercise, of course, is to back up. I had been using SilverKeeper, freeware from LaCie, for a long time. It works, but it is not easy to work with. I want to exclude things like caches and deleted mail from my backup, and while it is possible with SilverKeeper, it’s painful, and the interface is buggy enough (straight outta OS 9) that I’m never sure what I’ve added to the exclusion list. I looked around and decided to try out Synk, which offers pretty smart exclusions and looks nice.

Repeated attempts to make a backup fail in mid-stream. Tried with both Sync and SilverKeeper, and encountered some variation on the same problem each time. I do some reading on the forums for Synk and discover that most NAS boxes that support AFP don’t do a very good job of it, hence the problems I’m seeing. Trying to connect via SMB doesn’t work any better, for some reason.

Gnash teeth, rend garments, pull hair.

Inspiration strikes.

If you’re using OS X and are trying to back up to an NAS without success, here’s what you do. Launch Disk Utilities. Create a sparse disk image on your NAS box. Make that your backup target. I’ve tried this, and so far, it works. It seems to tax my Mac a lot more heavily, and it seems like taking the long way round. There may be other reasons this is a Bad Idea, and I would rather not have to do this in the first place. But, like I say, it works.

On the plus side, the NAS box is a lot quieter than my external drive, it lets me declutter my desk. I hooked my printer up to it, for additional decluttering, and that worked like a charm. Hardware assembly went smoothly: I stuck a 500-GB (Half a terabyte. Isn’t that insane? My first hard drive was 20 MB, making this one 25,0000 times bigger. Terabyte-drives will be unexceptional in commodity PCs in a year.) drive in it, and over gigabit Ethernet, it seems about as fast as my FW-400 external hard drive.

Stuck in the middle

I just had my three-month follow-up visit after LASIK surgery yesterday. My optometrist said “well, the good news is that your vision hasn’t changed. And the bad news is that your vision hasn’t changed.”

I’m in a funny situation. My correction isn’t perfect—and I’m very aware that my vision now is actually worse than when I was wearing glasses. But pretty good, and more to the point, it’s not bad enough for a touch-up.

As my optometrist explained to me, the least amount that LASIK can correct is half a diopter. Beyond that, it can make very fine-grained corrections, but it needs to apply at least that much. I’m about 1/3 diopter away from perfect. So, he said, I can hope that my vision magically gets better on its own, or gets worse on its own (neither is likely), but if I have to live with what I’ve got, it isn’t so bad. I’m scheduled for another visit in three months.

Well, you pays yer money and you takes yer chances.

Is that all there is?

Peggy Lee

So the Democrats have taken both the House and Senate. Admittedly, they had a little help from the White House, which managed to turn off many voters with a litany of crimes and errors too long and obvious to mention. But what surprised me is that the Republican majority—especially in the Senate—ended not with a bang but a whimper. The GOP could have put up a fight over the results in Montana and Virginia. In fact, I expected them to, and was surprised that they didn’t. I expected dirty tricks being masterminded by Karl Rove, lawsuits, etc. Nothing. Both Burns and Allen rolled over pretty meekly.

There is always a difference between the way a thing exists in the real world and your mental model of it. In my mental model of today’s GOP, the party is ruthless and effective (among other things). I suspect that many progressives have held a roughly similar model, and the Republicans have done plenty to create it. So the quick concessions are jarring, surprising. It makes me wonder if Democrats have been scaring themselves into paralysis with tales of the big scary boogeyman when the boogeyman really isn’t that big or scary.

Security hole at my mortgage holder

I was just paying my mortgage online, at the website of my note-holder. Their online-payment system is set up so that once you log in, you are presented with an on-screen facsimile of a check, where you fill in the amount, routing number, and account number of the paying bank. Below that is a field for the last four digits of your SSN and an e-mail address to send a confirmation notice to.

Well, I actually fat-fingered my SSN today, and the page immediately popped up an alert that I had entered my SSN wrong. It seemed that there had been no round-trip to the server to check that, so I checked the page’s source code. Sure enough, I saw this:
function validateSSN1()
{
if (document.Form1.txtssn.value != "the actual last four digits of my SSN here" && document.Form1.txtssn.value != "the actual last four digits of Gwen's SSN here" )
{
document.Form1.txtssn.value = ""
document.Form1.txtssn.focus();
alert("Your entry did not match our records. Please enter the last four digits of your social security number.");
return false;
}
else
{
return true;
}
}

Embedded right there in the page asking my for the information is the very information it is asking me for. That’s just a bad security practice in general, but it’s especially bad considering the information in question. Now, admittedly, nobody should be able to get access to my account in the first place, but if they do, the damage they should be able to do should be limited to that website. But the last four digits of the SSN are so widely used as a shorthand identifier these days that the potential for mischief is much more widespread.

I have notified the bank, and will not mention their name just yet.

Our trip to Spain

In the writeup to follow, parts written by Gwen will be styled like this. Some photos are up, but the memory card with most of them got corrupted somehow Now that I have recovered almost all the photos (huzzah!) I am tagging and uploading them in batches.

Very long (7400 words) post after the jump.

Home from España

We’re back. The trip was great. Barcelona, Santiago de Compostela, Bilbao, and San Sebastian. Longer letter later. Photos forthcoming.

We should all have such problems

Gwen and I are leaving today on a trip to Spain.

We had written a rather large check from our investment account and deposited it in our regular checking account, so we’d be able to get at those funds from an ATM while abroad. When we made the deposit, we asked the teller if she could deposit it without a hold, and she said Yes. Sure enough, the next day, the money appeared in our account.

Then yesterday at about 4:30, I checked our account again and saw a negative balance. Uhhhhhh…

Frantic calling to the bank and the investment house resulted in conflicting stories. According to the bank, the investment house refused to honor the check (which is strange, since we’ve written checks against that before and had them clear, and there was enough money to cover it), so they were returning it; according to the investment house, the check was never presented for payment. If we didn’t resolve the situation in exactly 24 hours, we’d be in Spain with no ready way to get at our money (beyond what we’re bringing, which isn’t enough to last the trip).

Today I ordered a wire transfer instead. It looks like it has gone through.

As problems in life go, this is not big. It’s the kind of problem only a fortunate person can have. I bear all that in mind, but the situation still made me very angry and anxious.

Switching to WordPress

I’d been using Movable Type for years, but had grown disenchanted with their dual-architecture of Perl+PHP. And I guess my life just wasn’t complicated enough. And I had the general sense that the Mandate of Heaven had shifted towards WordPress, so I’m using that now.

Making this page look as much like my old page as possible (with, I hope, some improvements) has been a good opportunity to learn about the software. I started by hacking on what must be the most complicated theme available, K2, which in hindsight was pretty dumb—I’ve pared away a lot its interesting bells and whistled, and added a few of my own.

Each platform has its pros and cons. WordPress has better management of static pages, and seems to have a more active developer community. Movable Type has some nice back-end tools that WordPress either lacks or can only offer via plugins. WP seems to have much cleaner and more effective spam-fighting tools (Spam Karma is pretty amazing). There’s a big conceptual difference between MT templates and WP themes—I’m more comfortable with the template idiom, so dealing with themes is taking some mental adjustment. MT’s tags are atomic—they correspond to a bare chunk of programmatically generated text. With WP, tags are function calls, in many cases producing formatted output with the format determined by an argument in the function. Getting at the atomic unit at all requires delving into the code to see what’s going on.

Somewhat to my chagrin, all my permalinks have changed in this process. And I’ve also lost all my folksonomic tags, but I knew that would happen. Come to think of it, I kinda knew that I’d lose my permalinks. But since the URL format is so very similar, it seems that someone who actually knows what he’d doing could probably write a ModRewrite htaccess doohicky to intercept invalid old URLs and figure out if they are near-misses for valid new URLs and redirect to those. Alas, I am not that person.

Writing well and translating poorly

Paul Graham always writes interesting articles (though I can’t figure out for the life of me why he hosts them as a Yahoo store), but I don’t track him very closely, so when I ran across a link to his somewhat old Writing, Briefly, I read it eagerly.

And noticed with interest that it has been translated into a number of languages, including a Japanese version (which I can read), and a Spanish version (which I can kinda fake). His advice “use simple, germanic words” may be good (though I’d phrase it as “Anglo-Saxon words”), and as a translation issue, it certainly stands out.

The Spanish translator preserved it but struck it out: “usa palabras simples, germánicas;”

The Japanese translator included it without comment: “簡単でドイツ語的な単語を使いなさい。”

Now, the funny thing here is that there’s a pretty good equivalent to Anglo-Saxon vocabulary for Japanese—大和言葉. I’m not how perfectly the two accord, or whether avoiding 漢語 would be as important to a Japanese version of Paul Graham as avoiding Latinate words apparently is to the English-speaking Paul Graham. Regardless, though, the translator kept that in there. Apparently the translator is relying on the reader to keep in mind that this is a translation of an English text for English audiences, and to understand what Germanic vocabulary means in terms of English style. Going the other way, I would never make that assumption—an English audience would be completely lost if I presented them with the phrase “yamato kotoba” in a text translated from Japanese. But then again, it might be jarring to them if I adapted the concept to “Anglo-Saxon vocabulary” if they knew that my piece was a translation. One could dodge this by simply saying “use native vocabulary.”

The case with Spanish is knotty in its own way. I know Spanish has its share of loanwords, but it doesn’t have the overwhelming influence of French and Latin that English has (and even if it did, it would be harder to tell them apart), or of Chinese that Japanese has. So the call to use native vocabulary is redundant. The way the translator chose to deal with it here is interesting—it transparently acknowledges that the text is a translation, and that in this case, the idea doesn’t quite fit in the translation.

I want my hovercar too, dammit

Some British engineering firm has built a hybrid mini that gets 80 mpg, does 0-60 in 4.5 seconds, and has a radius of 800 miles. There is no doubt some hyperbole in this, and I suspect there are some unsolved problems (I wonder about the unsprung weight of those wheel-motors), but still, very impressive.

This makes me angry. If a shop like this can do it, why can’t the big guys? Shoot, I’d settle for a car with those specs that did 0-60 in 5.5 seconds.

Honyakuhome.org is live

I started a web page that I called the Honyaku Home Page back in 1995 (for whatever reason, the wayback machine only shows iterations going back to 1997—still pretty old for a web page). Over the years it grew and transmogrified. For a while, I ran it using a crude homebrewed CMS written in Hypercard.

When I upgraded my Mac to OS X, Hypercard became a non-option; my hacked-up CMS had been very awkward to use for a long time anyhow. Eventually I transferred most of the site’s functions to Movable Type, using some jury-rigged templates. That too became unsatisfactory, and for a very long time, I looked around for other options.

I found one in Drupal, though when I first encountered it, it was somewhat primitive. Over time, Drupal has developed, and I committed to using it. After a false-start, I hired a developer to customize a module for me, bought a domain name (which I should have done a long time ago anyhow), and soft-launched the new site.

Even though most of the ducks have been in a row for some time, I’ve been reluctant to have a public launch. Drupal has numerous add-on modules these days, many of which would no doubt make the new site more useful, but the double-edged sword is that every new module creates new administrative tasks, and some of the spiffier features would require even more futzing around. I was stuck in option paralysis. The best is the enemy of good enough.

Today, I finally said “fuck it,” decided to launch with a plainer site, and announce it. Check it out. honyakuhome.org.

Accelerando

Coincidentally on the same day that scientists announced clear evidence that dark matter really exists, I finished reading Accelerando, a story about the singularity by Charlie Stross. As this interview with the author points out, it’s “information-dense” (resulting in reading aids like the Accelerando Technical Companion).

Saying it’s dense is an understatement. In the early chapters, my (somewhat annoyed) impression was that “this guy has devoured every Boing-boing post for the past five years, digested and ruminated them, and vomited them onto the page.” As the book moved on and got weirder and more intense, I decided “this guy drops mind-bombs like a deer running through a forest drops turds.” So my mind is pretty well blown at the moment.

The singularity is an interesting proposition, an audacious prediction about the future, and this book gives a lot of ideas on the subject to chew on. While reading it, I found myself wondering “does he really believe this stuff?” In that interview, he hedges a bit, but says “any SF that doesn’t try to address the issue is either a dystopia or a fantasy.” So, yes. He’s a pretty smart guy who’s clearly listening to and extrapolating a lot of trends. And it makes me wonder ”can we create a world too weird for us to inhabit?“ According to the book, the answer is yes, many times over.

I’ve heard the year 2040 thrown around as a target date for the singularity. I’ll live that long, most likely. It’ll be an interesting ride.

Big time

You know you’ve made it when people think they can make money off you.

Austin Bloggers has been around as a loose community for years now, and is one of the older community-aggregator sites around. At last night’s meetup, two people attended because they see the community as an opportunity to make a buck.

One of these guys is not a blogger himself. He doesn’t have a blog. He does, however, have an excellent command of the most annoying buzzwords on the Internet today, which he flings around with unironic abandon as if this will impress us: his company is all “web 2.0” and “user-generated content.” Web 2.0 in this case apparently means “shiny” and user-generated content means “you fill up my site for no pay, and I make money off it!”

The other guy is a blogger, and has what sounds like an interesting blog, but again, he was there to sign up people for something that would benefit him: he’s developed a bit of code that bloggers can put on their blog-templates that will show a box with headlines from other bloggers in their community. This in itself is not particularly innovative (and has been implemented hundreds of different ways), although his has the interesting twist of putting together headlines from multiple sources. But the box always has a little link to a “sponsor” at the bottom. The sponsor has paid him money, he has given you this little code snippet, and in return, the sponsor gets to use your blog as part of a link-farm to get more google-juice. This guy at least had the good grace to realize that what he’s doing is slightly exploitative

Gosh, where do I sign up?