October 2003

The iPodlet

When the iPod was new, it was a breakthrough product. It wasn’t the first MP3 player, nor the first MP3 player based on a hard drive, but it managed to find a sweet spot in terms of storage capacity and physical size that no previous product did. This was mostly because of its 1.8″ hard-drive mechanism, which only became available at about the same time as the iPod itself, and partly because of some good industrial design by Apple.

The first iPods had 5 GB of capacity–probably nowhere near enough to contain the entire collection of a music buff, but probably enough for 50-100 CDs-worth of music. Plenty for a road trip.

Today the smallest iPod is 10 GB, and the largest is 40 GB. I’ve got over 500 CDs, and I could fit my entire collection on a 40-GB iPod with plenty of room to spare. This makes the iPod something fundamentally different: When I can put all my music, all my digital pictures (about 500 MB), and my entire home directory (about 1 GB, including everything I’ve written on my computer for the past 13 years, and a lot of old e-mail), the iPod can be a primary repository for all my personal stuff, rather than a very capacious place to carry around music and maybe some other files temporarily. Can be, but perhaps shouldn’t be–the whole idea behind the iPod is that it is more portable than other hard-drive MP3 players. Meaning you’ll carry it around. Meaning you might lose it, or at least leave it lying around where someone could copy personal data off it (and thanks to that firewire port, it wouldn’t take long). Encryption would be one obvious step to take.

But just as the iPod has graduated to being something else, something else could graduate to be the iPod. Microdrives–tiny 1″ hard drives–maxed out at 340 MB when they were introduced. Just like all other hard drives, though, they store a lot more now, and they’re available in 4 GB and even larger today–the original iPod’s territory, but a lot smaller. The difference between 1″ and 1.8″ may not sound like much, but it’s the difference between a matchbox and half a sandwich.

A microdrive-based MP3 player might be wearable as a chunky wristwatch. Or be embedded into a set of headphones. Or hung around the neck as a high-tech pendant. I’d be more interested in a gadget that can effectively disappear than one I need to consciously carry around. I’m looking forward to seeing interesting things happen with these 1″ mechanisms.


This spider has been hanging out at Gwen’s for the past couple of nights. It’s pretty big–about three inches long. It spins a very large orb that it dismantles every morning sometime between 7:30 and 8:30. No luck identifying it so far.

Redistricting gridlock

Everyone knows the Democrats couldn’t agree to Republican plans for Texas congressional redistricting. And many of you know Republicans in the state House can’t agree with their counterparts in the state Senate, for arcane reasons. They’ve been bickering so long they’re on the verge of postponing elections so they can settle the squabble.

“We’re just praying the Democrats will leave again, to take the heat off of us,” Smithee said.

Just too rich.

Lost in Translation

Two days ago, Gwen and I saw a movie that reminded both of us of Ghost World. Today, we saw a movie starring one of the actresses from that movie, Scarlett Johansson: Lost in Translation. Very good and very melancholy. The story is less sad than Sofia Coppola’s previous movie, The Virgin Suicides, but it feels sadder, somehow–Virgin Suicides had a very detached quality to it; this had a very intimate quality. It also made me very nostalgic for Japan, and a little melancholy about my own experiences there.

Gwen astutely commented that it was sad seeing Bill Murray, an actor we’ve grown up with, not only playing (well, being) an old guy, but in a role where his age is a key part of the role. She also pointed out that a scene where the two main characters were chasing through a pachinko parlor seemed like it was lifted from another movie we had recently seen, but neither of us could quite put our finger on which one.

Ideal double-feature companion movie: CQ: both movies address the isolation of smart young Americans abroad. Both use the movies as a schtick in the movie. And both are made by second-generation Coppolas.

Mafia lessons

Bush has asked for $87 billion to rebuild Iraq. Actually, that’s a lowball figure–he really wants more like $150 billion, and once you add in the interest payments, it will be many times that. But let’s stick with $87 billion. Of that, most of it will go to pay for American forces over there; the rest will actually be used for reconstruction (that is, Halliburton contracts).

But even the $20 billion or so for actual reconstruction is a lot of money, and some Democrats have shamefully proposed–and some Republicans supported–the idea that the money should be treated as a loan to Iraq, which that country would repay.

Now, never mind the whole blood-for-oil slogan. Never mind that the administration mistakenly thought that the Halliburton welfare project rebuilding effort could be paid for out of oil revenues. The idea that one country would invade another, blow it up, and then charge it for repairs is appalling. The Mafia has it figured out: they charge you protection money up-front, so that nothing…unfortunate happens to your country. We could save everybody a lot of trouble if we’d just extort rather than invade and then try to take money.

American Splendor

Finally got around to seeing American Splendor last night. Very good. If I’m ever feeling down about my own life, I can console myself with the thought “at least I’m not Harvey Pekar.” That sounds mean, but come on–a file clerk who says “every day’s a struggle” is automatically pathetic and self-involved.

Despite the aggressively mundane quality of Pekar’s world, and his almost complete inability to find any joy in it at all, the movie’s funny. The little observations within the movie are funny, and the wacky metafiction mashups are funny: the real Harvey Pekar provides voiceover, and occasionally the scene shifts to a white space, cluttered with some of the set dressing from the previous scene, with the Real Harvey giving some insight on what’s going on. This might sound annoying, but it is necessary, if for no other reason than Toby. Toby is one of Harvey’s coworkers depicted in the story, and he is such an oddball character that one would be forced to conclude that his depiction, if not the person himself, was fictionalized. But eventually we cut to the Real Toby, and that’s exactly what he’s like, and we realize fiction is hard-pressed to keep up with truth for strangeness. In that shot, we see Real Harvey talking with Real Toby, as Paul Giamatti (portraying Harvey) and Judah Friedlander (portraying Toby) sit on folding chairs in the background. That’s meta.

Paul Giamatti wears a scowl through the whole movie that’s constantly on the verge of a grimace. He probably had to do face-yoga at the end of every day of shooting. The shots of Pekar himself today show that he’s mellowed a little bit with age, and he occasionally breaks into a smile.

Ideal double-feature companion to this movie: Ghost World. Both are comics-inspired, and Harvey Pekar seems to have been the inspiration for Seymour in Ghost World.

Forever Peace

Just finished reading Joe Haldeman’s Forever Peace. Very good. Some years ago, I read his book Forever War, one of the standards in the science-fiction canon. This was not a sequel to that, rather a sideways look at some of the same issues in it.

The book starts off slowly with exposition. He’s set up an interesting near-future world for the reader to get acquainted with, and if that were the extent of the book, it wouldn’t be bad. But right in the middle of the book, when things are starting to slow down, he throws a crisis at us, which is merely the butterfly wing-flap that precipitates a boggling storm of events. Everything starts happening very quickly.

I’ve always said that a cynic is a disappointed optimist, and I think Haldeman is a cynic when it comes to human nature: he hasn’t given up hope, but he’s arched his eyebrow at his fellow man for so long that those muscles have just given out. The book was written in 1998 and the action takes place in 2043; I suspect that every day now he cradles his head in horrified amazement at his own premature prescience.

Chilly processor units

Anyone who has used a laptop atop a lap is intimately familiar with the heat that a modern CPU can generate. Every watt of that heat is wasted.

Talking with Dave earlier, he mentioned that he had converted one of his PCs to liquid cooling, silencing at least some of the fans that had made the thing sound like a damned airplane. He explained how the cooling system used an aquarium pump to circulate water; I hypothesized that the pump was probably redundant–the CPU itself probably put enough energy into the system for natural convection to circulate the water adequately, as long as there’s a one-way valve in the plumbing somewhere. He was skeptical.

Anyhow, if it hasn’t been done already, it would make a good project for a casemodder. But after thinking about it a bit, I realized this idea had a lot of potential. Take it a step further: rather than using energy to cool the system, actively scavenge the processor’s waste heat. I can imagine a couple ways to do this:

  1. Install a water turbine in the radiator. This could drive a generator to produce a little juice, or be mechanically coupled to a fan. This would be quite elegant: the computer would become a homeostatic system that cooled itself down as a natural consequence of heating up.
  2. Install a stirling engine in the case. Again, this could be coupled to a fan or a generator.

Imagine the steampunk/geek-cred you’d earn by having a functioning stirling engine installed in your case.