Year: 2008

Gitmotainment

How did I miss this before? Apparently Fox has a reality-tv show called Solitary. Contestants endure dehumanizing, Gitmo-style confinement and stress. The last one to cry Uncle wins.

And the rest of us are supposed to consider this entertainment.

I’ll occasionally entertain conspiracy-theory thinking, but I try to keep it in check. A show like this makes it hard to avoid. One can imagine the current administration saying to its buddy Rupert Murdoch something like “We need to find a way to make torture seem more palatable to the American people. Can you help us out with that?”

Familiarity breeds contempt. What better way to trivialize institutionalized torture than by turning it into a game show? A child growing up watching this show might look at sleep deprivation, etc, as something they do on game shows, and be inured to it.

I can’t think about this without feeling like the whole human species has gone off the rails.

Dinner and a show

Gwen resolved (for both of us) that we should see more live music this year. Last night we took a step in that direction by seeing the Golden Hornet Project with the Tosca String Quartet at Lambert’s.

Neither Gwen nor I had been to the current incarnation of Lambert’s (and incarnation is the right word for a “fancy barbecue” joint)—we had been to the old one on South Congress once. So we decided to make an evening of it—we got their early, got seats at a table, and ordered dinner. I had the brisket with a side of mac and cheese; Gwen got the trout with a side of mashed potatoes, and we split a Caesar salad. My brisket was good but not amazing; Gwen said her trout was some of the best fish she ever had. The sides were excellent and decadent, and the salad was also very good.

The show was great. It consisted of alternating numbers by Peter Stopchinski (of Brown Whörnet) and Graham Reynolds (of Golden Arm Trio), performed by Tosca, with the composers sitting in on piano for some of them. Some of this we’d heard before, but most of it was new. Some of it was challenging to listen to—jangly and discordant in spots—some of it was beautiful.

Unbeatable Banzuke

I’ve been working on an ongoing translation project for the past four months. It’s being released in the USA under the title Unbeatable Banzuke on the G4 cable station.

The show was called 筋肉番付 (kinniku banzuke—”Muscle Ranking”) in Japanese, and aired about ten years ago.

Yesterday, I caught just a few minutes of a segment I had translated. From what little I saw, the production company hasn’t tampered much with my translation (as edited by my editor at the translation agency). The American version is kind of weird. They’ve got an American doing completely new voiceover, and his pronunciation of Japanese words is as bad as anyone who doesn’t know a lick of Japanese. The show closes with more completely new content in the form of a signoff by a Japanese-speaking announcer named Kei Kato, who was not a part of the original show. I’m not exactly sure what the point of this extra “local color” is. I’m also a little puzzled that they’d want the local color, but stick with such stridently Americanized pronunciation for Japanese words.

They also seem to have deleted all the original telops, including the many advertising the prize money for each event. This is reasonable, but since the contestants frequently make reference to the money they stand to win, I’m guessing they’ve probably edited those parts out. I’ll need to watch more to find out.

Time Machine to NAS: Not quite there

I recently upgraded my Mac to Leopard, whose marquee feature is Time Machine, a nice backup mechanism.

I already had a NAS box. I originally got this primarily as a backup target. It’s got a half-terabyte hard drive in it, and it supports AFP, so it seems like a logical target for Time Machine backups. And apparently in the betas of Leopard, it was possible to use a hard drive attached to an Airport Extreme as a Time Machine target. This was disabled in the shipping version, but there’s a simple hack to re-enable it. Which I applied: as it happens, this made also it possible to use Time Machine with my NAS box.

One critical difference between my NAS box and a hard drive hanging off an Airport Express is the disk format. Time Machine requires an HFS+ disk. My box is using something else. Time Machine actually deals with this cleverly by creating a disk-image file on the target drive, but that’s also the root of the problem: Mounting this disk image over the network (even GigE) gets slower and slower as the file gets bigger and bigger. I had set up a very stripped-down backup profile (home directory only, no media files), but still, after a couple of weeks, it had gotten to 42 GB and took forever to mount. Eventually it took so long to mount that Time Machine would stop waiting for it and give up.

So until I get a Time Capsule or something, I’m using my previous backup app, Synk. Even after, it might be worth it to use Synk to back up my media files, which don’t need quite the obsessive hourly backup that Time Machine offers.

Absolution

For the last eight years, I and a lot of other Americans have looked at our president as the unembarrassed standard-bearer of so much that is wrong with American politics: privilege, dynastism, cronyism, corruption, secrecy. He’s even managed to borrow some of the unseemly aspects of East German politics. And we have felt ashamed of our country.

And then there’s Barack Obama. Just the existence of a candidate like Obama says that American ideals like plurality, tolerance, and opportunity still mean something. Perhaps some of Obama’s popularity is not because of his potential as a president, but because he lets us feel better about ourselves.

When I vote for Obama in two weeks, it won’t be because of that. But it’s a nice bonus.

The Internet is a small world

I was reading Ben Hammersly’s blog, and he linked to an entry in Adam Greenfield’s blog. I followed that, and in the comments, saw a name I hadn’t run across since I was about seven years old Kazys Varnelis.

Kazy, as I knew him, grew up a few doors west of me, and was a year or two younger (still is, I imagine). “What are the odds of there being a completely unrelated Kazys Varnelis?” I asked myself. I dropped him a line, and sure enough, it’s my childhood neighbor. Funny to run across him so randomly, and good to see that he’s apparently up to some very interesting stuff.

Social networking as an API

A little while back, Sean had the insight that social networks should be a feature, not a service. I think he was right, but I’ll go him a step further and say social networks should be an API, not a feature. Rather than the current state of affairs, where some slice of your social network is represented on every site you participate in, all of your social network would be consolidated in one place of your own choosing. This approach is being referred to as a “distributed social network,” but that strikes me as a misnomer. The current fragmented situation is also distributed, just along a different axis.

My idea is inspired by the concept behind OpenID: basically, that you’ve got one “identity server” and use your credentials on that server to log in everywhere. All identity servers speak the same language, so when you’re trying to log in somewhere, as long as it knows how to communicate with any identity server, it can communicate with yours.

Your social network could function the same way. In fact, it would make sense for your OpenID server to also be the central repository for your social-network information. While this wouldn’t be necessary, it simplifies things, and for the rest of this entry, I’ll be assuming it’s the case.

So how would this work?

Sheldon Brown, 1944–2008

Sheldon Brown has died. He created what may be the most extensive trove of cycling knowledge on the Internet. Which I hope will endure.

I encountered him on Usenet under the rec.bicycles.* hierarchy, where he was always a source of good information and good humor. I ordered equipment from the store where he worked a few times and was glad to have his advice. Cycling is poorer for his loss.

The Boston Globe on Sheldon Brown .

Clicking it old-school

Datadesk 101e keyboard

I am typing this post from my spanking new, and yet very old (in computer terms) Datadesk 101e keyboard. This keyboard is so old it has an ADB port instead of USB—I need to use an adaptor to hook it up to my Mac.

I love it.

I used Datadesk keyboards for years, but when I bought my current computer, my old one was looking especially crusty, and I felt like it was time to enter the modern era. I’d read good things about the Matias Tactile Pro, and so I decided to get one of them. I was never entirely happy with it. Some combinations of keys and modifier keys were simply dead, making some of my preferred MS Word shortcuts impossible. Matias even addresses this issue, saying in short, “all keyboards have this problem.” (I never had that problem with the 101e.)

After a few years of service, my Matias keyboard was starting to misbehave, and it was looking appallingly crusty. So I decided to replace it with the keyboard I really wanted all along, another 101e.

Since no online retailer carries these keyboards anymore, I called Datadesk directly, and spoke with someone who’s apparently in a position of responsibility there. We had a long and interesting (if you’re a Mac nerd) conversation about the history of Apple computers. He tried to talk me out of ordering the 101e, since it doesn’t have USB. I told him I had an adaptor. He laughed, and found there were still about a dozen new-old stock 101es on hand. So he sold me one.

He also told me that the people at Datadesk have been kicking around the idea of updating the 101e for the modern age, but aren’t sure whether to update the electronics to USB and give it slightly updated cosmetics without changing the plastics (which he said would be pretty easy), or to undertake a more extensive physical makeover (which would be a bigger commitment). I think either one would be a viable option.

I’m a keyboard snob. I like keys that have a long stroke and solid action. Not many keyboards these days offer that. And frankly, I’m surprised that more people aren’t keyboard snobs. Until we get direct neural hookups, keyboards are going to remain the primary text input device for many of us. We tap on them thousands of times a day, and even a tiny improvement multiplied out over thousands of repetitions per day add up to a pretty big improvement. It’s a mystery to me that well-engineered aftermarket computer mice are as popular as they are, but not keyboards.

Although most keyboards sold today are cost-engineered disposable crap with lousy feel, there is clearly a market for keyboards with quality engineering. The Matias, despite my problems with it, is much better than most. There’s also the even more retro PC Keyboard, and the intimidating Das Keyboard.

Compared to the Tactile Pro, the 101e is much quieter, though still louder than most modern keyboards. It weighs much more: it stays where you set it on your desk. It’s bigger in every dimension. I don’t mind the fact that it takes up a little more desk real-estate, but it would be nice if the total height were a little lower; a rounded front edge on the space bar would also make it more comfortable to use. But I’m very happy with it. When you push down on a key, it goes straight down. With the Matias, sometimes the keys felt like they were trying to veer off to one side.

If you’re a snob about keyboards and don’t mind using a Griffin iMate, get one of the 12 11 remaining 101es. Or perhaps let Datadesk know that you’d be interested in getting an updated version of the 101e.

Update: Numbers don’t lie (even if statistics do). My best score at keybr.com was about 48 WPM with my old keyboard. 64 WPM with my new one. And I don’t even touch-type.

Another update: According to a fellow old-school keyboardista, although there are other USB-ADB adaptors out there, they can cause problems, so you really want to use the Griffin iMate.

Yet another update: Gruber and Benjamin discuss old keyboards on an episode of The Talk Show, and make sidelong references to the 101e, although do not mention it by name.

A still further update: NPR recently did a story on a kindred keyboard, the Unicomp, which carries on the old IBM Model M.

MacBook Air reaction

The interesting thing about the MBA (heh) is that it is intended as an “outrigger” computer. While it could be barely self-sufficient, the idea seems to be that anyone owning one would have a bigger computer somewhere else. That’s a reasonable assumption and the outrigger market is a reasonable one to serve. But if that was Apple’s starting point, they’ve made some weird choices.

  • Price: $1800 is a big commitment for a secondary computer.
  • Size: It’s small, but it’s not that small; its footprint is big enough that it clearly bothers a lot of people. And for that matter, it seems that they could have shaved an inch off the width and half-inch off the depth without cutting into screen or keyboard.
  • Power: It’s not exactly high-spec, but it’s pretty high-spec.

There is an emerging trend of cheap and cheerful devices that aren’t practical as fully functioning standalone computers, but are fine for web-surfing, media playback, and lightweight work. Things like the Nokia N810 or the Asus Eee. Apple seems to be borrowing the outrigger aspect of these devices without picking up on their other features—low-power CPU, small screen, limited keyboard, etc—features that make them less than workhorses, but easier to schlepp around and longer running. The MBA is a more or less full-power serious work machine and fashion statement that isn’t quite self-sufficient but doesn’t quite embrace its second-computer status either.

It’s been widely speculated that Apple would, eventually, introduce something that would fit somewhere between a laptop and the iPhone. Like a tablet. It may be that the iPhone is Apple’s tablet, but the choices behind the MBA leave room at the low end of the market for something else. Some people are already filling that void by installing OS X on the Asus Eee. I don’t think the MBA is going to be it for a lot of people.

Holding up a funhouse mirror up to society

Sitting on an ergometer at the gym yesterday, I was equidistant between two televisions. One was tuned to Bravo, showing “Make Me a Supermodel,” the other on the hilariously misnamed The Learning Channel (seriously, this should be The Endumbening Channel), showing “Fad Diets.”

This juxtaposition all by itself was entertaining enough, but when they got to the part about people who actually do use tapeworms as a weight-loss tool, I was agog. Reality outpaces our ability to satirize it.

Leopard initial reactions

Rather than buying a new computer, I’m updating my old one right now, and installed Leopard yesterday.

Normally when I install a major upgrade, I do a “clean install”—reconstructing my old environment by manually importing old files and recreating preferenecs is admittedly laborious, but it gives me a chance to re-examine what’s on my hard drive and jettison stuff I never use. I cloned my boot drive to an external drive, and selected the erase-and-install option in the Leopard installer. After that finished, it offered to import my old setup from my external drive. For some reason, I chose this option, and regretted it, as it faithfully imported every bit of cruft from my old system, some of which caused Leopard to lock up. Apart from that, I have to admit it did a sterling job—every jot and tittle was in place. It would be nice if I had more control over what got imported and what did not.

Tried again with the clean install, followed by manual copying of specific folders and files. I had a little trouble importing my old Mail folders, and discovered that I had to export my Address Book data (using Address Book running on a different computer) before I could import it to Leopard. And then I discovered one of those annoyances only a geek could love. For whatever reason, my short user name was now adamjrice. It has always been adamrice in the past, and this change was, of course, unacceptable. The path to my $HOME directory had changed similarly. One new and appreciated feature in Leopard is that it’s actually easy to change this: right-click on your username in the Accounts prefpane sidebar and it gives you the “advanced options” to fix this. Nice. However, it makes this change by creating a new $HOME directory with defaults, not by moving the old one, and instantly, silently migrating you to that. This causes weird and unwanted results. My advice: if you are going the clean-install route, check to make sure you are happy with your short user name before you do any customization. Fix it if need be, and log out/relog.

Other than these breaking-in pains, so far I’m happy. My computer is noticeably faster (not just subjectively—apps open faster, and Second Life, a poky pig, ran at about 2x the framerate making it almost tolerable), although this may have as much to do with blowing out some crufty haxies as anything else. Network throughput likewise seems to be faster, but I haven’t measured this.

QuickLook is probably worth the price of admission all by itself, especially if you can get plugins for the files you use the most. Last night, Gwen was trawling through a directory full of EPSs with meaningless names. Even though she’s still running Tiger, I mounted her drive, installed a QuickLook plugin for EPS, and was able to browse most (not all) of those files with previews in a couple of minutes. Big win. Coverflow in Finder, which seems like a frill, is useful in the same way QuickLook is, especially when, say, trawling through a directory full of meaninglessly-named EPS files.

As others have mentioned, Spotlight has gone from sucking to not-sucking. I reiterate that fact simply because the transformation is so stark.

So far, I’m calling this a success.