Results tagged “review” from kwc blog

Photoshop CS4 and Bridge CS4 Review

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First ReviewMy first review for PhotographyReview.com is up. Hopefully the first of many. Please check it out and let me know what you think.

I reviewed Phoxle's white balancing products, which I was first introduced to when I attended a Camera Owners of the Bay Area meeting. I was impressed with their ingenuity and sought them out as a review target. If you're wondering what the big white disc is that I have with me when I'm shooting, you can checkout the review for more. Chris Pedersen of Phoxle was a stand-up guy throughout the whole review process and his presence on message boards out there showed that his friendliness is not reviewer-biased. So, to summarize the review before you read it, buy the SpectraSnap.

It's been pretty busy between reviewing camera equipment, reviewing bikes, reviewing pens, and writing web sites to collect cycling links. I've also been doing more studio work with bikes and holding down the day job building robots. I was a bit ashamed to have to use official shots of the Phoxle equipment instead of taking my own, but the time is just crazy hard to find I say, crazy. Of course I'm not complaining because all of this is a lot of fun.

Spiderman 3 suuuuuucks

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I didn't expect it to be as good as the second -- I just wanted it to be as good as the first. But it's just bad. The whole audience bonded together as we struggled to make it through to the end.

Zelda: Twilight Princess (a bit of a letdown)

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zeldaI beat Twilight Princess a couple of days ago but I can't say that it was the pinnacle of Zelda gameplay that I had hoped it would be. Instead of propelling the franchise forward, I felt more that it stepped backwards to Ocarina of Time with spruced up graphics. If I had played Twilight Princess before Ocarina, then I'd probably be inclined to call Twilight Princess the best game ever, and plenty of reviews have referred to it as the best Zelda ever. For me, the lack of novelty occasionally left me bored. The visual design was also a step backwards. Wind Waker was the most expressive Link to date and it truly helped the storytelling. The Twilight Link is a plastic doll barely able to raise a single eyebrow of emotion. For someone like me who buys the next Nintendo platform to play Zelda, I perhaps have unsurmountable expectations that, until the Wii, have been met. Strange, considering that the Wii has been the most impressive platform release for me, ever.

My reaction is best understood when touring of some of the past Zeldas. (bolded titles were the next-generation releases):

  • Legend of Zelda: this game was amazing for its time, but without friends and Nintendo Power to tell you where to bomb, I probably never would have finished this game.
  • Zelda II: never played more than a dungeon or two as the side-scroller never caught my attention
  • A Link to the Past: this game greatly expanded the Zelda story and universe. It established the story elements and puzzle mechanics that are general basis of later Zelda games (Hyrule Castle, hookshot, parallel universe, master sword as story element).
  • Ocarina of Time: took Zelda into 3D and ranks as one of my favorite games off all time. I'm still amazed as to how well the designers were able to translate Zelda-ness into 3D.
  • Majora's Mask: I enjoyed this game, even if it did reuse of the Ocarina engine. It was not a next-generation Zelda, nor was it meant to be, but it had an entertaining 3-day story construct that made it different from previous Zelda. It also had a complete lack of a Hyrule/Ganon storyline, which kept it a fresh experience. I am impressed that they managed to deliver a game that was so similar to its predecessor in technology and feel, but different enough to remain entertaining.
  • Wind Waker: The Gamecube-based toon shading helped deliver the best visual design of any Zelda (still) with Link actually able to emote and use facial expressions as clues. It also introduced a continuous world, but had to hide load times in large expanses of sea. I appreciated the fact that they took a risk and did away with the Hyrule-Castle-spoke-and-wheel map model and I loved the game overall, but like many, I eventually tired of the sailing -- you know its bad when you can point your boat, go to the bathroom, and still not have arrived where you need to. With an outboard motor and a more densely populated world, it could have been a perfect game.

Then you come to Twilight Princess. Twilight is weird because it is a Gamecube game ported to the Nintendo Wii, so its not truly a next-generation effort. But it is also entirely different from its Gamecube-brother Wind Waker. Regardless, it is not a game designed for the Wii. This isn't necessary a bad thing, but for Zelda games its uncommon. I've often joked that Nintendo designs each next-generation controller for Zelda -- the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube controllers both seem a bit odd until you play the Zelda game for that system. Along this line of thinking, for Twilight to truly be a next-generation Zelda experience, the Wiimote would have to be more than a tacked-on experience. Unfortunately, it's clear that you could play the game with a Gamecube controller as everything (except for fishing, which I hate) has the same mechanics as Ocarina/Wind Waker.

About the only time I found the Wiimote really engaging was during certain boss fights that required Link to plunge his sword into the big boss. I found myself gripping the Wiimote like a dagger and violent plunging it into the air. These were the moments I was hoping to have more of. I'm hoping that Miyamoto has a true Nintendo Wii Zelda cooking in the oven, one that takes previous Zelda mechanics like the ocarina, wind waker, and howling and gives them the fun, stand-up experience of the Wii.

2006 Books in Review

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NOTE: you needn't follow along in my self-indulgent look back on my reading list from 2006. I'm merely trying to process for myself the threads of my reading.

I was a little disappointed with myself when I looked back over what I had read this year. I thought I had read a lot, but then I realized that it was mostly graphic novels and easier reading. I didn't quite challenge myself this year -- I won't be crossing any books off of "top 100" literary lists. I guess one of my New Year's resolutions will be to start picking up some of the more challenging stuff gathering dust on my shelves.

Biggest accomplishment

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I've been reading this since 2004, if not earlier. If feels good to check this one off, though that still leaves Confusion and The System of the World, which are both just as long and heavy. I enjoyed Quicksilver enough to attempt the other two books, but it won't be among my Stephenson favorites.

Recommended

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Fables: 1001 Nights comes at a perfect time for the series. Thematically, it dovetails well with the recent Fables: Arabian Nights release from the regular series, and it also provides a whole lot of character development/origins at a time when the series is ready for it. It also features art by Charles Vess, James Jean, Jill Thompson, Tara McPherson, and more. I'd probably put the other Fables books below on the recommended line, but I this collection stood out.

Old Man's War is John Scalzi's take on Starship Troopers, but instead of the young people going off to fight, it's the old folks. Scalzi provided a comfortable space in which to ponder this twist+homage. I've picked up Forever War as a result of reading this, so that I can continue the thought process.

What the Dormouse Said is a fun book for me, mainly because it pretty much places the companies that I've worked for in an alternate universe: LSD experiments, violent anti-war protests, Rolling Stone, and pot. And all of this lead to the modern computer and Internet.

Fiasco dissects the failures of the current Iraq War from a military strategic point of view. It was a new way for me to look at the failures of the Dubya administration :).

I've already said enough good things about Design of Everyday Things and Thud!.

Not recommended

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I generally like Queen and Country and McSweeney's, but not every release is a hit. I've previously described some of my dissatisfaction with Queen and Country: Declassified Vol 2 as well as McSweeney's 17.

Rest of the Reads

Whole lot of Lemony Snicket

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I'm not sure I felt fully satisfied by the end of Lemony Snicket, and that perhaps was Daniel Handler's intent. It was sadly fun, once it got out of the repetitive rhythm of the first four books and started gaining some continuity. My purchase of the Beatrice Letters falls in the McSweeney's clever packaging gimmick that I repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly fall for.

Whole lot of Usagi and Japanese-themed graphic novels:

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Usagi continues to delight -- Grasscutter I is one of my all-time favorite graphic novels. Soon I'll be caught up all the way through volume 20. Lone Wolf and Cub is dark enough for me that I don't think I will need any more of Tatsumi's depraved Push-Man-like stories.

Humor

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Terry Pratchett keeps filling that humor niche for me, though I'm testing the waters with Christopher Moore. I tried to see if Augusten Burroughs would be a good Sedaris fill-in: I was entertained but not impressed. I wasn't too impressed with Bruce Campbell's novel either, but it knew what it was and embraced it, so I respect that. On the graphical novel front, I've enjoyed filling in my historical knowledge of Penny Arcade, Groo, and Barry Ween. It's amazing how many good graphic novels there are to buy when you take 10 years off from collecting comics.

And the rest (good, possibly great, but no comment right now)

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d and I were watching A Bug's Life a couple of weeks ago, which naturally for me brought up the topic of Seven Samurai -- A Bug's Life = Seven Samurai + Three Amigos. Amazon must have been psychic because it was not long after the Seven Samurai Criterion Collection re-release popped into my recommendations window and then seconds later was one-clicked into my possession.

Akira Kurosawa has been a popular director for The Criterion Collection's restorations. Seven Samurai was the second movie that Criterion released* and now, 320+ movies later -- about 12 of them Kurosawa -- they have decided to revisit one of their first restoration efforts with an expanded, 3-disc re-release. This re-release is still labeled Criterion Collection #2, but the original Criterion release looks like a joke in comparison. The most noticeable improvement for me was the reduced flickering, which had bothered me in the original release. Another improvement was the beautiful new packaging, which contains small booklet of essays and stills from the movie. There were clearly other areas of improvement, but I wasn't sure exactly how much better it was. It had been awhile since I watched the film and the new release still has scratches, problems with fades, and other sorts of aging issues.

I popped the original release back in and I felt like I was watching the YouTube version. There were chunky artifacts everywhere and all the details were blown out: expressions on faces, details of costumes, backdrops, all were trash in comparison. The original release was clearly over-compressed to fit on a single disc, which was fixed with the new two-disc version, and the clearly the 320-or-so movies that the Criterion Collection since their original Seven Samurai release has taught them a thing or two about restoration. The only bit of restoration I'm on the fence on is the new opening title sequence. I rather liked the old, faded title sequence of the first release, which set the mood well for an old samurai film. The new title sequence features crisp white-on-black lettering, which is probably closer to the original intent.

To be clear, don't be expecting it to look like the movie on release day: the original master was lost. Have no doubt, though, you will notice the difference if you own the original Criterion release. This is not one of those things were videophiles point out that you can count more hairs on Aragorn's beard.

If you don't own the movie, perhaps you want to give it a shot. At least it will give you a chance to recognize where movies like A Bug's Life and The Magnificent Seven are drawing from, or what Lucas is referencing when Yoda rubs his head in thought. The samurai characters of Kambei, Heihachi, and Kikuchiyo are among my favorites that Kurosawa has created and the tension between samurai and farmer plays out so well in the movie, showing you shades of gray in good and evil that many movies ignore. The good thing about being a newcomer to this film is at least you won't be troubled by the $30 you already spent on the previous release ;).

* A little factoid: Jean Renoir is another popular director for The Criterion Collection. Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion was the first movie released under that label. Renoir's and Kurosawa's versions of The Lower Depths were later released as Criterion Collection #239.

Movie: Casino Royale

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casinoroyale.jpgI went to the Spy Museum in DC, which I thought would be good preparation for Casino Royale, but as it turns out, it wasn't. The new 007 flick is less spy-gadgety and much more blunt assassin who's not much for covers. With this latest reboot of the 007 series, the producers decided to do away with the Pinky-and-the-Brain-world-domination schemes, Swiss Army cars, and overly cute dialog, instead delivering something more realistic: a bad guy who's just trying to make a paltry $100M. Even Dr. Evil wouldn't be blown away. The bad guy does have one ridiculous trait -- crying blood -- but you can almost believe that all of this all of this is happening as we speak. It is perhaps for that reason that the new Bond feels more violent and dark, as every punch is more believable. Or perhaps it is the fact that even the opening credits do away with the female silhouettes, instead treating you to scene after scene of silhouettes being murdered.

Daniel Craig plays this Bond role well: a gentleman in a suit with a psychopath beneath. Well-adjusted human beings don't go around murdering people in bathrooms. The psychopathic elements remind me of Frank Miller's Batman and the more realistic spy drama reminds me of Rucka's Queen and Country, but at its heart you still feel that you are watching a Bond movie, albeit stripped of some of its more silly trappings.

A lot of the reviews have been billing this as a origins-style movie, ala Spiderman and Batman Begins, but that seems to be misplaced in my opinion. Bond is still learning in this film, but that is not the nature of this film.

I'm a bit surprised by the sky-high 95% Rotten Tomatoes score, which you generally see for movies that are more well executed than this. I attribute it in part to lowered expectations from previous films, as this movie is not without its faults. It is a very long 2 hours and 24 minutes, the pacing is a bit off with some really rough cuts, and my mind still hasn't made chronological sense out of the cuts in the casino scene. But is a good action film, assuming you like something a bit darker but still PG-13.

Book: Thud! by Terry Pratchett

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In increasing order of specificity: Thud! is a Discworld book. It is an Ankh-Morpark book. It is a Watch book. It is a Sam Vimes book.

There are probably ten or so Discworld books that share all these traits, and yet I found this one fairly refreshing. I always enjoy a Discworld novel, having now read about a third of the 30+ books in the series, but even though I have often used Discworld novels as light refreshers between more heavy books, they themselves can oversaturate you with Pratchett-like humor -- much like eating a pound of fudge. It is probably for that reason that I waited a full year to read this book after picking it up at a Pratchett talk in Mountain View.

Sam Vimes is a "father who suffers from Lego foot." That's how Pratchett started off describing Thud! at his talk and it's a good starting point as to why I think this book is a bit different -- there's more heart than satirical skewers. There's still plenty of humorous jabs at racism, Da Vinci Code, Blackberrys, fatherhood, fundamentalism, art, and more -- it really isn't possible to have a serious book set in a world carried on the backs of four elephants -- but the humor is scaled back a bit to give Sam Vimes, Young Sam, and Sybil room to breath.

This isn't the funniest of Pratchett's books and if you're looking for constant side-splitting satirical fantasy humor, this probably isn't the one to pick up. Luckily, there are 33+ other books of his that you can pick up that probably fit this bill. I happen to really like this one.

Before reading Thud!, I recommend reading Fifth Elephant. Of the many Discworld novels, it is the one I can think of with most appropriate background material.

Virtual Earth 3D

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I've been playing around with Virtual Earth 3D, and at least when it comes to flying through realistic 3D models of major US metropolitan areas, Microsoft has gone into the lead over Google Earth. You have to install an Internet Explorer plugin, which isn't so bad when you consider that Google Earth is a separate application and didn't have a Mac client for quite awhile. Once you install it, I've enjoyed easily switching between map, satellite, birds-eye, and 3D views.  For some reason I am getting SimCity flashbacks.

There's room for improvement. The zoom controls are very wonky: 3 out of the 7 zoom levels launch you into outer space and it loses track of where you are on the map! Their attempt at incorporating virtual billboards into the models is also fairly crude (see screenshots below) and they are still missing models for some very landmark buildings (e.g. Prudential Center and Fenway Park in Boston). Nevertheless, this delivers one of the best out-of-the-box 3D mapping experiences for this sort of software (i.e. Google Earth), and it seems that Microsoft made very good choices in acquiring Vexcel and Geotango to make this all work.

San Jose: nice model of the new Richard Meier City Hall building, but what's that weird spec over the hills? Why, it's one of Microsoft's floating billboard ads in the middle of nowhere!

San Francisco: When I last checked Google Earth, you couldn't get a good model of the Transamerica without downloading custom models (a pain, really). Virtual Earth 3D includes nice models of the Transamerica and Coit Tower, but I don't seem to recall a large floating orange billboard atop the Transamerica.

Boston: Impressive model of the Christian Science Church Park and Hancock building, but what's a Boston skyline without the Pru (Prudential Center, large flat area just above church)?

More info: * O'Reilly Radar on 'Spaceland' preview * Windows Live Local blog

Belkin 'Flip' KVM with wireless remote

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belkin flip d and I needed a good KVM to switch between our desk setups and the Belkin Flip easily caught my eye as I browsed the aisle at Fry's. Most KVMs are ugly, obtrusive, and desirous of desk real estate. Belkin distilled the KVM down to its barest essence: the button to switch between two computers. It was an easy decision to go with the Flip.

My next decision, though, wasn't as wise. In my glee to hide as much of the KVM mechanism as possible, I decided to spend the extra $20 to get the wireless flip button. Yes, I spent $20 to eliminate a single cord. I actually sat in front of the display at Fry's for a good 10 minutes making this decision. I should have let the more parsimonious side win.

The wireless Flip frequently goes into a fit where it wants to switch over to d's computer. My best guess is that it is picking up stray wireless signals, though I can't explain why it never seems to want to switch the other direction. My computer is a PC and d's is a Mac, so perhaps Belkin embedded the Flip with its own Apple switch campaign.

Update: The Flip switch has been switched for its cheaper, corded cousin.

Belkin Flip

Testing out blip.tv

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blip.tv has a faster uploads, less limits, cleaner UI, and more geeky bells and whistles than YouTube or Google Video, but it seems to be heavily Microsoftian in video format -- that may just cancel the rest out. I'm giving it a test above to see how it works out.

Battle of the Photo Cards: Moo vs. Qoop

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I was going to do a detailed rundown of the Moo and Qoop photo card services that recently debuted for Flickr users, but as I started to write this up, I realized that it wasn't really necessary to compare these services feature by feature. It's much simpler to show you visually that Moo is far, far superior.

When I received my Qoop myCards order, I began to get worried when I opened the box and noticed that the top card was 'scuffed.' At first I thought that this was just a shipping issue, but then I decided to do a simple test: I placed the card facedown on paper and moved it around while applying moderate pressure:

Qoop Card Sample

Imagine giving out one of these cards to someone. Imagine all that ink rubbing off in their wallet.

I also tried this with Quiznos and Supercuts cards I had in my wallet. They looked a little more 'polished', but otherwise fine.

A couple of weeks later I received my free Moo sampler of ten MiniCards. Visually, they looked better than I hoped and the card felt great to hold: these met all expectations of a 'photo card'. Moo's printing process revealed some compression artifacts in my Flickr user icon that I need to fix and the midtone details were a touch darker than I expected -- I think they might have boosted contrast -- but they were beautiful. I was sad that I had to subject one of the ten cards to the same damaging test as the Qoop card:

Moo Card Sample

Can you tell which of the ten cards above I subjected to the test? (hint: middle left)

Moo cards are awesome; about their own downside is that they are weird. They are 'mini cards', as you can tell from the scan above, which means that their dimensions probably do not match any photo in your Flickr library. It will take some experimentation to figure out which of your photos still look good at half height and you might even have to tweak them in a photo editor to get it right. I think I understand Moo's motivation for these odd dimensions: they make the cards more distinct and they also help the layout for the back of the cards -- your Flickr user icon and contact details fill up the back nicely, without the significant whitespace of a full height card. So, this downside has an upside, but it is definitely something to consider.

I'm still bothered by Qoop's squandered potential, especially given how proactive their customer service is and how much I enjoy the online experience with their tools. They have many more layout options than Moo: you can place multiple photos on the front side of the card, you can place a photo on the back side, and you have more options for placing text. There are some things they could improve in the online experience: it irked me that once I 'finished' a card I couldn't go back and tweak it, and if you order two different customized cards you can't tell them apart in the shopping cart. But, overall, I was very happy... until I received the cards. I really wanted to give Qoop a good review this time around. I gave them lukewarm approval for their photo books (cheap price, cheap quality, great customer service), and I honestly thought that might have straightened things out by now. Now I have $15-worth of cards that I can't give out, but at least the Moo cards were free and I'll be dreaming up options for ordering more.

Unti + Zazie = Good

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d and I went up to SF last night for two tasty things: an Unti Vineyards dinner at Zazie's. Zazie's is a popular brunch spot, but for whatever reason they cooked up this wonderful pairing:

First Course

Baby arugula salad w/pomegranate seeds, toasted almonds, chevre, and raspberry champagne vinaigrette
Paired w/ Unti Vineyards 2005 Rose
Notes: This grenache rose was smoother than others I've had, less acidic, which I enjoyed. The salad was a bit too dainty to enjoy all the flavors together.

Second Course

Wild mushroom and black truffle fresh raviolis w/aged parmesan
Paired w/ Unti Vineyards 2003 Grenache (Library selection)
Notes: mmmmm, black truffles raviolis in truffle oil...

Third Course

Duck legs braised with red wine and port, dried plums, and black currants
Paired w/ Unti Vineyards 2004 Sangiovese
Notes: Some people were mixed on this tasting -- one couple thought the Sangiovese too alcohol-y -- but I thought that a strong taste was necessary to stand up to gamey duck.

Fourth Course

Slow braised Niman Ranch beef shanks w/soft mascarpone chive polenta
Paired w/ Unti Vineyards 2003 Syrah 'Benchland' Reserve
Notes: the polenta was creamy like mashed potatoes, which makes me actually like polenta. The Benchland reserve was the wine that my dad and I picked up two bottles of on our way back from Garberville.

Dessert

Guittard chocolate torte w/whipped dark chocolate ganache and creme anglaise
Paired w/ Unti Vineyards 2004 Banyuls Grenache (barrel sample)
*Notes: d notes that the torte was the Platonic Form of a Cadbury cream egg. This is in fact high praise. The Banyuls Grenache was a dry grape grenache batch rescued with water, sugar and brandy. *

I missed out on getting Unti's Barbera Port, which sold out far too quickly, so I enjoyed getting the opportunity to sample their unreleased Banyuls Grenache. Why is it that wine gone bad can taste so good? Mick Unti also poured a wine they will be bottling in December -- I had too many glasses at that point to remember they were calling it. It will be Unti's first $45 wine, but they are just that proud of it.

We were in the 'fun' corner on the patio. Mick Unti came over to eat a course with our three tables; he made a graceful exit after several conversation topics may have turned him various shades of scarlet.

I'm still chuckling over the John Hodgman Areas of My Expertise talk at Codys SF. Some of you may already be aware that musician Jonathan Coulton accompanies Hodgman for his talks. I've never seen a book talk with an opening theme song and musical accompaniment, but I am now convinced it is a practice that should be adopted by every author. He is also the only author I have seen talk a brandy break (necessary due to the performance nature of his talk) as well as use walkie-talkies to do the Q&A (which works, for a bit).

Hodgman riffed on Benjamin Franklin, hoboes, Big Rock Candy Mountain, and more. If I didn't know better, I would think that Hodgman had been hanging out with metamanda, though I don't think she is nearly as knowledgeable about the Mall of America.

With the help m, who offered his tripod, I managed to shoot much more watchable video this time around.

Update: here's the video for the first half of the talk. After this, Hodgman and Coulton took a brandy break and then did Q&A. I only have a bit of the Q&A, which was hilarious in itself.

This is as much of the Q&A as I could record:

Talk: Neil Gaiman, Fragile Things

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Fragile Thingsupdate: all videos from the talk are online now

The Villa crew went out to Keplers tonight to watch Neil Gaiman speak. It was very nice to actually see Gaiman at Keplers: last year Keplers went out of business just before he was going to speak. I would hate to think that Gaiman is somehow cursed. It was charming to see Gaiman reading Anansi Boys from a church pulpit instead, a but one-minute drive to my local bookstore has its benefits. It was also special because Gaiman helped promote the Save Keplers cause.

The Fragile Things talk was charming as Gaiman talks are. I like to argue that it is important to hear Gaiman speak if you are to read his works: much of what he writes, especially his children's books and short stories, make much more sense if you can imagine a Neil Gaiman voice in your head speaking with the appropriate rhythm and inflections. It is also fun to hear Gaiman speak because he can make a story about buying a pair of pants at Armani yesterday amusing. littlestar was entertained enough that she went and bought a copy of Fragile Things immediately afterwards, going against her inclination to wait for a smaller paperback edition. I, of course, am a whore for Gaiman product: excluding individual comic book issues, my current count is 24 plus an autographed backpack. My count is only impeded by my desire to acquire my Sandman within the same printing vintage.

In the past, I've generally taken lengthy notes at book talks at spent hours upon hours transcribing them into blog form. Now that I'm slowly coming to the realization that my camera takes video and therefore is also an audio recorder, I've decided to make life easier by just including video with short summaries.

NOTE: all of the videos are of crappy quality shot with my ELPH. I was more concerned with just getting audio -- think of the video as bonus ;).

Intro

See the extended for more videos

iTunes 7.0.1: There goes the library

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iTunes 7.0.1 just nuked my entire library. And to think I was so happy that they might have fixed some of the bugs I mentioned in my iTunes 7.0 review. Way to go Apple!

Update: When iTunes nuked my library, it move my "iTunes Library.itl" file to "iTunes Library (Damaged).itl". I copied the "iTunes Library (Damaged).itl" back over to "iTunes Library.itl" and my library was back again. Hell if I know what made iTunes 7 go crazy.

A New Reader

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Bloglines is still getting the job done, but I like the fact that Google revamped Google Reader to get rid of my many, many annoyances with the first incarnation. The new expanded view makes it much easier for people like me with 100+ subscriptions to actually make it through our feeds. There is also a big improvement over Bloglines: Google Reader only marks items as read as you scroll through them, which lets you catch up on the last 100 posts of BoingBoing in more manageable chunks. My only real annoyance so far is that Google Reader loads posts into the Expanded View in 20-post chunks, waiting until you are on the 20th item before loading in the next 20. As I tried to catch up on some feeds in Reader, I would have to sit an twiddle my thumbs constantly.

What would be a switcher feature for me is if they could integrate their GMail package tracking link with Google Reader. I've been playing around with Bloglines package tracking feature, but I have to copy the UPS/DHL/FedEx tracking number out of an e-mail, go to Bloglines, click add, click on Package Tracking, paste in the number, and then select a folder to add the information to. That's a lot of steps. If GMail and Reader were integrated, I could do it in one click as GMail already detects package tracking numbers.

Book: Private Wars

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I was a bit hesitant about reading Greg Rucka's second foray into Queen and Country novel territory, Private Wars. After all, within a couple hours of my finishing the first novel, Gentleman's Game, the London subway attacks that he imagined in the book became headline news. You could say that I was worried about picking up the second book and having real-life and fiction yet again confused, but the fact is what makes Rucka's Queen and Country novels so compelling is that they are able to spin together the current geopolitical climate and the spy novel genre together such that what is written may become true by virtue of it already sitting so close to reality. The Iraq War and Afghanistan figure heavily into the backdrop for this book, and at least one character in Private Wars appears to share some loose modelling on an Iraq War figure -- Kenneth Garret seems based on Jay Garner, at least in that they share a "fuck off/shut the fuck up" anecdote with a neocon.

There was less worry for me when found out that the main setting for the book wasn't a terrorist attack but an extraction operation in Uzbekistan. Though unpleasant doesn't begin to describe the facts I learned about torture there, as well as the fact that the US looks the other way and may have used Uzbekistan for its secret prisons, its more of a sad truth, rather than new tragedy.

Within this setting, Rucka puts together the pieces strewn around by Gentleman's Game. I won't spoil what happens in this novel nor the one before it, but I will say that I enjoyed Private Wars even more than Gentleman's Game; there was a high degree of satisfication in how Rucka put together the leftover pieces of the previous novel and combined them within his new plot. Although Private Wars has the same mission-based skeleton of the Queen and Country graphic novels, Rucka gave his characters a chance to grow and express themselves in ways that would have been difficult in a graphic novel or at least challenged an artist with sheer page count. Rucka has given Tara Chace far more character development with these two novels and the end result is that both media improve the other.

I don't know what these books would be like if you didn't read the Queen and Country graphic novels, but I would recommend at least reading through Gentleman's Game first as it sets up this novel and it wouldn't hurt to read the first couple graphic novels to get more background on Tara Chace. If you're like me, you'll end up buying the rest of the Queen and Country graphic novels in quick succession.

Try before you buy: Bookreporter has the first several chapters

Book: Microserfs

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I read this book because I figured it was one of those must reads. Software engineering simply isn't one of those professions used in popular media, with a few exceptions like Office Space that come close, so given the opportunity to read a book that is not only about software engineers but also about the culture, the zeitgeist of the early .com boom as well as Microsoft, I knew I had to.

I've worked at Xerox PARC and a startup, and I've lived in the Bay Area for many years; I've never been to Seattle nor worked for Microsoft. Does it make me biased then that I liked the early Microsoft/Seattle portions of the book but started losing interest as soon as the book moved to the .com environment of the Peninsula? I would say so, except I've talked to someone else who read the book that is more familiar with Microsoft/Seattle, and she too had the same opinion.

In Seattle the book feels like it's accurately capturing and spinning the culture, from group homes of Microsoft employees to the Cult of Bill, which probably isn't all that different from the Cult of Steve. Once the book moved to the Peninsula, I no longer felt in touch with the story: the characters seemed less and less believable, the Peninsula culture seemed slightly off, and the story just never really went anywhere. I had minor geographical quibbles such as how they seemed to go far out of their way to drive past Xerox PARC or find Starbucks that I can't, but more important was the startup-of-friends experience didn't resemble my startup-of-friends experience -- when we had a startup, and everything was on the line, we ate, slept, and drank the startup, had trouble speaking of anything else because your life entirely was sucked into the effort, and I even dreamed in code; in Microserfs, the startup seems almost incidental to the relationships in the book and it only really there to move the characters around. From what I've seen of other startups, the experience sways more in my direction. I could be wrong, and the book does take place it a time slightly earlier than mine, but I had a strong feeling throughout the book that the Microsoft portion of the book was a closer revelation of software engineering culture, and besides Fry's, Apple, and mystique of PARC, very little else of it felt captured to me. This is one engineer's opinion of course: Philip Greenspun, MIT professor and ousted founder of the ArsDigita startup, left a glowing review of the Microserfs cultural mirror.

I've reviewed mostly the cultural/zeitgeist elements of the book rather than the story, but that's largely because I felt that there really wasn't any story; the book was meant to be about capturing a cultural tableaux. Then again, if it's merely a book about zeitgeist, you could also argue then that reading a 400 page compilation of Wired's Wired/Tired/Expired would make a wonderful read. Thus, I'm conflicted. If it was about story, I'd be terribly disappointed and have to give this book one star. Instead, I give it maybe a three-out-of-five with the caveat that you should end it whenever you like.

Firefox 2 Beta 2

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I'm testing out the new Firefox 2 Beta 2. Back in the Phoenix/Firebird days, I used to download nearly every update to test out, but I've been so darn happy with the 1.x series of Firefox builds that I haven't had much reason to (except for a crashy Firefox 1.5.0 release). I find the updated look a little cramped looking, even though everything is about the same size as before, but otherwise I'm very happy with the release. I wrote the most of this review a week and a half ago, but I wanted to sit on it until I had some time to judge the stability of the release: I'm used their their betas crashing daily, but I've only had a crash or two out of this one.

There's nothing in Firefox 2 that's really ground breaking, but it does bring the best of the plugins out there and makes them part of the default browser. Although I think this may anger a plugin developer or two, overall I think it's a great model for a software application: don't bloat your releases with new features; instead, have a good plugin model that makes it possible to test new features out in the wild and select the best to become part of your next major release. Firefox 2 represents the best of Firefox 1.x plus the best Firefox 1.x plugin features, which makes for a great browser.

  • Phishing detection: I love the fact that they are making this built in. I haven't had any trouble with phishing, but I know other members of my family do, and I'm always excited to be able to give them software that eliminates a hassle. The phishing detection puts a big 'ole warning sign on top of the page and should save many people from having to cancel their credit cards.

  • Built in session saver: My browsing habits changed the day I got the first SessionSaver plugin. I could keep a lot more tabs open without having to spend part of everyday bookmarking or clearing them off because I was worried that my browser was going to crash. Or I would have to do the same because some stupid Windows Update was requiring that I reboot my computer, so I would have to close Firefox. Firefox recognized that session saving was just too darn good to not be part of the standard browser.

  • RSS/Atom feed enhancements: Firefox 2 has a new built in viewer for RSS and atom feeds that makes the feed more human-readable and also makes it very easy to subscribe using Firefox's Live Bookmarks, Bloglines, My Yahoo, or Google Reader. One possible complaint is that it overrides Feedburner's fancy feed display which does effectively the same thing. There is a case to be made for uniformity, but with this version of the Firefox implementation I think that Feedburner's still looks nicer -- Firefox's is better for actually subscribing, as it can remember which feed reader you prefer.

  • Spell checking as you type: I've always found the Firefox SpellChecker plugin a bit annoying to use. It was always a more difficult plugin to install and it didn't survive Firefox upgrades very well. It also didn't do spell checking as you typed; you had to select it from a right-click menu. I hope to have many less spelling errors in my blog entries now that Firefox 2 adds the familiar squiggly red underlines to its text fields.

  • Autocomplete from the search box: Firefox will pop down some suggested search queries as you type into the upper-right search box. This only works when you have the answers.com, Yahoo, or Google search engines selected; there are no suggestions for Amazon, eBay, or Creative Commons. Previously I had only seen this as a plugin from Google for Google searches.

  • Opens new windows in tabs by default: I hate it when a link pops open a new window on my screen and disrupts my carefully organized tabs and now Firefox embraces tabs fully with this new default functionality.

With the exception of the fact that most of your plugins won't work with the release -- though you won't need many of them with the new builtin features -- I give the 2.0 beta a thumbs up. It doesn't seem the future of Web browsing -- Flock is much more of a preview in that area -- but it does represent a selection of the best current Web browsing trends.

In the absence of reviews for the other Queen and Country graphic novels, let me first start off giving a positive review to all those that aren't the title of this post. In general, I think Rucka has done a great job of making fun spy series that weaves its way through a variety of modern geopolitical dustups. Declassified Volume 2 is the first that I haven't liked, which was a combination of weak story and sloppy art. Volume 2 follows Tom Wallace's early career with a mission to Hong Kong during the handover back to China. Wallace's character development early in the book doesn't leave much room for the Hong Kong story to follow, I didn't actually feel that it was the same character being followed in both sections, and the political setup for the Hong Kong story was below average. Perhaps Rucka was being spread thin having to do two Queen and Country series in addition to his novels and DC duties -- I don't know, but Volume 3 was handed over to another writer in the Oni stable, Antony Johnston.

book cover Volume 3, the first to be written by a different writer, redeemed the fledgling Declassified spinoff series for me. The Irish Nationalist/SAS storyline with it's accompanying glossary was a welcome return to the immersive storytelling of Queen and Country. It's not without a few story cliches here and there, but overall it was the fun read I'm used to, Chris Mitten's art does a good job capturing the story, and I look forward to reading my copy of Wasteland, which is Johnston and Mitten's latest collaboration.

LightroomI was excited by the announcement that the Adobe Lightroom Beta had been released for Windows. I had been jealous of the Mac platform, which saw the arrival of both Aperture and Adobe Lightroom in fairly quick succession, whereas the Windows platform strangely had no product really targeted at the SLR-amateur-to-pro category. I was also excited because I am currently sitting under a mountain of photos -- 2000+ to be exact -- as I've been one of the 'official' photographers for two weddings this month, and I also have two cycling races and my photos from my Japan trip (in May!) to process.

Aperture and Lightroom are both photo workflow apps and, as far as I know, they are the first of their kind. After watching the positive results of anthropological studies of workflow at PARC, I have been really excited to try out these apps that claim to be the result of workflow studies on digital photographers. Granted, they targetted pros, but I hoped to reap the benefit, and perhaps even learn a thing or two about my process.

There is quite a lot to optimize in a digital photography workflow: if I only spent 1 second processing each of the 730 photos I took at the wedding last weekend, it would still take me over 10 minutes to go through them all. More realistically, it takes 1-5 seconds to decide whether or not to process a photo -- even longer if you have to decide which shot is the best out of several takes -- and another three minutes (my average) to process the selected photos. Anything software can do to either be faster, batch process, or get out of the way can provide huge time savings, which can either be used to enjoy life, or process even more photos.

What follows is a review, but with the caveat that as this really is a beta product, so perhaps a better call this 'feedback'.

Sharpcast Beta review

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sharpcast.gifI've spent several hours checking out Sharpcast Photos and thought I'd post my initial thoughts. Sharpcast has a great syncing technology, which they've chosen to showcase by deploying a photo-sharing solution with both Web and Windows clients. You can install Sharpcast on multiple machines in order to easily share your photos between them, and you can also share albums with specific people.

This isn't quite a review because I believe that utility of Sharpcast will largely depend on business model decisions that haven't been made yet: Sharpcast is more alpha than beta, as you are limited to 2GB of storage and the future pricing and limits are unclear. Case in point, Flickr offers me 2GB/month of photo upload (at a price), which guarantees its long-term usefulness for me; Sharpcast's 2GB total is nothing more than a toy to play with for a couple of months. I understand the need to not have to build up a massive storage farm just yet, but I take over 2GB of photos at a single wedding.

"Sharpcast Photos is optimized for accessing, sharing, and backing up photos." I kept this in mind when checking it out so that my comments would be contexted to the intended product. I also kept in mind my dad and my sister, because if I'm going to share, I should be able to share with my family (Flickr is not so strong in this regard).

So, going on the three activities that Sharpcast does list -- accessing, sharing, and backing up -- I've recorded my thoughts, followed up with a list of some peeves I had with the UI along the way.

Testing out Windows Live Writer

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Despite the terrible "Windows Live" branding, I'm giving the new Windows Live Writer beta a test shot with my blog. So far, it's very slickly done.

Although I've learned a lot of personal workflow habits to try and streamline the process of blogging, any blog entry involving an image takes me far too much time. I have to download the image I want to the computer I'm posting from. Then I have to upload it to my Web server, then I have to copy in the HTML for the image to where I want it in the post. Then I usually have to go back and re-edit the entry because the image isn't aligned or sized how I want it.

I immediately had to try Writer out When I saw that it allows you to easily insert, align, and resize photos from your computer and automatically upload them using the newMediaObject API (supported by MovableType). I used it to place the little Window Live icon above and then had a happy suprise when I inserted a photo you see to the right: Writer automatically rotated the image into portrait layout. That's a subtle touch, but an important one.

There are other subtle touches that give me confidence that this is a good product:

  • The image manipulation controls get the job done well: there are image sizing presets you can click on for quick resizing, or you can manually drag the image to the size you want; you can easily select photopaper or drop shadow borders; you can easily align and rotate an image; and there are basic image effects you can apply, like sepia tone, sharpening, and brightness;
  • Writer still managed to figure out the CSS styles from MovableType 2.x template and use them in the compose window.
  • Writer breezed through the setup process with my blog. It seems simple enough to use the RSD data embedded in MovableType blogs, but after trying out Performancing and ecto, I can say Microsoft did a better job.
  • You can hit F12 to switch to HTML entry mode, which reveals that Writer is using relatively clean HTML markup.
  • If you cut and paste text with HTML links it it (e.g. from a Web browser), those links are preserved.
  • You can easily apply the 'tag' or 'nofollow' attributes to a link.

There are a probably couple of bugs, which is expected for a beta. The category selector can't handle a large number of categories, so I can't put this entry in the 'Web stuff' category, text focus doesn't return to the composition window like it should after you click on an action in the right pane like 'Insert link,'   tags are used unnecessarily, and Writer confusing refers to previous published entries as 'drafts' if you go back and edit them.

Right now I rate Writer as a 'good' blogging client rather than 'great' blogging client, though I don't think it's far from that higher rating. If it came out in 2005, it would have probably knocked my socks off, but a 2006 blogging client needs to do more than just type text and insert photos from your computer -- it needs to be able to tie in all your media into one blogging platform. It should be integrated with your photo blog (e.g. Flickr), video blog (e.g. Youtube, Google Video) and your links (e.g. del.icio.us), and it needs to be able to easily insert product thumbnails from Amazon; in other words, it needs to be more like Vox and Flock. I like Writer enough, though, that I think I'm going to use it for my next few entries.

Vox is great, no more crap

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My first 'review' of Vox was titled, "Vox: It's great! It's crap!", which wasn't really a review of Vox as much as an meta review of the Vox beta program, which had these odd Starter-level stalker accounts that you had to wait through. Well, SixApart started pumping out the full-level invites soon thereafter and now my Vox neighborhood is looking a lot more like my LiveJournal neighborhood; this has given much more opportunity to truly sample Vox.

I like it a lot. The Flickr, YouTube, and Amazon integration surpass what I have tried to achieve with a various MovableType plugins over time, and, as this integration is builtin, no troubles about thirdparty developer abandonment of plugins. The Vox-style gives photos, video, and products equal footing with your blog entries, which elevates it to the level of a media-management system, rather than just the blog-management system that MovableType and LiveJournal are -- I don't have a TypePad account to compare. I see it as a more multimedia-aware LiveJournal, and it also should inherit another useful trait of LiveJournal: no spam. Spam continues to be the bane of the MovableType platform, though hopefully MT 3.3 will offer more protection on this front.

MovableType remains the platform of choice if you need a customizable publishing platform. I have a great deal of control over page layout, site layout, and content that isn't possible with Vox or LJ, but neither of those latter sites is supposed to compete: they are meant to be effective through simplicity, and that they are.

I have three Vox full invites for anyone that wishes to try.

Book: Eats, Shoots, and Leaves

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The rallying cry of this book is, "Sticklers Unite!" This doesn't fit me very well: more than one of you has corrected my usage of "it's" and "its." I do feel compelled to re-edit a post to correct punctuation and grammatical mistakes if I bother to spot them, but personally I find the illogical rules of punctuation usage to be humanity's method of delaying the robot uprising from taking over our publishing -- the Brits will probably be taken over first as they are allowed to sanely place terminal punctuatoin outside of quotation marks like "so".

I realized I was probably a stickler, though, when I couldn't stand the fact that author lynne truss constantly refers to the Internet as "the internet." I realize that the economist, the financial times, the guardian, the times, and the sydney morning herald (source) all make this same mistake, but I was hoping that truss would shed some sanity on UK publishing. There is only one Internet and it even has a sequel, Internet 2, not "internet 2." Presidential dubya malapropisms about "internets" are not fiat internets -- capitalize the darn thing.

The book is a quick read, even with pauses to grimace at uncapitalilzed "internet"s. My punctuation probably won't change a bit, except to start placing terminal punctuation outside of quotes when I see fit and to continue my abuse of the dash -- Truss kindly points out that "it is hard to use wrongly." The more fascinating aspect of the book for me was absorbing the differences between British usage and terminology for punctuation like "inverted commas" and "full stops" and "brackets" that should be parenthesis -- it was almost as fascinating as when I found out that a billion still often refers to 1012 in the UK.

Vox: It's great! It's crap!

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davextreme has posted his early review of the Vox service, and seeing as I got my invite from him I thought I should follow with a review of my own. I agree with what davextreme says -- Vox looks great, has great features, but I won't say more because I can't actually use them yet as I'm still stuck in a "Starter level" account. So, instead I'll talk about how "starter level" accounts + a brand new service is a crack-smoking way to run a beta.

A "Starter level" account only lets you leave comments and add friends. Vox doesn't have many users with full accounts and most of them are prominent bloggers and SixApart employees. Put the two together and you get a beta experience that consists of adding a bunch of SixApart employees to your neighborhood and watching them have a conversation about their family tree -- you can comment if you like. As a beta user, it just feels creepy.

If Vox wanted to impress me, it would have to demonstrate that it is as capable as LiveJournal in building and supporting communities. The only impression right now is that it's a great tool for being a wallflower in the SixApart corporate community. Wait to give out "starter level" accounts when people can at least lurk in their own communities.

I'm a 'Director' now (YouTube)

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directorYouTube just launched their 'director' program, which kills two birds with one stone. It eliminates the recently imposed 10-minute limit on videos and it also adds much better branding to your videos (one of the few things that Google Video did better). The 10-minute limit is an arbitrary limit meant to discourage the posting of copyrighted TV programs and movies. Although YouTube built part of its popularity on the availability of such content, they are trying to make nice with the TV studios and even boldly suggesting that the TV studios post content themselves.

The intent of the director program is fairly clear: make people jump through a couple extra hoops so that they feel more accountable for the content they post. In exchange, make the people feel 'cooler' by giving them a 'Director' title and providing better branding. You apply for the Director program, so presumably they at least screen the contents of the accounts they approve. It only took me a day to get approved and none of my videos are high-quality, so I think just about anyone who doesn't break the rules will get approved.

The improved branding is important. YouTube used to make it really difficult to link to your own Web site from a video, which annoyed me when I was posting MythBusters Q&A videos and couldn't even link to my blog post about the event. Now if you go to one of my videos, you can see there's even a kwc.org logo, a big red directory stamp, and a link to my blog post. You also get to specify custom "Director Details" fields with a particular video: Video URL, Custom Field #1, #2, and #3. As an example of a custom field, they mention 'price,' which presumably you would use if you were selling the full video elsewhere. The custom fields appear in the same upper right box as your director logo.

They call it, 'MagnaView'

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I'm starting to get addicted to United Nuclear. First it was aerogel, now it's magnets. Two of them items that caught my eye were the MagnaView fluid and the small neodymium magnets. The 'supermagnets' that can crush fingers also caught my eye, but that's about the last thing I want in my electronics-laden household.

I've wanted MagnaView fluid ever since I saw videos of it from SIGGRAPH. The small magnets were interesting because I want to make a traffic light trigger for my bike shoes. As it turns out, the small magnets are a little too weak: too weak to make a traffic light trigger and too weak to make the super spikes you see in on the United Nuclear page and in the SIGGRAPH ferrofluid sculpture.

The MagnaView fluid and small neodymium magnets are still fun to play with, but I'm definitely going to have to upgrade to a bigger magnet. My own manipulation of the fluid pales in comparison to the ferrofluid sculpture, but I've uploaded it to YouTube anyway in case you're interested.

for Kolo, I've posted a couple more screenshots of the "Manage Domain" screens for hosted GMail.

More on hosted GMail

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Update: more screenshots

Here's a screenshot of my customized kwc.org gmail, slightly altered to block out some visible names (yes, that is my e-mail address if you wish to contact me). There's not much to review here that hasn't been said before: it's GMail. It feels a little cooler because it's my GMail (notice my little custom graphic at the top), but otherwise it's plain-old GMail: 2GB, chat, etc... My account has been 'verified' so I'm now sending and receiving e-mail with no problems other than the slight GMail slowdowns that I've noticed on both of my accounts today (@kwc.org and @gmail.com).

I'm still waiting for the day when we can get rid of our corporate IMAP mail servers and replace them with GMail boxes or something similar. I'm tired of slow search and trying to keep things filed in folders.

kwc.gm.screenshot.jpg

At last, @kwc.org e-mail (Gmail hosted)

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Update: screenshots and more screenshots

I've never had @kwc.org e-mail addresses before. I'm just too lazy. I also prefer Web e-mail and very few options exist that would be superior to my regular GMail account. Now, in a couple short minutes -- short enough to do lazily -- I have a GMail-hosted @kwc.org account. I'm still in the setup process. I can receive, but not send e-mail (they are verifying my account or something).

The details I've gleaned so far: * you can login to both your @gmail and your own hosted account simultaneously * you get up to 10 e-mail accounts free * 2GB (I don't know if this is per address or total yet) * you can set your own logo to replace the GMail logo * you can enable/disable chat across accounts * you can customize the sign-in box color

I've always wondered why other free-mail services (hotmail, yahoo) haven't made similar moves. There is a wretched land grab that occurs with any of these services where everyone scrambles to get their screenname of choice; the late-comers are left with bob1230923x@atleastitwasfree.com . About once a month I get mis-sent e-mail for a Kimberly or a Kevin or some other poor soul would probably has some meaningless digit appended to their account name.

With domain-hosted e-mail, GMail now has effectively infinite screennames for its users. I get to have a screenname that makes sense (guess my e-mail, it's really, really easy), no one else accidentally gets my e-mail, and other people should hopefully be able to easily remember the address.

YouTube vs. Google Video

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I recently had the chance to try out YouTube vs. Google Video as a video publisher. I had some clips from the Tour of California that I wanted to put online and my DSL doesn't do the best job hosting video.

It's hard not to notice the rise of YouTube. It seems that everytime I see a video link I end up on that site and they certainly seem to have the attention of NBC, which is sending cease and desist after cease and desist for SNL videos (is SNL officially no longer lame?). I've run across Google Video much less frequently. I wasn't sure if this was due to laxer policies on the part of YouTube in allowing content like Oscar clips or if YouTube was superior in some manner.

I believe I now have the answer: YouTube is far, far superior. Google Video does have a better video uploader, but that's about its only advantage. For my test I uploaded the same Tour of California clip to both services. Google Video took over 24 hours to 'verify' the video. I still have a video that I uploaded on February 21st (two weeks ago) that is in the 'verification' process. Time it took YouTube to post my video online: instant. 24 hours is just a mind-boggling long time to have to wait, let alone two weeks. As far as I can tell, Google Video doesn't even tell you when your video is ready, so you have to keep revisiting your video status page.

YouTube also has three features that Google Video does not: tagging, commenting, visitor counting, and rating. I don't care much for ratings, but tagging makes it easier for people to find my videos, commenting is nice for feedback, and visitor counting tells me whether or not it was worth my time even posting the video.

Both services seem to degrade the quality of the original video. The cycling videos I uploaded weren't of the greatest quality as they were shot with an ELPH, but they were definitely more intelligible than these:

Nevertheless, if you don't have to server to host the video and you want to get the video online to share with others, I highly recommend YouTube as the route to go.

Book: Quicksilver

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It took me two years, four months to finish this book. It's huge. So huge that I have to read it on weekends in coffee shops because it's too big to carry in my backpack. I can hardly remember the beginning as there's been many dozens of books I've read since I read the first page of this book and I can barely remember going to Stephenson's Quicksilver talk where I bought it. And it's not like I'm actually finished. I still have two thousand pages to go with Confusion and System of the World. Stephenson actually divides the Baroque Cycle into eight books, which I wish his publisher did because I might have been able to psychologically deal with its heft better.

I would feel more satisified if I felt that Quicksilver were anything more than exposition for the rest of the series. I can't actually call it exposition because I have not read the other two books, so I am not certain yet that Stephenson has a plot in mind. As far as I can tell, Quicksilver takes a thousand pages to explain the first chapter. I think it could have been done in fewer.

Quicksilver was fun, otherwise I would have abandoned mid-course. Jack Shaftoe's entry into the series helped pace things forward. But next time I'm buying the paperback edition and cutting it into three smaller books.

Book: Birth of the Mind

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Birth of the Mind addresses the relationship between DNA and the development of the brain. Most of the ideas in the book are fairly simple and easy to understand:

  • It's both nature and nurture. We start with an initial structure that is highly adaptable. You can transplant a third eye onto a creature and it's brain will create the necessary processing structures for it.
  • Genes designate structure coarsely and relatively. One more more beacons draw certain types of cells towards them along channels. The stronger the beacon, the stronger the pull. If you move the beacon, you can change the location of where something develops.
  • The same genes get reused in different parts of the body like building blocks. Very few genes are unique to the brain. This is perhaps why there are so few genes in the human genome.

You won't get too much insight into how the brain works. Birth of the Mind is more akin to civil engineering than architecture, dealing with the materials of construction rather than the function of what is constructed. Birth of the Mind is deceptively short (< 200 pages), so you shouldn't have any problem pairing it with another pop-sci brain book to fill in some of the gaps in this book.

The brevity of Birth of the Mind sways my overall review of it. The writing is mostly clear but isn't clever, the analogies are rather bland (mostly computer programming analogies), the footnotes don't provide that much additional detail, and most of the writing is an exercise in aggregation rather than drawing a clear thread through a backdrop of works. But it's short. It's short enough that I see it as a good (re)introduction for future pop-sci neuroscience readings. The Amazon reviews are almost entirely glowing, so it would appear that a lot of the readership appreciated the material within.

Someone in the future will write a better version of this book, mostly because neuroscience/cognitive science is still making important discoveries on the nature of the mind and how it is formed. I'm awaiting an author to come along in Hofstadter-like fashion and pull together all the loose threads and unify our picture of the brain, from genes all the way up to consciousness. Having listened to how Hofstadter and Marcus both emphasized chunking/recursion, perhaps someone will be able to come along and draw analogies between the way we build our complex brain out of simple building blocks and the way we build complex concepts out of simple words. Maybe this book already exists and I just don' t know about it.

30 Boxes: immediate wow

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30boxes.gifAfter hitting refresh all day, I finally managed to get a beta account on 30 boxes, which is a Web calendar with fancy features like:

  • a text box at the top where you can quickly add events like "Tour of California Feb 19-26" or "kwc's Birthday Oct 31 repeat yearly". I've found this box to be much, much faster after a 10 second learning curve.
  • overlay your local weather on top of your calendar.
  • little touches, like giving you a link to check your Gmail in order to retrieve your signup confirmation and getting a user icon from Flickr if you give it your Flickr account name.
  • export to iCal so that you can view it in iCalendar, Sunbird, or other apps
  • subscribe to your upcoming.org profile.
  • share your calendar with friends (anyone else feel like signing up? let me know)
  • uncluttered display: the calendar takes up your whole browser window

I've only been using it 15 minutes and I'm gearing up to switch over from my Yahoo! Calendar. Every other "Web 2.0" calendar site I've tried in the past (at current count, about three) has failed to immediately impress or convince me that it is in anyway better than the good ole' Yahoo klunker. I'm a little hesistant to jump ship so quickly. The last technology that convinced me to leave Yahoo! behind was Gmail, so it's been quite awhile since I've had to deal with the ramifications of having my personal workflow moved from one system to another. It appears that they may be in need of a little more polish before I'm ready to migrate, but given all the little touches in there so far it seems that whoever is in charge of their development will get it polished up nice and shiny.

Book: McSweeney's 17

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McSweeney's 17 comes disguised as junk mail. I'm pretty sure this takes the crown for most ridiculous media packaging that I have ever purchased. Screw the comb that came in my McSweeney's 16, the material in this issue is packed inside of envelopes and even comes with a rubberband!

The ridiculous packaging is an odd, yet appropriate, choice for the mixed assortment within. There's Envelope, which is a big brown envelope containing reproductions of various contemporary art, mostly paintings. There's humorous inserts, my favorite being the plural clothing brochure. There's Yeti Researcher, a parody of a scientific research journal filled, too filled, with yeti research articles. I was more frightened than entertained by the amount of effort that went into reproducing that much straight-faced yeti research articles. And, of course, there are a couple short stories, though most shorter than the usual McSweeney's fare.

There's a lot of variety in McSweeney's 17, but not enough for the hefty price tag. It's a lot of variety, little depth, with the exception of a frightening number of yeti articles. Issue 17 was supposed to come with the Wolphin dvd, which instead arrived with McSweeney's 18. If it had, this little mixed media packaging experiment might have been worth the price of admission.

Then again, I haven't watched my copy of Wolphin yet, so who's to say?

Case-ari iPod nano case review

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case-ari caseI just received my Case-ari iPod nano case, which will replacing my homemade Altoids case. The Case-ari case is similar to the premium Vaja leather cases, but about half the price as they ship from Georgia instead of Argentina and they don't offer any customization.

I approve of the Case-ari case so far. It comes with a detachable belt clip and plastic screen protectors that you stick right on the screen and scrollwheel. Strangely there is no protector for the center button. The inside of the case is plush and there is a separate cleaning cloth. The customer service, from what I have seen, is good. Within a couple hours of my order they called to let me know that my chosen color was out of stock and gave me the choice of choosing a different color, cancelling, or waiting. The case also arrived with a free Case-ari keychain and signed personalized letter. All little things, but quite a lot for a $24.95 product when compared to the crap you might find for the same price in the Apple Store.

I liked the Altoids case, but I never quite finished it and it felt silly carrying around something as large as a regular iPod to transport a nano. I may revive the Altoids case for snowboarding or the like, but otherwise the Case-ari case will be absorbing most of the blows.

Book: Design of Everyday Things

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meta warned me that when I read The Design of Everyday Things, I would learn very little. This is a compliment to the book, rather than a criticism. We both worked at PARC at the time and much of what is in the book is ingrained within the PARC culture. Thus, to say that I would learn very little is to say how influential the ideas of this book are. According to the Director of User Experience at TiVo, the book is somewhat of a bible. You'll find my own attempt at being Norman in "Affordances of a Seven-Foot Egg."

Another compliment I will pay this book is, in retrospect, the ideas presented seem like commonsense. As Norman dissects bad doors and light switch arrangements, the criticisms are intuitive, yet we must wonder, if this truly was commonsense, why is it so easy to find examples of bad design in everyday things? It's not hard to find a doors with "push" or "pull" signs taped on because the wrong type of handle was used. It's not hard to remember being confronted with an array of light switches and not knowing which light went with which. Sometimes the explanation is that someone was being cheap. Or lazy. But we also see simple principles violated in expensive, intensively designed products like airplanes and cars. Bad design comes with any price tag.

The most valuable aspect of the book for me is that it provides a vocabulary for being more specific about evaluating design. Norman once said something akin to, if it has poor usability, it probably got a design award. We don't do a good job separating out aesthetics and usability when we use the term design. The iPod is cited again and again as an example of "good design," but there are many usability problems. It's mappings are poor: press the center button and the next menu scrolls in from the right; press up and the previous menu scrolls in from the left; pressing left or right changes the track that's playing; rotating the scrollwheel wheel moves a linear menu up and down. The visibility is also poor: two weeks ago I taught two long-time iPod users that you can fast-forward/rewind, rate songs, and view album art if you press the center button while a song is playing.

I look forward to reading Norman's Emotional Design. I'm sure it will provide a vocabulary for discussing the good aspects of the iPod design, and then at last I can make my $billions.

Partial/ongoing notes in the extended.

Book: Mind Wide Open

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Mind Wide Open is a fun, light read by Steven Johnson. It's a pop-sci examination of the brain, with a focus on translating/rejecting Freudian ideas into a modern scientific framework. This Freud ambition limits the scope of the book: it is tourist equivalent of a quick day tour of New York by bus, a few stops, all brief.

The focus on Freud seems to come from a pop-sci similarity: Freud is one of the few psychologists whose ideas have entered into the popular lexicon and, by reinterpreting Freud's work, Johnson hopes to fulfill his goal of entering neuroscience concepts into the popular lexicon as well. Ambitious, especially in the book's final chapter which reads less like a conclusion and more like a Freud/Neuroscience manifesto (it is one Johnson's favorite chapters that he has written). If you hate Freud, don't distress. I hate Freud as well, but the most of the effort in connecting neuroscience to Freud is spent in the final chapter and only occasionally crops up elsewhere. Perhaps this is why the final chapter felt so out of place to me within the context of the book.

I prefer Emergence, Johnson's book on emergent behavior, to Mind Wide Open. Emergence was more the type of book where you want to grab a friend after reading a chapter and go, "did you know that __?" Perhaps this was an artifact of Johnson using himself as the subject of many of the experiments. Instead of focusing on the extraordinary cases of neuroscience like Oliver Sacks, we instead are confronted with the banal. We learn what Johnson learned about himself, but without being able to subject our self to the same tests the learning feels thirdhand. Much of the experiments have been better suited to a Discovery Channel special than a book, because video at least would better allow us to imagine ourselves in the experiment.

I have some limited notes in the extended. Due to the type of narrative, I found it difficult to take notes: much of the relevant details are scattered across many pages, so I eventually decided it was taking too much time.

Review: Picasa - good stuff

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picasaI installed Picasa on my dad's computer to help him manage all the digital photos that he's been taking and I am impressed. I'm not impressed because Picasa has better features that Adobe Photoshop Elements, Aperture, or any other photo management software out there. In fact, the features of Picasa are fairly streamlined to include only the most basic photo retouching capabilities.

The reason I am impressed is that it's one of the few pieces of software that my dad was comfortable and competent with almost immediately. My dad is a complete computer novice who doesn't use his computer for much more than writing letters, surfing the Internet, and balancing his checkbook. To see him immediately latch onto the red eye tool, retouch several photos, and then print them with only minimal assistance is a great accomplishment in user interface design. Importing photos from the camera was also a snap because Picasa doesn't really care how you import the photos -- it finds them automatically -- so it doesn't really matter which of the numerous import options Windows pops up he chooses, it will probably work, i.e. Picasa gets around Windows' lack of usability.

There are still some features that my dad had trouble with. The selection tools for cropping and red-eye correction gave him some fuss, it's hard to tell which options you have selected on some menus (the highlight around a selected button is too faint), and the button layout is a bit inconsistent, including the placement of the OK/Cancel options. However, Picasa doesn't edit the photos directly, so it's hard to do permanent damage.

Picasa most directly compares to iPhoto. Photoshop Elements 4.0 and Aperture have more features but require more computer-savvy users. Picasa is much faster than iPhoto and I believe it's UI is a better design for photo-editing and browsing, but you'd never really have to choose because Picasa is only for PCs. So, if your parents have a PC and you want to get them good, free, photo-management software, or you love iPhoto and are stuck on a PC, you may want to give it a shot. It will be better than the crap that comes with your digital camera.

Review: Qoop Printing for Flickr

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qoopI previously reviewed Qoop's printing service for Flickr then took down the review because a Qoop representative offered to let us reprint the books for free to see if their newer printers would solve the issues I cited in the review. My main complaint then was that the print quality looked more like something printed off on an office printer than what I had seen with Apple's iPhoto books. The inks didn't have the right reflectivity (the blacks stood out) and the paper wasn't thick enough.

The verdict on the new books: We both felt that they were much improved, both in the inks that were used as well as the paper. With the new books I felt that I was holding a book, not something I printed off at work and stapled together. The printing quality does fall short of providing you with vivid, accurate color reproduction of your photos -- the color dynamics are a bit dull and the levels don't match what you see on the screen. There was also one other problem: two of the books had bent corners that was fixable with a bit of massaging. I would suggest to QOOP that they upgrading their packaging.

d and I don't quite agree on the overall assessment. I was expecting something more akin to a catalog of photos, d was expecting something more to vivid, photo-paper quality. Based on my expectations, I give the Qoop books a passing grade. It's not a book of photos you might buy in the store, but it's an easy way to get your photos into book format and save time in the process. d has a more mixed review, feeling that they aren't up to the printing quality of what you would get with the iPhoto books from Apple. We both agree that you get what you pay for and what you pay is cheap.

  • Do use if for: a hardcopy of your photos that you can carry around with you and scribble on
  • Don't use if for: giving as a gift to your friend (e.g. a book of wedding photos)

I've updated parts of my previous review. Read on for a full review.

Corteo

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corteoI always wondered what the large blue and yellow tent was near SBC/Pac Bell Park, and now I know. We spent our New Year's Eve inside that tent watching Cirque du Soleil's Corteo, which is a "a festive parade imagined by a clown." Unlike everyone else I went with, I don't have prior Cirque shows to compare against. I did go to Teatro Zinzanni this month for a company holiday party, which was a fun acrobatic dinner theater experience, but the scale and type of entertainment was entirely different. Zinzanni is a fun way to watch some impressive individual juggling and acrobatics up close, while also seeing your bosses used as embarrassing props. Corteo is a barrage of acrobatic performance, with people spinning up into the air on chandeliers, combined trapeze and trampoline, and humans turned into spinning discs inside of cyr rings.

It was impressive and had thumbs up from everyone I went with. It didn't get a #1 Cirque show rating -- d preferred La Nouba at Disney World and Jed preferred Varekai. The common complaint was that the acts each started with a bang but ended comparatively weakly -- they didn't save the best for last.

The remaining San Francisco shows are probably sold out, but you should be able to see it in San Jose if you're interested (Corteo tickets).

I'm testing out my installation of the Performancing for Firefox
extension. It's a Firefox 1.5 plugin that lets you write blog entries directly in your browser. I'm not entirely sure on the advantage of this as my personal #1 reason for wanting to use a blog editor is so I don't lose my edits when Firefox crashes. I'm not sure Performancing handles this, but at the very least it is better than using the QuickPost button.

It was a bit of a hassle to install, so for all of you out there that are trying out Performancing with MovableType 3.2 and getting 'login error', here's what you might need to do:

1) Login to MovableType and go to your author profile page (the one that lets you set your password. you can get to it by clicking on Authors->yourloginname).
2) Set the API password
3) When Performancing asks you for the AppKey, leave it blank. When it asks for your username and password, use the API password you just set instead of your normal password.

If you don't know what your API URL is, go to http://yourblog/rsd.xml. The URL will be listed there as 'apiLink' next to "MetaWeblog."

Concert: Not So Silent Night

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The White Stripes rocked the end of Not So Silent Night in SF. They came on stage like the Ramones: song after song, no breaks, furious, and rocking. It seemed that it wasn't until every female had been rescued from the frantic/violent pit in front of the stage that Jack White pulled out the acoustic to calm things back down. I'm convinced that some of the White Stripes songs only make sense live. It simply isn't possible to play the record loud enough on your stereo to hear it at the volume it was meant to be listened to: freaking loud.

We also saw Death Cab for Cutie and Hot Hot Heat. I was strangely entertained by how uncomfortable Ben Gibbard of Death Cab was with his guitar cable. About every two measures he would fling his guitar cable off his leg. Occassionally he would step back from the microphone and give the cable a good kick/fling. Some of his efforts resulted in bottles of water and gatorade being knocked over and stage crew running out to pick things up. Perhaps I was amused that someone with so many bands under his belt can't handle such a basic piece of musical equipment. Gibbard ended his set by kicking over his mics and his amps, then scrambling to set them back up again so that he could walk off stage to a good feedback hum.

The only disappointment from the night was that the audience didn't bring the White Stripes back on for an encore. It seemed that an encore was in conflict with people catching the last BART out, so the set was a short 45 minutes or so.

Review: Qoop printing for Flickr

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update 2: here is the updated review

update: I'm temporarily taking down my review for Qoop because a representative from Qoop was kind enough (within 24 hours of me writing my post!) to offer reprints on the books. My original review came with the caveat that the books were ordered awhile ago when the service was still new, so it seems fair to give the service another shot.

It seems a bit hackneyed to complain that a collection of original short stories is uneven at best. We don't expect every author to be firing on all cylinders with their contributions. However, with a unifying theme of "Thrilling Tales," with Michael Chabon editing and with short stories by Neil Gaiman, Nick Hornby, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, and Dave Eggers, I had higher expectations. It is strange, then, that it was none of these authors that delivered my favorite stories of the collection. That title would go to Glen David Gold's "The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter," Rick Moody's "The Albertine Notes," and Elmore Leonard's "How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman." I thought Gaiman's and Hornby's were entertaining, but not great, King's was only interesting to Dark Tower fan, Chabon's was only an introductory chapter of a serial, and Egger's, while good, is burgeoning with the "epiphanic dew" that Chabon rants against in the collection's introduction. The collection has a sequal, Astonishing Tales, which I may pick up, but with more selective reading.

Upgraded to Photoshop Elements 4.0

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photoshop.elements.jpgI've been a devout user of Photoshop Album for organizing my photos, but my copy was getting a bit old and I've been looking to ditch it for something faster and with improved organizational features. I took advantage of the Black Friday discounts to get a copy of Photoshop Elements 4.0 packaged with Premiere Elements 2.0 for $50. I skipped Photoshop Elements 3.0 because, even with the 'stacks' feature, it wasn't worth $100 to upgrade from Album.

I only care about the organizational features of Elements -- I do all my edits in Photoshop -- and so far the upgrade has been worthwhile. Several things stood out immediately (NOTE: the Mac version is very different from the Windows version): * Most important 'feature': faster browsing performance. It's hard to organize your photos if you can't quickly scan through them. * Stacks and version sets let you group similar shots and different edits, respectively. Very nice. * Tags are now stored within the image so that it is easier to share that metadata with others. * The biggest timesaver will probably be "Find Faces for Tagging." The name says it all -- it scans your selected photos, finds faces, and then lets you tag them. The tagging interface for faces is much improved over the generic tagging interface. It keeps tracks of your most recently used tags so that you don't have to keep scanning over all your tags to find the ones you need. I used it on some wedding photos and it almost did too good of a job picking out everyone in the dance photos. * The documentation notes that there is a Photomerge utility, which has to be better than the one that Canon gives you, but I have not tried it out yet.

The only disappointment so far is that it is less well-integrated with Photoshop than Album is. Album doesn't have a builtin editor so they made it very easy to do your advanced processing with other applications. Although Elements allows you to do external editing as well, it appears to be much less smart than before. It doesn't notice when you've finished external edits and it tries to import the edits as new photos instead of new versions of the original.

Elements is not a bad photo-editing tool, so I don't know how much I'll hate upon it. I'm planning to move to Photoshop CS2, which includes it's own photo workflow features, so it may not matter too much in the long run. I may just end up using Elements to organize and CS2 to edit, but this will take some time and money (to buy CS2) to sort out.

I'll end this quick impressions review noting that the Amazon reviewers don't seem happy with the new version, with several complaining that they prefer Photoshop Elements 3.0. I've never really used the previous versions of Elements, so my ignorance in this case appears to be bliss.

CS2: Smart Object and Layer Comps

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I just got a copy of Photoshop CS2 at work so that I could do some software UI mockups. I've already discovered two features they've added since Photoshop 7 that are huge timesavers for this type of work.

Layer Comps: With mockups I often have to toggle different layers on and off to show different steps or variations. "Here is a mockup with the button to the left and here is one with the button below," or "Here is the first step where the user types in, 'I want a pony,' and here is the next step where the results for ponies are returned." Layer comps let you save the current state of your layers so you can easily switch between the different variations all within one Photoshop file. These presets let you save the visibility, position, and styles of each layer.

You can access Layer Comps by going to Window -> Layer Comps. Here is a tutorial on using Layer Comps.

Smart Objects: In UI mockups you often have a lot of repeating elements. You may have the same set of buttons appear four times on a screen and if you want to change the appearance of one of the buttons you used to have to edit all four copies. With Smart Objects you can edit the original and have all the copies update. Smart Objects also keep all the original data, so you could paste in a photo, shrink it down to 10x10 and then later decide to resize it to 100x100. I'm told that this is the same as the 'Place' feature that other Adobe products have had for some time now, which makes me wonder what took them so long to put such a useful feature into Photoshop.

There are a lot of different ways to create Smart Objects. You can use File->Place to create a Smart Object from another file. You can also select a bunch of layers and group them together into a Smart Object.

Book: Gehry Draws

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gdrawing.jpgThis is not your pretty-color-photo architecture portfolio books . As the title suggests, it is mostly a book of Gehry's drawings, all of which are about as detailed on the one shown here; in other words, it is many, many pages of scribbling. Ignoring the pretentious-art-historian essay at the start of the collection that compares Gehry's sketches to Durer's works and extols Gehry's use of grundlinie, the truth is that many of Gehry's sketches are thirty-second efforts (p. 126). I would prefer if the book focused more on the models, but then it wouldn't be called Gehry Draws. Also, as the models are built by his staff, it is really only the drawings that can be said to be Gehry's work.

This is not to say that the drawings are not interesting. At first I was put back by having to look at scribbly sketches, but after awhile you get a sense of the rhythm and form Gehry was trying to communicate. I still find it impressive that his staff can look at the drawings and translate them into 3-D models, then again, I don't have Gehry standing next to me to pantomime the form in the drawing. It is these models that are the key to the book -- the juxtaposition between drawings and models makes the models Rosetta Stones for scribble interpretation. Also, the models are pretty.

I most enjoyed the section on the Lewis Residence, which was a house designed in collaboration with Philip Johnson and Richard Serra (among others) but was never built. Six years were spent iterating the design for the house and it reads as a transition point into the trademark wavy style -- Serra's influence on Gehry becomes more obvious. Gehry has described the project as being like a research fellowship where they got to hone their physical- and computer-modelling techniques.

There are occassional quotes by Gehry and his staff in the book (though they are poorly edited tnough to have frequenty spelling errors). I especially like Gehry's quote, "There was a period when I used to look into my wastepaper basket and fantasize buildings and forms," as well as this quote about designing the office space for MIT's Stata Center:

We then made models showing [the MIT faculty] the ways different cultures might deal with this problem. We had a scheme based on a traditional Japanese house with panels that could open to combine spaces and close shut for privacy. They hated that because there was no hierarchy. Then we gave them a scheme based on a colonial American house with a central hall and rooms around the bottom and rooms around the top. But they didn't like that either; it was too formal. Then one of our team members made an "orangutan village" around a tree with elders higher up and the children below it. At first they were insulted. They thought we were calling them apes. But in the end they chose the orangutan village.

more quotes in the extended review

Hands on iPod with video, mixed impressions

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I got my first hands-on experience with the iPod with video yesterday. My immediate impression was, "It's bigger," even though it's smaller. They aided this illusion by shrinking the scrollwheel (comparison pic). The more interesting comparisons came once I picked it up and started playing with it. Perhaps it was a matter of expectations. If someone had said, "Checkout the new iPod photo with new screen," I probably would be more favorable to it. Two disappointments came to mind:

  1. I felt strained watching video on it's tiny screen, though this may have been because the first video I watched was the Fantastic Four trailer. Although the screen had beautiful colors, I felt that I had to concentrate to watch, something I don't have to do when I watch video on the larger screen of my PSP. I was biased against it going in and nothing I experienced changed that.
  2. The ergonomics are much worse. I appreciate that they made the iPod thinner, but they also decided to change the plastic face of the iPod. Instead of the smooth, rounded edges of the third- and fourth-generation iPods, it's back to the old sharp edge of the first-generation iPod. It didn't feel as comfortable sitting in my hand as I tried to manipulate the smaller scrollwheel.

I hope that this is not Apple's final statement on handheld video playback. Apple usually tries to one-up it's competition when it enters a new space, but now I feel like they have to catch up. The only advantages they have are in video content and software, especially now that I see that Sony wants to charge $20 for software to put content on your PSP. These are not advantages that I underrate, but the handheld experience currently does not measure up to them.

First gripes

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With euphoria of new announcements comes a bit of a hangover. Time to do a reality check (read on if you want my gripes and predictions):

Movie: Serenity

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serenity.jpgIn short, a good, but not great action film.

I have only seen half of one Firefly episode and I hated it. If one were to show me synopsis of each episode I won't even be able to pick out which one I had watched. That said, I'll probably give the show another shot, which won't show up in the box office receipts, but may be an effect that gives more fuel to Whedon's trilogy campaign.

The movie was rewarding in a way that space dramas made from TV shows generally aren't. At the end of the hour-long TV show you know that all the scratches will be buffed back out and this trait often shows up in the movie adaptation. Star Trek movies, in particular, are handcuffed by the need to maintain consistency in their well-documented timeline. Whedon was willing to put the Serenity story first ("I'm a leaf on the wind") even if it meant roughing up his well-crafted universe -- perhaps having only half a season on the books was a good thing. The movie still has the burden of syncing to the TV show, the actors feel more like TV actors, and the special effects are TV-rate as well, but I give the movie a lot of credit for making an entertaining sci-fi/space-samurai-spaghetti-western/Whedon-esque movie out of a $40 million budget.

(NOTE: My only significant complaint is that it was darn hard to understand the dialogue all the time. Out of four of us that went to see the movie, I know that at least three of us missed a line here and there. I felt that I needed subtitles or TiVo.)

PSP: Partial Results

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I've had more time to play with the PSP now that I got a 1GB memory stick for it. I succesfully downloaded some episodes of Battlestar Galactica that I had missed and re-encoded them for my PSP. Most of the setup was painless, but there is a lot of waiting between steps. At least I have several episodes now so that should hold me for awhile.

I had a much worse time trying to get TiVo programs onto my PSP. It appears that either you're lucky and it works or you're unlucky and you have to add some extra time-consuming steps and software. I'm an unlucky one so I'll have to re-experiment with my other options to see how they work out. I'd rather it not take 10 minutes for me to load 45 minutes worth of programming to watch on the train; at that point I'll just go back to reading books.

I dream of the process as simple as iPod + iTunes, though we as consumers have much less control over our video as we do our music. If Sony were consumer-friendly, they would have released a program for the PSP that would let me transfer my DVDs onto it painlessly. Instead, they want me to pay $21 for a UMD version of Kill Bill even though the DVD version is only $15. Go figure. The only comparison that comes to mind would be if Apple had released the iPod and told it's customers that it would only play $20 albums from the iTunes Music Store.

Book: Red Mars

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marscrater.jpgRed Mars is a book about Mars colonization, which means the story breaks down into two basic elements: Mars and the people that colonize it. Of the two, I cared more about Mars, which Robinson does a more than adequate job with.

I've been fascinated with Mars, as you can see from all the Mars-related links I have in this entry, and I enjoyed reading a book that tries to put Mars into humanscale and explores the science and culture of change that could befall it with colonization. Robinson puts a lot of science into the book, good enough that I don't have to lose my suspension of disbelief over it. In my one area of understanding, AI, I can state that the treatment of robots in the book went very well with some NASA AI talks (Mars Exploration Rover (MER) planning and AI and the New Exploration Vision) that I've been to recently.

There are characters to go along with the Martian terrain, but I did not find myself caring much about them as much as I did about what they were doing to Mars. Robinson does a good job in making them unheroically realistic; in this aspect they fit in with the scientific realism in this book. However, the 'driven scientist' archetype that he uses as a template for his characters rings false to me and in some ways the characters end up becoming more outlandish than Mars.

I haven't made up my mind as to whether I'll read Blue Mars and Green Mars as it's hard to imagine the same sense of exploration and pioneering that made the first book so compelling, but if any of you out there have recommendations let me know.

Some other Mars entries on this blog: * LiveJournals for the NASA Mars rovers * Cool Mars Animation Video * Moons of Mars * Marvin the Martian Going to Mars

Red Mars is also a great complement to the Google Earth Plus Mars Database -- the Google Earth visualization provides a low resolution skeleton and Robinson's text gives you enough to let your imagination fill in the rest. I am considering re-reading Red Mars, but next time with a greater focus on locating the geographical points on Mars maps to get a better sense of scale and environment.

Several quotes in the extended.

Book: Wicked

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I read this in preparation for seeing Wicked: The Musical in a couple of weeks. As someone thought well enough of the book to make a musical of it, I had high expecations for the story. In concept and themes, the story does well enough. The inversions of the moral relationships (from the movie, having never read Frank Baum's Oz series) were the most enjoyable part of the book, much in the way that playing Dark Side of the Moon as the soundtrack adds additional depth to a viewing. But the Dark Side soundtrack only lasts fifty minutes and as it repeats you shut it off and return back to the movie. Wicked is 400+ pages long, so you expect more.

In these 400 pages, Wicked reads more like a biography than a story: although the reader is aware of the book's climax -- the first chapter leaves no doubt -- the path to that point is not plot so much as the passage of time. Characters come and go, things happen, the main character develops, but the story never builds.

There are those who will find biographies of fictional characters entertaining, and apparently there are many of these readers on Amazon because I see tons of five stars reviews for this book. But I found this a slow, tedious concept that is much too large for what it contains.

Book: The Fall

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I had a combined edition of Camus' The Stranger and The Fall that I just finished reading. I found the amorality of Meursault in The Stranger a bit too frustrating to warrant a second read, but the histrionic tale of immorality that Clamence weaves in The Fall was engrossing and tightly woven enough for me that I will have to read it again when I find the time. Clamence reminds me a bit of ginfiend for some reason. Perhaps it's because he proclaims, "Fortunately there is gin, the sole glimmer of light in the this darkness." (p. 12)

Book: Aleph and Other stories

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This ranks as one of my all-time favorite readings. As it is difficult for one person to give a more praise than that to this collection of fantastical, philosophical, theological, and historical short stories, I will be brief and state that quotes are in the extended, though they inherently spoil the short stories, especially the stories that are less than a page.

Movie: Batman, the IMAX Experience

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I don't know if I need to add my voice to the chorus of parakkum, ln m, and o.t.a., so I'll try at least to be short.

I saw Batman: The IMAX Experience at The Tech, which has a dome-style IMAX screen. Very early in the film, when there's this wide shot of Himalaya-ish mountains, I thought to myself, "Now THAT's IMAX!" Later on in the film, I started to get a little twigged at the fact that one eye on each actor's face was always bigger because of the fishy effect of the dome (we weren't seated dead center). There were also problems following the fight scenes. It was just too big and too close. I thought this was the fault of the IMAX projection, but from the reviews, it appears that even on a normal screen you really can't tell what's going on.

Overall, I thought this was the best of the Batman movies, though they definitely emulated the Spiderman model. Batman Returns still has the best villains, but this felt like the better story.

Movie: Madagascar

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honeyfields got us into a screening of Madagascar, Dreamwork's latest animated film. This is the first time I've seen a feature film where there was someone involved in the making (Rex Grignon, head of the character animation department) answering questions afterwards -- it was like having your own abridged post-commentary track there in the theater, without having to wait for the DVD.

Rex talked about how they wrote some new software for this film to try and make the CG rendering more cartoony -- i.e. unlike Shrek, where the characters had skeletons that followed natural laws, animators in this film were able to stretch, bend, and distort as needed in order to get more dynamic poses and motion. For example, if a character moved quickly, they could stretch out the hands/fingers and pop-out the eyes a bit to give a sense of faster motion.

Rex also mentioned some of the footage that ended up on the cutting room floor, a lot of which probably features Ali G's/Sascha Baron Cohen's improvs. Cohen's character Julian role was rewritten after the first recording session during which Cohen would turn a single line into an extended riff. One of these riffs, in which the Julian joyfully proclaims "spanking machines for everyone!" didn't make the cut; after a test screening with mothers and children: 1. The children found spanking machines frightening 2. The mothers didn't find hundreds of lemurs dancing to spanking machines entertaining either

As much as I enjoyed having this live commentary, though, Madagascar is not a good film. It seems that someone was aware that the story wasn't very good because nearly every shot has to have a gag; they are so afraid of people paying attention to the story that some gag has to be going on in the background, or some story-stopping movie reference has to be thrown in. Granted, many of these gags made me laugh and chuckle, but a good film has to know when not to tell a joke.

Backpack: way cool, way too much $$$

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Update: (5/2/05) Backpack has upped it's limits since I originally wrote this entry. Free accounts now get 5 pages (up from 3) and the $5/month account get 20 pages (up from 15). They also increased the storage for the $5/month account from 25MB to 40MB. In the entry below I've indicated some of these changes, but it seems silly to have little "(update: )" or strike notations everywhere, especially when these changes don't really change the way I feel about their pricing. The most important limit to me is "20 pages." How useful would a Wiki that could only store 20 pages be? How useful would a blog with 20 entries be? The feature I like about Backpack is that it makes it easy to create content. Their pricing stands in opposition to these potential uses and only makes sense if they are targetting this at business users that can afford the extra $$$ for higher limits -- but why target business users when you already have Basecamp?

original entry follows...

I've been playing a bit more with Backpack -- it combines much of the free-flow composition of Wiki with the ease-of-use and power of structured data (e.g. todo lists). When they release it to the public it might become a very useful 'application' for me and my friends to plan events together, but...

...we're not going to be able to plan that many events with it because the free account only gives you 3 pages total (update: 5), and the non-free plans are way too friggin' expensive. And by 'way', I mean WAY.

As a pricing reference point, I would compare it to Flickr, which I use constantly and have a two-year Pro account for.

FlickrBackpack
$25/year$60/year*
2GB/month25MB total (now 50MB)
Unlimited photosets15 pages (now 20)

* This pricing is based on Backpack's basic account (cheapest non-free account).

It's just not even in the same ballpark. Even when Flickr cost $40/year (pre-Yahoo), it was still a bargain compared to Backpack.

The 15-page limit is especially egregious. I can begin to understand the 25MB cap on file and photo upload, but limiting me to having 15 pages that hardly take up any space and are the central feature of the service is just plain assinine. IMHO, $60/year is a terrible price to pay for 15 Web pages, even if they are super-snazzy and editable. I could delete an old page to make more room, but why force me to do that? With the advent of Gmail and Flickr I thought we had gotten past that whole notion of having to delete old information.

Got my backpack

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update 2 (5/3/05): I (still) like Backpack -- it's a well designed technology, with a diverse set of potential applications. However, I think their page limit is whack (i.e. it eliminates many of those potential uses by making them unaffordable). My extended gripe is here.


I got my Backpack account today and I'm pretty excited. I've been bastardizing 37signal's project management software, but Backpack should do away with that as it makes it easy to build pages with lists, links, notes, images, files, etc... that you can share with friends. All of it can be edited quickly and directly in the browser.

While I was at PARC I worked on Sparrow Web, which was a technology for making easily-writable Web pages, and I've been missing that technology ever since I left, so it's nice to have what appears to be a good, fast, free, easy-to-use writable Web page system.

I'll write more once I have a chance to really test drive it.

Update: here's our Fred Steak Planning Page that honeyfields and I put together. They're not opening Backpack up to the public until Tuesday, so until then I won't be able to give anyone the ability to edit the page, which makes the Fred Steak page rather pointless right now.

Book: Maya Lin Boundaries

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A few scattered thoughts, with quotes and a smattering of images in the extended entry to go along with Lin's sculptures/memorials.

Technical vs. emotional issues

This quote pretty much captures how I currently feel about engineering:

p. 3:11

There are always technical problems to be worked out -- getting the water in the Civil Rights Memorial to flow upside down or designing the click mechanism for Eclipsed Time -- but these problems did not pose a real difficulty for me (though my technical consultants might disagree). The challenge, for me, is not technical, but emotional: the attempt to capture the essence of the idea that is so much a part of the original model.

Typeface choice for the Women's Table

The sculpture uses Bembo to mimic the Yale course description book. It also happens to be the same typeface as Envisioning Information, which means that when Tufte is teaching his courses at Yale, his design evokes the process of choosing one's courses. I am reminded of Paul Dourish's Where the Action Is, which shares the same cover design as our MIT Medical pamphlets. My impression, as a former student, is that one must be careful in evoking administrative material in your design.

Art by blueprint

p. 4:44

But is sometimes easy to lose sight of the underlying idea in the making of architecture; it is easy to lose the soul of the work as one focuses on all the smaller aesthetic decisions. Or if one is too strong or relentless in the expression of the underlying idea, that idea can overwhelm the day-to-day functioning of the place; it can force the dweller into a space that is too singular in purpose. The process of making architecture is labored and detail-oriented. The actual process must be thought through thoroughly in advance -- it is a premeditated process, making it difficult to be spontaneous and intuitive. Imagine making a blueprint of a painting and then following it exactly through to its completion. How would it differ from painting the canvas with the guidance of an underlying sketch, yet inventing or seeing it for the first time on the canvas? Architecture requires a close adherence to the drawings and plans you have produced in order to construct the building; changes and alterations must occur during the earlier stanges of design -- in the drawings and models. Although there is room for some maninpulations and alterations ot the design during construction, this is not the time to be changing your mind.

Book: Polysyllabic Spree

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The premise of this book was too good to pass up: an author I like (Nick Hornby) writing essays for a publisher I like (McSweeneys) about a dilemma I can relate to (the disparity between books bought and books read).

Hornby's voice provided a sympathetic harmony to my own viewpoints on book purchasing, selecting which book to read next, and the unintentional connections one finds. I've often compared selecting which book to read next to wine tasting: you can move freely between the whites, and sometimes you can follow a red wine with an even stronger red wine, but there reaches a saturation point where you can't really discern the taste anymore. For the full-bodied reds I need a good palette cleanser (e.g. Pratchett, Sedaris, King), a bit of mental floss to get the polysyllabic words out of the teeth.

Hornby has a slightly different food comparison (p. 44):

I'm beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brain tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes. When I read Moneyball, it was because I wanted something quick and light after the 32-oz steak of No Name; The Sirens of Titan wasn't a reaction against George and Sam, but a way of enhancing it. So what's that? Mustard? MSG? A brandy? It went down a treat anyway.

Also, being Hornby, the music comparison was inevitable (p. 101):

There's no rule that says one's reading has to be tonally consistent. I can't help but feel, however, that my reading has been all over the place this month. The Invisible Woman and Y: The Last Man were opposites in just about every way you can imagine; they even had opposite titles. A woman you can't see versus a guy whose mere existence attracts the world's attention. Does this matter? I suspect it might. I was once asked to DJ at a New Yorker party, and the guy who was looking after me (in other words, the guy who was actually playing the records) wouldn't let me choose the music I wanted because he said I wasn't paying enough attention to the beats per minute: according to him, you can't have a differential of more than, I don't know, twenty bpm between records. At the time, I thought this was a stupid idea, but there is a possibility that it might apply to reading. The Invisible Woman is pacy and engrossing, but it's no graphic novel, and reading Tomalin's book after The Last Man was like playing John Lee Hooker after the Chemical Brothers -- in my opinion, John Lee Hooker is the greater artist, but he's in no hurry, is he?

As much fun as I've had finding quotes in Hornby's book, though, in some ways I feel too attached to his opinion to fully enjoy it. It's only appropriate, I think, that I found this quote to express this sentiment (p. 66):

Twice this week I have been sent manuscripts of books that remind their editors, according to their covering letters, of my writing. Like a lot of writers, I can't really stand my own writing, in the same way that I don't really like my own cooking. And, just as when I go out to eat, I tend not to order my signature dish -- an overcooked and overspiced meat-stewy thing containing something inappropriate, like tinned peaches, and a side order of undercooked and flavorless vegetables -- I really don't wan tot read anything that I could have come up with at my own computer.

disclaimer: in no way do I think I could produce Hornby's writing, but for me the same applies to ideological agreement as literary agreement.

More quotes in the extended.

Book: White Teeth

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I was a bit let down by White Teeth. I expected too much from a novel with this much praise, though I should have lowered my expectations by noting that the praise was generally couple with "potential" and/or "first novel." It is a bold novel for a newcomer, but I also felt that it feel short of its goals and, while there was cleverness and wittiness, it was spread out enough that it stood out instead of blending into the fabric of the narrative. Perhaps I was more disappointed having just read Midnight's Children, which made it clear that White Teeth is a good, but not great novel.

There was one passage I really enjoyed, which is in the extended entry (page 384), where Smith took the idea of Zeno's paradox and related it to how her characters moved through life (by constantly reliving the past). Putting aside the actual notion of the paradox aside, I found it interesting to extend the idea that "if you can divide reality inexhaustibly into parts... you move nowhere." Similarly, if we look back on the past and constantly relive it, subdivide it, expand it, we turn it into an infinite space that is like Zeno's paradox: no movement through it is possible.

(see the Invisible Man entry for connections between this book, Midnight's Children, and Invisible Man).

Book: Invisible Man

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Some quotes in the extended (not as many as I should have). I turned up a Salon article on "Invisible Man" at 50, which some may find as an interesting companion to the book.

Connections

Having just finished Midnight's Children, White Teeth, and Invisible Man, it's only natural I guess that my brain who try to connect the three together. The connections between White Teeth and *Midnight's Children" are the most obvious, given that Zadie Smith does not try to hide the influence of Salman Rushdie on her work.

There were passages that Smith had written about Millat from White Teeth that immediatelly reminded me of Ellison's descriptions of Rinehart (and to a lesser extent, the ever-shifting Saleem in Midnight's Children), though Millat tries to encompass all of his identities at once, and together these identities represents a crisis of identity, versus Rinehart, for whom identity is like a hat, each representing a new possibility that can be worn. Zadie Smith sees the shifting of identity as a sign of illness (missing twin, loss of culture, invisibility to father Samad) causing "an ever-present anger and hurt."

Invisible Man, p. 498

Can it be, I thought, can it actually be? And I knew that it was. I had heard of it before but I'd never come so close. Still, could he be all of them: Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehart the Reverend? Could he himself be both rind and heart? What is real anyway? But how could I doubt it? He was a broad man, a man of parts who got around. Rinehart the rounder. It was true as I was true. His world was possibility and he knew it. He was years ahead of me and I was a fool. I must have been crazy and blind. The world in which we lived was without boundaries.

White Teeth, p. 225

And that's how it was for Millat. He was so big in Cricklewood, in Willesden, n West Hampsteada, the summer of 1990, that nothing he did later in his life could top it. From his first Raggastani crowd, he had expanded and developed tribes throughout the schoool, throughout North London. He was simply too big to remain the object of Irie's affection, leader of the Raggastanis, or the son of Samad and Alsana Iqbal. He had to please all of the people all of the time. To the Cockney wideboys in the white jeans and the coolored shirts he was the joker, the risktaker, respected lady-killer. To the black kids he was fellow weed-smoker and valued customer. To the Asian kids, hero and spokesman. Social chameleon. And underneath it all, there remained an ever-present anger and hurt, the feeling of belonging nowhere that comes to people who belong everywhere.

I also found contrast between Invisible Man and Midnight's Children: the former which uses an unnamed protagonist who stumbles into new identities throughout, versus the many-named Saleem of Midnight's Children, who achieves both godly and base distinction through his naming.

Book: A Partly Cloudly Patriot

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I've been blazing through the humor essay books because their fairly ideal for airline travel -- small, consumable during a brief layover or allowing you the victory of completing an essay before being overcome by the need to pass-out.

I've been blazing through Sarah Vowell's This American Life shows after having listened to her talking about her father's homemade cannon. The shows are a good preface to the book, as they give a good ear from her pacing and style.

Given my recent trips in and out of Pittsburg, I'll share this one quote, with the rest of the quotes in the extended entry:

I remember how at home I felt, the first time I left. The gallery sent me east to learn from the master at Graham Arader's Pennsylvania headquarters. Getting off the plane from San Francisco at the Philadelphia airport, I was taken aback. I realized I had been living under quarantine in some euthanized, J. Crew catalog parallel universe of healthy good looks. Because, in Philadelphia, I was pleasantly suprised to see old people, average people, even ugly people, ambling around in dumb T-shirts and home perms. And if that wasn't relief enough, the weather was terrible and the coffee was dreck. The nice thing about Philadelphia is that no one has moved there to find the good life for over two hundred years. I went home to California feeling like the prettiest, most upbeat overachiever in the world.

Book: Eastern Standard Tribe

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I love BoingBoing, I love the EFF, and I love what Cory Doctorow is doing to change the conversation around copyright and compensation by allowing anyone to download his works for free. I also love Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which was the Doctorow's first novel.

With all that praise out of the way, let me know say -- hmm, how should I phrase this -- well, Eastern Standard Tribe sucks. The first chapter promises future cleverness by playing with the relationship between the narrator/protagonist and the reader. The early following chapters also promise an interesting riff on our relationship with the time zone that we live in and how that affects our relationship in the global community. I don't know where I transitioned from eager-cool-what's-next page flipping into eager-just-get-to-the-end page flipping, but somewhere in this short book the story fell flat (maybe this would be better as an even shorter story). Doctorow shows you the beginning, and he shows you the end, and you expect some clever twists inbetween -- instead the books keep marching in a straight line. Also, not to offend my HCI friends out there, but the User Experience angle in the book just doesn't work.

Don't trust what I say: download EST for free, breeze through the first few chapters (it's a light read), and decide for yourself (did I mention it's free?). While you're at it, read Down and Out, whether or not you end up liking EST, because -- did I mention? -- it's free also (and better).

Book: Invisible Cities

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More quotes in the extended entry. Some favorites:

"Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches."

"Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have."

"Also in Raissa, city of sadness, there runs an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence."

This quote I like because it is actually fairly close to modern understanding of the biology of memory: "Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased," Polo said. "Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little."

To quote from Steven Johnson:

For a long time, memory researchers assumed that memories were like volumes stored in a library. When your brain remembered something, it was simply searching through the stacks and then reading aloud from whatever passage it discovered. But some scientists now believe that memories effectively get rewritten every time they're activated, thanks to a process called reconsolidation. To create a synaptic connection between two neurons the associative link that is at the heart of all neuronal learning you need protein synthesis. Studies on rats suggest that if you block protein synthesis during the execution of learned behavior pushing a lever to get food, for instance the learned behavior disappears. It appears that instead of simply recalling a memory that had been forged days or months ago, the brain is forging it all over again, in a new associative context. In a sense, when we remember something, we create a new memory, one that is shaped by the changes that have happened to our brain since the memory last occurred to us.

Update: for actual analysis, go see meta's notes

Book: Midnight's Children

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Various quotations in the extended text. This book will stand up well to a second reading, in part because of the quality of writing, and in part because of the non-linearity of Rushdie's writing style. Of course, it might be years before I have the time to read this again ;).

Book: Travels in Hyperreality

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I'm close to done transcribing my notes for Travels in Hyperreality, so I'm going to go ahead and post them now. The book is a collection of older essays by Umberto Eco, spanning a huge range of issues from Casablanca to Italian terrorism to (as the title suggests) American obsession with hyper-real recreations of historical works (note: several of the essays are a good preface to Foucault's Pendulum).

Book: Art of the Incredibles

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Thanks to honeyfields for letting me borrow this. It was fun reading this because it not only showed the concept art in the evolution of the character design (I never realized Edna Mode is half-Japanese), it also revealed evolution in the story design. Tony Fucile, Lou Romano, and Teddy Newton did a great job giving this movie a proper retro-feel that carried into the final movie renderings. Given my inability to draw humans or understand color, though, I think Scott Caple's B&W vehicle and building renderings are the drawings I would most want to imitate (and what engineer doesn't want to be able to draw all his/her fanciful vehicle creations?).

The color script foldout with Lou Romano's art is beautiful: in addition to being a nice piece of art, it's also a great multivariate graphical display displaying palette, character design, film summary, and visual style. I especially liked the coloring in The Incredibles, and I liked being able to see their palette choices so perfectly summarized. With all the merchandising surrounding this film, I hope they sell this as a poster somewhere.

Book: Hocus Pocus

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I'm trying to burst through my reading backlog in an attempt to catch-up before a large Amazon order arrives with more books. Hocus Pocus made it into the queue because I've been meaning to read some more Vonnegut, and, besides, according to this test my book personality is Cat's Cradle.

Hocus Pocus brings my own Vonnegut reading into more current times, with the Vietnam War legacy, the American prison system, race relations, infidelity, religion, and selling of America all entering Vonnegut's blender. It's hard for me to find it as sharp as Slaughterhouse Five or Cat's Cradle, but the first exposure always feels brighter and this was an entertaining read in its own right.

Quotes in the extended entry.

Book: The Future of Ideas

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I've always been interested in Lawrence Lessig's writings on the web as well as his work with the Creative Commons, but I hadn't actually taken the time to read his books. Also, I forgetfully missed his PARC forum, but one of these days I will get around to watching the video. At long last, though, I've read The Future of Ideas, just in time for me to read Free Culture, which he has made available freely.

If you've been following the battles over DRM, open source, DMCA, etc... you've probably already heard many of the arguments that are presented by this book, but I appreciated the manner in which Lessig so clearly breaks apart issues, categorizing and framing them so that see them each more clearly. Also, much like introductory economics courses, he provides terminology (like "rivalrous" and "imperfectly excludable") for common sense notions, which aides in discussion.

I just finished reading Me Talk Pretty One Day and Holidays on Ice while downing caffeine at Cafe Borrone. I had read through Me Talk and decided that I hadn't read enough Sedaris for one day, so I walked over to Kepler's and bought Holidays and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, the latter which I am hoping to hold off on when I am in need of a humor fix.

Needless to say, I enjoyed Me Talk Pretty One Day. Meta had read me one of the passages involving Sedaris' sister Amy and it cracked me up. Reading it again it was even more funny, as the build-up to it was hilarious as well. The essays varied between mildly humorous and laugh-out-loud funny, though it seemed that the presence of Amy was concentrated in the latter category.

Holidays on Ice wasn't as good, but it did give me a couple of laughs over my bowl of soup. It was more satirical rather than pseudo-autobiographical, and personally I find his anecdotal stories more humorous and better paced.

I transcribed a couple of passages I liked, but the essays are short enough that you're probably better off picking up a copy and reading them one-by-one as you please.

Book: America

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I just finished America: A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction. I like the idea of the book -- a satire of American high school textbooks -- and it definitely provided its worth in entertainment. However, the nature of the satire -- an American high school textbook -- is an extremely rigid framework that makes it difficult to keep the jokes high quality. Every margin has to be filled with joke figures, polls, and "Where you aware" one-liners. The jokes in the text have to keep pace with the brevity and summarizing of textbooks. It is constant humor, rather than great humor.

I won't spoil the jokes in the book, save one, which has probably been told elsewhere anyway:

Discussion Question #1: If "con" is the opposite of "pro," then isn't Congress the opposite of progress?

Book: Sourcery

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I have a pattern of alternating styles of books, usually intermixing non-fiction or thought-intensive fiction with light-hearted sci-fi. I've often referred to this latter category as a "palette cleanser," as its main purpose is to wash my mind clean.

I'm starting to rely on Terry Pratchett books to fulfill this role (not that humor isn't good literature) because his books are both hilarious and quick-to-read, which are both good properties of a good interstice. I also don't feel bad about not remembering the details of what happened, as Pratchett doesn't appear interested either, particularly as it pertains to geography. Seeing as Pratchett's written a bazillion of these Discworld novels, his books will enable me to continue this pattern into the foreseeable future. (I used to use Stephen King as my palette cleanser

I've finished the fifth book now -- Sourcery -- and I figured its about time that I do an entry on one of these books. It somewhat defeats the purpose of an interstitial palette cleanser to do a blog entry on each one, but five sounds like a good number to do one. It wasn't my favorite of the first five in the series (that honor probably goes to Color of Magic or Equal Rites), but it was entertaining nevertheless.

In the extended entry I have four quotes that I liked, with full page images for you to enjoy.

Book: The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Am I right in feeling like this book is an episode of the Twilight Zone, only extremely literate and set in 19th century England? The similarity to modern-day sci-fi enticed me, though it also made it easy for me to guess exactly how it would end, which made some of the plot progression rather tedious.

If you read through the quotations that I have selected, it may become obvious that the sections of the book that I enjoyed most were Lord Henry's epigram-filled rants and his rapid-fire dialogue battles with the Duchess of Monmouth (Gladys).

Strangely, Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver is proving a useful introduction to this book, even though it is set a couple centuries prior, as I actually caught some of the references to courtly figures and places.

Book: Martian Chronicles

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I started reading *Martian Chronicles* not realizing that I would be seeing Ray Bradbury speak at Comic-Con. If only the flight to San Diego were a bit longer so that I could have gotten a bit farther by the time I heard him speak -- I really enjoyed reading this book, and if I were braver I would have asked him for 'tips' in reading it.

In many ways it is not really a novel, as it is really a bunch of short stories loosely connected with one another (which made it perfect for finishing up on multiple Caltrain/BART trips). It certainly does not express hope for mankind, nor for technology/space travel, but it does open up the imagination in a variety of ways in how it plays with old (e.g. Poe) and new in both familiar and unfamiliar settings. Any number of the short, 10-page-or-shorter passages could have been published as a short story on its own merits, but published together they give a disjoint, yet complete narrative.

Concert: Mike Doughty

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We went to go see Mike Doughty perform last night. I would describe it as listening to all the slow (non-jazzy) songs on the Soul Coughing albums (e.g. True Dreams of Wichita) for an hour. That's not to say it was slow, but it definitely had an acoustic performance feel even if Doughty was playing his strat. Perhaps I'm biased from having seen Doughty onstage with in the Soul Coughing days with flashing lights, film reels of smoking cartoon monkeys, and samples blaring through the air. Doughty played with another drummer with an unspellable name and a keyboardist, though for several songs he played solo.

Several Soul Coughing songs were performed:

St. Louise is Listening
Super Bon Bon
True Dream of Wichita
Circles

I was hoping for a little Screenwriter's Blues, but that was a little too much to hope for given their arrangement.

Overall, a good show to be at, but the Soul Coughing comparisons were inevitable for me and I couldn't help thinking, wouldn't Sebastian Steinberg (of Soul Coughing) playing upright bass make this show awesome?

Book: The Stand

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I just finished the complete and uncut version of the The Stand. Luckily, I had a plane trip to and from Ireland to get me started, though even that wasn't enough to get me through the whole book. It's generally not insightful to start off by discussing the book's length rather than it's content, but at 1100+ pages, it's something you notice. The more important aspect of the book, though, is whether or not those 1100+ pages are worthwhile, and for the most part, I think that they are.

Part Lord of the Rings, and the rest feeling like a prequel to Gunslinger, the book did a good job of propelling me through the pages. At first, I was expecting your run-of-the-mill virus-wipes-everyone out story, and as I trudged through the introduction of the complete set of strangers that will all eventually meet through the author's contrivings, it didn't feel like the story was getting much of anywhere very fast. A third of the way through the book, I wasn't really looking forward to making it through the rest.

Then the book started to shift into weirder territory. The realm of science began to evaporated, and in the vacuum a mystical world started to emerge. At first I was put off; for me, the gap between scientific/rational thought and that of magical world is not easily traversed within the same context, so I was thrown ajar. Then I realized that it's a King novel; of course it was going to leave the realm of the rational. The similarities with The Gunslinger also helped pull me through the transition.

The next thing I knew, I had torn through the next third of the book, and I hardly recollected any time passing for the last third as well. I started off by saying that starting off with a discussion of a book length was a bad way to judge a book, but I believe that stating that I was pulled through the last two-thirds of a 1100+ page book is a good way of saying, "It was a darn good read."

It's a book that can foretell it's end, and yet still fill you with suprises. In fact, King frequently tells you exactly what is going to happen in the future, and then demonstrates that he can still do a great job telling you what happens between now and then. I'm not sure I liked the books overall sense of fatalism, but as a storytelling device King made it work.

This is the best King novel I've read, though I confess that I've only read this and the first two novels of the Dark Tower series.

Book: Beowulf

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I finished Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf during my flight to and from Boston and enjoyed it greatly. I think it will stand up to multiple readings, as there is the Beowulf story, the poetic style of Heaney, and the side-by-side comparison of the translation and the original Old English. Heany also writes a good introduction to the text, that gives insight into the influences of the text as well as the guidelines he followed in the translation.

Apparently, you can order CDs for the "Electronic Beowulf," which contains scans of the original manuscript. From the few images that I have seen, I think it would add a lot of character to see the text in that form, even though I would be unable to read it.

If you are a fan of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, you might want to read this book; at least in my reading, it seems to me that Tolkein took a lot of his influence for those works from this poem. Perhaps this is an obvious fact that I was previously unaware of -- it helped that Heaney's introduction mentioned Tolkein's paper "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," but it seems even without this setup the similarities are striking enough to come through.

Book: How Would You Move Mount Fuji

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This book is targeted at people who are preparing for an interview. Although it is a book about interview puzzles, the puzzles take up very little of the book. Most of the book is dedicated to interview guides (for the interviewer and interviewee) and the history of the logic puzzle, from its use in IQ tests to its adoption by job interviews. The history was a little bit interesting to me, mostly because it talked about Shockley, and it also happened to mention Jim Gibbons name, which made my world a little bit smaller. The main reason I picked this book up, though, is that I happen to like the puzzles that they give you during interviews, and I'm too lazy to find them on the Internet.

There are plenty of Fermi estimation questions in the book (the title of the book ends up being one). Fermi estimation questions ask you to estimate the value of something you don't know, like the number of redheads in Ireland. When I was in high school, we had an entire unit on this in chemistry. My chemistry teacher introduced the unit by telling the anecdote of Fermi at one of the nuclear bomb tests. As the shockwave approached, Fermi threw some scraps of paper into the air and watched their deflection. From this observation, he came up with an estimate of the megatons of the explosion that was reasonably accurate.

It's really not much use searching for examples of Fermi type problems; pretty much any type of estimation will serve as practice. Although it's nice to have estimation skills, as puzzles I find these a bit boring.

Another class of problems they have are design-type questions, where you get asked how you would design/build some sort of item. While I think these are good interview questions, as they allow the interviewer and interviewee to interact back and forth, I don't find them too interesting to solve in my freetime.

The last class of problems, logic problems with actual solutions, are the ones that I was shooting for when I got the book. There are some good ones in this book which made it worth the price of admission. Here are some of my favorites:
- 5 pirates have 100 gold coins to divide. The senior pirate proposes how to divide the coins, and the pirates then get to vote. If at least half of the pirates agree to the proposal, the division is made; otherwise the senior pirate is killed and the process is repeated. If you are the senior pirate (pirate #5), what should you propose?

- There is a village of 50 husband and wife couples. All of the husbands have been unfaithful. The wives know when men other than their own husbands have cheated, but they don't know about their own husbands fidelity. If a wife can prove that her husband has cheated, then she is required by law to kill him. Also, all of the wives are blessed with Spock-like logic skills. One day, the queen stops by and announces, "at least one of your husbands has been unfaithful." What happens?

- How many points are there on the globe where, by walking one mile south, one mile east, and one mile north, you reach the place where you started?

- Count in base negative 2 (doesn't have a "correct" solution)

- You have five jars of pills. Normal pills weight 10 grams, while poisonous pills weight 9 grams. One of the jars is filled with poisonous pills. Measuring once on a scale, how do you find the poison jar?

Movie: Musa

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MusaIMDB users think that Musa is fantastic, but personally I thought this movie sucks. It's probably also fair to say that parakkum, honeyfields, and meta all thought it sucked as well. I picked this up in Chinatown with the help of rcp (who complained about not wanting to have to watch a movie with Chinese subtitles :) ) and I expected big things from a $60M war epic -- Hero was good, right?

Musa is a Korean war epic that takes place in China, where the band of Korean warriors struggle the make it safely back home. Along the way it manages to become a protect-the-princess flick, and then after that a confused mish-mash of other epics, like Seven Samurai. There's also probably more blood and dismemberings in this film than Kill Bill Vol. 1.

Instead of defining itself as an epic with its own character, Musa instead felt like a bunch of other epic movies edited together with Asian actors substituted in. The flow of the story is disruptive, the characters inconsistent, and suspension of disbelief becomes difficult when the character motivations are so thin.

As I mentioned at the start, though, apparently other people liked this movie, so if you want to borrow it from me, feel free; I don't think I'll be watching it again soon ;).

Movie: Punisher

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Brian's Books hooked me up with a free screening pass, so me, bp, and pqbon all went to go see it. The free pass was good, because I really wasn't planning on paying to go see the movie, but I did want to see it in the hopes of washing the previous Punisher movie from my brain.

This Punisher movie was neither good nor bad, kinda lukewarm mediocre. It didn't really know what it wanted to be. It spent a really long time doing the whole origin story, and then it drifted for a really long time through a series of cheesy campy scenes where the Punisher doesn't really punish anybody (well, he does punish three people, but he wasn't actually seeking them out).

He sits around a bit, meets his dorky neighbors + one hot Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, and tries his best to annoy John Travolta. It didn't help that I think John Travolta is a terrible villain. Everytime I see him in a role like this, the movie automatically feels cheesy. For further reference, watch Broken Arrow. The movie also tried to throw comedy in during this long part, but it was the type of comedy that was of the "look at this funny goofy guy" sort, which I was puzzled to see in a Punisher movie.

The final paragraph is a semi-spoiler, don't read of if you've read enough or don't want more of the movie structure revealed.

Concert: Mixmaster Mike

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04-11-04.mixmaster-mike-1.jpg I saw Mixmaster Mike in SF last weekend. A friend got us in free, and you can't go wrong with a free show.

I would lump Mixmaster Mike and DJ Jazzy Jeff in a similar category, which is convenient for me, seeing as I've seen them both. Both are good DJs that got their celebrity by backing someone more famous, and they draw much of their fame from the late 80s and the 90s. The combination of these elements meant that both shows had a nostalgic view, and each featured climaxes of spinning skillz demonstrations. I remember being a little more impressed at DJ Jazzy Jeff's abilities, but perhaps time is playing tricks on my mind.

I'm not good at identifying pure electronic tracks, and there's this one hip-hop song that I keep hearing at so many shows and still don't know the name of, but what I think I remember was Mixmaster Mike having a good transition into Rage Against the Machine's "Know Your Enemy (?)", followed by a transition into Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song." There was also the obligatory Beastie Boys with "No Sleep Til Brooklyn (?)" and "Intergalatic Planetary," the latter of which he transitioned into Steve Miller's "Rock 'N Me."

meta reminds me that in addition to the hip-hop, white boy rap, classic rock, alternative rock, and electronica, there was also a bit of bangra thrown in.

(?) Indicates songs that I recognized at the time, but I'm now unsure about because I listened to my iPod on random the next morning and it messed with my memory.

Update: meta informs me that the song was probably "Scenario" off of Low End Theory by Tribe Called Quest, which has Busta Rhymes on it, which would explain why I've heard it before in concert (Busta Rhymes concert at MIT).

Book: Heart of Darkness

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This is an awesome book. I haven't read any of Conrad's other books, but they'll probably appear on my shelf soon. It was a bit hard to push Apocalypse Now out of my mind as I read this, but once I did I enjoyed symbolism and realism imbued from Conrad's own experience. I especially like the comparison between Marlow and Buddha: Buddha possesses knowledge of the path toward enlightenment; Marlow possesses knowledge of mankind's path toward baseness.

The version of the I read had copious end notes to help decode some of the allusions that Conrad makes, as well as point out where Conrad is including (and disguising) details from his own trip. It also has Conrad's diary from the journey, which I may get around to reading.

In the extended entry, I included my favorites excerpts from the book. Some come from near the end, so read no further if you want no spoilers.

Book: Against All Enemies

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(As I look down at my watch as I start this entry, I see it is 9:11, eery). I had been eager to read this book, partly because I wanted to see someone stick it to Bush's international policies, partly because it will most likely change the course of the election to come, and partly because Richard Clarke's career, spanning thirty years, would certainly offer much needed perspective on the evolution of America's relationship to the Arab world.

What I found inside Against All Enemies was three books. The first part recounts the events of September 11th from Clarke's perspective. The second part recounts the history of US counter terrorism policy and relationship with the Arab world from the mid 1970s up until the end of Clinton's presidency, with a large focus on the Clinton presidency. The third and final part of the book deals with the Bush presidency, briefly discussing its failures before September 11th, and then focusing on the failures of his post-September-11th policy.

In my extended entry, I recount each of these sections in more detail, but what was most surprising to me, was that the majority of this book is not a "attack Bush" book. Blind to the 9/11 Commission and the rest of the media circus swirling around this book, and asked to write a one sentence summary of this book, I would say

A history of America's counter terrorism from Ronald Reagan to present

In this function, the book is very insightful. You should read this book regardless of political viewpoint, as I, at least, found it to be the first cohesive and detailed history of the emergence of radical Islamic terrorism as a threat to America. At some point in our history, we transitioned from a Cold War threat to a jihadist terrorism threat, and Clarke is able to pull apart history to show us how this transition took place. One also gets to see how the gears of the CIA and FBI interact, how the Executive Branch analyzes terrorist threats, how our security policies in the seventies and eighties have come to haunt us in the present day. As a national security primer, one would be well served in reading this book, regardless of your personal political leanings.

Listening to the media circus surrounding this book, though, one would believe that it's three hundred pages of non-stop Bush Administration critique. However, of the three hundred pages this book encompasses, less than a third deals specifically with Bush, and of this third, not all of it is necessarily criticizing. Sometimes Clarke makes Bush, Rice, and Rumsfeld look good, sometimes he makes them look bad. In the balance, though, he does make them look bad (Wolfowitz never looks good), and the book closes with an essay that can stand by itself as an informed critique of the current Iraq War.

From his vantage point, Clarke levels two main charges against the Bush administration. The first is that the administration ignored his warnings about the seriousness of the al Qaeda threat before September 11th, and failed to enact policies that could have possibly (but not certainly) prevented the attacks. The second charge is that by engaging America in a war with Iraq, we have only worsened America's defenses to future terrorist attacks: we passed up the opportunity to capture al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, we stretched our military and National Guard forces thin, we stirred up anti-American sentiment by invading an Arab nation without provocation, we've underfunded security efforts at home, we failed to promote an alternate ideology to counterattack the fundamentalist, jihadist ideology, etc... (there are many more)

Of these two charges, the first has gotten the most attention in the press, perhaps because the 9/11 Commission is naturally focused on events leading up to 9/11, not the response that occurred afterward. We also seem to be at a stage where we are looking to assign blame to particular people and administrations for failing to prevent the attacks. However, I believe that it is the second of these charges that is the most important to dwell on. What we did or didn't do to prevent 9/11 at this point is moot: we as a nation now recognize the threat from al Qaeda, and whether or not someone underestimated the terrorist threat is a question for the past, not the future. Clarke, himself, doesn't focus very strongly on the first charge, and his recounting of the events before 9/11 are offered up mostly as facts without follow-up analysis and critique.

Our response to 9/11, however, is still a matter of current policy, and it is important, as we look at our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, to decide whether or not our current policies are the ones that will best prevent future terrorist attacks. Although most of the book is a memoir, Clarke shifts gears to offer a detailed critique of how our second Iraq War has weakened our defenses to terrorism, while at the same time outlining what our national security response should have been.

There is a third, implicit, criticism in the book, which is that career civil servants, qualified, intelligent people that Clarke respects, have all quit (despite many years of service), due to frustration and the way the Bush Administration is handling it's security policy. There is also another, similar criticism, which is that enlistments are certain to suffer as the Iraq War is pushing extended enlistments for Army, Marines, and National Guard alike. These are serious criticisms, but ones that unfortunately takes second stage.

Reading the book, it's easy to see why Clarke is a threatening target to the Bush Administration. Clarke's views on foreign policy and counter terrorism sit well enough to the right to fit in with a Republican administration. He has no problems with using force to achieve foreign policy goals, including assassinating foreign targets and supporting the proxy wars as a means of fighting Russia. He is also against the Kyoto Treaty and the International Criminal Court (p. 273).

Clarke will also be difficult to refute because he is extremely specific with names, quotes, and other details. I am surprised at the level of detail he was able to achieve, and I wonder what sort of journal he has been keeping in order to make this book possible. Given that the White House has had a copy for several months now, and has chosen to challenge the book primarily with character rather than factual attacks, it would appear to me at least that Clarke is probably accurate in most of his recollection. It would be too simple to find the people involved in the conversations he recounts, or the documents that he refers to, produce them, and show Clarke to be incorrect if that were the case.

Even if you don't read my extended notes that follow, I would recommend reading the transcript of Clarke's, Berger's, Tenet's, and Armitage's testimony to the 9/11 commission, contradictions in Rice's statements/attacks, and the transcript of Rice's 60 Minutes interview, which includes this wonderful exchange

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I'm saying that the administration took seriously the threat - let's talk about what we did.

ED BRADLEY:: But no, I understand-

ED BRADLEY:: But you - you listed -

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: -priority.

ED BRADLEY:: You'd listed the things that you'd done. But here is the perception. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff at that time says you pushed it to the back burner. The former Secretary of the Treasury says it was not a priority. Mr. Clarke says it was not a priority. And at least, according to Bob Woodward, who talked with the president, he is saying that for the president, it wasn't urgent. He didn't have a sense of urgency about al Qaeda. That's the perception here.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Ed, I don't know what a sense of urgency - any greater than the one that we had, would have caused us to do differently.

This entry is almost incomplete, and I'm too lazy to finish. I have yet to write my summary of Part III, and my Part II summary is still a bit scattered.

Book: Brave New World

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After taking a hiatus from dystopias (1984, Animal Farm), I finally got around to reading Brave New World. As an idea, it's an interesting book. It's world of Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons, where the social hiearchy is manufactured through bio-engineering, which contrasts against notions of a future where bio-engineering is used to manufacture perfect, equal individuals. I also found it interesting the that the World State in Brave New World reinforces social stability by promoting, rather than depriving, citizens of pleasure.

However, as a story, I have a hard time convincing myself that this is a classic. The story is flat, as are most of the characters. The only character I thought was really interesting was Mustapha Mund, but he is in very little of the story.

Overall, Huxley has more to say than story to say it with. Perhaps this would have been better as a series of short stories, but who am I to judge a classic?

Book: Foucault's Pendulum

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I finished this book a long time ago, and I've been meaning to write this entry for quite awhile. However, just like reading this book, I've taken my time saving up the willpower to write this entry. When I first picked this book up, I couldn't stand the first chapter, and it took a good three or four tries before I finally got enough momentum to vault through the book. Perhaps it's appropriate that I've waited until after I read The Golden Ratio, as both books share the same theme of the ability to hallucinate hidden messages in nearly anything.

I'll save the spoilers for the extended section -- this part of the entry should be safe.

Before this book, I had no idea what a Templar was. Maybe I'm a cretin. I had gone twenty-three years without noticing their presence, watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in complete innocence. Now they're everywhere. Just the other day I was walking through Amoeba Music, and there they were, sitting at the front of the CD rack, Templars. It seems like every book I've picked up since Foucault's Pendulum has a Templar connection: Seville Communion, 1602, The Magdelena, and The Golden Ratio (Rosicrucians). I hear The Da Vinci Code revolves around them, and that friggin' book is at the counter of every bookstore I visit. Kavalier and Clay has Jewish tradition/kabbala, Superman, and World War II Europe in common with the Foucault's Pendulum, so there's got to be a Templar hiding in their somewhere. Argh! This book has turned me into a lunatic.

With that bit of paranoia out of the way, let me say that Foucault's Pendulum is both a great and a terrible book. There are certain passages that are absolutely brilliant, and then there's the crushing weight of the overly ambitious plot. I would compare the structure to a book like Godel Escher Bach, though I use the comparison lightly because I think GEB is an awesome book that I liked thoroughly, whereas I only like Foucault's Pendulum intermittenly. To make the isomorphism:

Achilles, Tortoise <=> Casaubon, Belbo Crab <=> Diotallevi Hofstader's dialogues <=> Conversations between Causaubon, Belbo, and Diotallevi.

I don't mean the comparison between Achilles, Tortoise, and Crab and Casaubon, Belbo, and Diotallevi directly as personalities, as much I want to point out that, just as Hofstader saves the really clever bits for the dialogues, so, too, does Eco save the clever bits for his dialogues between his three main characters. And just as the chapters inbetween the dialogues in GEB can be fatiguing, so is the rest of the text in Foucault's Pendulum. In the case of GEB, the fatigue comes from the large amounts of intellectual ground Hofstader is covering, which is a good thing, because you're reading the book to learn. In Eco's case, the fatigue comes from overly frequent intellectual references and drawn-out storyarcs that try to unite everything under the Sun, from Templars to Rosicrucians to kabbala to love stories to World War II Italy to book publishing to philosophy to science to math to politics. Whereas Hoftsader succeeds in his attempt to bring math, music, art, and AI together, Eco's connections fail to coalesce.

Case in point, while I was reading this book, meta would ask me how it was going, and each time I would say, "oh, it looks like the plot is starting now, so I think the story's about to pick up." I said this at page 100, page 200, page 300... Just when you think that Eco's put his dominoes into place, he starts a new line that tries to extend the puzzle further, and eventually you feel that Eco is losing sight of the overall picture. This book takes soooo long to get going... (spoiler cut)

Concert: Matt Nathanson

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To be honest, I still don't know who Matt Nathanson is. When we first got to the show we tried to peg the demographic, but all we could come up with was "20-30 something non-hipster San Franciscans that are of above-average height."

meta got tickets after her friend Joe recommended the show to her, so we went over to Slim's last night to watch him perform. He provides amusing commentary between songs that keeps the audience laughing and throws in some funny covers here and there (Prince, Neil Diamond, James, etc...). He's also a local boy and is pretty talented, but, alas, he's not my type of music. Joe has a quote on his blog that says, "Matt Nathanson-Beneath These Fireworks: This CD will go head to head with John Mayer and Howie Day!." Well, I don't listen to John Mayer or Howie Day aren't my type either, but I imagine if you like those two then you'll like Nathanson as well.

Joe also recommends Victor Wooten, who is playing tonight at Yoshi's (it's actually a Mike Stern show, with Wooten and Dave Weckl). Unlike Nathanson, I have heard Wooten before, and he appeals to my "amazing (bass) guitarist" interest. If you were lucky enough to have tickets to the Wooten show, I hate you, but you should post a description of the show because I'm still wondering how in the world Wooten plays some of his amazing riffs without growing an extra set of arms.

Concert: Liz Phair

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03-02-04.lizphair.jpg

meta, honeyfields, and I saw Liz Phair last night. meta already beat me to the post, but here's goes my thoughts.

First off, I'm not a huge Liz Phair fan, but spend enough times in meta's car on trips up to Tahoe and you'll have heard all of her old stuff multiple times over and it will start to grow on you. This also means I haven't heard any of her new stuff, with the exception of the lame video on MTV. So judge what I say accordingly.

The Good

My favorite performance of the night: 'Supernova.' This goes against the grain of everything else I will say in this review, because this song was cranked-up, full-ensemble-blasting rock performance. It ended the first set beautifully, and I think her guitarist may have even played the riff better than she does on the album.

In general, Liz Phair's best performances were with her older lo-fi material ("Flower," "6'1"", "Supernova", "Chopsticks," and even throw in "Polyester Bride"). I say this with an extreme bias, but her older material mostly shared the quality that the rest of the band didn't play as much. She was strong and charismatic enough to carry the song on her own, and her voice goes much better with her barely amped telecaster.

meta broke out the biggest grin when she figured out what Liz Phair meant when she said, "We like to bookend our sets. Sauce at the beginning with 'Flower' and sauce at the end," leading into the final song. I'll leave it to your amusement to figure out which song, but I will hint that you don't need to know the lyrics to guess the song (not 'Flower' obviously).

honeyfields also broke out an occassional grin or look of surprise when she understood the lyrics :)

The Bad

She mentioned during the concert that she had played at the Warfield before with just her and her guitar -- I wish I could have gone to that concert instead. This is the only time I've seen her perform, but I imagine that concert must have been better.

Like meta's review pointed out, Liz Phair and her backing band don't mesh. While meta approached this from a chemistry standpoint, I think the idea of having Liz Phair stand onstage with a guitarist, keyboardist, bassist and drummer just doesn't work, and the dynamics were terrible. Liz Phair, while a good performer, does not belt out the type of vocals that can soar over blasting distortion and bass. For some reason, who ever engineered her sound interpreted this conflict as an excuse for pushing Liz Phair's vocals through this boosted reverb that turned her vocals into a mix of clipping and echo whenever she sang the chorus. During the verses there was the opposite problem that the band members didn't know how to use volume pedals or strum more lightly, so her voice dodged in and out.

Book: Fast Food Nation

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(originally posted January 27, 2004)
In my post on Jennifer Government, I started off by saying "I seem to have a habit when I read books of reading two books in a row that are very similar in their themes." Well, I guess I can revise that to three books in a row in this case, and it's not a pleasant similarity.

I'm only two chapters into the book, but I stumbled upon an unpleasantness that makes Barry's Jennifer Government vision for the future seem all too real. In Barry's book, all schools are run by corporations like McDonald's or Pepsi, and the syllabus is entirely centered around preaching the values that the sponsor has to offer. Sounds pretty far-fetched, at least several orders of magnitude beyond the soda machine that my high school had. How wrong I was about the current state of the US educational system.

Fast Food Nation offers these examples of corporations using high school as advertising banners:
- A student was suspended for wearing a Pepsi shirt during "Coke in Education Day" at the school
- An agreement was made to open a Pepsi GeneratioNext Resource Center at an elementary school in Derby, Kansas
- Thousands of schools use corporated-sponsored teaching texts. Proctor & Gamble's Decision Earth teaches that clear cutting is good for the environment. Exxon's teaching materials inform kids that fossil fuels have caused few environmental problems and that alternate fuel sources are too expensive. The American Coal Foundation suggests that carbon dioxide might actually help, rather than hurt the planet.
- Fast food chains advertise on Channel One, which is broadcasted to eight million students daily.

Who knows what other sadly depressing insights this book will have in store for me...

Update: further along in the book now. Kenny with the herniated back sounds an awful lot like Boxer from Animal Farm, except for the part about the glue.

Update 2/14/04: done now. Learned a lot more disgusting facts. I wrote a brief review of the book in the full entry.

Update 2/14/04: don't know if this is real, but this seems like a appropriate reading to accompany Fast Food Nation. According to the site, which is claimed to be run by the guy who tested the American mad cow, the USDA has effectively stopped testing for Mad Cow in order to prevent the appearance of an epidemic. Just as disturbing is the assertion, which also appears in this MSNBC story, that the cow was not a 'downer' cow. This is important, as it is policy only to test downer cows for mad cow disease. The cow in question happened to arrive with a bunch of other downer cows, and the handler was impatient and killed it with the rest of the downers.

Book: Jennifer Government

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I seem to have a habit when I read books of reading two books in a row that are very similar in their themes. Much like Down and Out In the Magic Kingdom, Jennifer Government takes the current trends of human development and projects them into the future. Instead of the technology-driven adhocracies of Down and Out, however, Max Barry's vision is a marketing-driven laissez faire extreme: individuals take on the surname of the company they work for, law is enforced by paid contract, and elementary schools are completely bought out by companies.

The story itself follows the line between amoral corporate ethical policy in a laissez faire world and capitalist anarchy, and as one would expect, Barry pushes the line as far as he can. There is a sad truth to some of the extremes Barry explores -- the idea of killing someone to increase demand for your product isn't too different from companies that dump toxins into groundwater or sell defective products.

My only real complaint with the book is that the characters are about as well developed as characters in a cheap thriller novel -- they serve to propel the story forward, and nothing more. Also, it relies on the remarkable coincidence that these unrelated characters suddenly become remarkably connected, so as to better serve the uniting of the plot threads.

Book: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

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This book stands on the shoulders of the sci-fi authors that preceded it, and even manages to tip its hat to at least one (the Snow Crash parade). This is not to say the book is unimaginative. Rather, Doctorow takes samiliar SF premises and spins a dark-humored-but-fun yarn about an "ad hoc" named Jules who works at the Disneyland of the future, a future where money and death have been eliminated, and instead everyone is driven to elevate their "Whuffies" (peer respect).

In many ways, Doctorow's vision of the future is what would happen if you took the current social ecosystem of blogging and replicated that for all social interaction. Interaction is multimedia, occurring both offline and online simulatenously over multiple channels. "Whuffies" are much like your Technorati cosmos links or your Friendster list, and communities are fluid with quick shifting of allegiances like online communities.

His prose won't stand up to Stephenson or Gibson in terms of lyrical analogies or clever turns, but it flows well and pulls you through the book. I also give Doctorow extra props for (a) releasing the pdf of the book for free, and (b) being a regular contributor to BoingBoing, which quickly became my favorite filter. The dozen or so bucks I paid for the book was worth those two facts alone, and imagine my pleasure that the book was actually fun to read; I've gotten more than I paid for.

This is a wonderful book. As a comic book reader, I'm biased towards a story that uses the Golden Age (aetataureate) of comics as a backdrop for the story of the two cousins, Kavlier and Clay. Chabon makes excellent use of analogies between the cousins, their comic book stories, and world events as a tool for character development.

The book does have a high level of diction, at least to a illiterate fool like me, so I have made use of the extended entry to annotate some of the words/phrases that I had to lookup/translate. I felt more relieved at my ignorance when I discovered that at least one of the words was one that Chabon had made up (aetataureate). Nevertheless, the book is still remarkably easy to read. You never feel weighed down as the story gracefully moves you forward, assembling the strong character arcs Chabon has laid out.

My last comment before the extended entry is that there are too many unintentional parallels between my reading choices recently, which I blame all on Foucault's Pendulum. What are the chances that I would read two books that use Jewish tradition/kabbala, Superman, and World War II Europe? Honestly. At least there are no templars in this one (or so the templars would have me believe).

Update: Just found out on Newarama that Escapist #1 is due on the shelves in February. I'm hoping the image on Newsarama isn't the cover for #1, because it would be a shame to not try and recreate the Escapist punching Hitler cover that Chabon describes in the novel.

Book: Holes

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I enjoyed the movie holes, and I enjoyed reading the book as well, but I didn't really do it justice by watching the movie first. I enjoyed going to the movie without any preconceptions, and I started the book with every possible preconception. Also, as Holes is a children's book, the movie was able to adapt it without dropping too many of the detalils. In fact, it probably took me as long to read the book as it did to watch the movie. The only detail that I noticed was significantly different is the fact that main actor in the movie a skinny beanpole, and the character he is meant to play is, well, fat, which affects his social relationships with other characters. The book was nice, but I need a 'forget' button so that I can read it without my memories of the movie influencing my interpretation of the story.

Book: Good Omens

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I liked this book, though I haven't disliked anything I've read that Neil Gaiman has been involved with that I've read or watched, so perhaps I'm biased. Imagine a really British version of the Apocalypse, where the Four Horsemen of the Apocalpyse are bikers and the snake from the Garden of Eden drives a Bently. It's downright ridiculous, and plenty funny for it. I was a bit let down by the ending, but such is the way of the Apocalypse.

DISCLAIMER: read no further if you haven't read the book, outline/quotes below.

Book: 1984

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sad face I just finished reading 1984 for the first time. You may say to yourself, "Wow, you've never read 1984?" Well, now I have.

I was not as disturbed by this book as I was by Animal Farm. metamanda was surprised by this, but all I can say is that Orwell's dystopian future presented in 1984 is much less culturally shocking to me than Orwell's using farm animals to represent the rise of Stalin. Hollywood has put enough Philip K. Dick stories on the big screen to more than familiarize myself with a Big Brother future that I hardly blinked an eye at 1984, but Animal Farm seemed to take grab "Some Pig" Wilbur and turn him into bacon and pork chops.

sad face What caught my attention most about 1984 were the comparison to (a) Catch-22 and (b) The Matrix. I was especially shocked by how similar one of the speeches felt to the speech the Architect makes to Neo. I wrote some brief notes outlining some of the comparisons, but due to spoilers I have left them for the extended entry. I also have the traditional outline notes, that, as always, are only useful to those that have read the book. I have only outlined the second half of the book, I may get back to finishing the outline for the first half later.

Book: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

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I started reading this book b/c I couldn't stand other book I had chosen to read (Everything is Illuminated), and I'm glad I made the switch. It's not as good as Cat's Cradle, and despite similar background elements (Kilgore Trout, poo-tee-weet, Tralfamadore), it's not nearly as good as Slaughterhouse Five, but it was still an interesting read. Vonnegut juxtaposes rich and poor, and questions who is less deserving of their fortunes, and mocks the hypocrisy of the rich-born criticizing welfare. There's also plenty of dark humor, and bathroom wall humor that kept me laughing to myself through out. Thematically, this book goes well with a book like You Shall Know Our Velocity, so if you haven't had your fill of charity satire, you can read both.

WARNING: everything from here on is a spoiler, and isn't much use to anyone who hasn't read the book, and it's not much use even if you have.