Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Boy And His Moog

After 4 decades of lust ... I finally have a Moog synthesizer. Woot! I've had many others: Korg, Oberheim, E-mu, even a couple no-names that I designed and built myself. But I've never had a genuine Moog ... until now!

Love it love it love it love it love it!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Our Family Tradition

So we took another drive to Illinois to spend time with my father for Thanksgiving. I certainly hope that the kids and I inherited whatever genes he has for longevity and vitality: he's 86yo and still has his wits about him, he still drives (safely), builds stuff in his workshop, stays active, etc. A short visit, given the amount of driving, but it was good to see him.

We drove out there in the new minivan, and one of our "family traditions" is that we listen to audio books while on the road. This year we chose Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay).

Will it surprise you to learn that it's being made into a movie? And that Woody Harrelson is one of the major players? According to the IMDB, the first movie is set for release in (I think) March 2012, the 2nd book in 2015, and the last book in ????.

In case you're unfamiliar with the books, they're "Young Adult" -- which means they get away with stealing plot elements from other sources. The author acknoledges the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur as an influence, but there are a whole lot more that spring to mind without a lot of effort: Shirley Jackson's The Lottery (1948), Stephen King's The Long Walk (1979) and The Running Man (1982), and especially Koushun Takami's Battle Royale (1999). The Hunger Games was first published in 2008. Picasso supposedly said "Good artists borrow, great artists steal" -- I'm not sure I'd call her a "great artist", but I give her credit that she re-fashions that which she steals and makes it her own.

The first and second books are "uneven". When there's action, things move along at a good clip. But one of the books' weaknesses is that the main character / narrator is a fairly clueless teenaged girl ala Bella from Stephenie Meyers' Twilight books. She's deadly with a bow and arrow, but notso-hotso at using words. Or figuring out how she's being manipulated at almost every turn. I don't want to spoil the books for anyone, but there is are some "teen romance" scenes that go on for waaaay too long.

In fairness, though, Collins has a real talent for painting a highly emotional pictures when she wants to. The District 11 'salute' to Katniss, and Katniss' on-stage transformation are the two examples I can think of without spoiling the books. There are others. I found myself wishing I could write well enough to convey the moment and the emotion the way Collins does.

I can see the appeal of making this into a movie. The oppressive Capitol government of Panem is pretty high-tech and seem to have some mastery of antigravity, cloaking, and force-field technology, which will make for some good SFX, and the decadence of the "upper class" should be good for some outrageous design. There's a lot of action and a lot of room for "eye-candy".

I spent a lot of the first two books wondering just why and how such a government as Panem could exist. I was reminded a bit of the Empire of Azad in Iain M Banks' The Player Of Games, where they as much as admit they keep the people oppressed simply because they get off on it. Don't even get me started on the ridiculous "District" scheme, where each district specializes in one commodity (ie, District 4 is seafood, District 11 is vegetables, District 8 is textiles, etc).

My remarks above primarily concern the first two books. We only listened to about 90 minutes of the third book, Mockingjay, before we got home, and from page 1 it violated that most sacrosanct of all rules of writing, that being that "the author shall make the reader care whether the main character lives or dies". Maybe it gets better later on -- I mentioned that the books are "uneven", and it's entirely possible that things will begin to pick up later in the text.

For our next trip, I think we'll listen to Dan Simmons' Hyperion. There's some sex, violence, and bad language, but I think the kids can handle it.

Oh, one last comment on The Hunger Games books: there was no sex and (I think) absolutely no bad language in the text we listened to. Not a single "hell" or "damn". Again, we didn't finish Mockingjay so maybe it ends in a huge foul-mouthed orgy. But I sorta doubt it.

Monday, November 21, 2011


I almost hate to admit it, but my sense of humor has gone "low-brow" recently. When I look at the comedies I've enjoyed of late -- well, none of them are Merchant-Ivory productions:

Yes, I'm man enough to admit that I actually *liked* The Hangover Part 2 (I know lots of people complained that it was basically the first Hangover all over again, but it was still fun). And I was taken completely by surprise by Hot Tub Time Machine, which has a totally stupid premise but still made me laugh out loud many, many times. Rob Corddry has worked his way onto my list of favorite actors. Neil Patrick Harris has worked his way to the top of my list of favorite actors. In fact, let's have another picture of him:

(That's NPH in Starship Troopers. A lot of people were shocked to see Doogie Houser dressed up in fascist regalia. I thought he was awesome, and I wish I looked that good in a trenchcoat.)

I think I still appreciate sophisticated black humor like Dr Strangelove and Eating Raoul. And I don't take illegal drugs and I'm not gay ("not that there's anything wrong with that"). And I'm not a fascist, either. I think maybe I just have a really short attention span anymore.

I guess it will come as no surprise that I'm wishing you all A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Amon Tobin / The Glitch Mob

Alas, I don't listen to as much music as I used to. I still love music -- I just don't have the time. I don't have the killer home stereo I used to have when I was in college. Today I mostly listen to music in my car, which has an awesome sound system and I can listen to stuff loud, through speakers -- the way God intended it. Those little "earbud" things are the work of the devil.

My tastes are pretty much all over the road, but of late I've been listening to a lot of music by The Glitch Mob and Amon Tobin. I'm not really sure how to classify their music except to say that it's "electronic". I guess at least some of it could be considered "dubstep" (a genre that I like a lot) but -- and this one of the reasons I like them so much -- Amon Tobin and TGM aren't trying to fit into a genre, they're just doing whatever the hell they want and creating their own as-yet-indescribable genre.

Some years ago Frank Zappa once said "Audio tools are available now that enable the artist to control timbre to the point where a psychoacoustical or emotional 'spin' can be placed on any given note or passge". He was right then (and with today's technology, he's even righter), but the sad fact is that even though the capability exists, the vast majority of musicians don't use it. Amon Tobin and The Glitch Mob, in contrast, tend to use it on every single note. I love it.

Now is the time I stop talking about it and let the music speak for itself:

Amon Tobin - Goto 10

The Apple Tree featuring The Glitch Mob

Amon Tobin - Surge [16Bit Remix]

The Glitch Mob - Crush Mode

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Magic Goes Away?

Steve Jobs is dead. This is but one of probably thousands of "reaction" pieces that will appear in the wake of his passing. Hopefully it's one of the shorter ones, too.

I never knew the man so I don't have any cute stories to relate. And until recently I really wasn't a big fan of Apple products.

Everyone seems to think of him as a Creative Genius, and maybe he was. A fair number of people who knew him also say he was something of a jerk, and maybe he was that, too. What impresses me the most about his career was his ability To Get Things Done. I have some small experience with what it's like to work within a corporation and when I look at some of the things Jobs pulled off, like getting the music companies to cooperate on iTunes, or the iPad -- what makes my jaw drop isn't the technical or creative aspect so much as the fact that he somehow worked his way through what must have been truly unbelievable amounts of politics, red tape, and bullshit and, in the end, hammered out something that a) everyone agreed with that b) was also not a huge steaming pile of compromises. People would joke about his "Reality Distortion Field" but I sometimes wondered if he really did have some kind of mutant Stephen King "push" psychic ability to make people agree with him.

I am saddened by his death for what are, frankly, very selfish reasons: the man was arguably responsible for making the world we live in a lot more fun and interesting. CGI, portable music players, smartphones, the iPad ... we're talking about multiple instances of technology that's had a long-term global impact on human culture. No, he didn't personally invent this stuff, but he was a strong force in making a lot of it happen. Maybe he was done, out of ideas, willing to coast on by on the strength of past glory. Or ... maybe he had a few really good ones left in him. We'll never know what they were, what could have been. And that is what makes me sad.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Yes, that's a cheesy title for a blog post, but I'm gonna go with it.

Like generations of parents before me, I find that I worry about the world that my children will live in as adults. I know a lot of people who worry about global warming, or nuclear war, or antibiotic-resistant flu. But I'm worried about the government.

I should clarify that I and my family are all legal residents of the United States of America. Which is, as countries go, a pretty good one. We live better than 99.9% of all humans who've ever lived: hot showers, meat 7 days a week if we want it, air conditioning - we daily take for granted thousands of comforts that simply weren't available to even the most powerful of 18th century kings. Even today, living in the USA, we have stuff that you'd need to be stinking rich to have in many parts of the world (cars, computers, plentiful food, etc). An old friend of mine from high school and college used to proclaim "I already won the lottery: I'm a white American male!" It may not be politically correct, but there's a fair amount of truth to that.

But I worry about my country, and the way things appear to be moving. A funny thing about the way laws are made in this country: someone proposes a law, it gets voted on, and it either becomes law or not. That's grossly simplified, I know, but what I see happening is that "bad" laws -- laws that undermine our basic civil liberties, laws that unfairly benefit special interests, laws that take away our privacy -- more and more of these things are becoming law. It's just a consequence of how The System works: a bad law is proposed by someone. With luck it gets voted down. But then the same law or a varient is proposed again. And again. And again. Until it finally passes. It's considered a truism in American politics that if you have enough money and time, you can get a law made.

And the kinds of laws that are being made are just plain scary. Here's a Wall Street Journal article on the growing number of federal criminal laws. What's especially disturbing is that many of these laws don't require the government to prove criminal intent:

Last September, retired race-car champion Bobby Unser told a congressional hearing about his 1996 misdemeanor conviction for accidentally driving a snowmobile onto protected federal land, violating the Wilderness Act, while lost in a snowstorm. Though the judge gave him only a $75 fine, the 77-year-old racing legend got a criminal record.
Eddie Leroy Anderson of Craigmont, Idaho, is a retired logger, a former science teacher and now a federal criminal thanks to his arrowhead-collecting hobby.
In 2009, Mr. Anderson loaned his son some tools to dig for arrowheads near a favorite campground of theirs. Unfortunately, they were on federal land. Authorities "notified me to get a lawyer and a damn good one," Mr. Anderson recalls.
There is no evidence the Andersons intended to break the law, or even knew the law existed, according to court records and interviews. But the law, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, doesn't require criminal intent and makes it a felony punishable by up to two years in prison to attempt to take artifacts off federal land without a permit.

And so we are effectively caught in an ever-tightening skein of bad -- sometimes downright insane -- laws that are progressively limiting or removing our basic liberties and civil rights. It's all done in the name of "anti-terrorism" or "save the children" or "the war against drugs" or whatever. So yeah, here's the part where I quote Benjamin Franklin: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Sadly, I foresee a future America that is a lot more totalitarian than Communist Russia ever was. One that really does bear more than a passing resemblence to Orwell's 1984.

I can see the future, and it's grim. The time will come when:

  • Use of cash will be illegal. All financial transactions will be electronic and recorded.

  • Every citizen will have a National ID Card. You'll be required to produce it upon demand by any law enforcement officer or agency.

  • A national database of everyone's DNA, fingerprints, and other biometric information will be online.

  • All public areas will be under camera surveillance.

  • All computers / internet usage is monitored and tied to one's National ID Card.

  • There will be a publicly-accessible national criminal and arrest database containing information on everyone who has had any kind of brush with the law.

  • National databases containing all medical and financial information on everyone will be online.

  • All of the data and databases above will be accessible by any government agency without any requirement for a warrant. And this will (of course) be widely abused.

  • All computers and encryption schemes must legally provide a government-accessible "back door".

  • Criticism of politicians or their policies is criminal libel. Ie, the First Amendment is simply ignored.

  • Possession of hand-guns by private citizens will be illegal.

  • Everyone will technically be a criminal -- and thus subject to arrest and all that comes with it -- all the time.

  • "One strike and you're out": all it takes is a single "incident" with authority and you lose your job, your medical insurance, your home, your money -- your life.

Like I said: grim. In short, it's an America where Order comes before Justice and Freedom.

Is it possible to live in such a state and be happy?

I hope I'm wrong. It's been said that American civil rights law has always been a "pendulum", slowly swinging left and right and back again. I hope so. But I'm not sure how we can avoid the seemingly inevitable accretion of bad laws that will occur over the years and the decades. Kids: if you're reading this sometime in the indefinite future, I want you to know that I'm doing what I can, writing to congress about bad laws etc. I don't want you to live in the future I envision -- and I sincerely hope you don't.

Monday, August 1, 2011

iPad Synthesizers: The Next Generation

As mentioned earlier, I obtained a Korg nanoKEY2 controller and (combined with the iPad Camera Kit USB converter) it's a blast. I confess I was more than a bit nervous about doing it -- going around an plugging random USB devices into an iPad seems like it might lead to heartbreak -- but it seems that almost any controller device that is CoreMIDI Compliant can plug into an iPad via USB. Note the "almost": here's a nice list of devices that are known to work -- or not work with the iPad.

Anyhow, I know I've said before that I wasn't too interested in software synthesizers that run on the iPad -- but this CoreMIDI stuff changes that. It means I can hook my iPad up to my DAW, hook a keyboard up to my iPad -- and then blissfully tickle away at the "ivories", switching between any number of different synthesizer apps.

Addictive Synth ($5.99US) -- A dynamic wavetable synthesizer with a ton of fun real-time control options.

Sunrizer Synth ($4.99US) -- A virtual analog synthesizer that sounds really good.

It's hard to put my finger on it exactly but these two apps seem representative of a new, 2nd generation of iOS synthesizer apps. They seem more solid, extremely responsive, and the sounds they generate are very rich and clean. Other things I've noticed are

  • An emphasis on tricking out the arpeggiator -- I'm still trying to figure out all of the options, and
  • Creation of new presets via "morphing", ie, pick a Mommy preset and a Daddy preset and then listen to see how Junior turned out. Repeat as necessary. (and here's a shout-out to Crystal Synth, which I think was one of the early apps to promote this (extremely useful) feature).

Long story short: Do you remember a couple of weeks ago when you and a friend had a late lunch at 2:30pm at McDonalds, and you somehow choked down a quarter-pounder with cheese and fries that had been congealing under the heat lamps since noon? And there was something wrong with the drink machine so it tasted "off"? And you gallantly picked up the check, which came to $11+? You, my friend, need to restore your faith in humanity and the American economy by spending $10.98US on these two apps and reassure yourself that yes, even in these trying economic conditions, you can still buy something Unbelievably Freakin' Cool for $11.

My New MyBook Live 3TB NAS Device / WD 2go

So I guess I'm kind've a nut about the MyBook Live. As reported earlier, I recently acquired another one, this one being 3TB, and I'm going to use it to back up my 2TB drive.

I kinda got off to a rough start with this new drive: without going into details, it gets hot. Real hot. Make sure you've got lots of free air-space around it.

I didn't realize it when I bought the device, but there are a couple of iOS / Android apps that will work with it: the WD Photo (a photo viewer that I don't have much use for) and WD 2go (which is pretty nifty). WD 2go allows you to access one or more of your MyBook Live devices from inside and outside of your local network. It's a little rusty: the interface could use some polish, I had problems with the PDF viewer, a few other minor things. But it's a good start and also it's free. Using WD 2go requires a firmware upgrade that wipes out the previous MioNet access method, so if you like MioNet (I never used it), it looks like you're stuck at the 1.05.07 firmware level forever. But I like WD 2go and I'm hoping WD will continue to improve it (and, for better or for worse, one of their people wrote that there might be a for-pay version with enhanced capabilities in the near future).

Anyhow -- WD 2go supports a fair number of filetypes: it will stream .MP3, .M4V, .MP4, .MOV, and it'll take a shot at displaying PDF, HTML, MS WORD, PPT, Apple Keynote, and just plain .TXT files. Oh, and the usual image formats. I wasn't crazy about the PDF support; maybe they'll integrate with GoodReader in a future release. The audio and video streaming worked flawlessly at home on my local network. When I tested at the local Tea Lounge, I could still stream MP3s but smooth video just wasn't happening. Natch, this is the kind of thing that depends a lot on one's home ISP connection, the wifi connection at the external location, general Internet topology, and just random luck in general.

I installed the firmware upgrade to both of my MyBook Lives, and doing so wiped out all of the changes I'd made to TwonkyServer. To some extent this is no great loss, since I've got the whole family set up with WD 2go and they can watch video on their iPads without Twonky. But whatever the WD people are using to stream video, it isn't the DLNA protocol, so we still need Twonky to stream to our XBOX 360 and onto the bigscreen teevee. So I'll have to make those mods again.

One (kind've annoying) thing I discovered about the MyBook Live (both versions) is that it continuously runs a little process called "miocrawler", which looks for photos and pre-reduces them in size for mobile device display. I've got less than no need for such a thing, so I (rather inelegantly) disabled it: ssh in and find the file 'miocrawlerd' and make the first two lines read

exit 1

And then reboot the drive. Problem solved! (note that the process is different if you haven't upgraded to the 2.00.* version of firmware). (Also, note that miocrawler may be necessary if you want to use the WD Photo app -- I don't know if it's a requirement or not, but it's something to be aware of).

One other thing that comes with the 2.00.* firmware is an auto-backup feature that allows one to backup one MyBook Live to another. I looked at the process tree and yes, this is based on rsync as you might expect, but it has a nice control panel interface. Seems to work okay, although it's not especially fast -- it claims it will take 2+ days to backup my approx 1.2TB of data. It will also automatically keep the backup up-to-date, and I'll give that a try once I get an initial full backup.

All in all, I give it a pretty solid thumbs-up. I'll sleep somewhat better at night knowing that I've got a nice full backup of all of our audio/photo/video data. And did I mention that this 3TB NAS cost less than the 2TB NAS? How low can these prices go?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Christmas In July!

Numero Uno Son's birthday is in August, so in addition to finding gifts for him, I also took the time to snag a few "un-birthday presents" for his sister and his mom and (of course) his dad.

Since his birthday hasn't arrived yet, I can really only discuss the stuff that I'm getting, namely:

  • Korg nanoKEY2 Slimline USB keyboard - a "small is beautiful" itty bitty controller for my music rig. I can grab this and my MacBook and some earbuds and head off to The Tea Lounge and get totally wired and make hours and hours of music that no-one will ever want to listen to.
  • Logitech THX-Certified Speaker System Z623 - a not-so-portable music rig component. I don't really care about the "THX Certification" -- but the 200W bass cube should give me some of that wonderful "the mothership is hovering over the kitchen" deep bass experience I've been lacking.
  • Western Digital MyBook Live 3TB NAS device - Yes, another one. Well, actually, this one's a bit bigger (3TB). But it'll be a nice backup for our current 2TB unit ("The Big Disk")(I guess we'll have to call this one "The Bigger Disk"). It'll be interesting to see how (more likely "if") two Twonky DLNA media servers work simultaneously on the same network.

    This is, BTW, part of my overall vast scheme that I call The Family Darknet. As the years go by, my family's information assets will continue to grow. The kids will leave home for school, and they'll each take a copy of everything with them. We'll set up some kind of system that automagically keeps everyone's copy up-to-date over an encrypted Internet channel, and over time devices will wear out and be replaced, but the data will live on. As other branches of the family become more technically sophisticated, they'll be invited in to participate. It'll be cool: a huge, highly redundant distributed data repository that will hold all manner of data about our family. An "inheritance", if you will, not of money but of information. At first it'll just be videos and audio and photos, but if it lasts 100 years? Who knows what kinds of goodies will be in there? It could be a genealogical dream. It could also have pragmatic benefits, as well -- in the same way that college fraternities will keep files of old exams and papers, it might be nice to have a family repository of wills, deeds, and other documents and contracts that we could benefit from.

Alas, it's important to pay for these goodies, so .. time to get back on my head!

Monday, July 25, 2011

A "Sandman Slim" movie?

Wikipedia says "The Dino De Laurentiis Company is currently developing Sandman Slim as a feature film." That's all I know, and I don't even know how current that tidbit is. But I'd love to see this happen. I wanna see what a na'at looks like.

Also, the third Sandman Slim novel Aloha From Hell is due on 18 October 2011.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


So Google+ is here at last! Seems to me it's their 4th generation social networking platform (the others being Orkut, Wave, and Buzz), and containing a little bit of each, plus also some pretty strong responses to Facebook.

g+ is currently undergoing some growing pains. What I'm mostly noticing now is that there are tons of people from Second Life or other MMOs who have established identities that have already crept out into the real world in many ways, and (unsurprisingly) the people behind these identities don't want to give them up. Not really a concern of mine, but I still have many many friends in SL who are very up-in-arms over this.

From my own personal and selfish viewpoint, g+ is something I've been waiting for: a simple scheme for sharing content with the rest of my family. g+ hits the target perfectly; all this other stuff about setting up "circles" for work and friends and etc, well ... I think the sad fact is that I'm simply not really a very social kinda guy. If I've got something I want to share with the world, I'll post it here on my blog. Otherwise, all I wanna do is tell the wife and kids that I just stuck the Back To The Future movies up on the /Shared Video/ drive.

It's surprising just how fast g+ has grown, though ... I'd imagine those guys over at Facebook are holding lots of meeting, trying to get a handle on things.

FWIW, I'm now

One last thing: the "Hangout" feature for video chat is pretty sweet. We were playing with it at work the other day, and if they can deliver multi-party video onto computers and mobile devices, it could really be a game-changer.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Science Fiction Movie Round-Up

I've seen a number of science fiction movies in the past month or so, and (amazingly) some of them have been quite good. And when it comes to SF movies, I'm really hard to please: there's a certain balance between "willing suspension of disbelief" and "good characters / plot / SFX / etc" that most movies can't manage. I mean, I even have serious issues with The Matrix, a movie that many people see as the epitome of SF film-dom (I almost walked out on that scene where *gag* Trinity's love brings Neo back to life). So if fate and Hollywood decide to hand me some material that even I like, I figure I owe it to the world to blog about it (no ego here! And, hopefully, no spoilers either):

Source Code - The worst thing about this movie is the title, which turned me off enough that I almost actively avoided seeing it. But luck was with me and I saw it and to my astonishment found that there is intelligent life in Hollywood. Or, at least, people in Hollywood who can write and film a science fiction movie that doesn't insult its viewers' intelligence. Since a lot of this movie's charm comes from trying to figure out WTF is going on, I won't / can't go into details, but a) I thought it was great and b) they managed to pull off an ending that didn't insult my 4+ decades of science fiction sensibilities. I mean, they really pulled the rabbit out of the hat. Did they drag Greg Egan in as a consultant? If this movie doesn't get at least a nomination for a Hugo award I'll be massively disappointed.

Limitless - Another intelligent SF movie -- is there something weird going on in Hollywood? -- this time about the ultimate nootropic drug. I enjoyed how the movie stuck to the topic and didn't phone in some Reagen-era message about the Evils Of Drug Use. If anything, it pushed the idea that Being Smart is the Ultimate High. The plot had a few holes in it -- it felt like maybe it went through substantial re-editing in post-production? The movie poster itself (above) is almost a metaphor for the movie: kinda chopped up, with no real cohesive center. But parts of this movie (ie, the law school student) were just pure, delightful wish-fulfillment candy. Not exactly a "message" movie, but part of the take-away is that Really Smart can still be Really Stupid. Another movie that deserves a Hugo nomination, losing out only because Source Code was better.

Next up, an "Alien Invasion" triple-feature:

Skyline - There has never been, nor will there ever be, a movie that has more blue lens-flare effects than this. There's an obvious resemblance to Battle Los Angeles (below), but they're both very different movies. I know it got slammed by reviewers, but I liked it anyway. The entire motivation for the alien invasion required considerable suspension of disbelief, but it led to an ending that was rather more imaginative (not to mention gruesome) than I expected. Not a life-changing experience, but the SFX were great and, overall, it was fun.

Battle Los Angeles - I noticed that Roger Ebert really didn't like this movie, and I think that I understand why, but I guess Roger and I have very different standards for this kind of thing. Admittedly, the movie was a bit like "what if the marines in Black Hawk Down were battling aliens instead of Somalians?", characterization was shallow-to-nonexistent, and there was this almost embarrassing "humans / marines uber alles" subtext (I'm positive that John W. Campbell, Jr. would have loved this movie). But for all that, I rather liked it. The SFX were well-done and the battle scenes really got the adrenaline pumping. The sound design was top-notch, too: I liked how the flying drones 'stuttered'. Not a movie that's gonna bowl 'em over at Cannes, but (like Skyline) it was fun.

Falling Skies - Not really a "movie", but TNT showed the first two episodes back-to-back so it was two hours long, so it's "movie-like". The last (and weakest) of the trio. I can imagine this being pitched as "alien invasion with a focus on the human element" or somesuch, but personally I could have done with a lot more alien SFX and a lot less warm Spielbergian fuzzies. The SFX were meh okay -- I'm sure there's some Maya-jockey out there who's made their career by character-rigging the excessively-jointed centaur alien bad-guys -- but, frankly, if I'd watched this in a dark theatre I'd have fallen asleep halfway through. I may continue to watch it just to see if they follow through some hinted-at exposition on the alien conquerors (someone just happened to notice that the aliens have four legs while their robots have two legs, what's up with that?)

Book plug: all of that alien invasion pushed me to re-read the best SF novel on the topic, namely William Barton's When Heaven Fell.

Also, an honorable mention for:

Devil - It seems like it's trendy to run down M. Night Shyamalan (who is only credited with "story", not "writing" or "direction"), but I won't because I found this was a fun way to spend 80 minutes. A simple tale, but well-told and well-acted. I've seen a number of people complain that Shyamalan's movies would be better suited to episodes of The Twilight Zone (and this movie is a case-in-point), but is that so bad?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Family Vacation

Last week the family and I packed up and spent a week on Galveston with my father. We rented a nice house on the beach and just basically vegged. Alas, it was only a week, so now it's back on my head.

There was no 'net access at the house, which (surprisingly) I was pretty much okay with. I think my kids were about to go crazy, though. Perhaps I'm spoiled by living in Austin, but Galveston as a whole is not very "wired": my father and I visited a coffeehouse and asked about wifi access, and the barista looked puzzled and responded "What's 'wifi'?" That's a true story.

While I didn't have any deep psychological issues with the lack of internet, we all missed its presence. There is, I think, a profound difference between pathologically checking one's email every 5 minutes (mea culpa), and googling to find a decent restaurant. Especially in a place like Galveston, where we found decent restaurants to be in short supply.

Just an odd curiousity: I noticed that vacation expenditures on Galveston Island seemed to come in $50 quanta -- lunch tended to be $50, a tank of gas was $50, groceries were $50, dinner was $100, Roberta took the kids to Moody Gardens and it was $150, etc.

When we weren't doing typical vacation things like swimming or crabbing or spending money, we watched a lot of television (the house had a minimal satellite connection). Specifically, since my father is kind've a news-junkie, we watched a lot of CNN. It's odd how, not even a week later, I feel like I'm writing about ancient history, but last week was the week when Andrew Weiner was 'in the news' -- the press couldn't shut up about the guy. They kept on and on about how Weiner was "under intense political pressure to resign", but from where I was sitting it looked a lot more like "intense media pressure". It was like they were all deeply offended that he had the nerve to lie to Wolf Blitzer about his private affairs.

I guess I'm weird, but whenever I see the press humiliating a public figure about some sexual malfeasance, deep down inside I tend to be rooting for the guy who's catching the heat. And I'm sad when they (almost always) give in to the pressure and resign and apologize. I would have loved to see Weiner hold a press conference and (literally) show the press his middle finger and tell them "screw you all, you scurvy hypocrites, I'm not leaving office until they drag me out!" Which is maybe why Bill Clinton is one of my favorite Presidents.

The hypocrisy of the press never ceases to amaze me. Have these people never heard of "hubris"? Like, am I supposed to believe that none of these media talking heads has ever engaged in sex-chat on the 'net? "Karma's a bitch", so the saying goes -- I would not want to be standing anywhere near a member of the press when Karma comes a'calling.

But ... this is supposed to be a post about vacation. One of the things we tend to do as a family is listen to audio books when driving long distances. This has occasionally proved to be embarrassing -- ref the time Roberta opted for Nyla Goldberg's Bee Season, which contains some surprisingly explicit sexual content that required the use of my highly developed Dad Driving Reflexes to deftly jab at the "off" button while exclaiming "hey, is that a deer?!", all before the reader could get to the 'n' in 'penis'.

But we're older and wiser now. For this trip, we opted for Clive Cussler's White Death, in which the suave, well-muscled NUMA agent Kurt Austin goes up against an evil eskimo mad scientist who plans to unleash giant ill-tempered mutant salmon into the world's oceans and thus gain a world-wide monopoly on the seafood industry. There's also some stuff with a nazi zeppelin and ancient Basque relics. No, seriously, that's really what's in the book. I'm noticing that White Death was published in 2003, while Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery was released in 1997. It's a little hard to imagine that Cussler wasn't "influenced" by another evil scientist's desire for "sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads".

Also -- while I do not know this for certain, White Death makes me wonder if Cussler actually vacationed in the Faroe Islands and elsewhere and then penned the book so he could write the travel off as "research". I can imagine him being audited: "so, you're claiming these airline tickets, hotel, and meal bills as 'research'?" and the author whips out the book and says "read pages 110 through 124!" While I've never read a confession of such, I'm convinced that writers do this. It's difficult to read Gregory McDonald's Carioca Fletch (for example) without wondering if McDonald co-wrote it with his tax attorney after a Brazilian Carnivale blow-out.

Oh, one last comment re audio books: I'm far from his biggest fan, but Orson Scott Card's unabridged Ender's Game is a very good, family-friendly book for a long journey.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Taming The WD MyBook Live And Twonky 5.1.9

As I posted here last November, I've got my home entertainment center tricked out with a 2TB Western Digital MyBook Live NAS device. I've since had to do some tuning and some tweaking, and this information might be helpful to someone else, so I'm posting about it.

DISCLAIMER: I'm not responsible for any loss of warranty, data, marital consortium, or anything else. Everything below worked for me, but it's your responsibility to decide if you understand things well enough to proceed.

If you have an iPad: install either Media Link Player Lite and / or LivingMediaPlayer (aka "MLPlayer" and "LMPlayer". Both were free the last time I checked) and you can use the MyBook's built-in Twonky server to stream media wirelessly to your iPad via your home wireless router.

To enable ssh (ie, command-line) access to your MyBook, use the backdoor:


This enables ssh and tells you that the root pw is initially welc0me. This is hard-coded into the page, so if you change the password, it'll still say the password is welc0me. So if you change the password, don't forget it!


has a "Media" page that lets you turn TwonkyServer on and off.


is the TwonkyServer control panel. Click the wrench icon to get to the good stuff. Note that the "Sharing" page doesn't seem to work.

Your MyBook Live runs a version of Linux called Debian "lenny". Twonky is located in the directory


Your vanilla twonkymedia-server.default.ini file probably looks something like this:

uploadmusicdir=/shares/Public/Shared Music
uploadpicturedir=/shares/Public/Shared Pictures
uploadvideodir=/shares/Public/Shared Videos

Note that I have a single share named Public. It contains the following subdirectories:

/Public/Shared Books
/Public/Shared Music
/Public/Shared Pictures
/Public/Shared Video

The vanilla .ini file is problematic: it indexes everything (all videos, pictures, and music), which takes a loooong time -- and there's something wrong with Twonky's supposed ability to notice when new content is added and thus I must re-index frequently -- and causes Twonky's DB to grow very large. Which appears to make Twonky less reliable. We are a simple family, with simple needs: we just want to stream videos. So I modified the file to this:

ignoredir=AppleDouble,AppleDB,AppleDesktop,TemporaryItems,SmartWare,Craig,Miranda,Roberta,Aidan,Shared Books,Shared Music,Shared Pictures
uploadmusicdir=/shares/Public/Shared Videos
uploadpicturedir=/shares/Public/Shared Videos
uploadvideodir=/shares/Public/Shared Videos

Note 1: It's a good idea to save a copy of the old file before you modify it:

cp twonkymedia-server-default.ini

Note 2: I added the names of directories I didn't want to scan (Craig, Miranda, etc) to the ignoredir line.

Note 3: I changed the contentdir line from '+A|/Public' to '+V|/Public', which makes Twonky search only for videos. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to play with comma-separating different combinations of + and - and M, P, V, and A to target content more precisely (ie, "+V|/Public,-A|/Public/Shared Music,+P|/Public/Shared Pictures").

Note 4: I had some trouble getting Twonky to recognize my tweaked .ini file, so I resorted to the following process:

  1. Stop TwonkyServer via the "Media" page at http://myMyBookIPAddress/UI
  2. At your Linux command line, type cd /CacheVolume/twonkymedia
  3. Your command line prompt should read
  4. Okay -- I know this is a gutsy move, but -- delete the entire contents of your current directory (ie /CacheVolume/twonkymedia)
  5. Re-start TwonkyServer via the "Media" page at http://myMyBookIPAddress/UI
  6. Go to http://myMyBookIPAddress:9000/ and check to see that you're up and running.

Note 5: The process outlined in Note 4 above will also fix Twonky if you try to access the web control panel at http://myMyBookIPAddress:9000/ and get "page not found". I mention this because Google tells me this is a not-uncommon problem.

Note 6: I changed uploadmusicdir, uploadpicturedir, and uploadvideodir so they all pointed at the /Public/Shared Videos directory. I'm not sure if this was necessary or not.

Hacking WD MyBook World Ed has lots of interesting information on the MyBook Live.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Number ...

... 8128

I have an affinity for the number 8128. Sometimes people ask me why. I apologize in advance for the self-aggrandizing nature of this post.

Back when I was a skinny, sports-averse lad of 12 or 13 years old, I read a lot of books. Reading was a lot more fun than standing out in left field praying that nobody would hit a softball in my direction, and then when it happened, acting like I was trying to catch it when, in fact, I really just wanted to get out of the way and avoid getting beaned or worse.

I read a lot of science fiction. I mean, a lot of it. I also read other things, including books about math. Not math textbooks, but things like George Gamow's One Two Three ... Infinity and the like. I don't remember which book specifically brought up the concept of "Perfect Numbers", but the concept resonated with me. For whatever reason, any book I found only listed the first 3 numbers in the series: 6, 28, 496, ... . I found this maddening -- what's the 4th number?!

You have to recall that this was circa 1973: we had a rotary phone, there was no internet or WWW, I was too young to drive so getting to the library took some effort, I lived in podunk where there were no bookstores, much less bookstores that had a "Computers" section, etc. I was pretty much on my own.

But at about this time I also got interested in computer programming. My family lived near a branch of Southern Illinois University, which had recently acquired a Control Data Corp Cyber mainframe, and was using it as a timeshare system. Through a friend I got access -- actually, people were extremely casual about usernames and passwords and you could find them written on abandoned punch-cards etc, I eventually had quite a collection. I realize that nowadays this is frowned upon, even illegal, but back then it was considered "cute". Before you condemn me, know that I had certain ethics about it, and I never deleted people's files or caused any kind of trouble. Mostly what I did at first was play games -- things like the old BASIC Star Trek game.

But eventually I wanted to know more, so I asked the wonderful lady (Mrs. Whelan) at the public library if she could find me some books on "basic computer programming". And in about a week she had a couple of books for me with titles like "Learning BASIC". I ate 'em up.

Yes, I was a serious geek as a boy. Geekitude was not popular in the small midwestern town in which I lived; the other kids gave me hell, I was "weird" and so forth. Today, it seems like "geek" is simply one of many accepted sub-cultures (like "jock", "goth", "rocker", "preppie", "skater", etc) that kids may identify with. I'm happy about this -- I think of myself as an "early adopter". But back in 1973, reading science fiction and writing computer programs just got you sucker-punched.

Anyway, long story short (and you can probably see where this is heading), one of the first things I did when I learned to program was write a program to generate the 4th Perfect Number. It was not especially efficient, but it chugged along and popped out 6, then 28, then 496, and then ... after a pregnant pause ... 8128!

Natch, first thing I did was rewrite the program to spit out the factors so that I could check the answer -- hey, it was an early effort! -- but 8128 checked out.

I went on to learn a whole bunch of different languages like FORTRAN and SNOBOL and LISP and APL (where, since I didn't have APL keyboards, the operators were all represented as escaped digraph "symbols" like $UP$ -- some things are too tedious even for an obsessed 13yo), and wrote a number of programs to play Conway's Life and several Turing Machine emulators and other nerdy delights. And this led to going to college and getting a couple of degrees in Computer Science, which have been "beddy beddy good" to me.

But at the beginning of it all was that 4th Perfect Number, 8128. Which, lest I sound too impressed with myself, I note that the Wikipedia article on Perfect Numbers says:

These first four perfect numbers were the only ones known to early Greek mathematics, and the mathematician Nicomachus had noted 8,128 as early as 100 AD.

Then, in 1456, an unknown mathematician recorded the earliest reference to a fifth perfect number, with 33,550,336 being correctly identified for the first time.

So it's not like I was blazing new trails on the frontiers of mathematics. But still, I've sort've 'adopted' the number and tend to use it in places where I need a handy integer. Like, for instance, a blog name. Although for obvious reasons I never use it for passwords or pin-codes or anything like that.

Anyhow, love it or hate it, that's the story.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Asshole Crime

So, the trial of Dharun Ravi is moving along. Ravi, you'll recall, is accused of driving his college roommate, Tyler Clementi, to suicide after he used a webcam to spy on Clementi having a homosexual encounter. Ravi also twittered about it and allegedly live-streamed a portion of the encounter out to his twitter followers (who must be a real classy group, I'm sure). So now as a result he's being charged with 15 counts including bias intimidation, invasion of privacy, witness and evidence tampering, and other stuff that nobody seems to want to list. The "bias intimidation" charges carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

The entire situation sucks. Even as a parent myself, I can only imagine the nightmare that Clementi's parents are living in. I'm sure Dharin Ravi's family is going through some tough times, too (I really know nothing about them, maybe they're rich and it's no big deal -- or maybe not, and they're mortgaging the house / tapping into their retirement nest-egg to pay legal expenses). It seems like many in the gay community want to see Ravi hang.

This is just me, but, having carefully considered all of the facts available to me, I've concluded that Ravi is guilty of being a Big Asshole. Additionally, while I don't have perfect knowledge of the events, it seems unlikely to me that Ravi could have predicted that Clementi would commit suicide.

Keeping that in mind, 10 years in prison seems excessive. I mean, here's a guy in New Jersey who got 4.5 to eight years for driving drunk and killing a 13yo girl. And apparently this is considered a tougher-than-average sentence for such a crime. Don't get me wrong, I'm not shrugging it off as "oh, kids do that stuff", I believe Ravi deserves some kind of punishment. But -- 10 years? What kind of justice is being done here?

This kind of thing comes up again and again and again in the news: Asshole Crime. Some asshole -- okay, let's be polite and call them a "Jerk" -- some Jerk gets somebody else hurt or killed, and DA goes through the statutes with a magnifying glass to come up with a set of charges that a jury might buy. I mean, "bias intimidation"? I'm not sure I even know what that means, much less that there's apparently a law against it (in NJ, at least). I think this is a waste of the justice system and taxpayer money. Perhaps it's the engineer in me, but I don't see any value in locking a jerk in prison (save "punishment for punishment's sake"), but I think society would be better served if the jerk could learn to change their ways and become a non-jerk. And for this, I have two suggestions, one "real", the other "imaginative". I'll use the Ravi / Clemente case as an example, but I'm sure you can think of any number of other examples that qualify.

First up is the Civil Suit. Ie, the Clementi family sues Dharin Ravi for driving Tyler to suicide. The jury awards damages as they feel appropriate. It's neat and simple, and even the worst of jerks hates getting hit in the wallet. Getting sued and paying damages can be a serious "learning experience".

Second, and more fun: what I really think this country needs is a Federal Asshole Registry (sorry, "Federal Jerk Registry"). The idea is, somebody does something jerk-ish, they get their name etc in the Registry for a given amount of time. And during that time, they have to go around and introduce themselves as a Registered Jerk to their neighbors (just like sex offenders). Potential employers would use it for background checks, etc.

Actually, we more-or-less sort've have a de-facto version of that right now, with Google: Search on someone's name and if they've committed any serious jerkery they'll often come up. But a genuine government-sponsored Jerk Registry would be better: it'd be harder to "game", plus it'd contain info on jerks who are deserving of the name, but somehow managed to avoid local or national news coverage, or are buried so deep in the search results list that nobody ever notices them.

Admittedly, this still leaves the problem of just how do decide who deserves a place in the Jerk Registry, and for how long. That'll take some pondering, and so I'll leave it for a future entry.

Friday, May 20, 2011

From Agents To Apps

"According to IDC, smartphone manufacturers shipped 100.9 million devices in the fourth quarter of 2010, while PC manufacturers shipped 92.1 million units worldwide. Or, more simply put, smartphones just outsold PCs for the first time ever." (source: New York Times, 8 February 2011)

And also:

"Amazon ... is claiming that Kindle e-books are outselling hardcover and paperback print books on its Website." (source:, 19 May 2011)

So, call me Captain Obvious, but this mobile computing stuff really seems to have caught on. And hey, I'm a fan. For all of its deficiencies (dropped calls, poor reception, yaddayadda) the cellphone has made the world a safer, more efficient place. 15 years ago, if your car crapped out on you at 3am in some strange place, you had a "situation". Nowadays help is literally a phone call away. Which is why I get irate when my wife and kids go out and don't take their cellphones with them -- I mean, why are we paying for these things anyway?!

One of my favorite writers put it thus:

Stories set in the Culture in which Things Went Wrong tended to start with humans losing or forgetting or deliberately leaving behind their terminal. It was a conventional opening, the equivalent of straying off the path in the wild woods in one age, or a car breaking down at night on a lonely road in another. A terminal ... was your link with everybody and everything else in the Culture. With a terminal, you were never more than a question or a shout away from almost anything you wanted to know, or almost any help you could possibly need.

There were (true) stories of people falling off cliffs and the terminal relaying their scream in time for a Hub unit to switch to that terminal's camera, realize what was happening and displace a drone to catch the faller in midair; there were other stories about terminals recording the severing of their owner's head from their body in an accident, and summoning a medical drone in time to save the brain, leaving the de-bodied person with no more a problem than finding ways to pass the months it took to grow a new body.

A terminal was safety.
--- The Player Of Games by Iain M Banks

But I digress. The real reason I'm writing this is to comment on how personal computing today varies from how people thought it would be twenty-odd years ago.

Once upon a time, everyone thought The Future was going to be "agent technology" -- that is, we'd all have one or more personal 'software entities' (ie 'agents') that would go out and do things for us. You'd say "I need to meet with Steve Jobs -- set up a meeting, book a flight and a hotel room and a car, and oh yeah Billy's birthday is next week so buy him that home chemistry set he's been wanting". And your Agent would go do all that stuff for you.

You can see how this hasn't exactly worked out. For one thing, the idea of buying a home chemistry set scares the bejeezus out of people for fear of getting flagged by Homeland Security or the DEA. But more to the point -- think about how someone today would go about executing on the tasks given above:

First off you'd pull out your smartphone and look up Steve Job's phone number in your smartphone's Contacts list. Then you'd give him a call and set up the meeting, and then put the meeting into your smartphone's Calendar, then you'd set up the flight, hotel, and car, either by using your smartphone's web browser or, more likely, "there's an app for that". That settled, you'd use the Amazon app to browse for chemistry sets, select one, buy it and arrange to have it shipped. And you can do all this while you're sitting in the waiting room at the doctor's office.

The point I'm trying to make is that apps have supplanted agents as the future's way of getting things done. Or, to look at it another way, instead of telling an agent what we want, we interact with a smartphone plus apps to get things done. Which, if you think about it, is probably a superior way to do most things: given the current state of the art in artificial intelligence, it's unlikely that anyone would trust a piece of software to set up a business trip for them. Smartphone apps hit the "sweet spot": they allow people to perform tasks both trivial and difficult, but they keep the human in the loop just enough to ensure desired results. AI deficiencies aside, this probably also makes people feel more secure, knowing that they've supervised the job enough that they're confident they'll achieve the results they want and expect. It's a "trust thing": you had no idea that some chemistry sets are priced at over $200, and so you're pleased that you were involved in the purchase and picked the one that cost $35.

For sure, agent technology might someday arrive. But I think there's going to be a significant "human factor" that will need to be surmounted. I guess if I were a rich fart or a corporate executive who was comfortable with handing out short, imprecise orders to my staff or my secretary, an agent would be a natural, easy thing to work with. When and if we ever get usable agents, I suspect that they will be highly personalized to 'fit' the person they work with -- sort've like how a travel agency keeps track of whether a client prefers smoking or non-smoking, window / middle / aisle seating, etc -- but in a lot more detail. And these personal databases, full of random and extremely personal trivia about an individual, will need to be very, very secure. I mean, imagine that business trip above except the command ends with "and book me some entertainment while I'm out there" and the agent helpfully sets up an appointment with a call-girl, knowing that you prefer short blondes with a C-cup. Now imagine that a newspaper reporter or your wife gets hold of that database.

So what does the future hold for smartphone / app technology? My guess for the relative near future is that smartphone devices will be given more latitude to wake up and notify us of events of interest. An example I like to use is: you're at your hotel, resting up for the big meeting with Steve Jobs the next morning, when you're jarred awake by alarms -- the hotel is on fire! You're on the 10th floor, and you need to get out, fast. So you grab your smart phone and turn it on and bring up your Hotel Fire Escape App, which uses GPS and other techniques to guide you to the exit.

Well, okay, not quite -- most people are going to at most grab their pants and head out the door. But imagine that instead your smartphone wakes up with the alarm, sounding it's own alarm to make it easier for you to locate it, and runs the Escape App automatically. You grab the phone and it's got big green flashing arrow directing you out the door, down the hall, and to the stairs. This is example is admittedly contrived, but I think we'll be seeing more and more of this kind of thing in the next few years: our smartphones will become more "context-aware" and will initiate user interaction when appropriate.

(You may think the hotel fire rescue app is silly, but I'm told that navigating dark, smoke-filled rooms and hallways is not easy. A number of hotels are moving emergency exit signs down to near floor level, where they can be more easily seen if (God forbid) the smoke is so thick you find yourself crawling on your hands and knees to keep out of the smoke. If a smartphone app can help people survive that kind of dangerous situation, more power to it!).

Friday, May 13, 2011

My Talented Kids

You may want to skip this one if you're not a relative of mine -- this is just Dad taking a moment to crow about his talented kids.

For his final art project, my son Aidan took one of his guitars apart and sanded down the body and "swirl-painted" it. His first attempt, so it's not a perfect "swirl" but the result is still pretty gosh-darn cool. Yes, he got an A.

(oil paints on wood)

These are a couple of freehand drawings by my daughter Miranda:

(pencil on paper)
(ink on paper)

(Alas, not the best digitization of those past two images; I'm a bit loathe to run them through our scanner for fear of destroying the original).

I'm pretty happy that both of them are very creative (although in very different ways). I hope it's something that stays with them their entire life.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Goodbye SETI

The SETI Institute has fallen on hard times:

In an April 22, 2011 email ... SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson described in detail the recent decision by U.C. Berkeley ... to reduce operations of the Hat Creek Radio Observatory (and thus the Allen Telescope Array) to a hibernation state effective this month. NSF University Radio Observatory funding to Berkeley for HCRO operations has been reduced to approximately one-tenth of its former level and, concurrently, growing State of California budget shortfalls have severely reduced the amount of state funds available for support of the HCRO site.

This makes me sad. I know that in the past I've expressed some rather pessimistic views on the topic, but I've got no problem with passive scanning: it's safe and cheap, and (even though it's admittedly a long-shot) it has the potential to change humanity's outlook on the universe forever. I mean, can you imagine waking up one morning to see a headline like

We Are Not Alone!
(film at 11)


But maybe some eccentric millionaire will save the day. Ex-MS honcho Paul Allen has already given them $30 million to fund the initial array of telescopes. "In for a penny, in for a pound" -- maybe he'll pull out the seat-cushions on his sofa and dig around and find an extra $5 million to keep SETI running for a couple more years. I really hope so.

$5 million, though ... it's like pocket lint compared to the, what, $6+ billion that's been spent on the Large Hadron Collider? And SETI is a whole lot easier to explain to the average tax-payer. Although maybe that's a problem and not an advantage. Cynic that I am, if you tell Joe Citizen that "SETI is the search for intelligent life out in space", what he hears is "SETI wants $5 million to hunt for flying saucers." Which is probably not helpful.

On the other hand, if you tell him "The Large Hadron Collider will address some of the most fundamental questions of physics, advancing the understanding of the deepest laws of nature" ... well, hell, I'm not sure what the average person thinks of that. Probably something like "I dunno what it is, but all these science guys are backing it, so it must be a winner." The nice thing about basic pure research is that you never really know what's going to come out of it. So when people ask you questions, you can say pretty much anything you want: "it could lead to unlimited free energy", "it could solve global warming", "it could lead to new medical techniques", etc etc and so forth.

This is not to say that pure basic research is easy to fund -- just look at the poor Superconducting Supercollider that lost its funding in 1993. But SETI has connotations of "flying saucers" and "little green men"; The LHC is all about "the God Particle" and "Baryonic Matter" and cool impressive terms like that. Even Conan O'Brien couldn't make a good joke about Baryonic Matter. (The best I've ever managed involved the "Mushroom Mattar" at the local Indian buffet).

*sigh* Five million dollars. It seems like a trivial sum in some contexts, but I know from practical experience that It's Hard To Make Five Million Dollars. "Well, duh!" you say. But ... my day job involves working for a very large international corporation, one that grosses billions of dollars in revenue every year. A few years ago I was sent to South Korea to assist on a project, one that I can't talk about except to say that it was a very small piece of a much larger project that involved building a new city. My project had an estimated cost of $5 million USD. I met all kinds of VIPs and bigshots, was shown all manner of plans and forecasts and models and whatnot. There was a *lot* of money involved. I figured it was a no-brainer that my measley $5 million project would get approved -- probably rubber-stamped by some junior assistant project approval guy in a basement cubicle.

Boy was I wrong. There were endless meetings, demos, justifications, presentations. And every day the project team grew -- I never figured out what role 3/4s of them were supposed to be doing (although I had been forewarned by someone with prior experience: "Korea? Oh man ... you're gonna love the way they manage to squeeze in all of their cousins and uncles and friends on every deal" and as near as I could tell, he was totally (if not politically) correct).

Anyhow -- in the end, the project never happened. I was surprised: I thought that billion dollar corporate entities would trade off "minor" million dollar projects like pocket change. There's a classic sales principle wherein you attempt to sell the big dollar item first -- a $2000 suit, for instance, and then hit the customer up with $50 cufflinks, a $75 cravat pin, etc, which somehow seems less expensive in the wake of the two grand you just dropped. But that didn't seem to happen here.

In truth, I never did figure out what happened to kill the project. When I was over there, I saw a museum quality scale model of the proposed city, complete with lights and working bridges and cranes and such, it was about 15 meters long and probably cost at least a million bucks. So someone was throwing money around. Maybe my team just never met Daddy Warbucks. There was, frankly, a lot of stuff I never quite figured out: the Korean language is composed of about 5% English "loanwords", which means that if I listened very carefully, I could almost kinda get the feeling that maybe I understood about 1/20th of what people were talking about.

All in all, a most educational experience, I learned much. I learned that I could drink most Koreans under the table, and that I don't like Korean food. But the most important lesson I learned was: It's Hard To Make Five Million Dollars.

Good luck, SETI.

And now for something completely different: while Googling for something else I randomly encountered this gem: The Aesthetics Of Science Fiction Spaceship Design, which is the Master's thesis of one Kate Kinnear at U Waterloo. It's a 26MB PDF but fairly easy reading, and the topic is Pure Fun. It must be nice to have a Master's Thesis that other people will actually want to read. I stuck a $10 bill in my (paper) thesis back in 1985 and 4 years later I came back and checked and it was still there. It's probably there now.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cyberpunk at the Movies

What do the following four movies have in common?

If you said Jason Statham, you're 3/4s correct (Statham didn't appear in Death Race 2, which is a prequel to Death Race).

If you're into movie soundtracks you might guess "all four movies were scored by Paul Haslinger (ex-Tangerine Dream)". And despite impressing me, you'd still only be 3/4s correct -- Haslinger did brilliant scores for Crank and the Death Race movies, but Crank 2 was scored by the one and only Mike Patton (Mr. Bungle, Faith No More). Which was a good choice given the amount of over-the-top mayhem in the film.

This is admittedly a highly-subjective appraisal, but I would submit that these are four of the best cyberpunk movies to come out of the studios in recent years.

"Cyberpunk?" you say, incredulously. Yes, cyberpunk. Here's a few selection lines from the Wikipedia article on the topic:

Giant, multinational corporations have for the most part replaced governments as centers of political, economic, and even military power.

... many cyberpunk protagonists are manipulated, placed in situations where they have little or no choice, and although they might see things through, they do not necessarily come out any further ahead than they previously were. These anti-heroes--"criminals, outcasts, visionaries, dissenters and misfits" call to mind the private eye of detective novels. This emphasis on the misfits and the malcontents is the "punk" component of cyberpunk.

The settings are usually post-industrial dystopias but tend to be marked by extraordinary cultural ferment and the use of technology in ways never anticipated by its creators ("the street finds its own uses for things"). Much of the genre's atmosphere echoes film noir, and written works in the genre often use techniques from detective fiction.

Of course, I am (what fun!) picking and choosing and ignoring certain elements like direct neural connection into a mutual hallucination (ie, "cyberspace") and god-like Artificial Intelligences who manipulate humans for their own unknowable ends. But cyberpunk isn't a hard, fast set of rules; it's a set of (highly engaging) tropes that tend to pull us into the struggle of the "little man" against The System, and (we hope) allows us to share as he ultimately raises a defiant middle finger to the Powers That Be.

It's good stuff. And while I don't want to give away any spoilers, every one of these four movies tips its hat in one way or another to William Gibson (Neuromancer), Richard Kadrey (Metrophage), and Neil Stephenson (Snow Crash). Street culture, "grunge" technology, a manipulated anti-hero who nonetheless manages to "win" in some manner -- it's all there.

Crank 2 -- arguably the most outrageous of the four films, features a great musical score plus a number of cameos by some interesting figures in the music industry, namely Maynard James Keenan (Tool, A Perfect Circle), Danny Lohner (Nine Inch Nails), and Chester Bennington (Linkin Park).

It's just nice to see cyberpunk done right. It's been attempted before -- Vin Diesel's Babylon A. D. (2008) comes to mind, and the post-apocalytic Eastern Europe in the first half was quite well-done. But once the action shifted to New York, things quickly slid downhill.

Finally -- while we're on the topic of cyberpunk -- it's strange to me to hear people refer to Bladerunner as a "cyberpunk masterpiece". The Syd Mead production design gave the movie a dark, noir-ish texture that had something of a cyberpunk "feel" to it, no argument there. But the actual plot of the movie itself was basically "cop tracks down bad guys". And -- maybe this is just me -- the first time I saw it, I found myself hoping that Rutger Hauer would kick Harrison Ford's ass.

I've noticed this tendency of late for high school english teachers to put Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep on student reading lists, and it makes me wonder if there is a sad "group-think" dynamic going on here. Dick wrote a lot of books, and DADoES is most certainly not one of his better works; it's simply (thanks to Bladerunner) his most well-known book. He's written much, much better: A Maze of Death and UBIK come to mind, as does A Scanner Darkly, which is a dark, serious book about Dick's life in the 70's drug culture that carries an anti-drug message about as strong as Hubert Selby Jr.'s Requiem for a Dream -- yet I fear that most people won't read the entire book and thus miss the point. It reminds me of that time in 1999 when David Howard, aide to the mayor of Washington, D. C., used the word "niggardly" while discussing a budget.

Of course, no discussion of cyberpunk in the movies would be complete without a mention of The Matrix.

I can't resist a final comment: if you like cyberpunk or the Death Race or Crank movies, you owe it to yourself to check out Richard Kadrey's novel Sandman Slim:

“The most hard-boiled piece of supernatural fiction I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. … all confident and energetic and fresh and angry. I loved this book and all its screwed-up people.” (Cory Doctorow)

“The best B movie I’ve read in at least twenty years. An addictively satisfying, deeply amusing, dirty-ass masterpiece, Sandman Slim swerves hell-bent through our culture’s impacted gridlock of genres…it’s like watching Sergio Leone and Clive Barker co-direct from a script by Jim Thompson and S. Clay Wilson.” (William Gibson)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Terms of Enrampagement

I've grown to be a huge fan of Archer (Thursdays at 10pmEST) on FX. It's an animated show about secret agent Sterling Archer and -- well, you just have to watch it yourself. It's raunchy, foul-mouthed, twisted, and hilarious. The two-part "Stage Two" and "Placebo Effect" that aired recently were amazing; "Placebo Effect" had some jaw-droppingly outrageous over-the-edge writing: Archer (who is fighting breast cancer) finds that criminals have been replacing cancer treatment drugs with sugar pills and Zima, and the result is non-stop violence and ethnic slurs and medical marijuana as he "rampages" his way to the top of the criminal hierarchy. Interrogating criminals by pretending to play Family Feud and blowing out their kneecaps with a shotgun probably doesn't sound like a recipe for comedy gold-- but it had me rolling on the floor. That's only a small part of the extremely "non-PC" frolics that the show pulls off, ending with a warm homage to one of the most memorable Magnum, P. I. episodes ever. Some of the very best television I've seen this year.

It sure ain't Little House on the Prairie. It may not work for you. But if you like television that pushes the boundaries, you really need to check out Archer.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

On Aliens

First things first: I definitely believe that there is other intelligent life in the universe. The universe is just too damn big for it to be just us humans. I guess it's kinda funny, I have a lot of faith in this, probably the kind of faith that Christians are supposed to have in Jesus. But I'll probably die without ever knowing for sure.

This does not mean I believe in UFOs. I'll concede that it's possible that Earth has been visited by extraterrestrials sometime in the past 4+ billion years. I even have my private suspicions that life on Earth may have started from some extraterrestrial "seed" -- some kind of spores or chemical precursors that floated through the void for a long time until they came to the Earth and somehow flourished and after a million or billion years became a thriving concern. Where did that seed come from? Who knows -- in one or more places life arose "naturally" and -- as living things are prone to do -- spread itself everywhere it could. I could be wrong and life really did arise spontaneously on Earth. I'm not complaining.

But people bring up the Fermi Paradox -- if life exists elsewhere in the universe, how come we haven't met them yet? There are many possible reasons for this:

  • We really are alone.
  • Intelligent life exists but it's uncommon.
  • There's a whole galactic Internet out there -- but it uses some kind of technology that we can't detect.
  • Etc.

I have my own thoughts on this. Part of the Fermi Paradox is the assumption that any intelligent species will completely colonize the galaxy in just a few million years, because they'll inevitably colonize nearby systems, and those colonies will eventually send out colonies, etc. It's a big self-replicating system that grows and grows until life is everywhere.

This may not be an original thought --and I have no evidence to support this, it's simply an idea -- but what if we are one of those colonies? Referencing the aforementioned "spore" idea, maybe we're part of the outwardly spreading wave, not yet at the point of sending out our own 'child' colonies.

Which still doesn't answer the question "where is everybody?". Strictly speaking, it's "improbable" that we would be the most advanced technological race in the neighborhood. But somebody has to be first, and it's not impossible that it's us. Just unlikely.

One theory -- one that I find easy to believe even though it scares the hell out of me -- is that advanced civilizations tend to be really, really quiet. Not because their communications technology is uber-efficient (although that won't hurt), but because It's A Jungle Out There.

The Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev came up with Kardashev Scale, which is one way of thinking about the sophistication of hypothetical civilizations throughout the universe:

  • A Type I civilization has achieved mastery of the resources of its home planet.
  • A Type II civilization has achieved mastery of the resources of its primary star and associated planets.
  • A Type III civilization has achieved mastery of the resources of its entire galaxy.

Neat, mind-expanding stuff, but one thing to take away from it is that civilizations use resources. Given that the universe contains a limited number of resources, some forward-thinking civilizations, recognizing that they are growing larger and larger, might decide that any competitors for resources are a Bad Thing.

I trust you can see where I'm going with this. The Great Big Silence In The Sky may be due to a combination of a) smart civilizations keeping themselves hidden and b) not-so-smart civilizations getting wiped out by other civilizations who want to eliminate the competition.

This is one reason why Alien Invasion movies drive me crazy. Sure, it's possible that the aliens want to "enslave" us for some unknowable reason. But I'll bet you a dollar that we don't have much to offer any civilization that's capable of interstellar travel -- except for our resources. Practically speaking, it'd be a lot easier to simply wipe us out and mine our system at leisure.

And believe me, we'd be easy to wipe out. I've been reading science fiction for over forty years and there's no shortage of ideas on how to kill off the human race, and that's just from writers trying to earn three cents per word. Imagine an advanced race who really put some serious thinking into the matter.

And forget Independence Day. Probably the simplest, cheapest, most pragmatic technique would involve dropping a big rock on us. Or a bunch of little rocks -- traveling at relativistic velocities. They wouldn't even need to leave their home system -- just put some kind of drive / navigation units on the rocks and point 'em at Sol and let 'em rip. When they get close enough they target Earth and *boom* it's Game Over for the human race.

I'm admittedly making a fair number of assumptions here: that interstellar travel is difficult and there's no way to travel faster than light, that advanced civilizations aren't necessarily peaceful and there's no magic way to create energy and matter (ie, resources) from nothing. I'd be happy to be proven wrong on any of these points.

Let's put all that aside for the moment, though, and assume that aliens don't want to kill us outright. Why won't they talk to us?

One thought I've had is that the aliens are out there -- and they don't want to talk to us. Either because we have nothing to offer them, or -- maybe -- because we scare the hell out of them.

Not that we're in any position to wage interstellar war at this point. But let's be honest: we are an aggressive, warring, intolerant species. Even our entertainment is full of violence, conflict, and an unspoken assumption that the human race is somehow superior. If we made radio contact with another race that was just like us, we'd be terrified.

A well-worn cliche in science fiction is that war-like races like us inevitably wipe ourselves out -- to the grateful relief of the peaceful races of the universe. What if that's true? Maybe they're out there just waiting for us to commit racial suicide.

One final thought on this topic: maybe it's quiet because everybody moved?

I'm serious. There's a passage from Carl Sagan's novel Contact that's always stuck with me.

"If we're figuring out ways to extend our lifespans, think of what those creatures on Vega must have done. They probably are immortal, or close enough. I'm a practical person, and I've thought a lot now about immortality. I've probably thought longer and more seriously about it than anybody else. And I can tell you one thing for sure about immortals: They're very careful. They don't leave things to chance. They've invested too much effort in becoming immortal. I don't know what they look like, I don't know what they want from you, but if you ever get to see them, this is the only piece of practical advice I have for you: Something you think is dead cinch safe, they'll consider an unacceptable risk."

One of the things that I think that most science fiction has gotten wrong, from square one, is the unspoken assumption that all life lives on planets. Planets are relatively unsafe places to live: you have to deal with earthquakes, volcanoes, asteroid impacts, and other things that make death easy and immortality difficult. I suspect that truly advanced civilizations -- who may indeed have achieved some form of immortality -- will live in nice, controlled, predictable, and secure space colonies. And these space colonies may not be located anywhere near a star. Stars are great energy sources but sometimes they act up and turn into supernovas and gamma ray bursters (from the Wikipedia article: "It has been hypothesized that a gamma-ray burst in the Milky Way could cause a mass extinction on Earth.") -- which can also be problematic for immortals.

So maybe they moved ... to some nice quiet safe place in the vast gulfs between galaxies. Which means they're very very far away, and also very hard to detect. What do they use for energy and other resources? I don't know -- maybe they took some black holes with them and use those for energy. Maybe they have a vast automated industrial pipeline, tens of thousands of light years long, that ferries in resources from neighboring galaxies. It's just a guess -- but if you're looking for total security, safety, and control over your environment -- it's hard to think of a better place to live than those dark, empty, and uneventful spaces that separate the galaxies.