Perhaps not a surprise...

But still disappointing.  According the Post, Democrats are preparing to cave in to the hostage-taking on the Right, and give in on just about everything.

I guess that means that there's no point in voting for Democrats, because they seem not to have even half a spine among them.  Not even when public opinion polls are solidly on their side.  Not even when they decisively win elections.  I guess that means elections don't have consequences, after all.

And I guess, since they're dropping all demands on the aristocracy tax, the rich today will stay rich forever.  Maybe it's just me, but that seems more than a little bit unAmerican.  Sad.


Should have checked the weather once more...

I looked at the weather for this morning yesterday sometime (early afternoon, maybe), and was planning to go shooting at dawn this morning.  Then I got out of bed, took my shower, and went to look for the paper (not delivered yet).  Looked like complete cloud cover.

Checked the weather; overcast.  Bleh.  Should have checked before taking a shower, I guess.


Evaluating cameras

DxOMark does a good job (not perfect; I wish they did a better job of getting things reviewed sooner) providing some basic benchmarking on cameras and lenses.  Some people seem to think that the top-line number their reviews produce, especially on cameras, are the final word on how good a camera is.

It isn't, but it does provide some nice data on some parts of the camera.  For a digital camera, there's no doubt that the sensor is the heart and soul of the device.  If the sensor is no good, the camera certainly won't be, either.

It might be the sine qua non of the device, but it isn't the totality.

Also, just looking at the top-line number can be misleading as well.

I learned this about when I got my D4.  It was cool when it came up as number one, and a bit surprising when it fell out almost immediately (with the introduction of the D800).  But the high-ISO numbers were a bit misleading on the D800, I think.  While I occasionally wish that I had the extra color depth or dynamic range, I'm mostly happy because of the better ISO performance of the D4.

But wait, you say, they were rated almost identically there.  Well, there's a bit of a story there, and it mostly comes down to dynamic range.  The D800 is better at 100 ISO, and maybe at 200 (can't remember), but gets significantly worse after that.  Given that I take a lot of indoor shots of my kids, I frequently end up shooting higher than that, so I largely come out ahead.

Plus, I like the way the D4 handles, better; it's very nicely balanced and the controls are excellent.

But, of course, there's still the money issue.

Anyway, I'm getting badly sidetracked.  The points are that a) there's a lot more to a camera than DxOMark score and b) there's a lot more to their benchmarks than the top-line number.

So, now that I've pointed out my own experience with finding that out, I wanted to point people to a long article that takes a much closer look at their reviews.  It's on an excellent site called Luminous Landscape and gives a lot of good information.

So before you buy a camera based on a DxOMark review, you should read the article to help you interpret the numbers.  You'll be glad you did.

Thoughts on the recent tragedy

I haven't posted anything about the Newtown massacre, as I don't think I've got anything to say that hasn't been said many times.

One thing was kind of weird, though.  When I first read about it, at work that day, it didn't really register what had happened.  It was just... another school shooting, I guess.  But then they talked about it on the radio on the way home, and it really got me upset.  I started thinking about my own kids (not quite that old), I guess, and I got a lot more emotional than I usually do.

The whole thing just seems so senseless, and my heart goes out to the parents and friends of those children.  And the staff killed, as well.

The NRA's suggested response, putting armed guards in every school, seems stupid, at best.  Meeting violence with violence has only succeeded in stopping violence when one side has nothing left.  Given the supply of crazy (or sociopathically desperate for attention) people around, there will never be nothing left.

But we should be cutting down on the supply of guns.  The number of people killed is tragically high.  In fact, I didn't realize how high until the last week or so, but it's over 10k people a year.  There needs to be regulation, maybe similarly to how cars are regulated.

It's just... this can't go on.

I grew up in a house with guns (not a lot, but they were there).  I learned to shoot at a young age.  I've never owned a gun, but in high school I had a couple of guns on long-term (I think it ended up being a couple of years) loan.  For all intents and purposes, they were my guns for that time period; nobody told me when or how to use them, and I took care of maintenance and care.  I even bought the ammo.

More recently, I've fired fully automatic submachine guns.  It was fun, but it was in a very controlled environment, and that was definitely a good thing.

And I've even considered buying a pistol for target shooting and home defense.

But this easy access to weapons made solely for killing people (there's a big difference between a hunting rifle and an AR-15) is just crazy.  It's too easy, and too many people are dying.  Something has to be done.  I think there are a number of steps that can easily be taken.  One, modernize what records ATF keeps (ie: not on cards).  Two, 100% background checks (yes, it isn't perfect, but it'll help).  Three, get rid of easy access to large-capacity magazines (5-10 rounds is plenty, even for self-defense situations).  Four, these "stand your ground" laws are nuts; they're just designed to make it easier to escalate a situation to where someone gets killed.  Five, limit the number of guns people can buy in a small timeframe.  One a month is plenty for any sane situation

I'm sure there are even better ideas, but that's some easy, low-hanging fruit that will cut down on deaths.

A breakthrough?

Feeling a little better about my m4d sk177z (hah!) on jetpack joyride.  Since having to start over again on missions and such, I think I've been improving steadily (my average distance has been increasing), but not dramatically.  My longest game had only gone up by 1-200 meters (over 4000 games), and that was a little depressing.

I finally managed to nudge it rather more this morning (waiting around for a package); I just improved it by a bit more than a kilometer, which felt really good.  It would have felt a bit better if I could have managed a couple hundred more, and broken 10km, but it still felt quite good.  Interestingly, I did nothing else record-setting within the game; I did pretty well with each vehicle I got, but never close to a record with that vehicle.

Maybe I'll go back to reading Butcher's latest (very happy-making Christmas present), and savor the feeling a bit longer.

Oh, and a couple of notes on records I've never gotten around to writing down.  I recently confirmed that the Most Coins Collected in the profile not only includes those gotten via Final Spin, but even includes counterfeiter doubling.  Most Tokens Collected, by contrast, doesn't even include those from Final Spin.  Not sure if the contrast is a bug, or was a conscious design decision.  Definitely seems odd, regardless.


The invisibile man

Caught the off-beat Australian movie, Griff the Invisible, recently.  And it was pretty far off-beat.

A young office worker puts on a costume to stop criminals in Victorian costumes who are scaring people in his neighborhood.  Outside of those activities, he's definitely a nebbish who gets bullied by one of his co-workers.

And then, his brother (who returned from Adelaide to look after him) starts dating a scientist who's a bit misunderstood.  At the very least, her parents can't understand her at all.  And neither can Griff's brother, we soon find out.

But that leaves Griff very confused, not least because he doesn't want to put her in danger.

And, of course, there's one other issue that I failed to get for quite a while.  There were lots of hints, but those only left me confused; I somehow failed to put it together.

But I enjoyed the movie quite a bit.  Funny and quirky tends to go up my alley, and this definitely did.

Oh, and there weren't a lot of special effects, but they did a nice job with the few that they used.  And the soundtrack was pretty nice; I wouldn't mind getting it, but it's only available as a very expensive import, unfortunately.


A crimson shine

I got Ruby Sparks on Black Friday, when the price dropped significantly.  I wasn't sure about it, but I was definitely curious.

Calvin is a writer who wrote a fantastically popular novel in his late teens, but has since struggled to write anything.  He isn't helped in thi by having a social life entirely defined by book promos and meeting up with his brother.  He had a girlfriend once, but they broke up in rather ugly fashion.

He's gotten a dog to help him meet people, but nobody seems to think much of it.  So his therapist suggests an exercise for him, to write a page about a woman who would like his dog.

As something to do, he gives it a try, and finds writing their relationship inspiring.  As part of it, of course, he invests a history for her.

After a few days of writing, imagine his surprise when he goes to leave his house, remarks to himself that he needs to walk the dog, and hears a woman say back to him that she'll take care of it.

When he sees her (immediately afterwards), he's convinced he's insane, especially when she confirms that her name is Ruby, the same as he's been writing.

What is he to do, when he gets confirmation that she is real?  Does the answer change when he figures out he can control her with his writing?

From this point, it went about as expected; interestingly, but with a mix of amusement and pain.  Happily, the writers were familiar with the Sting song, and came up with a nice ending.

It was quite a performance for Ms Kazan as Ruby, who had to show quite a range, some of which was over an impressively short time.  Mr Dano, as Calvin, was also very good as the generally disinterested nebbish, though his role was not as demanding.  Antonio Banderas was also very good in a small role as Calvin's step-father.

I mostly enjoyed it, although there were some scenes that were very painful to watch (by design).  I'm sure I'll watch it again, although I have no idea when.

Jetpack vehicles

In all my articles on Jetpack Joyride, I've kind of been ignoring the elephant in the room. To whit, vehicles.

Some things are pretty obvious about vehicles: they make the game a lot easier, because you can't be killed while in a vehicle. They also improve your odds of getting more money (two free sets of coins when you get the vehicle, a third when you lose it. Plus, you can pretty easily get the big coin magnets) and spin tokens (nothing so specific here, but they seem to occur about twice as often when in a vehicle).

But what's let obvious is how they help/hinder various missions.

Certainly, as noted above, they all help with getting coins and tokens. But what else are they good for?

Well, none of them are any good for brushing the ceiling, walking, sliding on your face, or high fives. Also, none are good for avoiding coins (darned near impossible, when you have the magnet). None do anything for any of the missions involving buying anything, nor for using the Nerd Repellent.

Gravity Suit: this one is especially well suited for getting whole groups of coins (well, with the magnet), as the coin patterns it gets tend to have lots of little groups. This one is quite difficult for near misses of zappers and missiles, but can do both. For knocking over scientists, it is not very good; because of that, though, it is pretty decent for avoiding hurting scientists. For flashing lights, it's ok, and decent at going over zappers.

Bad As Hog: Near misses with missiles and brushes of flashing lights are impossible (well, with the exception that you can hit the very first light if you get Free Ride, and that ride is the Hog). It's very good for knocking over scientists (comparable to the stomper); for the same reasons, it's darned near impossible to avoid hurting scientists over any distance. Near misses of zappers are difficult. Really, the only thing this is very good at is covering distances (though that also means it isn't bad for collecting spin tokens). And it's so-so at going above zappers.

Crazy Freaking Teleporter: Godlike for covering distance and for flying over zappers. Terrible for near misses, though neither type is impossible. So-so for hitting flashing lights and for knocking over scientists. Pretty good for getting groups of coins, especially with the magnet. Also awesome for mission of avoiding touching floor or ceiling, as you can't do either in it.  It's also one of the best for avoiding hurting scientists, and the only one with which I have successfully avoided grabbing coins when I had the magnet.

Mr Cuddles: Very good for covering distance and hitting flashing lights. Not very good for knocking over scientists; hence, pretty good for avoiding hurting them. Decent, but not great, for near misses of both types. Pretty good for going over zappers.

Lil Stomper: (Unrelated: the name always makes me think of "Li'l Pepe", from Romancing the Stone.) Pretty good for near misses of both types, also for hitting flashing lights. Not bad for flying over zappers.  And, of course, the only one with which you can complete a mission by knocking over scientists.

Profit Bird: Best of the bunch for just about everything (except covering long distances; control gets wonky after a kilometer or so). Also not great for knocking over scientists, I suppose. But very easy for near misses of both types and hitting flashing lights (so easy, in fact, you can easily find yourself doing it accidentally). Suppose, too, not quite as good as the teleporter at going over zappers, but still better than any of the others.

So, that's the skinny (to the best of my knowledge) of how the various vehicles help and hurt accomplishing missions.  Good luck.

Security for 200, Alex.

Another brief technical detour today.

I use ssh in all sorts of ways. I make tunnels all the time (and have even hooked them together a time or two), use passkeys, and use ssh-agent to keep from having to repeatedly type in my passphrase. I've set up quite long ssh config files, and modified sshd config's occasionally as well. I even have a shell function on my work machine that sets up two tunnels, each using a custom ssh config, to various places.

So I'm not exactly an ssh newbie.

I knew that you could usefully pipe input into an ssh command, but couldn't remember how to make it useful, so I went googling 'ssh tricks' yesterday. And I found quite a few interesting things. The first was the pipe.

Here's what you need to do:
cat file |ssh -e none user@host "cat > file"

file, of course, is the file you want to copy over (personally, I would use scp for a straight copy as above), '-e none' removes escapes from what you're copying (only useful if it's a binary file), and 'cat > file' dumps it into a destination. Doesn't seem very useful, vs using scp, right? Well, what I was doing was appending my id_dsa.pub to the end of an authorized_keys file, so I wouldn't need to log in again. I'd been doing that via scp, which was a several step process. But then I modified it to this:
cat ~/.ssh/id_dsa.pub |ssh user@host 'cat >> .ssh/authorized_keys'
which reduced it to one step. Win.

And let's talk about some other features I found: You can put wildcards in the ssh config file (look for 'Per-host SSH client config'. This page also has a decent introduction to creating tunnels (it calls it port forwarding, which is not a good phrase, I think) and using passphrases). You can specify a ControlMaster/ControlPath, to have multiple connections to the same host to only use one real connection. That allows a bit more networking efficiency.

That same page also mentions using a keep-alive (which I've occasionally used with putty, but never with command-line ssh), and how to ignore host key matching (not generally a good idea, but he mentions a case where it is useful).

You can also do aliases for hostnames, which is nice. In fact, in the last week or so, I've used this to alias out some tunnel-enabled connections in one step (ie: instead of having to do 'ssh -p 2222 username@localhost', I just do 'ssh myname').

It keeps amazing me just how useful and versatile SSH is.


Don't stop!

I was pretty excited, a couple of months ago, when California approved some rules for allowing autonomous cars to be certified to drive on the roads (previous tests by Google, and others, were run with people behind the wheel, even when the car was driving). Not for the approval itself, which, being well outside of California, has little to no effect on me. But to talk about that, NPR interviewed a Google engineer about the system, and he indicated that autonomous vehicles would be on the market within five years. That was so exciting, because that's about five years closer than I thought, and because I'd love to have one (my commute isn't bad, but being able to read a book during it would be fabulous). Tacking on to that, I just saw an article about an intersection control system being designed by some Virginia Tech engineers that would allow control of vehicles to be handed of from the car itself to the intersection, that would keep all vehicles flowing at top speed. One bit of skepticism is what happens when one vehicle that isn't under intersection control attempts to go through; I suspect that is, at best, a messy problem. Still, it's cool to see people are working on that sort of thing. I can't wait.


XML tuning

Going off on whole different path than normal, I'm going to discuss something technical. My work involves a lot of text processing, which means a lot of XML parsing. Since we have a lot of Groovy code, we started off using its XMLSlurper for parsing. And from a theoretical perspective, it's a great parser. It does everything we need, and was fairly simple to extend to track offsets into a document (ie: the values in node <node> go from offset 25-75), but has turned out to be fairly slow on large documents.

We have some files we use that regularly reach 8MB, and we might have to pull a few thousand values out of those files. After parsing, access was quite speedy, but initial parsing was taking seven to eight minutes. This was well over 99% of our execution time, so I finally went to search for alternatives a couple of days ago (I got on a bit of a performance kick after we got dressed down a bit on lack thereof causing problems).

So, after doing some searching, I found VTD-XML, by ximpleware. It claims to be fast and small, but with little or no support for namespaces. That suits our needs, at least for those documents, quite well. And it works by tracking offsets, which means no additional book-keeping for me. Sweet.

It took a bit of work to get it right; the documentation isn't great, and focuses on getting Strings out of the document, not offsets.

It's fairly minimal in how many classes you need (four, really, including the main Exception class), which is good.  But the javadoc has entries (sometimes unexplained) for just about everything, including all the internal stuff. So this guide is pretty useful, but glossed over some stuff I needed.

What I found out was that what I needed was VTDNav.getContentFragment() for nodes (and some bit-shifting/masking on its result). For some reason, though, this provides no useful values for attributes. For those, I needed VTDNav.getTokenOffset(int) and some String.indexOf(int, int) calls. But when I finally figured that out, the code turned out to be very small and fast, indeed. Just over one hundred lines of code on my part (most of which was fitting things into my existing interfaces), and speed on those same documents dropped down to about two seconds. Not too shabby, especially since the refactoring of my code to use it was just changing a couple of class references to interface references.

I can't wait to see people's faces when this code makes it into production.

(One minor word of warning to people thinking of using this code: it dumps some error messages via System.out.println(). Not sure what they were thinking, there. Thankfully, that's not a big problem for us, but it will be for some people. Also, make sure namespaces aren't going to trip you up.)

Fuzzy balls in flight

Just got directed at an old (1996) article about tennis just below the top level. It gets there by talking about people playing in a qualifying tournament in Canada, and what they have to go through, and how good they are. And then compares them against the truly top-level pros who are, of course, the only ones most people (even most tennis fans, as near as I can tell) have heard of.

I was never big on tennis; I only played one summer in college against a friend of mine.  How competitive?  We didn't even know how to serve properly, but it was a lot of fun. And I've never been big on watching tennis; I catch the majors occasionally, but don't go out of my way to do so.  I should point my father-in-law at this article; he did play at the men's league level for many years, so he'd know a lot more about that.

In any event, it's an excellent article that talks about the differences between #1 in the world and #100. You'd think that most people in any profession would be pretty happy to be known as just being in the top 100. And yet, you look at an article like this:

By the way, if you’re interested, the ATP tour updates and publishes its world ranking weekly, and the rankings constitute a nomological orgy that makes for truly first-rate bathroom reading. As of this writing, Mahesh Bhudapathi is 284th, Luis Lobo 411th.

And then moves on to how much they make in those qualifying tournaments:
The qualie circuit is to professional tennis sort of what AAA baseball is to the major leagues: Somebody playing the qualies in Montreal is an undeniably world-class tennis player, but he’s not quite at the level where the serious TV and money are. In the main draw of the du Maurier Omnium Ltée, a first-round loser will earn $5,400, and a second-round loser $10,300. In the Montreal qualies, a player will receive $560 for losing in the second round and an even $0.00 for losing in the first. This might not be so bad if a lot of the entrants for the qualies hadn’t flown thousands of miles to get here. Plus, there’s the matter of supporting themselves in Montreal. The tournament pays the hotel and meal expenses of players in the main draw but not of those in the qualies. The seven survivors of the qualies, however, will get their hotel expenses retroactively picked up by the tournament. So there’s rather a lot at stake -- some of the players in the qualies are literally playing for their supper or for the money to make airfare home or to the site of the next qualie.

It gives quite an appreciation for what these people need to go through if they want to be in the very top echelon. Remembering, of course, that the vast majority of these people will never make it (the focus of the article, Michael Joyce, actually topped out at #64.  A couple of months before this was written, in fact). It's a humbling thought, and gives me a great deal more appreciation for the players no one has heard of, and not just in tennis.

In fact, I think I'll look into whether the annual DC tournament, the Legg Mason Classic, has a qualifier I can go to, even if only for photographic purposes.


What happens to the evil?

My wife's parents flew out today; they've been visiting us for a while now.  We had a good time while they were here.  It was especially nice that they watched the kids for us for most of the day last Sunday.  We took the opportunity to catch the final matinee of 'Jekyll & Hyde' at the Kennedy Center.

My wife wasn't familiar with the show at all (or the original story, come to that).  I had the original concept album, and had listened to it many times, but hadn't seen it either.

They were apparently trying to drive attendance by getting stars that were known outside of Broadway.  I have no great issue with that, although I hadn't heard of the two stars before (Constantine Maroulis (of American Idol fame, it seems) and Deborah Cox (of R&B fame)).

I had some minor issues with the sound, although I do wonder how much of that was a matter of how far back we were sitting (we bought the tickets the night before), and how much was performance-related.  I should get the new 'concept album' to compare, I think.

In general, I didn't like the pacing in the newer version.  That was especially true in 'Bring On the Men', which was much choppier, but it was noticeable in other pieces as well.  And I wasn't thrilled with Mr Maroulis (his performance was where I was particularly wanting to compare the album), especially as Jekyll (and especially in the beginning).  I thought he did a much better job as Hyde, and towards the later parts of the show.

Ms Cox was excellent throughout, I thought.  In fact, she was good enough that I bought a couple of her R&B albums, out of curiosity.  Disappointing there, though; the material just didn't do much for me.  Ah well.

Two more criticisms related to the new version.  I was disappointed that the subplot between Lisa (whose name, inexplicably to me, changed to Emma) and Stride was gone; I particularly missed their duet at the engagement party (it also removed any reason not to kill Stride in the bloodbath at the beginning of Act II).  And the penultimate scene, with Jekyll and Hyde, seemed a bit off.  They added so much distortion to Hyde's voice (coming from a recording, obviously) that it was unintelligible.  Adding a little distortion there made sense, but it sounded terrible, to put it mildly.

But it was good to see the whole show.  I hadn't realized (or had forgotten) that Facade was sung by the members of the Board of Governors of the hospital.  That was a cool scene, starting with them largely undressed, and dressing them onstage to that song.  Very nice.  And the setup for 'This is the Moment' was pretty cool as well (this was also the turning point for Mr Maroulis' performance; I was very disappointed with him until this song.  He was good to excellent the rest of the way).

Overall, well worth seeing, and I'm glad we had the chance.


Who can be the most scurrilous?

This whole Petraeus incident has got all sorts of issues flying around about it. The media seems to care, because sex was involved. There are also privacy questions, and the question of whether Petraeus should have stepped down to begin with.

I'm not sure where I am on all of the issues. I'm fairly happy to see Petraeus gone, but only because I don't like having the spy agencies run by a military guy. I just don't want to see any more crossover there than required by immediate mission needs.

On the privacy front, I actually don't have a whole lot of problem with what was done, because they were investigating something that might have been a crime. The only part I don't know about is whether they got a warrant or not. If they did (and I think they would have had no problem getting one), then I think the system worked as it should. If they didn't, then I think they should have (though I believe the law doesn't, but should, require one).

Another part I have to think about is this. Petraeus was in position to know more about spying operations than anyone else in the country (even the President, who has less reason to know details). An affair is a major red flag for maintaining a clearance, because it's potential blackmail material. So I have mixed feelings about the ouster. I generally don't much care about a public official's sex life (for all I know, maybe his wife knew about the affair), because it has little effect on ability to carry out duties. But the potential for blackmail (especially if his wife didn't) is a real problem. So I have mixed feelings.

One thing I had to wonder about. When you have a clearance, you need to get reinvestigated periodically (how often depends on the clearance). Generally, people are asked for a list of people in different contexts (co-workers, neighbors, friends, etc) who will vouch for them. If someone has had a biography written, is the biographer automatically used as a reference? I have no idea, though it would certainly make sense.

After writing the previous (several days ago), this spot-on article about the media's approach to the whole thing was pointed out to me (Gruber, again).  I think the only questionable part of the whole thing was his complete dismissal of blackmail as a possibility; even if it hadn't happened (and there's no reason to think it did), it was still possible.  But that's a very minor quibble with an excellent article.

Hurry up and wait

I haven't really wanted to talk about the NHL lockout, it's just too depressing. And I can't say that it's gotten less depressing.

The thing that irritates me about the whole thing, as it has about the last couple of labor stoppages in other sports, is that this one is about some of the owners trying to handcuff other owners. And in this scenario, the players are really just pawns, even though they are, nominally, one of the parties in the negotiations.

It seems that the biggest sticking point is how to divide the money, with the players currently mandated (per a provision that the owners pushed during the last lockout) to get 57% of the money. Now the owners want that rolled back to about 50/50. Given that the main problem is between owners, I think the players should suggest a salary cap of 57%, with a floor of 43%, and not mandate any particular level of spending (but require all current contracts to be honored). I would bet that the players would end up getting 53-55% in that scenario, and there's no way for the owners to spin that to look like the players are the ones being greedy.

But, we seem to be stuck with endless amounts of nothing, as it appears that talks have come to a standstill. Maybe there should be mandated daily meetings. That is, force them to be in the same room. Let them do whatever they want in that room, but they'll eventually start talking. It would still take a while, but would be quicker than letting things happen whenever they want to get together.

Librarians Unite

I had a chance to look around a book store a while back (before seeing Raiders, now that I think about it), and did some browsing there. I eventually picked up a new one called Libriomancer, by Jim Hines (of whome I'd never heard). The title caught my eye, especially when, browsing the flap, it seemed a well-chosen one.

I got around to reading it a couple of weeks ago, and enjoyed it quite a bit. It was compared to Butcher's Dresden books, not completely unjustly, but this is not as good as those. This one I was able to put down.

But it had a very interesting magic system (actually, one fairly fully fleshed out with references to at least one other) based on using books. The idea is that a book made popular enough reaches into the Jungian subconscious, and gets some influence over reality. The main character, Isaac Vainio, is a librarian in Michigan's Upper Peninsula who is an outcast in the magic-using society (oddly named in a mix of middle high german and latin). Being a librarian gives him lots of volumes out of which to pull his power, but he's currently forbidden except in cases of self-defense.

And the book starts, of course, when that self-defense becomes necessary.  Insert obligatory twilight reference here, if you want (incidentally, I was quite surprised and mildly horrified when, that same night, I saw that the store had an entire section on 'Teen Paranormal Romance'.  Hopefully, Fifty Shades of Gray wasn't in it; I hadn't heard of the book at the time, so I didn't check).

The outcast part is the strongest parallel to the Dresden books, in fact, except that there is a much better reason for Isaac to be so than was the case for Dresden.

What was good about it? Well, the magic was very cleverly done, and well used. The characters are believable and enjoyable, and the threats are very interesting. I really liked how many different styles of vampires there are, and how that was explained. And Isaac managed some pretty cool stuff over the course of the book (particularly towards the end). Oh, and there were lots of literary references, especially to sci-fi and fantasy novels (some of which, admittedly, went over my head, but others were very well done).

The only part I didn't like was that the main thrust of what the bad guy did didn't seem possible, given the explanations given. In particular, it was explained that the power came about by being widespread. But the bad guy's book somehow managed to be sufficiently wide-spread to give him power while being unknown to librarians. That doesn't seem possible, and was given no more than a hand-waving explanation.

But that was a very minor point.

I am curious to know how far in advance Hines has the books plotted out. In some axes, he got a lot further than I would have thought reasonable for one book. But the main enemy is only introduced to the point of showing that they exist. So that part's intriguing.

Anyway, I'm very curious to see where it goes, and looking forward to the next volume.


When I heard about Brave, quite some time ago, I was pretty excited about it. Despite that, I never managed to catch it in the theaters. I did hear that it was only ok, even from friends, but that actually didn't do much to dampen my enthusiasm. The trailers certainly looked funny, and it hit me in a couple of soft spots (celtic influence, red-headed heroine, prominent archery).

So I didn't hesitate to preorder it when it was announced, and was happy to get it Tuesday.

I didn't watch it that night, though, thinking I wanted to get to bed earlier. And then I stayed up until two. sigh

So I watched it last night, starting with the new short, Legend of Mordu. Was quite disappointed by that. Was a decent background piece, and I liked how the witch portrayed herself. But compared to Burn-E or Jack-Jack Attack (or even Dug's Special Mission), it was extremely lacking. I doubt I'll watch it again, and I love watching those others.

Oh, and I watched La Luna with my son. It was largely obvious what was going to happen, especially as I'd noticed the name of the boat in the opening shot. But it was still very cute and enjoyable. It won't get into the conversation about Pixar's best short (I have a hard time picking between For the Birds, Presto, Lifted, and One Man Band), but I'd put it on a par with Geri's Game or Boundin'.

Anyway, after putting the kids to bed, I finally got around to watching the movie itself. I had somewhat mixed feelings about it. I liked Merida quite a bit, and I really liked some of the sequences leading into the main story (Merida's Day Off was extremely powerful, ignoring that doing that wearing a dress would have been suicide). The baby brothers were also hilarious, as was Fergus. And Emma Thompson did an excellent job as Elinor, the mother.

My big complaint about it, though, was that the main conflict was a self-inflicted problem. I'm never a big fan of that, and that certainly wasn't what I expected from what I saw in the trailers. I think I was expecting something more along the lines of Merida becoming the head of the kingdom in her own right, through dramatically saving the kingdom or something along those lines. But the only thing she ended up saving them from was her own pig-headedness.

I'll certainly end up watching it again (with my daughter, at the very least), but I must admit that it didn't live up to my (likely unrealistic) expectations.

I'd say it's worth watching, just know that it's mostly about Merida's relationship with Elinor (and does have some nice scenes between the two of them, as well).


Further Joyriding

I've been playing a bit more Jetpack Joyride lately (to the tune of 3090 games and 7590km since I mentioned picking it up again). Haven't gotten all the medals, but I'm getting close.

Actually, it was kind of funny; I was at the local Apple Store with my in-laws, to help them with something. Having a few minutes on my hands, I played around with an ipad mini, and found a custom version of the game installed. Fun. The mini won't get me to go buy anything, but it's intriguing. I might buy one once they have a retina version available, particularly if my iPod Touch dies (it'd make a nice replacement for that).

I also played it again on a new iPhone at the store. It played a tiny bit differently. I'd wondered about the widescreen ratio, and the way that was handled was to keep the person a further from the left edge of the screen, so that the game stayed the same difficulty. Clever way to use the extra space, without making the game easier. Actually, I mis-spoke a minute ago. It looked a bit different, but it played identically.

I also figured out something the other day. You have a specific time period after teleporting, where you can't do it again. I thought that was just a game-balance thing, so you couldn't repeatedly teleport to get out of almost anything. That might be the effect, but I'm pretty sure the reason is because you teleport forward. So there's a short time where you stop moving forward, to get back to your original horizontal position on the screen. And I think that the time it takes to get back to that position is identical to the no-teleport time. Subtle, but interesting.

And I just want to say that the Profit Bird doesn't like me, lately. Last three times I've had the mission, 'Travel X Total meters in the Profit Bird'. Last time was 1250m, I got 1037m on my first run. Not too bad. The time before that: travel 500m, got 496m on first run. What are the odds that there would even be an obstruction there? The time before that: travel 1000m, got 995m on first run. Yeow! Only saving grace on that last one was that I got the Bird again that game.

Now, a small complaint: I'd really like to be able to get all the stats on the prior run (or, even, on the current run). The stats are obviously kept, so it'd be cool to be able to see them. Not a big deal, but it would be nice.

Oh, and a minor strategy note. I originally mentioned not liking the gravity belt, that I found it more disruptive than the shoes. I recognized, even then, it having potential for allowing one to get further, and I've since experimented with it. In fact, I rarely play without it nowadays (less than 10% of the time, I think).

Making choices

Haven't felt much like writing lately. I'd like to say it's because there's nothing going on, but that certainly isn't the case. I mentioned going to vote that morning, but didn't write anything that evening, or the next morning. A side note that I implied in that post, but didn't say explicitly: I think everyone should vote, whether they agree with my views or not. One thing that really torques me about current debate. Why is this a partisan issue? Everyone should want as many people as possible to vote.  Isn't that the whole point of a democracy?

I actually didn't stay up that night to get the results (having gotten up so early to vote, I was rather tired, and the interim results I was seeing when I was debating going to sleep weren't encouraging), so I saw them in the morning paper.

It was kind of weird, in a way. When I went to bed, the news was showing Virginia (my home state) at 65-35 (roughly) for Romney. I forget what percentage of polls had closed then, but it wasn't a small number. That blew my mind. Hearing that it ended up going for Obama was certainly reassuring, but felt a bit bizarre.

The final results were a huge relief; I certainly don't think Obama is a terrific president (well, in some contexts, but his civil liberties positions are awful.  Which is especially disappointing as he campaigned on improvements there, but they've actually gotten slightly worse), but I am certain that Romney would have been an unmitigated disaster.

The referenda I heard about were very encouraging as well. Hearing the voters explicitly approve gay marriage in two states, and fail to disapprove it in two more, was very encouraging for the future. And having Colorado approve pot use is also encouraging. Far too many people have been killed and imprisoned for something that's far less dangerous than alcohol.

So let's keep moving this country forward, starting with not getting suckered into continuing the Bush tax cuts. If it takes letting them all expire, that's much better than keeping them all.  I guess we'll see what happens.


It's happening...

My wife and I showed up a few minutes before the polls opened this morning.  Was surprised to find a pretty long wait when we got there.  But we voted.  And, as a democracy, it was encouraging to see that the line had gotten longer while we were voting.  I'm curious how long it will take for the line to clear out.  An hour?  Two?  Three?

I'm guessing closer to the latter.  But it's good to see so many people taking time out to vote.


Getting a mite damp...

Hurricane Sandy is currently overhead (or, at least, the outriders of the storm are overhead), and have been dumping rain on us for most of the day.  It hasn't seemed that bad, although one tree of our neighbors has been knocked over, and a high school a couple of miles away supposedly saw winds of just over a hundred mph earlier today.

We've been pretty lucky, no doubt; our power has only gone out briefly so far; let's hope that doesn't change.

Basically, though, the entire region seems to be shut down, and that seems a bit much.  I guess we'll see, when we know a bit more about the overall effects.  I wonder if I'm making light of it too much; certainly my wife is a lot more concerned than I am.

One thing is for sure, my wife has turned on the all-news station here a bit, and they seem dedicated to scaring the bejeezus out of everyone around (not helped by commercials seeming to be about an even split between election propaganda and lawyers looking for clients to sue drug companies).  I guess they're just happy to have something pulling in a lot more viewers.  Sometimes I hate our so-called civilization.

Argo redux

I preordered Riordan's latest novel, The Mark of Athena, back in April. I had largely forgotten it until a couple of weeks ago, when I got an email that lasership was unable to deliver it, because the address was no good. Given that they've been delivering here for a couple of years without trouble, that was a bit weird.

In any event, I placed the same order (again with Amazon), and got it with no problem a couple of days later (even saving a penny in the process). I started it just about right away, and finished it earlier today.

It was not as good as the earlier books, I thought. I really didn't like the use of the eidolons (the first appearance felt a bit contrived, in particular). And much of the book just felt... Formulaic isn't quite the right word, but it's close. Kind of like, now we have a mini-quest for these two, then these three, etc.

Part of the problem was that I hadn't read the previous books in quite a while. It's possible that I'd have liked it more if I reread them right before reading this one.

Or maybe it just felt less focused because there were more demigods on the quest.  That wasn't exactly a surprise going in, and maybe I'm making more of it than I should.  Maybe it was just a pacing issue, with characters thinking more about things that were not immediately confronting them.  Maybe it was the perspective being mostly from the women.  But regardless of the reason, I had less trouble putting this book down than any of his earlier volumes.

There were no major chances from previously, however.  It was the same people, the situations were similar.  New threats kept coming at them.  The gods kept interfering.  Some threats were not touched at all, and are waiting for later.

I definitely liked Tiberinus and Rhea Silvia appearing out of Roman Holiday.  And I'm quite curious to know more about the Athena Parthenos.  In doing a little bit of online searching, I might have seen one of the copies of that, in the Louvre, a few years back.  If so, I had no idea about it, however.

I'd need to go back and reread a Jason and the Argonauts retelling, to see how closely this hewed to that.  I think not nearly as closely as the first series paralleled the labors of Hercules, though.

And the ending was certainly interesting, with somewhat of a Breaking of the Fellowship vibe to it, plus a certain irony in looking back to the title of the first book.  I certainly still want to see where the next volume goes (not geographically, of course, as that seems pretty obvious).

Overall, it was a good book, falling down mostly in comparison to the earlier tomes.

Update: I forgot to mention one huge miss in scale.  They go to the Atlanta aquarium, and mention a large tank there having 50k gallons of water.  For reference, that's a medium-large sized home pool.  An Olympic pool, for comparison, is at least (the dimensions only define a minimum depth, not a maximum) 660k gallons.  A large tank at a commercial aquarium can be several million gallons.  Not a big deal, but it was off by enough that I noticed it while reading, and had to stop to look up just how far off it was (because I instantly knew it was off by quite a bit; we had a 42k gallon pool in a house I lived in for a few years, growing up).

Baseball yesterday

I usually follow baseball pretty closely, at least checking the scores every day (Calcaterra does a particularly good job of this, I think, although fangraphs win pct graphs are also quite interesting). But this season, I've almost completely ignored baseball.

Which was, in retrospect, apparently not a good decision. First, the Nationals were legitimately good (as opposed to their first season in Washington, when they, at times, appeared like they might be good), finishing with the best record in the majors. Contributing to that, Bryce Harper had the fifth-best OPS+ ever for a 19-year old. Strasburg had a very good season, but might have been only the third best pitcher on the team (if ERA+ is your measure of choise). Elsewhere, Mike Trout upstaged Phat Albert on his own team (and it wasn't close). Miguel Cabrera was the first Triple Crown winner in many years. The new Wild Card system resulted in some weird games, including a massive controversy over the infield fly rule in the NL game.

But, like I said, I missed almost all of that. I didn't watch a single Nats game until game five of the division series, when I saw the Cards chip away at, and eventually overcome, a six-run Nats lead. Even worse, they had twice been down to their last strike. It wasn't exactly what I was hoping for, when I decided to turn the game on.

I didn't watch another game until last night. I wasn't even going to turn the TV on, but my wife asked if anything was on, and that jogged my memory about the Giants and Tigers playing. When we turned it on, the Giants were down a run, but Posey came up as we turned it on, and knocked it out to turn that around immediately.

The Tigers put one out in the bottom of the inning to tie the game, and it became a bullpen duel. I figured that would heavily favor the Giants, but nobody scored until it got to extra innings. That generally favors the home team, but not last night, as the Giants managed to manufacture a run on a bloop, a nice sacrifice (applauding only the execution, not the strategy), followed by another dying quail in the top of the tenth.

Sergio Romo came in to close it out, and did so with style (but not subtlety). He threw five straight sliders to the first batter, getting a strikeout, five sinkers to the second (same result), and six sliders followed by one fastball to Cabrera for the final out (another strikeout).

It was an interesting, back and forth, game that the Giants took to cap a surprising sweep. So congratulations to the Giants on the win.  I think they can now consider Sabean's position a sinecure (if it wasn't already), for better or for worse.  And let's hope the Nats can do better next year, with a full year of Stras, and improvement in development (for Harper, especially) and health (for Werth, especially).


Worker woes

I mentioned building the new floors in Tiny Tower quite a while ago.  At the time, I didn't know what they all were, and was a couple of days from finding out.  What turned out to be more interesting was getting all the people whose dream job was in those new floors.

I was actually able to get all but one of them within a day (and made about 50 tower bux in the process), but it took me until today to find the last one.  In the process, I was able to upgrade the efficiency of about half a dozen workers on old floors.

One annoying side effect was that, after getting all the old floors populated with dream job workers, I had created a spreadsheet with apartment and job floor numbers for everyone.  Thanks to that shifting, my spreadsheet was thrown out of whack.  I've mostly got it in order now, but need to get the last three or four people updated.

Whither music?

I wrote this as a very-extended comment for a long thread here (trying to be more cohesive than I managed there), but it took me an embarrassingly long time to put it together.  By that time, I wasn't sure what to do with it.  Rather than losing track of it entirely, I'm posting it here.

I'm going to try to pull in a lot of disparate pieces, and while I'm going to try to focus on music recordings, this'll definitely be a meandering course. Some of it is repeating things I said previously, but in more useful context.

Let's start by getting my bias out of the way. I really detest the major music labels, and their way of doing business. I've seen too many stories like this, this, this, this, and this. And more recently, this, this, and this. And even when suing "for the artists", who got the money? I think it's telling that a google search for "music label screws musician" returns 13M hits. Change musician to artist, and the total grows to 22.7M.

So if I seemed gleeful (or at least blase) about the profit prospects of the recording industry dimming, it's because I see the main loser being the labels, and that doesn't bug me at all.

Yes, some really nice omelettes get made, but an awful lot of the broken eggs are eaten by the chef.

To me, anything that makes labels more enablers for musicians, and less gatekeepers between them and the audience, the better.

But it was good to hear from people here to force me to consider who else gets affected. I'm not sure whether it changes anything here, but it at least gives me more to consider. More information on how people in various professions are directly affected is certainly welcome.

I also have another bias I should probably be up-front about. And that is that copyright, as currently legislated, has gotten way out of hand. Copyright exists to to promote the progress; ie: to encourage the creation of more art. Copyright periods lasting beyond the lifetime of the creator (especially if the creator is (legally, at least) a company, where lifetime, via M&A, can be infinite) do nothing to encourage further creation. In fact, they can easily become a disincentive. If someone can live a very comfortable lifestyle merely by collecting royalties, they're certainly not being given incentive to create more work (and if someone doesn't care about that, and still wants to create more works (kudos to them), then I hope we can agree that the original copyright probably did very little to encourage that person initially as well).

I also do not like the many attempts (mostly successful) to kill off specific technologies in the name of copyright enforcement. The most obvious of those are peer to peer tools. The benefits of using these are ignored in favor of their potential for ill (or at least the perception of that); I shudder to think what might happen when more people realize that email is, fundamentally, a peer-to-peer file transfer technology, and attempt to kill it. And what about technologies like service-provider-located DVRs? One in the home is clearly ok; why does it become not-ok if the device is located in Verizon or Comcast's server racks? What about companies like Aereo, ivi, or zediva? They were attempting to do things that have no fundamental reason to be illegal. And why is cracking DRM, in all cases (ie: even in cases where it is only for the purpose of enabling things that are clearly fair use) illegal?

Internet streaming of music is basically dead. The biggest player there, Pandora, has said that it might never be profitable, thanks to crippling royalty rates. If they're forced to close their doors, due to not being profitable (and really, if they see no prospect of being profitable, I've no idea why they wouldn't), then who wins? And why would anyone try to start one now?

Another problem I see with current law is that so many things are currently out of print. If something isn't in print, it's generally because (Disney's deliberate strategy of pulling movies off the market after X years is the only exception I'm aware of) there's no more money to be made. Those items (and, on average, it happens after less than five years) are still protected until we're all long dead and gone. That's certainly not promoting any progress. There is no winner from that, but there is certainly a loser (and the loser could be the artist; Moby Dick wasn't recognized as a great book until long after it was published. IIRC, it was 40-ish years later that it got noticed). Releasing things from copyright sooner would allow those titles to not be forgotten, and increase the odds of such late recognition. My pet idea for copyright term would be for 10 years or so for free, and then an exponentially-increasing fee to keep it protected after that (starting at a fairly nominal amount: $100, adjusted for inflation, say. Then increasing by, say, 20-50% every year). That way money could still be made, but everything will make it into the public domain in a finite length of time.

So, with those biases out of the way, let's move on. A lot of the anti-piracy rhetoric focuses on morality, and how customers should be consuming the media. The particularly pernicious element is the equating of copyright infringement with theft. Let's look at that from several angles. First, as I earlier pointed out, there are separate laws for copyright infringement and theft. If they really were the same thing, there would be no need for separate laws.

In fact, there are several very strong arguments that they are fundamentally different. The first is that, with copyright infringement, nothing is actually taken from the one whose works are infringed. There's no question that taking something from someone else is wrong. It's morally obvious. If copyright is just as obvious, rather than being a social contract, then why is copyright addressed in the Constitution, when theft is not (nor is murder, for that matter)? Even more to the point, why was federal copyright not seen to apply to sound recordings at all for many years (until Feb 15, 1972, as near as I can tell)?

The latter leads to two important points. The obvious one is why following copyright would be a moral imperative now, when it wasn't then. But the other point is that it begs the question of whether copyright is even needed for making money, because the music industry certainly made money before that (if I'm wrong about the date, it could weaken this latter point, but not eliminate it).

A common refrain goes along the lines of: "but the work was done. Copying requires payment." If a physical product is made, for which there is no market (think things along the lines of "New England Patriots, 2012 Super Bowl Champ" T-shirts), do they put them in the store, and insist that customers are morally obligated to pay for them? No, there's a recognition that nobody will pay, and the shirts are given away. Yes, music isn't something for which there is no market, but the root of claiming that payment needs to be made because the work was created is the same. And at the risk of belaboring the point, note that the companies making those shirts are explicitly losing money. There was a tangible loss, there, unlike in the case of an unauthorized download (where any loss is merely theoretical).

Another part of the moral argument has to do with culture. The problem is that culture needs to be, you know, shared. It can only be defined with regard to social norms. And those social norms must be defined by shared experience and beliefs. And, fundamentally, piracy is a question of sharing. If it can't be shared, then it's kind of hard to call it part of culture. So this discussion of owning that culture, to me at least, is very similar to saying that a private individual should own the Washington Monument or Mount Rushmore.

That certainly doesn't mean that I don't think people should be able to make a living in media creation; but I'll come back to this.

To those who would argue that there is only loss in copyright infringement, let me mention a specific case I know about where there is gain in infringement. Fans make subtitled versions of Japanese anime, and distribute them via BitTorrent, because they like the shows, and want to introduce them to others. Stealing from the Japanese, right? Well, the professional (US) translation companies monitor those sites, so they know which shows are popular, and therefore, which ones are worth licensing (ie: which ones will sell). The fansubbers reciprocate by pulling the torrents when shows are licensed.

Some of the other arguments I've heard focus on tech companies, saying that, for instance, Google should share its money with the music labels. The business of a search engine is to find what people are looking for. If they fail to do that, then they won't be used. So saying they should just change results returned (which I've occasionally, though not here, heard suggested) is a ridiculous suggestion. (And I think them factoring DMCA takedowns into their rankings, as they've recently agreed to do, is going to bite them in the ass, for exactly that reason. Not to mention that it is, again, punishing sites for accusations of wrongdoing, not for proven wrong-doing.)

It was pointed out that 10% of search engine searches are music-related. Assuming that to be true (and frankly, I'm skeptical of it even being possible to come up with a number for that), what is the suggestion for what should be done? Google doesn't make a penny off of most searches. In fact, they only get paid if a link that someone paid for is clicked as the result of a search (note: even if that same site is called out by Google's algorithms, if the "organic" result is clicked, instead of the paid one, then Google makes no money). The fact that Google can make money that way shows that driving traffic to a site is a valuable service.

So, to those who would advance that argument, a question: if, say, a music retailer pays for a link, and it gets clicked, should the music maker (assuming that can be determined, or via some sort of payment society) get paid also? Even though the retailer is trying to sell the music maker's products? And assuming the answer was yes, should the music maker be paid even if Google ends up helping the searcher find a site through a non-paid link (ie: should Google be paying, even though they made no money on the transaction)?

But let's look at the question of "music-related searches" a bit more closely, and some other issues that have to come up. First of all, what qualifies as a "music-related search"? Is 'abba' a music-related one? Well, Google's results indicate that that's likely, but, among many other possibilities, are that you are looking for a Biblical quote, the a religious title, an LED lighting company, adoption in Canada, heavy equipment leasing, or for a University or a town or a hotel or a different hotel or another hotel (and yes, if anyone is wondering, those did all come out of the results of a search for abba). Would the same person (whoever that is) be paid (assuming I'm looking for a song) if I go to the music video, or an audio stream of the song, or the lyrics, or the sheet music, or a book containing the sheet music, or a CD? What if the song isn't available in my country?

And then there are some more things to consider. Should they also pay movie studios for movie-related searches? What about authors for books? What about authors of random web pages (those are copyrighted also). Does it mean that people who just started out get shafted, and the big names get all the money (a la ASCAP/BMI)?

Any argument that doesn't result in paying the page to which the search went is fundamentally an argument that the search engine needs to track what the search is related to, which, as shown above, might not be possible to determine. Google provides so many results because they fundamentally CAN'T know.

Which leaves you with basing it on the page to which people go. But Google has already provided a service for that page. They should pay for providing help? That's quite a slippery moral argument, itself.

Not to mention, getting back to the question of where the search goes. If it goes to a youtube video, is the person looking for video or just for music? Heck, maybe they just like the person doing the dancing. Again, it's hard to say.

I think the music industry needs to just stop those arguments, and try to use the services provided. Bandwidth too expensive? Put your music on Megaupload, and point your fans there, as Dan Bull did. Or use BitTorrent for your distribution. The more demand you have, the more bandwidth that gives you. Searches aren't going to your pages? Do some work to try to make it so they do (and since the largest single factor in that happening seems to be how many external pages point to your page, do the work to put what somebody searching for your terms would want, so that other people will WANT to link to you). I know some degree of this is going on with youtube (at least for movies; I don't know about music), and that's a step in the right direction, but there needs to be more.

As I said earlier, search engines drive traffic. Put yourself in a position to get that traffic, then take advantage of that traffic, somehow. Make Google your friend, instead of acting like it's out to get you (when Google really couldn't care less about you, one way or the other).

There's also the argument (that I've heard here and elsewhere) that technology companies should know that they're engaged in nothing but thievery. This is ignoring several important issues. One is all the previous cases of new technology coming along, where the content industries made very similar arguments. Another is that it ignores other potential uses of those technologies. The Supreme Court's rationale of "substantial non-infringing uses" in the Betamax decision was a recognition that there is significant public good in being able to try out new business models even if they might have deleterious effects on existing industries.

In a bit of irony, when I listed those earlier examples of technology shifts, I forgot to mention recorded music itself. Yes, the music industry actually argued that recorded music WAS a threat, because it would destroy the sheet music industry. Well, it did. How did that work out for everyone? To be clear, I don't think the recording industry is going away, but insisting that it can't change is just pissing into the wind. If it does go away, it'll only be because it's been replaced by something better.

The most important point of the last two paragraphs is to note that, in all of the cases cited (except, perhaps, the telephone, which might merely be neutral), the industries made vastly more money once they embraced the technology in question.

The music industry, just like every other business in existence, is about providing value to the customer. If the customer doesn't feel value is being provided, they won't pay. If there is value, all evidence says that they want to support the musicians. Maybe not by buying recordings (that's less clear, although iTunes sales numbers argue strongly that it isn't an absolute rejection of recordings), but they do want to. (If you don't believe that, and you want to make music for those people you don't think want to support you? Well, I can see no alternative to you being either crazy (in a clinical sense) or stupid.)

But what really irks me about much of this discussion is the practical side of suggested solutions. Most of it has to do with the thinking that, "You know the content is pirated". But the simple fact of the matter is that a company doesn't. I listed most of these before, but here's a bunch of the problems with that (this is everything I could think of, but I do not claim this list is exhaustive).

1) There's just too much of it. Youtube gets an hour of new video every second of every day. To keep up with that in real-time (and ignoring that the rate is increasing), Google would need to hire over fifteen thousand people just to watch it. And that's assuming that copyright status can be determined as quickly as something gets watched. And those people would need to be trained lawyers. It'd certainly be good for law schools (and the current job market for lawyers), but it would cost around half a billion dollars per year (assuming lawyers working at $33k annually, which is obviously quite low). And that's just one site. And only looking at US copyright laws. You'd need separate teams to do the same evaluations in nearly every country of the world (or an extensive training program for the evaluators).

Now let's look at the factors in determining whether something infringes:
1) Is the work even original enough for copyright protection? In a computer graphics class, we were required to post videos of the execution of our code (exploring a 3D space, IIRC). Those probably wouldn't qualify at all (but maybe they do, if the programmer put a lot of effort into how it looked in doing that exploration). This is a step that requires a lawyer. And might well vary from country to country.
2) Next, you need to accurately identify what the media is. When all you've got is a filename, and it's something like Vacation_video_summer_2008.avi, you have very little to work from. What if it's something like 'batman.avi'? Which episode of which TV show is it, or which movie? Or maybe it's a slideshow of scans of the comic book. Is there an easy, automatic way to figure it out? (There is a partial solution to this on Youtube, called ContentID. But that requires help from rightsholders, and can easily step on legitimate postings. False positives are a very difficult problem.)
3) You need to know whether the media in question is under copyright. Here's a flowchart about how to determine that. Yes, theoretically a database could be created to solve that part. Except that copyrighted material is expanding faster than any database could possibly keep up with. (The copyright office has somewhat of a database, but it hasn't been entirely digitized.)
4) You need to know who the rightsholder is. (which again requires that you've correctly identified the material. It also requires that you can identify both people. Dave Clemmer might not be Dave Clemmer, as we already saw.)
5) You need to know whether the person doing the uploading is the rightsholder, or whether the person has the permission of the rightsholder. A likely special case of this is open source or creative commons-licensed media. Can you look up the license?
6) If there is use of copyrighted material, but it isn't an exact copy (and note that, in this case, you need to not only determine whether this material is copyrighted, but what it resembles. Good luck with that, even working by hand), then you need to consider whether the use is transformative. Someone with more experience could probably do a better job of an example of this, but think something along the lines of creating a sculpture based on a painting. This is a step that not only requires some training, but upon which trained people can disagree.
7) Finally, if you're still not sure, you need to do a fair use/fair dealing determination. This step also requires a trained lawyer. This is also the step that will vary the most from country to country. Eliminating this step is moving from "presumed innocence" to "presumed guilt", legally. That's a step I'd tread very carefully over.

Another part that bothers me is the treatment of "pirates". Suing individuals was incredibly stupid and short-sighted (and unprofitable, thankfully). But it appears that the only thing learned is that the PR hit needs to be shuffled off to others (the FBI, primarily). And if that pushes the costs off onto the government, even better. And suing companies is playing a game of whack-a-mole that can never be won ("I got this site, on to the next one." Lather, rinse, repeat. Until you find that the sites are all hosted in countries that don't give a fig what the US thinks. It's especially pernicious when the behavior doesn't break the law in that country (like several cases of going after people/sites that only link to content, where such behavior has been found legal by obscure countries like the UK or Spain. Look up Richard O'Dwyer or rojadirecta (the government finally gave up its case there, thankfully), respectively, for examples)).

Yet another approach is (as far as I can tell, mostly "was" for the music industry) the use of DRM. Aside from the fact that these are quite insulting to consumers ("thank you for paying the money for my product; I think you're going to use this criminally, so I'm going to limit what you can do with it"), it was also dangerous in several different ways. One was the literal attacks on consumer's computers (see Sony rootkit debacle). Another was the approach in the DMCA that forbade research into evading DRM. Forbidding education (which is what research is) is, quite frankly, a nearly unforgiveable sin in my book. All DRM that I've heard details about are just cryptography problems. Generally implemented quite badly, from what I've seen, but the point is that it's blocking research into certain cryptography problems. Exploring how other people have solved a problem is how one inevitably starts learning about that problem. So that's another threat to the technology industry.

It was also, in some implementations, quite the screw-job of the customer. It was used in Wal-Mart's and Microsoft's online music stores, and everything they sold became unplayable when the stores went offline.

And everything pointed out in those two paragraphs ignores the biggest point of all: DRM did nothing to stop piracy. All that DRM'ed music was still available online. Sometimes before it was even available from authorized sources.

Plus, as noted recently, the bulk of "piracy" is occurring offline or peer-to-peer. And those can only be tackled via massive, and extremely intrusive, surveillance. It can be hindered with serious blocking of internet traffic (although those hindrances can be avoided via tunnelling), but not stopped. To really block it would require packet inspection. And, of course, that would eliminate legitimate uses of the technologies (I use bit-torrent regularly to get (and seed) linux OS images, for instance).

Even further, the attacking of "pirates" eliminates business models that do have legitimate uses. For instance, cyber lockers would be one cheap way to do offsite backups. If I were to do that for my personal hard drive, for instance, there would certainly be a lot of copyrighted material uploaded, but nothing illegal would be going on.

As a bit of a side note, I also talked about a quote from Regina Spektor, about online sharing giving poor people access to music. I wasn't saying that her quote was saying it was a moral imperative to do so (which I think is how it was taken), just that I liked it because it recognized the potential benefits to doing so.

Moving on, one sign of the problems of file sharing that T Bone mentioned was writers getting the shaft in a serious way from the movie and TV studios in labor negotiations. I must admit that I'm not seeing the connection there; it seems of a piece with the short-sighted union busting and unfair cost cutting going on across the corporate spectrum in the interest of short-term profits and driving all money into as few hands as possible (it was pointed out to me earlier today that some of that is driven by leveraged buyouts, as well). Copyright infringement might be the excuse used, but I have trouble seeing it as anything more than that. (Although, to be fair, I'm not sure what it would take to convince me of a real connection. A studio head saying it publicly, for instance, would certainly not convince me.) And the specific case cited seemed largely driven by unscripted "reality" shows removing almost all leverage for TV show writers. I certainly don't agree with what happened, but again, don't see it as having anything to do with copyright at all.

I mentioned the movie studios making large amounts of money. Here's what I've found for the last ten years for income.

I don't know about breakdown of major studios vs independents, but here's what I've found at boxofficemojo.com for titles by year over the same span (remembering that 2012 isn't finished, of course).

Year - Titles - Gross
2012 - 428 - $6.9B
2011 - 601 - $10.1B
2010 - 535 - $10.2B
2009 - 521 - $10.8B
2008 - 608 - $9.7B
2007 - 631 - $9.7B
2006 - 608 - $9.2B
2005 - 547 - $8.8B
2004 - 551 - $9.3B
2003 - 506 - $9.1B
2002 - 479 - $9.2B

And here's what I've found for titles (feature films) per year over the same span on IMDB. Obviously, this is not only large and small studios, but also international ones (and probably includes shorts, as well). But the trend in this data is very clear. (And note, of course, that 2012 isn't even finished yet.)

Year - Total - in US
2012 - 9281 - 4369
2011 - 7801 - 3068
2010 - 7041 - 2785
2009 - 6735 - 2790
2008 - 5588 - 2065
2007 - 4805 - 1694
2006 - 4566 - 1616
2005 - 4202 - 1457
2004 - 3754 - 1157
2003 - 3590 - 1093
2002 - 3709 - 1164

So, I don't really see pursuing piracy as anything more than a distraction from the business of... well, business. I certainly don't see it as a moral issue to kill the practice. And I don't see anything to celebrate in what is happening to Megaupload. The number of ways "justice" was contravened in the idea of shutting down the site are numerous, and far more damaging to society than any amount of copyright infringement. Is pursuing copyright violations really more important than constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech, due process, and presumption of innocence? Because the megaupload shutdown has problems under all three of those rights. (As does the dajaz1.com shutdown, which I earlier referenced.)

So, in the interest of being more than just a critic, the question becomes, where do I think things should go from here?

I gave a couple of vague ideas up above. Another one that isn't too specific is to get rid of regional licensing for music. That's an idea that might have made sense twenty-five or fifty years ago, but makes none at all now. At least not with digital distribution (I'm not as sure about physical products). In fact, regional licenses are a major hindrance, as it means that pirated copies are far more likely to be available before authorized ones.

How do you beat piracy? You make a better product, or you make it more convenient to buy, or you find another reason to give the consumer a reason to buy. One that I thought of, that gives up on the convenience, but makes piracy completely irrelevant, is to give personal intros to songs. Yes, how much that would be worth would be directly proportional to how popular the group is (I have no idea how much you'd have to pay the Stones to do that sort of thing for instance, but I'm sure it would be a ridiculous amount). But think of it this way, if it makes it onto the file-sharing networks (and I tend to doubt it would, frankly), who cares?

How else do you make money on recordings? Freemium is one way, that some are using successfully. Another that I've heard about is releasing unfinished pieces (each instrument's track, separately, for instance), and allowing people online to make their own mixes. Another idea I've heard is abandoning the album model entirely. Not being a musician, I'm not sure where I'd go with that, but much more frequent releases of individual songs is one thought.

Another way, I think, is to save money on the recording process. I envision avoiding the contract repayment stipulations referenced above by initially making do with a cheaper mastering process (I'm told, and feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, that a fairly cheap home studio can sound pretty similar to what a high-end studio could do not that long ago). And then, if they felt it was worth the cost, see about financing time in a top-end studio via kickstarter. A lot less risk exposure to the musicians that way. Plus, it gets the fans more involved in the process, which is always a benefit. An expansion of that idea, that just occurred to me, is that you could offer levels of support, and one level could be to be present for that recording process (better cap the number of people who can do that :). Another level could be to be credited somewhere.

But the big gains, I think, will be looking for complete alternatives, and it should be pointed out that these are envisioned to help bands of different sizes. Also, some of these depend very heavily on the artist wanting to do them; don't force a neurotic loner to do some of them.

One that I saw was the ability to spend a day with the artist. The particular case was to spend it at Disneyworld, which had special meaning for that artist (sorry, I forgot who it was).

Another, that could be set up via some combination of twitter and kickstarter, would be to do impromptu concerts (maybe at a local park, or some such). I doubt that would make a lot of money, but it would probably make some (and kickstarter would allow you to, more or less, guarantee that), and would be a good way to connect with fans.

Yet another idea would be selling backstage passes (I believe they are currently given away to family/friends/business partners, etc. Is that not the case?). Again, giving a chance for fans to feel (or, in this case, be) close to the artists. Another that could be combined with concerts would be personalized T-shirts (like those stands in the mall, except in the concert venue, and perhaps with the shirts customized with date and venue (instead of just showing the whole tour).

Anyway, as I intimated a number of times, I don't see that as being anything close to an exhaustive list, but all pieces of the puzzle that can potentially make up the slack. (I say that somewhat tongue in cheek, because as a number of those links above showed, there is little, if any, slack from the artists' perspective.)

I think that about covers my thoughts on copyright and piracy, but as a bit of a detour, there was also some talk about file formats. I perhaps jumped on something that I shouldn't have commented on, due to lack of detailed knowledge, but let me think out loud for a minute or two here. One important point was that I was purely talking about digital play formats, rather than, say, disk formats that are a lot harder to get into wide acceptance (I am, sadly, aware of the fate of SACD and DVD audio). I have no idea of the licensing hell that would, perhaps, ensue from this, but has any thought been given to an app-driven solution to distribution? That is, a format that plays in a custom app on a smartphone. And in which app new tracks could be purchased?

But wait, didn't we agree that the electronics for playback is, pretty much, shit? Well, two things about that. One is that I am assuming (and admitting it's an assumption; I don't think I have the equipment to test it) that sending output via an iPhone's HDMI output is considerably better than using its headphones. Certainly, there's a win there insofar as multichannel output is possible (although, thinking about it, you could do multichannel out to headphones, as long as you know you're going to headphones, if you want to do the channel-combining logic in the app). The other is the thought that it might be possible to get an iPhone or Android phone made with higher-quality components. That's one place where I don't know if the market for it is big enough to make that economically viable; I know a few people who'd be willing to pay for it, but it isn't a huge number, for sure. Especially given how disposable phones are for most people.

Maybe it'd make more sense to do, instead of or in addition to that, a component that plugs into a receiver. Maybe with video output for visualizations or videos, and to allow online browsing and purchasing. And, of course, if that's in addition, then it better be easy to synchronize (whether via cloud or direct transfer) with the smartphone.

Another idea that came out of the earlier discussion was about appreciating good quality sound. There's certainly some degree of not caring from a lot of people. In fact, from what I've heard, surveys that are done indicate that few, if any, people can reliably (ie: in double-blind tests) distinguish between compressed and uncompressed formats of sound. So I wondered if it would be possible to put together a package in the highest quality available (uncompressed blu-ray, I believe?) that would point out what to listen for. Educational audio/video for the ears, as it were. But the idea would be to play the highest quality available side by side with compressed audio, to show exactly where the differences are.

What have you done for me lately?

I recently mentioned having watched Raiders of the Lost Ark in the theater, and enjoying that.  Apparently, someone else recently watched the whole series, and had a fantastic idea.  What happens when Indiana Jones files for tenure at school?  Hilarity ensues. (h/t Gruber)


Resplendent Quetzal

I don't talk about it a lot, but I use ubuntu for my home server and for my development machines at work.  So I was fairly excited about the latest release coming out today.  I don't usually get it the first day, but decided to do it this time.

Anyway, it's called Quantal Quetzal (the picture that goes with it is based on the resplendent quetzal.  I should really look it up, but I assume the name is an aztec one (they have a god named quetzalcoatl, a bird-snake, IIRC).  The bird looks like this; pretty neat.

I haven't done much with it, it's only on my server box, but I'm looking forward to finding out.  I especially want to know about juju, which sounds nifty.

Economists agree...

I heard a bit from Planet Money this morning, where they were talking to five economists from across the political spectrum, about six ideas the group agree on. I'd heard of the group before, and agree with some of what they said, but think some of it is blisteringly stupid.

We'll start with the parts with which I agree. That would be legalizing marijuana and taxing carbon emissions. Let's do it. Make sure we invest the emissions income in public transportation, but I completely agree with both of those.

Next, the one I somewhat agree on: eliminating mortgage interest deduction. I think that's actually overdone; personally, I would reduce, rather than eliminate, it. My pet idea is to reduce it down to one house, and a limit of the median home price of the year before (or two years before, if we want to make it predictable a little more in advance). That way it helps the middle class, and encourages home ownership, but isn't a vehicle for the rich to get richer.

Next, the one I'm not too sure about: ending the tax deduction for providing health care. I'm not sure what I think about it, but I think I'll come back to this in a minute.

Finally, the ones I find mind-bendingly stupid: eliminating corporate, income, and payroll taxes (ignoring, of course, that following through on these would make the suggestions in the last two paragraphs pointless). Payroll taxes are paid to separate out mandatory and discretionary spending in the government budget. If you want to make it trivially easy to underfund or eliminate social security/medicare/medicaid, then that's a great policy idea.

But eliminating corporate and income taxes really take the cake. The explanation advanced for corporate taxes is that you don't want to discourage reinvestment. Maybe it escaped them that those reinvestments aren't taxed, and never have been. Those are expenses. Businesses are only taxed on profits (you know, revenue minus expenses). I can't understand how someone (let alone five someones) calling themself an economist can make such a basic mistake.

But it's even worse than that; reducing corporate taxes actually DIScourages reinvestment. Why? Because, without corporate taxes, the cost to the business of making those reinvestments actually goes UP (it also raises the marginal cost of hiring, as well! Yeah, we don't want businesses hiring). If the tax rate is 35% (it's around there), and a business looks at a $1M capital investment, they can say that it really only costs them $650k, because they would have lost the other $350k anyway to taxes. But if there are no corporate taxes, they look at that investment, and say that it costs them $1M, making it less likely that they would make that investment (the ROI is guaranteed to be smaller).

On the income tax side, why is that stupid? Well, it's actually only stupid in terms of how it would be replaced. The stupidity is in terms of what you want to encourage or discourage. If you don't tax income, then someone needs to work less hard to get the amount of money they need for what they want to buy. What government should be encouraging is production, and should be mostly neutral on income.

Actually, it now occurs to me that this whole thing about eliminating tax is a complete supply-side attempt at a solution. There's actually nothing politically neutral about it (at least not these parts of it). It's attempting to increase the supply of money available for spending.

The part of it that is downright stupid is this: they acknowledge that taxing something discourages it. Why would you worry about discouraging income (which has built-in advantages, almost no matter how much it is taxed), and instead discourage consumption (which does not)? Consumption is good for the economy. It provides more demand, which will, in turn, require more supply (and more people to do work to provide that supply). The whole problem with supply-side solutions to problems is that too much supply DIScourages demand, which discourages economic activity overall. That means it, by design, leads to economic contraction. Why would the government want to pursue such a policy? It's self-defeating.

And all that ignores the large practical problems with a consumption tax. To whit, consumption taxes are inherently highly regressive (poor people spend a much larger portion of their income), and that's not easily flipped. You can increase the tax as items get more expensive, I suppose, but that's hard to keep from being highly gameable. And you can eliminate taxes on certain necessities. The point is, though, you quickly end up with a system every bit as complex as what we have. So what's the point?