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September 30, 2002

Google News Displeases the Beeb

LaughingMeme notes that the BBC seems put off by Google's news service.

LaughingMeme is irritated over the BBC's irritation and chooses to attack the slender attribution of a few of the sources, which is fine, but blows that complaint by exaggerating the issue, and then launches into the standard paranoid rant about "mainstream media" trying to suppress the innurnet by claiming that Google is somehow freeing us from the shackles of the tyrannical big media outfits by aggregating all their content and letting people read it. If that sentence is convoluted, it's because the reasoning behind it is, as well. It's the same thing we've been getting from the slashbots for years: fawning praise of sites that regurgitate mainstream press reports (depend on them, in fact), yet claim moral superiority because they approve of the sort of person who bothers to comment in the forums or, in this case, the technology that drives the site.

I like Google's news page and visit it several times a day because it's more readable and comprehensive than any other front page I've seen. On the other hand, even people friendly to it have already begun noting that it has some interesting skews (like a seeming preference for some wire services, no doubt based on their widespread propagation), and it doesn't seem like a crazy stretch to imply that we'll need a few more months plus, perhaps, a major news event or two, to see how the algorithm proves itself.

In the meantime, the BBC folks have a point, even if its couched in a flawed story: we've seen human-driven editorial decisions at their best, and they can be pretty damn good... we've only seen one machine-driven editorial decision mechanism, and it's less than a year old. No matter how much we like the idea of an impartial algorithm computing the value of news stories rather than someone with, perhaps, an ideological axe to grind, doing it for us, Google has yet to establish that the stories it places highest are the best choices. Until more time has passed, being anything less than skeptical is inexcusable complacency.

Posted by mph at 6:41 PM

Red Hat 8.0 Arrives

Red Hat 8's release is already making the ever-vocal fringe unhappy as it courts the desktop crowd.

Red Hat 8.0 came out today:

Common thread:

The desktop fixation isn't going to abate any time soon. Red Hat's more modest than its fans in this case, saying its newest release will make a great "single user workstation" (as opposed to a widespread corporate desktop for 'normal users'), with Eric Troan of RHAT weakly noting that "Linux has really cool photoediting tools," which I think we're supposed to read as the GIMP.

In fact, the reviewers seem more interested in pushing it as a desktop solution than Red Hat, with OS News pulling the interesting stunt of not only asking if it's a "Windows killer" (an evil slur reviewers in the cheap seats have been pushing since Caldera slapped Tetris in its installer) despite Red Hat's perfectly reasonable demurrals, but then going on to tear it up because it isn't while spending a 'graf saying "Oh, yeah... it might make a good server." OS News wouldn't know, of course, because that's out of the reviewer's league.

This release is also the subject of much anger among many because of the unification of GNOME and KDE under a common theme and menu structure, plus the subordination of a few KDE apps (such as kMail and konqueror) to GNOME or non-KDE apps like Evolution and Mozilla.

It's also an unpleasant reminder that "Linux people" aren't what they used to be: complaining over system defaults from self-styled power users indicates a certain thinning of the blood. Don't like them? Change them to suit you. Unless Red Hat's figured out a way to keep you from getting root on your own machine, you're the boss. Don't you have bigger fish to fry than spending a month crying all over message boards about something it takes five minutes to correct?

The answer to that, unfortunately, is "no."

People who remember the period during which Linux and "Open Source" software began to truly explode into public awareness also remember a lot of claims made by the most feckless Linux advocates:

Microsoft was "in a death spiral," KDE and GNOME were going to crush Windows, Mozilla was going to drive Internet Explorer from the Web, and the public would wake from the long nightmare of Microsoft dominance to embrace The Revolution.

And at that time, the loudest, most motivated zealots began the process of examining each release of every distribution or major application not as a question of how good it was on its own merits, or how much it advanced the state of the art, but how well it served the purpose of crushing Microsoft once and for all. Linux stopped being a thing unto itself... a kernel and predictable software inventory, and became instead an agent for computing salvation: there is but one OS, and the distributions are its prophets. To the extent one of those prophets fails in its mission to destroy Windows, it is flawed and despised.

Red Hat, of course, will never win with these people: it's popular and successful (which provokes a lot of tortured reasoning about its likelihood to become "the next Microsoft"), it backed GNOME when the Qt licensing holy war was raging, and while it is happy to peddle eyecandy to the desktop set, it will likely never move past anemic assertions about its own worth as a "single user workstation" because its executives don't want to be jeered as starry-eyed fanatics by the very large and skeptical mass of people who have listened to the Linux-on-the-desktop pitch, perhaps even tried it out, and rejected it. There's nothing a zealot hates worse than a prophet who isn't sufficiently zealous.

Posted by mph at 2:14 PM

September 26, 2002

Our Boys Abroad and the Sex Slave Trade

Michael B. sent a link to today's LA Times, which has a feature on prostitution in off-post clubs in S. Korea.

I did a year in South Korea (more popularly referred to as "the RoK" among soldiers) from '94 to '95. I was located in the south, and this article says the worst abuses it reports are occuring in the north near Osan AFB and Camp Casey, but it's impossible to not remember the bar girls and the thinly masked prostitution involving $10 bar drinks or GI's who forked over weekly "rent" for their "girlfriends" to the ahjuma (aunt) who ran the bar.

At the time, yes, it seemed like a mostly-consensual (economically, even) set of relationships, and a small dose of cultural relativism whisked away the last of any concerns you might have. A few weeks on post watching formerly reasonable people losing their minds over not having a girlfriend made it seem like a positively benign thing. I was best friends with a popular co-worker and spent a few nights ignoring incessant pounding on my door because a hormone-crazed redneck from Texas had it in his head that I was keeping her from him. If I would have had the presence of mind to rent him a girlfriend, I wouldn't have had to worry about the beating I would have gotten if I hadn't made it a point to avoid him when he was drunk.

Facetiousness aside, I had it easy. Camp Carroll boasted a mere 10 or 12 to 1 ratio of male to female soldiers. Up north, that ratio changes dramatically as the nature of the units changes from support and combat support to infantry and armor. All those people spend a year in a place where they don't know the language, can't even phoneticize the names of streets, shops, or even junkfood wrappers they encounter outside the gates, and don't have much of anything else around they're familiar with. Saying it "sucks" is an understatement. Some personalities look at that sort of situation as an adventure, others think it's a living hell.

I thought it was an adventure for about nine months. I made friends with a KATUSA (that's a Korean soldier who serves in a US military unit), got to see some interesting places with him, and then promptly lost the friendship as he decided US soldiers were a scourge thanks mainly to a series of high-profile incidents involving violence between soldiers and Korean civilians. A month of being locked down on post and forbidden to leave at night culminated in Corporal Kim telling me he just wanted us all gone.... all of us... now. Then he stopped talking to me.

So around month nine, it wasn't an adventure anymore... it was just a hostile place far from home where you were only guardedly welcome in the area right next to post, and only because you were spending. That's not a relationship unusual to Army posts in the U.S. either, for that matter, but add in the language and cultural gap and the sense on the part of the youngest in that society that the US is keeping both Koreas from overcoming their problems and perhaps even creating the problem it's there to solve, and you've got something that a half hour drive to the nearest non-Army town won't solve.

The shame of the LA Times story isn't that the market is filling a tangible need that probably keeps the powderkeg that is a locked-and-cocked military unit in a dangerous place from exploding... the shame is that, as usual, the scum are filling the need because there's no legitimate, legal way to do it. The generals are "shocked! shocked!" and merely, as a result, contributing to the dynamic that perpetuates the problem, turning a puritanical blind eye on the whole thing until a reporter from the LA Times comes nosing around, at which point they'll "get right on that" and drive the whole thing underground until people remember to turn a blind eye again, then the scum resurface and resume business as usual.

Posted by mph at 2:16 PM

The RIAA Goes for the Soft Sell

Congratulations are probably in order for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). After thrashing around for a few years with the ever-stern and unpleasant Hilary Rosen always at the ready with pitchforks and torches to burn out Napster and its ilk, they've decided to take the fight against "Internet music sharing" to the public with something besides shrill appeals to law: they've enlisted Britney Spears, Luciano Pavarotti, Madonna, and others to appear in full-page ads.

I've had a nasty chuckle over the problems consumer culture's suppliers (like the companies represented by the RIAA) face when the carefully cultivated need to acquire spills over into the anarchy of "music theft."

It's not a question (as the Slashbots will tell you) of an "outmoded business model," which would seem to imply that buggy whip manufacturers should have left all their doors open at night once they weren't as relevant. Their hatred of copyright in general is the byproduct of a deeper cultural gulf between engineers and creative types that plays itself out in the high drama of Nick Parks. If a common geek presumption is that all art can be reduced to algorithm, it follows that the value of music or any other mass-replicable creative expression is next to nothing, with perhaps a few scraps tossed the way of the creator via a tip jar that reduces all artists to street performers.

It isn't even a question of whether copying music is good for the music industry. It might be, which doesn't address the legality of the thing or the question of whether the RIAA's members should be allowed to pursue a self-destructive course if that's where their bliss lies.

It remains a question of laws... and tortured "fair use" claims that seem to include my "fair use" right to rip a CD and burn a few copies for whoever asks in my immediate circle of friends. The RIAA doesn't trust us to treat our ability to reproduce music responsibly, and the law backs up some of their resulting concerns.

Do some people treat their ability to duplicate music in a responsible manner? Sure. I'd guess a lot of people do. I know that I decided to not make a gift of burned copies of the Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack , and I can say, with a straight face, that I bought two new CD's in a week based on things I heard on the late, lamented SomaFM. I know others have behaved similarly.

On the other hand, it's hard to forget the guy down the hall in college who had a veritable factory of software he was willing to "share" with others. I once did the math on his collection, assuming an average value of $15 per title, and realized he was sharing tens of thousands of dollars worth of software with anyone who cared to ask. Is it a horrible leap to imagine that there are people with similar inclinations doing the same with a stack of <$1.00 CDR's and a burner?

The RIAA doesn't think so, and they think it might be costing them. Up to now, they've been barking up the wrong tree, attacking the services that facilitate music sharing and presenting a dour "rules are rules" image that will not override the impulse to consume they rely on most of the time. With the new campaign, they've finally figured out how to sell their case: with the stars they keep in the stable.

Hilary Rosen wagging her finger doesn't mean much, but what about the plaintive appeal of Britney, who asks " "Would you go into a CD store and steal a CD?" or PDiddiPuffywhateverheis Combs, who asks music fans to "put yourself in our shoes."

Probably won't do a hell of a lot of good, but it's a step in the right (PR) direction.

This news happens on the same day Peter Gabriel announces that his current album is available over the 'net or on CD. The interesting wrinkle is that the 'net version is available in Microsoft's digital rights management (DRM)-armored format, which will limit its replication/redistribution while allowing owners the ability to burn two copies to CD. It's not clear whether the privilege involves making a normal "pop in yer car CD player" sort of version or a restricted Windows Media Format compilation. As others have pointed out, there are plenty of ways to make a copy of the music, but the speedbumps do add up. Meanwhile, we continue to wait for "a Napster you can pay for."

Posted by mph at 2:13 PM

September 18, 2002

Fontological Musings from Kibo

Kibo's got commentary on typefaces and why they all suck.

During my time on the school paper in college, we had a CompuGraphic EditWriter for all our typesetting needs. The EditWriter is/was a giant steel box with a white phosphor terminal and a keyboard of the sort that used to appear a lot on pre-PC machines: gummy keys, no concerns for ergonomics, and bunches of keys mapped to specific traditional typesetting functions.

It could receive text over a 300 baud internal data connection, and it stored copy on 8" floppies. It set type by exposing a roll of paper to a strobe flashed through the shape of a letter, and the typefaces were provided not by data in a file but by metal strips with the shapes of the letters punched out. The strips were attached to a drum that spun at a high speed, with the edge of the strip with the shapes hanging over the drum's side. Type size was controlled by placement of the lens through which the strobe was flashed. The drum would spin, and each time the appropriate letter rotated in front of the lens, the strobe would flash and expose the paper. It took three or four hours to typeset a twelve page paper, and a bit more time to run the rolls of exposed paper through a developer, after which they had to hang and dry.

We had a collection of a few dozen typefaces, and they had to be handled with care. They were made out of a flexible metal that was really prone to crimping. The second even a slight crease was introduced to a "font strip," it would make the letters crooked and ruin the night's run of copy.

The machine's goofy formatting algorithms occasionally hosed entire paragraphs, spacing the letters out to three times their normal spacing, which would mean you had to cut the letters up and paste them down one by one because we were sharing the CompuEdit with the school print shop and they were unwilling to let us use it during normal business hours.

I was the newspaper typesetter for a year and earned $20 a week for my efforts. Within two or three years the paper switched to regular old desktop publishing, paving the way for older hands to bitch about the sterility of the design computers seemed to introduce.

Posted by mph at 2:18 PM

September 11, 2002

Wouldja Like Some Rights With Your Chips?

The Boston Globe says Intel has drunk the DRM kool-aid with the upcoming addition of "antipiracy" features.

This isn't a terrible surprise. People in the computer industry have believed for a while that without control of the hardware, there's little hope of controlling the distribution of software and other content.

The new features Intel is chunking in will work nicely with Microsoft's Palladium, another DRM-focused effort and they leave us with a few questions that will need to be answered, including how far Microsoft and others will go to ensure that unsigned content and code won't run. The article mentions that Palladium will prevent copying CD's: how? Does that mean that Microsoft software won't? Or is my copy of MusicMatch Jukebox hosed as well because of an interaction at the OS level with the DRM-respecting hardware?

How about unsigned code? No one's paranoid enough to suggest that Intel's going to try to "kill Linux" or anything else like that. It's really just playing nice with the conventional wisdom, and will leave the hooks in place for whoever to take advantage of in whatever manner, but you have to wonder what it will mean for Windows developers. Fees, perhaps, for code to be signed and certified so it will run without warnings or nags about its probable "quality" or "safety"? Or if we want to take it to the paranoid extreme, how about an "unfortunate bug" in Windows XP Mark III or whatever that quietly shuts the machine down because it detects a "potentially hostile" pattern in the mbr of a given hard drive that needs to be removed before it can continue?

The privacy folks are already squawking, too, though I do believe the article when it quotes Intel's pres as being very concerned with not repeating another CPU serial number fiasco. DRM can be enforced without "tracking people," and I think they'll work that out. Meanwhile, I think we can see the big squeeze coming for music. I wonder how many "seats" we'll be entitled to when we buy the next n'Sync album?

The entertaining part of it all is in the consumers themselves.

We've been raised/programmed with a finely-honed acquisitiveness. What the music industry calls "theft" is pretty easily read as the consumer impulse finding its logical expression in the form of rampant music acquisition.

Consumers don't like "sharing," they like taking in big, heaping handfuls, and the obvious lesson of the industry's panic over Napster is how completely consumers disregard copyright when it gets between them and the chance to get free stuff. How are they going to react to machines that are hostile to their desire to belly up to the online content trough? It rapidly becomes an all-or-nothing proposition for DRM's proponents: it seems clear that DRM-respecting software will find itself lost in a market that likes to copy stuff and pass it out in exchange for more from others. In fact, the emphasis on the uses of the technology for "stopping viruses" is an early concession that copyright enforcement is simply not something most consumers will care about or want.

When the DRM game looked like a Microsoft-only thing, it was easy to back-burner. With Intel in on the racket, it's going to take a lot more thought than I've given it in a few hastily typed paragraphs.

Posted by mph at 2:07 PM

September 7, 2002

Pocket Review: Undisputed

I rationalized a visit to Undisputed on the foundation of two things: it's a prison movie, and it's a boxing movie. The only thing that would have taken it over the top would have been if it had also been a giant robot assassins from space movie.

Combine its peanut butter/chocolate combination of genres with its director, Walter Hill, who has created such confections as Last Man Standing and The Warriors, and it seemed like the pieces were there for a fun, if empty, piece of entertainment. Recheck his credits, though, and you also find Red Heat, Another 48 Hours, and even Streets of Fire, which is probably indication that the pieces are there for total disappointment.

In this case, he manages to disappoint.

I don't spend a lot of time demanding stuff like "story" and "character development" from my B movies. You pay a few bucks, you sit down, and you go away for a few hours, allowing the self-contained reality that is the anti-art of straight-ahead B cinema take you where it will. Hell... if the continuity editor couldn't be bothered to check back on a detail, or the writer couldn't be bothered to make sense of some event, why should I? I'm not getting paid to make these things work... I'm just there for the ride.

So in the theater we have a movie by a director who excels at the non-art of empty diversion and walks a fine line between "good" and "unemployable," and an audience member (me) who doesn't give a damn as long as it all moves fast enough and makes enough noise to drown out whatever flaws are introduced by a flick tossed into the carnage of Hollywood's annual post-summer jettison of the ballast.

Undisputed involves two boxers (Ving Rhames, Wesley Snipes), one mobster (Peter Falk), a weak warden, and a prison guard we're supposed to imagine is perhaps a hair sadistic but who never overcomes the subliminal affability that the actor (Michael Rooker) has always hinted at, even as an evil, bald mall guard.

Rhames is the heavyweight champion of the world, sent to prison for rape. Snipes is the champion of the prison boxing league. Falk is a mobster who loves boxing. Rhames has something to prove; Snipes loves to box but knows his self-control, once compromised, is all he has left; and Falk wants the two to box, badly.


Ving Rhames has some moments of explosive violence that are so tightly presented that they're disturbing and jolting. A sense of menace pervades the screen when he's in the frame. From the moment he arrives in prison, he's a frightening presence because we come to realize that even if he didn't rape his victim, he's still a sociopath.

Snipes could have played things all sorts of ways given the script he was handed. He does alright with what he's given.

Peter Falk is fine, too.

The film looks nice.


When music videos first arrived, they were the product of film-making sensibility being brought to the confines of the small screen and the pop music format. The good that came from the form was a sort of discipline that squeezed each second for meaning and impact. When the form was adapted (cannibalized) by mainstream television producers, it gave us Miami Vice, and, eventually, Law and Order, which managed to produce dense-packed single-hour-units of drama that make tv feel engaging. Unfortunately, certain clichés have established themselves as writers and directors have come to embrace the MTV-inspired idiom, which confuses slo-mo, saturated monochrome, and Dragnet-style dialog for "dense." When it's limited to television, it's easily cured: you click away and the show gets cancelled after a season or two. When it makes it to film, it ends up feeling like a made-for-tv movie, and there's no clicking away: you're not out fifteen minutes, you're out $8.00 and two hours. Hill would probably make a credible prime-time director, but given two hours and a music video sensibility, the films few ideas rattle around like dry peas in a big can, swimming in dialog that's snappy but empty as the actors tread water waiting for the next explosion of violence from Rhames or the Big Fight.

Similarly empty are our antagonists. As noted earlier, Rhames' "Iceman" is a sociopath. Snipes' character is a near-total void. He beat someone to death years ago, now he's in prison, and he's a good boxer. Why do we care about him? Well... he makes cool buildings out of toothpicks, which makes him sort of inscrutable, which is cool.

When the two fight, it's a well-directed, fairly suspensful affair that ends with the victor awash in golden light as triumphant music swells, but we're never given a reason to care which one it is... at all. What did we have to choose from? A rapist, or a murderer who spends his days pummeling other inmate/boxers or being inscrutable. Similarly, it's supposed to be touching when the punk-bartering Black Muslims join with the skin-head white supremacists and top-buttoned Latinos to support the home-prison favorite, but it's really like some sort of bizarre variation on the scene in Snow White when all the forest animals gather to adore her only Snow White is Snipes and the forest animals are all convicted murderers and arsonists. Bizarre.

I will say this for the movie: I usually feel guilty for not applying a slightly more critical eye to the things I watch. This one was just unengaging enough that I had luxurious amounts of time to spend thinking about all sorts of things. Go if you want to lose matinee money and 90 minutes to a prime example of mediocre movie-making from 1989.

Posted by mph at 4:26 PM