June 29, 2004
It's not, according to the spam I got today, a "spam."
It's an "email knowledgemercial."
Posted by mph at 10:57 PM
June 27, 2004
Upgrade to a "Buy."
VoodooPad gets upgraded to a "buy" in under 24 hours. It took a little time, because I was so engaged by the premise I wanted to make sure I wasn't overlooking anything too obvious. I wrestled with the idea of just resurrecting a personal wiki I'd set up a while ago, but as much as I love wikis for online collaborative stuff or as an easily updatable online scratchpad for "howto X," anything that involves a web interface is going to feel uncomfortable. I also considered the EmacsWikiMode, but for as much as I like Emacs, I usually end up hating any mode besides html-helper-mode, and I've lost a lot of enthusiasm for that since markdown came along.
So back to VoodooPad:
The biggest appeal is the way it scrunches the distance between the document I'm working on and the filesystem at large to nothing. No darting out with the mouse to dig down through the Finder to get at an author folder or past edit plan: I just drag the link in once and it's there on the author or project page along with my notes.
The second cool thing is its hat-tip to the Mac's Unixicity. Shell scripts can be employed to fill pages with their output in a manner reminiscent of BBEdit's squeal-inducing worksheets.
Third up is probably the capacity it has to share a pad over XML-RPC. I'll probably be keeping my brain pad on a local network share for use from either the iBook or the eMac, but it's cool to know I can pop open a port and get at it from the iBook away from home. It can also export to plain old HTML to provide a static and remotely accessible copy for use from machines without VoodooPad installed.
If I could change anything about it, it'd probably be to include some sort of outline or list functionality. There are a few people on FlyingMeat's feature request board asking for the same thing. Maybe I ought to go over there and "me too!" one of them.
Posted by mph at 12:00 AM
June 25, 2004
Mac Sliced Bread Friday
Once upon a time, when making mp3s was still a novelty, I fed my copy of the Beastie Boys' "Hello Nasty" into a truly terrible CD ripper and got back a collection of mp3s with no ID3 information... just an ugly file name, like "01beastieboyssuperdisco_breakin.mp3."
That's not very tidy. mp3 players gag on the lack of ID3 information and just cough up the unattractive file name, it's hard to use iTunes to find an album, etc. etc. etc.
Being a lazy nerd, though, I kept putting off what seemed like the inevitable, which was just going in and fixing the stupid things for myself. But it made me hate to play my Beasties mp3s because they didn't show up right in the mp3 player ticker, etc. etc. etc.
Then I found IEatBrainz:
Uses MusicBrainz (musicbrainz.org) to fix your mp3 and aac tags in iTunes after they've been ripped using acoustic matchings.
I tried it out and had one of those "Wow, I'm very very old" moments. It does what it says, pretty much: Listens to a file, then compares notes with an online database of songs and figures out what it just heard, then tags it accordingly.
So far it's missing on mp3s I downsampled to 64k for use in my old Iomega HipZip (40MB storage capacity -- bleah) and it's not too clear on a few others that are puzzling because they ought to be pretty common, like a couple of Who tracks. It's also missing on some of my X mp3s.
Anyhow... it's the sliced bread of the week. I wish I'd stopped ignoring it when it turned up in VersionTracker months ago. Like I was telling Ed, I need to adjust my laziness mix: A slightly sweeter "industriousness"-leaning formula would have had me searching for the automated solution to my problem months ago.
It's hard work waiting around for people to solve your problems for you.
Sliced bread item No. 2 is courtesy the Daring Fireball fundraiser, where John Gruber has rounded up some truly impressive sponsors to give away swag for registering. There are a few "usual supsects" in the form of copies of BBEdit and MovableType licenses, and a few more obscure picks I took a look at out of curiosity on the premise that my Mac use, to this point, has been limited to finding analog apps, meaning that I've settled for finding "a text editor," "a good browser," "a nice chat client," but not, for instance, "a kick-ass 'wiki on your desktop' notepad," which is exactly what I was wishing for a few days ago when I was struggling with the urge to make myself Clean and Orderly.
So this VoodooPad thing is just a notepad, but it does wiki linking, and it respects drag-and-drop linkage of files (or it allows you to embed them right in the page). It can even talk to wikis out on the Web proper. Up until I found it three hours ago, I was happily sticking stuff in OmniOutliner (which is still a very nice app for what it does, which is outline), but I wasn't getting the whole "use an outliner for everything" paradigm as thoroughly as the fad it seemed to enjoy a year or so ago, when webloggers teetering on the edge of burnout were feverishly pecking outlines of talks they were at so the rest of us could get something that amounted to Powerpoint without the splashy transitions or social stigma.
But there's always the horrible fear of lock-in, so it's also very cool that VoodooPad exports to HTML, XML, plain-old-text, Word (gag, but maybe it'll come in handy some day when the cockroaches have taken over and decreed that we speak to them only through their human resources departments), and, er, iPod, where you can have a whole VoodooPad doc in the damn thing, and browse it at will, wikilinks and all.
This is the kind of app that freaks me out a little. I can find "analog apps" on any platform (hence their analogicity), so there's no real fear of not having something anymore if I quit using a particular platform. But I don't know of anything quite like VoodooPad elsewhere that doesn't involve just using a full-blown wiki. So if it becomes part of my computing life... the middle finger on my right hand... that means I'm trapped in Macland. And if there is VoodooPad somewhere out there for Windows or Linux, there'll be something else that's not. And even if I can export my eventually gigantic brainpad to text, HTML, XML, or Word, I know I won't want to.
So, back to the iEatBrainz scrub, which is currently munching on 196 badly tagged files. So far, it can't seem to cope with much of anything from:
- The Who
- Daniel Johnston
- MC Hawking
- Throbbing Gristle
- Marty Robbins
It's also struggling with Shantel. But it's very good at ALMOST guessing most of my Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner collection, an usually offering the correct title as an alternate pick. It has also, apparently, never heard of Wavy Gravy, which is probably going to be more and more true of more and more people, alas.
Looks like out of 196 tracks, it managed to figure out around 110 with no problems. Out of that collection, more than a few are Acid loops that snuck into the music folder, Acid projects of mine, corporate anthems, and downsampled tracks that it couldn't quite suss at 64k but seemed to work out in their un-downsampled form.
Note: I should hasten to add: The Daring Fireball swag isn't guaranteed: If you buy a t-shirt/membership, you get entered in a drawing.
More Notes: Lest I be accused of blind, panting adoration for all things Mac with an attendant myopia where other OS's are concerned : There is a wikipad for Windows: wikidPad. And there's also EmacsWikiMode. So similar functionality is available on at least two other operating systems.
Posted by mph at 9:25 PM
Three Dead Branches
Yesterday, the Supreme Court declined to rule on the civil court case demanding that Dick Cheney reveal the energy-industry leaders with whom he sat down to craft administration energy policy. Justices Scalia and Thomas would have gladly killed the case themselves, but it was instead returned to the federal court, thereby postponing any final outcome until after the election.
Who could argue that those who actually know the industries in question shouldn't have their expertise taken advantage of by those who craft government policy? But why shouldn't the people--who are not experts, yet whose interests will be affected by and whose taxes will fund said policy--be granted open access to the persons and issues under discussion?
Not for us to know, say Cheney, Bush, and the Supreme Court. (We can go fuck ourselves, too.) I guess we will learn, in time, when the results of various relaxations of pollution controls and public-land uses and merger/acquisition controls and ethical regulations make themselves known.
Unless you think they were hammering out ways to funnel profits into public housing, provide free power to Native American reservations, restore the Alaskan tundra and the Northwest forests, scale back greenhouse-gas emissions, advance tax payments to the Treasury to aid in the War on Terror, and impose stern economic pressure on oil-rich nations guilty of human-rights violations by refraining from mutually beneficial relationships. Maybe they were going to surprise us!
Either way, we'll just have to wait, because the Supreme Court sent it back down due to what they claim is the "paramount necessity of protecting the executive branch from vexatious litigation."
Indeed! And most vexatious would it likely have been! As vexatious as the litigation that resulted from their decision to let Clinton face charges for lying under oath about adultery? Perhaps, if not more so! And yet much more critical to the business of the Republic, don't you think?
Questions for readers (seriously, I'm asking):
What was the original subject of the investigation under which Ken Starr maneuvered Clinton under oath and into perjurious--yet extravagantly irrelevant--testimony about Monica Lewinsky?
How will the Supreme Court (or Dahlia Lithwick) describe the legal distinction between the case versus Cheney and the case versus Clinton? I mean, other than "Cheney is a Republican"?
Posted by pk at 1:15 PM
June 21, 2004
Well, we got our first comment spam in the gallery. I can't tell if it was a bot or just a sociopath who felt like defacing the baby gallery, and I didn't feel like researching the matter. Comments are turned off there.
Posted by mph at 8:26 AM
June 20, 2004
I couldn't have asked for a better Father's Day: woken up to breakfast in bed and an only mildly cranky Benjamin, then a trip to the coast for a few hours on Cannon Beach.
It's the farthest Ben has ever been from home, and he took the whole expedition like a champ, content to take catnaps while we carried him around. The highlight of the trip was probably getting to see a pod of killer whales swim by in the distance, though they provoked a minor panic among some nearby visitors who seemed to think they were a school of giant black-and-white sharks.
The last nine pictures in the Ben gallery catch most of the day's stuff. I also took a gigantic pano of Al and Ben in front of the world's largest Sitka spruce that has the entertaining quality of appearing to bend as far backwards as it manages to go up thanks to, well, panorama shots not quite working the way you'd always want them to. I'm not sure how to go about presenting that, or if it's more of a matter of just having taken a gigantic and impractical picture. The tree's a wonder to behold in person.
Posted by mph at 8:53 PM
June 19, 2004
The Wall Street Journal is full of shit and almost certainly knows it
A Saturday night with a martini and my boss's discarded WSJs...
The Wall Street Journal; June 17, 2004; pg 1, col 6:
The [9/11] commission staff also gave the most definitive refutation to date of an alleged meeting in April 2001 in Prague between lead hijacker Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence offical. In 2003, several Bush administration officials, including Vice President Cheney, pointed to the meeting as evidence of a possible link between the hijackers and Saddam Hussein. But the commission report said a surveillance camera showed Mr. Atta withdrawing $8,000 from a bank in Virginia when he was said to be in Prague. [My bold. pk]
The Wall Street Journal; June 18, 2004; editorial [Comments mine. pk]:
[N]early all of the media coverage has focused on what the 9/11 panel claims it didn't find [psht: "claims"]--namely, smoking-gun proof that al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were working together. [Only people who hate America need "smoking-gun proof." The rest of us trust our leaders!]
The "no Saddam link" story is getting so much play because it fits the broader antiwar, anti-Bush narrative [from people who hate America] that Iraq was [actually, we say "is"] a "distraction" from the broader war on terror. So once again the 9/11 Commission is being used [by people who hate America] to tarnish the Iraqi effort and damage President Bush's credibility in fighting terror. [Gosh, it's almost like they're terrorists themselves--whoever "they" are.]
Even here, though, the staff report is less a "slam dunk," as the CIA likes to say [or at least the former director, when guaranteeing bogus intelligence], than the coverage asserts. We are supposed to believe [why, the very idea!], for example, that the Commission has found out once and for all [those upstarts!] that there was no meeting in Prague between the Iraqi agent al-Ani [wait--they've got a name?! I mean, not a full name, but, still--maybe I'm wrong about this whole thing!] and 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta. But the only new evidence the report turns up [my bold] is that some calls were made from Florida on Atta's cell phone at the same time he was reportedly [or might we say "supposedly"?] in Prague. But since that phone would not have worked in Europe anyway, how do we know someone else wasn't using it? [Yeah! ... Huh?] The Czechs still believe the Atta meeting took place [I'm almost positive the Czechs have disavowed this story], and the truth is we still don't know for sure. [That depends on what your definition of "we" is.]
So, excusing the intrusive interjections, you followed that, right? The Wall Street Journal editorial page actively ignored its own front page of one day before, so desperate is it to defend President Bush. In what can only be construed as an insult to their readership, they contort and gesticulate to discredit and humiliate the cell phone story, while ignoring other evidence the report turned up.
Does Sean Hannity pen the WSJ's staff editorials? That scamp! So incorrigible--yet so lovable!
And yet--out of the snip--they try to make with the wickity-wack and end up providing an unintentional encapsulization of the real crux:
The country has traveled a long way psychologically from the trauma of September 11 if we are now focusing on the threats that allegedly don't exist instead of those that certainly do.
This is deliberately unclear and therefore dishonest language, but, still, it's pretty much what I've been thinking ever since the march to war in Iraq began.
Posted by pk at 10:08 PM
Ed passed along a pair of links yesterday that got me all fired up:
The short version of the information presented:
Danny interviewed a bunch of prolific geeks and asked them how they do it: this is his distillation of the habits of the geeks who spew the most code, words and such.
For a few moments, that was really exciting stuff that any old-sk00l Unix dude is going to be right at home with: "trust text," "use a text editor for everything," "real nerds pick an app and live in it, even if it's Excel," etc. etc. etc. Then I realized Ed had just presented me with another one of his traps designed to make me go chasing off down the rabbithole of becoming MORE and BETTER and FASTER and CLEANER. It even worked momentarily... I went flying back to the LinuxToday archives to find an item I'd posted there several years ago that pointed, in turn, to a WIRED article that pointed in turn to "The Good Easy (How to Set Up a Mac)".
The Good Easy approach is about like WIRED put it:
Non-technical users can capture the productivity benefits of the Unix design philosophy without abandoning the standard desktop with graphic user interface.
To that end, the Good Easy document provides a series of purifying rituals new hires at the agency that originated it are to undergo when setting up their Macintosh computers so they'll be faced with a clean, efficient, text pipe workflow with a minimum of cruft.
Parts of the document are reasonable:
-open the Applications folder. anything you probably will never use (like Apple Video Player, or some bogus Apple Guide file), put into the Utilities folder. you should now have an Applications folder comprised of all the apps that you'll use commonly (or at least once every couple of months).
Parts are sort of Levitical in their specificity:
in BBEdit, make sure it's set to softwrap, window width, start up with nothing, searches wrap around, don't print headers or date stamp, don't show any toolbars and make veggie the default font.
and (for Netscape):
make sure the home page is set to the local file open start.html which should be in the info folder. Also, choose text only, no tool tips, no sound. Set fonts to times 14 courier 12.
in emailer make sure that toggle schedule quickey works and move column widths. make veggie default font.
What the hell is "veggie?" And what if Times gives me headaches? And what if I like the tool tips and icons in my toolbar? What becomes apparent after a bit is that the person going down the checklist of cleansing actions has fallen in with a text bigot who's determined to inflict his computing paradigm on everyone around him.
I did spend some time doing a sort of mental dry-run through the Good Easy setup (though there's some Apple OS 9 stuff in there that's sort of hard to imagine if you've never really used OS 9 very hard, and I never really have -- the G3 All-in-One I had when I worked at the high school always seemed to crash at weird times causing me to hate it) and I can see the advantages.
Then I read about how QuicKeys is a $99 program, and that was a little off-putting. There are alternatives like Keyboard Maestro and iKey, but the purity of the operation begins to fade as we pass, Amber-like, from pure Good Easy to a lesser shadow.
It was, in fact, while I was wallowing around in the ten or twelve reviews of QuicKeys I'd run down that more doubt began to creep in. I remembered all the other better, faster, cleaner paradigms:
- Crawl into Emacs and never come out because GNUS and diary are enough
- Crawl into bash and never come out, because Emacs and remind are enough.
- Crawl into the Rox desktop and never come out
- Never use anything I can't get at from an xterm in blackbox
etc. etc. etc.
Then I started thinking about Ed, eating sushi in some hangout in Michigan, laughing, laughing, laughing...
Then I thought back to the instigating document... the so-called "life hacks." I thought "who are these from?" It's right in there:
"a bunch of prolific geeks [...] who spew the most code, words and such."
And I thought about what they were saying:
"Power-users don't trust complicated apps. Every time power-geeks has had a crash, s/he moves away from it. You can't trust software unless you've written it -- and then you're just more forgiving"
While I was composing this, Ed happened along on IM and offered a few more insights:
"should you trust people with 27,000 lines of "todo" lists telling you how to organize your life?"
should we take seriously anyone who uses phrases like 'alpha geek' seriously?
Thanks, Ed... I'm feeling much more forgiving for being goaded into my monthly bout of wondering if it's time to Change Everything and become More Clean and Efficient.
I guess we also just have to pass on the irony of a bunch of "prolific geeks" who "spew the most code" telling us all that we shouldn't trust anything besides a text editor.
Posted by mph at 10:02 PM
June 17, 2004
When Development Editors are Forced to Improvise
" [...] apparently, the target market for this book is newborn dads who need to be told that fucking the babysitter is inappropriate. "Oh," I'm supposed to exclaim, "you mean I pick them up, pay them, and don't fuck them? Oooooh, now I get it."
Posted by mph at 6:45 AM
June 16, 2004
Belated but worth noting: Portland Communique is now an official Google News source. Knowing that makes me feel better than any ten bloviating diatribes about whether "bloggers are journalists" or whatnot. b!X is one in my book, well worth the book I donated and definitely worth some more PayPalage once the new job lucre settles in. If you live in Portland and don't know the Communique, go read it for a week... well worth your time.
Also worth noting:
John Gruber of Daring Fireball has a hat out, too. He's selling membership/t-shirts that net you a full-content RSS feed. Even though I accused him of hyperventilating not two days ago (and he does hyperventilate from time to time) he's an engaging writer trying to make a go of it and the t-shirts are pretty. If I buy one, it'll probably be to pay him back for my use of Markdown and the occasional bracing kick of irritation (but eventual thoughtfulness) I usually get when I visit. His design is clean enough that the usual benefit of getting at his full content in an aggregator (no annoying giant banner graphics, pointless lists of last year's posts, cockamamie "too cool for more than ten words" blogmarks or any of that other toxic stuff that clutters lesser blogs) is perhaps not as compelling.
Posted by mph at 3:14 PM
6A Announces New MT License/Price
Six Apart has made some changes to the license and price of MovableType.
The license seems more clear, and the pricing is a lot more friendly: It will cost everyone on the puddingbowl.org server about $16 to cover a license adequate to our needs, and we'll have unlimited room to grow if more people decide to start a blog here.
My remaining concerns in practical terms:
- How well the MT developer community has survived the fracas that instigated the changes in the first place.
- How much more spiff MT3 will be for end users when the feature-laden version due out some time comes out.
I'm not going to spend any more time dwelling on the matter, nor am I going to round up a bunch of responses. The trackbacks to the link above ought to be adequate.
Meanwhile, (at first via Ed-over-IM then over a flood of hollering) there's the "Dave Winer pulls the plug on all those weblogs" scuffle, adequately launch-pointed by The Register. The audio response to Dave's audio statement (linked here) is sort of creepy and brittle. The funny/sad part is the shock and surprise that Dave's personal friends haven't been roughed up in this whole thing, and continue to have access to their blogs so they can broadcast pacifying messages. I guess it's the great karmic wheel at work: SixApart squares its deal just in time for Winer to foul his own.
Update: Ed's mourning his own weblogs.com loss, and I agree with Steve in the comments: Dave Winer and SixApart aren't laboring under the same obligations. No horse in the Dave Winer race, either, other than to watch the shitstorm play out.
Posted by mph at 7:29 AM
June 13, 2004
Multnomah Falls, iMovie, Panos
Alison's sister Julie came to visit this weekend, so we took a trip out to Multnomah Falls yesterday. I think the falls have become our mandatory "out of town guests see this" stop. I took the camera along and got a few pictures but quite a bit more video footage using my Canon G5's built in video recorder. It doesn't produce very good results, but it did give me a bunch of clips to use while I learn my way around iMovie.
It's interesting, I guess, to note that iMovie's got an after-market add-on industry that supplies a lot of visual effects and transitions Apple didn't bother to include. I'm not so sure of the value of buying many of them if it means investing in something that comes with most of those effects anyhow and offers more overall flexibility. Word from Apple videographers welcome, provided you keep in mind my pre-existing dislike for featuritis. I don't know if I'd want much more than what iMovie offers, but a few more transitions and nicer tools to handle them might be cool.
I also had cause to pull down the excellent "Little Digital Video Book" by Michael Rubin. It has a heavy iMovie orientation, which was minorly irritating when I was working on a PC with ScreenBlast (the consumer-grade VideoVegas), but serves to provide a missing manual to iMovie (without requiring the purchase of one of the also usually good Missing Manual series). It's $14 at Amazon, and that's a really good value. The focus isn't on "making a film" as much as it is shooting compelling home video and how to edit it so today's home movie doesn't become tomorrow's Death March through the Archives. It's probably one of the most useful how-tos I've ever bought, and I have several shelves in the basement sagging under the weight of my impulse tech book buying.
Anyhow, the other technical note I got reminded of (more than learned, since I mainly manage to forget every time I go out to shoot) was that the G5 remembers the settings applied to each of its major modes. So while shooting in "P" mode, which provides control of most of the features, it remembers one batch of settings, but when flipped over to panorama mode (for instance) it remembers a different set. Minor bummer when I forgot to fiddle before taking a big panorama of the falls. It came out pretty murky... just a hair past Photoshop's restorative powers. I was much happier with the rest of the day's shooting. I've lived in green states before... Virginia, for instance, just down the road from the Blue Ridge, but Oregon's green is ... deeper. I feel like some of that came out with yesterday's shooting.
One more p.s., I guess: The search form is still the old design. There be shear here.
Posted by mph at 11:15 AM
June 12, 2004
Cowgirls, Kerosene, Donations
It's "new look" day at Puddingtime. I'm still stomping some bugs, but thanks to gl and fellow pudding chef pk for catching some egregious ones.
We're leaning to "without."
Also on matters blogging, and because MT3 is not a likely consideration in the near future:
I wrote Mie, who's been the friendly voice on the other end of the mail while I've been asking questions. The nut of my letter was this:
I went to the SixApart site this morning to see if there's any way I could donate an appropriate amount for my use of Movable Type to this point (I've been using it for a little under two years or so), but couldn't find information on how to do that. Is that no longer possible?
If not, I may end up buying a license, but that's the less preferable of the two options, because I'm very deeply concerned about the direction your company's taking and I'm more interested in squaring things for my previous use, not in voting with my dollars for your current direction.
Which is about where I'm at in a nutshell.
Mie replied with:
Actually, yes. We've discontinued the donation process. But we do appreciate your thoughts.
About our company's direction, yes, we are very aware of our stumbling and have been working hard these past few weeks summarizing the huge amount of email feedback we've been getting to figure out how to better respond to our users. We are planning to post a new pricing structure that is based on the feedback and we think will match most user's needs. To that end, I just wanted to say that we did stumble and are learning. We are a young company and still get surprised to look up and find more than a few of us working here.
So I guess I'm hoping you'll continue to observe and when we get it right, we'd love to have you back.
Past correspondence is over at the dev blog, which is going to sit for a while.
Posted by mph at 11:20 AM
June 11, 2004
Cursory Comparison: Garage Band and Acid Music
One of the things I was hoping for when Apple announced GarageBand in the first place was a comparison between it and Acid Music, which is its nearest mass-market equivalent in PC-land. The usual hyperventilating wasn't doing it for me.
My attempts to get an answer from the one Mac site that seemed like it might have a knowledgeable audience was met with "it's just better," and "nuh-uh" from each camp. So here's my subjective, immediate rundown of the two (with a blast from the Wayback Machine to go with) having had a week to get the lay of the land with GarageBand:
First off, both apps have a spiritual ancestor in a program Electronic Arts turned out for Amigas and Commodore 64s in the late '80s called "Instant Music." Here's a description of how it worked from a reasonably excited BYTE editor:
The secret is in the "musical intelligence" of the program. By moving the mouse up and down, I pick the relative pitch of the music I want to play and Instant Music generates accompanying chords. This can be limiting at times -- it's disconcerting to hold the mouse button down and get only occasional notes or chords -- but the result is pleasing to the ear (usually).
[Note: He's sort of missing the part where the chords Instant Music generates are in the correct key at all times, which was the "magic" part: you couldn't play a "wrong" note.]
To play, you select the piece of music you want to hear. There are more than 40 different selections from 4 to 24 measures long, ranging in style from rock to classical. A given piece has four voices, though often only three (the ones the computer usually plays) are actually scored. Each voice represents an instrument: electric guitar, flute, organ, and so on. A total of 19 instruments are available, including a "DoVoice" instrument that allows "do wah" vocals for songs. You start the piece and play your part while the computer plays the others. A graphical display shows the entire piece, so you can see what each voice will be doing. You can switch voices and take over another part; you can change instruments: you can change the tempo; you can even make the program do less for you and gain greater control over chords and rhythm.
On the Commodore 64, the effect wasn't grand (but it was pretty good for the time, and it was fun to noodle on it). On the Amiga, which had much nicer sound facilities, it was really, really good. Could Instant Music have turned the music world on its ear? Probably not at the time, because it was pretty limited. But it sounded nice, and it made it possible for people who didn't understand any music theory beyond "higher" and "lower" to make music on their computers. I could use it to improvise with my mouse with about the same facility that I could improvise on a trombone, which I wasn't bad at. I loved my copy, and I used it a lot in conjunction with my other bit of late '80s lo-tech, the Fisher Price PXL 2000, to make soundtracks for my movies.
There was software sort of like it out there, but nothing with the click and go simplicity it had.
So we fast-forward a few years and along comes Sonic Foundry with its Acid Music offering. Acid promised almost the exact same thing, but it had the advantage of Pentium processors with a lot of hard drive space and much better sound cards, which allowed it to use well-constructed loops with a lot of metadata piggy-backed on them to make goof-free music even easier. It sounded better, was much less limited, and it had a pretty nice-sized initial library of loops to play with, plus a much bigger after-market of even more loops in all sorts of genres. Some of it was cheezy electronica, but there were also some really nice loops from real-live professional musicians. Beyond the soft instruments of Instant Music, Acid provided a sort of construction kit, with pre-sampled drum fills and assorted textures to pad out the loops. It could also "beat sample" an imported loop to determine its tempo, and it could slow down, speed up, and pitch shift loops. It did all of this to ensure that most loops matched regardless of clashing keys or differing tempos.
The difference between Acid and Instant Music on the musical level was that Instant Music was about putting together melodies while Acid was more about putting together rhythms. With a lot of agonizing you could probably put together a melody with it, but it wasn't really built for that, and it couldn't handle the free-form music-making of Instant Music.
Acid has another thing going for it, which is some low-end video tools. With Acid it's possible to put together a soundtrack for a video file by dragging the video into its own editing track in Acid then zooming in closely enough to match up frames with the appropriate shifts in the soundtrack, fades, crescendos and whatnot. It inherits this stuff from its bigger sibling, Video Vegas, which costs about four times as much and offers a much more extensive menu of sound and video manipulation tools.
Acid went through some weird phases trying to find its niche: There was a bifurcated "Acid" and "Acid Pro" product phase with a really annoying practice of "Pro" features being left in the menus so the user could get a nagging pitch to upgrade to unlock the goodies when he clicked on the item. There was also the "Acid Style" phase, in which the core product was packaged up with genre-limited loops (instead of Acid's much more eclectic and larger collection) and sold as "Acid Dance" or "Acid Techno." The same nagging menu tricks applied, as well as some limitations in terms of the total number of tracks a user could lay.
Sony finally bought the software (or its manufacturer, or both) not too long ago, and I'm not sure if it's been a good thing. The company seems intent on wringing more revenue out of it by cutting the number of available loops even further, pushing the upgrades harder, and stressing its separate DV editing "solution" (Screenblast for home users, Vegas for pros and prosumers).
All the same, Acid's a good tool. Sven and I used it to work on the soundtrack for his first entry into the HP Lovecraft Film Festival, and it provided a decent level of control over the product even though we were pretty much using a smattering of badly infringed Copland and Glass imported as tracks and faded in and out using Acid's mixing capabilities.
Over the past few years, since around 1998, I've been using Acid on and off. Sometimes I just find a good set of foundation tracks to lay a beat and noodle with the samples, other times I try specific projects with the vague idea that I'm out to make a sort of ambient wallpaper music I won't find offensive or repetitive during a full day of work.
Acid has proven remarkably resistant to attempts to use it in an emulated environment (such as with WINE under Linux) and it's been a bust, and any move to Linux has been tainted by the total absence of anything as good as Acid.
So I got the eMac and along came iLife and GarageBand with it. The best I can describe it is "A really pleasant hybrid between Instant Music and Acid Music, with some interface goodness from Apple that makes the whole deal really pleasant to work with."
The part that's like Instant Music is the soft instruments, which allow the user to play along with a backing track provided by GarageBand using sampled or synthesized instrument sounds that are easy to modify to provide a rich palette. It's not, as near as I can tell, quite up to Instant Music's ease to the extent you still need to pick the right notes, but it does make it easy to noodle along with a computerized backing band that plays what you want it to. It presents a little virtual keyboard if you feel like mousing the music (clumsy) or you can plug in a USB keyboard or an electric guitar and play along that way. The keyboard option intriguing enough that I think this month's allowance is going toward one.
The part that's like Acid is in the extensive collection of sample loops that have metadata tacked on to describe their pitch and tempo so the software can adapt them to changes in the composition's tempo and key.
The value proposition over both is the more pleasant loop cataloging functionality. With GarageBand, it's possible to track music by a lot of factors, including the instruments involved, the loop's genre, how heavily sweet or dry a loop is, how distorted or clean it is, and its general "mood" (dark or cheerful). With Instant Music, there were only a few instruments so it didn't matter. With Acid Music, the designers completely neglected this, assuming the user would provide his/her own level of organization by using folders in the filesystem. It can make for some tedious clicking around in folder after folder to find something. With GarageBand, the user just needs to select a few criteria and the list of available loops narrows automatically. Much nicer.
The thing GarageBand is missing is Acid's facility with video tracks. QuickTime Pro can be pressed into service to marry the two, but with none of Acid's flexible and dynamic control. Not having tried to marry GarageBand to iMovie, I can't say how well they go together, but I'm assuming not nearly as well as Acid's "I want the drum line to start fading in at frame 1009 and hit a peak by frame 1300." That's Acid's big sibling Vegas talking.
I suspect (not having delved too far into GarageBand, and not having ever been an Acid poweruser despite how much I enjoy it) that Acid probably wins out in overall feature count and flexibility where it overlaps with GarageBand, but I find GarageBand the more pleasant of the two apps to use. Especially as I import my extensive library of Acid loops and find I can do so much more in terms of cataloging them. I'm going to keep AcidPlanet in my bookmarks because there are some good freebie samples to be had in the weekly 8Packs, but I'm pretty happy with the Switch on this one.
I'll try to do a followup when I've had more time working with GarageBand and less time moving my loops over.
Posted by mph at 9:03 PM
An eMac Plaint Before I Go Back to Having Fun With It
Face to face with one bit of discontent about the eMac line: The graphics card is, while not quite "underpowered," not exactly spiff, either. It's a 32MB ATI Radeon 9200. It can push pixels for almost everything I care about (Warcraft III, StarCraft, Diablo II) except Unreal 2004.
The Unreal 2003 demo I found for it runs pretty well in the middling resolutions, but finding a copy of that is getting hard because it looks like MacSoft has dried up the entire backstock in order to push more of Unreal 2004. Such is the world of Mac games, I think: Almost every major also-on-PC game I've seen for Macs (with the exception, perhaps, of Blizzard's) are the result of a license-and-port deal, much like late, lamented (but still kickin' on the web) Loki did for Linux before dying a grisly death. So where the less disciplined (and more massive) supply channel of PC games might allow for the occasional lucky score of an older, superceded game, it gets sort of hard to find stuff that had a limited run anyhow.
The rest of the machine is pretty nice for a sub-$1000 system: Decent processor power, SuperDrive, decent built-in speakers, plenty of horses to do all the iLife apps (and I'm comfortable in asserting that my 1.25Ghz G4 with 512MB RAM is handling Photoshop Elements better than my Athlon 1800XP with 768MB RAM). But if you want the extra kick of a semi-modern video card, you're making the hop up to the iMac line, which has some "value pricing" for tiny, 15" displays but rapidly hops upward of $1799 for something with the same specs as an eMac but with a better video card. So it becomes "$800 for nicer video card and an LCD display."
This probably would have been a showstopper, but when I look up at my list of "favorite games," only one of them is anything approaching "modern." StarCraft is really, really old but it remains fun for "30 minutes to kill on a small scenario" in such a way that I find myself thinking computer games might well be like pop music: Eventually you sort of find the era in which you're comfortable and stay there. Activision got me to pay good money to turn a Playstation 2 into an Atari 2600 with its "Greatest Hits" collection, too, because for my money there's just no beating Pitfall, Freeway, Megamania, or Laserblast.
I suppose the moral of the story is: This is mostly a work machine, and only slightly a game machine. If you want to play games on a Mac, start with the iMacs and work up from there.
Posted by mph at 7:55 PM
Teach Your Clients Well
It amazes me that the US Army, which seems to understand above all else that nothing (including initial indoctrination) beats OJT at the loving hands of an experienced NCO in a working line unit, could have screwed up as badly as it did in training Iraqi soldiers:
"It hasn't gone well. We've had almost one year of no progress," said Army Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, who departs Iraq next week after spending a year assembling and training the country's 200,000 army, police and civil defense troops.
"We've had the wrong training focus -- on individual cops rather than their leaders," Eaton said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Link lifted from Hit & Run, where they ask "Any SLA Marshall Fans Out There?" in reference to this passage from the same article:
Eaton, a plainspoken officer who didn't shirk responsibility for his role in the problems, said soldiers of Iraq's 2nd Brigade simply ignored U.S. orders to fight their countrymen.
"They basically quit. They told us, 'We're an army for external defense and you want us to go to Fallujah?' That was a personal mistake on my part," Eaton said.
Except the issue isn't anything SLA Marshall has to teach us, since his work dealt with soldiers who were in battle, under fire, and whether or not they'd fire their weapons with an intent to shoot and kill an enemy soldier. If the Army was applying the same doctrine to the Iraqi line soldiers it applies to its own, there's a better than odds-on chance they'd put steel on target. Marshall's work was part of what inspired the modern indoctrination process with its emphasis on reflexive annihilation of human-shaped targets. But he had a sample of people who were already in battle.
The issue here appears to be that the US Army set out to train not a free-standing military capable of serving a sovereign Iraq, but a client army that would take its marching orders from a patron state. So when the patron state started issuing orders for the client state's army, the grunts had an appropriate reaction when faced with leadership that had no authority with them: They walked off the job.
The horrible thing about this is how hypocritical it is. Our military has been remarkably and appopriately resistant to attempts to change its training culture over the years for the simple reason that what we have now, ideological and social niceties aside, is a good system that brings more people home alive. But when it comes to training Iraqi boys, suddenly our best practices are perhaps a little too good for the army we're bequeathing our latest client state.
As surely as the company operations office scales to the battalion S3 scales to the brigade G3 scales to echelons above, our apparent attitude to our clients scales up from the shiftless way we organized them to the shiftless way we expect the military to behave in our absence. Why bother with solid leadership when they'll be taking their orders from us?
Posted by mph at 7:53 PM
Switch From Acid and Keep Your Loops
So, here's the quick-n-dirty to converting an Acid loop to an Apple loop for use in GarageBand. It's possible to just drag a loop into a GarageBand song, but that doesn't put the loop in the browser index (GarageBand ignores non-AppleLoops) so it's not good for converting a whole library of existing loops.
With that in mind, here's how I just did a batch of loops. I'm posting this, but I'm also hoping Sven will provide the necessary peer review when he gets around to trying this out for himself.
First, you need the AppleLoops SDK, which may downloaded by hitting the link here. This nets you a 17MB download that, once installed, provides the Soundtrack Loop Utility down in Applications/Utilities.
Soundtrack Loop Utility (SLU) has the ability to tag loops (which makes them easy to find in GarageBand's handy categorization interface) and convert them to Apple's native AIFF format. If you've got a ton of loops, it's probably good to check your available storage space. AIFF is no more space-efficient than WAV (a loop I converted stayed at 1.8MB in size after conversion, and there was plenty of room for compression to squish it down. If someone knows better, that's what the comments section is for.)
A quick note on SLU: It's a nice utility. I'm just breezing over it here. It's worth a long look around: You can do quite a lot to organize your loops collection with it. I'd recommend keeping notes on loops, digging them out with this tool later, and making sure they're as well classified as SLU allows.
Once you've got it downloaded, fire it up.
Once you've got SLU running, it doesn't hurt to check the preferences and toggle the Saving radio button to "Close WAV and Edit AIFF," since it'll save you getting nagged later once you start work.
SLU will present either a file browser or the basic control panel (I'm not sure which is the default behavior, but you can set that from the preferences under Startup). You can also click the Assets button in the lower left corner to get a file tray, which is useful to have open to do mass conversions. Here's the state I have mine in to start converting:
(click for a bigger picture)
Next up, locate your loop collection and have it in a Finder window.
You can go one of two directions here: the first is to just start importing loops.
The problem with the average Acid collection is that it's usually not very well labeled. I'm looking at my collection of glitch electronica loops and I've got one directory full of loops named "vocal_somenumber.wav," which is useless in terms of figuring out what kind of vocals I'm dealing with. (The reason for that is because Acid expects the user will use a hierarchical filesystem with folders to provide category clues, while GarageBand assumes an internal tagging scheme that abstracts away the filesystem.)
So renaming the loops might come in handy if you retag them all with something descriptive (like "acidblip_" or whatever), but that's got its own hangups on an assembly line basis. What I found to help this along was FileRenamer, a handy way to automate mass renames. Comments on that page say it starts choking on large (1000+ files) renames, but for small (folder at a time) conversions, it seems ok. I tested it, it works. There's aso filematic to handle this issue. It's a nicer app, but it's shareware and might be overkill. Flip side: You've got 30 days to use it for free.
So once you've either renamed all your files, or decided you don't care about that, you can start importing them into the SLU.
Do that by selecting and dragging them into the assets tray on the SLU:
(click for a larger image)
At this point, it's possible to start tagging them. The best insight I can offer here is that it's useful to keep the batches small and grouped by characteristic as much as you can muster the patience to manage. That way you get the maximum benefit from GarageBand's search tool.
Once you've tagged a bunch, save them by clicking the Save button. You'll get a dialog like this one:
(click for a larger image)
Go ahead and click the Apply to All checkbox, then click the Edit AIFF button. The SLU will put your loops in a folder entitled "Converted to AIFF." At this point, you're ready to import them into GarageBand.
Open the "Converted to AIFF" folder and open GarageBand with the browser tray visible:
(click for a larger image)
Select all the loops in the "Converted to AIFF" folder and drag them into the browser. GarageBand will cluck and squawk for a few seconds. Once it's done, you should be able to search out the loops based on either the categories you assigned them or their filenames.
Note, by the way, that the imported files have been sent to the Library/Application Support/GarageBand/AppleLoops/SingleFiles folder, so it's probably safe to Trash the "Converted to AIFF" folder once you've imported all the files.
Posted by mph at 3:50 PM
June 10, 2004
Like Stock Options, Comix Catchup, Quick IRR Note
Figures that on the day Wired reports gmail invitations aren't worth anything on eBay anymore I'd get the ability to send three.
One's claimed. Two to go. First come, first served (in general).
I'm going to have to figure out a way to do better than "all the cool kids have been doing it for three months + 1 week" on this stuff.
While we're here, and on the "last to the party" tip:
Reading Y: The Last Man and enjoying it plenty. Just finished the first installment of the trade editions. The happy thing about this one is that I found a copy laying around the neighborhood Laughing Planet and got to read it for about a minute before my order was ready. Liked what I read enough to pick up the trade. Liked that enough to order two more sight unseen.
Reading the second of the "Sin City" trades. I know... late late late. But I don't do this comic book stuff as a hobby, so I'm pretty happy to wait until everyone else has moved on and reap the benefit of a decade worth of reviews and word of mouth. "Sin City" isn't at all disappointing. It's a nice way to keep up my inverted morality fix now that we're stuck waiting another two years for the Sopranos to come back. Beyond that, though, it's just cool to see a real artist at work, and Frank Miller's certainly that.
Also, because it's an interesting quirk of Google, the recent attention to the IRR callup is getting some comment traffic from real, live soldiers dealing with the very quiet re-mob of our reserves. Billmon has a little more on that from the numbers perspective. Long and short: funny how the "spike" that led to 115,000 troops last winter ended up being 140,000, which will shortly be "spiking" to 145,000.
Posted by mph at 5:14 PM
June 6, 2004
So I went with the eMac SuperDrive model. AppleCare is what swayed me. That and hating having a laptop that' s one platform and a desktop that's another. My fingers were tripping over each other.
I just went back and looked at some writing I did about the iBook after I'd had it home for a month. It all pretty much remains pertinent to this purchasing decision (which feels, with the accompanying purchase of AppleCare, much more like an investment than any clone machine I put together from bits off the computer store shelf). Especially resonant pulls from that writing:
- (Regarding the UI): "there aren't a lot of knobs and switches and it's very hard to coax unpredictable behavior out of it, even when the available options are changed. While it's frustrating to be faced with some non-options, it's also sort of liberating."
Saying that sort of thing really freaks out a certain kind of user who thinks the person saying it has gone all Stepford. "I'll just die if I don't get to use an Apple!" But it's not like that. Really. For one, I don't have a special, pitying look that I give people who don't use Macs and aren't interested in them.
More on that line of thought:
- "The whole idea of giving up and going along with the wishes of the UI is alien to a real geek, but I guess that's where I am on the arc: I'm tired of being confronted with all the choices and too aware of my own propensity to become absorbed in the process of configuring and optimizing. I get more work done when I have less to mess with."
I recently spent some time with GNOME 2.6, which has met with a ton of opprobrium from the Linux commentariat because it's "dumbed down." As weird as it was to be using a GNOME that didn't allow me to do a lot of tweaking, it was the most comfortable version of the software yet. I set a few prefs to suit me (it's friendly about letting the user put the window widgets either where Windows or Mac finger memory can take over) and away I went. Very smooth, very pleasant, and the most compelling reason to use Linux on the desktop yet. And because I was being "The Judicious Columnist" when I whimped out and called KDE a mere "cluttered riot of over-configurability," I'll make up for that here by saying it's a UI only someone with severe control issues could love.
"I'm tired of picking at nags, and my interest in computers has become less about the journey than it has the destination, in the form of things I can do with them. Ultimately I have less 'total power' with a platform besides something as flexible and close to the metal as Linux, but when I consider that I have a nearly fuss-free environment in the form of Aqua coupled with the ability to run almost any traditional UNIX tool as a fully participating member of the underlying OS, it's hard to make the case for the one percent functionality I might someday squeeze out of a Linux machine."
"'Mac people,' as near as I can tell, are as insufferable as 'Linux people,' in the same way Jerry Rubin
iswas as insufferable as George Patton." [Note: Jerry Rubin died while I was in the Army, which might explain why I never noticed. But dead he is. I just learned that a few weeks ago when Dave Dellinger died and a few papers did a rundown of what had become of the rest of the Chicago Seven. I'm afraid my copy of "Do It!", Rubins' Yippie screed, is lost or I'd do a quick reading.]
So now begins the Apple Blowup Watch.
Posted by mph at 10:24 PM
June 3, 2004
They Keep Pulling Me... Back... In!
Maybe the wave of unpleasant surprise and unhappiness that a threatened IRR callup produced is what caused the Army to extend the stop-loss instead:
Thousands of soldiers who had expected to retire or otherwise leave the military will be required to stay if their units are ordered to Iraq or Afghanistan.
The announcement Wednesday, an expansion of a program called "stop-loss," affects units that are 90 days or less from deploying, said Lt. Gen. Frank L. "Buster" Hagenbeck, the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel.
So, in other words, Private Joe Snuffy, who thought he was getting out and going home in a week but whose unit has just come down on orders for a rotation in Iraq some time in the next 90 days is not only not getting out and getting on with his life, he's going back over to the sandbox until his whole unit does a tour and gets to come back.
We can leave Private Joe Snuffy aside for a moment, though, because the chances are good that anyone named Private Snuffy probably hasn't done the full eight years of combined active and inactive ready reserve time an enlistment contract entails. To a certain extent, he's just getting his IRR mobilization card pulled before he ever gets to experience the pleasure of not worrying about whether his sideburns are more than halfway down his ear. Where this starts being a crying shame is with the people who have done not just four years of active duty, but anywhere from eight to 20 years, who won't be allowed to retire or separate. They've done their time, and it just doesn't matter. They're about to do more.
Food for thought for the potential recruit in your life: Once they've got you, they've got you, and "fair" doesn't enter into it. This oughta make for some interesting question and answer sessions in more than a few recruiter offices.
Posted by mph at 5:53 AM
June 1, 2004
One of the fun things about embracing my inner ditherer is getting to say really definitive and seemingly resolved things before completely changing my mind the next day.
Three things happened today:
- The iBook came back.
- The clone developed this weird thing where a video card I just bought for it works in the machine on the bench at the shop, but doesn't work in my computer.
- I spent one complete day trying to use Outlook, which hates IMAP and occasionally just hangs at startup, on the theory that it's the best-of-breed in mail and calendar apps under Windows, and that it's the only hope I have for a unified calendar, address book and mail program.
Regarding item 1: I complained bitterly to the tech at the repair shop about how lame it was that I had to keep dragging Apples back in for repair when Dell could sell me a one, two, or three year contract with on-site repairs. The tech said "Why don't you get AppleCare? It's on-site for three years for desktop machines." Oh. Duh. And it comes out to less than a comparable plan for a Dell. And the mom-n-pop I deal with can't do that for me at all.
Regarding item 2: It's a minor annoyance indicating that I've probably got a failing AGP slot. Time for a new mobo if I want to get out of the graphics dark ages. Not a "damn all clones for all time!" offense, just an annoyance. But it makes me be in the market for at least a new mobo and new RAM + CPU to go with it. And that means I'm pretty much in the replacement market again.
Regarding item 3: It's nice the way Apple figured out how to make Mail.app, iCal, and the Address Book complement each other. Nicer yet that iChat fits in there as well. And with minor bits of glue (like teaching lbdb to access Address Book from within mutt), it's even possible to make them play outside their little ecosystem.
So we're back to wondering what the next desktop machine will be. AppleCare removes my big objection to Apple, which is "they work great until that thing the engineers missed fails, and then you're trooping to the shop for a five day turnaround." With AppleCare, I can call, say "broke," and someone comes to my door. That's much more agreeable (and it's not, by the way, an option for Apple notebooks... just the desktops).
Having just played with a gigahertz G4 eMac, and having enjoyed the buttery, tasty smoothness of the OS X experience on it, I find myself feeling much less anti-Apple than I was two days ago. Certainly enough to consider taking out some protection on a desktop machine and not having to worry if something goes wrong.
Posted by mph at 9:08 PM
Online vs. Print vs. Critic vs. Reviewer
The Christian Science Monitor has tackled the question of online vs. print film critics/reviewers with faithful reportage on the predictable levels of eyebrow furrowing and credential waving that must ensue.
I've done a little thinking about this matter, and I was lucky to get to take a class in it just last year. The big point that's being missed in the article through a conflation/confusion of terms is the whole "critic" vs. "reviewer" angle. The two serve different purposes. Reviewers go for content, critics tackle the form. Critics doing scut duty as reviewers seem to deemphasize content in favor of form, either out of sublimated resentment at their lessened status as "smart shopper goes to the mvoies," or an ignorance of what their audience is there for.
Here's the nut graf:
"...the freedom of the Web to print anything - no formal credentials or editor required - has set off a debate over whether the proliferation of online reviewers has strengthened the overall state of film criticism or weakened it."
Most online film reviewing isn't having an impact on "film criticism," because the phenomenon this article addresses, the rise of Dark Horizons, Ain't It Cool News and Film Threat, isn't about people becoming film critics... it's about consumer self empowerment. So the accurate question is what they're doing for film review, and I can't help but think the effect is entirely salutary.
Consider, for instance, this quote from someone over at Hit and Run (where I found this article in the first place):
I enjoy a good action film as much as the next guy, but I don't understand what a reviewer could write about one mass market action film, for instance, that would make me want to go see another mass market action film instead. The bad guy's gonna lose, you know, and the good guy's gonna get the girl.
The point being that the author has just as much as admitted that he doesn't like a good action film as much as people who really, really like action films and have no problem at all differentiating between all sorts of "mass market action flicks." If Roger Ebert or whatever reviewer he goes to each week says "this film didn't offend, even if there wasn't much there," that's probably good enough for him. Most mainstream print reviewers were singularly ill-equipped, for instance, to discuss the disastrous Matrix trilogy, because it all looked alike to them. Even Ebert, who's supposedly a populist reviewer, completely missed Star Wars because he was over-concerned with its formal elements and blind to the parts of its content that people responded to. It works much the same way with long-standing "Star Trek" critics who have no problem rating episodes on a scale of one to ten. To someone familiar with and well-disposed toward Trek, a four star scale might make some sense, with "Amok Time," of course, being a four star that threatens to shatter the ceiling, and "Who Mourns Adonais" being a clear one-star effort. But ten stars? It speaks of a level of Trek obsessiveness that beggars the imagination of anyone who doesn't say "warp 5.5" when talking about the old national speed limit.
The bigger point being that the average enthusiast reviewer who draws a large audience is probably obsessively concerned with the genre he's considering. Where Roger Ebert tends to assign a friendly and non-committal three stars to anything with space ships or a gun fight that seems to demonstrate some craft, online reviewers break that "gentleman's three" down into fine differentiations. Their audiences sense that they're qualified to discuss why, for instance, "Five Deadly Venoms" is superior to "Iron Monkey" despite the latter's obviously better production values. To an outsider, they're both "martial arts flicks" or, as one person I know calls them "fight films."
Print reviewers can't touch that differentiation, because they aren't paid to try. They're paid to get out there and act as an early warning system for working folk trying to figure out where to spend their movie dollars on a Friday night. They turn out two or three real reviews a week, maybe offer capsules of a few more, and that's that. They might demonstrate a certain depth in a specific genre, but it's not likely. And they're not very likely to have the populist touch that being a sci-fi or action aficionado requires, because when you scratch most film reviewers, you find a wannabe critic: Someone who doesn't want to be doing "Consumer Reports of the Cineplex" for an ungrateful and disinterested audience. Someone who wants to talk about the art and language of film, and doesn't care if you're left hopelessly unable to tell if it's worth actually watching.
Hm. Out of steam sooner than I thought. But that's about that, anyhow... When confronted with a genuine enthusiast reviewer, I'm much more comfortable figuring out whether the movie under discussion is worth my time or not than I am when confronted by a generalist with the advantage of a degree and an editor. A few typos and weak composition are secondary considerations.
Posted by mph at 8:50 PM