2004-04-30 14:47 Z
I've been listening to The Left Behind books, a series of apocalyptic Christian novels. They're huge bestsellers but no one I know has read them. More San Francisco bubble, I guess.

The story is simple enough. The End Times are here, Christ has raptured the faithful, and the unfortunate folks left behind have to face Antichrist and the tribulations. What makes it work is the stories are told from a very ordinary point of view, individuals you can relate to. The books are basically potboilers with evangelical intent. The hero doesn't get the girl, he comes to Christ.

They're entertaining. The stories are simple and well told. The language is plain but well chosen. The character names are great: "Nicolae Carpathia", "Rayford Steele". And you have to love titles like "Tribulation Force" and "Soul Harvest". (See Slacktivist for an alternate view.)

Entertainment aside, the books' real intent is to convert. Not buying. I can't help but feel something sinister in this kind of proselytizing. The books aren't overtly offensive. But the head of the UN is the Antichrist, religious peace and unity is actually The Harlot of Revelations, there's a lot of excitement about 144,000 Jews converting to Christianity, and one of our hero's minor nemeses is an obvious lesbian who is made out to be a mean bitch "who wears sensible shoes". Not a worldview I choose.

Maybe when millions of people disappear suddenly I'll believe this literalist form of Christianity. In the meantime, the books make for a fun commute. If I run out of the main series, there are enough auxilliary books to rival Star Trek.

  2004-04-25 21:17 Z
Some stupid company is shipping ads with a new version of Flash. So now on about 10 different websites when I go there to try to read their content, I get this crap instead:
I even tried going to to upgrade. I thought I upgraded, but apparently not.

Advertising is OK when it works right. This is offensive.

Update: I finally gave up trying to get the Flash upgrade direct from macromedia. I clicked "OK" to install the upgrade from some Yahoo banner ad, only to be notified I now have to reboot my computer. Yeah, right, I'm going to reboot so I can look at some damn ad. I guess I'll continue getting annoyed until I do reboot.
  2004-04-24 21:33 Z
The XBox hacker scene has opened up the XBox and built a bunch of cool things. One of the most interesting is XBox media center, a video/audio player. They just entered a beta for 1.0!

What's really great is XBMC has Python embedded. It has standard Python2.3 and xbmc and xbmcgui modules for programming. There's a forum for development discussion, an official script download site, and some docs and scripts from a developer.

I made text Python XBMC documentation from Alex's Word tutorial if you want a quick look at how it works.

An XBox is just another PC, except it's cheap and designed for your living room. It's great that someone's finally made your living room TV scriptable.

An old friend of mine from the 713 scene, Jason Asbahr, made Python for PlayStation 2 and GameCube.

  2004-04-24 17:15 Z
Voting machines
It's obvious that electronic voting machines don't enable fair elections. The software is buggy, the companies are dishonest, and there's hints of fraud. So why are we even considering using them?
Kerry and Vietnam
Kerry served honourably in Vietnam and then came back to the US and honourably protested the Vietnam war. Why is this a problem for his campaign? Shouldn't it be considered a qualification?
Bush and Iraq
It's painfully obvious that the Bush administration used the 9/11 terrorist attacks and selective intelligence as false pretenses to invade Iraq. They lied and now we're in a disastrous war. Why is there any question about Bush's fitness for leadership?
Budgets and tax cuts
The Bush financial policy is clearly headed for disaster. We're simultaneously cutting rich people's taxes, spending more and increasing deficits, and pretending the $50+ billion we need for Iraq isn't part of the budget. Why is the Bush administration still seen as fiscally responsible?

This is all so clear to me, I wonder what the rest of the country thinks. Maybe I'm in some sort of weird bubble in San Francisco? Even so, young people coming back dead from Iraq seems hard to ignore.

  2004-04-24 15:03 Z
Now that Neal Stephenson's The Confusion is out I have to say I never managed to finish Quicksilver.

Part of the issue is length: 944 is a lot of pages. But a lot of it is editing. The book is just too much. Too bloated. There are some really cool ideas in there, and some fun research, but it's buried deep in the 944 pages. I finally checked out entirely after the second book about Half Cocked Jack. I kept waiting for something relevant or interesting to happen and it didn't.

I like Stephenson's writing. I thought The Diamond Age was brilliant and Snow Crash has a lot of interesting ideas in it. I even managed to get through Cryptonomicon, although it suffers from the same bloat as Quicksilver.

Maybe he needs fierce editing? Maybe I need patience.

  2004-04-22 16:20 Z
The New York Times recently reported about Sony playing catch-up to Apple in the portable MP3 player market. That and a new Squeezebox got me thinking; I've spent about $1000 on MP3 hardware. And none of that has gone to a traditional music or stereo manufacturer.
I've bought two portable MP3 players from Archos and two network MP3 players from Slim Devices. None of these are traditional music devices. The Archos is more like a USB hard drive that happens to have an MP3 decoder. The Squeezebox is a tiny network device, not a stereo component. Both are hacker friendly, too: there's Rockbox for Archos and Slim actively encourages development.

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that the MP3 market is being owned by computer companies, not stereo companies. And it's nice, too. I love having 20 gigs of stuff in my car that I can sync to work. I love having 40 gigs of music on my stereo, letting me move from Górecki to Bach to Schönberg to Messiaen to Wendy Carlos without having to fumble for CDs. Isn't it amazing that companies like Sony missed it?

  2004-04-22 02:41 Z
I've always looked on credit card "convenience checks" with suspicion. It's a scam: they loan the mark money with predatory advertisements like "take that vacation you could never afford", then charge them 19.9% interest to pay the loan off.

First USA just sent me an offer to write a check for over $15,000 at 4% fixed APR for the life of the balance. There are a few catches, but they aren't terrible:

  • 3% of the value of the check is charged as a fee, but it's capped at $50.
  • If I screw up a payment in any way, including if I "pay another creditor late", I lose the good rate.
  • Any payments I make on the card first go to this loan, and only later go to pay off normal charges that bear a higher interest rate
I've never been in debt to a credit card company and don't have any need to start now. Still, $15,000 at 4% with no collateral and no payment term is a pretty good deal.
  2004-04-21 03:14 Z
My blog is normally a work-free zone, but I have all these Gmail invitations to give out and no one to give them to.

Update: no more Gmail accounts, sorry.
  2004-04-20 03:17 Z
Five months after getting caught in AT&T's customer service disaster, I finally straightened out my bill and my account. Well, not entirely: they still owe me one $80 refund but at this point I'm prepared to write it off. Now, thanks to I can read the disaster story.
AT&T Wireless Self-Destructs
The story of a botched CRM upgrade that cost the telco thousands of new customers and an estimated $100 million in lost revenue. Hard lessons learned.
Long story short: CRM software upgrade + no fallback plan + number portability + massive layoffs + outsourcing + takeover rumours = major disaster.

AT&T's only apology to me ever was two weeks' free on my contract. $15 compensation for about twelve hours of my time straightening out their mess.

As seen on Slashdot
  2004-04-18 03:03 Z
Remember when it was exciting to get new email? Remember when people ran little programs on their desktops to notify them about incoming mail? Remember when "You've got mail" was an advertising campaign and a crappy romantic comedy for the times?

I received 8800 emails last month at home.
That's 300 a day.
63% of that mail was spam.

  2004-04-16 16:36 Z
Górecki's Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra (op. 40) is astonishing music. The layering of harpsichord and a deep string orchestra makes for some very complex texture that he accents with intricate rhythms. I love the simple melodic structure of process music like this concerto but I can't begin to sort out the harmonies here.

If you've heard of Henryk Górecki it's probably because of the Dawn Upshaw recording of his Symphony No. 3 that achieved huge popular success a few years ago. Where that symphony is haunting and lyrical, this 1980 concerto is forceful and propulsive.

Amazon has a sample of the recording I have, see track 5. The dizzying introduction gives a good flavour of the complexity of the piece. For minimalist music with relatively limited instrumentation there's a lot going on.

  2004-04-15 01:51 Z
Thanks to the New York Times I now know how much advantage there is in being a rich Republican.
The Bushes paid 27.7 percent of their adjusted gross income in federal income taxes. The Cheneys, whose income was much larger, paid 19 percent of their adjusted gross income, though when their income from tax-exempt bonds is considered, the Cheneys' effective tax rate was 12.7 percent.
I'm paying about 25 percent of my AGI in federal taxes. My income is a tiny fraction of these guys, and my mortgage deduction is proportionally a lot larger. So why am I paying about the same fraction of my income as the Bushes and a lot more than the Cheneys?

Man, I need to make a million bucks a year.

  2004-04-14 15:19 Z
Thanks to François my linkblog is now in Hot Links, the cool linkblog aggregator. Hit the 4+ page for a quick view of what the linkblog world is thinking about. Or look at me at 2+ to see what links I share with others.

I love Hot Links because the design is good and the thumbnails are surprisingly useful. For another linkblog aggregator (more data, less design) see delicious. And of course daypop, Blogdex, and Technorati give a view of what's hot in blogs in general.

  2004-04-11 17:35 Z
I've been blogging since November, 2001 and began in earnest in Februrary, 2003 thanks to Blosxom. Below is a calendar-based visualization of the days I posted:
Each day is a square; brighter squares mean more posts. The code to generate these graphs is available but it sure ain't pretty — I hacked it out as fast as I could with only some simple unit tests to keep me honest.
  2004-04-11 00:51 Z
I just ran into something interesting on BitTorrent: a full suite of Tycoon games there for the downloading. Only it's not quite what you think: the downloads are time-limited trials. After 30-60 minutes you get the opportunity to pay by credit card for the whole game.

Online distribution isn't anything new, but this is the first time I've seen it work so smoothly. Trymedia is the company behind this. Their ActiveMARK suite includes DRM, distribution, and payments. At $20 a game, maybe they'll make this work? A quick check suggests that a crack for the DRM is not widely known. Trymedia's survey suggests that folks who steal games by downloading them would be willing to pay for them if the terms are right.

The main site for this distribution channel is Trygames. The games there are generally second tier and/or old. I don't know if Trymedia seeded the Tycoon bittorrents themselves or the publishers did. Atari/Infogrames, one of the main Tycoon publishers partnered with KaZaA to distribute ToEE awhile back.

  2004-04-10 20:33 Z
Mayonnaise, the hydrogen of condiments, is pretty freaky stuff. It's an emulsion, one liquid suspended in another. It's basically a cup of oil suspend as tiny droplets in a few tablespoons of lemon juice and egg. That sounds backwards, but lecithin is a powerful emulsifying agent. Mustard helps emulsify, too.

Commercial mayonnaise is pretty good but homemade is supposed to be easy and better. I tried last night with a simple recipe and it didn't go so well. The first attempt was going perfectly up until I added the last bit of oil at which point the sauce broke. You go from having a silky suspension of oil in egg to chunky, greasy mess of egg suspended in oil. The second attempt was better but I got the flavouring wrong. All told it took me an hour. I can't imagine what it'd be like with a hand whisk.

  2004-04-10 18:57 Z
Wow, it's bad. Really bad. Worse than you think. By reducing William Hung to a solely auditory phenomenon, Inspiration leaches all the joy in his goofiness and replaces it with sheer sonic horror. It's like listening to karaoke only you're not drunk and you're not with your friends.

Here. Listen for yourself. I believe I can fly (excerpt, ogg).

  2004-04-07 05:39 Z
I really enjoyed this music composition [Flash] composed entirely out of manipulated Windows system sounds. davidissimo characterizes this as techno, but the construction reminds me more of the minimalist tape loop work of Steve Reich. Either way it's very clever.
As seen on Waxy links
  2004-04-06 16:04 Z
Twice a year as I set my clocks for daylight savings I wonder "isn't it the future yet? Can't computers do this for me?" Then I remember the complexity that is the unix timezone database. 444k of datafiles (260k without comments) containing facts like "Louisville, KY didn't observe daylight savings time in 1974."

This spring, daylight savings time changes at 45 different times around the world. No wonder it's so hard to know what time it is.

  2004-04-04 17:40 Z
Today's SFChron has a useful feature on the Top 100 Bay Area restaurants.
1550 Hyde • A Cote • Acquerello • Amber India • Antica Trattoria • Aqua • Aziza • Bacar • Bacco • Bambuddha Lounge • Baraka • Bay Wolf • Betelnut • Bistro AIX • Bistro Don Giovanni • Bistro Jeanty • Bix • Bizou • Bo's • Bouchon, Yountville • Boulevard • Buckeye Road House • Cafe Jacqueline • Cafe Kati • Cafe La Haye • Campton Place • Cesar • Cetrella • Charles Nob Hill • Chez Nous • Chez Panisse • Chez Papa • Chow • Clementine • Cucina • Delfina • Ebisu • Farallon • Farmhouse Inn • Fifth Floor • Firefly • Fleur de Lys • Fonda • Foreign Cinema • Fork • Frantoio • French Laundry • Gary Danko • Grasshopper • Greens • Hawthorne Lane • House of Prime Rib • Incanto • Insalata's • Isa • Jai Yun • Jardiniere • Kabuto A&S • Koi Palace • Kokkari • L'Amie Donia • La Folie • La Taqueria • Lalime's • Liberty Cafe • Limon • Luna Park • Manresa • Marche • Market • Martini House • Masa's • Matterhorn • Mecca • O Chame • Oliveto • Pesce • Piperade • Plouf • PlumpJack Cafe • Poggio • Quince • Rivoli • Roxanne's • Rubicon • Sam's Grill • Slow Club • Sushi Ran • Swan Oyster Depot • Takara • Tamarine • Terra • Thep Phanom • Ton Kiang • Town Hall • Yank Sing • Zax • Zazu • Zuni Cafe • Zuzu
  2004-04-04 16:58 Z
Lurhq has a fascinating analysis of phatbot, the latest Windows worm payload. These zombie networks have been around for a few years and are responsible for distributed denial of service attacks and spam distribution. They have sophisticated control networks.

Note the evolution of these bots:

Phatbot is actually a direct descendant of Agobot, with additional code rolled in from other sources. These additions have made Phatbot a more versatile and dangerous threat in the realm of Internet security.
Do they share source? Or binary hacks?

What's most interesting is this is the first big bot network that doesn't use IRC for the control channel. Instead it uses WASTE, bootstrapped by Gnutella. No encryption yet.

We've come a long way since The Morris Worm (whose author is now an MIT professor). Stacheldraht was the first of the coordinated worms I learned about; amazing how much further it's come. We're still not quite to the 8 minute nightmare of Warhol worms, although Slammer was close. These things are so powerful, I just wish someone could use them for good.

As seen on warmbrain
Thanks to Marc for pointing out how interesting this was
  2004-04-04 01:45 Z
Sound isn't like light. You can close or avert your eyes but it's nearly impossible to avoid an offensive sound. Here are some of the offensive sounds in my recent life:
  • Last night Ken's cell phone woke me up at 5am. It starts beeping when the battery is low.
  • Last week a quiet high pitched beeping woke me up at 6am. It took me 20 minutes to locate the source; a home security alarm panel.
  • Smoke detectors make noise when their battery is low. The high pitched noise is frustratingly difficult to locate.
  • My microwave beeps when it's done microwaving. Then it continues to beep, twice every 30 seconds, until you open the door.
  • One of my officemate's cell phone beeps every 15 seconds when he has a message.
  • Trucks all over the US make loud high pitched noises when they are in reverse gear.
  • At every meeting, every conference, someone's Windows laptop plays a little tune when it starts up.
These aren't big loud noises, the unavoidable din of urban street life. It's not even the deliberate environmental noise of trendy restaurants that eschew any sound dampening material to create "buzz". These are little noises intentionally perpetuated by electronics. Each has some sort of purpose, a reminder. Each is offensive.

  2004-04-01 16:26 Z