Everytime I travel outside the US I'm appreciative of the new perspective on my home country. I heard a lot of anti-Bush commentary from folks in New Zealand. Mostly baffled, like "how could such an idiot have been reelected"? And some wry amusement, like the NZ Herald publishing ridiculous photos from We're Not Sorry. I was surprised to hear Bush criticism from hosts at small B&Bs; weren't they risking offending their American guests? Maybe they figured that of the 20% of Americans who hold passports, the large majority didn't vote Bush.

The other thing I've learned the past few years of travelling is the US no longer welcomes visitors. I already mentioned the extra security measures for US bound flights. There's also the extra rules for "congregating near toilets" on flights, and the immigration forms which you have to fill out perfectly in pen or else get a replacement, and our new fingerprinting of visitors. Welcome! I met one British couple who flew from England to NZ the long way, east, just so they didn't have to pass through LAX and US immigration. Can you blame them?

Coincidentally, today's NYT has two excellent op/ed pieces on the US turning its back on foreigners: one talking about the drop in foreign students, the other a very dismaying story about getting a US visa in Nigeria.

  2004-11-29 16:37 Z
Arrived home safe and sound after 24 hours of travel starting in Dunedin. Coming back into Fortress America gets more unpleasant each trip; this time a thirty minute secondary security screening for all US bound flights that made our flight fifteen minutes late. But at least SFO immigration, customs, and agriculture inspection was swift and polite.

Lots to say about the trip. New Zealand is very pleasant, and comfortable, and relaxing. And beautiful. Restaurants aren't so terrific but the quality of the local wine and the friendliness of the people more than makes up for it.

  2004-11-28 20:22 Z

Compare this to this. Interesting differences, yes?

I completely agree with Bruce. First, does anyone really believe that the TSA needs all "72 airlines[' ...] June 2004 domestic passenger flight records" in order to test their system? Assuming the system were verifiable, a sample of real data would be sufficient. Second, how will they know the difference between a successful test and a failed test? Did they catch a set of actual terrorists through other means in June 2004, so that they have a group of expected true positive matches? Seems unlikely, given the publicity that each minor incident has raised.

No, the purpose of the TSA test is not to verify their system -- such verification isn't possible, and if it were, all 72 airlines would not need to participate for a valid test sample. The real test the TSA is running is whether or not the airlines will comply, and how badly the public will freak out.

The airlines have complied -- test 1 passed. So, onto test 2. This would be a great time to write your congresspeople and freak out.

  2004-11-24 18:47 Z
Hello from Nelson! It's beautiful here, as it is through almost all of New Zealand. We had a rough start of it in Auckland - kind of a dreary town. But Wellington, Nelson, and Queenstown are all great.

Driving on the left is surprisingly easy to get used to. The tricky part is the turn signal, on the opposite side of the wheel. You can tell the Americans because they run their windshield wipers everytime they try to turn in an intersection.

  2004-11-21 20:36 Z

Matt Haughey is getting beaten up in the comments of his post about ad banners coming to TiVo, but he's absolutely right to complain about TiVo's move. This is a big deal, yet another chapter (along with the recent TiVo-to-Go and Macrovision moves, and others in the past) in the "two masters" problem for TiVo.

TiVo's original pitch was that it transformed television viewing for the audience -- here are the set of features that you want to make it "TV your way." Most prominent among these features was ad-skipping -- certainly the reason I bought a TiVo. Ad banners during ad-skipping are, at the very least, an odd choice, and they dilute and poison the "TV your way" message. Matt's detractors have claimed that sophisticated TiVo users will be able to get around the new feature with the undocumented 30-second skip command, but they miss the point.

Jeff Bezos apparently likes to say that Amazon always tries to "delight the user" with the site's features; similarly, Steve Jobs talks about "lickable" user interfaces. Don Norman's recent book "Emotional Design" talks in depth about the emotional reactions great products give us. TiVo is still usable with banner ads, and it may still be possible for power users to avoid them altogether, but by any interpretation, a person who bought a TiVo to skip ads will not be delighted to see banner ads in their place. They will be annoyed.

Open source projects are often spurred by developers trying to "scratch an itch" they personally feel. TiVo has just spread Acme itching powder all over their product. With competition from above in the form of cable company DVRs, and from below in open source DVRs, is that really the right move? Do they expect the revenue from their banner ads to cover the potential lost revenue from users who come to distrust their motives?

TiVo is still thinking like a small company that has no option but bare survival. They should start thinking like a fighter. If they don't fight for their users, they will wind up fighting with their users, and that's a fight they'll lose.

  2004-11-17 08:29 Z
I'm off for a couple of weeks vacation to New Zealand. Marc has graciously agreed to guestblog for me. He did a great job last time, I'm looking forward to seeing what he writes!

I'll be offline relaxing and travelling up and down the country. I'm amazed to learn it's only three time zones away from California.

  2004-11-12 21:35 Z
I run my blog from a small Internet link so I keep a close eye on the bandwidth. I was surprised to find tens of thousands of downloads for an image I had on my blog. Turns out some not-very-thoughtful person at a message board site had decided to offer my image URL as a little chat room icon they could use. And so it gets loaded, over and over again, by people who have nothing to do with my blog. Grr.

I've renamed the image but the irony is the uncacheable 404 response I'm sending now probably will be more expensive than just sending the image. They only render the image at a tiny 10x10 so I can't even do something mean like replace the image with a big nasty note.

My polite email got a swift response and they removed the image. Apparently this forum allows users to enter arbitrary image URLs; weird. Anyway, what a nuisance. Transclusion is complicated.
  2004-11-12 18:44 Z
Every time I successfully drive 45 minutes into work on a rainy day, I feel like I've cheated death.
  2004-11-11 18:31 Z
It's not easy to view NTSC video input on a Windows box, but thanks to Ask MetaFilter I figured out how. Here's what you need:
  • Video capture hardware. I have a GeForce4 Ti4200 video card (from ASUS) which has a video-in/video-out (VIVO) box.
  • S-Video source. The video card can take in composite or S-video input, but the colours in composite are so awful that it's not worth the effort. S-Video isn't too bad.
  • A WDM driver for the video capture hardware.
  • Software to display the video capture. I like ATV2000, but I'm still looking for alternatives.
Put it all together and your video is now showing on your screen, where you can watch it, record it, filter it, etc. Some tweaking improves quality. I found that it looked best if I ran the capture at 640x480 and my display at 1280x960@60Hz. That's a nice even 2x size multiple and (almost) the same refresh rate as the source. Running at, say, 1024x768@85Hz introduced lots of ugly interlace-related shimmer.

It's amazing how complicated this is. It's a lot of data: I'm surprised my PC can record full motion video to hard drive. And the NTSC input is in an awful format. The interlacing is the worst of it, here's a nice visual explanation. There's a neat program called DScaler that tries to deinterlace the video before displaying. That gives a much sharper still picture but in regions of high motion you get awful judder. I gave up on it.

Progressive scan HDTV is the only rational thing.

  2004-11-07 17:46 Z
We've reached a point where video games can recreate real cities. I first noticed this with Spiderman 2; I played it for 20 minutes and suddenly thought "wait a minute this is New York!". I recognized it from the virtual street layout.

My favourite thing in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the virtual place. The street layouts are heavily abbreviated, but it still feels like Los Angeles and San Francisco (haven't been to Las Vegas yet). And the landmarks are well duplicated, to the point where I learned what the Watts Towers looked like first in the game and only later in real life.

GTA: SA goes beyond just landmarks to create the virtual place. Different neighbourhoods have different people with different dialogue: vapid blondes on Rodeo Drive, tough gangstas in East Los Santos, swimsuits on the beach. Different areas have different cars: lowriders in Hispanic neighbourhoods, big ol' trucks in rural areas tuned to country music. Even the street furniture and generic house templates change: ranch homes and box apartments in Los Santos, Dolger Homes in San Fiero.

It all comes together to make the virtual environment feel real. So much so that when I could finally go to San Fiero, the first thing I did was drive around until I found the Castro ("Queens"). And I knew I was there because there were rainbow flags, gay clone men spouting campy dialogue, cute little sports cars, and stores named "The Barber's Pole" and "Gaze Glasses". I was home.

  2004-11-06 17:08 Z
I just closed my City of Heroes account. I was initially disappointed by the game, then grew to like it, now I'm bored again. I hadn't even played it in several weeks and won't for several weeks more, so I quit. That's $15 / month I'm no longer blowing.

It's weird quitting a MMOG. I feel like I'm killing my character, the one I invested so much time in creating, building up, and being. Goodbye, Dr. Jellylove.

Truth is there's a lot of quality games out there and I don't have much time to play them. I'm a fiend for innovative gameplay and get bored quickly with games. CoH has really dull gameplay, repetitive boring missions, and it's not going to get better anytime soon. Not for me.

It's still a cool game, worth checking out if you're curious.

  2004-11-05 16:17 Z
I love infographics, and election time is a bonanza. So much power is what you choose to highlight in the image. BoingBoing has a post about an alternative view of the election returns, emphasizing the closeness of the election. The design and image are by Jeff Culver.
Today's print New York Times has a fantastic set of infographics on the back page of the election section. I can't find them online, but if you have an NYT nearby take a look. I particularly like the image in the lower right of the page that gives a view of votes by population density. This image is now online in a scanned form and an official online presentation ("by population").

See also this county by county map of the election results, again with the purple colouring that emphasizes how close the vote is.
  2004-11-04 16:07 Z
I poked my head out of my hole this morning and saw a giant shadow. That means we're in for four more years of winter. And since it's too early in the day to start drinking, I need a good dose of Friday Flash to ease the pain.

Flash Flash Revolution is an oldie but goodie. It's an adaptation of the dancing game Dance Dance Revolution for the Web. And while it lacks the actual dancing, it's got the rhythm and the music.

I play this game about once every six months and am always glad to see the site and game getting better and better. I'm impressed at how tight the timing is: being off 20ms really kills a rhythm game. I didn't know Flash could do this right. I always play the same song ("Terror From Beyond"), and even after six months my muscle memory still works.

  2004-11-03 16:41 Z
Don't know where to vote today? Go to smartvoter.org.
  2004-11-02 15:09 Z
I've been playing at GTA: San Andreas over the weekend. Damn, it's good. Really good. And huge. 150 hours huge.

The backstory and world is amazing. The crazy radio stations. The funny characters. The beautifully drawn environment. The voice acting. The diversity of vehicles. The over-the-top writing. The setting.

Despite lots of flaws the gameplay is great. Amazing how quickly I take the open endedness for granted. GTA: SA also brings in something new, a diversity of gameplay modes and minigames. Lots of borrowing from other games: so far I've seen PaRappa/DDR, Sims: Hot Date, Hitman, rail shooters, Gyruss, Max Payne, Track and Field, and of course the usual GTA style drivin'. It's like they said "let's make this game diverse" and went to the well of 25 years of gameplay ideas.

The game is quite firmly adult. Your friends all smoke pot, which is apparently OK, but you're out to kill the crack dealers. Lots of killing and pimping, of course. And I've never heard the word "fuck" so much in a game. It's all part of painting the 90s ghetto hood scene. Combined with the excellent voice acting, good story, and great gameplay, it makes for a landmark game.

What's next? Grand Theft Auto: Tokyo 2010?

  2004-11-01 16:33 Z