Robert Smigel is one of the most brilliant people writing comedy for TV, and he's about to get a DVD release. The Best of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog is due out August 10. You probably know Smigel's stuff: The Ambiguously Gay Duo, or The video of Triumph at the Star Wars opening, or the show that was too brilliant to live: TV Funhouse. All hysterically funny.

PS: I love that the #2 result on an Amazon search for [triumph insult] is The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Just after the pooping dog puppet.

As seen on MetaFilter.
  2004-07-30 14:11 Z
The NYT has a well written article about the great sport of demolition derbies.
Led by Suicide Steve Rossics, an affable gutter installer driving a tough green 1973 Chevy Impala, the trio rolled through the gate in a procession of cheeky defiance. "American Badass" was emblazoned across one car, a 1978 Lincoln, from which flew a filthy American flag duct-taped to a PVC pipe.
  2004-07-30 14:03 Z
I'm a huge fan of post-apocalyptic novels. End of civilization, everyone dead, cities crumbling, a few scavengers all that's left of humanity. I like the low-brow stuff with mutants and gore, and I like the middle-brow stuff with reflections on humanity.

So thanks to Mark for pointing me at Earth Abides, a 1949 novel where all but a handful of people die from a mystery disease. The book follows one man's attempt to rebuild something like a society.

What I love is the melancholy tone of the loss of civilization. At first it's fat city, free food and cars and everything for the taking. But things slowly deteriorate: the power, the water, the cars. With less than 100 survivors in the whole Bay Area creating a society is tough, and reviving the trappings of civilization is impossible.

The second half of the book is even sadder. The protagonist sets himself up as the leader of a small group of people and sets to having children. All well and good, but he's the only intellectual of the bunch. He valiantly tries to teach kids to read, preserves a library for them, tries to show them how technology works and what their heritage was. But it's a failure and the new society reverts back to simple hunting and superstition. All of our hero's knowledge is useless.

I love the idea of the impermanence of civilization; Earth Abides describes it very well.

  2004-07-26 15:39 Z
Thanks to Andy for pointing out Juha's Knight Rider dashboard project. A fan from Finland documents his twenty year quest to faithfully redraw the dash display of K.I.T.T., the famous talking car. I love that his presentation is free of irony.
What is the point of all this?
I wanted to finish what I had started. I have dozens of eternity projects that I usually have no time to work on. Whenever I manage to find a bit of spare time and if Im in the mood I will try to work on those projects. Drawing the ultimate reproduction of KITTs dash was one of those unfinished projects for fifteen years. Now it has been completed.
Irony is a cheap and undemanding form of cultural commentary. Sure, Knight Rider is cheesy and it's easy to get some quick laughs by making fun of it. But it was also a really entertaining show. I have fond boyhood memories of Knight Rider as well as Dukes of Hazzard. Why not just enjoy that instead of belittling it with irony?

John Waters' film Pecker is a brilliant commentary on the hollowness of irony; listen to his DVD commentary for his take on the curtain of irony that enshrouds New York.

I try to be less ironic, but it's hard and I'm lazy.

  2004-07-24 17:36 Z
In all of the NYT's coverage of the 9/11 commission report, this article about international policy seems important and easily overlooked. It's a summary of the report section titled What to do? A Global Strategy.
long-term success demands the use of all elements of national power: diplomacy, intelligence, covert action, law enforcement, economic policy, foreign aid, public diplomacy, and homeland defense. If we favor one tool while neglecting others, we leave ourselves vulnerable and weaken our national effort.
This is the concern that connects 9/11 to Iraq. Iraq wasn't a source of terrorism, but we attacked it. And by pursuing a war in Iraq, Bush has undermined our diplomatic and moral position. The NYT article suggests this is one of the few places where the 9/11 report is critical of Bush policy:
Mr. Bush also maintains that Iraq had been a "central front'' in the war on terror, a point that the report treats with stony silence. Instead, it warns of what could happen if the American experiment in Iraq goes bad, declaring, "If, for example, Iraq becomes a failed state, it will go to the top of the list of places that are breeding grounds for attacks against Americans at home.''
Hearts and minds are not won by unilateral unprovoked wars, torturing prisoners, and clumsy propaganda outlets.
  2004-07-23 14:49 Z
Have you used User-mode Linux? Please email me. I recently signed up for UML hosting and am finding the performance is so slow and unpredictable that I'm not sure I can use it.

I expected slow, but not this slow: my virtual CPU speed is about 10x slower than my 1000MHz Athlon. Clearly those other partitions are pretty busy. I'd naïvely assumed the system would be mostly idle.

What surprises me more is the variability. On a normal unloaded Linux system 'time sleep 1' should return just over 1 second of real time, maybe 1.01 seconds. On my UML box, 5 times out of 100 a 'sleep 1' takes over 1.2 seconds! In other words, my whole OS has dropped out entirely for 200 milliseconds. Ugh!

Is this typical or did I get unlucky with my UML provider?

I may have just gotten unlucky; performance on another hosting service is significantly better. More details once I know more.

  2004-07-20 02:24 Z
There's an excellent opinion piece in the SF Chron today about how fear of terrorism has changed Washington DC. Open government and accessibility used to be considered important democractic values in the US, but now everything is locked away. Do we even recognize what's been lost?
Today, much of this beguiling traditional democratic American openness has been rudely swept away, possibly never to return. And the nation once known as "the land of the free and the home of the brave" seems both less free and less brave.

But one thing is certain: Washington today is a heavily armed, hunkered- down capital. The city on the Potomac appears to be a city under siege. Congress has allocated more than $600 million for increased security for the capital.

Update 2004-07-19: Tom Bridge, who lives in the DC area, has posted a rebuttal to the SF Chron piece.
  2004-07-18 15:33 Z
The Ultima series (1981 — 1994) is the most important series in the development of computer role playing games. And it's getting easier to play them again.

Ultima I-III defined CRPGs, using tile based graphics and intricate worlds to immerse the player. Ultima IV was the huge leap forward, with a deep back story and a morality system that required you play carefully, not just kill and rob everything. Ultimas V and VI extended this formula into richly entertaining games. Ultima VII sets a landmark for non-linear gameplay. Ultima Underworld was one of the first 3d games, as pioneering as Wolfenstein 3D. Alas, Ultima IX broke my heart.

If you're too young to know these games, there's a lot of info online. But reading is dull: buy the Ultima Collection and play to your heart's content.

Except, well, PC technology has changed a lot and running the old games is nearly impossible. Enter preservation efforts. The most impressive is the Ultima Classics collection. "Sedryn Tyros" has collected the Ultima games and distributed them in a bundle along with DOSBox setups that make it easy to run the games. His supplement also includes original pre-PC versions of the early games, often better than the PC ports, along with the emulators you need to play them on a PC. Update: there's now a 1.3 release that combines the two. Alas, this collection is completely unauthorized and you'll have to scour your back alley's bittorrent site to find it.

Another option is fan-made reconstructions of the game engines. The best is Exult for Ultima VII, a portable engine that runs the classic game on many platforms (including Xbox!). Just take the open source game engine, copy over the assets from your Ultima Collection CD, and you're in business.

A lot of the first 20 years of movies are lost forever because no one preserved them. I fear the same thing is going to happen with games.

  2004-07-16 15:17 Z
I'm really impressed with Windows Update. Microsoft does a great job of getting patches out quickly to my home machine, easily installable. But they have one really annoying bug: some part of the install process often steals keyboard focus. I'm installing the last set of six patches, which takes about 3 minutes, so I'm typing email. Halfway through my typing bam my keyboard goes dead. Presumably underneath the scenes some part of the installer mapped a window which took focus, then didn't give it back. That's dumb.

Then again, they are getting better at pushing updates so they don't require reboots.

  2004-07-14 15:02 Z
My first ever webpage, started in January 1994, is still online. It's of a genre that was very popular in the early web, a list of cool links. Before search engines this kind of "home page" was the only way we could find things on the net. Now we have linkblogs and community sites.

I stopped maintaining this list in early 1997. I'm surprised how many links are useful and relevant but are still slightly obscure. Alas, many of the URIs have changed.

  2004-07-11 17:12 Z
The Bush campaign's Orwellian technology of words is in full force now around the word "pessimism". The Hitler ad warns "this is not the time for pessimism and rage". The Bush campaign claims "Senator Edwards delivers his pessimism with a Southern drawl and a smile". The new Bush ad Pessimism talks about Bush's "optimism" and then chides Kerry for talking about the US economy, ending with the tag line "Pessimism never created a job".

Unhappy that Bush tax cuts and military expenditures are destroying the US budget? Be an optimist! Worried that you have no job? Blame Kerry, that mean ol' pessimist, for complaining about the economy. Upset that we're in a war in Iraq under false pretenses? Blame the pessimists for confusing you with stories and congressional inquries. America Number 1!

By taking this single word "pessimism" and using it to characterize the Democracts, the Bush campaign brilliantly defuses any criticism of the Bush presidency. Even better, it shifts the blame to the opposition who is calling attention to the problems. Use of single words is the purest technology of campaigning; the Republicans are brilliant at it.

Bring 'em on. Mission Accomplished.

  2004-07-07 15:02 Z
Here's a nice surprise. Spiderman 2, the XBox and PS2 game from Treyarch, is remarkably good. It's basically Grand Theft Auto with flying. Big city, lots of little missions to do, and the real fun in the game is exploring the city.

The reviews are a bit scattered. I tend to agree with the more negative ones; the core game story requires too many repetitive missions. But who cares? What's amazing is the recreation of Manhattan you play in.

The game experience is architectural. You'll be zipping around, then see a pretty skyscraper, then climb it for a breathtaking view of the virtual city. See another interesting building? Just jump off and swing over to it. Easy and very beautiful, particularly at sunset when the lighting is most dramatic.

Update: See the NYT on virtual Manhattan.
  2004-07-06 15:31 Z
One of the cool things about kite aerial photography is that it has a long history, going back to 1882 or so. Kites are a cheap way to get something up in the air.
Effective, too. The image above is one of the famous "San Francisco in Ruins" series that George Lawrence took in 1906. The technology is amazing. 17 kites on a steel cable, a custom 49 pound panoramic camera with a 20x48 inch plate, and a 2000 foot steel line with a conducting wire in it for the shutter. I love the idea of the difficulty and expense of hauling the camera up in the air, only to take a single photo that might or might not come out. There's lots more info if you want.
  2004-07-04 14:58 Z
I spend far too much time in front of a computer. In an attempt to have some hobby other than computer geekdom, I've decided to try kite geekdom. I fondly remembering flying Saul's power kites: 300lbs of lift == exhilarating flight. I'm also inspired by Kite Aerial Photography.

But that's all too hardcore so I set out today to learn some simple stunt kite flying. A bit of searching revealed that HighLine Kites is the Bay Area place to go to buy a kite. Tom sells kites out of his RV at the Berkeley Marina, a prime kite-flying spot. Lots of kite geeks. Tom's great, by the way. I liked the Prism kites website, so after spending some time with Tom's advice I'm the proud owner of a new E2.

Modern kites are pretty amazing technology, full of graphite and mylar and exotic polymer line. Alas, the line was my downfall; I made a bone-headed mistake and tangled one of the lines while setting up and after a frustrating hour of attempting to untangle the fog rolled in and I gave up. (Hint: pulling on knots does not make them better). I'm untangled and ready to try again tomorrow. Update 2004-07-04: success, at Balboa Park.

  2004-07-04 02:37 Z