The White House press corp dinner this year had Stephen Colbert speak. It's always an irreverent and casual event, but this year Colbert delivers some real zingers. It's the first time I've ever seen someone be directly critical of the Bush Administration in their faces. And he's funny, so he gets away with it. But despite digs at Bush, Cheney, at al the best remarks are for the press corps itself:
What are you thinking, reporting on N.S.A. wiretapping or secret prisons in Eastern Europe? Those things are secret for a very important reason, they're superdepressing. And if that's your goal, well, misery accomplished. ...

Let's review the rules. Here's how it works. The president makes decisions, he’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know, fiction.

Video here, 26 megs and 15 minutes. You can stop at 07:30 though, it goes to a stupid canned clip that never gets better.
  2006-04-30 15:47 Z
The EFF recently discovered that AT&T is illegally helping NSA intercept US citizen's communications passing through their networks. Vast government hoovering of private data is nothing new, but it is illegal and dangerous and must be stopped.

On Friday evening the US government announced they will try to halt the lawsuit based on the military and state secrets privilege. That privilege is an extraordinary power the government has to prevent a lawsuit by claiming it will lead to the disclosure of essential military secrets. I'm sure that privilege is necessary in some very limited cases, but it's a very dangerous power that should not be applied frivolously to stop a civil liberties investigation.

So now we have the US government preventing the investigation of illegal government action by declaring that the actions of AT&T, a complicit private corporation, are military secrets. It's hideous. You can do something. Support the EFF and the ACLU. They are particularly effective at fighting government abuse of citizen liberty.

The hero of this story is Mark Klein, a former AT&T technician. He blew the whistle on AT&T after observing secret installations in an AT&T central office in San Francisco. They were literally splitting the fibre, copying all traffic. How long will it be before he's sued or imprisoned for violating trade secrets or state secrets?

  2006-04-29 16:22 Z
The San Francisco Chronicle has been republishing the front pages of the paper in 1906 after the earthquake. They're fascinating. Today, six days after the quake is the first day of what seems like normalcy. The front page prominently features a list of "news you can use" items.
Candle lights may burn until 10 PM.
No building permits needed for temporary shelter.
Fires not permitted indoors until chimneys are inspected.
All contributions to Relief Fund sould be sent to Joames D. Phelan, chariman of committee, Pine and Fillmore streets.
Within two days street cars will be running on four important routes. Transportation free.
Prepartions are being made to resume electric lighting at once in a considerable portion of the unburned section north of Market street.
No San Francisco banks will move out of city.
Superior courts have resumed business.
Standing walls in business district are being dynamited.
Telephone service has been resumed.
It is thought that there is no danger of an epidemic. Sanitary situation is improving.
Embargo on shipping lifted.
Sewers found to be in better condition than supposed.
I love how efficient this information is. It's the first day where it sounds like things are under control.
  2006-04-24 15:50 Z
One example of Eve Online's emergent gameplay complexity is the economic system. MMOG economies are generally marked by hyperinflation, simplistic valuations, and little opportunity for generating wealth except killing things. By contrast Eve is a complex and balanced economy. Hunting NPCs, mining, mercenary PC killing, trading, hauling, and manufacturing are all reasonable ways to generate wealth.

There are three things of value in Eve: currency (called ISK), minerals, and ships/ship parts. Players generate wealth by mining minerals and hunting NPCs for ISK bounties. Ships are for the most part built by players out of minerals. Minerals and ships are traded on the regional markets where prices are set by the players. Demand for goods varies by day, week, and location, so there are plenty of people who make a fine living doing arbitrage.

Eve markets have a locality that makes the economics even more complex. The 66 regional markets are disconnected, so players can't easily see the prices across the entire universe. I've made a fair amount of ISK by buying stuff cheaply in one region and selling it in a more expensive region, exploiting the information inefficiency. There's also a locality effect caused by the difficulty of moving goods around. There's no mail or NPC courier service, stuff has to be moved by people. This takes time and risk, so prices tend to vary quite a bit in different areas depending on local conditions.

Eve seems less prone to inflation than most MMOGs. There are plenty of sources of wealth in Eve, but there's also a giant sink: PvP ship battles. When a ship is blown up it's value is destroyed. So even experienced characters worry about wealth. There's even a mild RTS element to the game with alliances wars over several weeks causing attrition of corporate coffers.

My war profiteering of last week was successful. The invasion of my station never happened, so I got to keep the cheaply acquired minerals. The dreaded BoB Alliance did raise a lot of hell (see this 300MB video) and have been blowing up so many ships that prices of minerals are going up all over the universe. Unfortunately now that our guests in my region are gone no one is buying my goods; I'm debating whether to hoard my minerals until market conditions improve or just haul them somewhere and sell them at a profit.

  2006-04-23 18:17 Z
FeedDemon continues to be good software. I finally got around to upgrading to 2.0 today. I don't care about the online synchronization feature, but some of the bugs in 1.5 were annoying me. The upgrade could not have been smoother. Download, install to a new directory, and it automatically imported my subscriptions, reading state, UI preferences, and license key. Couldn't be simpler.
  2006-04-23 16:49 Z
Remember when we learned last fall that the US was sending people to secret torture prisons in former Soviet Union gulags? I'm proud to say there's been an investigation and someone has been punished!
The CIA fired a top intelligence analyst who admitted leaking classified information that led to a Pulitzer Prize-winning story about a network of secret CIA prisons, government officials say.
Yes, a fine investigation into the latest shameful American prison scandal. In our corrupt society it's not the torturers that are punished, it's the whistleblowers.
  2006-04-22 14:16 Z
I finally found a solution for Oblivion running poorly on my PC; upgrading DirectX 9.0c to the April 2006 version. No idea how this 9.0c is different from the older 9.0c that was on my machine, but it's smoothed out the framerates significantly. Much more success than trying to various tweaks. PCs are such a mess; Oblivion definitely runs better on the Xbox 360.
  2006-04-19 15:02 Z
The updater for Adobe Reader is bad software. It pops up an irritating window everytime I try to read a PDF telling me to upgrade, interrupting whatever it was I was trying to do. I finally succumbed and clicked "update", at which point it pops up a second window to show download progress. You can hide that window (where it bizarrely goes to a tray icon, not the tray), but when it's done it pops up again and pops up a second window asking if I want to now install the software. Sure, I'll install, and guess what? Now it wants me to reboot! So I click "don't reboot" and just for revenge it pops up one more Reader window, empty this time.

In summary: a minor software update causes 4 windows and a tray icon to pop up and requires three mouse clicks and a reboot to install. Smooth going, Adobe. Somewhere inside Reader there's a good document engine struggling to be free, but it sure is buried behind a lot of crap.

Update: I haven't rebooted, and now everytime I launch Reader an alert pops up (and beeps) saying "you must restart your system before you can do another update". I don't want to update or reboot, I just want to read something in your damned proprietary format!
Update 2: I rebooted, to be greated with a dialog that Reader wants me to reboot again! Whee!
  2006-04-18 21:14 Z
Today is the 100th anniversary of the Great Quake and fire that destroyed San Francisco. Lots of reflection in the newspaper. This morning was the rememberance ceremony at Lotta's Fountain; I'm headed into town now for the parade.

I was going to say it's hard to imagine what it was like to have a whole city destroyed in the course of three days. But no imagination required; it happened last year in New Orleans. The stories about San Francisco's recovery talk about the optimism and "city that knows how" spirit that quickly restored San Francisco to greatness. I hope New Orleans can pull that off too, but it seems a more cynical era now. New Orleans is still nonfunctional and there are grave doubts that adequate levees can be built before the 2006 hurricane season. It all seems quite pessimistic.

I hope that I don't live to see a great quake come through San Francisco. Odds are one will. My friends and I are pretty much unprepared. The best I've done is print out some earthquake preparation tips; maybe I should get around to actually getting a kit together? But the first 3 days are a crapshoot; it's the idea of rebuilding the whole city again that gives me chills.

  2006-04-18 16:18 Z
I really miss the food in Santa Fe. Particularly New Mexico chile. Milder and more flavourful than most chile peppers, they're used whole as the main vegetable in dishes or in large quantities as a spice.

My favourite chile is Chimayo red chile. The little town of Chimayo is famous for three things. El Santuario de Chimayo is a country pilgrimage church with dirt you eat to heal you of your sicknesses. Rancho de Chimayo is a great New Mexican restaurant. And the red chile grown in Chimayo is the best in the world, rich tasting and mild enough you can use it in great quantity.

Happily you can order Chimayo chile online cheaply: grocery store brand Bueno Foods will ship you 3 pounds for $20. That may sound like a lot of chile, but you can easily use 1 ounce per person making dinner.

  2006-04-17 21:56 Z
Oblivion is out and doing great in the reviews. I like it OK, but despite the fantastic physics and AI it's not bowling me over. It just runs too slow and the writing is too simplistic. Still, it's one of the best games that will come out this year.

The best thing about Oblivion is how rich and intricate the world is. And so Oblivion has given birth to a bunch of blogs of people writing about the random stuff that happens to them in their (virtual) lives. This first person blog is the most amusing, along with this nerdy blog and this tech tips oriented one. Spoilers abound.

  2006-04-17 21:44 Z
The computer game that's been holding my attention for awhile now is Eve Online, a space MMOG from Icelandic company CCP. It's a fascinating game full of spaceship combat, piracy, economics, and beautiful graphics.
There's a lot to say about Eve Online, but the primary thing that attracts me is that it's unique among MMOGs in relying on emergent gameplay. The scripted content is not very good, but the game mechanics are rich and well balanced. And all 115,000 players are tossed together in the same server to interact with each other. The result is complex politics, nuanced economics, and a lot of fun.

I've recently become a war profiteer. My corporation built a couple of space stations and controls a small territory in lawless 0.0 space. That's a big deal, few corps have done that. We have some guests who use our stations who recently heard a rumour that we were about to be attacked by a dreaded enemy alliance. Rather than risk losing everything our guests have decided to cut and run.

That's when I saw my opportunity to become a cold blooded merchant. Because they're leaving in a hurry, our guests have an urgent need to upgrade their engines and sell what they can't carry. So I've been filling the market need, selling parts to the fleeing pilots for 10x what they cost to make and buying their minerals for 1/10 their value. It's a ruthless sort of opportunism, but I'm the only one willing to take the risk so I set the prices. If I pull this off I'll triple my wealth; if my station gets taken over I'll end up losing about half. I'll know how it works out in a few days.

What's fantastic about this little story is that no one wrote it for us; it's all a natural consequence of the rich and complex game design. Players can build space stations, but they are at risk of being conquered by other players. Players can build wealth by mining minerals, but it's hard to haul minerals around. There's an open market where prices are set by other players. Put this all together and complexity emerges; in this case, my war profiteering.

That's just one small example; Eve is full of stories like this. It's a refreshing change from the entertaining but simplistic scripted gameplay of mainstream MMOGs like World of Warcraft. If you want to try it out, there's a 14 day free trial. It takes awhile to find the fun parts, so if you play for a few days but can't find anything enjoyable email me.

  2006-04-14 15:19 Z
There is a tiny window between when a new piece of interesting information enters the world and when that information is available on web search engines. For example, today there are a series of improbable rumours about the White House that were posted on Something Awful. This new information (whether true or false) is rapidly circling the web. It's on Metafilter, you'll probably see it on TV in two days.

Is any of it true? I tried to verify one item by doing a search for ["Dick Cheney" "hydrogen peroxide"]. Right now there are 602 results on Google, very few coming from the Something Awful post. Alas, none that I see confirm the story. Tomorrow there will probably be a few thousand hits on every search engine and it will be impossible to do a search to try to find an independent source.

A better example is Quaoar, a planetoid discovered in June 2002. The day the discovery was announced there were exactly 3 results on Google for the word, all about the original mythological name. Now there are 300,000 results. For awhile I tracked the growth of search results for the word to see how fast it spread. Quickly, it turns out.

It used to be that major search engines had updates roughly once a month. So it'd take about two weeks before a new piece of information was easily findable on the web. Now a significant portion of all three major search engines updates every day, sometimes even faster. Information is accelerating.

  2006-04-12 16:47 Z
My fancy quiet PC has been running hot. I thought it was Oblivion's fault, but when I opened up the case I saw how filthy my high tech vacuum cleaner had become.

Removing a couple of grams of dust from the heatsinks and fans brought the max CPU temperature down from an alarming 82°C to a merely scorching 66°C. I never thought filth would make that big a difference.

  2006-04-12 16:09 Z
IZArc is good software. It's a Windows compression program that replaces WinZip, 7-Zip, WinRAR, and whatever other nightmareware you might have installed.

File compression is commodity software. You only need two things: a humane UI and decompressors for whatever files you may come across. IZArc is the first program to have both required features. It supports all the formats you might care about (in particular: zip, rar, ace, 7z) and it's got a nice clean UI. I never even launch the program anymore, it's boiled down to a single shell extension command: "make new folder and extract contents".

Oh yeah, and it's free. $25 suggested donation, but no more guiltily skipping nag screens if you are cheap.

  2006-04-10 20:38 Z
A lot of my photos from Australia have bright blue skies with dark trees in front of them. Like this. One thing that irritates me when editing them is the tree branches have noticeable blue tints.

The problem is the branches are only a couple of pixels wide. And digital cameras aren't true colour sensors, but rather a Bayer filter mosaic of red, green, and blue sensors. So there's some aliasing in the mosaic pattern in the colour sensor. The raw convertor has to be particularly clever to figure out the true colours in the image. To put it another way, a digital camera sensor is going to have a very hard time with colour features only a couple of pixels wide.

Here's a comparison of four raw convertors: Canon's Digital Photo Professional, Rawshooter Essentials, Adobe Camera Raw, and DxO Optics. To keep things consistent I used full defaults for each convertor. So ignore the exposure and overall colour, just look for bleed. To my eye the DxO image has the least bleed. The blow-up doesn't look as sharp in DxO, but I think that's actually more faithful to the reality.

Tinkering around I think I can get the best-looking image out of DxO. It has lots of fancy camera body and lens-specific corrections and, apparently, a smarter demosaicing algorithm. But this kind of pixel-peeping doesn't make me a better photographer. And DxO is a pain in the ass. So I'll just stick with Photoshop. Still, the technological differences are interesting.

Update: it's never simple. Turns out part of the problem with the Adobe Raw image is the "Color Noise Reduction". At the default of 25 you get blue branches; setting it to zero eliminates a lot of the blue cast. Chromatic aberration may also be partly to blame, even though this branch is in the center of the image.
  2006-04-08 17:56 Z
Today's my last day as an employee of Google. I've been on leave since December, so it's not really a big change this day. But now the decision's made. It feels a bit strange leaving such a great and productive company. But I'm ready to do something new with a smaller group of people. No idea what that would be yet. I'm also working towards living in France for a few months this fall.

So goodbye, Google, and thank you for a fun and interesting job. While I worked for you I built two APIs for your customers: search and AdWords. I did a bunch of Java webapp work, object-relational mappings and servlet infrastucture and the like. I particularly enjoyed being able to meddle and consult on various products as they were being born. Thanks!

  2006-04-07 17:16 Z
The new RPG Oblivion is a fantastic game. Intricate, sprawling, beautiful. The incredible lighting, physics, and detail brings the strongest PC to its knees. It seems to be the first game that really shows the Xbox 360 off to full potential.

The developers (Bethesda) are selling small content updates for download for both PC and 360, about $2 an update. Unfortunately the first product, the "Horse Armor Pack", looks to be nothing but some graphic models that had been heavily promoted in prerelease screenshots. Fans are pissed off, vowing not to buy something they feel should have been in the game they already paid $50 or $60 for.

It's too bad Bethesda's plan is starting out this way. Selling microcontent add-ons for games is a brilliant and consumer friendly business plan. Neverwinter Nights has done it successfully with new adventures for sale for $5 to $10. And a bunch of alternative games are doing it, like Doubloon Oceans in Puzzle Pirates. Some day there will even be commercial markets for fan-generated content, although so far only The Sims and Second Life have begun to make that work. It's all part of the transition of games to a software service rather than a shrinkwrapped package. It will happen.

Alas, Bethesda has introduced this concept poorly to their customers. The next two products (Orrery and Wizard's Tower) look better, containing actual story, although I'm irritated to learn that apparently the fantastic Mage's Orrery I keep hearing about in-game is something I'll have to pay extra for.

Bethesda is positioning all this as an experiment. Good. I hope they decide to become less miserly. Selling microcontent add-ons to games is a great idea, but you have to be generous about it.

  2006-04-05 12:02 Z
AVG Free is good software. It's simple, effective anti-virus protection that's free for home use. The commercial version starts at $20/year/machine. Easy download and install, seems to do the basics well. The UI is a bit clunky but how often do you operate your anti-virus software?

I've been a loyal Symantec Norton Antivirus user for years, paying $25 a year to upgrade. But those upgrades kept adding new features I didn't want and made the product bloated and slow. The trouble started with the worm blocking that made opening network connections 100x slower. NAV 2006 has had several installation and update bugs and more features I have to turn off like the email scanner. The final straw was that its daily update makes my computer slow, pops up a window that steals focus, and apparently can't be rescheduled to a quiet time. Bye.

So now I have 10 or 20 megs more RAM free and my computer boots faster too. Let's hope AVG really does protect well; all the reviews say it's great.

  2006-04-04 18:24 Z
zoneinfo, the Unix time zone database, is good software. It converts absolute time to local time subject to local conventions, historical circumstance, and stupid laws. It has to work from at least 1970, so time-loving geeks have filled it with minute local detail about the inconstancy of local timekeeping.
# Part of Kentucky left its clocks alone in 1974.
# This also includes Clark, Floyd, and
# Harrison counties in Indiana.
Zone America/Kentucky/Louisville
  -5:43:02 - LMT 1883 Nov 18 12:16:58
  -5:00 US E%sT 1974 Jan 6 2:00
  -6:00 1:00 CDT 1974 Oct 27 2:00

The 2006b update contains the news that Indiana has now standardized their adoption of DST. It also has the fact that this year, Melbourne is delaying the adoption of DST one week to accomodate the Commonwealth Games. But that's all practical stuff; what's fun about zoneinfo is all the learned and detailed comments about local time jurisdictions. Paul Eggert is particularly eloquent.

Shanks writes that Michigan started using standard time on 1885-09-18, but Howse writes (pp 124-125, referring to Popular Astronomy, 1901-01) that Detroit kept

local time until 1900 when the City Council decreed that clocks should be put back twenty-eight minutes to Central Standard Time. Half the city obeyed, half refused. After considerable debate, the decision was rescinded and the city reverted to Sun time. A derisive offer to erect a sundial in front of the city hall was referred to the Committee on Sewers. Then, in 1905, Central time was adopted by city vote.

This story is too entertaining to be false, so go with Howse over Shanks.

  2006-04-01 18:03 Z
While many of you out there have used Google Maps, I think far fewer people have tried Google Earth. It's a bit of effort to download and install, but the experience of flying around real-time 3d accelerated satellite maps is worth it. Works on Mac and Windows.
One of the cool new features in Earth is a very recent 3 inch scale overhead photo of Las Vegas. Touring the strip is fun; at 3" you can make out the bathing suit styles at the pool. I'm most taken by the incredible reflection off the Luxor; the image has about 8x more zoom in it for detail.
  2006-04-01 16:54 Z