Link and Think 2002

I was quoted today in a Wired News article about the Link and Think project to mark Sunday’s World AIDS Day. The reporter got one small bit wrong, a MetaFilter user posted a link to someone’s story, not a member’s own story, though it’s a minor point.

The story is still a gripping and moving piece that did make me rethink my position on needle exchanges. Until that point, I thought the idea of needle exchanges was kind of out there. They’re frequently used to generate scare quotes in stories aiming to show how HIV/AIDS funding is going too far, by claiming with some sense of outrage that junkies are using needles paid for by the gov’t and isn’t that outrageous?

Two years ago during the Day Without Weblogs project, I set out to do some of my own personal research on the subject and was surprised by what I found. They actually do reduce the number of new infections, rid the streets of needles infected with HIV, and studies show they don’t encourage an increase in drug use. “But should we still spend gov’t money on junkies? Wouldn’t we simply be saving the lowest elements of society?” I still thought. I posted my findings to MetaFilter but in my mind I still wasn’t convinced of their worth, until Brad‘s link to the needle exchange story reminded me that addicts are indeed people that can clean themselves up and contribute to society, and that my former point of view was blind to that possibility.

If you’ve got a weblog, this Sunday I encourage you to do some personal research on HIV/AIDS related issues you may be unsure of, as you may be surprised by the results you find.

The frightening world of DRM

Digital Rights Restrictions Management (DRM) is something you’ll be hearing about increasingly often, if you’re not already hearing it on a daily basis. DRM is what puts the control back into digitally-based content. Hollywood scared of DVDs being copied onto the net? Recording industry worried about every album being digitized and passed around freely? E-book publishers wanting to make sure only paying customers view paid content? Don’t worry, DRM is being shoehorned into every media format and every nook and cranny of popular operating systems, so in the future there will be no such thing as free music or software and many, many people will have the potential to be arrested and convicted for wrongdoing.

I understand that something has always needed to be done by Hollywood about piracy, but I believe everyone would be a lot happier if Hollywood simply left things as is while providing ways of making payments. Instead of viewing everyone as criminals, treat them as customers. People will pay, if given the chance (every scheme thus far is either overpriced or requires the use of proprietary players with DRM, or both). Think Napster in its heyday still operating today, but paying a blanket monthly fee or paying by the downloaded byte. Music fans are happy that they continue to get the music they want, now, and publishers have the means to get compensated. But things aren’t headed that way.

My biggest problem with DRM and the way Hollywood has historically dealt with file trading is that everyone is assumed guilty of wrongdoing up front. I found some screenshots I took a couple months ago that show Microsoft’s DRM that is included with their Windows Media Player. I thought I’d lost the files but finally found them so I’m posting them today.

Here’s the situation: I was jumping from link to link, blog to blog, one day and stumbled upon some image-based meme. Someone pointed to a server in Norway or Sweden (I forget, though I do recall an excess of umlauts in the file names). The server was someone’s junk folder, an indexed directory containing all sorts of files. After looking at the images someone pointed to, I noticed what looked like a song file in windows media format. I downloaded it, thinking “hey, I wonder what scandinavian music sounds like these days.”

When I tried to play the downloaded file, Internet Explorer popped up looking like this. Lots of scary legal language about how invoking a file I found on a website was breaking some form of licensing. For academic reasons, I wanted to see what happens when you choose either cancel or “migrate license.” After hitting the migrate license button, I got this screen, and the file played fine. I don’t remember it being very good, and I killed it and deleted the file after getting a 30 second listen.

What’s my point in explaining all this?

I wanted to show you a glimpse of the future. Whatever replaces Windows XP will be forever married to this type of technology. Sure, open file formats like ogg vorbis or mp3 will stick around, but Microsoft, movie studios, and the record industry will push Windows Media Player and Liquid Media formats as hard as they can, releasing their works only in formats with DRM baked in. Making and playing legitimate versions of your CDs will require jumping through multiple hoops to prove you own what you say you own, as the default assumption is that you are stealing. Sharing with a friend will turn you both into criminals.

I don’t know how DRM will make any more money for content publishers, if I assume that’s their reason for changing technology on users. I definitely see it annoying legitimate users as well as the illegitimate ones, and at this point I have to wonder how customers will react. The RIAA and MPAA have been pretty hostile to users over the past few years, suing company after company into oblivion, shutting down campus and corporate networks based on the actions of a minority of users, and putting people in jail, and I can’t see the near-future DRM implementations helping matters any.

If the point of DRM isn’t to make more money for publishers, why are they going through with it, potentially souring relationships with their core customers?

The 6 kickass degrees of Ed Bacon

This article [via BoingBoing] about Kevin Bacon’s dad protesting the closing of Love park in Philly to skateboarding kicks ass. As the designer of the place, I think it’s great Ed Bacon recognizes how it has been used and sees value in allowing it to continue. Skateboarding is a healthy activity that gives teens something to do, and shouldn’t be discouraged. With towns all over the country building free public skateparks, I was surprised to hear that Philly decided to stop allowing skating there a while back.

Love park is in the top five all-time best places to skate. It’s up there with Burnside in Oregon, the Brooklyn Banks, and the Nude Bowl (RIP). The Love park has been completely digitized and used in hit video games and been the site of the x games street skate competitions for the past two years.

I’ve had this conversation with a lot of people in the past, but I’m convinced that the benefits of giving kids (and adults) something creative to do, and a place to do it far outweighs the drawbacks of waxed curbs, grinded handrails, and kids hanging around a park. What some people might call urban graffiti (scraped paint on a rail, chipped tiles on a ledge) I call at worst, an “acceptable nuisance” whose drawbacks are merely cosmetic. It’s great to hear an architect support unintended uses of his design, and encourage it to continue.

So many book/movie/tv posts lately you’d think I was purchased by AOL/TW

I’d heard friends talking about a show for the past year and a half. The last copy of Shift magazine I read called it “the only reason to own a television.” When I was in New York a couple months back, someone finally sat me down and said “you must watch Six Feet Under” and now I know why.

I caught the first episode of the second (currently being repeated) season, and went from 0 to superfan in about 30 seconds. I haven’t missed a show since, and have been watching them faithfully each week in order. What grabbed me was the breath of fresh air that comes with simply focusing on character development (you’d think it’d be a no brainer, but so few scripts go for it). Though the characters themselves fall all over the map (young, old, gay, straight), I was amazed at how quickly and deeply Kay and I seemed to identify with them all. I can’t put my finger on why, but there’s a realness and a believability to it all that drew us in quickly. You find yourself on the edge of your seat, rooting for the show’s cast and yelling at the TV to tell them what they should be doing. As the season has worn on, the trials and tribulations of the characters has grown more extraordinary and I realized that maybe we’re identifying with the characters a bit too much.

A quick aside: It seems natural that I identify with my close friends a great deal, as they’re largely a reflection of my own personality, likes, and dislikes. When two divorces popped up this year among friends, Kay and I were a bit shocked. How could that be possible? If it could happen to them, heck, it could happen to us. After the news of each one, we talked to each other about the subject, just to make sure everything was fine (and it was).

That said, as much as I love watching Six Feet Under, I don’t look forward to the conversations Kay and I have that follow each episode now.

“Say, last week when you were working late, you wouldn’t have happened to be having sex with random strangers off the street would you?”
“No! Jesus, how could you ask me something like that? Speaking of, when you had lunch with that old friend last week, you didn’t impregnate her and not tell me, did you?”
“Uh, no. Are you nuts? Do you think I’m even capable of doing such a thing? Just for the sake of argument though, if I was being abusive and treating you like a doormat, you’d tell me, right?”
“Well, you aren’t abusive, but if you were, I suppose I would bring it up. While we’re on the subject, you’re not hiding any recent major illness from me, are you?”
(repeat until every last plot point of the previous episode is discussed)

Perhaps we glommed onto these stories and characters a bit too much.

We are so not the champions

The story of the recent 115-2 basketball game reminds me of a summer spent playing intramural Softball in grad school, among various departments. The Psychology dept was short on players, so they asked me to join (the Environmental Science dept didn’t have a team). We lost every game we played, and we lost badly. Entomology, Geology, Chemistry, and even the Philosophy department kicked our asses in Softball.

But there was one game. We never practiced, but for some reason everything came together that day. We weren’t dropping fly balls, grounders didn’t go through anyone’s legs, and our hitting was on fire. We were winning for the first time all season, eventually by more than 10 runs. In the last inning, someone hit a line drive that got past their shortstop, and our loaded bases all came running home. The person that made the hit went for an inside-the-park homerun, but the throw was earlier than his running, and he took out the catcher with full force (he weighed over 250 lbs, the catcher probably 150 lbs) to score the run as the catcher dropped the ball in the collision. I felt pangs of guilt as our team celebrated our win.

The catcher was hurt and so the game ended. Later that night we found out the other team’s poor performance was due to them being all German postdoctoral physics researchers who played their very first baseball game that day. D’oh!

A bunch of movie related tidbits

I’ve been catching up on a backlog of movies lately, mostly things I’ve been meaning to see for a while. I finally saw Amelie, which was just as romantic, whimsical, and beautiful as I’d heard. It was an absolutely fantastic film that makes me wish there were more movies like it. By the way, I haven’t tried it yet, but the Amelie action for photoshop looks pretty cool.

In 1999, I noticed a screening of the then-new Genghis Blues (complete with appearance by Paul Pena) coincided with a trip to San Francisco, but I didn’t make time to see it. I’ve been kicking myself in the days since I watched this. It’s an incredible journey and story that reminded me why I have a soft spot for documentaries. I went out and got both the soundtrack and Paul Pena’s long unreleased album and they’re both great. Paul’s stuff from the 70’s rivals Stevie Wonder’s work from the time, and his current blues complete with Tuvan infusion is inventive. The Tuvan throat singing from the movie and soundtrack is amazing and as hard as I try, I can’t quite figure out how they do it.

In other movie-related news, I’m bummed to hear James Coburn has passed on. I got to see him speak after a screening of Affliction, where he was frank, funny, and introspective for over an hour. He seemed like the most genuine person in the business and his death is a tremendous loss.

Die spammers, die!

The arms race has officially begun. Based on the activity in my inbox, spammers have changed tactics in response to tools like spamassassin. Where I was once getting 1 or 2 spams a week slipping through spamassassin’s radar, I’m now getting 10-15 a day that are passing muster (about 30-50 still get caught everyday). It looks like it’s time to upgrade spamassassin, but I get the feeling this is the very beginning of spammers attempting to game the system.

Bay Area, you used to be cool!

Another couple of close friends are leaving the Bay Area and I’ve realized San Francisco is turning into a college town for me.

Back in college, I spent four years in the same city, finishing bachelor’s and master’s degrees among a group of 10-15 friends. I recall being one of the first to move on to another city and over the course of a few years eventually everyone, including the holdout 7th year PhDs, left. Five years since I completed my time there, I don’t know a single person in that town (save my graduate advisors that I haven’t spoken with in a couple years). It’s weird going back there and feeling in a way that you’re home, but realizing you don’t have keys to any place and you don’t even know of anyone’s couch you can crash on.

I came to San Francisco at the height of the bubble (the stock market tanked a month after I arrived) and like the blur of ideas and constant stimulation that college embodied, the past 2-3 years moved very quickly. Fortunes were made and lost, there was party after party after party, and too many engagements, weddings, and babies to count. But we all awoke from the stupor and realigned, and for a growing number of folks, that means moving on to another place.

Like college, I can understand why people are leaving, and feel that eventually I’ll be taking off too. While I once found the foggy weather and the circling the block for an hour to get a parking spot somewhat quirky and part of the fun of living in San Francisco, the fun wore off until I moved to a nearby suburb that offered sunny skies and room to breathe. Hitting 30 reminded me that it’s time to settle down, buy a house, and raise a family. However, the real estate prices of the boom haven’t gone the way of the aeron chair, and a $500k asking price on anything in the 1-2 bedroom, 1000sq ft range is still normal for the city and the surrounding area. The public schools are hit and miss, the daycare situation is still pretty bleak, and private schools are out of almost everyone’s price range.

The weird part is going to be coming back to SF in 5-6 years, knowing barely anyone, and feeling like a tourist again.

Going to see The Screensavers

Every so often I catch an episode of The Screensavers on TechTV. It’s a fun show that is mostly about covering tech news and gadgets, and is just barely entertaining enough to remain watchable (granted, talking about computers for 90 minutes straight everyday isn’t exciting material to work with). I’ve seen friends Cory and Derek on the show before, and was asked by one TechTV host to consider appearing on it to talk about MetaFilter a while back, and I noticed they’re always begging for people to be a part of the small audience (part of me always wants to see what the show is really like, anyway).

A couple weeks ago for the heck of it, I filled this form out and a few days later they gave me a date to be at the studio and a time. Overall the experience was fun and it was great to see how a show comes together. The shot above I snapped from my TV, as they panned over to us and asked a question. A few observations:

– They make you show up at 3pm, and the show starts at 4pm, but it didn’t seem necessary to getting the show off right. We sat in a conference room and listened to some really awful good cop/bad cop shtick between two employees, as they spent about 35 minutes explaining about 5 minutes of information to us. It was a lot like traffic school having to sit through it.

– The set is pretty small, but I figured it was low-budget and tiny, so I wasn’t too surprised. On TV, I never really looked at the set but if you asked me about it, I’d say it looked like it was filmed around huge steel girders, as if the studio were at the foot of the Golden Gate. In person, the set is painted the most atrocious fake bright orange bronze, but on camera it looks fine. In real life, it’s styrofoam and plywood covered in day-glo glitter paint, on screen it looks like rusting metal. Amazing.

Leo Laporte was pretty quick and entertaining on and off camera, and fun to be around. He hung out with the audience often during breaks and chit-chatted. Megan from the show talked with each and everyone as well.

– I finally got to meet Kevin Poulsen after missing him at a friend’s party. We talked about the Homeland Security Bill’s “putting hackers away for life imprisonment” clause and neither one of us could come up with a past example of any act of hacking that could qualify. He warned that once on the books, this law was ripe for abuse and would be twisted by lawyers to give serious penalties to less serious crimes than it was designed (poorly) for.

– The show is pretty good for a live show, but it doesn’t seem like it needs to be live. I’m sure they could film same-day, do a few takes, do some quick editing, and still stay on top of the fast moving world of computers. I guess it cuts down on the time taken to get the show on the air to do it all at once, but it seems like it takes a great deal of resources to get a total crew of 50+ people in one place at one time all working on it, just to play on the channel a few times in one day and never repeat the episode again. I also never understood why the show was so long (90 minutes), as 20-30 minutes of it seems to be devoted to solving new computer user’s problems via phone or basic tutorial style tips. They said the show was moving to 60 minutes long in January which should improve things. I wonder if the show bleeds money or makes any. Based on the awful commercials they take (cheesy infomercial style clips about 3-D glasses and setting up an internet terminal business), I guessing they’re not covering the cost of producing the shows.

RSS is a bad format for weblogs. No, really I mean it.

I’m not a fan of having to code a round peg into a square hole, so I’ve resisted building a RSS file for this site for ages. I don’t keep track of post titles, I don’t think the syndication file is all that useful without HTML, and I’ve never personally found much use for a RSS reader. That all changed when a friend said she wasn’t reading my site anymore, or any sites for that matter that didn’t carry RSS feeds. At the same time, I’ve been getting more and more email about the lack of useful title information on the MetaFilter feed, but I never wanted to force an interface change (add a new title field to the posting page) just to appease a subset of users.

Given the runaway popularity of apps like NetNewsWire, I’ve finally given in. MetaFilter now has better titles, and this site has a RSS feed. Feel free to read the site in its entirety (the entire HTML of a post is sent as the description) via that method.