g r o t t o 1 1

Peeve Farm
Breeding peeves for show, not just to keep as pets
Brian Tiemann
Silicon ValleyNew York-based purveyor of a confusing mixture of Apple punditry, political bile, and sports car rentals.

btman at grotto11 dot com

Read These Too:

Steven Den Beste
James Lileks
Little Green Footballs
As the Apple Turns
Cold Fury
Capitalist Lion
Red Letter Day
Eric S. Raymond
Tal G in Jerusalem
Aziz Poonawalla
Corsair the Rational Pirate
Ravishing Light
Cartago Delenda Est

Cars without compromise.

Book Plugs:

Buy 'em and I get
money. I think.
BSD Mall

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 3/21/2005 -  3/27/2005
 3/14/2005 -  3/20/2005
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12/27/2004 -   1/2/2004
12/20/2004 - 12/26/2004
12/13/2004 - 12/19/2004
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11/29/2004 -  12/5/2004
11/22/2004 - 11/28/2004
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10/25/2004 - 10/31/2004
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12/29/2003 -   1/4/2004
12/22/2003 - 12/28/2003
12/15/2003 - 12/21/2003
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11/24/2003 - 11/30/2003
11/17/2003 - 11/23/2003
11/10/2003 - 11/16/2003
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10/27/2003 -  11/2/2003
10/20/2003 - 10/26/2003
10/13/2003 - 10/19/2003
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12/30/2002 -   1/5/2003
12/23/2002 - 12/29/2002
12/16/2002 - 12/22/2002
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11/25/2002 -  12/1/2002
11/18/2002 - 11/24/2002
11/11/2002 - 11/17/2002
 11/4/2002 - 11/10/2002
10/28/2002 -  11/3/2002
10/21/2002 - 10/27/2002
10/14/2002 - 10/20/2002
 10/7/2002 - 10/13/2002
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 9/23/2002 -  9/29/2002
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  9/2/2002 -   9/8/2002
 8/26/2002 -   9/1/2002
 8/19/2002 -  8/25/2002
 8/12/2002 -  8/18/2002
  8/5/2002 -  8/11/2002
 7/29/2002 -   8/4/2002
 7/22/2002 -  7/28/2002
 7/15/2002 -  7/21/2002
  7/8/2002 -  7/14/2002
  7/1/2002 -   7/7/2002
 6/24/2002 -  6/30/2002
 6/17/2002 -  6/23/2002
 6/10/2002 -  6/16/2002
  6/3/2002 -   6/9/2002
 5/27/2002 -   6/2/2002
 5/20/2002 -  5/26/2002
 5/13/2002 -  5/19/2002
  5/6/2002 -  5/12/2002
 4/29/2002 -   5/5/2002
 4/22/2002 -  4/28/2002
 4/15/2002 -  4/21/2002
  4/8/2002 -  4/14/2002
  4/1/2002 -   4/7/2002
 3/25/2002 -  3/31/2002
 3/18/2002 -  3/24/2002
 3/11/2002 -  3/17/2002
  3/4/2002 -  3/10/2002
 2/25/2002 -   3/3/2002
 2/18/2002 -  2/24/2002
 2/11/2002 -  2/17/2002
  2/4/2002 -  2/10/2002
 1/28/2002 -   2/3/2002
 1/21/2002 -  1/27/2002
 1/14/2002 -  1/20/2002
  1/7/2002 -  1/13/2002
12/31/2001 -   1/6/2002
12/24/2001 - 12/30/2001
12/17/2001 - 12/23/2001
Sunday, December 15, 2002
02:33 - 'Cause we can't find reverse

I'd meant to see the Star Trek movie this weekend, if events hadn't conspired to keep me indoors most of today, and in a theater for a totally less worthwhile reason yesterday. But Mike Silverman has posted a thumbs-up, as well as his ranking of the ten movies.

I'd say his ranking is spot-on; and I'm glad to see that Nemesis apparently preserves the long-standing pattern of lame-ass odd-numbered Trek movies and quite good even-numbered ones. His succinct analyses of each film are dead right, especially for #4, The Voyage Home. I enjoyed that movie once, the first time. Nowadays I'd rather watch Short Circuit.

Personally, I wouldn't put The Wrath of Khan at #1, even though it's pretty universally accepted as the best by everybody who's registered an opinion. I dunno... I just don't find it all that enjoyable; that kind of pacing and staging doesn't do a lot for me. Sure, it's got all those great moments, the unmistakable memes; but the look-and-feel of the tech, the costumes, and so on just don't push my buttons. No, for my money I'd take First Contact. Its Borg are just so archetypical, to my mind; you get to see the post-apocalyptic Earth in one of those "rebuilding" stages that movies like Reign of Fire and Waterworld and <shudder> The Postman never get around to showing you, which is what pisses me off about most post-apocalyptic movies. You get to see the first cheesy-ass warp ship, blasting out of a missile silo with Steppenwolf on the radio. And you get to see a shirtless Patrick Stewart after what must have been a good year of pumping iron. Definitely one of the most testosterone-soaked of the series; and it has the epic scale that befits feature films, instead of the "overgrown episode" feel of dumb outings like Insurrection.

So I'm glad to hear that Nemesis will in all likelihood be right up there with the best of 'em. I'll swing by and see it this week. Hell, it's not like I'm going to get a chance to see The Two Towers until the weekend anyway.

18:04 - How to Wreck your Credibility

Another little gem from Ar-Rahman:

And Michael Moore tells us that WASPish Americans are the ones who overreact irrationally.

Just for the sake of perspective-- last night, millions of Christian Americans watched in mirth as on South Park, Jesus Christ rode Santa's sleigh into Baghdad to slay Iraqis who were torturing Santa Claus in prison. He took a rifle round to the gut and died in a cellar, in Santa's arms.

And yet, somehow, life goes on.

I mean, criminy.

13:19 - A whole Lott of nothing

My brief take on the whole Trent Lott thing--

Now, I'm not trying to defend the man, and I do think he really ought to resign, now that the statement about Thurmond is actually out of his mouth. It was thoughtless, and he should have known better. Now he has to set an example and take his medicine.

But-- and this is without knowing much of the context, so I may be basing this poorly-- I'm not convinced that what he in fact meant was that "segregation forever" would have been better for the country.

Let's see-- you're at the 100th birthday party of an old, old politician. You stand up to say a few kind words about him and his career. You recall in your mind that he'd run for President in 1948. So you say, "Hey, too bad you lost, huh? The country probably would have been better off."

It takes two levels of contextual awareness for the statement to mean the speaker agrees with Thurmond's 1948 Presidential-candidacy platform. The first level is to know that he'd run for President. The second is to know that he'd run on a segregationalist platform.

I don't think it's beyond plausibility that Lott simply forgot-- or didn't know-- about the second-tier implication. I suspect he said it because it's polite to remember Thurmond's careeer highlights; and only in the seconds afterward did the historically astute in the audience start to cough and clear their throats and look uncomfortable. I think it could well have just been a stupid, ignorant gaffe, that Lott didn't mean at all the way everybody is assuming he meant.

Like the press conference a few days ago where Ted Turner talked about his fortune having gone from nothing, straight up, up up, "till it was as high as, y'know, as the World Trade Center... . . ...uh, and then, like the World Trade Center, it came crashing right back down again. . . ...Wait, that's terrible." It wasn't premeditated; he was just on a roll, and it came out wrong. But Fox News broiled Turner for it (two guys discussing seriously whether Turner actually meant to compare his fortune to the 9/11 attacks, while the bottom of the screen flashed statements like 1999: TED TURNER CALLS CHRISTIANITY "A RELIGION FOR LOSERS" and 1984: TED TURNER SAYS THAT HAITIANS "BREED LIKE CATS" and 1995: TED TURNER SAYS THE POPE SHOULD "GET WITH THE TIMES"). Good Christ, you people.

But I didn't see it live-- all I saw was the offending quote taken out of context-- so I could be wrong.

UPDATE: And I am, according to Joshua Micah Marshall, via Judson. Though this viewpoint isn't exactly at odds with what I've said.

13:02 - Bond to happen

I heard on the radio yesterday that North Korea is now demanding that Die Another Day be stricken from theaters, because it portrays North Korea and its citizens unfairly and slanderously.

"Our political prisons aren't anywhere near that posh," said a spokesman. "The scorpions we use are much bigger."
Saturday, December 14, 2002
20:50 - Earning my karma points

Boy oh boy, is it ever pouring out there.

It looks like the weather forecasts were right; it's been coming down torrentially all day, along with high winds, enough so as to push down trees and knock out power and flood freeway offramps. And it looks like the worst is yet to come.

So what better way to spend the day, after finishing up some Christmas shopping, than to go to a theater on the edge of the power-outage zone in Saratoga and watch Bowling for Columbine?

After all, a newspaper I found in Taco Bell said it was still playing at the local AMC googolplex, and it had a quote from some critic who said that it should win not only the Best Documentary Oscar, but Best Picture-- "and possibly a Nobel Peace Prize." So I knew that this was something I'd have to see for myself, as I'd undoubtedly find myself having to defend my viewpoints against it. Best to know thy enemy and all that, right? That's why I listen to NPR whenever I'm in the car (well, among other reasons), and hang around with friends who think it's cute to refer sneeringly to the President as "Shrub" (y'know, 'cause he's a little Bush).

So-- well, at least now I know what all the fuss is about, I guess. And the thing was funny, sporadically-- though not always, I think, for the reasons Moore intended. For instance, it seems that his thesis (if one can be distilled from the confused, rambling series of anecdotal diatribes) is that Americans are a) irrationally terrified of everything, especially black people; and b) heavily armed-- and that's the reason why 11,000 of us kill each other with guns every year, to every other country's couple hundred. And Moore goes to great length to show that the reason why we're so irrationally terrified is because of the news media and shows like COPS, which pipe a neverending stream of feel-bad vibes into our households every day, using every subliminal advertising-science trick in the book to keep us in a perpetual state of fear, which fuels our need to buy-buy-buy. (Marilyn Manson was the one who put this point into words, oddly enough.)

And yet, a good 80% of the film itself is made using these very same dirty tricks-- ironic music, tasteless juxtaposition of unrelated sound bites with incendiary visuals, and interview clips and factoids taken thoroughly out of context. Others have already pointed out his blatant factual errors, flawed assumptions, and deliberately obscured truths, though even fans of the movie have admitted that not all of it rang true. (As "proof" that Americans harbor mass suspicion of blacks and consider them all to be potential killers, he cites the so-called "Africanized" killer bees-- a name given them by the Big Bad Media-- and the massive threat they posed to the Southwest, even though "they never came". He implies that this was all just a big distraction, invented by the news media and peppered with maps of Africa with big yellow arrows pointing from there to the USA, and given sly innuendo-filled terminology to play off our fear of African humans so we could worry about bees while the gummint went about its evil business.) The sequence that made my gorge rise the highest was his montage of all the US government's foreign policy crimes, from the installation of the Shah in Iran to the assassination of Allende to the Vietnam war to our arming of Saddam and Osama bin Laden to the reinstatement of the "dictator" of Kuwait after the Gulf war, all with numbers of civilian dead in the respective countries-- killed, we're led to believe, by US troops or weapons or dollars or ideas, because they're all the same anyway-- all in the tens of thousands. It ended, of course, with a video of the second WTC crash on 9/11, and a fade-to-black, over a subtitle mentioning Osama bin Laden using his CIA training to murder 3,000 people. "A paltry 3,000 people," it said between the lines. "A small blow by the victimized world against the evil oppressor of the past five decades." And the music behind this whole cavalcade of bile? What a Wonderful World, naturally.

I guess this must have just seemed to Moore to be the right time to make this kind of film. There are just so many exploitable memes out there these days, it was apparently inevitable. But I think his real motivation would have to have been his unexpected success, apparently sometime last year, in crusading against K-Mart with a couple of the survivors of the Columbine shooting, which resulted-- on camera, on national TV-- in getting K-Mart to stop selling ammunition. This was more than he or the kids were hoping for (apparently all they wanted was to confront the K-Mart higher-ups and make them admit to being the cause of all America's gun-related woes, and maybe to kiss the bullet wounds and make them better). But at the risk of sounding callous, I think that all this incident proved was that if you bring kids in wheelchairs up the steps of a giant corporate headquarters on national TV in order to plead on the behalf of the beleaguered and underrepresented non-killing-people and non-death and non-evil lobbies, you can bet your fat ass you're going to get some concessions from the PR people. You could sit on the steps of a convent and hold up pictures of doe-eyed puppies and kids in wheelchairs, and the public's going to side with you against the nuns. It's the awww instinct, as was so clearly demonstrated throughout the film as every time he talked to some guy who keeps a gun under his pillow, or mentioned some group that favors gun ownership, or noted that a celebrity-branded theme restaurant had dared to apply for tax breaks because it employed welfare workers, or held up a photo of the cute little girl shot by a six-year-old as Charlton Heston shuffled angrily off into his house, you could hear a rush of tongues clucking and voices muttering "That's terrible" or making that angry, frustrated EeeehhhHHH sigh. This was a heavily audience-participation sort of movie.

That said, I do think he raised a few points worth considering. Even if you discount the internecine gang warfare ("trash killing trash" as some put it) that accounts for such a huge proportion of gun violence in the US, I daresay we still have a good amount more of it in this country than the similarly-well-armed Canada would have if it had ten times the population it does, in which case it would match ours. I think his claim that we live in an environment of pop-cultural fearmongering does hold some merit, though I have strong reservations about the blanket nature of that claim (you can find that it's a common thread in much of his work, and is seldom something you can back up with facts, as Rachel Lucas so effectively showed a couple of months ago). The centerpiece of the film, a South Park-like animated "Brief History of the USA" short, masterfully oversimplified the whole terrified-rich-white-Americans-abusing-and-fearing-Blacks issue, while at least managing to encompass a kernel of truth here and there, and pointing out the fact that our past isn't exactly roses and rainbows. And the fact that he's an NRA member and brought up in a gun culture does raise Moore's credibility above the simple "anti-gun ranter" status that he would otherwise have had (though he loses points for using his NRA membership to trick Charlton Heston into letting him in in good faith for an interview in which he intended to antagonize the man's core beliefs). And I do wish Heston had had a better answer for his questions about why the NRA thought it necessary to go and hold rallies in Littleton right after Columbine, and in Flint right after the 6-year-old's death. I'd have liked to see some explanation given in good faith from a well-prepared spokesman (whether the one extreme interpretation of there being hundreds of such rallies in suburban cities every day, led by hundreds of Heston lookalikes, and these just being unfortunate coincidences; or the other extreme interpretation of the NRA descending vulture-like upon scenes of carnage and waving guns as a show of invincibility-- or somewhere in between), rather than from an enfeebled, Alzheimer's-disease-suffering old icon whose mouth is more likely to betray a white-supremacist leaning than an inability to explain the NRA's policies anyway. (Heston really could have done better than to speak wistfully of the "old dead white men who invented this country" and blame the country's gun issues on our being multi-ethnic, then rapidly backpedaling.) Any "I don't have an answer to that question" from an interviewee is a victory for the interviewer, and Heston didn't acquit himself very well, even for a Beverly Hills shut-in nearing the end of his mental faculties.

If Moore is looking for an honest answer to why the US is full of people who seem so much more keen on killing each other with guns than other countries with similar amounts of firearm ownership and similarly bloody pasts, I think he's looking in the wrong places, asking the people who are patently wrong to give those answers. Myself, I'd say it's that Americans are a passionate lot; we have the hybrid vigor that comes from a pioneering, explorationist past, one in which individual people made individual choices to push westward, to build entrepreneurial businesses, or to come to this country in the first place. People say of California, "Nobody's actually from here"-- and that's both a cause and an effect of California's vibrancy. People who choose to come to a place like this are by their nature "doers", people who are going to make things happen. And those things they make happen turn the state into a destination for more people attracted to such things. ...And when a people is passionate for positive achievement, they're going to be passionate about the negative things too; they're going to form their own allegiances to their own organizational structures, like gangs, and they're going to apply their passions toward fighting to the death for their own causes. We might not all agree on whether those causes are legitimate; but the people who kill and die for it do, and when that happens, the numbers rack up towards that big 11,000 on the screen.

Self-determination is a double-edged sword; not everybody uses it in a positive way. But you've got to take the bad with the good. And I hate to put it in these terms, but a country with no crime is a country with no individualistic spirit, no dynamism, no energy.

Moore naturally props up Canada as the big goal we should all be striving towards. Canadians don't show murders on the TV news; they show stories about new speedbumps. Canadian teenagers interviewed in Taco Bell parking lots don't shoot each other for revenge; they make fun of each other. Canadians don't overreact to every little slight, reaching for a gun as the first and last and only appropriate reaction to anything, on an individual or global scale; they have free health care. Canadians don't even lock their doors at night. Moore spent a long time on this one; to prove that Canadians are free of the fear promulgated by American mass media, he interviews a dozen random people and is told by each that because they see door locks as a way to imprison themselves inside rather than shut out the world, they don't lock their doors-- though one or two of them said that they'd in fact had their homes broken into, robbed, and vandalized while they slept or were away; yet they still felt no need to lock their doors. To me, that makes a person stupid, not welcoming and fear-free. But then I'm an American; what do I know.

And in any case, Moore doesn't exactly show the darker side of the Canadian system-- in which the prime minister won't even use the much-vaunted public health care system, and the national gun-registration system there has run to 43,000% over-budget, while the crime rate there is at an all-time high. And CapLion, who has plenty of experience living north of the border, says that the thing about Canadians not locking their doors at night is a crock. Canadian gun owners aren't allowed to use their guns for home defense; rather, they must wait for the police to arrive, which is bound to be a longer wait in the case of burglaries than, say, violent crime. I sure wouldn't leave my door unlocked.

(Except in the middle of the day, when I'm right there in the living room, as the people were when Moore decided to go from door to door to test this theory. I don't lock my goddamned door during the day either. Idiot.)

Ultimately, though, the main complaints I've heard about this movie seem to be borne out: like so many do-gooding liberals, Moore wants to take on the Big Issues that affect the whole world and all people, the things that nobody in their right mind would argue against tackling-- but he never really proposes any solutions. He spends a good twenty minutes railing against the Dick Clark's theme restaurant in a posh mall, where the mother of the six-year-old killer worked under a welfare-to-work program; Moore tracked down Dick Clark in his driveway and tried to get him to say how he felt about how "his" restaurant was forcing poor single mothers to work for $8.50 an hour to pay rent and support a child. I mean, what the hell did he expect Dick Clark to do? Make the woman an executive? Pay all workers $15 an hour, including non-work-to-welfare ones who otherwise get minimum wage and tips? Shut down the restaurant? Dismantle himself and donate his robot parts to an orphanage? Ultimately, Moore was simply harassing the man-- he didn't expect anything constructive to come of the confrontation more than an opportunity for him to plaintively whine into his microphone, as though Clark could still hear him, pleading for answers to his meager questions as his minivan drove away. And only the hardest-hearted would question the purity of his motives. Please, sir, it's for the children! Won't you think of the children?

The closest he comes to doing anything substantive is the K-Mart thing, though his obvious surprise that it worked is proof positive that he really didn't intend for the stunt to do anything but get the wheelchairs on TV under the big K-Mart sign and make people grumble and cluck their tongues about evil big corporations and the poor victimized little guy. Rather than facing any of the specific problems we're being forced to deal with in the post-9/11 age, he'd rather we spend our time flagellating ourselves over past transgressions real and imagined-- to spend our days in navel contemplation instead of naval engagement, I guess. Isn't it terrible that people are poor? War is so awful, isn't it? Boy, LA sure has a lot of smog! Yeah, you can install these home-security bars on your front door, but what if the guy has a spear? Doesn't it suck to be a teenager in public school? Isn't the nightly news gruesome and fatalistic? Guns are central to freedom, but people get shot-- isn't that horrible? Big, troublesome problems. We all agree-- we all do. But how do we solve them, Mr. Moore? You don't have an answer either? Didn't think so.

When all's said and done, I'd rather fight the battles I can fight, while striving to be a good person-- and hope that if we all follow that kind of example, our society can heal itself. The data suggests that that's already happening-- crime is going down, pollution is going down, environmental issues are tackled unanimously, racial integration goes on apace. Post-9/11, this country showed its true nature not by converting overnight into the police state that so many feared, but by going about our normal lives, accepting a little bit of inconvenience at the airport, but hardened to the idea that any one of us could be on the next Flight 93, and prepared to act accordingly. M-16s don't rule the streets; instead, we go to Ben & Jerry's and T.G.I. Friday's before heading to the 28-screen theater to watch documentaries about what horrible people we are for being rich and white.

Life's tough, especially in a nation of passionate people who value their individuality and freedom. More Nerf on all the sharp corners of life won't solve anything. Education and responsibility and example will go a long way.

But if you'll excuse me, there are pressing specific issues to tackle, and the poor and oppressed and smog-bound will have to wait. Namely, I have Christmas presents to wrap.
Friday, December 13, 2002
18:07 - What makes IE so fast?

Internet Explorer on Windows always seems either to run impossibly fast (page requests are fulfilled almost before the mouse button has returned to its original unclicked position), or ridiculously slow (as with the weird stalling-on-connect problem that many people, including myself, have noticed).

One possible explanation is something that my team and I noticed a couple of years ago, in analyzing packet traces of IE's connection setup procedure. Microsoft might have fixed this since then; I'm not sure. But it's a possible culprit.

First of all, for those rusty on their TCP/IP-- here's how a normal HTTP request over TCP should work:

Client Server
1. SYN ->
2. <- SYN/ACK
3. ACK ->
4. Request ->

This is how the client and server synchronize their sequence numbers, which is how a connection gets established. The client sends a synchronization request, the server acknowledges it and sends a synchronization request of its own, and the client acknowledges that. Only then can the HTTP request proceed reliably.

The server's SYN (synchronize) and ACK (acknowledgement) packets are combined for speed; there's no reason to send two separate packets, when you're trying to get a connection established as quickly as possible. Another speed enhancement that Mac OS 9's stack uses, by the way, is to combine the client's ACK and the HTTP request into a single packet; this is legal, but not frequently done. The idea is that within the structure of TCP/IP, you want to minimize the number of transactions that need to take place in setting up the two-way handshake necessary before you can send the HTTP request.

When tearing down a connection, it looks like this:

Client Server
1. <- FIN
2. ACK ->
3. FIN ->
4. <- ACK

This generally takes four steps, and the FIN/ACK packets are usually not consolidated because connection teardown is nowhere near as speed-sensitive as startup is. (The FIN sequence can be initiated either by the client or the server.)

Many very stupid companies have tried to come up with overly clever ways to speed up TCP/IP. TCP, by its nature, is a stateful and bidirectional protocol that requires all data packets to be acknowledged; this makes the data flow reliable, by providing a mechanism for dropped packets to be retransmitted; but this also makes for a more strictly regimented flow structure involving more packets transmitted over the wire than in simpler, non-reliable protocols like UDP-- and therefore it's slower. One company that thought itself a lot smarter than it really was, called RunTCP, came up with the idea of "pre-acking" TCP packets; it would send out the acknowledgments for a whole pile of data packets in advance, thus freeing them from the onerous necessity of double-checking that each packet actually got there properly. And it worked great, speeding up TCP flows by a significant margin-- in the lab, under ideal test conditions. The minute you put RunTCP's products out onto the real Internet, everything stopped working. Which stands to reason-- their "solution" was to tear out all the infrastructure that made TCP work reliably, under competing load and in adverse conditions, in the first place. Dumbasses.

So then there's this thing we discovered in the lab. We noticed that when you entered a URL in Internet Explorer 5, its sequence of startup packets didn't look like the one shown above. Instead, it looked like this:

Client Server
1. Request ->
Uh... what? Dunno what the hell this is. I'll ignore it, or RST.
2. Oh, you're a standard server. Okay: SYN ->
3. <- SYN/ACK
4. ACK ->
5. Request ->

In other words, instead of sending a SYN packet like every other TCP/IP application in the world, IE would send out the request packet first of all. Just to check. Just in case the HTTP server was, oh, say, a Microsoft IIS server. Because IIS' HTTP teardown sequence looked like this:

Client Server
1. <- FIN
2. ACK ->

...And that's it. The client doesn't FIN, and the server doesn't ACK. In other words, the connection is kept "half-open" on the server end. The reason for this? Why, to make subsequent connections from IE clients faster. If the connection isn't torn down all the way, all IE has to do is send an HTTP request, with no preamble-- and the server will immediately respond. Ingenious!

They probably called it "Microsoft Active Web AccelerationX™®" or something.

(I may be remembering this incorrectly; it might be that the client does FIN, and the server simply keeps the connection around after it ACKs it. Instead of shutting down the connection entirely, it just waits to see if that client will come back, so it can open the connection back up immediately instead of having to go through that whole onerous SYN-SYN/ACK procedure. Damn rules!)

Now, what does this mean for non-IIS servers? It means that if you use IE to connect to them, it first tries to send that initial request packet, without any SYNs-- and then it only proceeds with the standard TCP connection setup procedure if the request packet gets a RST or no response (either of which is a valid way for a legal stack to deal with an unsynchronized packet). But IIS, playing by its own rules, would respond to that packet with an HTTP response right away, without bothering to complete the handshake. So IE to IIS servers will be nice and snappy, especially on subsequent connections after the first one. But IE to non-IIS servers waste a packet at the beginning of each request-- and depending on how the server handles that illegal request, it might immediately RST it, or it might just time out... which would make the browser seem infuriatingly slow to connect to new websites.

This is only marginally less stupid than RunTCP's "solution"-- and I say "marginally" only because in the grand scheme of things, this probably makes sense to Microsoft's network engineers. After all, eventually all clients will be Windows platforms running IE, and all servers will be Windows platforms running IIS. And then we can break all kinds of rules! Rules are only there to hold us back and force us to play nice with other vendors. Well, once the other vendors are all gone, who cares about some stupid RFC?

I have to admire their arrogance and their confidence. But it'll be some time before I can bring myself to admire their technical integrity.

UPDATE: Since this post got Slashdotted, I've been getting a pretty fair amount of e-mail, suggesting that the behavior we observed here might be anything from T/TCP to HTTP/1.1 pipelining to delirium tremens. Well, I should point out that this phenomenon was something we observed in 1997, before HTTP/1.1 was in wide use; both the client and server were using vanilla HTTP/1.0. As it turned out, it was actually the NT stack that was causing this to happen-- it didn't matter what client or server software you used. It even happened with our home-grown network test tools.

It's entirely possible that Microsoft has changed the NT stack in recent iterations so that this doesn't happen anymore. But if you're trying to reproduce the behavior, use NT 4.0 machines for worst results.

09:50 - Well, at least that's honest...


09:47 - Storm's a-comin'

The news services are reporting that the Bay Area will be getting two fairly large storms this weekend-- one starting tonight, the other on Monday-- which will result in a weekend of six inches of rain and 50-mph surface winds.

Greg Kihn, on the radio, just talked about having read newspaper reports calling it a "Super-typhoon", whatever sense that makes.

I dunno. But it means the skiing will be outstanding next weekend...

09:42 - Perspective

Post-9/11 discussions about how to deal with rising Islamic terrorism-- as well as arguments over how to deal with our own domestic religious fundamentalism, including the usual evolution-vs-creationism debates-- seem to comprise opposing sides whose world views are so fundamentally incompatible that no common ground can ever be reached.

To the non-religious, all these arguments about religious freedom, secular government, and scientific exploration of the natural world all seem perfectly natural. We are willing to tolerate all religions, because to us, religions are about the equivalent of what TV shows a person likes to watch. "Do whatever you like in your personal life," we say. "However you choose to spend your private time, however you intend to relate yourself to the universe, is fine with us. It's none of our business." It fits in perfectly with the arguments for self-determination, privacy, freedom of expression, and protection against "thought crime" police.

But this isn't the argument embraced by the religious, to whom religion isn't just a diversion, it's truth. And that truth must apply to all people equally, because, well, it's truth. From that perspective, it's futile to argue against truth, just as it's self-destructive to live life in a way not in accordance with that truth. So our arguments in favor of freedom of religion must appear to the religious to be more or less similar to the arguments in favor of legalization of drugs: if some people want to pursue a self-destructive act, which will only result in them ending up in Hell, that's fine. (Or, as the other side of the argument from that perspective would posit, such people need to be protected from themselves-- prevented from making such self-destructive choices-- forcibly if need be.)

One group sees it as an argument about art, expression, and freedom. The other group sees it as an argument about the containment of an epidemic of criminal self-abuse.

How can these arguments be reconciled? Unless we figure that out, I doubt there'll be an intellectual solution to the current global clash between religious tolerance and fundamentalist theocracy, which can only become more immediate a concern as time goes on.
Thursday, December 12, 2002
00:13 - Longhorn Goes Maverick

I've been mulling over this Slate article by Steven Johnson for a couple of days now. It's about OS X, Microsoft's "Longhorn" initiative, and the "media-based interface" metaphor that I've been talking about for a while now, here in this blog, and in earlier articles written before iPhoto and other iApps cemented the idea as the real direction that Apple's UI design philosophy is taking.

Put simply, the idea of what I'm calling the media-based interface is one in which every different kind of data-- each of which is inherently different from the rest, be it MP3s, photos, movie clips, documents, etc-- is handled by a specialized interface that allows the user to work with the data using the data's own intrinsic metaphors, rather than the artificial metaphors imposed on it by computers. For instance, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record ('scuse me-- sounding like, uh, an MP3 player with an obscure software bug that makes it skip backward and play the same ten seconds over and over again), instead of having to think about your music and photos as "files" and "folders", you think about your music as songs and artists and albums, and your photos as rolls and albums and direct visual thumbnail representations. It's my belief that Apple intends iTunes to be the standard interface for listening to digital music, rather than navigating through the filesystem and juggling folder paths and long filenames with ".mp3" at the end. You can still drill down and use that more austere and ill-suited metaphor to deal with the song files, but it's far more efficient and intuitive to work with the data through a software layer that gives you a different, more well-defined and natural set of grips to hold on to.

Now, what I didn't realize, though, was that according to Bill Gates, Microsoft knows about the media-based interface idea, but wants no part of it. In developing Longhorn, their new upcoming SQL-based filesystem, their design goal will be to dispense with all the different ways of handling different kinds of data. It's in the interest of simplicity, says Bill.

The ultimate goal is to prevent you from having to learn entire new programs to interact with your mail messages, your contacts, and your home movies—to ensure that each data type doesn't become the exclusive province of a specific application. (To take an example from the iApps, iPhoto is great at organizing your photos, but it's useless if you're trying to figure out which snapshot you e-mailed to your mother last week.) Think about searching for text strings in four different contexts: in a Word document, in your inbox, on the Web, and in your hard drive. There are four distinct search tools for those four tasks, each with its own interface, each "belonging" to a different application. But in each case, you're just searching for text. Why use a Swiss army knife when one blade will do? As Bill Gates put it on Charlie Rose last month, "Right now when you use Windows, the way that you step through your photos, the way you step through your music, the way you step through e-mail or files, they're all different. You have to learn different user interfaces, different search commands. ... The idea of Longhorn is to have one approach, one set of commands that work for everything, including all of those things. And so the number of concepts you have to learn is dramatically less."

Johnson approaches Longhorn from a skeptical angle, and frames it with analysis of OS X and the iApps, of which he is clearly a fan. The way he talks about it, he's unconvinced that this is a good move for Microsoft, and as it's described here, I'd have to agree. I don't doubt that there's more to Longhorn than we're seeing here, and I'd want to see a more finished prototype of it before I passed judgment. (I might be misunderstanding the whole thing; the examples Gates cites talk more about a unified text-search function than a genericized navigation metaphor.)

But from what I can see here, it seems almost as though Microsoft wants quite consciously to be seen doing something "un-Apple"-- making a decision on one of the most interesting philosophical design choices to come along in a decade, and taking the opposite tack to what Apple does. If Apple thinks people are going to want to manage each kind of data in a way that's native to that kind of data, Microsoft is betting that that will end up being too complex for users to want to deal with. They're gambling on what amounts to a reversion to DOS, then-- a more advanced iteration, yes, but something very similar to the DOS mentality: a unified and undifferentiated interface layer through which you can access every kind of data using the same filesystem tools. The contention is that the fewer steps the user has to memorize to access "data" of any kind, the easier it will be to handle specific data, from a common underlying access method.

What I think this decision lacks is an understanding of the fact that some steps toward a goal are more intuitive than others. It can indeed be more difficult for someone to understand three steps toward a goal if each of those steps makes him think about an unfamiliar, unnatural metaphor, than for him to internalize ten steps which make themselves obvious from the intrinsic nature of the data you're working with.

In Windows, to play MP3s, you navigate through folders, find the files you want to listen to (however you've chosen to organize them), and double-click to open them in your MP3 player, which immediately plays them. On the Mac, you first have to find and open iTunes; thereafter, you work with the music on the music's own terms, using the music's own intrinsic attributes, which are intuitively obvious within minutes of a user seeing the program for the first time.

The difference lies in the same distinction behind learning your times tables by rote, and figuring out in that flash of fifth-grade insight just what multiplication is.

If you have to think about files and folders, or whatever other interface layer Longhorn puts up in front of them, in order to get to your music or e-mail or photos... then at best it's going to be something learned by rote, a procedure that people will have to write down on yellow sticky notes and attach to their monitors so they don't forget exactly where and how to move the mouse each time they want to look at the pictures from summer vacation.

Whereas in a media-based interface, there is no unnatural metaphor to remember. The steps toward an organizational or operational goal require no memorization and no abstraction. The idea is that the only big step the user has to remember is the step that opens up the specific interface in question for each type of data. Hence the unmistakable "music" icon of iTunes. It draws the eye, and conveys the idea that "To listen to music, click on me. After that, controlling music will be intuitive, using the metaphors that are familiar to anybody who has CDs."

Now, I'm not advocating the media-based metaphor for everything; I suspect that in the future there will be a mix of objects presented in their native filesystem structure and objects viewed through a specialized interface, as there is today. Windows, for instance, groups its applications into a specialized interface-- the Start menu; whereas the Mac, while it has the Dock for shortcuts, primarily uses the filesystem itself for accessing applications, which are just objects you can freely move about the system. In that respect, Windows and the Mac have what seem to be the opposite roles from what you'd expect, given their present attitudes toward multimedia data. It's anybody's guess where these trends will lead those aspects of the respective platforms.

But more interesting to me is that if I'm reading Gates' intentions the way Johnson is, this represents the first major occasion in a long time that Microsoft has chosen to diverge from the Mac in UI philosophy. For the past two decades the two companies' platforms have been converging; Windows has been getting more and more Mac-like, and Apple's OS has been changing only incrementally, OS X notwithstanding. But now Apple is embracing the media-based metaphor, and Microsoft is actively committing to the idea that for everyday browsing of data, focusing on individual media types is the wrong way to go; they think people will benefit more from a unified multi-function browser that collapses the differences between data types and allows them all to be viewed in the same context. That's one of the benefits an SQL-based filesystem can bring. (It isn't a new idea, by the way; Linux users have been employing MySQL as a filesystem for years now.) Files can be tracked by unique IDs as well as having arbitrary amounts of associated meta-data which need not be displayed when all you're doing is browsing. From a technical standpoint, Longhorn would probably be a pretty neat idea.

But I'm not convinced. Experience has made me a believer in the media-based interface, and if nothing else, I find it fun to be able to work with my data in a way that doesn't require me to think about ill-suited software metaphors that fit the data about as well as Cinderella's glass slipper would fit on my size-12 pseudopods. I don't have to fight the data; I don't have to memorize metaphorical tricks or shift my brain's gears to adjust to the way the software thinks I should be treating my media files. I don't have to deal with wizards or think about the Web. I don't have to wonder why my favorite songs or last week's movie clips are being represented as little pieces of dog-eared paper stuffed into yellow poster-board folders. All I have to think about are those attributes that make sense in the context of the data itself.

It could well be that Longhorn will be just a substrate, allowing more filesystem flexibility while "media-based" apps like iTunes sit on top of it and filter the data for more intuitive presentation; though from Gates' comments, it appears that it won't be Microsoft providing that functionality. I suspect that Gates might honestly think Longhorn would be a benefit to consumers and a boon to usability; I think it would be a mistake. But I'm honestly excited to think that for the first time in a long while, there may in fact be a new fundamental philosophical differentiating point between Windows and the Mac, something new to base discussions of the truth-and-beauty of usability upon. If Longhorn makes Windows harder to use, and people start relying on third-party apps to provide basic data-browsing functionality, then the Mac will have had a nice new advantage handed to it on a silver platter-- after years of Windows becoming more and more "good enough" and nullifying the major reasons to use a Mac, suddenly a whole lot more people will be a whole lot more frustrated with their PCs and in need of a better solution. On the other hand, if Longhorn's metaphors turn out to make computing easier than it is today, even more so than the Mac would-- then it will have been the first insightful, original UI initiative Microsoft has come up with on their own since... well, since Microsoft Bob.

And I'd say it does stand a better chance of success than Bob ever did. (Well, duh.) But I still think Apple is closer to having the right idea.

20:58 - Who said the command line can't be user-friendly?

Kris and I have always found the quaint, right-hand-doesn't-know-what-the-left-is-doing way that Windows machines handle removable disks to be vaguely ridiculous. To wit: You're trying to install a program or something; it pops up a dialog box, saying "Please insert disk 2 of 4. Press any key when ready." But that's not really what it means. It means you have to lean back, peer at the floppy drive, and wait for the little amber light to stop blinking. That means the drive has stopped reading and writing data, see; you don't want to push that chunky hardware eject button while it's busy, or else you'll wreck the disk. (That's called "standard workflow", you understand, in the PC world.) When the light goes off, you press the button, and the disk pops out. Put in the new disk. But you're not done yet; you have to press a key, or click OK, to tell the dialog box that you put the disk in. Got that? You have to tell the computer that you have put a disk into the computer.

My ass has a better feedback mechanism than that.

CD-ROMs complicated matters. They had the ability to auto-run; but they had to spin up. They had soft eject buttons, so you couldn't remove a disc while it was busy. But now, when a program asked you to insert disc 2, you put the disc in, then had to wait-- staring at the little amber light while the disc squeakily spun up and mounted itself-- before you clicked OK to tell the program that it's okay, the disc is in the computer and mounted now. The human is the operational link in the programmatic script. Spin up and mount inserted disc, then have the human tell me my disc is mounted. That's how they keep computers from taking over the world, you see; they have to be kept subservient somehow.

Whereas for us, it was always piercingly easy. There would never have been an "I can't find the any key!" joke if all computers were Macs, because Macs never ask you to "press any key to continue". Nor did you ever have to click the OK button once you'd determined that the disk was ready to read from. The computer, miracle O miracle, somehow knew the status of its own disks, and hung its events upon them. Whether it was a floppy or a CD or a DVD, the soft eject mechanisms and OS-integrated mounting and unmounting, accessible through all levels of software, meant that the computer would simply stick out its tray at you, while a dialog prompted you as to which disc it wanted. You'd push the tray back in, and sit back as the software watched the disc spin up, took a deep breath, said "Right!" and continued with the procedure.

You mean this isn't the way all computers work?

Now, Windows is getting to the point where many applications can understand when you've put a disc in, and key their events off of that advanced feature so you don't have to be the caretaker of spin-up speed, waving your lightsticks only when you're sure the runway is cleared for the software to barrel its way past, its windshield painted over. Things are gradually getting better. Computers are starting to act like they have some clue about how their own hardware works.

But it's been fairly commonly accepted that even worse than Windows or DOS was UNIX. Command-line utilities, designed to run across VT100 terminals and teletype machines, relied on highly trained and savvy users to input commands that were only guaranteed to work if all the details of circumstance were right, if the disks were ready, if the network was up, if virtual memory was configured. Error trapping was minimal. If the user is sufficiently capable, there's no need to hold his hand or clean up after him.

So it stands to reason, doesn't it, that UNIX command-line CD-burning utilities would be horribly abstruse? You'd have to type in a myriad of obscure commands and options, and if you get any of them wrong, you'd end up with little shiny coasters and a seriously pissed-off Colonel Panic shouting at you and waving his riding crop under your chin?

And so it is, as a matter of fact. In most UNIXes, that is.

Not Mac OS X, though.

That "Please insert a disc:" prompt blinks at you. It sticks out the CD tray. When you put the disc in, it automatically knows when the drive is ready, and it proceeds with the burn.

And the icing on the cake?

That progress bar of centered dots reaches 100% at the right edge of the 80-column terminal window.

That's what happens when UNIX gets human-interface engineers.
Wednesday, December 11, 2002
02:34 - C'mon, guys-- you can do better'n that...

Posted to the Ar-Rahman list, with many a snort and chuckle, by one of the regulars:

What's funny about this is that it's actually not all that incisive, or even that far from the truth. I've seen variations on this same theme that have been far more sarcastic.

Are the propagandists losing their touch?

19:34 - Damn playwrights

As long as Morally Concerned Public Figures keep making moronic statements about how war is bad for children and other living things, people like Den Beste will keep pounding at them, holding them out over the assembled throngs like Conan with Thulsa Doom, the better to drive home the point when he hacks off the guy's head and hurls it down the torchlit steps. This is the role the majority of the bloggers have been playing ever since 9/11: through force of facts and persuasion and charisma and common sense, to demolish the arguments of those who insist that this is the time to second-guess the most clear and obvious ideological threat the world has ever had to face, to simultaneously assuage our collective guilt for our success and satisfy our inner need for clever and ironic logical leaps by finding anything to blame for 9/11 and its related events except the painfully obvious cause. It can't simply be that fundamentalist theocracy has no place in the modern world and is doomed to die; that would be way too simple. No-- surely it's our fault somehow. ...And that's the mentality that deserves a sound thrashing if expressed while the bullets are flying.

Fortunately, it can be assured of getting it these days. This is a good and refreshing article, particularly if Mr. Pinter's statements seem to the reader to be in any way... disingenuous or wrong, not to say contemptible. But there's one thought of which I wanted to make quick mention:

This particular rhetorical point, that the US claims to be trying to prevent Iraq from getting what the US already has, ignores the critical difference between capabilities and intentions. It is true that the US has the capabilities he claims, but there's no indication that we intend to do what he fears we will, and unleash WMDs out of spite. Saddam, on the other hand, has actually used chemical weapons in large quantities, and in fact is responsible for virtually every death caused with such weapons that have taken place in the entire world since the armistice was signed in Europe in 1919. So far as we know, in the last 80 years only one nation has ever used chemical weapons on the battlefield, and that's Iraq.

And though the Germans developed nerve gas in World War II, and many nations since then have also developed them (including more advanced forms) there is only one nation which has actually used them, and that is Iraq. It's not just that Iraq is the only nation in recent memory to use chemical weapons, the ones it used are far more deadly than the ones which caused so much death and destruction in Europe during the Great War.

A rifle is a deadly weapon, but it's a lot more deadly in the hands of a lunatic than in the hands of a police officer. You have to consider not just what the weapons can do, but also who is holding it.

This is a nice microcosm of the whole liberal-vs-conservative attitude dichotomy toward individual power and weapons, a very fundamental argument. One school of thought holds that all people are fundamentally untrustworthy, that power corrupts inevitably, and that the best goal for public (and global) safety is to disempower everybody-- by suppressing all weapons, because if nobody has weapons, then nobody can cause trouble, right?

The other school of thought says that some people (or nations) are better equipped, morally or financially, to responsibly handle weapons for their own benefit and for the benefit of the community at large. Some people are not trustworthy with weapons, either because of criminal pasts or demonstrated desire to cause harm with them. This school of thought stands for empowering those who deserve to be empowered, and for judging harshly those who have proven themselves unworthy of such trust.

It's the gun-control debate cast onto a global scale. One side thinks we should be disarmed en masse in the interest of public protection; the other thinks some level of risk of abuse is acceptable in order to secure freedom and privilege for those who have proven themselves worthy of it. One side thinks that it doesn't matter if people want to kill each other, as long as the state somehow denies them the means to do so; the other side thinks it's better to figure out who doesn't want to kill each other, and give them control of the power to kill, and the authority to judge and punish people who do have murderous intent.

The side in favor of equitable disarmament ignores the whole "criminals will exist outside the system and acquire weapons and powers denied to the law-abiding" argument, while at the same time constructing the machinery for a police state full of anonymous and forcibly "equalized" citizens who are discouraged from individual achievement.

Whereas the side in favor of justified empowerment assumes the risk of rogue players seizing power through legal channels, asserting that such a risk is mitigated by the very same individual empowerment that would enable the rogues to rise. A justly armed citizenry will be its own best defense against insurgency-- better than any state police force or government agency. Mega Man had it right after all: these people like peace and harmony, and they'll fight to the death to defend it.

Furthermore, the former camp is founded on the idea that all people are not only equal but the same-- differences in ambition or ethical standards arise only from circumstances, not from anything innate or personal. Thus you can prevent unrest by making everybody's circumstances the same; sure, you'll also prevent innovation and entrepreneurship. But that's an acceptable compromise.

But the latter camp presumes to judge individuals and groups by moral and ethical standards; it rewards good people by giving them power and responsibility, and it punishes bad people by taking away power and responsibility. It runs the risk of the wrong people getting the wrong amount of power; it's a very real risk, one that the disarmament camp finds unacceptable.

But history has shown us that this latter philosophy has paid off well. The current most powerful nation on earth, founded on the principle of justified empowerment, has weapons but no desire to use them. The US could have Taken Over The World, like any evil supervillain, hundreds of times over. Why didn't we? Because we're not like that. Who decided we should have this kind of power? We did. Why do we get to dictate who else gets power? Because we've proven ourselves trustworthy.

It's because the American people are a benign democracy, who decided that weapons are good things for responsible people and nations to have, that people like Pinter are free to express opinions like his, and that people like Den Beste are free to rhetorically behead them in a public forum of unprecedented technological grandeur.

The world might not be so lucky twice.

17:37 - Windows Moment of Zen

In Internet Explorer, if you try to go to a site but the network is down, you'll get the handy full-page in-browser error screen that tells you it can't find the server. It even helpfully changes the window's title bar to "Cannot find server".

So then the network comes back up. You refresh the page, and it comes up just fine. ... But the title of the page is still "Cannot find server". And it sticks, even if you refresh the page again. The button in the taskbar also retains this title.

Surely a minor annoyance; but a disappointing one, I must say, for software on its sixth major release.

16:23 - Celebrity Signed iPods


Okay, that's an interesting idea...

Apparently, Apple is now selling iPods custom-engraved with the autographs of various pop artists. The pages for each of the "signature" iPods aren't linked from anywhere on the Apple site, but astute followers of various artists' websites (some of which now feature pop-ups and banners selling these iPods) have detected models signed by Madonna, Beck, musical legend Tony Hawk, and No Doubt. (As in, No Doubt there are more artists represented in this promo-- they just haven't been discovered yet.) The custom iPods go for $50 more than their normal, unengraved price.

Perhaps this is part of the next phase of iPod marketing, the one we know they'll have to make in order to keep ahead of the (rickety) competition from SonicBlue and Creative?

Now, if I had my way, they'd offer these things signed by celebrities of the buyer's choice-- they'd line up a roster of potential autograph-givers, and assign various price premiums according to how much of a butt each celebrity is or is not willing to be.

Personally, I'm of a mind to get one signed by Al Roker. (And I'll bet CapLion would provide the necessary backup pledge.)

11:01 - The argument is obsolete. How about moving on?


The latest move from MoveOn.org is to take out a full-page ad in the New York Times, supported by 175,000 contributors to the website's fund. This ad takes the form of a letter to President Bush, pleading with him to open the White House windows and look outside and see the birds singing and the trees dancing and Iraq cooperating in good faith with the inspections-- not to just sit in the Oval Office polishing his guns and muttering about gettin' some oil for Daddy-- Daddy will be proud!

There's only one minor problem: we already know they're lying.

The ad takes the paternalistic approach, operating under the assumption that Bush Wants War, as a foregone conclusion, just for his own petty interests (or for oil, or the gun manufacturers, or whatever evil must-be-just-like-Vietnam special-interest they think this is about today-- anything, of course, except for Saddam). It gives the impression that the White House is full of those generals from Dr. Strangelove, covered from head to toe in chicken-guts, fidgeting in their chairs for the chance to blow sump'm up. It doesn't consider even for an instant, it seems, that the administration might just have some slight inkling about what's going on in Iraq-- that we don't.

When did it become common knowledge that crowds of students and aging hippies, gathering together and waving cookie-cutter signboards with tired and/or ludicrous slogans, become better authorities upon how to fight the war on terrorism than the people whose jobs it is to actually infiltrate the Middle East, find out what the score is, and develop long-term tactics and strategy based on a thousand different scenarios and contingencies?

The longer these guys persist in their axioms of "Bush is an illiterate gun-toting clear-cutting oil-drilling chimpanzee" and "Gore rightfully won the election", and the more the events of reality fall into place to debunk their claims and prove the administration to have a brain in its head after all-- and a very capable one at that-- the sillier they're going to look. About as silly as the ones who persist in ranting that capitalism and free markets don't work, that the US is a clear example of the world's worst economic system on its decadent way straight to hell. (Never mind taking a step back and noticing just how much better we have it here than in so much else of the world, and how hard our former communist foes are trying to become like us, and how much better countries like China and Russia are already doing because of it. Never mind existence proofs. The idea is the important thing.)

The only way this NYT ad could have been a more perfect illustration of this mentality is if it were published on the day the inspectors announced Iraq completely clear of weapons, followed within hours by a report from our coalition deep operatives showing exactly where the poison-tipped nuclear SCUDs are.

No, no. On the day after that.

09:41 - Photoshop and Puns: a winning combination


Photoshop Phriday isn't the only reason to keep an eye on Something Awful. On Tuesdays, they have these "Comedy Goldmine" contests things, which are just as funny, if this one example is any indication. I haven't been paying attention like I should. Fortunately, Marcus was, and so I didn't miss this.

So far I'm a big fan of "Muslim Extremist" (right) and "Affirmative Action". And I find the prevalence of Apple-related gags to be refreshing, especially since so few of them are derogatory. "iRack Inspector", featuring Xserves? Cute... very cute.
Tuesday, December 10, 2002
03:02 - Oblio in the Pointless Forest

Okay... so I've been doing this blogging thing now for about a year now (on the 18th), and in all this time I haven't come up with a title for the page, or any kind of visual theme. Part of the reason for this was the same kind of self-effacing, purposefully unassuming humor that informs all those clever and abstract bylines that identify blogs to their readers; taking it to an extreme, I insisted on leaving the page as boring as possible, and letting readers (if any) make their own decisions about what to call it. And part of the reason was that I didn't exactly expect that I'd have kept at it for a year; I figured, why waste a precious cutesy name, of which there can only be a finite number, on a blog that isn't even going to last?

But it's still here, unaccountably; and if I'm going to mark my "blogiversary" with anything, hey-- I figure I may as well at least take the opportunity to pretend like this page is a significant part of my life, which it has indeed become, and give it some kind of personality.

The idea came up yesterday, when Chris and I were sitting around my cubicle with various other engineers discussing global issues like whether The Two Towers, the movie, will completely follow the Merry/Pippin/Aragorn et al storyline before turning back to Frodo and Sam, the way the book does it-- or if it will interleave them together throughout the movie. (I suspect the latter.) During the discussion, though, I glanced over at my e-mail, and noticing in a passing message one of the modern language quirks nearest my heart, I suddenly burst out, Why is it so difficult to understand-- OOPS is not spelled OPPS! You've got your double vowels, and you've got your double consonants. It's not a difficult concept to understand! (I mean, I swear-- I knew more kids in Mrs. Muñoz' third-grade class with a firm grasp of this rule of English than I meet in a given day, it seems.)

The discussion halted; pairs of eyes focused on me as I hyperventilated, glowering, glancing huntedly between the iMac screen and the faces of my sardonic co-workers.

This wasn't just a pet peeve, Chris and I agreed. This was a free-range peeve. This was a peeve that had been ranched.

So anyway, the previous byline (Irony, Adjectives, and Eyebrows) was fun, but probably just a little too obscure. (Kudos to all those throngs of readers who correctly identified the reference but didn't mail me to say so, as I'm assuming is what typically has been happening.) I'm hoping that this one will work out; I keep giggling at it, but perhaps that's just me. In any case, I'll at least leave it up as an experiment for a while.

And if you don't think it works, well-- in that case, it's just a silly prank I'm pulling, and I never intended it to be permanent. Yeah.

13:29 - They just don't get it

There's been a lot of talk lately about Microsoft's new Windows Movie Maker 2, currently out in beta. This version improves over the ghastly (and that's not just my opinion, here) first release by adding features that iMovie users have been taking for granted forever, but which Microsoft inexplicably showed themselves completely clueless about. For instance, WMM1 was a lossy editor-- any DV clips that you chopped up and sequenced were chopped up in the filesystem, and effects and transitions that were applied to the video stream were not rendered as separate DV clips and catalogued internally, but were applied directly to the DV media and non-reversible. This meant you also couldn't output pristine media back out to the camera. They treated it though it were an image editing program, not a digital video studio. In other words, "MS Paint for Movies". Pretty hideous, by all accounts.

But WMM2 aims to change all that, and now it purports (with a lot of confrontational fanfare) to be more than a match for iMovie, both in terms of feature set and of ease-of-use.

I've been seeing some rapturous reviews of WMM2 lately, some from tech-pundits who had previously been enamored of iMovie, but who now were firm converts to the world of XP Green and Orange and Beige and Dark Blue. They lauded the fact that you could now publish movies to the Web or burn to DVD; that it supported analog as well as digital video input; that it came with tons and tons of transitions and effects; that it explicitly touted the "task-based interface" as a big usability advantage. And of course they lauded its use of Windows Media Player format, which everybody knows is better than anything else.

Well, naturally I found this all pretty dreary and bleak. Having no machine around here on which I was willing or eager to try out WMM2, I figured I'd just sit back and wait. And it turns out sanity has begun to reassert itself, now that more adventuresome hands than mine have given WMM2 a long hard look.

It turns out that these reviewers I mentioned, who made such a big deal out of WMM2's wizard-heavy task-based interface, were missing one key, crucial component of what would make them good reviewers of a piece of software of this sort: They were not creative people. The reviews I've seen have all been from techno-columnists, people accustomed to evaluating products on the basis of feature-set checklists and price rather than on how well they actually work.

And now we have the other side of the coin. David Baugh has put up a site which examines Microsoft's side-by-side comparison of WMM2-vs-iMovie features (a favorite Microsoft tactic, which we all remember from back when they used it to trash Apache, by including patently asymmetrical, irrelevant line-items like "Integrated SMTP server" and "Microsoft® Active Scripting™®" to pad out their column of checkmarks)-- and deconstructs the underlying insidiousness and weaselry of the associated marketing-speak.

Baugh, you see, is a creative professional-- in fact, he runs a site called Digital Video in Education, and he teaches courses in how DV can be used to enhance creative learning. He can fairly be considered more of an authority on the subject of making digital movies than some ZDnet columnist, it seems to me.

And his insights are worth noting. The site is pretty sparse, but the kernels of the comparative virtues of the two programs are sensible and valuable. For one thing, WMM2 represents just how clearly Microsoft continues not to understand how to write software that can integrate into a creative person's workflow. The "task-based interface" that makes up so much of Windows XP's ease-of-use hype-- with "wizards" that guide you through prepackaged task lists with minimal and constrained user input, and with lots of transitions and effects offered but no way to control or tweak them-- seems like a good thing, and for a reviewer interested only in checkboxes, it is. It means Microsoft gets to claim superiority in moviemaking products, and people using WMM under XP can feel nice and secure that they don't have to get a big bad Mac in order to make DVDs of little Billy's third birthday party.

But this doesn't help people who actually want to create their movies.

The strongest testimonials Apple has been broadcasting about iMovie over the past three years center around the idea that once you start playing with it, it's fun. It's about shuffling your clips around, snipping them up, joining them together, trying different effects, tweaking transition times, dropping in soundtracks and playing with the fade in/out speeds, applying various kinds of color-correction tweaks to the video, and then, finally, after several hours of honest and exhilarating work, you get to press a button and save the movie for the Web or e-mail or DVD, and sit back and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment.

Microsoft thinks that instead, people are going to want to plug in their cameras, put all the clips in order, select a few prepackaged effects (that can't be tweaked for speed or direction or delay), and then go through a wizard and let the software tell you what your options are so it can do all the editing. It takes the "creative" part out of the creative process. It exemplifies Microsoft's desire to internalize functionality into the software back-end, while minimizing the input of the user, and giving back something that most users will consider "good enough". But will they find the process fun?

I can tell you right now that if I had to edit my movies in a piece of software that made me have to think about software, or about tasks, rather than about video clips-- I'd pack up my DV camera and never dig it out of my closet again.

Apple gets it. They know what users want; if a user wants to do something creative, something that involves putting a piece of himself into the content the software creates, Apple realizes that the software must allow the user to do whatever he wants toward that end. It must allow experimentation, mistakes, do-overs. It must give the user complete control over the media, while hiding the esoteric details of what files and folders and functions and formats are being used, far into the background. It must present the content in as raw a form as possible, letting the user interact with it on its own terms. This is art, after all, and no artist wants to be constrained by artificial limitations on his tools. Instead, he wants to think only of his media and his vision of the final product. iTunes exemplifies this: rather than making users think about "MP3 files" and folders and long multi-word filenames, iTunes organizes music based on artists and albums and titles and genres. It doesn't invent any metaphors; it lets the user use the metaphors he's already familiar with, metaphors that are patently appropriate to the media in question. iPhoto does the same, letting the user think in terms of pictures and rolls and albums. This isn't a "task-based" interface, it's media-based-- and that means that a person can figure out how it works by sitting down and playing with it for a few minutes. And he'll have fun doing it, too, because without any wizards or menus to contend with, it won't seem like he's working with software. It'll seem like he's working with his media.

Programming is an art. Would you want to program in a "task-based" Visual C++ environment, one that led you through wizards and asked you what kind of program you wanted to make, and then wrote all your code for you? ...Okay, bad example. Some programmers probably would; heh. But any self-respecting coder who takes any personal pride in the code he writes would simply not trust such a tool. For formulaic tasks that involve no creativity or flexibility, like setting up TCP/IP, the task-based interface metaphor is fine. But for anything that involves creativity, innovation, experimentation, or the imagination of the user-- the task-based interface is quite possibly the worst possible metaphor to employ.

iMovie could in fact stand to be made easier; and it will be, as soon as iMovie 3 comes out, which should be within a few weeks, if the rumors are true. But one thing I know for darn sure: Apple isn't going to make it "easier" through the use of wizards and non-tweakable pre-packaged effects and a "task-based interface". They're going to focus on what makes iMovie so much fun in the first place: the ability to plug in your DV camera, press Import, let all the clips roll into your on-screen palette, and then sit down for a couple hours of focused, zoned-out, dead-to-all-outside-stimuli creativity.

And even though they might control all the software development resources in the known universe, Microsoft just can't seem to grasp that small, simple kernel of truth about software design: software that you have to think about is software that fails.

11:13 - The Future's Still the Future


James Bond technology is still a bit further out of our reach than I think we've cynically grown to believe. (Isn't that a weird idea-- we've grown cynical of progress, enough so that intelligent people tell me quite seriously that nobody actually works on animated movies anymore, because "they're all done with computers nowadays"-- and people in France and Muslim nations believe the US fabricated all those videos of planes crashing on 9/11 and OBL gloating about it afterwards?)

Some researchers in Japan, in a site forwarded to me by Judson, are working on "optical camouflage"-- which, if I'm reading the site correctly, amounts to placing cameras and partial mirrors in a room such that a projector can "paint" an object with the image of whatever's behind it, regardless of how the object is positioned. (The site is precious sparse in explanatory text, so I can't tell if the object has to be coated in a special reflective substance, or what. Either way, the projection doesn't override the object's natural colors or lighting or anything.)

The "Die Another Day" car is still at least a few months away, it seems.
Monday, December 9, 2002
16:27 - I believe it's known as a Torog-hai

Fifty Reasons why Lord of the Rings Sucks!

I tell you, I am soooo pissed at this! I mean, it's like he knows nothing about teh story, or the books, or even about the movie he must of watched a hundred times in order to get all these little details to complain about... and he has the audacity to put up these 50 spiteful ranting points that don't make any sense, and anybody can defend each and every one-- in fact, I'm going to go e-mail him about it right now!!!

...No I'm not. It's a joke, for God's sake. And a thumpin' good one, too.

Well, perhaps it isn't the pinnacle of satiric comedy. But it's worth a giggle, anyway-- particularly the "message boards" that the site's author manufactured at the end of his Two Towers "review". (Don't believe me? Try to post to it. And no, that was not the point at which I discovered it was a gag.)

LotR has been prime material for fun-loving trolls ever since it started getting popular again. This is cute, but not the best example of it I've seen to date.
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