|Sunday, October 8, 2006
21:23 - Lesleee... Lesleee... Lesleee...
I was watching Fargo just now, and there's this bit character that shows up about halfway through: Mike Yanagita, Marge's old friend who creepily tries to hook up with her in a restaurant.
Something about his voice—a Japanese accent, layered over thickly with a North Dakota one, for a rather kooky combination—made me think, "Gee, he sure sounds a lot like whoever played Dr. Suriyama in the "Past Tense" episode of The Venture Bros,.
And... uh... well...
Dang. That's great then. You betcha.
It's even, like, sorta the same character.
UPDATE: "I gave simple [fruitful] instructions! Do you think this is a [funny] joke here? You [foolish] [imbeciles]!"
AMC is funny. They even just did a bump explicitly chuckling over all the strange F-word replacements they had to splice in.
|Friday, October 6, 2006
23:41 - Good news and bad news
The good: now that iTunes is selling feature films as well as TV shows and other short videos, they've upped the resolution on the TV shows from 320x240 to 640x480, even on all the shows they've been offering up till now.
The bad, aside from the fact that the shows now eat about 230MB/episode: if you already bought shows in the lower resolution, you don't get to re-download the bigger version for free.
I can see arguments both ways, but that kinda sucks. Still, though, they could just as well have left all their older shows in the low-res format forever.
Now to see if the Season Pass I bought for Season 10 of South Park will continue to be in effect for this second half of the 10th season that kicked off on Wednesday...
16:35 - Better dead than inconvenienced
It's not difficult to find someone complaining about the sorry state of airline travel today, especially someone who's been inconvenienced in the name of security. Especially, as in this case, someone who's been inconvenienced unjustly, because he has a name that happens to match someone on a watch list. Someone with a name like "Robert Johnson" or "Saddam Hussein".
There's no shortage of people making the case that our draconian post-9/11 security measures are making a mockery of public safety rather than ensuring it, delaying and humiliating the innocent while the truly dangerous slip right past due to sheer numbers. You can't turn around without hearing someone making that kind of complaint, because it's just so damn easy to do.
Well, every time I hear a complaint like that, I just find myself saying, aloud, to nobody in particular: So what exactly are we supposed to do?!
I mean, seriously! What would be a better way of going about this? How do you defend against plane-bound terrorism perpetrated by people with no distinguishing characteristics, or at least none that we're allowed to acknowledge in polite company?
People love to talk about how stupid the watch lists are for including names like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, "neither of whom, I suspect, are likely to be flying on commercial U.S. flights any time soon, let alone under their own names," as John Gruber says. Well, fine, fair enough. But just imagine if we didn't have those names on any watch list, and someone broke this tidbit as a news story on CNN. "Federal Watch List Omits Names of Top Terrorism Suspects!" What kind of idiots would we be? Oh, sure, maybe it would make sense to not bother looking for those names; maybe you could even explain the futility of it to people in a press conference. But if something requires that much explanation in order for people to buy it, people aren't going to buy it. No, the fact of the matter is that if you're going to bother trying to screen terrorists by name—and if you're not doing that, heaven help you if someone sells that fact to CNN—you have to accept that many people have the same name, and there's no way to distinguish Mohammed Atta the terrorist from Mohammed Atta the software engineer from Sunnyvale without a tedious interview and a strip-search and all kinds of intrusive tactics that the poor guy can then turn around and feed to CAIR and the ACLU as the story-of-the-month exposing America's current atmosphere of intolerance and paranoia. Is there? Really? Is there any way you can key on a name and not run into potential index collision issues? Names don't work as unique identifiers in a world of six billion. Especially names that don't typically get spelled in Roman script. But what else are you supposed to do?
People love to make fun of the color-coded terror alert system. And granted, it's pretty useless: Okay, so the terror alert level is orange today. What am I supposed to do? Wear Terrorist-block on my forearms, TPF 45 or higher? Stay away from the beach? Carpool? I know the usual thing is, "Be extra vigilant under these conditions"; but If I see a guy running towards the Israeli embassy wearing a dynamite belt, or some too-carefully-shaven young hard-faced guys in the airport lounge carrying duffel bags and reading Korans and whispering to each other and glancing around nervously, I'm not going to rock back on my heels and think, "Well, gee, the terror alert level is only yellow; I suppose it's less likely than usual that these guys are up to no good, so I'll just go my merry way". No, that's not how it works. The terror alert level system doesn't mean a damn thing to anybody who's confronted with an actual terrorism-related decision to make, and to everybody else it's patently useless non-information anyway. So why have it? Well, because imagine what people would say if we didn't have something like that in place, why don't you? Imagine those headlines: "Dept. of Homeland Security Rejected Proposed Color-Coded Terror Alert System as Useless!" And just ponder what the spin on that would look like. A potentially easy-to-understand, inexpensively implemented way for the government to communicate that it's doing something about terrorism, that it has its fingers on the pulse of those clandestine networks that keep sending kinda-sorta-suspicious cell-phone messages to each other about things that might or might not refer to upcoming attacks, that it's capable of filtering all that seething morass of information into a sort of barometric pressure reading that can be conveyed by a simple color chart into something that the everyday guy on the street can understand and at least know that whatever else might be going on, at least those taxes he keeps paying the government are actually going to pay people tapping suspected terrorists' phones and spending long hours analyzing it, and not just into some slush fund or unaccountable bureaucracy or something. Right?
Well, no. Apparently it's too much to ask now to even be able to tap people's phones who are on suspected terrorist lists, because there's the potential that it might be used against some innocent fellow out there who the government has a secret personal vendetta against, you know, for something innocent like drug trafficking or sexual predation. Maybe it means some FBI agent gets his jollies from listening in on random people's phone-sex calls; we don't know. How are we supposed to know? It's far too high a price to pay, our ability to make our individual mundane phone calls among millions and millions per day that they would potentially have to sift through with their Carnivore and Echelon and their other angry-predator-sounding secret privacy-invasion software, just because they might happen to intercept a call by someone who's telling his friend that the plan to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge goes forward tonight. I mean, hey—what are the odds of that happening, anyway? Chances are that poor old Osama bin Laden the plumber from Memphis is going to get his steamy e-mails to his girlfriend in Vancouver snooped in on, and that's more than this country can stomach.
I keep wondering how it is that this is the same country that once collected cooking grease in little tin cans to turn in to the local butcher to help make high explosives to blow up the Krauts, just because the local radio station said to. Or the same country that bought meat using ration books and saved up whatever bits of spare change were left over to put into war bonds. Nowadays we're far more willing to believe that this whole "terrorism" thing is just a big con put on by dark hooded characters in boardrooms who have some kind of brilliant 20-year master plan to foment anti-Muslim hatred in this country and thus somehow arrive at cheap oil out of Iraq, than that maybe it's deadly serious business and we have no good options in front of us except for the dubious claim that maybe if we can get democracy planted in the Middle East, we won't have to worry about more of our office buildings getting knocked down by people who die in the process and can't even be prosecuted for it. But even with that aside, even granting that it's all for real, I keep thinking that even if we lived every day with a very tangible threat, like a bridge getting blown up every couple of weeks or a random mall food court going up in a fireball several times a year, we as a people would still find it intolerable to have to even consider giving up any of our creature comforts for the sake of making the battle a little easier for the people fighting it to fight. We'll trade in our SUVs for Priuses because it lets us feel self-righteous for saving money, heroic for making a financially sound business decision. But when it comes to cherishing privacy and instant gratification, we've all apparently become Unabombers all of a sudden. We won't stand for having our flight itineraries scrutinized, our bags and shoes checked, our international mail delayed, or our cell-phone calls made to feel like someone might be listening in. That's all just more general bureaucratic incompetence in service of a dubious threat that probably doesn't exist—but even if it did, well, why should we be the ones to suffer? This isn't our fight.
Suppose someone named Brian Tiemann, a recent convert to Islam in Hamburg, makes enough noise in the underground that his name suddenly blips up on the watch list. Suppose I go to fly somewhere next month, and at the ticket counter the lady's eyes go down to her screen, and she suddenly stiffens and looks up at me with fear in her eyes. Suppose I'm whisked away to a room next to the metal detector and fed a barrage of questions about my job, my business, my attitude toward the United States, my friends, my connections, my religion. Would I find that unfair? Would I find it callous? Would I find it stupid? Would I find it objectionable enough to go down to my local ACLU chapter as soon as my trip is over, stand in front of a camera, and denounce whatever malicious, bungling forces saw fit to put me through such treatment?
For the chance to be famous? For the chance to be a Civil Rights martyr? For the chance to be a symbolic victim of all the unfocused, hairy-knuckled hubris of the government we all so dearly love to hate in half-hour bites every weeknight on Comedy Central?
Well, I wouldn't. But that's only because I'm some kind of helpless bleating lamb, trotting innocently and oh-so-stupidly to the slaughter. Imagine what someone smart would do.
UPDATE: Steven Den Beste writes:
So what should we do?
I've been having a growing realization that the entire approach being used
is wrong. The solution isn't to look for weapons being brought onto the
plane, it's to encourage as many weapons as possible on planes.
What stopped the Flight 93 hijacking? Citizens who spontaneously organized
themselves into a fighting force. Their problem was that they didn't really
have anything to fight with.
If we completely relax all weapons checks, and permit anyone who wants to to
"conceal-carry" a gun on an airline, then anyone who tries to hijack one is
going to get a surprise.
This takes advantage of the straightforward fact that there are always going
to be more non-hijackers on a jet than hijackers. And it takes advantage of
the oft-proven rule that Americans are no longer going to be passive on
airlines when anything strange is going on. Many times since 9/11 there have
been passengers who have caused trouble, and have been controlled by other
passengers who instantly got involved. That is the new norm.
And if the bad guys respond to this by trying to flood a particular flight
with their own, that will be blatantly obvious -- and in the long run a good
thing, because they don't have that many reliable operatives willing to
engage in that kind of operation, and it would concentrate them all in a
place where they could be taken care of.
So you don't use the "nasty name" list to decide who to give a concentrated
check at the gate. You use the "nasty name" list to decide which flights to
put your armed marshalls onto. And you rely on them to lead and direct the
armed citizens on the plane who will make up the bulk of the fighting force
that will defeat the hijacking attempt.
That would certainly help, I'd think. A well-armed society is a polite society, as the saying goes—and though hip city dwellers like to imagine that Red States are places where inbred drunkards swagger through the streets with six-shooters hanging off their hips, whipping them out and letting fly with barrages of random bullets whenever the mood strikes them, the reality tends to be that you get less crime wherever the crooks know that the people they're robbing will tend to be armed in order to sell their lives and goods as dearly as possible, rather than to cower and whimper until it's all over as the British citizenry are currently instructed to do in the face of skyrocketing London street crime. I think more and more people are starting to realize that.
I mean, hell, they're even talking about arming schoolteachers now. The national mood has traditionally been revulsion at the very idea of introducing more weapons into any situation, let alone one where kids are present; but maybe these days we'll start to see a resurgence of the antiquated idea that maybe if the bad guys are going to be packing, maybe it might be worthwhile to put some heat in the hands of the good guys too, even if just the ones in positions of authority.
I wonder if an Amish schoolhouse will one day be recognized as the place where the American spirit of self-defense was reawakened.
UPDATE: Sam Muldia writes:
It seems to me that while Steven's suggestion makes a whole lot of sense, it's never, ever going to happen. Even to suggest such a thing would be complete and utter political suicide - while politically-minded libertarians and conservatives would hail it as the Smartest Invention Since Tax Cuts, security moms and their ilk would be aghast at this sort of Wild West approach to public security.
One hotbutton issue I've never understood about the American right is their aversion to a national ID card. There's a very easy way to avoid cavity searches of the 1.7 gazillion Bob Johnsons in the United States, and that is an unforgeable smart card national ID card that has the person's SSN digitally encoded on it. To the best of my knowledge, every adult US citizen possesses that unique number. If a suspected terrorist is an American citizen, then you flag their SSN, not just their name.
Now, this card can't be made mandatory, which wouldn't work anyway, as in Estonia, where we've had such a card for years and despite being mandatory, a large number of people never got one (including myself - never felt enough need for one to warrant the red tape, and now I don't live there anymore anyway). People who want to live off the map, live off the map. But you don't get on the green line to the plane. Anyone who waives their right to the secure ID card goes through increased scrutiny.
For a best-of-both-worlds solution to both privacy issues and identity theft (stealing an ID card with a similar photo), the ID card could include, on-chip only, a digital photo and fingerprint data of the cardholder, which can be verified at security checkpoints but by law could never be stored on any government computers. The only thing in a central server would a checksum that requires the bits of the photo and fingerprint data in conjuction with the alphanumeric data like name and SSN to be the same as when issued - i.e. even in the highly unlikely event of Al Qaeda duplicating the card manufacturing process, a fake wouldn't fly because the checksum is completely unforgeable (the amount of combinations a chess game can have outnumbers the atoms in the known universe, not to mention a 24-bit half-megapixel digital photo).
This would also have the added benefit of being a universally accepted photo ID for people who don't have a driver's license or a passport. It would also help combat voter fraud (which is ridiculously rampant in the US compared to the rest of the free world). The privacy argument against such a thing is truly and utterly ridicuous, since the government already KNOWS your SSN and information such as your date of birth, name, and state where you live.
For everyone on the nanny-state side who would react in hand-fluttering horror to the idea of good-guy guns in schools and on planes, there's someone on the big-L side who'll grouse about barcodes tattooed on the back of your neck when the idea of national ID cards gets brought up. Sure, the people who continue to mutter darkly about "stolen elections" ought to appreciate this idea; but if we keep resisting even things like positive photo ID at polling places, the day we get a real, uniquely indexable database of citizenry is a long way off.
I just hope the people who complain about their names getting confused with terrorists' aren't the same ones who would resist being put into a database that would keep that from happening.
UPDATE: John S. sends along a counterargument to the national ID by Bruce Schneier.
UPDATE: Peter G. points out that the way the watch list works, a number of high-profile terrorism suspects aren't on it for the very reasons given above. He also says:
I strongly disagree with allowing firearms on airplanes. A firearm can
penetrate an armored cockpit door. It can bring the airplane down directly
in other ways. All bad results. And there's no need for firearms to prevent
What we SHOULD do is resume allowing pocketknives. The old rule was,
anything up to a four-inch lockblade was okay. That's how it ought to be
today. Such a weapon can't bring down an airplane and can't force open a
cockpit door, but just one in the hands of a determined civilian can force
an end to any hijacking attempt that doesn't involve a gun.
True enough. Explosive decompression is a poor reward for shooting a terrorist at 30,000 feet; but ten sufficiently hard-jawed people with butterfly knives could have made short work of Atta and company.
UPDATE: Sam Muldia responds to Bruce Schneier.
|Wednesday, October 4, 2006
00:31 - Too little, too Zune
Engadget doesn't exactly seem enthralled with the Zune; but as noted by the Penny Arcade guys, the astroturf campaigners seem to be out in full force. Chris also noticed this article, where despite the commenters' protests to the contrary, one is left to wonder just what is up with the Scientology-sounding tone that all the various pro-Zune snippets being sighted here and there seem to affect. Like everybody who's bullish on it is some kind of marketing dweeb reading boilerplate fed to him through a blinking earpiece. You can almost hear them being read in that same nasal, plosive-laden voice that the guy in those Gilbert Gottfried "Clippy Gets Clipped" videos has—the IT guy who says "Office Ecks-Pee is a greaT upgKrade!"
I'm sure that's how Apple fans sound to the rest of the world, too; but I really think there's a difference. Off the top of my head I'd imagine it has to do with how with Apple products, people use their prescribed, corporate-fed vocabulary ("Digital Hub", anyone?) to defend existing products that we actually use and demonstrably enjoy; whereas when it comes to Microsoft stuff, it always seems to be about brand-new products or upgrades to existing stuff, stuff that it's vitally important to buy if you want to climb that ladder and grab that brass ring. It's that sort of thing that leads one to imagine that nobody would plump for Office or the Zune unless they personally stood to profit from each sale. You don't quite get that feeling from someone who writes long tracts on how great his six-year-old Power Mac is or why the first-generation iPod was the purest in execution and had the best, most tactilely satisfying interface.
That all said, I'm sure the Zune will be cool by the time its third generation or so rolls around; that's the way it always is with Microsoft: get the products into people's hands, like sleeper-cell Trojans, and then worry about upgrades later, because that's the easy part. That way you get the twin benefits of early (ha!) entry into the market, and low cost of marketing the version that really matters.
But by that time, who knows what generation of iPods will be out? Apple's still got plenty of room left to improve its offerings; a larger-screen video-centric iPod is a gimme by this point, and rental-based movie downloads now that they're into that market with both feet. But it remains to be seen precisely what good the wi-fi stuff will do it. That Engadget article doesn't exactly make the features sound all that luscious:
Can send songs / albums for the 3 x 3 trial. Songs past the three days / listens are deleted at next sync, but catalogued on your PC for record-keeping should you want to purchase them later. No word on whether Microsoft is going to keep track of which files are traded.
Uh... what? Yeah, that sounds like a compelling use case.
I find myself thinking that Apple will never even bother adding wi-fi to the iPod—how useful is it to sync wirelessly, anyway? If I'm sitting next to my computer, I've got a frickin' cable right here—and won't suffer a single sale for it. They seem to have an almost uncanny ability to gauge which features people will actually care about, no matter how the pundits might scoff at their absence—no FM tuner! Ha! Who'd ever buy a music player without an FM tuner?—and I can't help but think that even if all those white earbuds I see at the gym were connected to Zunes instead of iPods, which is the best-case scenario for this discover-nearby-devices stuff, I wouldn't exactly be interested in making eye contact with the people around me after browsing their libraries and sucking down their interesting-looking tracks while trundling away on the cross-trainer. Who does Microsoft think they're marketing this social technology stuff to—the desperately lonely?
And as usual, Penny Arcade catches on fast.
Via Sam M.
|Monday, October 2, 2006
10:35 - like.no.other.no.really.we.don't.know.what.you're.talking.about.la.la.la
Hee hee hee. Awesome. Sony's new VAIOs:
"Design that works". Yeah, as has been proven, eh?