Saturday, June 30, 2007

Watching the Watchers

A few years ago, a vice president of engineering at my workplace jumped up out of his seat to yell me down in response to asking a question about cost of living adjustments to our salaries under a newly announced compensation plan. And in good Dilbert fashion the VP shouted me down with a line that was easy to document as a lie. Enough of my co-workers were shocked by the actions of that VP, that they actually pulled historical documents to show that I was not asking an off-base question. That VP is long gone, but the incident has continued to color my views of COLAs. Naturally the story about the automatic COLA for members of congress got my attention.

The adjustment is made doubly ironic by the continued lack of action on many of the pressing issues from big ones such as immigration reform to the smaller ones such as Internet radio royalty payments. (I should probably note that I actually favored the death of the immigration reform bill. I would instead advocate a real solution that does not give law breakers a thing, but makes entering the country legally easier.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

I Thought You Were Dead... or, Rambling Commentary on "Escape from New York"

The other night I had four minutes to kill before leaving home. On a lark, I flipped on the TV and pulled up the channel guide. There sitting before me was a movie I had not seen in years, the 1981 cult classic "Escape from New York." Naturally, I set the DVR to capture it before heading out. "Escape" holds a special place in my heart as part of a trinity of John Carpenter movies that take the tone of fifties era B-movie sci-fi tales squarely into the eighties. (The other two movies in the trinity are the horror classic "The Thing" and the cult classic "They Live." The latter is perhaps even better than "Fight Club" as an expression of the frustration of the working class versus the American gentry, but that's another post altogether.)

The fifties movies, as typified by "The Thing from Another World," conveyed the dichotomy between an American utopia transcendent after the Second World War and the Cold War fears of communist subversion and nuclear annihilation. I would make a case that the eighties had a parallel dichotomy between the Cold War victory and the undercurrents of poverty, AIDS, and the lingering shadows of racism. "Escape" gives us the classic hyper-competent, strong, silent, loner, American anti-hero in the form of 'Snake' Plissken. Plissken's motivation is solely to stay alive, but doing so has put him at odds with the police state and made him infamous among both criminals and the police/military. However, the end of the movie puts him in a position to give his stoic judgment on the leaders of his society. It's a thoroughly satisfying jab in the eye of authority even as Plissken's disregard for the ongoing war reflects the same myopic attitude he's putting down.

"Escape," like its brothers "The Thing" and "They Live," holds up very well because its special effects are not computer generated rather than in spite of it. The depiction of a heavily computerized society, is notable for its near lack of jarringly unrealistic items. (The exception would be the lights on Snake's wrist tracker.). And unlike, say, "Tron" or "The Last Starfighter" the computer wireframe displays in "Escape" look perfect even today because they are a lighting trick on a model rather than a resolution-limited computer rendering. In today's world of GPS, Google Earth, and cell phones, Snake's equipment is too bulky, but otherwise completely plausible.

"Escape from New York" is not a literary masterpiece or a work of high art, but it is a thoroughly entertaining romp with a cynical attitude that fits perfectly into the eighties, and perhaps even better in today's world.

Watching the Watchers

John Edwards is once again under fire for hypocrisy. One of several non-profit organizations which were set up after his 2004 campaign had a rather interesting primary beneficiary: John Edwards himself. It's a glimpse into the power and money games that politicians play, and a depressing one.

And speaking of power and money, a Pittsburgh law firm is under fire after a rather incriminating video of it's attorneys telling companies how to skirt the employment laws governing foreign skilled workers. I'll link the Slashdot blurb which contains a series of apropos links.

Radio Silence

As I look over at my music collection, I can see the impact the Internet has had on my musical selection. I see CDs where I looked up an artist based on a song. I certainly never would have picked up The Wrecker's debut or Anna Nalick's CD (which has become a favorite) without the shady ability to get a full listen to the disk before putting money down. But it's Internet radio that has pointed me to some of the most off-the-beaten-path music that I have. I never would have heard of Flogging Molly if I hadn't got addicted to "Drunken Lullabies" thanks to a long defunct internet stream. I would never have known to ask my resident metal-head about Nightwish's brand of operatic rock. Pandora is a seriously powerful tool for finding stuff to listen to that you would never have expected. Radio Paradise is eclectic in a way you can never find on the dial. SomaFM provides a very unique set of sounds that play especially well as headphone fodder in the cubicle lands of the office.

But all of this could be coming to an end very soon thanks to legislation that will send the royalty fees unnecessarily through the roof. All of the stations I have linked above, and many more, are participating in a "day of silence" to call the attention of those that use them. It is hoped that there is still time to get congress to change course. One way or the other, we will know by the end of next month. And if something doesn't change, the Internet will be a quieter and much less interesting place.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Baby Monitor: Your Window Into Space

Technology glitches can be frustrating and even dangerous. They can also be harmless. But every so often you get one that is just kind of nifty. Such as a baby monitor picking up a NASA transmission from... somewhere.

Watching the Watchers

President Bush's popularity sits at a record low point, but Congress is even less popular. It seems we don't like the job they are doing (or not doing). An unpopular war is one answer, but I'm sure we all have our own dissatisfactions. It turns out that reality is more work than what a thirty second TV attack ad implies...

Meanwhile, the oil industry is upset about the sudden interest in bio-fuel and other gasoline alternatives. Many of the industry leaders have decided to scale back plans to increase refinery capacity. This looks dirty for the same reason it's a sound business decision, lower refining capacity drives up prices. And there in a nutshell is why I don't really like the way we do business these days.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Headline Hunting

"FBI tries to fight zombie hordes" Sure, they are talking about security compromised computers, but it's a great headline.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Watching the Watchers

Apparently, here in NC if you patriotically attempt to help our nation gain energy independence by converting your car to burn vegetable oil instead of imported gas, you don't get a pat on the back. Instead, you get slapped with a thousand dollar fine for dodging fuel taxes. Every year. Until you put up a two and a half grand bond.

Oh government bureaucracy, what wacky schemes to "make sure the playing field is level" will you come up with next.

Take That, Non-NC Beaches!

Ocracoke Island is not named for a fried veggie dish and the local soft drink of choice, but it has been recently picked as the top beach in America.

Headline Hunting

"Butts charged with stealing toilet paper." It has been a while since I crossed paths with a good headline, but that brings it nicely.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

On Orange Juice and Toilet Paper

There are two things one should never try to save money on: orange juice and toilet paper. In my experience the difference in quality between the low end and high end for both of these products is so overwhelmingly vast that spending a little extra can make your whole day better. But quality is a funny thing; we all say we want it but only to a point. Real quality costs money, sometimes big money. And it can be hard for consumers to tell the difference between quality features and luxury features, and it is even harder to get someone to pay for quality that you can't see versus luxury that you can. (The car market is the perfect example of this in action.) In the business world high quality often is put alongside rapid delivery and low cost of production as desired goals. But quality is far, far harder to measure and tends to make the other two metrics get worse. Naturally, the quality target quickly becomes "good enough."

There are even times when quality shouldn't be a concern. In his book Keys to Drawing, Bert Dodson points out, when you are learning to draw, quality is just an adjective. Really, doesn't that apply to learning in general? When you are at the stage of trying to learn how, trying to create high quality can be counter productive. Attempts to achieve high quality always involve more complexity, and as a result time and effort, than just doing the minimum necessary. The additional frustration involved can lead to heightened self-criticism, which easily translates into giving up. Computer programmers have a maxim, "build the first one to throw away." This acknowledges that for any complex undertaking, the first step should be to learn how to do it at all. Doing it cleanly and/or robustly can wait.

Judging when to pursue quality is a big factor in life as well. When Nike tells us to "Just Do It" there is some irony. After all, their shoes are of notably poor quality. However, the athletics they support require one to get out and practice, strive to simply start doing and get better through the learning process rather than be good immediately. One can't, just for instance, wait to become a good writer before starting a 'blog. We have to write volumes, consciously evaluate ourselves, and apply the feedback to improve. What does the word quality even mean if we try to apply it to our personal relationships? Is not "quality of life" the most elusive of all pursuits?

To the business world, quality is a key differentiator and a huge factor in the value equation. Deciding how much quality is necessary and how best to achieve it can make or break a product, a company, or a career. Business is all about competition, and quality is extremely important when there is a competition going on. Luckily, life is not business. At a personal level, collaboration and cooperation is usually much more important than competition. The difference between someone who can't dance and someone who is a poor dancer is far vaster than the difference between a poor dancer and a good one. In life as in art, quality is often just an adjective.

But there is no excuse for subjecting anyone to cheap toilet paper.

Watching the Watchers

David Pogue takes a look at some of the Internet sites that are trying to make the public information about lawmakers financial contributors, voting records, and the correlation between the two truly public. This is exactly the type of thing that the Internet should be good for, and the way politics is going, we can't get the information fast enough.

DVR Owners Watch TV Too

This past television season Nielsen Media Research "overnights" showed a decline in overall viewers across the board for the major networks. Naturally, this was of great concern to the executives looking for continued ad revenue. But Nielsen has been slow to adopt the tracking of time shifting, which is a technical term for taping or DVRing a show and watching it later. This has recently changed, and when you factor DVRs in, the ratings slump vanishes.

Personally, I never watch anything that comes on at ten or later live. Having a DVR has changed my viewing habits by making it much more convenient to fit TV to my schedule rather than the other way around. Judging by the number of shows I watched last season, that should eventually be good for the networks.