Archive for July, 2006

You don’t want to go among mad people…

One of my favorite online comic strips is ending.

Narbonic features mad science, mutated gerbils, heroic forensic linguists, and psychotic interns with access to high explosives. Is it any wonder that I love it so?

It’s sad to see it come to an end, and yet there is an up side.

I haven’t been able to refer people to Narbonic for a while because any time someone gets referred to a comic, they usually skip to the very beginning of the archives and read forward from there to catch up on it. Narbonic, however, has been a Modern Tales comic for a while. This meant that the day’s strip was free, but all of the archives were behind a pay wall. With the series winding down, however, Shaenon K. Garrity has decided to make the archives freely available once more.

So, please, enjoy delicious ‘Narbonic.’ Happy trails to one of the greatest strips ever written, and here’s hoping we hear a lot more from Garrity.

Edit: It appears that with the changing times, Modern Tales has changed, as well. Most of the site is now free and ad-supported, although you can still subscribe to get rid of the ads. Interesting…

Saturday, July 29th, 2006

Free culture

If you haven’t read Pig and the Box yet, you should. It’s an anti-DRM children’s book that was originally written in response to the Captain Copyright nonsense happening north of the border. It’s available from the blog Push the Third Button Twice as a free PDF file released under a Creative Commons license. Just look on the blog in the left-hand sidebar.

You can also buy a copy of the Pig now. The book is being made available in a print edition. And if you look below the links to the free PDF’s, you’ll find a link for a Fundable project. If 100 people buy autographed copies of Pig and the Box at a price of $20 each, the author will move from CC-NC-SA (that’s Non-Commercial Use, released under the same license) to CC-SA (that’s released under the same license, commercial use permitted).

Thursday, July 27th, 2006

Get up off of that thing…

For about the past week, I’ve been feeling exhausted pretty consistently. It seemed like most of the time I was ready to nod off, regardless of how much sleep I got the night before. I figured it was probably something that I was doing – staying up too late, getting up too early (which, with my current office schedule, is a bit of a problem), etc.

I developed a knot in the muscles of my shoulders. It seemed like it was getting permanent, so I was almost to the point of naming it.

Then yesterday I got the brilliant idea of considering what I wasn’t doing. And what I haven’t been doing a lot of for the past couple of weeks is moving. I spend 4-6 hours a day in the office sitting in front of a computer, then I spend 3-4 hours a day in class sitting at a table. That’s usually been followed by going home and spending the rest of the day either in front of the TV or in front of – well, the computer.

I haven’t exactly been an active guy in recent weeks.

So on this hunch I got out last night and took about an hour’s walk.

Do I feel refreshed, invigorated, and charged with life? Well, no. But I don’t feel exhausted any more.

So I plan to be spending the next few weeks not spending so much time in front of the computer if I can help it. The counter-intuitive result of which may be that you can expect more blogging at the ArtMachine, plus some long-promised reviews at The Anvil & Sprocket. Why? Because I’ve noticed that the longer I spend sitting at the computer, the less I actually accomplish. Funny how that works. So by spending less time at the computer, I expect to wind up accomplishing more.

It’ll make an interesting experiment. Maybe I’ll document it in a film that nobody will ever distribute.

See you ‘round…

Thursday, July 27th, 2006

Don’t take meth guns to town…

The Arizona Daily Star reports on a brand new handheld device that can be used to find trace amounts of meth, marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs. [link via BoingBoing]

The device works by transmitting UV radiation at a surface, causing any chemicals to release their “spectral fingerprints.” It’s a form of spectroscopy. When a chemical is exposed to UV radiation and releases its signature, the meth gun picks that up, CDEX scientists said.

This allows the meth gun to instantly scan for meth on a surface.

“We see this as an investigative aid,” Foster said. “If I had been ingesting cocaine and then wiped it off, this unit would be able to identify the cocaine on that table or on my clothes.”

Many of you probably already see where I’m going with this. If you don’t, I draw your attention to this article on Erowid that references studies showing 80% of paper money in the United States show trace amounts of cocaine. I’d also like to point you toward this article on Snopes that confirms this is closer to truth than to urban legend.

The Snopes article suggests that only those who handle massive amounts of cash in a day need to worry about getting enough cocaine on their hands to test positive. New ‘trace amount’ tests, however, may throw that into doubt. The BBC archives can turn up stories about false positives in trace amount tests for cocaine, marijuana, and so on and so forth. The problem with a test to show any amount of cocaine is that it winds up showing any amount of cocaine, even the amount you picked up off of that five dollar bill you paid for your combo meal with.

It is yet another chapter in just two frequently recurring problems with the ongoing War On Drugs which – like most prohibition efforts – has many. First, the prohibition laws become so strict that it becomes possible for almost anybody to be arrested. You don’t have to be an actual offendor to appear on the police radar – you can just get caught up in the zero-tolerance efforts.

Second, it results in many expensive gadgets that wind up being virtually worthless. These meth guns are expected to cost $1,500 a pop. One of the proposed uses would be in cleaning up meth labs – for which it may prove valuable. For conviction, however, we’ve already seen the cocaine-on-the-money data being cited in court cases. It won’t be long before we’re able to prove that one could have picked up trace amounts of meth anywhere – it doesn’t necessarily imply use or dealing.

Tuesday, July 25th, 2006

Cultural Sensitivity in a Bucket

EastSouthWestNorth offers an English translation of a Chinese article reporting that KFC’s new Chinese ad campaign doesn’t sit so well with some groups in China. [link via Kaiju Shakedown]

No matter in the novel or in Tsui Hark’s movie, Fu Qingzhu and Hui Ming were figures of national heroes. They promote justice and they cared about the fate of their own people as well as the fates of the various tribes in Xinjiang. In a time of danger, they stood up to fight. They represent the martial heroic spirit in Chinese history over thousands of years. It is for this reason that when Seven Swords which is tied to Fu Qingzhu and Hui Ming appeared in a KFC ad, the culturati were unhappy.

Yin Cheng’an, a Taoist at the Beijing Baiyun Taoist Temple thought that “the ad was inappropriate.” With more than ten years of Taoist practice, Yin is a member of the Quanzhen sect. He believes that since the creative idea of the ad came from Seven Swords, then it ought to be faithful to the spirit of the original work in the critical places. These martial artists went to Tianshan to practice and refine their skills, and such people do not kill animals or eat meat. The person referred to as the Master easily evokes the monk Hui Ming in Seven Swords. Monks do not kill lives and they do not eat meat. To charbroil chicken meat for the Master is a gross violation of the cultural essence. In the ad, the old man called the Master was wearing a Taoist garb.

With KFC and Yum! Brands refusing to give any comment other than to note that the ads in question are no longer airing (not due to controversy, but rather due to the promotion ending), it’s impossible to know if this was a mistake made by a typically savvy company, or if it was a deliberate attempt to stir up interest. However it goes, it apparently did draw people in to KFC.

It raises an interesting question, though, of how American corporations treat the issue of cultural sensitivity overseas. The American culture is based largely on a tradition of theft, beginning with our own lax recognition of international copyright in our nation’s formative years. We adopt, adapt, and redact. We consume from all cultures – operating under the myth that we have no true “culture” of our own – then mutilate those adopted cultural elements in order to make them fit our needs. Anything that proves incovenient is deleted, and the new product is put on display.

When the culture whose tradition has been adopted, adapted, and redacted complains, the typical American response is, “so what?” But the fact remains that this AA&R policy can ruffle feathers, and rightly so. With an outsider’s understanding of the culture, those who AA&R usually do so without a knowledge of the significant, the sacred, and the profane – and when they are called on it, their immediate response is to declare, “Well, it isn’t my culture, so it doesn’t really matter.”

Tuesday, July 25th, 2006

When will Odie push back?

You know, maybe if the internet community keeps pushing him to actually do something, one day Jim Davis will flip out and end Garfield with a searing, bitingly satirical condemnation of all things repetitive and boring in the comics page.

Or maybe he’ll just license more plush animals. But it’s nice to dream.

Thursday, July 20th, 2006

Despite all my rage, I am still just a sloth in a cage.

Industrial Strength

Just five pictures from my trip to the Knoxville Zoo this weekend. There are more, but they’ll be posted later after iStockPhoto has picked them over. Such is the price of saving for a move to Los Angeles.

It was a hot weekend, and by far the most active animal was the two-toed sloth checking every single bar in his cage and the security of the roof before finally lying down to take a nap. Sadly, I was having too much fun watching him to think of getting a picture.

Monday, July 17th, 2006

I’m not getting a signal, Captain…

Money.cnn.com has an article on the August, 2006 roll-out of RFID-’enhanced’ passports. I haven’t made it a secret that I believe RFID is definitely a not-ready-for-prime-time technology. It may be useful for the moment in preventing some casual shoplifting or in tracking merchandise in a warehouse, but I really don’t want to have my Social Security Number, birthdate, credit card number, and mother’s maiden name constantly broadcasting from a chip in my pocket.

“Basically, you’ve given everybody a little radio-frequency doodad that silently declares ‘Hey, I’m a foreigner,’” says author and futurist Bruce Sterling, who lectures on the future of RFID technology. “If nobody bothers to listen, great. If people figure out they can listen to passport IDs, there will be a lot of strange and inventive ways to exploit that for criminal purposes.”

RFID chips are used in security passes many companies issue to employees. They don’t have to be touched to a reader-machine, only waved near it. Following initial objections by security and privacy experts, the State Department added several security precautions.

I like the phrase ‘several security precautions.’ It conjures up images of Halliburton subcontracting to some guy named Bubba to cover the insides of passport covers with duct tape. ‘Hey, it takes more than one strip to do a single case – that’s several precautions right there.’ At least they aren’t claiming the chips are effective ‘because of all that there silly-cone stuff.’

And in your current-administration laff o’ the day, there’s this statement:

The State Department argues the concerns are overstated. “We wouldn’t be issuing the passports to ourselves if we didn’t think they’re secure,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Passport Services Frank Moss, who noted that RFID passports have already been issued to core State Department personnel, including himself. “We’re our own test population.”

Given the track record, we are now taking bets on what the false statement regarding worst-case scenarios will be.

  1. ‘Nobody predicted that someone would come up with a way to read an RFID chip just by walking by.’
  2. ‘Nobody predicted that someone would actually crack the encryption used by the government.’
  3. ‘Nobody predicted that an RFID-transmissable virus would be developed.’
  1. ‘Nobody predicted that the levees would break.’

    Just for the record – all four have been predicted. Although that fourth one might have had to do with a different issue altogether. I’m not certain – the current administrations Intelligence Failures of Mass Destruction are getting so common that they’re starting to blend together. Anyway, not only have these situations been predicted, but a couple of them have even been demonstrated, including a virus that can be transmitted to a reader by an RFID chip and subsequently transmitted from the readers to other chips run by it.

    I still find it amazing that at a time when security and identity theft are major concerns, this insecure technology is being rammed down our throats over the protests of, well, pretty much everybody. Yes, I find it amazing. Even though it is business as usual.

Friday, July 14th, 2006

A Mr. The Man to see you, sir.

I recently had my attention called to the MPAA with a story that they’re going to start surveying their customers – as though they actually cared what the consumers thought. Of course, when I arrived at mpaa.org, I found that they are very concerned about piracy. Who’da thunk it? But there it was, made perfectly apparent by the fact that more than 75% of their front page was taken up with links and text regarding their anti-piracy work.

If, like me, you had read very little of the MPAA’s actual public text regarding copyright violation, may I recommend you do so on your coffee break. The humor that can be found in most of it makes for excellent light reading. For instance, there’s a little gem on their website under the heading of “Who Piracy Hurts” that describes the people in the industry that get the shaft.

Moviemaking is inherently a risky business. In 2005, the average cost to make and market an MPAA film was $96.2 million. This includes $60 million in negative costs and $36.2 million in marketing costs. Contrary to popular belief that moviemaking is always profitable, in actuality, six out of ten movies never recoup their original investment in their domestic run.

You know what? They’re right. Many movies never recoup their original investment. Movies like a little 1989 indie flick called Batman that – while becoming one of the highest-grossing films of all time – lost money on paper. This kind of thing happens all the time in Hollywood. And we know that Hollywood spends $36.2 million on promoting every single flick they ever release. Plus – didja notice that their “make and market” numbers don’t take into account the actual budget of the film? Smart. Why, they’re just hemmhoraging cash!

Look, as far as I can tell, the only movie I could actually see a Hollywood studio taking a major bath on was Waterworld, and with the fact that it was actually released to DVD, I’m not even sure about that. Hollywood is full of smart businessmen, and they’re very good at monetizing bombs. Heck – they manged to sell the TV rights to The Butterfly Effect, a movie that festival audiences actually booed off the screen. There’s even a sequel, which is generally the surest sign that a movie made money for somebody.

On that note, Garfield: The Movie has a sequel. I swear, if internet piracy couldn’t kill that tubby tabby, then it can’t kill anything.

All right. The industry’s losing money hand over fist. All due to dem dirty py-rates. Gotcha. What else ya got?

To recoup such enormous investments, the industry relies upon a carefully planned sequential release of movies, generally releasing feature films first in cinemas, then to home video and other media. A sequential release sequence provides consumers with choices as to how they wish to view movies and when. These release sequences generally includes intervals for each specific media known as “distribution windows�. When piracy of a film occurs at any point in the release sequence, all subsequent markets are negatively affected.

Oh, silly me. I didn’t realize how much choice the industry was giving me just by doing its “carefully planned sequential release.” I thought it was just a bone thrown by the studios to appease the cinema holders who are scared to death of what home theatres will do to their ticket sales.

And while we’re at it, could we just say “cinemas, home video, and cable,” because saying “other media” just makes it sound like you’ve actually been embracing new technology. You haven’t. Stop acting like you are. You’re not fooling anybody.

“Distribution Windows” (quotes theirs) don’t offer me a choice of how I wish to view movies and when. If it’s playing at theatres, the “distribution window” means that I don’t get to decide that I can watch it at home. If it’s only been released to DVD, that means that I don’t get to watch it on my video iPod or my PSP (*note:* I don’t own either one, but gifts are always appreciated). I sure as Hell can’t watch them on my computer – pretty much any way I can come up with for that short of sticking the actual DVD into my drive has been legislated against.

“Distribution Windows” are not about consumer choice. If you want to defend them, defend them as what they are – a means of increasing studio profit. Say that it helps you make more money. You’re a business. We’re fine with you wanting to make money. Hey – we give you money on a regular basis, and sometimes we find ourselves wishing we could give you more. But don’t pretend that your money-making doublespeak is for our benefit.

You know what? It occurs to me that I’ve seen a couple of movies recently on DVD (legitimately purchased) that made me think, “Gee, I wish I could see that in a theatre.” But the “Distribution Window” kinda destroyed that choice, didn’t it?

Oh, of course, they had to save the best for last.

And it’s not just the wealthiest people involved in movies that are hurt. It’s every one of the 750,000 people who get up every day in the U.S. and go to work to bring you the magic of the movies. It’s people like the stuntmen and women, the grips, the makeup artists and even the caterers who feed the crew.

“Buy our movies or we’ll shoot this gaffer.”

You’ve probably seen the anti-piracy promos at the movie theatre where a stunt man talks about how much he loves his job, then talks about how all you have to do is “click a few buttons” and “reap all that benefit,” and how that’s just not fair and it’s a threat to his job.

Scroll down to the very bottom of the MPAA webpage, whydoncha.

See those logos for the movie studios?

See, you’ve got a mountain down there. That’s Paramount. And right next to the mountain, you have a palace with a little arch over it like Tinkerbell just flew by sprinkling pixie dust. That’s the House O’ Mouse. The Big D. Disney, dawgz. A major signatory of the MPAA and still probably one of the biggest studios in the industry. You might have heard of a little movie they released recently. Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest. Hotly anticipated, heavily pirated (_Aaarr!_ A lethal pun!), and still capable of shattering box office records in its first weekend without nearly the push behind the release of Superman Returns.

How does Disney celebrate the success of Dead Man’s Chest, not to mention the fact that Pixar’s Cars just crossed the $200 million line?

By cutting back from 18 movies a year to 8 and laying off a lot of the little people.

Somehow, I don’t think it’s piracy that’s the problem here.

Thursday, July 13th, 2006

Hush that fuss

The Wall Street Journal reports that some Muslims in America are being threatened with deportation if they don’t agree to spy on their communities. (Link via TalkLeft, and kudos to WSJ for making the article free to non-subscribers.)

Last November, when Yassine Ouassif crossed into Champlain, N.Y., from Canada, border agents questioned him for several hours. Then they took away his green card and sent him home to San Francisco by bus, with strict instructions: As soon as he got there, he was to call a man named Dan.

Dan, it turned out, was Daniel Fliflet, a counterterrorism agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Mr. Ouassif met the agent at an Oakland subway station on Nov. 30, and the two men walked the streets together for 90 minutes.

Mr. Fliflet told the 24-year-old Moroccan that he’d been monitoring his friends and him for many months, Mr. Ouassif recalls. Mr. Fliflet made him an offer: Become an informant and regularly report to the FBI on what his Muslim friends in San Francisco were saying and doing. In exchange, he would get back his green card. He could resume his education, bring his Moroccan wife to America, and pursue his dream of buying a car, moving to Sacramento and becoming an engineer.

Because I’m sure that right wing wonks are going to jump all over the reporting of this story, let’s address a couple of issues right now. Let’s address what this is not about, and what it is about.

This is not about the government using inside men to gather intelligence on terrorist organizations – or any other organization, for that matter. Espionage has been a fact of political (and even social) life for centuries – millennia, even. Spies within an opposing network have always been a rich source for data and the information received from them has turned up some valuable gems. It’s also turned up a lot of dross, but that’s generally excusable – except when we go to a war based on the dross instead of the gems, but I digress. The point is, espionage is a valuable tool. Nobody is arguing (not here, at least) that all espionage activities should cease.

This is about blackmail. This is about taking somebody who is trying to be a contributing member of society and threatening them with damage to their lifestyle and reputation if they do not cooperate.

Blackmail may have been part of the tradition of espionage. It might even be what the other side would do to our people if it had the chance. That doesn’t change the fact that it is wrong, and that there are better (and, probably, more effective) ways of getting your mole in an organization than threatening to take his green card away.

“I want you to know something important,” the FBI agent added, according to Mr. Ouassif. “America is just like a bus, and you have a choice to make: Either you board the bus or you leave.”

Ah, yes. “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” It’s the rallying cry of the neocons, the constant refrain of the current administration’s war on terror. It’s also a far cry from the beliefs of one of the President’s favorite philosophers.

9:38 And John answered him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us.

9:39 But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me.

9:40 For he that is not against us is on our part.

The Gospel According to Saint Mark

Wednesday, July 12th, 2006