Rants & Ramblings

random commentary about culture, media, politics, technology and whatnot.

feb
15
2003

the power of the image

MSNBC has an online showcase of some of the winners of this year’s World Press Photo Awards. (“Winning images unveiled” - 02/15/03)

Some of the photos featured are simply breathtaking. Georges Gobet’s photo (for Agence France-Presse) from the Ivory Coast conflict is shocking, haunting, and evocative — a fine example of what spot news photography should be. There’s some amazing work showcased here. It’s a shame that the traveling exhibition doesn’t look to be coming to the U.S. anytime soon.

feb
14
2003

not exactly a confidence-booster

ABCNews.com has a report that suggests that the recent terror level hike to orange was based in part on fabricated information given by an al-Qaida prisoner. (“Alert Partly Based on Lies” - 02/13/03)

The informant described a detailed plan that an al Qaeda cell operating in either Virginia or Detroit had developed a way to slip past airport scanners with dirty bombs encased in shoes, suitcases, or laptops, sources told ABCNEWS. The informant reportedly cited specific targets of government buildings and Christian or clerical centers.

According to the story, the prisoner failed a CIA-administered lie detector test given sometime last week, after the terror alert level had been raised. Meanwhile, federal officials have no plans to lower the alert level, citing other terrorism-related intelligence.

While I appreciate the government wanting to warn people and all (and probably wanting to cover themselves in case something does happen), it would be nice if they took the time to verify the information they have before going out and scaring people. We’re freaked out enough already. For my part, the government’s inability to filter out the good intelligence from the bad — especially in a case where it might be possible to do so — is seriously undermining my confidence.

capitalism at work

You can see capitalism at its most basic, supply-and-demand level here on the streets of Washington, DC.

The street vendors here in DC seem prepared for every holiday, every meteorological event, every eventuality. I see them outside the Foggy Bottom Metro station on my way to / from work. If it’s raining, they’re hawking umbrellas and ponchos. Snowing or just blistery cold, it’s hats, scarves and mittens. Warmer, touristy weather, it’s faux designer handbags and DC-themed trinkets. And for the commuters: fruit and donuts in the morning, bouquets of flowers in the evenings.

This morning, they were selling Valentine’s Day flowers and gift baskets. I saw a man buy one of the baskets, then carry it six blocks to the building I work in, either as a gift for a coworker or to give to a special someone later in the day.

feb
13
2003

how do you pronounce 'pecan'?

Harvard University has an interesting online dialect study going on. Respondents are asked a series of questions about how they pronounce a particular word, or how they describe a certain object / activity.

The most interesting part of this site is checking out the study’s preliminary results, which feature breakdowns of the responses to each question by percentage and (on a map) by part of the country.

Some of the results were funny (or scary, depending on how you look at it). Take, for example, this question: “What do you call it when rain falls while the sun is shining?” The majority of respondents either called the pheonomenon a “sunshower,” or had no word for it. However, 6 percent of respondents, located mostly in the South, called it “the devil is beating his wife.” I wonder if the respondents were just trying to pull the interviewers’ legs, or if they really do use that phrase.

Meanwhile, the debate over the proper pronunciation of “pecan” rolls on…

sneaky psychic

This site offers a sneaky mathematical psychic game. Pick a number, run it through a mathematical rigamarole, and click the crystal ball. It’ll give you the right answer every time.

(You’ll need to the Flash plug-in to play the game.)

One of my coworkers figured out how it works. Can you?

feb
12
2003

gator lawsuit settled

The lawsuit against Gator by seven major media corporations has been settled out of court, with the outcome sealed by a confidentiality agreement, Computerworld reports. (“News Sites Settle Pop-Up Lawsuit” - 02/11/03)

Gator is an adware program that serves up pop-up ads, often based on the content the user is viewing at a particular time.

The lawsuit alleged that Redwood City, California-based Gator piggybacked off their Web sites by placing pop-up ads that compete with the advertising that the sites sell. The plaintiffs were the Washington Post, Dow Jones, Tribune Interactive, the New York Times, Knight Ridder, Advance Publications, and Gannett. The publishers said they have 15 Web sites among them that draw millions of viewers monthly.

It’s too bad that this suit was settled and sealed, rather than taken to court and made public. I’d like to see how a court would rule on these kinds of adware programs. While I don’t know that it was an issue in this particular lawsuit, I’d also like to see a ruling on how Gator is often installed on users’ machines without the user’s permission or full understanding of what Gator is.

Edited 11:02 a.m. - ZDNet UK (not the US version, curiously) also has a story about the settlement. (“Web publishers settle with Gator” - 02/10/03) The story offers a little more background on the case — including an injunction an Alexandria judge placed on Gator’s pop-up practices that will likely be lifted in light of the settlement. Perhaps a court ruling about Gator could still be in the making — there are seven lawsuits still pending against the company.

online scoops the mainstream press

E-Media Tidbits links to another interesting story this morning.

In a column in The New York Times, Tom Kuntz makes the case that the online world broke the news of the space shuttle Columbia disaster perhaps 11 minutes before AP and the cable networks got to it. (“From Excitement to Horror: Columbia’s Last Flight Online” - 02/09/03)

Some space aficionados watching the shuttle landing on NASA TV (in Houston, or via certain satellite / cable packages), via nasa.gov, or (in the western states) by looking at the sky discussed what they saw online in real-time, starting about 40 minutes before the scheduled shuttle landing.

Last weekend’s shuttle disaster also unfolded live, but the primary medium was arguably not radio or television. It was the Internet … Some of the shuttle trackers … shared their impressions online. An illustration of their reactions, moving from excitement to confusion to horror, can be found in an online discussion for shuttle buffs on the Free Republic Web site; it was begun by a reader 38 minutes before the Columbia’s scheduled 9:16 landing.

It’s pretty stirring, reading people’s reactions as they watched the landing and found out what was going on.

Edited 10:36 a.m. - WP has a transcript of communications between Columbia and Mission Command on Feb. 1. It’s almost creepy, reading these transcripts after the fact, knowing what happened before the people speaking did.

gamers of the world unite

The Poynter Institute‘s E-Media Tidbits weblog points to an interesting Associated Press story.

Many games are now all about role-playing, and some players aren’t participating to escape terrestrial life. They’re getting on virtual soapboxes and organizing all manner of protests in cyberspace.

(“Online games increasingly a place for protest, social activism” - 02/07/03)

Apparently, gamers are beginning to use online games like The Sims Online, EverQuest and the like to organize around social causes, be it war in Iraq or protesting corporate sponsorship. In a way, it takes online gaming to a whole new level, shifting it from simply an escapist medium to something that’s more community-based. True, there have been gamer communities for decades, but (in my opinion at least) they tend to be rather insular and more involved in role-playing than the outside world. As the article notes, it’s interesting to see a fusion happening between gamers’ online personas and offline “real lives.” It’s also interesting to see a venue designed for entertainment / escapist (and commercial) purposes be co-opted, in a sense, by more civic concerns.

feb
11
2003

don't freak out. really.

The Washington Post and USA Today both front warnings from Homeland Security officials that citizens should stock up on emergency supplies and be prepared for a terrorist attack. (WP: “Terror Attack Steps Urged” - 02/11/03)

Top federal officials yesterday issued their most pointed advice since Sept. 11, 2001, on precautions the public should take against terrorist attacks, warning that every home should be stocked with three days’ worth of water and food in case of a strike with chemical, biological or radiological weapons.

They also recommended that families consider designating a room where they will gather in the event of such an attack, and have on hand duct tape and heavy plastic sheeting to seal it, as well as scissors, a manual can opener, blankets, flashlights, radios and spare batteries. The officials said they believe the al Qaeda terrorist network is particularly targeting New York and Washington.

Ranking officials of the Department of Homeland Security told reporters at a briefing that Americans must take some responsibility for protecting themselves, but stressed that people should not feel panicked or abandoned by the government.

Don’t panic? I have a daily 25-minute Metro ride into DC from Alexandria (through the Pentagon and National Airport), and I work four blocks from the White House. Yeah. No freaking out here.

As the WP story pointed out, this kind of “be prepared” information has been available on government websites (as well as on the WP’s own site), but this is the first time the government has gone so far as to pointedly call public attention to it.

I know the danger is, to large extent, real — but the cynic / conspiracy theorist in me can’t help but think that the government wants to freak the public out so they’ll be more firmly behind the administration’s decisions with regard to military action, curbs on civil liberties and the like. I don’t want another post-9/11 “it’s unpatriotic to question your leaders” period.

I wonder if this war on terrorism is going to turn into another Cold War. Bomb drills and constant fear of attack. Intense fear and suspicion of the “other.” Broad and widely inaccurate suppositions applied to whole groups of people. America at its finest.

feb
10
2003

life imitates art?

From Wired:

You’re Busted, Dude

Maybe getting busted for possession will wipe that smirk off the Dell Guy‘s face. Benjamin Curtis, the 22-year-old actor who plays Dell Computer’s insufferable, idiotic pitchman, was arrested in lower Manhattan late Sunday after the cops caught him standing on the corner with a bag of marijuana in his hand. So that means Curtis is a method actor, then?

Yahoo!News has the Reuters wire story here.

Edited 02/11/03, 12:11 p.m. - The Smoking Gun has posted the Dell Dude’s <criminal complaint / police report.

maxis striking out?

Game studio Maxis, owned by game publishing behemoth Electronic Arts, is batting a thousand these days. Best known for “The Sims” and “Sim City,” Maxis’s latest releases, “Sim City 4” and “The Sims Online,” have thus far been consumer and / or economic disappointments.

Users have reported a number of issues with city-planning game “Sim City 4,” from bugs to online features that don’t work to poor performance. Wired reports user complaints that the game runs sluggishly even on top-of-the-line computers. (“Fastest PCs Just Not Fast Enough” - 02/08/03)

(Incidentally, Maxis may also want to work in its browser detection script. I tried to access the SC4 website using the latest version of IE for the Mac, and was told my browser was incompatible. I was then directed to download an updated Windows version of IE.)

Speaking of the web, “The Sims Online” has been a bit of a sales disappointment. Users have to buy the software (around $50), and then pay (Maxis is selling the gaming equivalent of phonecards) for access to the service. The Los Angeles Times reports that sales of the software have been sluggish, and among those buyers, subscriptions to the online service have been lower than expected. (“‘Sims Online’ Gives Creators a Painful Reality Check” - 02/04/03)

In my mind, the problem with “The Sims Online” is four-fold. First, the game’s audience. “The Sims” has been so highly successful not because it attracted die-hard gamers, but rather because it attracted the friends, significant others, children, etc. of those die-hards. This broader audience, regardless of its affection for the game itself, is not necessarily as likely as die-hard gamers to be willing to pay a regular subscription to play a game. Second, performance is sluggish, and not suited for dial-up users. (Granted, I’m saying this as someone who participated in the online beta-test, not as someone who purchased the released game. Performance issues in the beta may have been resolved, or at least improved, for the final release.) Third, as much as I hate to say it, “The Sims Online” is boring. None of the features I really like about the stand-alone version of “The Sims” is here. No way to speed up the action so that it doesn’t literally take 20 minutes for my Sim to take a shower. No way to import user-created skins and objects. No money cheat. No career ladders. Fourth, one of the most fun (and most morally questionable) things to do in “The Sims” is to manipulate and / or “torture” your creations. It’s somehow not as satisfying when the sims you’re interacting with are “real” (and don’t behave the same way the computer-driven sims do).

That’s not to say these games don’t look beautiful. The city renderings in “Sim City 4” are breathtaking, and Maxis user interface designs tend to be very pretty. But pretty packaging can’t mask underlying code and programming assumptions that were either ill-conceived or rushed to meet shipping deadlines.

On a lighter note, a poster at Slashdot offered a more political explanation about why “The Sims Online” doesn’t work. (“The Sims Online Promotes Communism!” - 02/05/03)

In the Sims Online, your Sim spends her entire life in one city. She is never allowed to leave it. While the promise of building a home is given with one hand, it is taken away with the other. Your Sim starts with a pathetic amount of cash and no ready means of acquiring more. If she builds, her home will be a postage-stamp sized hovel, with insufficient space, poor lighting, no entertainment, bad food, inadequate plumbing, cheap furniture (and not much of it), and little means for the Sim to grow her skills to improve her lot. To have a nice home, she must join a collective. She has to squat on a vacant lot with up to 7 strangers, and only then will the State provide sufficient land on which to build, and enough money pooled to build something worthwhile. If the Sim ever tries to escape this collective, she must leave her investments behind.

feb
09
2003

patron saint of the internet

CNN ran a story last week about an online campaign to nominate a patron saint for the Internet. (“Bishops seek saint for Internet” - 02/01/03)

The Italian site Santie Beati is running an Internet poll where users can vote for their patron saint of choice. The poll has the backing of a number of bishops, and the results will be delivered to the Vatican. However, Vatican officials have yet to say whether they will honor the poll results, or even name a patron for the Internet.

The Vatican is not entirely behind the times, though. In a statement in May 2002 for World Communications Day (the theme: “Internet: A New Forum for Proclaiming the Gospel”), Pope John Paul II spoke of the Internet’s potential for evangelizing to new audiences.

If you’re interested in voting and can’t read Italian, run the page URL (http://www.santiebeati.it/patrono.shtml) through Altavista’s Babelfish utility.

feb
08
2003

fanficcers of the world unite

Nominations are now open for the 2003 Comic Book Fan-Fiction Awards (CBFFAs). Entries will be accepted through Tuesday, March 4. These awards tend to be weighted toward X-Men fan-fic, but there are categories for non-X fics as well.

If you enjoy comic book fan-fiction, take the time to recognize your favorite stories and writers.

playing tourist again

I made an outing to downtown DC this afternoon, elevated terror warning be damned.

capitolI got off the Metro at Archives / Navy Memorial, snapped a picture of the U.S. Capitol as I crossed Pennsylvania Avenue, and walked toward the National Mall. Given the cold weather and the terror warning, I was surprised to see so many people out and about. Most of the ones I passed seemed to be out-of-town tourists.

A man calling himself the “Smile Police” stopped me in front of the Natural History Museum. He gave me a sticker that said “smile” on it, and asked me for my number. He was cute and made me laugh, so I paid him for the sticker and continued on my way.

My first stop was the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Security seemed a bit tighter than usual. I set off the metal detector at the door (darn boots), so a guard pulled me aside to use the metal-detecting wand. Being so programmed by the airport security, I started to do the whole “feet apart, arms raised” thing. The guard stopped me, telling me I could put my arms down, did the cursory “wave the wand around me” thing, and let me by.

There’s so much stuff at the American History musem (sometimes called “America’s Attic”) that I limited myself to just a few exhibits.

continue reading »

upward bound

My uncle, Paul Beardsley, is featured in the February / March issue of Air & Space Magazine, put out by the Smithsonian Institution. This issue of the magazine celebrates the 100-year anniversary of the airplane.

Uncle Paul, as a hobby, creates airplane models for flight simulators. Air & Space spotlights his model of the 1903 Wright Flyer (for Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002) in their feature “100 Ways to Celebrate 100 Years.” There are nice screenshots of some of his sims at here.

feb
07
2003

page not found

I recently found one of the funniest 404 - Page Not Found pages I’ve ever seen. Ah, the musings of a sad, overworked, underappreciated webserver…

A 404 page is what comes up in your browser when you try to load a web page that doesn’t exist. Sometimes you get the default “Page Not Found” error from your browser. Sometimes you get an error message from the webhost. And other times you get something fun and creative.

My 404 page, alas, isn’t so exciting. But there are archives of creative 404s here and here.

Or you can be creative and design your own. Project 404 offers some tips / guidelines for people who want to set up their own error pages. Their hints? Give the user someplace to go (other than just clicking the “back” button), make sure to list your webmaster contact information, and offer a site search function and / or sitemap.

feb
06
2003

gps-enabled stalkers

Wired offers another disturbing story — although this one is more “alarming” than “disturbing” — about recent incidents of stalkers using GPS technology to track their victims. (“Stalkers Use GPS to Track Victims” - 02/06/03)

The two cases mentioned in the story involve men who installed GPS transmitters in their exes’ cars, and then used GPS receivers to track them. There hasn’t been a high incidence of this kind of thing happening, but (at the risk of being alarmist) it’s still freaky-scary, especially considering that this kind of tracking usage of GPS technology hasn’t yet been too widely deployed in the consumer sector.

technical difficulties

Sorry for the lack of updates and other random technical difficulties this past week. My webhost moved my site to a different server, which caused some problems for my weblog configuration. Thanks to the nice guys in tech support, everything’s back up and running now.

Lots of commentary coming soon.