Rants & Ramblings

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


beware browser hijackers

Wired has a rather disturbing story about a new piece of spyware / adware that’s taking over users’ browsers — apparently without their permission — and makes itself near-impossible to uninstall. (“Sneaky Toolbar Hijacks Browsers” - 01/30/03)

Xupiter is an Internet Explorer toolbar program. Once active in a system, it periodically changes users’ designated homepages to xupiter.com, redirects all searches to Xupiter’s site, and blocks any attempts to restore the original browser settings.

The program attempts to download updates each time an affected computer boots up, and has been blamed for causing system crashes. Several versions of Xupiter also appear to download other programs, such as gambling games, which later appear in pop-up windows.

Mike Healan, a spyware expert cited by Wired, recommended that users “infected” by Xupiter to download the program Spybot Search and Destroy to remove it from their systems.

The annoyance of pop-up ads is nothing compared to programs like Xupiter. These insidious programs are like computer viruses: They install themselves without the user’s express permission (either installing themselves in the background or misleading users as to their purpose), then manipulate program settings — essentially hijacking the user’s system. Hopefully virus monitoring programs will begin to treat them as such, guarding users against both viruses / worms and spyware / adware.

a neat application of blogging

Jay Small’s latest Sensible Internet Design e-newsletter (“Moments of Clarity at Connections” - 01/29/03) mentions a great use of weblogs in the journalism sphere:

David Reed, who runs the Web site for The Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, described how the paper puts a different sports writer every week in the arena at University of Arizona basketball games — just to blog each game. Reed’s team put an Apple AirPort base station (a wireless router) in the arena, so the reporter could roam around and submit items from anywhere in the building.

The NCAA and Pac 10 Conference, of course, have rules about this sort of thing, written so Web sites won’t steal the thunder of lucrative television and radio broadcasts. So the Star writers are limited to blogging up until seven minutes before game time, then at halftime, then again starting seven minutes after the final horn.

We’re telling the blog readers to watch the game on TV, then send questions to our reporter,” Reed said. “We’ll answer two or three every halftime.”

With the wider deployment of wireless technology, news organizations can take this strategy and apply it to all kinds of developing stories, from sporting events to trial coverage to government meetings to real-time concert reviews. Or it could even just be used in-house, where a reporter “on the scene” can let the news desk know the latest developments and someone else can do follow-up and collect all that information into a story.

This could be very cool.


what's your social?

The United States supposedly doesn’t have a national ID system. However, the social security number has become the defacto standard to identify and track individual citizens for everything from tax information to telephone bills — and more. The omnipresent reliance on the SSN for identification purposes makes it easier for identity thieves to do their work — all they need is someone’s SSN and a few other identifying bits of information. Wired has a story (9-Digit ‘Social’ Overused as ID - 01/29/03) today about new legislation in California aimed at curbing the use of SSNs, including requiring that colleges use a number other than the SSN in assigning student ID numbers. It’s a good first step in setting up some privacy safeguards for a citizenry whose movements are increasingly tracked and databased.

sinus infection number three

Six months in DC, and this is (at least) the third time I’ve been sick. First one was a upper respiratory infection. Second was a nasty cold I took to Tucson with me over Christmas, but didn’t go to the doctor for. Now it’s another sinus infection. I guess transplanting myself here has been an adjustment in more ways than one: I’m not used to all the moisture and low temperatures — and the sheer masses of fellow commuters that make the Metro a likely breeding ground for nasty communicable diseases.

Or maybe I’m just allergic to DC.

Speaking of low temperatures, it’s still cold here. Current weather: 34 degrees, with light rain. It’s supposed to snow tonight. The novelty of snow has worn off. I still think fresh snow is wonderous and beautiful — as long as I don’t have to go outside and drive or commute to work in it.

My new winter coat is supposed to arrive today. Crossing my fingers. The morning ritual of uber-bundling-up — and then the ordeal of unbundling and re-bundling when I’m at work — is getting tiresome.

I need to stop being so cranky. Naptime.


state of the union

President Bush’s State of the Union address airs tonight, beginning at 9 p.m. ET. The speech will air on the major networks / cable news channels. It can also be seen over the web via the White House site and C-SPAN.

Historical links:

• C-SPAN: State of the Union (archive of State of the Union speeches — some with video, all transcripts — dating back to Truman)

• Washington Post: Century of Addresses (multimedia presentation of State of the Union highlights, dating back to FDR. Requires Flash.)

Related links:

• President Bush: Radio Address of the President to the Nation (01/25/03)

• Paul Krugman / New York Times: A Credibility Problem (01/28/03)

• Judy Keen / USA Today: 2002 promises, 2003 results (01/27/03)

• Slate’s “Breakfast Table: By ChristopherBuckley, ChristopherCaldwell, and WalterShapiro (01/27/03)

• Christopher Hitchens / Slate: “Cowboy” - Bush challenged by bovines (01/27/03)

• Mike Allen / Washington Post - No Iraq Ultimatum in State of the Union (01/27/03)

• Helen Dewar and Mike Allen / Washington Post - Democrats Assail Bush on War, His Credibility (01/28/03)

Related event:

Sorry State of the Union - Rally, concert and march at the U.S. Capitol building (west side, reflecting pool). Today, from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.


super bowl ad-meter

USAToday.com is running an online survey of people’s favorite Super Bowl ads, complete with video clips of each ad. Check it out here. (USA Today’s 15th Annual Ad Meter - 01/27/03)

Edited 1/28/03Slate‘s Rob Walker has a chatty round-up (The Super Bowl Special - 01/27/03) of the night’s most memorable and most hyped ads.


super bowl sunday

The Super Bowl just started … Don’t care much about football, but I’m hoping the commercials will be at least somewhat memorable this year. Nothing especially memorable so far…

Edited: 6:48 p.m.Pepsi Twist commercial featuring the Osbournes / Osmonds / Florence Henderson was cute, in a stupid kind of way. The cuteness will surely wear off with the inevitable repeat airings … The “Castaway” commercial was inevitable and somewhat predictable, yet still deliciously evil.

Edited: 6:53 p.m. … Mmmm … Trailers for The Hulk and the Matrix sequels. The trailers, at least, kick ass. Hope the movies will live up to the hype … The Gatorade Michael Jordan of today vs. Michael Jordan of yesteryear was a cool concept, but kinda boring in execution.

Edited: 7:20 p.m. … Okay, so I laughed at the Bud Light RastaDog ad … And, hey, another comic book movie trailer — this time for Daredevil. Not a huge fan o’ Ben, but the flick looks good. And I like the idea of Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin … Cute Hanes commercial with Jackie Chan fighting an itchy tag in his tee-shirt … The Alias Jennifer-Garner-in-lingerie commercial gives a nod at its own exploitiveness with a pissy Sydney saying “Do you think it’s comfortable wearing this?” Still doesn’t make up for the purely exploitive Victoria’s Secret-esque Sydney-in-red-lingerie vs. Sydney-in-black-lingerie teasier aired an hour ago.

Edited 7:29 p.m. … The Sierra Mist “monkeys at the zoo” ad is a lot of build-up for a lame payoff.

Edited 7:49 p.m.T3 ad — meh. They should have stopped with just the two … The Levi Jeans stampede ad had nice visuals, but was overall just blah. Repelling a herd of stampeding bulls with your “bold” jeans? Whatever. I miss the originality of the Spike Jonze “Tainted Love” jeans ad from a few years back … Promo for ABC show I’m a Celebrity. Get Me Out of Here. God, no.

Edited 7:53 p.m. … Cute “Gilligan’s Island” mLife ad for AT&T. Corporate America — mining our pop cultural heritage in the absence of more original ideas.

Edited 8:05 p.m. … Cool Don Cheadle “Crazy” ad for the NFL. Even though I’m not a big sports fan, I’m still a sucker for those “why we watch this game” kind of ads, whether it’s for football or baseball or basketball or whatever … Don’t remember the beer promo’ed in the ad, but all the ads and jokes that play on homophobia are kinda tiresome. Yes, it’s a step forward for us as a culture that we acknowledge and, to varying extents, accept homosexuality. But the sheer quantity of “Me? I’m not gay!” jokes in TV and film get old, and arguably further stigmatize gay-ness … Rant over now. Just another stupid beer ad.

Edited 8:12 p.m. … Super Bowl halftime show. Shania Twain in another freaky, ill-advised get-up. “Man, I Feel Like a Woman” was a hit, like, 3 years ago. Doesn’t she have new material? … Cool videoscreen on the field / stage, though.

Edited 8:17 p.m. … No Doubt’s onstage now. Gwen Stefani (Rossdale?) in another freaky, ill-advised get-up. Not as ill-advised as Shania’s though … Yes, I’m petty.

Edited 8:19 p.m. … Those punk cheerleaders are really freaking me out … What’s up with the pseudo girl-power halftime show?

Edited 8:22 p.m. … Mmmm … Sting. :) … Don’t think much of Gwen’s back-up vocals. Or Sting’s tee-shirt.

Edited 8:36 p.m. … I kinda like the “Rainbows and Dreams” ad for HotJobs.com. Nice, bleak atmosphere as everyone dreams of a better job.

Edited 8:50 p.m. … Should I even dignify the Bud Light ad about meeting the girlfriend’s mom with a comment? … Subway ad. Jared. Must. Die.

Edited 8:53 p.m. … The commercial with the Cadillac train-side billboard advertisements just show that the old Cadillac car design is a classic, and the current “futuristic” design is just a big, boxy pretender.

Edited 8:58 p.m. … “Yo cocino con George.” … Promo ad for the upcoming ABC show Are You Hot? — Another sign that the apocalypse is nigh?

Edited 9:01 p.m. … I’m giggling at the cartoon violence at the Terry Tate-as-productivity-consultant ad for Reebok.

Edited 9:20 p.m.Coors Light: “Here’s to the remote.” David loves this series of ads so much he had me scouring Kazaa for copies of them. It’s all about the twins. He likes to sing the jingle over the phone. So I guess I’m prejudiced against the ad even before really seeing it … Anti-war political ad borrowing from the infamous 1964 “Daisy” ad. Not as starkly effective as the original.

Edited 9:26 p.m. … I like the ESPN ad about devout sports fans who stick by their teams, whether predicting a good season ahead or looking forward to the next. “Without sports, there’s no next year.” … Still not keen on the Alias teasers. Yes, we know Jennifer Garner is hot, sexy, whatever. Can we move on now?

Edited 9:37 p.m.Sony video camera ad, starring the millionaire who paid the Russians to take him up in space. It’s an older commercial, but I like Sony’s series of tech ads targeted at seniors. “When the kids ask where the money went, now you can show them.” … Another cute AT&T mLife commercial, this time parodying Antiques Roadshow.

Edited 9:42 p.m. … Funny Budweiser commercial with Tim McGraw as designated driver … Nice variation on the Mastercard “priceless” commercials with its ad for the MC debit card.

Edited 10:48 p.m.Best commercial of the night: Terry Tate-as-productivity-consultant.


happy birthday, dear macintosh

Today marks the 19th anniversary of the Macintosh computer. On Jan. 22, 1984, Apple aired its famous “1984” commercial during the Super Bowl. Two days later, the Mac was released. (MacInTouch.com: “Apple introduced Macintosh 19 years ago today; see ‘1984’ ad here” - 01/24)

From Apple-History.com:

Released with much fanfare in January of 1984, the Macintosh was the first affordable computer to include a Graphical User Interface. It was built around the new Motorola 68000 chip, which was significantly faster than previous processors, running at 8 MHz. The Mac came in a small beige case with a black and white monitor built in. It came with a keyboard and mouse, and had a floppy drive that took 400k 3.5” disks—the first personal computer to do so. It originally sold for $2,495.

Incidentally, the “1984” commercial was directed by Ridley Scott, known now for blockbuster work such as “Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Blade Runner” and “Alien.” In 1999, TV Guide rated it the best commercial of all time.

frigid, with a side of ::burr::

I don’t think “frickin’ freezing” even begins to describe the weather here in the DC area. Current weather: 21 degrees, with a wind chill of 6 degrees. According to the Washington Post, the high temperature has only been above 33 degrees once since January 14 (ten days ago). And it’s not getting any better until at least mid-week next week.

I’m all about the bundling up. Today’s inventory:

• Long-sleeved tee-shirt, purple
• 3/4-sleeved tee-shirt, white
• Oversized turtleneck sweater, black
• Opaque stockings, gray
• Long underwear, ivory
• Jeans, boot-cut
• Thick socks, white
• Combat boots, black
• Ear-covering headband, black
• Skullcap, black
• Knit gloves, black
• Fleece gloves, gray
• Hooded zip-up sweatshirt, gray
• Leather jacket, black

I feel kinda like the little kid whose mom bundles him all up for the snow, so much so that he can barely move, and then he whines that he has to pee.

And forget the low-carb diet for now. Hot chocolate. Mmmmmm. Yummy warming chocolate goodness.

Sara, one of my co-workers, is from Minnesota, where the temperature is hovering around 0. Her parents say we’re all wimps out here. I guess it’s all relative. Still not much comfort, though.

My friends and family in Arizona keep gloating about the 70-degree temperatures there. Ed, a former co-worker of mine (who actually used to live in DC), e-mailed me that it just seemed wrong to be wearing shorts in January. I’ll have limited gloating rights in April, though, when the weather pretties up here (cherry blossoms and all that lovely spring stuff) and AZ hits its first 100-degree temperatures.


'hardball' at georgetown

Chris Matthews’s MSNBC show ‘Hardball‘ is broadcasting tonight from Georgetown University. The theme of tonight’s program is “The Road to War,” and guest panelists include Peter Arnett (formerly of CNN), Bill Arkin (military analyst), and Gens. Barry McCaffrey and Wayne Downing.

The broadcast is part of the ‘Hardball’ College Tour, where the show broadcasts from a different college / university every week. At each stop, a student is picked to sit in the ‘Hardball’ Hot Seat and answer a series of trivia questions about politics and history. (Unfortunately for me, the Hot Seat is limited to undergrads.)

I didn’t win the campus lottery for a seat onstage, so I’ll be standing in line in the cold in hopes of getting a seat in the auditorium tonight. (I get out of class at 6:05 p.m. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Broadcast starts at 9 p.m.)

This looks like a rerun of a bad movie and I’m not interested in watching it.

— President George W. Bush, on the international community's lack of support for military action against Iraq (source)


pop-ups crank up the annoyance factor

As if pop-up and pop-under ads weren’t annoying enough already…

CNET has an article (Pop-ups add new twist - 12/20/02) about a new strategy for pop-up ads — directing users to the advertiser’s site when the user has just rolled over (not clicked) the ad. As of the writing of the CNET article, only Orbitz was using the new tactic.

All this comes at a time when, recognizing the supreme annoyingness of pop-up ads, some advertisers are cutting back on their use of pop-ups, and ISPs (such as Earthlink) are offering pop-up blocking software to subscribers.


(un)frozen update

Finally updated (un)frozen, my Iceman fan-fiction archive. I’ve neglected it since April / May.

The new stuff:

judge rules x-men are inhuman

The Wall Street Journal has a curious story in today’s paper (Fans Howl in Protest as Judge Decides X-Men Aren’t Human - 1/20/03). ToyBiz, the action-figure producing subsidiary of Marvel Comics asked a judge to rule that the Marvel mutants aren’t human. The judge complied. The action is part of an ongoing legal battle between ToyBiz/Marvel and the U.S. Customs Service. The company makes its figures in China, and “human” toys incurred higher U.S. Customs tariffs in the mid-1990s.

One of the odd things about this ruling is that it goes completely against the underlying theme of the X-Men comics since their inception in 1963 — that these mutants are humans, just born with extra abilities. Theirs is a struggle against racism and prejudice. They have a responsibility to use their powers for good, but the series emphasizes the day-to-day character traits of these mutants, showing that they’re just as emotional, conflicted, human as the rest of us.

Chuck Austen, current author of Marvel’s “Uncanny X-Men” comic-book series, is also incredulous. He has worked hard for a year, he says, to emphasize the X-Men’s humanity, to show “that they’re just another strand in the evolutionary chain.”


north korea tries to make its case online

Slate posted a story Monday (DearLeader.com - Kim Jong-il’s fanboy home page) about a curious website intended to convey North Korea’s point of view to the Western world.

The site is purportedly a volunteer project maintained by a 20-something Spaniard under the auspices of NK’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. I can’t really say how successful korea-dpr.com is in conveying its message, though. The design is less-than-professional and ill-suited for the web (everything in the English-language site is a graphic) and the writer’s grasp of English is less than stellar (“So the government can resolve all the problems from an independent and sovereign way, he can protect the dignity of the nation and act from the base of the equality in the external relations.”).

I do have to give them some credit, though — they’re offering content in Chinese, Spanish, Norse, Esperanto and Polish. No telling how successful those translations are.

a future darwin awards candidate?

Ananova has a report of a Russian man who froze his penis to a bus shelter while urinating. According to the story, originally reported by the BBC, the man swayed too close to the bus shelter and got stuck. The scene apparently attracted quite a crowd. A bystander used warm water from a kettle to free the man, who promptly ran away.