Friday, March 30, 2007

I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down

If you are in the Saratoga Springs area, this Saturday, March 31, at the Country Corner Cafe (home of perfectly respectable French toast), there will be a stand-up comedy showcase, featuring participants from several local Toastmasters clubs--including yours truly, parading his shame for all to see. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. The show starts at 7:00 p.m. Heckling begins at 7:10. Therapy will be available after the show. Tickets are $15, and there will be dessert, I'm led to understand.

Directions: Exit 15 Northway. Turn toward Saratoga. There are 3 lights: Gick, Route 9 north, then East Avenue. Take a left on East and go one block. Turn Right on Excelsior for one block. Jog to the left and get on High Rock. You will see World Gym. The Country Corner Cafe is located in the same building as World Gym (where you can work off the dessert, if you'd like). There is good parking on the left side of the building, and bad parking on the street. The specific address is 165 High Rock Avenue, if you wish to Google Maps or MapQuest it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Hail the Conquering Hero

The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, CT, was probably one of most fun weekends I have spent in a good long time. Granted, I didn't leave the hotel or see the outside for 48 hours (it was kind of like being at a printing industry trade show except that I didn't feel like killing myself), but they had a pretty good hotel bar. I got to meet Will Shortz (New York Times Crossword Puzzle editor), Patrick Creadon (the director of the movie Wordplay--and he was interested in coming to visit the Saratoga Film Forum), and Phil Donahue who was competing. (Interestingly, one of the puzzles had the clue "TV's Donahue." I wonder if he could have entered "me" and gotten points for it.) I also hung out with a bunch of really cool, fun people and met some of the puzzle constructors who made my life hell (and enjoyable, ironically, simultaneously...).

Oh, how did I do? Well, I came in 263rd out of 698 (top 38%). Not bad for a first-timer! Now I can't wait for next year--February 29-March 2 in Brooklyn, of all places.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Cross Swords

This weekend, I am headed to beautiful, downtown Stamford, Connecticut, for the 30th Annual Crossword Puzzle Tournament, ground zero for the nerdy and dork-like (like me), where I shall no doubt bring dishonor upon myself and my family (to the extent that I have not done that is on my to-do list). Of course, I signed up for this before having rented the movie Wordplay, so it will be interesting (I blame it all on my hard-Scrabble childhood). But, when in doubt: emo, etui, oreo, olio, oleo, and of course, oboe.

Tales from the Robot Holocaust--More Slitherbots!

We're boned:
A robot built to mimic a real-life salamander heads for the waters of Lake Geneva. The robot, dubbed Salamandra robotica by its creators at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, was designed to move like a salamander both on land and in the water.

The researchers say building the robot helped them understand vertebrate locomotion and how movement developed when animals moved from sea to land.

Brownie Points

Do you like brownies? Sure, we all do. Do you prefer the edges to the middles ("mushy mushy")? If so, via Boing Boing, here's a brownie pan for you. It's all edges:
Is there anyone else who automatically associates brownies with an episode of Barney Miller or am I just showing my age?

Bambi, No!!!

From the "Yahoo! News Stories I Would not Click on in a Million Years" Department, sadly listed under "most popular":
Man gets probation for dead deer sex

OK, Computer...

From the Department of Irritating Technology:
If you're happy, the robot knows it
And warms up its laser cannon. But I digress...
I hang my head and sink into my chair dejectedly. As I slouch, the computer monitor in front of me tilts forward and drops low to almost touch the desk, mimicking my gloomy posture. When I perk up and straighten my back, the computer spots the change and the monitor cheerfully swings forward and upward.

Meet RoCo, the world's first expressive computer (.mov video). Inhabiting a back room in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, the robotic computer has a monitor for a head and a simple LCD screen for a face. It expresses itself using its double-jointed neck, which is equipped with actuators that shift the monitor up and down, tilt it forward and back and swivel it from side to side, rather like Pixar's animated lamp. An attached camera can detect when its user moves, allowing RoCo to adjust its posture accordingly.

Unveiled at a human-robot interaction conference in Washington DC on 11 March, RoCo's creators hope that by responding to a user's changes in posture, people might be more likely to build up a "rapport" with the computer that will make sitting at a desk all day a little more enjoyable. The MIT researchers also believe that by tuning into users' moods, the robot might help them get their work done more effectively.
Is that really the key to making sitting at a computer more enjoyable? I don't want a "rapport" with my computer. I just want it to function fast and reliably. How about computers that don't suddenly forget all their settings? How about software that doesn't crash every five seconds? How about making Microsoft Word so that it doesn't have utter contempt for the user? How about not having to restyle the same bullet in PowerPoint 50 times?

I'm better now.

In a related story, Microsoft is working on what it is calling SaltInWounds technology that senses when the user is in a bad mood and does everything it can to make it worse.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Maya Con Dios

Via Pharyngula, I don't know that this movie is for real, but I have heard people (even intelligent ones) making a big deal out of the fact that the Mayan calendar ends in 2012. Apparently, this is supposed to herald the end of the world. I don't know; my "Breathtaking Views" American Lung Association calendar ends in December 2007 and I'm not especially worried.

From the Web site:
"I recently had the opportunity to view a new documentary called “2012 The Odyssey” If you are just starting your journey in learning about the theories and prophases surrounding the Mayan end date of December 21 2012, I strongly recommend this highly informative film.

In the documentary, you are invited to join author Sharron Rose on her quest to learn as much as possible about this fast approaching prophecy. Rose takes us along as she travels across the United States speaking with a virtual who’s who of experts on the subject at hand. Featured experts include, Jose Arguelles, Gregg Braden, Rick Levine, Geoff Stray, Moira Timms, Alberto Villoldo, Jay Weidner, the Incan Elders and who I consider to be the father of these theories, John Major Jenkins.

Rose also travels to many places of significant interest located right here in the United States such as Washington D.C., the Denver Airport and a new discovery for me, The Georgia Guidestones. She soon discovers that there are numerous groups and people who understand that this present age is ending and a new world is now just beginning.

In this documentary you will learn just about everything you need to know associated with the December 21 2012 prophesy. You will discover the secrets of the Mayans, the Incans, the Alchemists, the Christians, the Masons and others of our ancient ancestors concerning the end of time and the promise of our destiny as human beings.

I strongly believe that you will learn a great deal from this documentary, and that you will walk away with a more educated understanding of what awaits us over the next few years."
The Denver Airport?! What, did the Mayans predict an outbreak of lost luggage as one of the signs of the Apocalypse?

There's a really (unintentionally) funny trailer, as well. We can look forward to outbreaks of telepathy as 2012 approaches. Yeah, right. On the plus side, since the world will end on December 21, I guess I don't have to do any Christmas shopping that year. Whew!

Personally, I would instead look forward to 2112 The Odyssey. Hold the Red Star proudly high in hand!

Moist and Chewie

I suppose this was inevitable: the Wookieepedia!

Sound Logic?

Via the Wall Street Journal, more music industry woes, largely brought on by themselves:
In a dramatic acceleration of the seven-year sales decline that has battered the music industry, compact-disc sales for the first three months of this year plunged 20% from a year earlier, the latest sign of the seismic shift in the way consumers acquire music.

The sharp slide in sales of CDs, which still account for more than 85% of music sold, has far eclipsed the growth in sales of digital downloads, which were supposed to have been the industry's salvation.

The slide stems from the confluence of long-simmering factors that are now feeding off each other, including the demise of specialty music retailers like longtime music mecca Tower Records. About 800 music stores, including Tower's 89 locations, closed in 2006 alone.
The conventional "wisdom" has it that digital downloads are killing CD sales, which may be somewhat true, but even more conventional wisdom has it that music today sucks so badly, which is why CD sales are down.

I'm not entirely convinced of either of those explanations. To the latter, I have found that there is actually a lot of really good and diverse music around today (arguably more than when I was a teen, driven by affordable music recording/editing technology which has meant that artists don't need to spend thousands of dollars on a professional recording studio to record something halfway decent), you just tend not to hear it unless you go looking for it (which is why I love Internet radio). Terrestrial radio screwed the pooch when it decided to play only what people want to hear--which means that they have to have heard it before to want to hear it, which creates a kind of chicken-and-egg scenario. On the rare occasions when my iPod automobile tape deck adapter keeps popping out and I am forced to listen to the radio in the car, even a "decent" station like WEQX (out of Manchester, VT) will rarely play anything really good and new and interesting.

Second of all, the "science" of tracking CD sales is a tad dubious, and always has been; it's hardly a comprehensive survey of all music outlets, and given the diversity of music retailers on the Internet, I wouldn't be surprised if many many CD sales are simply not recorded. For example, I buy 90% of my CDs online from CD Universe, which is cheaper than even Amazon and, since their warehouse is located in Connecticut, I can usually get my stuff in a day without having to pay for express shipping. I also tend to find obscure CDs at independent music stores in Boston or NYC. Some I buy from indie labels or artists' Web sites directly.

Thirdly, most of the "really good music" (IMHO) is on small, independent labels. In fact, of the 21 new releases I bought in 2006, only 6 were on major labels (Columbia, WB, Geffen, and Capitol--and they were typically records by longtime "classic" artists like Bob Dylan or Paul Simon), compared to 8 on indie labels and another 7 on independent labels but manufactured and/or distributed by majors. Small labels tend to go unnoticed by the RIAA (which is why they hate Internet radio, methinks, since Internet radio tends to benefit small, independent artists more than bigger ones).

The recording industry has screwed itself by focusing its energies on digital rights management (DRM) and suing teenagers, rather than realizing that the Internet and P2P networks are a great source of free publicity (kind of what radio used to be). What the music industry needs is some 21st-century marketing acumen and not phalanxes of lawyers and whingeing about how music consumers are all pirates and thieves. The music industry needs to start thinking "long tail" because anyone who seriously likes and buys music couldn't care less about the latest creature from "American Idol" (the number one album, apparently)--not that I have ever actually seen "American Idol," but I'm happy to indulge my prejudice that it unwatchably sucks.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Looming Robot Holocaust--Have You Checked the Children?

It's been a while since we last checked on the progress of the impending enslavement/destruction of humanity by our robot overlords, but, via Engadget, they are now coming for the children (assuming that's a bad thing...). Let's see how many upsetting things we can identify in the following excerpt:
[T]he ¥5,229 ($45) Issho Ni Nenne (pictured on the left) manufactured in collaboration with Disney. The plush toy features a digital audio player loaded with womb sounds. That's right, apparently an internal microphone was stuffed into a living womb while music played in the room. Just put baby on a bender of sloshing fluids, heartbeat, and muffled music and he'll be out faster than you can say "pass the Thunderbird." And what happens when baby wakes to find he's been duped by a giant mouse? No worries, a "baby mood switch" will sense the babies cries and generate an audible "curiosity trigger" to make baby forget why he was crying in the first place. Another cocktail of womb music and he's back to sleep.

Soft Cell

Here is incontrovertible proof that just because something is technologically feasible doesn't mean that it's even remotely a good idea--a Bluetooth-enabled pillow:
The perCushion...a cotton velvet pillow with a Bluetooth transceiver inside. Just place your cellphone within 30 feet and you can engage in a little pillow talk with your significant other.
I wonder how well it would hold up during a pillow fight.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Happy Pi Day

Yes, 3/14 is the celebration by mathematicians and other assorted dorks (like me) of the mathematical constant known as pi (3.14). If we wanted to be even geekier and dork-like, we could celebrate the pi hour and minute: 1:59 (as in 3.14159). But that would really be pushing it.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Media Mix

Some movies I rented recently, which I highly recommend:

Idiocracy, released with no publicity whatsoever and went almost straight to DVD, is writer/director Mike Judge's long-awaited followup to the cult classic Office Space (itself a brilliant and dead-on look at corporate "life"). An average guy is frozen in the year 2005 as part of an Army experiment and wakes up 500 years in the future (kind of like the premise of Futurama), only in the interim the human race has devolved in intelligence such that people can't speak in complete sentences, people are named after snack food brands, and humankind has become too moronic to solve even its most basic needs (like growing crops). Thus, Mr. Frozen Guy, whom no one can understand because he uses big words (in comparison) and is put in prison for "sounding faggy," has by default become the smartest person in the world and is made Secretary of the Interior by the President (who is a former porn star and wrestler). It's an hysterically funny dystopia, although my only complaint is the timeframe: I don't think the atrophying of human intelligence is as far away as 500 years. I give about 10!

Little Miss Sunshine--Yeah, everyone has seen this already, but it takes me a while. A dysfunctional family road movie. I was really not expecting to like this, as I thought it was going to be cloying and sappy, but it was surprisingly darkly funny, which I liked. I was also expecting one of two equally sappy and cliched endings, and it actually went in an unexpected direction. I highly recommend this one.

A Scanner Darkly--Philip K. Dick is one of my favorite writers, and while his 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly (about the symbiotic relationship between narcs and drug users) was not my favorite, I was hoping to like the movie. Maybe I need to give it another try, but I just did not care for it. I think the problem was the animation--it was shot as a live-action film then "rotoscoped" to make it look like an animated film. There is something unsettling (which could very well be the point) about that style of animation that just bugs me. It's kind of like the visual equivalent of nails on a blackboard.

Garden State--I saw this at the Spectrum in Albany a couple years ago when it came out, and I've wanted to see it again ever since and finally rented it (I may buy it). How I love this movie. Zach Braff (who stars in that TV show Scrubs which I have never seen) wrote, directed, and stars in this indie film about a twenty-something actor/waiter who revisits his New Jersey hometown after having been away for almost a decade. Emotionally numb from having been on some form of antidepressant since childhood (thanks to his psychiatrist father), he goes off the meds for a weekend and finally learns what it's like to actually feel something (meeting Natalie Portman's free-spirited character helps in this department, as well). This is a very funny, very moving film, that is up there with Sideways as one of my favorite moves of the past few years.

I almost saw The Queen yesterday at the Saratoga Film Forum, but we had a surprise sell-out and I offered to relinquish my seat to a paying customer.

In other media news, I am almost finished a really good first novel by Joshua Ferris called Then We Came to the End, a dark comedy about life in an advertising agency following the dot-com bust in 2000, and the attendant paranoia over lay-offs. Although I am not finished with it yet, it is so far highly recommended. It took me a while to realize this, but the narrative voice is the first person plural ("we")--there is no single "narrator character" but is instead narrated by the group of coworkers en masse. It shouldn't work as well as it does, but it's a very enjoyable book.

In music news, I picked up the latest album by The Arcade Fire, Neon Bible, which after a couple of spins I like, but need to listen to a few more times to fully appreciate. I am having a hard time getting into the new Shins album Wincing the Night Away; I liked Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow a lot but there is just something about the new one. I don't know; maybe I need to give a few more tries. I also picked up a 5.1 Surround Sound version of The Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed which is really cool.

Happily, sports season is over. No more college football, no more college basketball. Syracuse choked in the Big East quarterfinals and got snubbed by the NCAA and did not make the tournament. No brackets for the Orange. So I can just watch March Madness without really having any stake in it (except I hope Duke loses).

Chutes Too Narrow

E Ink is back (assuming they ever went away) with another proof-of-concept prototype (but not a marketable product): the blueChute.
The inventor points out that at just 5mm thick, the blueChute is thinner than a Nano, while still making room for a MicroSD slot and Bluetooth. So not only is the design very portable, but its functions can include email/weather/news streaming (say from your phone) on top of the traditional Daniel Steel eBook stereotypes.

Hold the Candle

Well, I suppose it had to happen eventually--fire is now obsolete. I guess you really can't get much more archaic than fire (except maybe "air," "earth," or "water"). But, yes, high-tech kiddies can now put LED "candles" on their birthday cakes (I'm not sure how one blows them out). But, then again, at $85 per candle, I can't imagine they will be used much beyond Junior's first birthday.

Remember What the Doormat Said

Perfect for the manic depressive--a "reversible doormat" that can welcome or repel guests depending on your mood at any given moment. A bit of a reach, typographically speaking, but I like the idea.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Pushing Up the Daisies

I guess I have mixed feelingss about this, and not just the improper use of the word "your":

You'll die from a Heart Attack during Sex.

Your a lover not a fighter but sadly, in the act of making love your heart will stop. But what a way to go.

'How will you die?' at
In truth, though, would prefer it to be "mysteriously," my death an enigma to science, just like my life!

Mamma Mia!

While I am not an ABBA fan in any way, shape, or form, this mashup would make me rethink the whole thing.

Abba the Hutt is the result of the fruitful collaboration between the three remaining members of Abba, the seminal seventies pop combo, and Jabba The Hutt, a crime lord from the desert planet of Tatooine. The album includes an irresistible mash up of seventies Swedish pop music and Tatooinish sex funk. Features timeless hitsongs such as “I Ho, I Ho, I Ho, I Ho” , “Dancing Queen Amidala” and “Super StormTrouper”.
Would that this would be actually made!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Cabinet of Dr. Calamari

Via Pharyngula, a film I have got to rent:
I have seen The Calamari Wrestler. It was…indescribable. I won't even try. The basic idea, though, is that it's about pro wrestling in Japan, with a dying wrestler who undergoes a magical transformation in Pakistan to keep him alive, which also allows him to become a super-star in the ring. He battles rivals to learn a heartwarming secret at the end.
Some classic subtitles in the screen captures provided on the link:
"I want to become a squid again."
"Oh, God, please turn Kan-Ichi into a squid again."
"Not the squid. It's the sweaty monks that came with him." (Hmm...I'd be interested to know the context for that bit of dialog!)
A user at the Internet Movie Database sums up the plot thusly:
A giant squid (in wrestling boots) humiliates the champion wrestler of Japan. The only recourse is a rematch but how can a human wrestle with a giant talking invertebrate? There are no bones to grapple. Is the squid a reincarnation of the previous champion and who is the squid's mysterious trainer? How far is the champion willing to go to defend his honor? Will his fiancé fall in love with the squid?

Radio KAOS

Well, this is depressing. From today's LA Times:
In a ruling made public Tuesday, the Copyright Royalty Board significantly increased the royalties paid to musicians and record labels for streaming digital songs online. The decision also ended a discounted fee for small Internet broadcasters.

Broadcast radio stations that also stream their programs online, such as KCRW in Santa Monica, said they might have to scale back on webcasting, and operators of Internet-only radio stations said the new fees would probably force them to go silent.

An estimated 72 million listeners each month tune in to Internet music programming from hobbyists, traditional radio broadcasters and Web companies such as Yahoo Inc., and, seeing them as an alternative to broadcast radio.

The board ruled that the current rate of 0.08 of a cent each time a song is played would more than double by 2010. For music sites run by tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, the board set a flat $500 annual fee per radio channel for a certain number of listening hours per month — which stations such as KCRW far exceed.

"Unless we can find an alternative to paying the published rates, there's no feasible way we can continue," said Bill Goldsmith, who operates an online rock-music station called Radio Paradise in Paradise, Calif. He estimated that he would owe $650,000 in royalties under the new fee structure in 2007 — 25% more than he expected to pull in this year from listener donations.
I often listen to Radio Paradise (as well a a few others, depending on my mood)--I have even sent them donations and bought T-shirts. They are a wonderfully eclectic radio station that has no real format, plays anything at any time, and is a great way to hear things I am not able to hear anywhere else, certainly not on terrestrial radio, which has become generally unlistenable in its blandness. There actually is good new music being made, but it takes some effort to find it. Oh, and this irks me:
All broadcasters have to pay royalties to composers and publishers, but traditional radio broadcasters — arguing that airtime is free promotion — have long been exempted from paying royalties to artists and record labels whose songs they play on the air. Laws passed in the 1990s governing digital recordings, however, required Internet and satellite radio operators to pay those so-called performance fees.
How is Internet airplay not free promotion in the same way? Do you know how many CDs I have bought as a result of what I heard on Internet radio in the three years that I have been listening to it? Well...let's just say that it's more than 50. A lot more. How many have I bought as a result of listening to terrestrial radio in the past 10 years? Zero.

I recently read an interesting history of modern radio called Something in the Air, and I am not alone in thinking that "traditional" radio has gone to the dogs. Sure, consultants and playlists and market research have made radio profitable, but for those of us (a minority, apparently) who really like hearing new and interesting music (not the same five songs repeated ad nauseam) and used to like listening to (more or less) freeform radio (although it was close to extinct by the time I started listening in), it has just become insufferably dull, like the modern shopping mall: an undifferentiated mass of uninteresting sameness. It figures--Internet radio has finally made radio exciting to listen to again and it's in jeopardy. Typical.

Mo' Bile

From UK's Guardian, an hysterical mobile phone review, only some of which is excerpted here:
My new mobile is lumbered with a bewildering array of unnecessary features aimed at idiots
It seems to have been designed specifically to irritate anyone with a mind. It starts gently - a pinch of annoyance here, an inconvenience there - but before long the steady drip, drip, drip of minor frustrations begins to affect your quality of life, like a mouth ulcer, or a stone in your boot, or the lingering memory of love gone sour.

The menu system is a confusing mangle of branching dead ends. It has touch-sensitive buttons that either refuse to work, or leap into action if you breathe on them. One such button also terminates calls, so it is easy to cut people off merely by holding the phone against your ear to hear them. It has no apparent "silent" mode, and when you set it to vibrate, it buzzes like a hornet in a matchbox.

It is lumbered with a bewildering array of unnecessary "features" aimed at idiots, including a mode that scans each text message and turns some of the words into tiny ani- mations, so if someone texts to say they have just run over your child in their car, the word "car" is replaced by a wacky cartoon vehicle putt-putting onto the screen. There is also a crap built-in game in which you play a rabbit ...
Worst of all, it seems to have an unmarked omnipresent shortcut to Orange's internet service, which means that whether you are confused by the menu, or the typeface, or the user- confounding buttons, you are never more than one click away from accidentally plunging into an overpriced galaxy of idiocy, which, rather than politely restricting itself to news headlines and train timetables, thunders "BUFF OR ROUGH? GET VOTING!" and starts hurling cameraphone snaps of "babes and hunks" in their underwear at you, presumably because some pin-brained coven of marketing gonks discovered the average Orange internet user was teenage and incredibly stupid, so they set about mercilessly tailoring all their "content" toward priapic halfwits, thereby assuring no one outside this slim demographic will ever use their gaudy, insulting service ever again. And then they probably reached across the table and high-fived each other for skilfully delivering "targeted content" or something, even though what they should really have done, if there was any justice in the world, is smash the desk to pieces, select the longest wooden splinters they could find, then drive them firmly into their imbecilic, atrophied, world-wrecking rodent brains.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Nemo No Mo'

For those waiting with baited breath (ahem) for Finding Nemo 2...

Pirates of Pirates of the Caribbean

Via Boing Boing, a funny anti-piracy graphic, sure to get a rousing cheer of "Amen" from anyone who has ever bought a DVD. (At least with VHS, you could fast forward through that FBI warning).

Back in Black

For those loyal Blogito Ergo Sum followers (should there be any), sorry, but it has been awhile since the last post. It's been somewhat busy over here, plus Blogger kept insisting that I switch to the "New Blogger" which involves the creation of a Google account and until now I've been too lazy to wade through that process.

It reminded me of the time I was in a rush, needed to do one small, quick piece of online banking, and my bank's Web site took that opportunity to completely revamp their sign-in process, requiring new user names, passwords, etc., making what was supposed to be a two-minute task a long, 20-minute ordeal. Which could explain why my sign-in information is various types of lurid profanity....

With luck, I shall be resuming my regularly scheduled, haphazard (ahem) blogging schedule.