Archive for June, 2005

He’s Gay, Get It?

Thursday, June 30th, 2005

From Spain’s lawmakers legalize gay marriage comes this photo and cutline:

shirtless dude
A man dances celebrating on the day the Spanish parliament legalized gay marriage during a gay street party in Chueca, the gay area of Madrid, Thursday, June 30, 2005. (Jasper Juinen / AP)

Shirtless guy, check. Guy with questionable shoulder bag, check. Guy with questionable, skirt-like leg covering, check. Rainbow flag, check. Gay marriage, street (?), area, check, check, check.

¿Cómo se dice stereotype en Español?

Maps and Missiles Redux

Wednesday, June 29th, 2005

Previously, I looked at Google Maps and noticed the top of the White House was altered, for security reasons. In Google Earth, the image looks the same, which is not surprising as they both draw from the same data.

But this puzzles me:
White House image, extruded

This is the same image of the White House, this time in Google Earth (larger screenshot, placemark) with a tilt and “extrude buildings” enabled.

As you can see, the 3-D model is a pretty good likeness, which makes me wonder: how is that possible? A recent Slashdorks article said Google was building a laser-equipped truck to scan buildings (and included a link to this fascinating project at Berkeley) but even if such a truck were in the wild, I don’t think they’d let it drive around the grounds of the White House.

Which leaves a few options: either there’s some kick-ass photogrammetry going on, or there are some other datasets in play here.

In any case, I’m fascinated.

Update [Thu 00:18]: Check out these cool placemarks. Not strictly related, but still cool.

Great Googly Moogly

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005


signal lost


Monday, June 27th, 2005

That’s a small investment if you’re Tom Cruise, who now demands $20 million per movie, or some of the other marquee names affiliated with the church, including actors John Travolta and his wife, Kelly Preston, Kirstie Alley and Jason Lee, musicians Beck, Lisa Marie Presley and Chick Corea, and Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren. — Missionary Man

Beck’s a Scientologist? Why wasn’t I told? Not that I really care about the man, but he always sort of amused me. Now I’m seeing him in a whole new light. (And I’ve always like Jason Lee.)

By the way, is it just me or did LRH just have a whole Bond villian thing going? Originally I had him pegged as sitting around with some of his writer buddies making a bet on who could start a religion, but that was before I knew about the yacht:
Freewinds cruise ship

Check out the seal on that puppy (bigger pic) — can’t you just picture Ronny sitting in there, stroking a cat and purring “the volcanoes will erupt soon, my pet…” Fine, it probably wasn’t around when Hubbs was, but I still can totally imagine him on it.

Even the ship’s stated purpose — the isolation of followers to receive the highest level of training — sounds creepy.

Evading jurisdictions, anyone?

Blockbuster: Out to Lunch

Saturday, June 25th, 2005

Regard the following DVD covers:

Eating Out  Eating Out

The left one is from Blockbuster Online, where it’s listed as “Eating Out [Edited Cover]“. Oddly, this is the only title in all of BbO that carries the “edited cover” designation. It’s not an edited version, mind you, just a different cover. Why they feel the need to edit this particular cover — or really, any at all, considering the store is online and DVDs are shipped in generic white sleeves anyway — is not clear. (This, by the way, is the enlarged version you have to click to see. The version shown in a title list is even smaller.)

The cover on the right — which matches the Amazon version — is from…Blockbuster Online. Except this one, they’re selling.

So, in summary, their policy seeems to be: “this cover is too racy for us to show you, unless you’re thinking of pre-ordering it, in which case here you go.”

Misplaced Products

Friday, June 24th, 2005

On Tuesday, B-don and I were discussing a growing trend in media. “So am I the only one,” he said, “that actually likes product placement in TV shows and movies? I’d much rather see someone drinking a Coke, eating Doritos, and putting Tide into the washing machine than seeing fucking ‘cola’, ‘chips’ and ‘detergent’.”

I replied that I didn’t mind low-key product placement, but I draw the line at overt stuff such as “C’mon, Phoebe, you know you’re interested in trying the new, calorie-free Coca-Cola Zero, aren’t you?”

I meant it to be a comical exaggeration, but today I learned that for Lindsay Lohan it’s just business as usual:

In an era when on-screen advertising is routine — even unobtrusive when done well — the makers of “Herbie” use every opportunity to stick a parade of Cheetos, Pepsi, Dupont, etc. in your face.

Not only is this supremely distracting, but Disney’s hyper-marketing even slows the dialogue as actors struggle to say such things as “Nextel Cup Series” as if they’re reading off cue cards held by stern-looking corporate lawyers.

‘Herbie’ is loaded all right, with product placements (via StudioBriefing)

For shame! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to enjoy the crisp, refreshing taste of a Cool-Ranch Pepsi.

That Must Be a Special ‘Movie Star’ SUV

Friday, June 24th, 2005

As [Tom Cruise] left Manhattan’s Essex House Hotel, he was mobbed by a throng of screaming teenage girls, who snapped pictures and asked for his autograph.

Then he joined Holmes in a black AMC Yukon SUV and drove off to tape an appearance on “Entertainment Tonight.”
Scientology query nearly starts War over the Words (emphasis in the original)

The Phantom Menace

Thursday, June 23rd, 2005

The sheer chutzpah of the MPAA never ceases to amaze. On Monday, they issued a press release: “Southern Cal. High Tech Task Force Stamps Out Illegal DVD/CD Replicating Plant in Los Angeles” [pdf] in which they crow:

Los Angeles –The Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in coordination with the Southern California High Tech Task Force have closed New Century Media in the City of Industry, California. The investigation and seizure of $30 million in illegal stampers and DVDs was a result of findings from another raid at a replicating plant nearby where illegal DVDs produced at New Century Media were recovered. The plant was closed for illegal business on June 15 but no arrests have been made.

Isn’t that interesting? They seized $30m in booty, shut down the plant, yet made no arrests?

Turns out the MPAA isn’t telling the whole story, at least as Jennifer Yu, co-founder/owner (along with her husband) of New Century Media tells it. According to Yu, her company is a legit business which:

  • has been operating since 1989, reproducing thousands of titles per year, and
  • was permitted to resume production immediately by the High Tech Task Force, and
  • only experienced the seizure of $10,540 in discs, duplicated for a public company, plus $15,000 in equipment — roughly 0.058% of their annual production.

So how do we reconcile a $30m seizure with $25,540? Is this Enron-style accounting? Well, yes, after a fashion: according to an LAT follow-up, “the MPAA in its new statement did not retract the $30-million figure but explained that it came up with the number by estimating the value of the DVDs seized during the raid as well as the value of DVDs that could be produced using the equipment.” [emphasis added]

Got that? They made it up. It’s not wholesale value, it’s not market value, it’s potential value: basically, pure crap. It’s the logical equivalent of police shutting down an ammunition factory and claiming they saved 200,000 lives.

Sadly, this sort of spin is par for the course.

My Password is My Business

Tuesday, June 21st, 2005

Ever since dumping MBNA, I’ve done business mostly with Citibank, but now I’m regretting even that. First the overzealous fraud department has called me six separate times over a $15 monthly charge (the hosting for this site, actually.) Each time they promise they’ll make a note in the file, etc., etc. then suddenly I find I can’t pay at the pump because they’ve fucked up again and are freezing the account.

It gets worse. I haven’t been able to sign in to the account online site since an “upgrade” over a month ago. I pay everything I can by EFT, and in fact last wrote an actual check on my checking account in 1996, so this is more than a little annoying. As was the tech support jockey, who hurried me off the phone with an annoyed instruction to just re-register the card as if I was activating it for the first time.

Which I tried, just a few moments ago, and failed. Failed twice, actually. The second time was because of some unknown failure, but the first was for something even dumber: an unacceptable password. Citibank defines an unacceptable password in a jaw-droppingly broad way, including:

Citibank Vulgar Language Policy
The Citibank Vulgar Language Policy prohibits User IDs or Passwords containing language that:

  • Is sexually explicit, vulgar or obscene.
  • Is racially or ethnically offensive.
  • Exploits a minor (any person under the age of 18).
  • Defames, abuses or threatens physical harm or death to others or oneself.
  • Represents violence.

We reserve the right to delete User IDs that contain any language contrary to the policy above at any time without consent or warning. A new User ID will then have to be created to access Account Online. Determination of whether there has been a violation of the policy, and whether any action is warranted, is made at our sole discretion. We also reserve the right to make changes to these guidelines at anytime, and you agree to be bound by any changes. Please check periodically for updates.

Got that? If your 6-32 character password contains “vulgar” language, by their definition (which they reserve the right to change without notice), then they’ll kill your account.

Which is a bummer, because right now Death2theCitiFuckers is seeming about right…

P.S. For the record, my pass wasn’t vulgar. I think it was getting mad because I was using my initials (shock!) but due to their cluelessly vague error message, I’ll never know…

This Means You, File Sharers

Monday, June 20th, 2005

I’ve noticed a subtle change in the obligatory FBI warning featured on DVDs lately.

There’s a new official seal and text:

FBI Anti-Piracy Seal
Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

Notice anything new? Here’s the classic text to jog your memory:
FBI Warning

There are two changes: one is that the new seal/text is generic, making no mention of the type of media (the new seal will also be used on games and other works) but the far more interesting change is the “without monetary gain” clause.

Clearly, someone wants to put those who rip and share on notice that even if they don’t make any money from the duplication, the FBI could still come knocking.

That is, if they actually had the time to visit several million Internet users.

The Moon Illusion

Sunday, June 19th, 2005

Last night as I was driving back to my bed I saw what seemed to be a huuuuuge moon hanging impossibly low in the sky. I was sure it had to be some sort of billboard or something similar — it was way too large and bright to be the real thing.

Today I learned from NASA (via Kottke) that I saw the Summer Moon Illusion.

Still not quite sure what caused the effect, but good to know I’m not crazy.


Saturday, June 18th, 2005

My aunt got a new laptop yesterday, and this is what the media player looks like:

ugly avrack program

I wonder how you say “usability testing” in Mandarin?

Straight from Slate

Friday, June 17th, 2005

For the past few weeks, I’ve been receiving Slate’s round-up of the day’s papers in my e-mail. I don’t always read it (it’s actually better on the site, the e-mail version being truncated and affected with links that track what you click) but when I do I enjoy the way the authors manage to condense the issues at hand. Take this one, from a week ago:

The Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal business box, and New York Times all lead with GM’s announcement that it’s phasing out 25,000 U.S.-based workers by 2008. GM crowed that it will save $2.5 billion per year. But analysts weren’t impressed, saying the move doesn’t really address GM’s larger problem: Its cars suck. “Only new product can save GM,” said one industry observer.

Really cuts to the heart, don’t it? (By the by, does anyone else think that GM’s “Employee Discount for Everyone” is just embarassing? Or, as my father puts it: “Wow, what an interesting time to work at GM. Your job might be in jeopardy, and your number one perk is being given to anyone who asks.”)

The Future We Were Promised

Thursday, June 16th, 2005

A few weeks ago, Pech and I stood before an SR-71. With a top speed of Mach 3.3 (that we knew about, at least), the “Blackbird” is a plane, friends. It’s also old as hell: the plane’s first test flight was in 1962.

Seven years later, the famous Concorde was first tested, and by 1976 we civilians got the chance to soar beyond Mach 1.

Great achievements, all, but three decades later I ask: when’s the last time you broke the sound barrier? Concorde has been retired, the -71 is in mothballs, and the current state-of-the-art in airlines is basically a 747 with a tumor.

Which is why I’m thrilled to learn (via Gizmodo) that the French and the Japanese are cooperating in an effort to build a new supersonic airliner. It can’t come soon enough.

Now when do I get my jetpack?

Why Blockbuster Online Sucks (and What to Do About It)

Friday, June 10th, 2005

Earlier this month, B-don was kind enough to point me to a free trial to Blockbuster Online, the rental giant’s Netflix competitor. I was a Netflix subscriber wayyy back in the day (when the logo looked like this) so I figured what the hell, I’d give it a whirl, see how the modern stuff compares.

And the answer is: so far, not so hot.

I’ve only been a member for 8 days, so I don’t feel comfortable commenting on shipping time and other availability questions, but there’s still plenty that could be improved. For example:

  1. The links aren’t links. For some idiotic reason, they’re using JavaScript (specifically an onClick event) when you click the title. In addition to being generally dumb, this hampers people who prefer to open pages in new tabs. I know I’d love to take the “Award Winners” list and scroll-click the titles of interest, allowing Firefox to load them all in different tabs in the background. But no, I have to click, wait, read, back, click, wait, read…
  2. ‘Remember Me’ doesn’t. Even when I’m actively using the site, I get the sign-in prompt far too often. It’s not clear how long a session lasts, but it’s too short. Either dump all pretense of “remember me” or give some specific message such as “Your session has timed out after 5 minutes of inactivity.”
  3. I get weird errors. At the time of this writing, I’m actually locked out. I’ve gotten SSL certificate mismatch warnings, “Server returned an error” dialog boxes, and truncated responses. Growing pains, perhaps?
  4. Descriptions are inconsistent. Consider Bent on Blockbuster vs. on Netflix. BbO has no information at all. No summary, rating, year, photo, related titles… Nothing. For shit’s sake, fellas, you’re the world’s largest video store operators. Run a query, and send some interns to look this stuff up. It’s embarassing.
  5. The ‘most rented’ list is too broad. I’m (mildly) interested in the most popular movies, but not in a big list of the top 100 discs site-wide. Why not break down the lists by category, as Amazon does? Then I can find the top 10 rentals in, say, Anarchic Comedy.
  6. The recommendations are…odd. Perhaps I’m a particularly challenging case, but whatever algorithms they’re using to suggest additional titles seem weird to me. How is “Band of Brothers” related to Y Tu Mama Tambien? A little refinement wouldn’t hurt.
  7. I have no idea how returns work. I’m not going to comment about shipping in general, but I do note that I dropped off 3 discs around 8pm Monday night, bound for MSP, two mailing days away. The next morning (at 11:50), Blockbuster announced they had shipped a new title to me. Wednesday, at 4:39pm, I got a message that they shipped the second. The third was checked in today.
  8. You can’t search your local store. Before the launch of BbO, it was a pain in the ass to search your local store’s inventory (you had to search for title, then enter a ZIP, then click your store) but you could do it. Now BbO has shunted all the physical store stuff to a low-profile position, and they require registration for access. I can’t figure out how to search inventory anymore. That’s dumb enough, but what’s really weak is how they don’t even integrate it into the BbO experience. If I’m viewing a title, why not add a little banner: ‘Carried at your local Blockbuster store’? I get the additional information with no extra effort, and who knows, it might just inspire me to go plunk down four bucks to rent the disc instead of wait for it to show up in my queue.
  9. You must maintain separate memberships. Sign up for BbO, and you’re providing contact information and a major credit card. You’d think they would add a checkbox such as ‘Also enroll me at my nearest Blockbuster (at [blah address]).’ Then they could just stick the card in with your first shipment.
  10. You have to print coupons. I get two free store rentals a month — provided I print out the barcoded coupons in the ‘My Account’ section. There’s no way to print multiple coupons on a single sheet, and more importantly they can’t seem to manage having them show up on the computer at the store itself: “Sir, you have two free rentals with your online account remaining, would you like to use one?”
  11. Your store rental history doesn’t transfer. Once they get #6 sorted, I wouldn’t mind if they brought my store rental history over. I was a Blockbuster customer (by default) for many years, in their high-volume Rewards Gold category. If their recommendation system could analyze the hundreds of titles I’ve rented before and then make suggestions based on those, I’d be interested to see them.
  12. They call their mailing list an “E-Newsletter.” That’s like two cliches in one.

As you can tell, it surprises me how poorly Blockbuster has integrated their online and retail arms.