This is BrainLog, a blog by Dan Sanderson. Older entries, from October 1999 through September 2010, are preserved for posterity, but are no longer maintained. See the front page and newer entries.

August 2002 Archives

August 27, 2002

Howdy BrainLog readers! I'm taking one of them blogger hiatuses for a bit. I have lots to write about but absolutely no time to do it properly. I haven't even had time to fix up BlogTracker like I promised I would. So I'm putting the blog on hold while I get married, take my first vacation this year, soak my brain in sea water and dry it in the sun.

BrainLog will return on September 30th.

August 26, 2002

Game Studies, the international journal of computer game research.

Game Studies is a crossdisciplinary journal dedicated to games research, web-published several times a year at www.gamestudies.org. Our primary focus is aesthetic, cultural and communicative aspects of computer games.

Our mission - To explore the rich cultural genre of games; to give scholars a peer-reviewed forum for their ideas and theories; to provide an academic channel for the ongoing discussions on games and gaming.

This Style Guide for the Branch Libraries of the New York Public Library explains the markup and design requirements for all Branch Libraries web projects, along with various standards and best practices.

About ID3 tags. MP3 files can contain information about the song within the file itself, such as artist and track number, so you don't have to mess with putting all that information in the filename. This page discusses the basics for the purposes of AppleScripting with iTunes. I'm mostly interested because I have MP3 players that don't support ordering by the track number ID3 field, and I'd like to find or write a utility to either rename files ripped with iTunes based on track number, or generate M3U playlists in album order.

Of course, seconds into this bit of research I find software that does exactly what I want: iTunes Publisher (for Mac) converts iTunes library lists into M3U files. I also understand from minimal research that iTunes saves its library information as an XML file (read-only, it won't recognize changes in the XML file).

August 22, 2002

Tax Revolt Takes Aim at a County's Libraries. Do small counties with low median incomes need public libraries? Or do they need them most of all?

I understand the importance of and wholeheartedly support libraries providing public access to the Internet, but I never thought of (and have great difficulty imagining) the Internet as a replacement for the library. That seems like the kind of thing only someone who doesn't use the library would believe-- or the Internet, for that matter.

Debunking DMCA myths. Hmmm. Are DMCA opponents exaggerating its effects to persuade the public?

Cory Doctorow debunks the debunker, and links to a response to the article from public policy and computing research group leaders.

August 19, 2002

Hello Kitty USB hub. "Hello Kitty responds to your keyboard motion by talking and moving! Type with Kitty!"

Rio Volt SP250 firmware update v2.05 provides some nice new features for this CD/MP3 player. I don't really look at the thing too often while it's playing, I just let it play whatever it wants. Gapless playback of audio CDs is a big win for those of us who listen to thru-score musicals and track-marked continuous symphonies, pretty much perfecting the device. New features that I'd love to find a use for include bookmarks, and a new "study" mode that lets you jump back 5 or 10 seconds with the push of a button. Transcribe those jazz solos, or memorize that sonnet with an easy button press!

Through the grapevine, Yamaha Digital Music World has announced that their music studio software, XGWorks, has finally been upgraded to work with Windows 2000 and Windows XP, and has been re-stocked. XGWorks 3.0 is quite old, all things considered, but is very popular and preferred by people using Yamaha XG instruments (and XG-enabled PC sound cards), even to the latest versions of other home sequencing products. It was recently deemed dead when Yamaha appeared to provide no support when it was found to not work with the latest versions of Windows, and stores received no new stock of the product. What's worse is various divisions of Yamaha were giving contradictory information on the status of support for the product. I wouldn't be surprised if Yamaha kills the product after this run, but from what I've heard, Win2k/XP compatability was the only thing missing from an otherwise fantastic product.

Existing XGWorks 3.0 users can download a free patch. For more information, see the XGworks Home Page.

August 17, 2002

Our wedding date is set: August 30, 2002! I don't expect BrainLog readers to buy us wedding gifts (though you're welcome to! :), but for friends and family that expressed an interest:

I feel especially weird blogging our registries because we're not actually having a wedding with guests. If we spent $15k on a wedding and invited you, you'd probably be obligated to bring a $100-$500 gift if you came, but since we're cheaping out, it doesn't seem fair to register for dishes. Nevertheless, people apparently want to buy us stuff, so, go nuts!

August 16, 2002

Hacking Las Vegas: The Inside Story of the MIT Blackjack Team's Conquest of the Casinos.

PBS Kids: Don't Buy It. Reload this page for several panels of media literacy for smart kids. I remember loving what little of this kind of education I could find as a kid, including a (commercial-free) show on HBO directed towards kids about reading between the lines in advertising. (Thanks Rebecca.)

Archaeologists may have found a really, really old chess piece. Or maybe not.

I asked earlier about virtual desktop software for Windows. A coworker just showed me VirtuaWin, a very small, compact, free virtual desktop program. Not as featureful as others, but it does the job. And it's free!

August 14, 2002

Is there any good mapping software for home computers yet? On last year's road trip, I took my laptop and a copy of Rand McNally's TripMaker Essentials, a mini-version of their TripMaker software. While I wouldn't recommend the version I was using to anyone-- so buggy, half of the features didn't work at all-- I still managed to get enough use out of it that I'd like to purchase a nice version of something like it. My demands last year were pretty simple, however: it was mostly a highway trip, and I only needed broad route suggestions, drive time estimates and exit numbers. Since TripMaker didn't come with city street maps, my strategy was to use TripMaker to get me from city to city, then get the maps and figure it out on paper once I got there. Turned out to be a rather haphazard strategy, but it was an intentionally haphazard road trip. Being able to quickly scale back, re-route and completely change my cross-country trip while on the road was invaluable and fun, and using paper maps for those tasks would have made for quite a drag.

The reviews of products that I can find are all over the map, so to speak. Rand McNally offers a $20 4-disc StreetFinder and TripMaker Bundle and a $40 5-disc deluxe version with additional software for PDAs (with a free shipping promotion from Amazon at the moment). Microsoft Streets and Trips ($23 after $10 mail-in rebate) fares a little better in the Amazon customer reviews and has a positive Amazon editorial review, but still gets nasty marks from some people. Epinions has a few positive reviews of S&T. National Geographic Trip Planner ($30) sports similar features to the others, has a positive Amazon editorial review, and mixed customer reviews both on Amazon and on Epinions. CNET.com reviewed slightly older versions of both Rand McNally and Microsoft trip planning products and favored Rand McNally TripMaker.

It sounds like the major complaints are with the street maps and address plotting, and not necessarily the trip planners. These are very difficult technological problems to solve, especially with a static (quick-to-expire) data set like a CD-ROM. One review mentions that the Rand McNally StreetFinder actually requires Internet access to do address plotting; maybe that was an older version, or maybe they all do, I can't tell. Online maps and trip planners are, of course, free, but Internet access on the road is still expensive and unavailable to most, and special software can offer nicer map viewing experiences and interfaces. Rand McNally's online road trip planner is excellent for what it is, but is ultimately quite cumbersome (though I'd probably skip CD-ROM software if I had cheap 'net access on the road). On the other hand, I'd pay money just for a version of what I used last year that is fully functional and relatively stable.

Anyone have any road map software experiences to share? Any packages to recommend?

August 13, 2002

In response to the Peruvian government considering mandating Open Source software in government technology (so as not to lock public documents up with a key that belongs to a third-party commercial entity), Microsoft has proposed a political platform they call "Software Choice." Bruce Perens explains Microsoft's scheme, which operates on many levels to not only discourage mandatory Open Source, but to lock out Open Source solutions by discouraging adoption of open standards in general. This much may be obvious, but Bruce notes that the Free Software community needs a similar political platform of its own, and proposes one which he calls Sincere Choice.

Open Source advocates intend to promote such a platform in California.

I don't have time to write this up properly, so I'll just say that if any of this sounds out of place, please read Peren's article closely. A government making a categorical mandate that appears to oppose most of the existing commercial software industry can seem like a strong, perhaps extreme, idea. The key words are "choice through interoperability."

August 12, 2002

Upcoming DVD special edition releases of Quentin Tarantino's best writer-director works (remember Quentin Tarantino?) are notable for any QT fans. Pulp Fiction gets deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes montages, a documentary, a production design featurette, and tons and tons of television material including an entire episode of Siskel & Ebert all about QT. The fantastic, greatly underrated Jackie Brown gets a similar treatment. Alas, neither DVD set has director commentary. Both sets are 2 discs each and will be released August 20.

Resevoir Dogs will get a very special 10th anniversary release on August 27 with deleted scenes, Sundance workshop material, new interviews, tributes to directors QT says influenced the film, a tribute to Lawrence Tierney, "select scene audio commentary", and much, much more. The two-disc set will be released with five collectible covers and liner notes featuring characters from the movie, including Mr. White, Mr. Pink, Mr. Brown, Mr. Blond and Mr. Orange.

Releasing a DVD under five different "collectible" covers may be a cheesy marketing gimmick to encourage "real collectors" to buy the same product five times, but it's hardly unusual. I kind of like the idea; fans can pick their favorite character and buy the one they like. What is truly bizarre is releasing four of the five collectible covers in a boxed set. That's right, a boxed set containing four identical copies of a 2-disc DVD set, each in a different cover. Own each of the "collectible" covers by purchasing them all in one convenient box-- except Mr. Orange, which is sold separately.

August 9, 2002

I've been looking for an opportunity to ditch Outlook as my mail reader for a while now. I've only been hanging on to it because I use the calendaring feature. I now notice that Mozilla Calendar is far enough along to be easily downloaded and installed into the browser. While it's still very much in its early stages, it seems to do everything I need it to so far. So it's Mozilla for email, news, web and calendaring for me from now on!

And not a moment too soon, either. I have a folder called "Lists" for my mailing lists, and in it are folders for each mailing list. Yesterday morning, I accidentally mis-clicked and dragged the super-folder, "Lists", into one of the sub-folders, "CVPUG". Outlook told me I couldn't do that (and I wouldn't want to), but then proceeded to attempt to create an infinite number of subfolders in CVPUG and move all of my mailing list mail all over the place. Subsequently, Outlook couldn't figure out how to use the resulting directories it made and quit working. Pine wouldn't even start up. Not knowing that it just made a CVPUG.Lists.CVPUG.Lists.CVPUG.Lists.CVPUG. Lists.CVPUG.Lists.CVPUG.Lists.CVPUG.Lists. CVPUG.Lists.CVPUG.Lists folder and was choking, I was effectively without mail until Dreamhost tech support figured out what had happened. A few jiggles of the handle and I'm back in business.

Now that I've switched to Mozilla Mail, I should make sure it doesn't do the same thing... Nope, it's good. :) I'm hesitant to plug Mozilla too hard, because it's still a got a few early version quirks, and I wouldn't want to scare mainstream users away from the idea of a soon-to-be-solid Open Source alternative to most of the software people use daily. But it's quite usable, and I look forward to working it into my daily routine. (Look! I don't need any windows open to get email and calendar notifications! :)

August 8, 2002

DreamHost now includes Jabber hosting with every plan, no extra charge! Offer instant messaging support through your own web site, or just be available when someone wants to chat. If I can convince my friends to install (free, ad-free) Jabber clients, they could all reach me through my site instead of through proprietary ad-supported systems like Yahoo or ICQ. (If I start using it, I'll let you know. Why doesn't Trillian have Jabber support? It's an Open Source standard...)

I've been enjoying getting involved in Mozilla bug reporting, checking to see if bugs I've noticed have been reported (pretty much all of them have) and reading their status. It's interesting to see the points of contention on how the browser ought to behave, like the age-old debate over tabs in multiline text fields. I personally need a way to enter tabs in textareas (some Wikis use them heavily), though I'd prefer to not interrupt/repurpose the far more useful tabbing between elements. The discussion on what Mozilla ought to do is marred by differences in implementation across various versions of other browsers; some Netscapes, apparently, insert tabs in textareas instead of advancing to the next element, and it could be argued that supporting that behavior is important for previous Netscape users.

Most occasions where it's important to be able to insert tabs into web fields are probably candidates for more sophisticated text editing widgets, though ideally such a widget would have a uniform implementation provided by all common browsers. Not that that's ever going to happen.

The McDonald's Scalding Coffee Case. Facts about this famous case seem to get completely twisted into urban legends in order to justify complaints of reckless lawsuits. Did you know Stella Liebeck wasn't driving the car? Did you know the car was standing still at the time of the spill? Did you know the coffee was 185 degrees F? Did you know that Liebeck suffered third degree burns over her thighs and genital areas, and was hospitalized for eight days? And that McDonald's' own research concluded a likelihood of spills and the dangerousness of the temperature, but no changes were made in how the restaurant chain handled hot coffee? (Thanks David.)

August 7, 2002

A month or so ago, Microsoft changed the licensing agreement for Windows Media Player without notice in a way that would allow Microsoft to arbitrarily disable software on your computer, in the name of Digital Rights Management compliance. This change was piggybacked on a patch that fixed a security hole in the Player. Unwilling to give an external company this kind of control over my computer, I uninstalled Windows Media Player. The only other choice was to use an older version of the Player with known security holes in it.

Now, Microsoft has implemented a licensing agreement change in security patches for Windows 2000 and Windows XP that allows Microsoft to automatically install software on your computer without your knowledge or explicit consent. While Digital Rights Management facilities are not explicitly mentioned, this is obviously covered by "upgrades," especially given the Media Player incident. I can live without Media Player. Uninstalling Windows is a much bigger ordeal.

I used to consider Microsoft's free critical patch service a morally and socially responsible thing for the company to do, especially considering the severe lack of accountability software companies have for selling faulty merchandise (thanks to licensing agreements that overwhelmingly favor the software vendor). The service makes up for the sad realities of software quality by providing to me the functional, secure product which I paid for in the first place, and should therefore be delivered to me under the license I agreed to when I purchased the software. Holding security fixes hostage with a ransom of signing over my rights to privacy is appallingly immoral, and ought to be illegal.

Software licensing is a complex issue, of course, and "ought to be illegal" is easy enough to say without proposing an actual working legal philosophy for the software industry. I want to explore some of these issues here, but for now, just remember that the way it appears-- that you "agreed" to a "use as is" license, that software is not owned, that bug fixes or simply license to use a software product are an on-going "service" provided by the vendor, and that the vendor can require agreement to license changes at any time during continued use of the service-- is the way software vendors want it to be and want you to believe it is, not the way it actually is or ought to be.

In the meantime, there's not much I can do but be outraged and look for alternatives. Time to get a Mac? Time to make Linux my primary OS? I can't leave an unpatched Windows machine connected to the Internet, and I can't agree to a "license" that gives Microsoft undue control over my computer (including the ability to limit my control of my computer). It doesn't matter that I'm not violating a sensible notion of a DRM policy, I don't trust Microsoft to set that policy, I don't trust Microsoft to install a software installation pipe to my hard drive open to the Internet, and I won't sign any contract that allows another party to control or limit my computer without my explicit, knowledgeable consent. Even if click-thru software licensing agreements are not legally binding, this license change is effectively notice that Microsoft will be attempting to deploy such methods, and I cannot allow that kind of software on my computer.

August 6, 2002

Halcyon Days: Interviews with Classic Computer and Video Game Programmers. This electronic text was originally self-published in HTML on floppy disks in 1997 and sold for $20 a piece. As of June 2002, the author has released the book for free on the web.

Life, the Universe, and Douglas Adams, a documentary on the sci-fi humor author, has recently finished production and will be available through douglasadams.com on August 4.

Asteroid Flyby Of Earth, August 18. Should be close enough to see through binoculars in the northern hemisphere.

I've been pining for "virtual desktop" functionality in a Windows environment lately. Cool Desk looks like a decent option, though I'm not sure I want it badly enough to pay $25 for it. My other option is to just do more work in Linux, which makes much more sense since I'm mostly doing Linux development anyway.

I'm amused by VirtualDesktop.info, which attempts to appear like a third-party review of virtual desktop utilities for Windows. An entire domain with no apparent company/group affiliation dedicated to a side-by-side comparison of seven utilities in an extremely narrow market? And Cool Desk is the winner, hands down? Of course it's owned by ShellToys Inc., makers of Cool Desk. (There's nothing horribly wrong with this, at least not when the stakes are so low, I'm just amused.)

August 5, 2002

You may have seen The House of the Dead lightgun video arcade game from 1997, which pitted players against slowly approaching zombies in a gorey shootfest. You may also have seen the game's sequel, The House of the Dead 2, from 1998. You can still get the home versions of both games, if you're so inclined, or just download the PC demo. House of the Dead 3 will be available for the XBox in October.

But it doesn't stop there! The newly released Pinball of the Dead for the Gameboy Advance extends the franchise to both the GBA and pinball, and was well-reviewed. Plus, the entry that inspired me to post about it: The Typing of the Dead! I'd love to see similar educational titles, such as a Math-Blaster-style "The Arithmetic of the Dead". [ 9 x 5 ] Brains... must... eat... brai--45--AAarrggh!

And, of course, coming 2003: The House of the Dead: The Movie. If you're at all excited about this prospect, do not view the trailers on the website. Putting up a trailer consisting entirely of shots fresh from principal photography is a bad idea.

The 150-Second Sell, Take 34. NYTimes Magazine on the art of the trailer.

Happy third blogday to Pop Culture Junk Mail, as of August 2nd!

August 1, 2002

I should really write software that emails me when someone posts a comment on one of my old entries.

While searching my archives to see if I had blogged this Java conversion of the old CP/M game "Ladder," (I had, though the page has moved to that new URL), I found my first post about Ladder, dated July 26, 2000. In the comments for the post I note that the maintainer of the Linux ncurses conversion [source tar] contacted me to fill me in on a little history of the conversion. Then time passed, the entry scrolled off my home page, and we all forgot about it.

Sixteen months later, on November 26, 2001, a friend of the original authors of Ladder posted a comment, followed by a post the next day by one of the authors. Ladder co-author "TZ" writes:

Dave and I wrote it and was sold under the company name "Yahoo Software" through distributors and computer manufacturers (including Kaypro, Xerox and NCR). I sold the Yahoo name to a fortune 500 company. I guess I should have kept it. :)

Pi Land, including a frustratingly difficult trivia game. (Thanks Pith and Vinegar.)

ibiblio.org, the public's library and digital archive.