Archive for October, 2008

rain is not dangerous, says Obama

October 28th, 2008

So I've been sitting here all this time, twiddling my thumbs. Obama or McCain, tough choice. I was waiting for a sign. A sign, you might say, from god. It came. Obama and McCain both had rallies in Pennsylvania. McCain canceled his, Obama didn't.

"A little rain never hurt nobody", said Obama, as McCain headed the stampede to the nearest shelter. Damn right, Barack.

Europeans, take notice. Rain is water. Most of your bodies are water already. You're carrying around water bottles to counter balance dehydration. Stop being so schizophrenic.

Disclaimer: I am not a special interest contributor to the Obama campaign. Obama merely chose to point and laugh at people who are scared of rain for the fun of it.

how the dutch destroyed biking

October 26th, 2008

The Netherlands, a paradise for bikers. Twelve million bikes on seventeen thousand kilometers of dedicated bike paths. And a country so flat that you'll never be pushing your bike uphill because the hill is too steep - there is no hill. There's basically no corner of the country that isn't accessible to a biker, the place sometimes looks like a bike track with a country attached to it.

And yet, something is wrong. Very wrong.

You might think "Hey the Dutch are nuts about biking, I bet they have great bikes over there!". You'd be wrong. The bikes in use in this country are something out of an old Soviet factory. Single speed, pedal brake, black paint (or painted a bright color to conceal rampant corrosion), with a regular chain for locking. Often you can hear them coming, wheels spinning unevenly on the axle because the rims are slightly bent, lights fastened poorly and about to fall off, crank screeching against the panel that conceals the chain. Not surprisingly, bike repair is a thriving business in this country, repair shops are everywhere.

In fact, these old bikes are so dominant that it's difficult to find a bike that isn't one of these historical exhibits. Furthermore, bike theft is so widespread that people don't even want to own anything worth stealing. (A guy once told me he loses roughly one bike per year to theft.) Dutch people love to joke that the lock usually is worth more than the bike is. That's true, I just don't see why that is supposed to be funny. I wouldn't want to live in a house where the lock on the front door is worth more than the house itself.

Then there are the bike lanes. Yes, they are dedicated to bikes, and yes they are separate from motorized traffic. What you probably don't expect, however, is just how boring it is to ride on them. They are completely flat, they have their own traffic lights, and even indicators for traffic going in different directions. It's no wonder bikes don't have any gears, there's no way you could build up any speed before you have to stop at the next light. It is the experience of urban biking with the added bureaucracy of driving a car

Not only that, traffic regulations for bikers not only exist, they are enforced. That means you have tax collecting traffic cops just waiting to write you a ticket for any number of trivialities, like riding on the sidewalk (even when it's void of pedestrians), riding a light when there's no traffic, or riding without lights. Lights which, of course, will be stolen unless you obsessively remove them every time you park the bike. (Unless the whole bike gets stolen instead.) It's almost a wonder you don't have to fill in a form every time.

Then there is the terrain. When you're not biking in a town, which is about as much fun as driving a car in heavy traffic, you will find yourself somewhere on the grid of bike lanes that connect towns, out in the great outdoors. What fun! Well, at least until you realize that every slice of the country looks almost exactly the same, and the only thing there is to see anywhere is grasslands with canals crossing them. If you're lucky you might spot a forest, but they are very uncommon. And it's completely flat, so not only is there nothing to see here, you're well aware of the fact that 10km down the road there's also nothing. Scenery wise, this country is as close as you get to a desert.

The Dutch response to all of this? "Biking was never supposed to be fun, it's transport." Well, there you have it, it doesn't get more depressing than that. "Music an art form? We just needed a beat the soldiers could march to."

Shooter: could have been decent

October 25th, 2008

A conspiracy thriller with a redneck in the lead. An unusual angle, but worth a try. The story is he was a sniper in the army, then he got called in for a very special job with the FBI: to plan the assassination of the president cause they believed someone else was going to do it and they wanted him to tell them how it could be done.

Not a great story, but not a bad one either, there is enough to work with no doubt. But that's kind of where the positives end. Mark Wahlberg in the lead.. not bad frankly, but for a role like this you need an actor who can be sensitive, someone who can express the turmoil that he's going through, and Mark just isn't it, the best he can do is look serious. If you think that is revealing, you're onto something. The big problem with this movie, nay disaster, is casting. The casting is horrendous, to the point that not a single actor is right for his/her role.

There is Danny Glover, so admired from the Lethal Weapon epic. For some reason he doesn't even have a voice to speak with, barely producing the words. But he's one of the better ones. The eager detective Nick Memphis who just started at the FBI. Eager yes, but playing a detective like you would a bartender, no feel for it. Swagger's female friend looks like a contestant for Miss America, dolled up like she's going shopping, lives on a farm. Again, no personal drama that anyone would buy. And so it goes, the standard FBI/police war room personnel in a movie like this, all of them misfits, badly cast. Same goes for the bad guys.

I felt the first half of the movie was going somewhere, but the ending is crying out for a rewrite. When you're doing a plot like this you can win the viewer over by building up to something. It's a matter of trust, you tell a story that captures the viewer's interest, and based on that you make a promise to deliver something later on. I'll agree to hold my judgment and go along with you. That's why you have to deliver at the end, you can't just walk out, or the trust is broken. A feeling of betrayal ensues.

A good director could have taken this plot somewhere, maybe even with the ending as it is. But the casting is unbelievably bad.

Little Brother

October 20th, 2008

Cory Doctorow published this book in 2008, both online freely and in dead tree format. It's a (mildly) futuristic story in a time when a lot of privacy battles have already been lost. Security cameras in school tracking people, cameras on the streets, tracking people through rfids in their cars and their mass transit tickets. Then a terrorist attack occurs. National security is elevated immensely.

Doctorow is doing two things. He is setting the stage for a thorough tutorial on how to use anonymizing technologies and he keeps elevating the plot to keep introducing new methods and ideas. As a technologist connoseur he isn't forced to make up things that aren't realistic and embarrass himself. In fact, he doesn't seem tempted to invent anything, which is a bit odd for a futuristic story, he's basing the account on technologies we already know today. (Although tunneling a video stream over DNS is a bit far fetched on our current bandwidth.)

Secondly, he's trying to educate about the threats that we see today and the already existing encroachment on civil liberties. Not in a preachy way, but it's part of the message. He will digress occasionally to tell a story from history. He does well to integrate this into a captivating story.

Although it seems similar at first, it isn't Fleming and it isn't Ludlum, in a high school story. Little Brother is about normal people who face predictable consequences, no miracles included. Doctorow isn't trying to craft characters who seem impossible, he likes it down to earth. I have a hunch that sections of it are auto biographical as well.

In closing, I tip my hat to Jürgen Geuter, who turned me onto Doctorow's other 2008 book Content a few weeks ago, a collection of essays about security, privacy, and freedom.

update on undvd packages

October 9th, 2008

One of the benefits of coding in a scripting language is the ability to easily move the code around and it runs everywhere. undvd is easy to install, you just extract the source and it's ready to go. Or, if you want to install it globally on the system, just run make install and you're set.

But undvd depends on a bunch of other tools, so what you really want is to let your package manager deal with satisfying the dependencies, and let you upgrade easily when a new version comes out.

Where can I find undvd?

I package undvd in three flavors myself: Gentoo, Fedora and Ubuntu. I run Gentoo and Ubuntu on my boxen, so those are the most well tested. In addition, ripdvd's author wedge does the honors for Slackware.

But there are some unofficial packages out there as well, so when you add it all up undvd is pretty well supported at this point.

Making friends with posix

Recently, a user expressed an interest in running undvd on a Mac, which is a whole new angle. I guess it never occurred to me that someone would use undvd outside linux, but why not. The recent switch to perl has obsoleted the many external tools that undvd previously relied on, which is a big [if unplanned] step towards portability. I ran some tests that revealed there were still a couple linuxisms left, so I've gotten rid of them now.

undvd-0.7.1 should in principle run on a Posix system with perl-5.8.8. The big thing isn't undvd, it's getting mplayer and the other binaries, cause they have to be built specifically for that platform. And outside linux, there's sometimes no standard package manager, which doesn't help at all.

At the end of the day, there is no escaping the fact that undvd on Posix is a fish out of water (true not only of undvd but probably most free software) - the environment just isn't as well supported as it is in a linux distribution that ships all the tools. There are no packages for any of these, but you can just extract the tarball and run undvd from whatever location.

DesktopBSD 1.6 (FreeBSD Ubuntufied)

It runs (except mencoder can't find x264, so I used xvid). The dvd device is called /dev/cdrom or /dev/acd0. Cloning with dd fails, vobcopy works.

OpenSolaris 2008.05

It runs (except mencoder can't find x264, so I used xvid). I have no idea how the device naming works, but when you put in a cd/dvd it should automount and you can look up the dvd device in the mount table. Packages for mplayer are available from Blastwave. Playback with mplayer worked, encoding segfaulted mencoder.

Mac OS X Leopard

It runs. The dvd device is called something like /dev/rdisk1. Mac people seem to be obsessed with guis, so any builds I could find only had mplayer playback, no encoding. Your best bet is probably MacPorts, modeled loosely on FreeBSD's ports. You'll want to build mplayer with the codecs you want selected as variants (think Gentoo USE flags). Disc cloning doesn't seem to work at all.

To install globally you'll want something like DESTDIR=/opt/local sudo make install.

Cygwin

It runs, and you can get builds of mplayer from the official site. The dvd device is called d: (or some other drive letter). Set PATH=/cygdrive/c/mplayer:$PATH and make sure c:\mplayer doesn't contain both a directory mplayer/ and a binary mplayer.exe, this makes cygwin very confused. On the whole it seems to work quite well, the process even successfully sets the cpu priority (nice).