Thursday, September 29, 2005

Google Earth

If you haven't seen Google Earth you owe it to yourself to download and install it. It takes about a minute. I'll describe it briefly but words don't do it justice.

I'm not talking about - Google Earth is a separate program, not a web page. With it you can fly around a world made up of actual satellite photographs - yes, the entire earth. You can explore anywhere you like - the Andes, Washington DC, Damascus, the North Pole. Major metropolitan areas like New York and Beijing tend to have higher resolution. It includes the option of superimposing map and business information.

A lot of computer geeks have come to the conclusion that all great uses of the Internet, all super apps, have already been invented. Leave it to Google to prove them wrong.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention, it's free.

Mobile Blogs

Ralph is here

Too cool - I just set it up so I can blog by sending instant messages on my cell phone. My wife and I are getting ready to take a trip to Alaska, so I'll try and blog from there. God, I love vacation time.

I'm leaving in the cingular blurb. They're OK with me so far.


Mobile Email from a Cingular Wireless Customer

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A Good Day To Protest

My wife and I joined the protest march on the White House against the war in Iraq this past Saturday. It was fantastic. 100,000 people attended, according to DC police chief Ramsey.

Sure the going was slow - we moved only 3 blocks in 3 hours. But the point wasn't so much to cover ground as to be heard.

Some of my favorite signs were...

  • Make Levees Not War

  • The Rapture Is Not An Exit Strategy

  • Who Would Jesus Bomb? (I carried this one)

  • These Colors Don't Run... The World

It reminded me of the old days a lot, except I saw no drugs. People weren't there to party - the atmosphere was much more serious.

Hopefully we'll see more of these, until the need for them goes away.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Velocity by Billy Collins

From Nine Horses


In the club car that morning I had my notebook
open on my lap and my pen uncapped,
looking every inch the writer
right down to the little writer’s frown on my face,
but there was nothing to write
about except life and death
and the low warning sound of the train whistle.
I did not want to write about the scenery
that was flashing past, cows spread over a pasture,
hay rolled up meticulously —
things you see once and will never see again.
But I kept my pen moving by drawing
over and over again
the face of a motorcyclist in profile —
for no reason I can think of —
a biker with sunglasses and a weak chin,
leaning forward, helmetless,
his long thin hair trailing behind him in the wind.
I also drew many lines to indicate speed,
to show the air becoming visible
as it broke over the biker’s face
the way it was breaking over the face
of the locomotive that was pulling me
toward Omaha and whatever lay beyond Omaha
for me and all the other stops to make
before the time would arrive to stop for good.
We must always look at things
from the point of view of eternity,
the college theologians used to insist,
from which, I imagine, we would all
appear to have speed lines trailing behind us
as we rush along the road of the world,
as we rush down the long tunnel of time —
the biker, of course, drunk on the wind,
but also the man reading by a fire,
speed lines coming off his shoulders and his book,
and the woman standing on a beach
studying the curve of horizon,
even the child asleep on a summer night,
speed lines flying from the posters of her bed,
from the white tips of the pillowcases,
and from the edges of her perfectly motionless body.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

With Apologies to "The Way I See It"

Chances are you are only fleetingly happy.
Chances are you know much less than you think you do.
Chances are you feel a little guilty.
Chances are you want people to lie to you.
Perhaps the answer lies in this blog entry.
You are lost.

With apologies to The Way I See It.

Even Better is Rejected Submissions for Starbuck's The Way I See It

Monday, September 19, 2005

Grey Gardens

I'm a big fan of documentary films, especially ones that focus on real people's lives. Today I want to mention one that I saw last night called Grey Gardens. It was filmed by a guy named Albert Maysles, who also did the documentary Gimme Shelter about the Rolling Stones at Altamonte.

In a real way I hate to say this because the film was about real people, but this one gave me the creeps in a profound way. Both of the main subjects have since passed away, though, so hopefully I won't hurt anyone's feelings too badly.

The film was shot in 1975. The subjects are Edith Bouvier Beale, nearing 80, and her daughter Edie, aunt and cousin respectively to Jackie Bouvier/Kennedy/Onnasis. They reside in a huge 28 room house on Long Island, near the beach in an affluent neighborhood. For reasons that aren't explained but are easily guessed at, the two are shunned by their high society neighbors.

At one point the neighbors brought charges against the two forcing Jackie herself to come in and help them remove the cat and racoon droppings, overgrown weeds and just plain filth that overcame the house. This film is shot some time after that incident , but from the looks of things it won't be long before it happens again.

Despite their surroundings and their seeming obsession with regretting events in the past, the two don't seem all that unhappy. Edie dances and dresses in an extremely bizarre fashion (much of what she wears being hand-me-downs from here more famous cousin). Edith is too old to do much dancing (79) but definitely sings up a storm. Much of the dialog didn't make much sense to me - Edith and Edie seem to speak in their own language, a subdialect of Long Island-ese unique to themselves.

I suppose the feeling that I got from watching this film is that being born to a life of privilege, while envied by many, can be emotionally crippling.

It reminds me of the words to a Simon and Garfunkel song Richard Corey (which was itself based on a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson).

I'm not sure if I recommend this film. It's not for everyone. And I certainly wouldn't watch it purely for for entertainment - I found it a bit tedious and extremely odd. But I'm glad I saw it.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Non-geek notes on software patents

Imagine if some huge corporation suddenly decided to patent the idea of dinnerware, then started charging you a fee every time you ate dinner.

Absurd, you exclaim, and rightly so. However, this is what is happening in the software world. And, because most people shy away from anything that looks even remotely "technical", companies are getting away with it.

A few cases in point.

  • Jeff Bezos, founder of, patented what he calls "1 click shopping." (U.S. Patent No. 5,960,411, "Method and System for Placing a Purchase Order via a Communications Network.") Because of this patent, web sites everywhere are forced to either unnecessarily complicate their on-line shopping carts, pay a fee to Bezos, or face litigation.

  • The company Catrack owns patent 4,197,590, which describes a particular way of writing graphics to a screen using something called XOR (exclusive or). The company has collected huge fees over the years for this, something that was already commonly known and widely used.

  • Rene K. Pardo and Remy Landau own a patent for recalculating numbers in a spreadsheet based on the formulas in the spreadsheet when a single value is changed (U.S. Patent 4398249: Process and apparatus for converting a source program into an object program) and have collected huge fees over the years.

These are all ideas that could be invented in a garage by a teenage geek. It's getting more and more difficult in the United States for anyone to develop any kind of software without having a team of lawyers at hand to examine all algorithms used and to be prepared to defend them against liability.

If such patents had been in place during the early days of computing, the computer/internet revolution would never have gotten off the ground. And the fact that they are in place today will likely force the US to become a technological backwater, as countries such as China, Japan, Germany, France, Sweden, etc. with less generous software patent policies become the centers of inovation.

There's a huge legal battle going on in Europe now that will determine the future of such patents there. Microsoft and other American corporations are spending millions trying to push for stronger European patent laws, but it's beginning to look like the European courts will be less easily bullied than their American counterparts.

Hopefully as the general public gets more technically savy, these coups will be more under public scrutiny and less likely to succeed. But by then it could well be too late.

Side note - I swiped both of the images in this story from the excellent news/discussion site Slashdot. I hope I don't get sued.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Internet Radio

One by one the rock radio stations in this area not controlled by mega corporations have bitten the dust. For the most part DJs have no choice in what they play.

The Internet is changing all of this. Go to Shoutcast and you'll have your choice of hundreds of Internet radio stations to tune in to. Some of my favorites...

  • Radio Paradise - Eclectic intelligent rock. My current favorite source of new music. More on this later.

  • Sleepbot Environmental Broadcast - Great in the background for relaxing, but even better for working. I find it helps me concentrate without fading out.

  • Groove Salad - Something like sleepbot, but more intense. Great background sound.

  • Mostly Classical - A nice source of classical music. Great for a beginner, 'cause it tells you what's playing.

Never mind what I like though. Go to Shoutcast and explore.

Beware though - if you don't explicitly install to play your music player software, you'll have iTunes or Microsoft Media Player popping up trying to steer you in some cockamamie direction. I strongly recommend downloading Winamp, either the free or non-free version.

Happy listening.

Monday, September 12, 2005


Early this year I decided to pick up the Mandolin. I bought one in January. I have some musical background and played a little bit of violin, but my bowing shoulder's been bothering me a little. Plus I wanted something I could play around with while kicked back in the La-Z Boy watching TV. Also I wanted to learn more about chords.

So I got one, a nice Fender FM52E. While this may sound impressive, it's really a pretty low end instrument. But I love it.

Picking up the rudiments of the mandolin was relatively straightforward for me, since the layout of the strings on the fiddle and the mandolin is the same - G, D, A and E. One of the big advantages (for a beginner anyway) the mandolin has over the violin is that it has frets, so it's hard to play out of tune.

The first thing I learned on the mandolin was some fiddle tunes, then picked up a few chords from charts on the internet. I've been working pretty hard at it. I played in front of a couple of dozen people recently, in a strictly informal back porch setting. That was scary but fun.

But now it's time to get a little more serious, so I've arranged to get some lessons from Orrin Star. I'm priviledged to be able to learn from him - he's extremely accomplished, plays in a variety of styles, and seems like a nice guy. Not to mention the fact that he's local.

More on this as I (hopefully) progress.

Sunday, September 11, 2005


We have an incredible cultural resource (one of many here actually) here in Arlington, Virginia that I'd like to introduce you to. It's Signature Theatre.

My wife and I have purchased Signature season tickets for a number of years. We've seen some incredible shows. I mean really terrific, stuff that touched and moved us deeply, lifted our spirits, stimulated our thoughts, broke our hearts, cracked us up, and, occasionally, caused us to leap to our feet in a standing ovation at the end of the show.

Recently we saw what may have been our favorite so far. It's a show called Urinetown. You heard me right. Urinetown.

Urinetown is a musical set in a stylistically post-apocalyptic punk culture. It's a story about a society where the gulf between rich and poor is huge and where the rich fleece the poor through a money making scheme in which people are forced to pay a fee every time they pee, ostensibly to correct problems with the water table. If they are caught urinating outside the law (so to speak) they are sent to a mythical place called Urinetown.

The basic plot for the play came to the playwright Greg Klotis when he was broke in Paris, needed to pee and couldn't afford the pay toilets.

One of the opening numbers takes place Public Amenity #9, a filthy pay-to-pee urinal where people wait in line in agony for the privilege to relieve themselves. The song and dance is done with the performers bent over pressing their knees together in an attempt to hold back the flood inside them. It's hilarious.

After some time the people get angry at this injustice, and, led by handsome Bobby Strong, revolt against the Urine Good Company, it's CEO Caldwell P. Gladwell and his army of suits and bribed politicians.

Slight spoiler follows...

Early in the show I assumed that the moral of this hilarious story would be one a left leaning person like myself would appreciate - the people would rise up, overthrow the tyrants, and live happily ever after. But like life itself, Urinetown's eventual lesson is complex and somewhat ambiguous. The only solid lesson is that the folly of human nature will be keeping us in hot water (no pun intended) for the forseeable future.

This sounds like a rather serious and somber lesson. But the music (played by Signature's great live band), costumes, set design, lighting, dancing and the (as always) absolutely fantastic acting ensemble that is Signature Theatre's strongest asset, make Urinetown a wonderful, boisterous night out.

In short, I recommend it highly.

Note - the attached photo is from the Broadway production of Urinetown.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Catch Up

Hello folks.

Someone close to me has started an excellent blog and it's encouraged me to get back to it.

It's almost embarrassing how long it's been since I posted, and I know my millions of fans are really POed. This'll just be a short post to bring some of the more important issues up to date.

I'll be elaborating on a few of these items in the near future. A few doodads...

  • I've completed my interferon treatments for Hep C. Once the treatment is done, NIH does three more blood tests 2 months apart to determine if the virus is gone or not. The first two month test was done a month ago and I'm clear. Talk about good fortune!

  • I've finished reading Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. It was a wonderful read. And, rare for a book of such magnitude, I found the ending to be entirely satisfying. I actually finished it some time ago but still smile thinking about it.

  • My wife and I are taking a trip to Bettles, Alaska for her 50th birthday, primarily to try and get a glimpse of the northern lights. We're psyched.

That's all for now. Love and kisses. I'd better get back to work.