Archive for July, 2008
There’s a site out there called StumbleUpon.com. It looks to me like another iteration of Digg or del.icio.us, where you can tag a page as interesting, and then “friends” of yours can look at your list & click through to a page. Some sites have a ridiculous string of icons at the bottom of each post to make it easier for people to register with these sites. Here’s Scalzi’s:
Anyway, I’ve always avoided putting these kinds of things on my blog because a) I find them rather annoying, and b) I assumed that relatively few people ever really clicked on them.
Maybe it’s time to reconsider.
Apparently, an 18-year old guy from Pickerington, Ohio stumbled upon my entry from back in November of 2006, in which I commented on Premiere magazine’s list of the Top 20 Overrated Movies of All Time. It’s always been one of my most popular entries, probably because of all the Google-friendly keywords in the text. Anyway, by “most popular,” I mean it gets 10-30 hits per day. Yesterday, though, thanks to Mr. Pickerington, Ohio, that page received 520 pageviews! And 90% of them came directly from the StumbleUpon page.
Kind of makes you think – self promotion may not be the worst thing in the world…
Los Angeles had a 5.4 magnitude earthquake yesterday. There are geological sites all over the web if you want information, but I found this page at the U.S. Geological Survey site particularly interesting. It asks people who felt the quake to fill out a web form that includes their location, the amount of shaking and the amount of damage. As of this writing, they’ve had almost 40,000 respondents, which produces are pretty accurate zip-by-zip map of the quake.
I wonder what Richter would think…
Exciting news: our house renovation project, originally scheduled to end in the mid-October to mid-November time frame, looks like it has a shot at ending by the end of September! Heck, even mid-October would be awesome. When our contractor gave us the schedule for a 4-5 month job, we automatically assumed 6 months or more (there are always delays, cost overruns, etc., right?) Well, these guys are right on top of things and the weather’s been cooperating, so yay us. Also, big kudos to Sherry, who has been right on top of the contractors, as well as the hundreds of decisions we’ve needed to make quickly to keep the project moving so well. She’s done such a great job, she deserves a gift. How about a new house? Good idea…
Anyway, every time I visit the house, I wish I could take our friends & family through it for a tour, but alas, some people live far away and we’re busy just about every weekend with the above-mentioned decision making. So instead, I’ve recorded a “virtual tour,” available by clicking in the Featured Video section on the left of this page.
Two things to note:
First, it’s almost a half hour long, so only click if you’ve got some time to spend! If you want to browse around the house at your leisure, I’d recommend the photo slide show, which was started when the project started, and is updated every couple of days with new photos and commentary (click on the “i” in the middle of the screen to see the captions).
Second thing to note: YouTube has a 10 minute limit on videos, so I had to break it out into 3 parts. The Featured Video section on the left has three links under the picture (or, if you wish, here they are: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).
So feel free to peruse the pictures and videos and leave your comments here. We’ll keep you all updated as things progress (next up: sheet rock!) and, of course, when we actually move in.
How’s this for a lede in a Forbes article:
The geeks are at the gates, and they’ve brought their virtual light sabers. When it comes to nerdery, the legions who camped outside Apple’s stores last month to buy the iPhone have nothing on the developers Apple let loose to write software for it. At least three applications turn the $199 iPhone 3g into a flashlight. Another, World 9, lets out a vintage Nintendo bleep every time you bump the phone. In less than 15 minutes you can load up the iPhone with enough junk to make esthete Steve Jobs lose his vegan lunch of brown rice and broccoli.
The article goes on to describe several other App Store choices. While I haven’t played with the device (or the store), it sounds to me like what you typically get when you provide a powerful tool to the public at large: some really cool applications of the tool and a whole lot of shlock. I will say that GPS on a device with a robust OS is new enough that every application of it gets an automatic +10 on the coolness scale (for example, OmniFocus will remind you of your “Buy milk” Task List item when you walk past the grocery store. Coolness + 10!)
Two news articles in the past week:
Science: Novak’s brain tumor may have affected his vision, his judgement or his consciousness, causing him to hit a pedestrian with his car and drive away without noticing.
Religion: Novak hit a pedestrian with his car and drove away, and now God is punishing him with a brain tumor.
Yet another example of “where you stand depends on where you sit.”
As an anniversary gift, my in-laws bought us tickets to see the latest revival of South Pacific, currently playing at the Lincoln Square Theater in New York.
For those who don’t know (I didn’t until tonight), South Pacific was written in 1949 by the legendary team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It tells the story of two couples who meet while stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. The first is comprised of Nellie Forbush, a young army nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, and Emile de Becque, a well-travelled Frenchman who moved to the islands after a run-in with the law in his hometown. Despite their many differences, they fall in love and plan to marry, until Nellie learns that Emile has two children by a local, Polynesian woman who has since died. Nellie has an adverse reaction to the race of Emile’s former lover, and her racism causes her to end the relationship. The second couple is Lieutenant Joe Cable, a clean-cut boy from Philadelphia, who falls in love with a local Tonkinese girl, Lyatt, but ultimately refuses to marry her because of what the people at home would think of the mixed marriage. From there, the war intercedes to separate each pair, and the two women deal with the guilt, fear, regret, and unrequited love that comes from these initial, racially-motivated decisions.
Along the way, South Pacific delivers some classic Rodgers and Hammerstein songs that you have likely heard before – “Some Enchanted Evening” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta my Hair” (the latter most likely from a 70′s-era Clairol commercial that extolled, “I’m Gonna Wash That Gray Right Outta my Hair”). There are also songs that will sound familiar, but you might not recognize right out of the gate, such as “Bali Ha’i” and “A Cockeyed Optimist.”
With all of that going for it, I’m sorry to report that I found this performance of South Pacific to be an extremely well done staging of a mediocre musical. In other words, while the singing, acting, music, dancing, etc. were spectacular – a wonderfully talented cast – I was surprised to find that such a well-known, time-honored show like South Pacific had so many problems when it came to storytelling.
At it’s core, the issue is the mix between exposition/character development and meaningful plot points. The first act is an hour and forty-five minutes long, and is mostly a light-hearted, good-natured romp. We get to know and like all of the characters during this time, as they laugh and joke with each other over matters of life and love. The first hint of trouble in either of the two main relationships doesn’t come until literally five minutes before intermission, when Nellie reveals that she won’t marry Emile because he slept with a Polynesian woman. When the house lights come on, I found myself wondering why it took so damn long to make such a simple point.
Early in the second act, the other shoe finally drops, as we learn the Lt. Cable won’t marry Lyatt either, for similar, racially-motivated reasons. Then, inexplicably, the members of the army base launch into a fun-loving, raucous Thanksgiving Day celebration show, complete with a very funny drag skit, where one of the men dons a coconut brassiere and plays coy with a nurse dressed in a man’s sailor uniform. While entertaining, this extended diversion takes away whatever momentum the rather serious-minded main plot had developed. At this point, the show turns darker (literally and figuratively), as our light musical comedy with occasional bouts of social consciousness suddenly becomes a war story – complete with maps, secret radio transmissions, and panic-stricken women left to wait nervously while their men risk their lives at war.
I won’t ruin the ending, of course, but I will tell you that whatever commentary the authors sought to make about racism and the choices we make in our lives could easily have been made quite strongly in roughly half an hour. Interspersing that story throughout two and a half hours of tangentially related music and fun watered it down to such a degree that this audience member, at least, walked away unsatisfied.
One last side note: after the curtain calls, a quote appears on a large screen, describing how the men and women in the South Pacific during World War II would one day fade into history, much like those at Shiloh or Valley Forge have already done. It occurred to me that in 1949, when the show debuted, the memories of World War II were so fresh that such a notion was likely a sobering one. Reading the quote in 2008, when it’s prediction has essentially come to pass, I was impressed by how the same quote could be so sobering to two different generations for almost diametrically opposite reasons.
Alas, if only the show’s message had hit home as strongly.
This from last week’s Wall Street Journal:
Federal Reserve officials marked up their outlook for inflation and economic growth in their latest projections. But their estimates suggest little expectation that underlying inflation trends will deteriorate significantly through 2010.
At the June policy meeting, officials projected that the rate of economic growth by the end of the year would be between 1% and 1.6%, up from 0.3% to 1.2% in their April estimates. The 2009 outlook was unchanged, with officials expecting growth between 2% and 2.8%.
Fed officials marked up their inflation projections for this year, measured by the price index for personal consumption expenditures, to between 3.8% and 4.2%, up from the 3.1% to 3.4% seen in April. The outlook for inflation next year was 2% to 2.3%, up only slightly from the 1.9% to 2.3% from the April meeting.
Expectations for the unemployment rate, now 5.5%, was unchanged at 5.5% to 5.7%.
Translation: in the coming months, the economy’s anemic growth rate is expected to increase, inflation is expected to remain high, and the job market is expected to remain relatively stagnant.
Here’s the thing: increasing prices (particularly for food and fuel – two things everybody buys in one way or another) and the stagnant job market affect people directly in the pocketbooks. Times are tough, especially for those on the lower part of the income scale. This is a real problem that we should take steps to correct, whether it be tax policy, interest rate management, stimulus packages or anything in between.
But despite these problems, our economy is growing. In other words, it may feel like a recession, but it isn’t a recession. In still other words, things could be a lot worse. The growing economy is what’s keeping the job market from falling apart, keeping wages stable, and probably keeping inflation from spinning wildly out of control.
All of the above isn’t particularly good news, but it’s probably a relatively non-controversial message. That is, unless you happen to distinguish between “feels like a recession” and “is a recession” by using the term “mental recession” and tagging the people who keep calling it a recession “whiners.” Then, it’s very controversial. And, suddenly, both candidates (who are supposed to be pitching their economic plans to us) have to distance themselves from you. Also, the various pundits and economic experts that pepper out national media lose the ability to analyze what you meant, instantly ignore your impressive resume when it comes to economic matters, and choose instead to characterize you as a nut-ball who suddenly and inexplicably lost his mind.
They told me that when the election came around, the central issue would be achieving victory in Iraq . . . and they were right! Of course, I assumed they meant victory for America versus victory for Al Qaeda. Turns out, the debate is really about whether the victory belongs to John McCain or Barack Obama.
Here’s the context: John McCain has been a staunch supporter of the President’s Iraqi strategy for some time now, particularly on the “surge” of 30,000 troops and on drawing down our forces based on “conditions on the ground,” rather than a pre-determined timetable. Barack Obama, on the other hand, famously predicted that a surge would not reduce violence in Iraq but would “do the reverse.” Obama has also repeatedly stated that as President, he would withdraw our troops at a rate of 1-2 brigades a month, until the last of our combat troops are home after approximately 16 months.
Now, Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has publicly stated that due to improved conditions in the country, the upcoming end of the U.N. charter that allows U.S. troops to be in Iraq marks a good time to start discussing a rational draw down of American troops. He “aspirational timeline” is a full withdrawal of all combat troops by the end of 2010.
The good news is, it looks like the Iraqi war finally has an end in sight. The political debate, then, turns to who was right and who was wrong. McCain claims that Maliki’s statements reflect what he’s been saying all along – improvements in the situation on the ground have created a scenario in which troop draw downs can begin. Obama claims that Maliki agrees with his timetable (the end of 2010 would be roughly 23 months after Obama takes office which, one presumes, is close enough to 16 months to claim victory).
This gray area causes the kind of political spin that makes me so dizzy, I want to log off, tune out, and vote for Mickey Mouse in November. On the one hand, you have John McCain doing press interviews, in which he answers every question with “Obama was wrong on the surge.” And when I say every question, I mean every question – even questions about the economy. The “Straight Talk Express” has seemingly turned into the “Talking Points Local.”
On the other hand, you have Barack Obama quietly modifying the Iraq page on his website to remove criticisms of the surge, and claiming that knowing what he knows now, he still would not have supported the surge, because the political victory was more important than the 80% reduction in violence we’ve experienced in the last year. Here’s the money quote from that video:
Q: If you had to do it over again, knowing what you know now, would you support the surge?
A: No, because keep in mind, that . . . hypotheticals are very difficult, hindsight is 20/20, but I think that what I’m absolutely convinced of is that at that time, we had to change the political debate because the view of the Bush administration at that time was one that I just disagreed with.
Does this strike anyone else as eerily similar to Bush’s statements early in the war, that knowing what he knows now about the lack of WMD’s in Iraq, he still would have invaded? Why are politicians so afraid to admit that things didn’t turn out as they expected them to? Would it be so terrible to say you’d have done things differently if you had perfect foresight on the consequences? Are we looking for someone who’s really good at predicting the future, or someone who makes the best decisions based on the information he has available at the time? Or, to put it more pointedly, since the societal zeitgeist is that George W. Bush lied to us about WMD’s to go to war, can we now say that Barack Obama lied to us about the surge in an attempt to get more troops killed? I didn’t think so…
And it gets even worse: Obama now claims that Afghanistan is the “central front in the war on terror,” even though he voted against funding for troops in Afgahnistan as recently as May of 2007. And two week ago, McCain said the issue in Afghanistan was trouble along the Afghan/Pakistani border, which should be dealt with “across a broad variety of areas,” none of which included an increase in American troops. Then last week, as Obama was preparing to visit Afghanistan, McCain said, “Our commanders on the ground in Afghanistan say that they need at least three additional brigades. Thanks to the success of the surge, these forces are becoming available, and our commanders in Afghanistan must get them.”
Talking points, of course, are not new to political campaigns. What is new (or at least newer) is the transparency Americans now have when a candidate says what he wants (only) a particular audience to hear. Thus far, I’ve perceived Obama to be the more thoughtful, fact-based candidate. But ever since the primaries ended, he has mirrored McCain in his willingness to substitute “message” for “content.” I can only hope that changes for both candidates in the near future, lest we all wind up electing the guy with the best speech writers, rather than the best candidate.
I’ve been saying for many years now that the killer app on the iPod has not yet been written. However, with the release of iPhone 3G (and, more specifically, the App Store), Apple has moved one step closer to that holy grail. But not quite all the way.
Allow me to explain myself. The killer app for the iPod, I believe, is one that will allow me to listen to Internet radio (or even broadcast radio) on my iPod, hear a song I like, and push a button to purchase that song for $0.99 and download it to my iTunes music library. I call this the killer app, because it opens up something that ITMS doesn’t really provide today – the awesome power of the impulse buy. When you have a product that sells for $0.99, you want, nay, you NEED your customers to be able to go from “want” to “have” in less than a second. Make them think about for any longer than that, and most of them will move on to something else, never to return to that fertile moment.
Just as an example, imagine a school bus full of teenagers, all with iPods (attached to their parents’ credit cards), and all dishing to each other about the awesome new song that Bon Jovi (or whoever) just put out. Now, imagine that song comes on the radio, and one kid says, “Ooh…I’m buying it right now!” <Click>. What happens next? That’s right: <Click>, <Click>, <Clickety-click-click-click-click>. Ca-Ching!
Obviously, there are (or were?) several technical issues standing in the way of my killer app scenario. But, reports are out today that Apple’s new App Store is rife with several music-related applications(costing between $0.00 and $9.99) that bring iPod functionality into that wonderful, WiFi-enabled, 3G world of theirs.
First, there’s Last.FM, which isn’t really radio, but still lets you listen to large quantities of streaming music for free (just like radio). The iPhone app gives you a link that will let you purchase the song you’re listening to via ITMS on a WiFi connection. It’s close, but it’s only relegated to the Last.FM userbase, so the social network atmosphere I describe above doesn’t really get to fully spread its wings.
Then there are Shazam and Midomi Mobile. Shazam allows you to hold your iPhone’s microphone up to a music source (e.g., a radio), at which point it will pattern-match to figure out the song it’s hearing, and then provide you a link to purchase the song via ITMS. Midomi Mobile is even cooler, in that it let’s you sing/hum a few bars of a song, and then plays a hi-tech version of “Name That Tune.” If it’s right (and, I suppose, even if it’s wrong), you can buy the song you just hummed with a single click. Once again, very close, but you still need someone else’s radio (or a good singing voice) to make it work.
That said, if they can do that, then they can do this. I think it’s only a matter of time now…
I’ve posted a series of pictures that I took during Billy Joel’s “Last Play at Shea” on July 16, 2008. Click the picture to the left to see them (or check out my “Featured Photos” in the left-hand margin!)
Also, for those who haven’t heard yet, the guest stars in the second show (July 18, 2008 – the true“Last Play at Shea” were somewhat different than the show I saw. Tony Bennett reprised his appearance, but John Mayer, Don Henley and John Mellencamp were replaced by Steven Tyler (“Walk This Way”), Roger Daltry (“My Generation”) and the Sir Paul McCartney (“I Saw Her Standing There” and “Let it Be”).
From what I’ve read, the Who song was punctuated by Billy Joel smashing a guitar on stage – a nice throwback to that signature move by The Who. But it was the McCartney appearance that really tells a story: The Beatles were the first rock show to perform at Shea Stadium, and in doing so, they changed the face of American Rock & Roll forever. It was more than fitting that Sir Paul came out to sing in this, the stadium’s last rock show. Even more fitting was the way in which Billy Joel gave up his stage (and his piano) after the vaulted Piano Man, and allowed Sir Paul to close out the stadium with the classic Let It Be.
Billy Joel has always had a lot of class. That finale not only showed his class, but also his deep respect for the history of that great institution that is Rock & Roll.
Bravo, Billy! Bravo, Sir Paul!