glamour and sophistication!

I’m taking the day off work to go to Atlantic City.  Yes, yes, I know.  I feel a little sheepish about all this.  But listen, if you and your friends were inexplicably offered a junket to a gambling mecca on the strength of your sparsely-written food blog, you’d take it, too. Particularly if it came with a free limo ride up I-95.

For the past week I’ve been relearning my betting tables, buying some laughably aspirational card-counting iPhone apps and mentally preparing myself for the worldly cosmopolitanism of the Atlantic City boardwalk (last time I was there I saw a leathery woman in too much makeup and not enough cocktail dress stomp up the boards, a shady-looking grifter-type in pursuit — the type of guy who’s always down on his luck, which is is probably best for everyone.  As they passed she turned and asked/exclaimed, “GOD, WHY ARE YOU UP MY BUTT TWENTY-FOUR SEVEN?”

Onward, to Jersey!

Zeitgeist – Atlantic City

Bizkit as bellwether

They say that music gets worse under Democratic administrations.  Given the particular excitement surrounding Barack Obama’s election, we may be in for an especially dismal musical interlude.  Don’t believe me?  Consider: Limp Bizkit announced their reunion twenty days after Obama’s inauguration.  Worse, Wikipedia reveals that the initial incarnation of the band ended in September 2001, the exact point at which the Bush presidency shifted modes from “Gump” to “Childers”.

It’s not just the one band, of course.  You can’t tell me that this is at all encouraging.

On the upside, I seem to have picked a good time to become too old to engage with pop culture.


The switch to WordPress killed my RSS feed, and I only just realized it.  Sorry about that.  If it’s still not working for you and you consequently aren’t reading this, please leave a comment to the effect that you haven’t been told to leave a comment.

making it easier to move from the browser to the iPhone

Although it is arguably as much a business innovation as a technological one, there’s no doubt that the iPhone has radically altered the mobile device landscape, and, in the process, profoundly changed the way that Americans think about sitting on the toilet.

In fact, its uses extend beyond this crass but foremost example.  You’ve also got your standing-in-line downtime, the crucial waiting-for-coffee-to-brew period, and of course miscellaneous hours spent idly fiddling while in meetings. If I’m not mistaken, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is on record as saying that high scores from Sudoku games played on mobile devices account for most of the productivity gains of the past decade.

Personally, I like to use the device to catch up on my online reading.  But this crucial electronic-fucking-around is slowed by the need to enter URLs.  If you’re like me, typically you’ll have some long-form article open in a neglected browser tab: say, 2000 words from Sasha Frere-Jones on why your implicit acceptance of the latest top 40 hit means you’re more — and less! — racist than you thought.  It’s something I mean to read, but which the demands of the workday have made me put off.  As I leave my desk to pursue less productive activities (food acquisition; interaction with humans), I frequently find myself wishing I had that article loaded on my handset.  But the only way to move it there without tedious typing is to email myself the link, then check my email, then click on the link.  If only there was an almost perfectly equivalent but slightly faster way!

Well, you’re/I’m in luck!  I twittered this ridiculous first-world complaint the other day, and @tbridge and @jroo helpfully pointed me toward Prowl, a $2.99 iPhone app that takes the 3.0 firmware’s push notification capabilities and wraps them in a simple API.

This opens the door to creating a bookmarklet that grabs your browser’s current URL and pushes it to your phone.  The phone will buzz, you’ll click the “view” button, and you can then follow the link.  Easy!  Here’s the bookmarklet.  Just follow these steps (which, I should note, have only been tested in Firefox 3.5):

  1. Buy Prowl.  Open it on your iPhone — you’ll need to register with its parent site and give the app permission to display notifications.
  2. Using your newly-created credentials, log into the Prowl site. Go to the settings tab and create an API key by clicking the appropriate button.
  3. Paste the API key into the form field below. Click the “Create Bookmarklet” button. NOTE: the customization of the bookmarklet is done in client-side Javascript, entirely within your browser — don’t worry, you won’t be sending me your API key.
  4. Drag the newly-created button into your browser’s quicklaunch bar.

Simple!  Now when you click that bookmarklet a new window will be briefly opened.  It’ll submit a request to the Prowl site that contains the current URL that you’re looking at.  Shortly thereafter you should get a message on your phone with the link.

As for the new window: I admit, it’s inelegant to spawn a popup.  But the Prowl API only accepts POSTed requests, which, barring a sudden and deeply unwise decision on their part to host third-party scripts, rules out a more seamless AJAX solution.  The popup works well enough, although on especially slow connections the window may wind up closed before the request goes through.  A better solution would involve a timer that checks the spawned window for when its location.href property suddenly becomes inaccessible due to cross-domain security policies (indicating that the page it contains is now being served by the Prowl domain).  But my first crack at that didn’t work, so for now you guys are stuck with this.

“idiotic” and “sympathetic” are mutually exclusive

Via Tim, here’s the AP’s new plan for protecting its content from the depredations of those who would seek to promote it. Apparently they’ll be adding a “digital wrapper” to each story, which will contain some sort of invisible watermark, or something, and will be able to communicate with the AP’s servers in order to track unauthorized use — including, astoundingly, use that is nothing more than a linked headline. A few points:

  1. This plan is technologically hopeless.  It is essentially an effort to install DRM into plain text.  That’s impossible.  DRM schemes fail even when added to executable, binary file formats that are read by systems under the control of the content publisher.  Neither of those conditions apply here, nor will they, unless the AP attempts to eschew the web browser entirely.  Presumably they’re counting on some Javascript to phone home.  That’ll work fine for AP member sites, but it will not survive the copy-and-pasted trip into a HuffPo blockquote.
  2. This plan is dishonest.  It’s interesting that the AP thinks its headlines contain so much unique value that they deserve protection — very interesting indeed, given that member organizations habitually rewrite those headlines (without penalty from the AP, of course).
  3. Even if the plan could work, it wouldn’t work the way they seem to think.  From the article:

    “If someone can build multibillion-dollar businesses out of keywords, we can build multihundred-million businesses out of headlines, and we’re going to do that,” Mr. Curley said. The goal, he said, was not to have less use of the news articles, but to be paid for any use.

    Similarly, if a lemonade stand starts charging $1000 per glass, their intent is probably not to reduce lemonade purchases. It’s simply to create an industry-sustaining level of revenue. And who can argue with that?

It’s really kind of astounding.  I can’t claim to know much about econ — once I figured out that “where the lines cross” was the answer to every exam question in 101, I pretty much tuned out — but the realities of the situation should be apparent to anyone who’s thought about these questions for even a moment.

CLARITY!: Also via Tim, a diagram of how the scheme will work.  I was wrong!  All this talk about “sending signals back” pointed toward Javascript, but that “hNews format” label gives the game away: they’re going to use microformats.  Microformats are a beautifully simple idea: adding meaningful data to HTML markup in the form of specific class tags. They were big with the semantic web crowd before they got confused and started spending all their time reinventing XML and relational database technology.

Microformats won’t actively cause signals to be sent back, but the AP can run a spider to look for instances of them.  And the information might survive a copy and paste! If the copier doesn’t paste into Notepad in between! And they don’t block the AP spider!

So yeah, it’s still hopeless.  These guys need to start lobbying for substantial expansions of copyright law — that’s the only way I can see this working.  Or maybe they’ll put clickwrap licenses around every AP news site that mandate preservation of the microformat data in all subsequent use.  Either way it’d prompt a very interesting legal fight.

I assume that IR classes already discuss the Iron Sheik

20090722_defjamvendettaThe blogosphere, and now NPR, have been abuzz recently with analyses of the new beef between Jay-Z and The Game, as expressed in the language of international relations. This is all to the good — the more the blogosphere resembles drunken bullshitting, the happier I am. yet this approach carries problems. The quality and quantity of hip hop feuds is erratic; we can’t count on them to provide a reliable source of rhetorical inspiration. Recognizing this problem, let me humbly suggest a stupider alternative.

You guys should start watching more professional wrestling. Hear me out.

At this point, hip hop beefs are clearly artifice — in fact it seems strange to recall that this wasn’t always obvious. The transparent motivation for this feud, and most, is to increase the relevance of a lesser player like The Game. And this is for the best: like punk rock and heavy metal before it, hip hop seems to have realized that a musical genre can celebrate brutality or authenticity, but not both — not if it wants to be a successful enterprise rather than just self-annihilating performance art. Yet despite this unavoidable choice, the realities of the genre’s history and the demands of its fanbase make a definitive choice between these alternatives impossible.

This merely-half-hearted embrace of fakery places limits on the flamboyance of any conflict. What’s the root of this current beef? The Game insulting Jay-Z’s wife? By any theatrical standard that’s a pretty weak source of motivation. Yet because of the pretense that it was real, even this mild offense was considered by hip hop observers to be beyond the pale.

Professional wrestling does not submit to such arbitrary narrative restrictions. There, the feuds are rooted in more satisfyingly concrete disagreements. Like when Kurt Angle became upset because Stone Cold Steve Austin had sprayed him with a beer truck’s high-pressure discharge hose. Or when the Big Bossman, for reasons known only to him, interrupted The Big Show’s father’s funeral by chaining the coffin to the back of his patrol car and driving haphazardly across the graveyard in which the funeral party had assembled. Or when Triple H drugged and kidnapped his boss’s daughter in order to marry her against her will in Las Vegas (an admittedly troubling arrangement that, feminists will be glad to know, was ultimately vindicated when Stephanie McMahon renounced her ties to her father and asserted her retroactive consent).

I know what you’re thinking: there is no parallel here. None of this has anything to do with feuding rappers. I appreciate that the shift in dramatic scale is somewhat jarring, but I think there are real parallels. In both industries, charisma and braggadocio provide a more compelling set of attributes that supplement a skill-set that is frequently only of nominal importance (wrestling ability; verbal skills). Conflicts are typically resolved through a strangely constrained vocabulary (wrestling moves; assertions about how much cocaine each speaker has sold). Departures from these vocabularies can prompt the audience to dismiss the formal relevance of the associated actions (belts do not change hands if you are only able to pin your opponent after hitting him with a sledge hammer; sales and critical acclaim are often dismissed with appeals to authenticity). Both mediums sustain their vitality through a sort of “farm system” that suffers from fewer commercial constraints (regional promotions; mix tapes). Supporting groups are formed around stars to promote new or marginal talent. The approbation of the fanbase is the ultimate source of political capital, although the development of strategic business relationships allows each industry’s top players to semi-permanently cement their positions as kingmakers. Hell, both industries have even got a guy called The Game.

So take some time. Consider my proposal. Read up on Def Jam: Vendetta, which is something like a Grand Unified Field Theory for the preceding post. And recognize that there’s no reason to resist the narrative ridiculousness that you truly crave. You don’t have to settle for half-assed efforts at thug life improv. Embrace the authentically inauthentic.


I should really have gone to bed a while ago, but I just couldn’t stand it any longer.  Movable Type.  Oh, Movable Type.  I stood by you for so long.  But Perl is a wasteland.  And now, having spent a vast amount of time recompiling Apache just to export my archives, I know I made the right decision.

Besides, I’ve been feeling the blogging itch lately — Twitter ceases to satisfy — so I figured I may as well try to facilitate my dreams of writing more frequently.  WordPress is just much, much nicer these days.

I apologize for how much crap is probably broken.  I know the front page works all right (except for the Twitter feed), and permalinks should redirect, but that’s about it.  I’ll have a closer look when I’ve got a sec, but if, in the meantime, you discover any weirdness, please do feel free to leave me a comment to that effect.  Assuming the comments work.

coal is a much better bicyclist than you


Yglesias links to a new blog about “sustainable mobility”. As a bike triumphalist, this is right up my alley. But the post at the top of the page is… unfortunate. Entitled “There Must Be a Catch, Right?”, it discusses a student’s proposal to attach power-generating systems to the fleets of bikesharing programs, collect riders’ spare energy, sell it back to the grid and pass the savings on to the consumer. It sounds great! Until you start doing math!

There’s some confusion about whether the power would come from regenerative braking or is siphoned off during pedaling. For a moment, let’s keep this in the realm of the plausible and stipulate that it’ll be from regenerative braking (anybody who’s used a generator-powered bike light knows that they make pedaling unpleasantly difficult). How much energy could be harvested from a cyclist coming to a complete stop? Well, let’s specify an implausibly heavy average cyclist (100 kg/220 lbs), an implausibly heavy bike (20 kg/45 lbs), an implausibly fast speed (48 kph/30 mph). Plug it into this equation and you’ll get 10,773 joules per stop. Now let’s specify an also-implausible 100 stops per mile — you’d be accelerating to 30mph and stopping every 53 feet. How much energy would you generate for every mile traveled?

The depressing answer: about 0.2 kilowatt hours. Which, using these figures, works out to about 2.25 cents’ worth of electricity.

And of course not only are the above figures unrealistically optimistic, but the impracticality of having everyone drag along extension cords introduces new problems: the battery system will cost you a lot of energy. The conversions from kinetic energy to electrical energy, from electrical energy to chemical energy, and from chemical energy back to electrical energy will all be far from perfectly efficient. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this eat up half of the energy generated.

Sadly, this doesn’t look like a compelling case for spending money to outfit bikes with regenerative braking systems. You’ll save much, much more energy by simply avoiding motorized transportation than you will by trying to squeeze more energy out of your bike.

But although this is bleak news for this particular instance of innumerate ecothusiasm, I still find the situation kind of inspirational: it’s a reminder that the forces we casually harness are incredibly vast when compared to the relatively meager capabilities of our biology. That’s not bad for a species that watches as much Law & Order as we do.

how else can you explain carbon fiber?

During my Artomatic shift on Saturday I finished Charles Stross’s The Atrocity Archives, the first in a series of scifi novels that I heard of via Paul Krugman’s blog, of all places. The book’s conceit is appealing: certain mathematical constructions possess mystical powers — often dangerous ones. Our humble protagonist is part of a highly specialized, highly secret, and highly bureaucratic arm of the British government devoted to suppressing such dangerous technology. It’s Lovecraft + spy thriller + ironic office comedy — brazenly so, to the point where the author breaks down his influences in an irritating postscript essay. Still, it was an enjoyable read.

As an unexpected bonus (though I probably should have seen it coming), the book’s villains include a cadre of Nazi occultists, the sorts of guys who’d love to see a restoration of the Reich, but who, if that doesn’t work out, would be perfectly content to settle for the apocalypse. If you’ve heard me prattle on about Hellboy you know that crazed Nazi sorcerors are among my all-time favorite pulp bad guys (seriously: how much more villainy can you ask of a villain?). So this was a pleasant way for the book to turn out.

It got me thinking, though, that there must be some source text that discusses the Nazis’ bizarre forays into the occult which has influenced people like Charles Stross, Mike Mignola, and anyone else who’s penned a story about Hyperborea, the Spear of Destiny or other WWII-era mystical weirdness. So naturally I started plopping search terms into Amazon, hoping to find a definitive account of the aforementioned malevolent hoodoo.

I’m still looking, but have at least stumbled on an interesting tangent: judging by the name, it’s entirely possible that the Nazis’ secret occult society escaped the war, laid low, and is now manufacturing car luggage. More as this story develops.

iphone/nextbus progress

nextbus on the iphoneNextbus stops! Served by Google App Engine! Displayed on the iPhone!

Of course:

  • The app crashes as soon as you try to do anything after the map loads.
  • There are way too many pins. And I don’t want them to be pins anyway. And the stops aren’t likely to change often so I should actually move this operation off the network and onto the iPhone, which might mean reimplementing geohash, which I don’t yet fully understand (but know to be neat!).
  • I haven’t written code to query Nextbus for predictions. This will be fairly easy, but exactly how I want to handle caching is an open question.

Still: wheels, motion, etc.

P.S. Objective C suuuuuucks