May 31, 2004

Classic Music is Dead (or at least Terminal)

by psu

Events have conspired this week to bring up a topic that I find sort of near and dear to my heart and yet simultaneously deeply depressing. That topic is the state of "classical" music in our modern times. Growing up, my father listened to nothing but classical music in the same way he read no paper except the New York Times. Once you hear the best, he reasoned, nothing else is interesting.

Of course, I've recently seen crossover panflute music in his CD collection, so not everything is forever, but that's another story.

I, of course, did not remain immune to the pop music of the day, but as I got into college and especially graduate school, my music taste tended to drift towards "serious" music, as opposed to "pop" music. So while I try to keep my feet in the pop arena as well, I buy mostly jazz and classical. I go to jazz and classical concerts. I subscribe to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. And so on.

First, let's get some terms out of the way. When I say "classical" music, I mean specifically music that has evolved from the Western European art music tradition. But I also mean the more modern incarnations of such: orchestral film music, some show music, and so on. Generally anything that would be played at a subscription concert at the PSO falls in line here, except maybe for the Drek that they hoist on the audience for the "Pops" series.

You don't have to go much further than a PSO concert to get a picture of what the classical music scene is like these days. It's old. I'm not sure I've met a regular concert goer (by regular, I mean at least 12 shows a year, which I used to do before I had a son) younger than me.

You also notice a few things:

1. A lot of the young people are there as a one off, or to see someone famous from their ethnic group. They often have no idea what is going on.

2. Everyone hates the "new" music. Even I, who have sat through 2 hours of Cecil Taylor going completely apeshit crazy free jazz while reciting poetry, think that most of the new music is completely pointless.

3. The whole experience is incredibly ritualistic. We all sit quietly (well, except for the people on life support). We all clap at the right times, we all stand and clap at the end, even when the performance sucks (that's depressing).

4. Efforts to break up the ritual... the conductor giving little speeches, guest speakers, video of the players, subtitles, and so on, always end up being at best badly produced and at worst insulting. I remember one guest speaker getting up and reading from a paper he had given at some music conference for twenty minutes before the Orchestra came out and just destroyed us with a soul crushingly beautiful performance of the Mahler 9th. I wished they had had a gong to get rid of the guy 5 minutes in.

5. Finally, the programming is depressingly conservative. This is not to say that I wish they'd play more pointless new music. I wish they'd play some of the new music that does exist that is not pointless. 20th century Russian music besides Shostakovich and Prokoviev, central European music, even some of the more interesting film music would be better than the constant stream of unlistenable drek combined with another ditty that Mozart ripped off before he was 12.

All of these things point to a few general syndromes in the classical music world.

1. The audience is often passive, ignorant, closed-minded, and growing old.

2. The people who program the shows think the audience is even older than it is, and are completely paralyzed by it.

3. Classical music, as such, has become completely detached from the fabric of the musical culture of the time. People don't know what to do with it, and no one seems to have any idea how to make it connect up again.

The third point is the one that has come to the fore this week.

First, the New York Times published two pieces that illustrate better than I possibly can the disconnect between the classical music world and the real world:

First we find out about how this "young" violinist has been putting up with nonsense about the cover photo from her first record for almost ten years.

Then there was this piece about how the New York Phil is trying to attract the geek gadget crowd by giving them Palm Pilots that display live video and program notes:

My feeling is this:

1. Only in the pathetic museum world of classical music would anyone complain about an attractive woman being semi-naked on an album cover.

2. If you have to explain the music to people in real time to keep them interested, you've already lost. The problem here is not that the show is no good, the problem is that the people never had an interest in the first place.

This brings us to the third piece of media on this subject, the current episode of STUDIO 360 , which is about the future of the Orchestra. Here, among other things, Daniel Baranboim and Greg Sandow argue over tiny little semantic quibbles, never realizing that they both agree on a central premise: classic music these days is culturally irrelevant.

Barenboim observed, correctly, that even the elite of our time, the most educated and succesful could get to be 30 or 40 and know nothing about classical music. He phrased this as "knowing nothing about music", which isn't quite right. But the point stands. This music is not the central pillar of the culture the way it used to be.

Sandow then "disagreed" with Baranboim while having made exactly the same point: he said that people in his audiences with degrees in English literature didn't seem to understand that there could be this music with a complex narrative structure, like a novel or film... but that these same people could be serious consumers of jazz, pop, folk music, and so on.

I think that this is basically the same point, and the basic reason why classical music is dead. We live in a world where even if you have great interest in music overall, classical music can completely miss your radar screen.

I don't think there are simple solutions to this. Certainly "education" and "outreach" are not enough, unless you can reach out and educate 2 generations of parents who have grown up on pop music and album oriented rock. I am pessimistic that this is the world we are stuck in and it's not likely to get a lot better. I mean, I don't even make it to the PSO shows anymore since I have a two year old. They are just too tiring. And I like the stuff.

I think for the music to survive and continue to be relevant, we need more parents like my dad, and you aren't going to get that with some new outreach program and a few Palm Pilots.

Posted by psu at 10:40 AM | Comments (4)


by peterb

I've invited psu to join me in this little writing adventure, which means the name -- Tea and Peterb -- will no longer be appropriate.

Besides, secretly I hated that name anyway. Suggestions are welcome.

Posted by peterb at 10:14 AM | Comments (2)

May 28, 2004

City of Heroes

by peterb

In the mid-80's, Saturday's were for going over to Junot Diaz's apartment (yes, "that" Junot Diaz) where we'd go into the basement and play role-playing games. I'd say we played "all day and all night," but really they played all day and all night, and I'd play for just a couple of hours until my mother called and yelled at me to come home, because she thought it was unhealthy for a teenage boy to spend 14 hours in the basement playing D&D (personal to mom: OK, 20 years have passed and I can admit it. You were right.)



Saturdays were, in other words, geek days. We didn't actually play D&D; typically we played in various intricate universes that Junot had created, using Rolemaster or Spacemaster from a company called Iron Crown Enterprises to resolve the combats. These systems focused on lovingly gory descriptions of exactly what happened when you hit your opponent, so you'd roll a die and look up column "D" on the "slash critical" table to find out that your opponent had severed your achilles tendon, causing you to fall to the ground in agony, or you'd look in column "E" on the "pierce critical" to see that your arrow went straight through the enemy horseman's eye and into his brain, killing him instantly. There were critical tables for bludgeoning, burns, explosions -- it was fun. Characters didn't tend to live very long. Roleplaying games, pizza, coca-cola, and comics books -- lots of comic books.

I have always been an avid comic book reader. I learned to read at an extremely young age primarily so that I could read comic books. To this day, I'll read anything I can get my hands on. Danny Clowes, Robert Crumb, Superman, Archie and Veronica -- it doesn't matter. I am egregiously unselective about it. Something about the medium moves me.

One in-joke in our group used had to do with a comic book character Junot introduced me to called Nexus. Nexus was basically Space Ghost with angst. He had strange dreams of mass murderers, feeling the death throes of every one of their victims, which tortured him until he assassinated the killers. The first mass-murderer he killed was his own father (paging Dr. Jung, white courtesy telephone). He could fly, he shot energy beams that could travel around corners, he was practically invulnerable. So when someone was about to get stomped in our game in a particularly brutal way, the joke was to lift your arms, angle your hands together down at the target and say "Fwhoooooosh!", thus implying that a Nexus-level amount of death and carnage was about to happen.

Later, when I got to college, I could play all the games I wanted, whether they were role playing games or computer games, without my mom calling and yelling at me. One of the games I was involved in was called "Champions," which was basically a build-your-own-superhero sort of thing. I played with a bunch of other freshmen and sophomores on the verge of failing out of CMU. My character for that campaign was a thinly-disguised version of Nexus: I had adopted Junot's hero as my own.

Which brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation to City of Heroes, a massively multiplayer onling role playing game whose conceit is: be a superhero.

Nexus (City of Heroes)

Nexus, in-game

I'm not much enamoured of playing games with people I don't know, so for my tastes the adjective "massive" when applied to an online game is generally a derogatory term. In the context of this game, however, it works. What makes comic books -- and here I'm generally speaking of American "hero" genre comic books -- work is the way that deep cultural archetypes are, quite literally, worn on the sleeves of the characters, often in bright colours with festive silk trim. And this is what I enjoy about City of Heroes: gawking at the characters other people come up with, as well as, truth to tell, coming up with my own. Here's my heroic shadow for the world to see: I can play Nexus in a videogame now.

Of course you see lots of people emulating their favorite heroes from comic books they've read. I've seen at least one Superman, a few Spider-men, and Santa Claus, and of course I've already talked about my version of Nexus. But it's the heroes people create themselves that are the most fun. There's the four foot tall gray haired old lady with the spider on her chest, named "Grandma Death". There's the angst-ridden teenage girl with a big letter "O" on her costume named "The Overanalyzer." Occasionally you see people who coordinate their costumes, which makes an already surreal world even stranger. My contribution to the oeuvre is Harriet Houdini -- great-granddaughter of the famous escape artist and medium debunker, she was debunking a presumed charlantan's seance when she discovered that this one was real; a few psychic transfusions from an evil ancient Egyptian god later and, ta-da! A brand-new superhero is born. As much fun as the costumes are, I admit I love the names people come up with, too. Fearleader. The Guy. Darth Mall.

The actual game portion of City of Heroes isn't very much fun: you run around kicking ass by pointing your mouse at villains and repeatedly pressing buttons to activate your Mysterious Powers, and then wait for them to recharge. Then, like a rat pressing a lever hoping for a food pellet, you press the button again. The strange thing is, although it's not much fun to play it's a heck of a lot of fun to watch. It's fun to just find a safe perch and watch the fireworks fly.

Grandma Death

Grandma Death

The developers have done a good job of coming up with interesting super powers. They've divided up superheroes into five rough archetypes. Blasters are frail but do a lot of damage by shooting ice, fire, electricity, or guns from a distance. Controllers can brainwash, use telekinesis, control gravity, and similar psychic-like powers. Tankers can take a lot of damage in melee, and scrappers can dish out a lot of damage in melee. Lastly, defenders provide support and healing for their team members. Many of the more interesting powers have the restriction that you can't use them on yourself, but may only use them on a team member, so there is some incentive built in to the game for taking on the (repetitive, boring) missions as a member of a team.

As you level up you will have the opportunity to gain more powers, but most archetypes are interesting right out of the box -- the game manages to avoid the trap of "The first few levels are boring" by giving every archetype some neat powers right away. While you can't be flying or leaping tall buildings right away, you can reach those heights in relatively short order. And while you're floating along, you will continually encounter heroes and personalities you never expected to meet such as Penny Arcade's Dr. Raven Darktalon Blood.

Street Scene

A super team

Is it worth it, either in time and money? I'm not sure. I love the configuration tool that lets you define what your hero looks like; you can literally spend hours and hours adjusting the finest details of your little dollie's clothing, trying on different shoes, belts, spandex, appliqués, and other accessories. But if you want to play, you have to pay: $50 for the game, and a $15 / month, with the first month's fee being include in the price of the software. If you don't have an account, you can't even get to the hero creation screen, so once you decide you've had enough of the game you won't even be able to enjoy any aspects of the game offline. I find that pretty off-putting. For now, I'm enjoying the exposure to other people's wish-fulfillment fantasies, but I don't know how long that will keep me paying $15 a month.

It's the first (for pay) online RPG I've been willing to play since A Tale in the Desert, though, and I think that says something positive about it.

And even though I hate to admit it, every time my avatar flies through the air, I start grinning.

Additional Resources

Look! Up in the sky!
  • Junot Diaz is the author of Drown, and would probably be mortified to know that I talked about him reading comics and playing D&D with a bunch of whiteboys.

  • Nexus was created by author Mike Baron and artist Steve Rude

  • You can learn more about City of Heroes at the web site

  • The new name of fear: Dr. Raven Darktalon Blood

Posted by peterb at 06:30 PM | Comments (1)

May 27, 2004

Why Google Mail is Better than

by Hugo Malcovich is a desktop mail application for NeXT/Macos with a long development history. It does POP, IMAP, and so on. Has a rich UI. But it blows and Google mail does not.

I've been using day in and day out for the last 3 or 4 years, as my current job involves working with Macs a lot. I've come to a sort of grudging peace with the application, not pushing beyond the functionality that I know works fairly well. Not trying to make it do things I know that it just won't do.

I use it to read IMAP mail at work and at my personal ISP mail account. I have five or ten thousand messages stored in it. It generally works pretty well, it is fairly flexible, doesn't crash a lot.

But it sucks anyway. It really doesn't do mail the way I want. It makes you set up byzantine filters and rules to organize mail automatically. It forces you into a hierachical network database sort of mindset that should have died in the 1970s after SQL took over. And, the UI is a bit odd. Things you do a lot are not quickly found. You do a lot of clicking. The main window doesn't show you enough. The mailbox drawer is stupid. And so on.

All this from an app that has a development history that reaches back at least 10 years.

Compare and contrast with the recent Google Mail beta. You have to figure Google has been working on this for maybe a year or two. Yet the UI is much more streamlined. Common operations have quick single letter key commands. Nice touches abound. Example: when you read a message, there is a blank text box at the end under the reply links. You click in the box and it bounces open with the reply template right in place. No new windows, no muss, no fuss. You can also hit the reply/reply all links, or hit "r". Having multiple ways to do things, all of which are fast, is nice.

The top level UI shows you a lot of information at once. The threading even kind of works without being stupid. Overall, it just feels more polished. And then you realize that you are using it in a web browser. This is an amazing accomplishment. You almost don't realize you are using a web page. And, as a bonus, this web interface will work from almost anywhere. No need to lug the laptop along just to read mail.

One of the many minor things Gmail does better that Mail is address completion. You start typing your address, and you get a little javascript menu that updates in real time. The menu is organized by which names you used most often.

Mail has something like this too, but it has a tendency to pick a name at random for you before you realize what has happened. Gmail has a bit of a delay so you don't accidentally send mail to the wrong Steve.

One of the major things Google does better than Mail is search. Considering that Mail has the complete strength of local Macos behind it and gets to store all of your mail on the local hard drive, you'd think that it could build a good text search index. But it can't. Hits displayed in a completely random order. It doesn't find messages that should be hits. It finds tons of messages that are not hits.

Google is, of course, as good as google. You type in words, it shows you the hits you wanted. Basically, it crushes even though it is indexing the mail of thousands of other users in addition to mine.

Filters are much better in Google mail because they are not based on the idea of moving mail to folders. You tag mail with labels and then your "folders" are just google queries against the labels. This is far superior. Not only do you not waste time filing mail away into useless hierarchies, you can do things like label messages with multiple labels and compose complex queries that are more useful than any given folder might be. It's like relational vs. non-relational databases. It's just clear what the right answer is.

The one thing Google needs to fix is the spam filtering. It sucks. Nuff said.

Summary: I wish I could use google mail for everything I do with e-mail. Sadly, I'd get fired if I put my work mail there. Oh well.

Posted by Hugo Malcovich at 09:01 PM | Comments (3)

May 26, 2004

Vegan cats

by peterb

This story makes me angry. It's about vegans who feed their cats vegan diets.

Cats, you see, are obligate carnivores. Feeding them a diet without meat (or rather, with amino acids that are only found in adequate quantities in meat) is abuse. I can understand people who don't eat animal products because they think it is cruel or exploitative, even though I don't share that belief. But I have nothing but contempt for people who have ethical objections to eating any animal product, but delight in torturing their pet.

Apparently, for these people "vegan" means "against animal cruelty where the cruelty is fast enough that I notice it." If your cat goes blind over a 3 year period because you were abusing it, though, that's fantastic.

I'm so enraged I can hardly see straight.

Posted by peterb at 05:44 PM | Comments (28)

May 24, 2004

Cousin-Lovin' Haiku

by peterb

A number of people have commented on my mockery of "Cousin Lovin' Poetry," responding with detailed and impassioned screeds about how I don't understand genetics, how the Bible thinks that people who have sex with their cousins are morally superior to those that don't, how in Saudi Arabia cousin-lovin' is the norm, how Europeans are so much more sophisticated than Americans about this issue, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum. The lack of perspective on this is hilarious.

One poster says:

There are no contemporary studies that indicate cousins have children with significantly higher than normal birth defects.
And then, two paragraphs later, says:
Fact: Children of non-related couples have a 2-3% risk of birth defects, as opposed to first cousins having a 4-6% risk.
On my planet, that's a pretty significant additional risk. As one of the commenters below observes, it is in fact double the risk of birth defects.

But I don't want to get bogged down in the genetics argument. It is, frankly, a sideshow. Let me be perfectly clear: my main concern is not that you will create a child with genetic defects by marrying your cousin, but that by breeding you might pass on your condition that results in your having a complete lack of any sense of humor.

I think that revulsion of cousin couples in the US is based not in some sort of genetic fear, but in more commonplace concerns: the mores and traditions of the culture in which we actually live (yes, yes, I'm glad for you that inbred Hapsburg royalty married their cousins, but we're not in Austria). Citing the Bible on this topic is just silly: frankly, I'm not about to take any moral cues from a book that says we should kill gays and witches, but handing your daughters over to be raped by ruffians is just fine.

There are any number of different cultures which have varied and differing approaches towards marriage. I'm not a fan of arranged marriage in general, but I know quite a few couples who have had them. They love each other; they learned to love. And I think that learning to love someone is indeed possible; I'm inherently suspicious of some versions of romantic love because it is accompanied by much braying and posturing about how this person is the only person I could ever possibly have fallen in love with, and they are unique as a special little snowflake embossed with pink unicorn designs. So when I hear someone talking about their cousin this way -- someone in our culture, in our times -- I go straight to the conclusion: "This person didn't get out of the house very much."

To be more specific, I think that you are projecting your anima (or animus, as appropriate) on a close relative specifically because you've had projections on non-relatives dissolve, leaving you feeling betrayed and empty ("How dare that person not match the image I had of them?"). In many (not all, obviously) cousin relationships, the female cousin is much younger. This is not a coincidence: a man's anima image will typically be of a younger woman, representing the sacred feminine he was forced to abandon during adolescence, while a woman's animus will be of a father figure, representing the force that forbids that has always seemed beyond her control. Eventually, over time, those projections too will dissolve (as they must), leaving you no nearer wisdom then you were when you decided "Hey, it would be a really good idea to marry someone I'm closely related to."

That will be $135, please. Make the check out to Dr. Jung.

There's another issue lurking in the background, which is that there are areas in which family members look out for one another and try (one hopes) to build trust. Most of the child sexual abuse in America is not performed by gay boy scout leaders or priests molesting young children. Most of the child sexual abuse in America is committed by family members against younger family members. Courtship and mating rituals in our culture can at least try to provide some protection for those participating in them by balancing the interests of each (potential) lover's family. When one's son is out on a date with someone not in the family, presumably everyone is aware and somewhat on guard. When he is merely "playing with his cousin," that's less likely to be true.

So to that extent, I have an instinct that some "cousin couples" are exploiting the trust that comes with a family bond with potentially disastrous consequences. Obviously, we can always construct counterexamples ("I'm 35, my cousin is 38, and we're both divorced, grown adults...") but given that many of the cousin couples I see do, in fact, have at least one partner who is a minor, I think sexualizing this relationship in our culture is fraught with peril. And is very unwise.

So in honor some of this topic rearing its ugly head again, I am posting: Cousin Poetry II: Electric Cousin Haiku!

The first ones are my fault:

Uncle's daughter laughs
our love no one understands
snow falls on sorrow.
My one true lover
If we were fraternal twins
That would be sooooooooo hot
There's a place for us
Our love can speak its name there
sweet West Virginia
Anonymous contributor #1 writes:
Daughter of my aunt
Will you give me a son?
Please don't tell me no
Can our hearts be far
when we share a quarter of
genetic makeup?
inbreed, inbreath, well
both are pressing needs, so come
let's press nether parts
sprite writes
Three hundred percent
(of toes) comes to dozens and
dozens. Quod erat.
who needs statistics.
drink, smoke, eat mercuric fish,
have your cousin's kid.
Anonymous contributor #2 writes
Oh how I wish to
Kiss you gently cousin
What, is that so wrong?
jch writes
spring is sprung, the grass
is riz, come my sweet cousin,
i'm dyin' to jizz
("What, you don't like rhyming haiku?")
no-one can deny
our child has both our eyes. and
extra fingers too.
star-cross'd lovers we
but shakespeare said nothing 'bout
having cross-eyed kids
kosak writes:
You are so lovely.
You remind me of myself.
Our kids: of E.T.

If you like, you can read the original article that spawned this controversy.

Posted by peterb at 04:13 PM | Comments (9)

May 21, 2004

Paris in the Springtime

by peterb

Microsoft has released their first downloadable content for Project Gotham Racing 2, including a bunch of cars I'll never be able to afford and a whole new city: Paris.

paris comparison

Paris Comparison (click to enlarge)

I don't particularly care about the new cars -- Gotham already has more than enough cars to hold my interest -- but I've been eager to drive down the Champs-Elysées since I got the game. The developers did a great job of bringing the city to life. Although bereft of pedestrians and slightly greyer in tone than I expected, the feeling is overall that of the final day of the Tour de France. The textures on the road are good, and the tracks are challenging (and mostly short) -- there's quite a few tricky chicanes and odd-angled corners here. You'll be firmly in center "Tourist Paris" here, from the Arc de Triomphe to the Tour Eiffel -- no left bank cafés for you, young artist. And in one slightly sad twist to the tale, you can only drive a sunny, daytime Paris; there is no night time in the City of Lights. While this makes sense from an actuarial standpoint -- this download content is mostly for online play, after all, and I can count the number of night time or rain races I've played online on one hand -- it is disappointing on an emotional level. Despite that drawback, this download was well worth the $4.99 Microsoft charged.

The next release is rumoured to be Los Angeles, more specifically Long Beach. I'll be buying that one, too.

Posted by peterb at 04:13 PM | Comments (3)

May 20, 2004

Stop me

by peterb

Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before: Once again the consumer bit of my brain has gotten the sickness, and I have the urge to upgrade my "gaming" PC. I am fighting it tooth and nail.

Those really are derision quotes around "gaming," since most of the games I actually want to run on my PC -- like Warlords II -- don't actually run on modern versions of Windows. And because I never use my gaming PC because it is loud, and takes 5 minutes to boot up, and is in the wrong room, and is big and ugly, and because I can't play on the couch, like I can with the Xbox.

But, stupid is as stupid does. I'm trying to remind myself that all I'll accomplish by upgrading is I'll waste time and money and I still won't be playing any good games on it, since there will no doubt be some odd compatibility glitch between whatever OS/video card combination I have and whatever game (City of Heroes? Maybe) I decide I must obsess over.

Also, the calculus that said upgrading would be "worth it" assumes that my PC133 RAM from ages ago would still work so I could continue to do this piecemeal. I bet that's not true anymore. Everytime I read some article about how you should spend more on some motherboard because this time the new super CPU slow format will guarantee forward compatibility, I want to punch someone.

Hold that ball really still, Lucy -- here comes Charlie brown to give it a good swift kick.

Posted by peterb at 04:54 PM | Comments (7)

May 17, 2004


by peterb

On the confusingly named Google Blog -- the one not run by Google -- Aaron Schwartz opines that gmail's security isn't strong enough:

...[Gmail] should use public-key encryption. (This part will be a bit technical.) When you create a Gmail account, your computer creates a keypair. The public key is sent to Google. The private key is encrypted with a password you choose, and the encrypted version is sent to Google. (Important: Google never gets your password.) When an email is received for your account, the server encrypts it with your public key before saving it. When you log into read it, you download your encrypted key, decrypt it with your password, and then your computer decrypts your mail with the resulting key as it's downloaded. (Already, all your mail goes through Gmail's JavaScript client to get processed and turned into HTML, so this won't be too hard to add on the client-side.) In this way, your mail is never stored in a way Google has access to.

This is a really bad idea. SSL -- which gmail provides -- is a no-brainer, but this is a bad idea.

Really, you're saying "You will need your private key on your computer in order to read mail," (since you can't public-key authenticate without your private key) which is a shorter way of saying "you'll need to carry your private key around with you, either on a disk or a smartcard or some similar device," which is a shorter way of saying "since no one wants to do this, really, I want an implementation of gmail that makes it a pain in the ass to access my account from more than one computer" which is a longer way of saying "I want a version of gmail that no one will want to use."

Second, the whole point of gmail is that Google has access to your mail. I say this not as an ominous "I hate Google" statement -- I actually have a gmail account -- but as a statement of fact. Apart from Google's desire to sell you ads, one of the things that makes gmail useful is that you get to have Google index your mail to make things easily searchable. If what you're storing on gmail is encrypted, it's not searchable anymore. So encrypting the mail on Google would destroy another aspect of the product.

Thirdly, I think you're missing the bigger issue, which is that even if we did everything you suggested -- PKI, SSL, super-hyper-secret encryption from the NSA -- random people on the internet would still be able to read your mail, because eventually it would have to be transferred to or from the recipient on the other end, which would be going over SMTP in the clear. Of course, you can talk about using public key encryption end-to-end, a la PGP, but basically the market has spoken: normal people hate the public key encryption alternatives they've been given, because they make email effectively unusable.So in summary, I think Google did exactly the right thing by punting on this problem for now. In today's internet, email between two untrusted parties who aren't both willing to use the same pain in the ass public key software ain't secure. That's the reality.

The real solution, in my opinion, is for PKI to be deployed in the core (pretend for a moment that (a) there is a such a thing as "the core" and (b) that changing SMTP to support PKI and then getting it deployed there was actually reasonably possible, which it isn't) and then for mail clients (web mail, IMAP, or others) to use SSL to access their mail stores. This would reduce the window of vulnerability from "anyone with access to a machine on any network my packets go through" to "untrustworthy administrators and/or compromised machines that my mail is actually stored on." That's a pretty significant reduction in threat. Since I now work on filesystems and don't go to IETF anymore, for all I know there's a working group on this topic that has already decided that my strawman idea is unworkable and stupid. I'll look into this and try to circle back to the topic soon.

Additional Resources

Posted by peterb at 11:23 AM | Comments (2)

May 16, 2004

Corporate Food is Evil

by peterb

I normally don't just link to other people's entries. It's against my philosophy. But rules are made to be broken. psu goes completely insane about how P.F. Chang's (and its equivelent alter-ethnic wannabe brethren) are destroying the American palate and wallet, and it's just such a righteous rant that I have to share it with you:

Lost in all of this is the fact that even in a relative backwater like Pittsburgh there are smaller, cheaper, better places that are far more deserving of your dollars. They are found on the sides of roads, in shopping centers, and off of highways. They are run by real people who care about making decent food that is not so much Authentic as at least genuinely distinctive and fresh. But, the tide is against places that serve Real Food because they don't have the connections needed to get the huge spaces and exposure that even a crappy shithole like P.F. Chang's can manage just on sheer volume. This is just another case where the Big Evil Coporation is crushing the forces of light and goodness.

Read the whole thing at Mixed Logs.


Posted by peterb at 10:22 PM | Comments (2)

May 15, 2004

P.F. Chang's: Why it's evil.

by psu

Places like this represent a new trend in the marketing of what is essentially bad fast food towards a more lucrative audience.

A couple of years ago, my new job took me to a set of offices that were situated close to a new retail complex in the Pittsburgh area. The complex was anchored by a large cineplex and a few "box restaurants" and a few more "box stores".

At some point, one of the "box restaurants" that opened was a chain of apparently high reputation called P.F. Chang's. At the front of the place stood two huge stone horses that were, apparently, meant to remind one of the terra cotta horses at the tomb of the First Emperor of China. Between these two horses sat the sign, in large vaguely Charlie Chan type letters: P.F. Chang's China Bistro.

For months after this place opened, you couldn't get into the place without waiting more than two hours. It was always full. It was full at lunch, dinner, late dinner, after the movies. There was not a time at which the place was not full.

So, obviously we folks at work had to try it out.

As you enter the place, you are greeted by a huge mural done vaguely in the style of a Chinese scroll. You almost expect to be greeted by a hyperactive immigrant from Hong Kong who you can't understand. But this doesn't happen. Instead, a nice person who you can understand perfectly leads you to a table. You look over the menu. The menu is filled with the standard assortment of American Chinese dishes that have been the core of thousands of cheap takeout joints for decades. There are dumplings, there are ribs, there is Ma-Po Tofu, there is fried rice, etc.

But, what you also realize is that this isn't a cheap greasy Chinese takeout joint. This is a high overhead, very expensive greasy Chinese takeout joint. But, while extremely expensive, the food is no better than your typical greasy Chinese takeout joint. You order an $8 plate of pot stickers that you can buy frozen in a bag for $4 for 50. You order the ribs, they are chewy and not sweet. You order a series of gloppy greasy entreés with no real distinctive flavor. You order Ma-Po Tofu and it has frozen peas and carrots in it. The dan-dan noodles taste like spaghetti and hoisin sauce.

So, what do you get for all the extra money you spent? As far as I can tell all you get is a level of pretension and self-importance that is insulting. The horse statues, the "Chinese" lettering, the murals and so on are just the beginning. Before serving your food, some genius in marketing at P.F. Chang's Inc has dictated to the staff that they must give you a live demo of their "favorite" little nugget of Chinese Cuisine. So the poor student slob can't just serve you your food and escape, she has to sit there at the table and proclaim the wonders of the P.F. Chang's secret favorite Chinese dipping sauce that you should put on everything. What is this sauce? As far as I can tell, Hoisin sauce, soy, pepper sauce and maybe some oil. In other words, it's all just a humiliating sham. It's as if you went to an Italian restaurant and they serenaded you with the magic of their olive oil and ketchup bread sauce.

Basically, what P.F. Chang's and their brethren (other examples include Bravo! Italian Kitchen, Ted's Montana Grille, Olive Garden, Don Pablo's Mexican Kitchen, Cheesecake Factory, and so on) are after is to serve crappy food on nicer plates and separate you from more of your money so their margins are higher without them actually doing any real work. They crank out the same cookie cutter generic food as McDonald's, KFC, and all the rest, but they put on an elaborate show to try and make you think they are doing better.

Lost in all of this is the fact that even in a relative backwater like Pittsburgh there are smaller, cheaper, better places that are far more deserving of your dollars. They are found on the sides of roads, in shopping centers, and off of highways. They are run by real people who care about making decent food that is not so much Authentic as at least genuinely distinctive and fresh. But, the tide is against places that serve Real Food because they don't have the connections needed to get the huge spaces and exposure that even a crappy shithole like P.F. Chang's can manage just on sheer volume. This is just another case where the Big Evil Coporation is crushing the forces of light and goodness.

So, do everyone a favor and the next time you are to be dragged to P.F. Chang's, find the hole in wall Chinese place that is a bit further away, or the little Vietnamese noodle joint just down the road, or the street vendor selling fresh Falafel, or the little South Indian shack with the great paratha, or that tiny little place near the railroad tracks with the killer BBQ pork. Go anywhere else and get anything but the frozen cardboard tasteless shit that they will serve you at P.F. Chang's.

Do it for little guy. Do some good in the world. It will make me happy. Just this once, tell THE MAN to fuck off.

Posted by psu at 10:59 AM | Comments (25)

Bánh Mi

by peterb

How do you know it's Spring in Pittsburgh? When Lucy, the best Bánh Mi vendor in the world (aka "The Saigon Sandwich Lady") sets up her outdoor stand and starts vending her wares.


photo:Krista Schinagl, Post-Gazette

A good Bánh Mi (literally "French Sandwich," colloquially "Saigon Sandwich") is a transcendent experience. Along with Phó, their beef noodle soup, it is empirical evidence for classifying the Vietnamese palate as the best in the world. Bánh Mi is about fresh ingredients, contrasting textures, and intriguing tastes combining to provide perfection in handheld form.

Start with the best baguettes you can find. Into them put some form of meat (ideally thinly sliced roast pork, but you can get them with chicken or other meats; once I actually had one made with braunschweiger). Not too much -- the meat is just an accent. Add shredded and pickled carrots, cucumbers, hot jalapeno peppers, and finish with a healthy garnish of fresh cilantro.

You can find Lucy right outside My Ngoc on Penn Avenue most days of the week in good weather. If she doesn't know you, she'll tend to put in a bit too much meat, because that's the fashion in sandwiches around here. Try a Bánh Mi once, and I guarantee you'll keep going back again and again.

Welcome to Spring, finally.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently did an article on street food in Pittsbugrh, profiling Lucy specifically. I'm glad of that, but they failed to point out that although there are a few stars here, street vendor culture in general is lousy because the City makes it very difficult to cheaply acquire licenses. Compared to some place like Toronto, street food culture in Pittsburgh is practically nonexistent. I hope that changes.

Posted by peterb at 07:41 AM | Comments (2)

May 12, 2004

Ask The Game Geek

by peterb
To the person who arrived at my site googling for "apple II games remake download old parachute": The name of the game you're looking for is "Sabotage," and you can get it here. It should play in any halfway decent Apple II emulator.

I liked Sabotage. It was one of my default "pick up" games that you could always rely on when you wanted something quick and fun.



It was a diverting little game, with a surprising amount of tactical trade off. You could shoot the paratroopers full on, blowing them into bits, or you could take them out by shooting the helicopters, whose shrapnel would cut them to pieces, or you could aim carefully, shoot out their parachutes and watch them plummet. If you were accurate enough, you could even make a paratrooper plummet and squash a trooper who had already landed safely. If three or four paratroopers managed to land safely on one side of your gun emplacement or the other, they would team up and blow you up, ending the game.

You're welcome.

Posted by peterb at 09:47 PM | Comments (0)

Dear Game Industry:

by peterb

Booth Babes at E3

Enough with the porn stars and cheesecake girls at your conferences. I know you think that everyone who buys games is 17 years old and in a state of arrested development, but we're not. So cut it out, already. It's embarassing. OK?

PS: Also, reuse more code, you dorks.

Posted by peterb at 08:29 PM | Comments (3)

May 11, 2004

C64 vs. Atari 800

by peterb

The thing about boys and their toys is we've just got to argue about whose is bigger.

Microsoft employee Mike Fullerton has had it with his Mac because all software for the Mac sucks. Meanwhile, over at Mac and Back, an intrepid ex-Mac user sold his Powerbook and has replaced it with a Dell Inspiron, and has discovered that all software for Windows sucks.

Really, this shouldn't surprise anyone: all software sucks. Yes, you there in the back. Emacs sucks, too.

I use Macintoshes and Windows boxes every day at work (I use Unix workstations also, but let's factor those out for now). I pretty much have identical functionality between them. Really, now that the Mac has an actual operating system rather than a glorified program loader, the differences between the platforms are fairly minimal. Basically, if you can't find programs that perform adequately for whatever major platform you're using, you're a whiner: both Apple and Microsoft platforms have a plethora of software that will do what you need. In the amount of time it takes to write a screed, you could do a Google search to satisfy your need.

One difference between the platforms that is significant, in my experience, is sleep and wake. I've never used a Windows laptop where sleep and wakeup wasn't an unmitigated whirling nightmare of hatred, pain, and misery. This isn't rocket science, boys -- it's pretty simple stuff. It's the year 2003 -- why does it take a modern Thinkpad running your latest OS 20 to 40 seconds to wake up from sleep and be ready for use, even when restoring from RAM? (Apparently, the answer is because Windows muffs power management by presenting a stupidly baroque interface). When I open my Powerbook, it's ready in under 5 seconds. My friend Mr. Hardwick says that tablet PCs do better, but frankly, no one outside of Microsoft actually uses a tablet PC.

The other arena where it's fair to point out a difference is in development environments: Visual Studio is light years ahead of ProjectBuilder/Xcode, which is one of the reasons that developers are so loyal to Microsoft. Give someone a good development environment, and they're yours for life. Promise someone a stable development environment and then play bait and switch and make it practically impossible to support legacy systems (meaning "the last version of the OS") without maintaining two completely separate build trees and you're...well, let's be honest: you're Apple.

But I don't use my Mac for development anymore (I don't use Windows, either). Like most users, I'm just a user. I use my Windows and Mac PCs for content management and creation. And in this arena, Apple has Microsoft down on its knees and whimpering like a date-raped cheerleader. There's just no reasonable comparison: one of these environments is transparent, and one of them is kludgy. One of them focuses the user on her content, and one focuses the user on the unimportant minutiae of applications.

It's surprising to me that Microsoft, a company that is usually so effective at focusing on what the user wants, seems to have a huge blind spot in this segment of the market. Look at iTunes, for example: MS just doesn't get it. All of the synchronized complaints about how WMA sounds so much better than AAC miss the simple fact that every Windows user I've ever known -- at least, those who don't work for MS -- who has used iTunes has immediately recognized it as the best, most transparent solution to the problem of music management.

And hey! It runs on both platforms.

How about that? I guess there's at least one piece of software that doesn't suck, after all.

Posted by peterb at 06:50 PM | Comments (2)

May 10, 2004

The Grail of Yendor

by peterb

Random thoughts on the meta-design of roguelike games, preserved here so I don't lose them.

In the late '80s, I nearly failed out of college playing urogue, a rogue derivative by Herb Chong that, as near as I can tell, was heavily based on AT&T's Advanced Rogue. I was quite addicted. I liked it even compared to the then-more-advanced Hack, because it seemed simpler, more elegant somehow.

In the late '90s, I tried compiling urogue on the then current x86 systems, Linux and NetBSD, and the build failed utterly. I spent a little time and ported it to modern unix and ANSI C (and, before you ask, no, I won't give you the source code). It was a fun weekend project and I got to play around a bit.

A couple of years ago I noticed that parts of my port no longer worked on FreeBSD, although it still worked fine on Linux -- specifically, the restore from save file functionality was broken. After a while I figured it out. When urogue (or arogue) want to save the game, they basically dump the data segment into what amounts to a core file, and then at restore time read it back in using sbrk. It is a tragedy of Learian proportions: it's amazing that it ever works at all on any system with modern memory management. Presumably it stopped working on FreeBSD when they unified the VM and the buffer cache.

I spent a day or so sketching out various designs to actually save the state in an orderly fashion and read it back in at restore time without resorting to Stupid Unix Tricks. I prototyped one method that got me about 70% of the way there, but it was pretty ponderous coding. And I sat back in my seat and said "God, this all sucks so much that it would probably be easier to just reimplement the whole thing from scratch."


I didn't immediately sit down and start writing it because: plenty of people have written rogue clones, and a urogue clone wouldn't really add much to the culture of roguelikes except giving a nostalgia kick to the 16 or 17 people left alive who remember actually playing the original. And besides, there was so much cookie-cutter work. All of the really interesting parts of urogue were the corner cases. Those are what I wanted to spend time working on. What I really wanted was a set of classes that took care of all the stupid, boring stuff that is practically the same in every roguelike, leaving me to concentrate on the interesting stuff, which is the content.

But nothing like that exists.

I guess, if I really want it, I'm gonna have to make it.

Probably 90% of the content of roguelikes is in the monsters, items, item descriptions, and their effects on the player character. In an ideal world, the designers of a roguelike would spend their time on that content rather than on implementation details.

If this is true, then we can abstract out the following things to be done via a java class library. (Why Java? Why not. Seriously, mostly because I want to at least pretend that this could be usable on any platform, and because if there were ever an application where performance is not an issue, roguelike games are it.)

  • Dungeon/maze generation
  • Character generation
  • Item generation, placement, and usage
  • Movement
  • General combat mechanics (collision detection)
  • Output routines (should support both text output and tile-based graphics -- more generally, should allow output to some other piece that will actually manage the display -- there are people who play rogue on Palm Pilots or cell phones.)
  • Inventory management
  • Should support both clock-moves-per-turn and semi-real time (e.g. Diablo-like) behavior.

Provide standard classes which do boring things for all of the above, but could be overridden by the ambitious developer who wants to do something special.

Most interesting behavior is going to be defined by callouts to user-provided interfaces. There has to be support for scripted behavior and events (think: cut scenes, movies, Nethack's "special" levels, etc. in a way that isn't mind-numblingly painful). Put another way: the library has to be complete enough that you get real value from using it as a base to build off of, but liberating enough that you don't need to rewrite huge sections of it the moment you want to do something unique. This may not be possible. I don't know yet.

Victory conditions

Minimal victory: reimplement urogue with this class library.

Marginal victory is if one can implement a close approximation of both Nethack and Angband in it.

Complete victory is if one can also implement something like Diablo in it.

You may all commence the calling me crazy. Here are some spoilers for urogue that might explain why I love it so (note: although the extension for the spoiler file is ".doc", it is a normal text file.)

Posted by peterb at 08:36 PM | Comments (2)

May 07, 2004

High End Wine Battle

by peterb

Since I tend to wax rhapsodic about the great dessert wines I encounter, it's only fair that I mention the losers. This season's big loser was La Tunella tocai friulano. To be fair, this is really my fault. Although I am American, I do know a little geography, and I knew going in to this that Tokaji is not, in fact, located in the Friuli province of Italy. So, I got what I deserve: a nasty, attenuated wine that had the consistency, nose, and taste of oversweetened grapefruit juice.

Never one to pass up an opportunity to promote a home-grown American product, I present, for your enjoyment, a blow by blow comparison between the cleverly marketed La Tunella and the humble, yet honest, MD 20/20 Pink Grapefruit flavor.

CategoryLa Tunella MD 20/20 Pink Grapefruit
Country of OriginItalyUpstate New York, aka Canada
Colorsickly yellowfestive pink!

There is, quite simply, no comparison: MD 20/20 wins this battle of the superstars with one hand tied behind its back. Viva America!

Additional resources

"It's the one to have...when you're having more than one!"

Posted by peterb at 08:43 PM | Comments (2)

May 06, 2004

Losing My Religion

by peterb

Jack Chick has a new tract, and I am once again nearly speechless:


I have a hard time seeing straight when I have to look intolerance in the face. It's an issue that hits very close to home with me. As an adult, I've managed to order my life such that, most of the time, when we're not in an election year, I can pretend that most people, most of the time, aren't hateful. But all it takes is reading a Chick tract, coupled with the knowledge that there are plenty of people who, on the whole, find Chick's views to be downright moderate to pull me back to reality.

You can't drag people kicking and screaming into the 15th century. You can't defeat hate with debate. All you can do is remember that they exist, take appropriate precautions to defend yourself. And if I find it hard to write this while keeping my promise to refrain from profanity, well, I'll just have to take a deep breath and think about how much harder it must be to grow up steeped in the values of a perverse, life-hating Christian cult.

And, even if it does no objective good, even if it doesn't change anyone's mind, for the purposes of posterity, you can speak the truth and identify things like this tract as evil when you see them.

You can find the whole sordid tract on Chick's web site. I was tipped off by Pharyngula.

Posted by peterb at 01:40 PM | Comments (1)

May 04, 2004


by peterb

He's insanely talented. He has won Grand Prix after Grand Prix, and seems absolutely invulnerable. The gods love him. He can take certain defeat and, using a seemingly endless reserve of luck, skill, and cojones, turn it into a victory. His rivals seethe with bitterness and jealousy, and fans wonder if the sport will ever be free of his domination.

I am speaking, of course, about MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi.

What, you thought I meant Michael Schumacher? It's true, much of what I wrote also describes him, but his domination of Formula 1 has gone beyond competitiveness and into the realm of dadaist art. Every two weeks we gather to watch the race, over an unhealthy breakfast of crêpes, sausages, and strong tea, and every week we have the same conversation: "So, who is going to come in third?" That's what the sport has been reduced to: wondering who is going to come in third.

There's a line that we walk here, when talking about this, a line of whining that shouldn't be crossed. The same complaints that people make about Schumacher's effect on the sport today have been made about Tiger Woods, and about the Williams sisters, and about Lance Armstrong. We like our contests close; we like drama. When someone comes in who is so dominant that the question is no longer "Will he win the championship?" but "Will he win the championship this month?" well, some might argue that that makes the sport less interesting to watch. The other side of that coin is that we are blessed: in the first part of the twenty-first century, we have the privilege to watch one of the best drivers that has ever raced, at the height of his powers, drive one of the most magnificent cars ever created. Complaining about that seems somewhat picayune.


Valentino Rossi

And yet...and yet, there is MotoGP. Where young Valentino Rossi dominates like Schumacher while putting on a better show. "Il Dottore," they call him -- the doctor -- and watching him slice through the corners in South Africa was like watching a surgeon work, swift and sure. Rossi this season gave up his Honda ride and is with Yamaha, riding an unquestionably inferior machine. If Michael Schumacher drove a Renault instead of a Ferrari, no one doubts that he would still find a way to win a race. So too with Rossi.

Some of this is the nature of their respective sports. No one questions that Lance Armstrong's victories would not be possible without the help of his team. No one questions that the money that's poured into the technology surrounding him -- his clothes, his bike, his food -- has a significant impact in helping him win. But at the end of the day, we see him climbing a mountain on a bike with his legs, and we see him do it faster than the other guys. Even with all the support he gets, the victory is his. Likewise, the physicality of a MotoGP race, the leaning a bike to impossible angles, the sense of imminent peril, all combine to tell us that it's not the bike that wins all those races, it's Rossi. We may know intellectually that a Formula 1 driver is under extreme G-forces and must be in top mental and physical shape to win a race, but it is the nature of auto racing to make it hard for the viewer to see or experience that. And so there's a tendency to say "Well, if you put any good driver in that Ferrari, he'd win as much as Schumacher. Really, it's Jean Todt and Ross Brawn and the engineers who are winning those races."

Steve Matchett has written about this extensively: there's an inherent tension when you've got a race where you're interested in determining, at the same time, who has the best car and who is the best driver. The only way to really be sure that someone is the best driver is to homologate the formula so tightly that the cars are, effectively, identical, as in Formula 3000. This runs contrary to the desires of the major investors in the sport -- no, I don't mean the tobacco companies, I mean the other major investors, the car companies -- to win renown and a positive marketing aura by winning races in their name.

Rossi recently test drove a Ferrari Formula 1 car. No one knows if it was just a courtesy drive, or if he's seriously considering a leap into the cage. The FIA is in the process of rewriting the Formula 1 rules again in order to encourage "closer racing" and "more overtaking." The example they gave of what good racing looks like was the battle between Rossi and Max Biaggi in South Africa.

So, any bets on who will come in third in Barcelona this weekend?

This article originally appeared at FastMachines, the motorsports weblog.

Posted by peterb at 06:00 PM | Comments (0)

May 03, 2004

On the Tragedy of St. Nicholas' Greek Food Festival

by peterb

When spanakopita is wet and lame
there is no pastry quite so false and weak,
with spinach, feta, phyllo over flame,
we eat it only at festivals Greek

It's true, indeed, that this need not be so:
somewhere a Turkish baker plies his craft,
but on divided Cyprus, Greeks say "No!"
(a culture war can make one's taste buds daft.)

A rice pilaf that costs almost ten bucks
is robbery even by standards Church
The dollars flow in like a row of ducks,
Somewhere a bishop cackles in his perch.

Though every year I forget lessons past
this time I swear will be my very last.

Posted by peterb at 09:04 PM | Comments (2)

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