Wed, Sep 28, 2011

: Kindle Fire

Today Amazon unveiled their new $199 ereader, the Kindle Fire. Despite the lame name, this is an interesting addition to the tablet landscape that has been dominated by Apple’s iPad.

I have mixed feelings about Amazon — I partially love them, for they are great at what they do, but like Google that I once loved, they worry me as they get bigger and move into industries outside of their proper domain and the way they can abuse their monopoly power. But unlike Google, that sticks its fingers in everyone’s pie regardless of the consequences and legalities, Amazon is not directly attacking Apple. Amazon is smart enough to know their market and this new tablet is very focused on their core audience.

People have been criticizing the iPad as a mere “consumption” device since its launch. Despite tons of evidence of real people using iPads for real work, that’s still a meme that’s playing. Amazon, however, is embracing that. Look at Amazon’s web page for the Kindle Fire: it’s all about content. Movies, books, music, magazines, games. Not one mention of a spreadsheet, calculator, or Office suite. Contrast that with Apple’s iPad, where work and productivity are key features.

That’s the difference between these devices. Amazon’s tablet is a toy. That’s its function. It’s an entertainment and consumption device. The iPad, while not strictly a laptop replacement, can work as such for most folks. (The Kindle Fire doesn’t include a camera or even a microphone.)

Steve Jobs was very critical of the seven-inch form factor for tablets, saying that the screen was too small for real tablet apps. He’s right. While it’s good enough for mild work in a pinch, you can’t build something like Apple’s full-featured Pages word processor for a seven-inch device. (It doesn’t sound like much less than the iPad’s 9.7 inches, but the screen is a whopping 45% smaller. That means a lot less room for the buttons and controls you need for tablet apps that rival desktop ones in functionality.)

Note that I’m not dissing Amazon’s tablet. As an ereader, it looks to be excellent. My mom has a regular old Kindle and finds it more difficult to use than her iPhone. One of these would probably work great for her (except that she’s not much interested in video and other content: the new Kindle Touch would suit her just fine). Touch-screen devices are much simpler than cursor-based control devices.

I also admire what Amazon’s doing leveraging their content business. They already offer movie streaming, digital music, movie and TV show purchases and rentals, and of course, ebooks. They also are one of the biggest “cloud” services companies on the planet, so they are using that to make their tablet faster and better. And with Amazon’s One-Click buying system, they arguably have the only online payment system to rival Apple’s iTunes. (It’s frightfully easy to purchase apps and content with either system.)

Also, Amazon has finally gotten a design clue, as their new devices have gotten rid of the horrible Kindle keyboard and extra buttons and created tablets with clean lines and an uncluttered appearance.

I personally don’t need a Kindle Fire and won’t be getting one. (I’m happy with the combination of my iPad and e-ink Kindle.) But I don’t like the way some of the media tries to make the Kindle Fire look like an iPad competitor. They are completely different devices. One is a productivity device, the other strictly for media consumption. I also don’t like the way some are characterizing this as an Android tablet; this is Amazon’s custom version of Android, so twisted and changed it’s not “real” Android (which means it runs only apps Amazon allows and can’t be upgraded by Google or anyone else). By that definition, this tablet hurts Google more than helps it, as it will create a new version of Android incompatible with the rest of the Android world. And with Amazon’s clout — and possibly high sales — behind it, the Amazon version could become the standard developers support.

Topic: [/technology]


Tue, Sep 27, 2011

: Terra Nova

Of all the new fall series, this was one that really interested me. I love the premise — a future earth is polluted and ruined, so scientists send a few lucky people back in time 85 million years to start a new colony of the human race and start over. It’s a one-way journey as there’s no way back, so they’ll have to survive.

The premiere was last night and I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s obviously got an impressive budget for some Jurassic Park-like special effects, and I liked the cast. But pilots are always tough to judge. There’s so much “world building” they have to convey to introduce us to the setting, the characters, etc., that there’s not much time for a real story.

This begins with an interesting story — in future earth our cop hero has apparently had a third child without the state’s permission and is being hunted down and thrown in jail (shades of Anne Frank hiding from the Nazis there) — but that story is given short shrift as the pilot rushes to get us back in time and to the “exciting” dinosaurs. This new world isn’t that special or unusual — it’s pretty much what you’d expect. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’d hoped to find a more interesting place. Unfortunately, the script then goes into a chaotic dinosaur attack/rescue situation, which while not badly done, felt predictable and ordinary. It also makes me worry that the show might become a “dinosaur attack of the week” show. I’d be far more interested in learning more about the various dinosaur species, discovering things modern scientists didn’t know about them, etc. Perhaps have one of the young characters adopt a small creature as a pet. Something different and unusual.

Another direction the story takes is to introduce us to a group of human rebels, who have split off from Terra Nova and attack it. This hints at conspiracy theories and strange plots and hidden motivations. That could be interesting, but honestly I’m rather sick to death of conspiracy shows. I’d much rather have a show about the people struggling to survive, the internal politics of the colony as the new citizens clash with older citizens, etc.

Still, there was much I liked about the show. It’s definitely an interesting premise and I’ll keep watching. I’m curious where it will go as that’s unclear at this point. Exactly what type of show is this? Depending on that answer, I might have a new show to follow.

Topic: [/television]


Fri, Sep 23, 2011

: Killer Elite

Strange film. I still can’t tell if I liked it or not!

The main problem is the promotional trailer had me expecting a dumb action flick, which was what I wanted. Instead this is more of a serious historical spy drama. It’s based on a non-fiction book. (The trailer says “Based on a true story” but it didn’t feel at all like a serious movie.) There isn’t much action and there’s a lot of confusing spy mumbo-jumbo and mysteriousness. I’m finding it difficult to judge it as that kind of a film since I was expecting something else and that taints my judgement. I certainly would have liked it better if I known more what it was, yet I don’t think it really works as that kind of a movie either.

The dialog and writing is weak (lots of clich├ęs, lame and predictable comebacks, stale jokes such as “He’s lying because his lips are moving”), there’s lots of “fauxfound” (fake profound) scenes, the direction and editing is sometimes awkward and confusing (short flashbacks, jumping between scenes without transitions), and the ending, while it could have wrapped everything up and explained things, fell flat and didn’t resolve much.

There are good parts. When there was action it was often good, and I liked the performances of most of the actors. The plot, while far too convoluted, is interesting, and I actually really liked the realistic covert operations aspects of the film.

Unfortunately, the entire film isn’t sure what it is: sometimes it’s a high-adrenaline action flick, completely cheesy, and at other times it’s a serious docudrama about the consequences of war and secret societies. The result is a confusing and unsatisfying mishmash. Knowing more going in I’m sure I would have gotten more out of it, but it’s still not a great movie. It’s sad because it feels like wasted potential. It was very close to something good, but couldn’t deliver.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Sep 22, 2011

: MLS: Portland Timbers 1, Earthquakes 1

I went to the Timbers’ game last night and had a great time. It wasn’t a win — it was a draw that felt like a loss — but it was still an incredible atmosphere and a good game. Here’s a picture just prior to kickoff (click here for the full resolution version):

Portland started off rocky in the first few minutes, allowing San Jose time on the ball and chances, and that had me a little worried. But then the Timbers got a great goal with terrific work to get to the endline and cross the ball back to the penalty spot for Kenny Cooper to score (his second in two, which is awesome, because we really need him to get hot for the playoffs). Unfortunately, after the goal Portland continued to let the Quakes dictate the run of the play. We really escaped on several occasions, including one gift for Wondo that he should have put away but with only the keeper to beat he took an extra touch and a defender was able to clear it. The second half was more of the same, Portland doing too much defending and not attacking with the urgency they did against New England last Friday. Perkins was huge, keeping Portland alive. In the end, that cost them, as they gave up a late goal. They just didn’t close down San Jose and allowed Khari Stephenson to shoot from outside the box and while most of the Earthquakes’ previous shots had been right at Perkins, this one was low and to the corner giving him no chance to save it.

Everyone hoped the Timbers would rally back, but with only about ten minutes left, there just wasn’t enough time. Several late substitutes made little impact for Portland, though Perlaza did have one breakaway he should have done better with. Crosses and finishing were very poor and San Jose was definitely the better team overall. I will say the refereeing was particularly horrible in this one. It seemed every niggling call went against us, but whenever San Jose did the same thing, the ref ignored it. There was a foul on Nabe in the box that should have a penalty, and when two Timbers’ were fouled during the same play, the ref only gave out one yellow instead of two. Still, a point is a point and with New York’s loss, it’s enough to put Portland back in the playoff picture. We’re still on the bubble, though, and must beat NY this weekend to keep that position. That game now is our whole season.

Topic: [/soccer]


Mon, Sep 19, 2011

: Netflix Goes Downhill

I’m not very happy with Netflix today. They have apparently announced their decision to split the company into two businesses, one that does only streaming (Netflix) and one that only does DVDs-by-mail (Qwikster). This fits in line with their previously announced price changes that caused such an uproar earlier this summer.

While I didn’t like the price increase, it wasn’t that big a deal to me. After all, I could merely switch to a lower capacity plan and keep my price the same. A few less DVDs per month, but I can live with that. But now they are really messing things up.

On the one hand, I understand the rational for what they are doing. With postal rates constantly rising and DVDs becoming less attractive than streaming over time, it makes sense that that business will eventually decline. I also appreciate what CEO Reed Hastings says when he writes:

Most companies that are great at something — like AOL dialup or Borders bookstores — do not become great at new things people want (streaming for us) because they are afraid to hurt their initial business.

I’ve heard this argument given against newspapers, for instance. They are too reluctant to truly move to digital delivery because their business model is all about print. Yet print is also responsible for the bulk of their costs. In other words, they have to charge too much for digital to help pay for the declining print. I can foresee that happening with Netflix where streaming ends up funding the expensive DVD rental business, thereby prolonging its life unnaturally. By splitting into two companies, the DVD rental must stand on its own and if there aren’t enough customers for it continue, then it is time for it to die.

That said, I feel like Netflix has given us customers a big “bait-and-switch.” Instead of offering streaming as a separate product from the beginning, they lured us in by making it a free add-on to the DVD service. Now suddenly they want to separate the two.

For me the attraction of the whole business is having both. While I agree the two services are very different from a business operations viewpoint, from a customer perspective the two are complementary. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

Streaming DVD
Instant delivery 2-3 day delivery
Limited selection Unlimited selection
All-you-eat Select 1-2 items at a time
Inconsistent quality Consistent quality
Very poor playback controls Decent playback controls
Requires strong broadband connection Requires no Internet
Plays on multiple devices Requires DVD player

I like both services. I mainly like the choice I get with DVDs. But I also like having the option of hundreds of streaming titles available to me instantly.

I really hate the limited playback controls of streaming. Though it ostensibly offers fast-forward, rewind, pause, etc., they work so badly they are nearly useless. It’s very difficult to find your way back to a point in a movie where you stopped (yes, many times streaming has stopped streaming and made me start a movie over from scratch), not to mention the horrors of trying to rewind for five or ten seconds and catch some dialog you missed. Everything you do is God-awful slow and painful, and there are no features like slow motion or frame advance. Controlling a DVD is infinitely better (and I don’t even think DVD control is really that great compared to computer control).

The bottom line is that this decision by Netflix is premature. The reality is that right now, you really need to have both services. There’s just no way one service is sufficient. Instant alone does me little good because half the movies I want aren’t there. DVD alone is limited because I can’t stream the discs to my iPad or watch a film instantly on a whim. There are certain kinds of films I prefer to watch instantly (generally cheap stuff I don’t care about). There are certain kinds of film I vastly prefer on DVD (foreign films, in particular, where I can control the closed captioning and have better rewind capability if I miss something).

Unfortunately, with the services split into two companies, using both will require two separate websites, queues, accounts, and credit card charges. They claim this will make things “simpler” for the customer! Yeah, having to visit two websites to see which has the movie I want is brilliant.

I read someone who said this like going to Wal-Mart and having to go through two separate check-out lines, one for groceries and one for everything else. That nails it. The whole idea of convenience is to get everything done with one-stop shopping.

But the real worry for me is that Netflix clearly is positioning the DVD business as a separate entity to make it easier to sell. It may not be on the auction block yet, but within a few years I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see it put on the market. At worst that could mean the days of DVDs-by-mail are numbered, or at best, that the service will change yet again as some other corporation takes over the business.

Either way, I’m not happy.

Topic: [/technology]


Sun, Sep 18, 2011

: Cooking Windows 8

Last week Microsoft unveiled a preview of their next operating system (Windows 8) to developers at a conference and people are commenting. This means we now have a lot more details about how W8 will or won’t work. We can now see that Microsoft wants W8 to be an “everything” operating system. It will run on regular PCs as well as tablets, and those tablets will run both on Intel and ARM hardware (ARM is what iPad and other super-efficient tablets have been using for long battery life).

It’s still confusing about which will run what software, though: it sounds like ARM devices won’t run existing Windows applications which is puzzling, since I thought the whole point of Windows 8 was to give you access to legacy applications while allowing new touch apps. That sounds to me like a real mess brewing: consumers won’t have a clue which devices do what.

But Microsoft’s strategy is interesting. It’s the opposite of Apple’s approach, which is that tablet apps only run on the tablet and computer apps only run on full computers. Apple thinks that tablets need software optimized for the device. Microsoft thinks people don’t want “compromises” and want to run traditional computer applications on tablets.

I’m leaning toward Apple on this one. If you’ve every used an iPad to remotely control a regular computer, you know that the regular computer interface is really difficult to use with a finger. I’m also skeptical that Microsoft can get a “full” computer running on a tablet similar to an iPad: thin tablets have hardware compromises that even Microsoft can’t ignore. A thicker slab with a fan and a few hours of battery life seems to negate most of the advantage of tablets to me.

But hardware does improve remarkably fast. Windows 8 won’t be shipping for a year, and may not be mainstream on tablets for a year after that. By that time, perhaps tablet tech will be sufficient to run a desktop-like OS in a handheld device. Yet I still wonder if Apple’s simpler approach isn’t better even in the long-run.

Is Microsoft right? Do people want to run their traditional desktops on a lightweight tablet?

I was thinking about this while preparing dinner the other night. I was making an omelet. Now the thing about a lot of dishes — omelets, sitr-fries, even breakfast cereal — is that anything goes. You can pile as much stuff as you’d like on the food. Make an omelet with just cheese and ham, or throw in the kitchen sink and put in onions, mushrooms, bacon, broccoli, shrimp, salsa, cheese, olives, zucchini, and tomatoes. It’s a free-for-all. There are no right or wrong ways to make an omelet.

One of Marc's omelets

When I first started cooking I used to take advantage of that freedom and make some ungodly concoctions. Frankly, the food wasn’t that great. With so many ingredients, nothing stood out. All the individual tastes blurred into nothing. I’d make a shrimp omelet where I could’t taste the shrimp. It might as well not have had any! Another thing was that all my omelets tasted the same no matter what the ingredients.

Over time I have learned to control my “throw in everything” instinct. Now I make omelets that feature, at most, 3-4 ingredients. They are delicious. The flavors compliment each other instead of overwhelming one another. Everything is enhanced. It was a hard lessom for me to learn, but the bottom line is less is more.

Ask any chef and they’ll tell you this is true. It’s also Apple’s minimalist approach to computing. Apple is famous (or infamous) for not including (or even removing) features. But while some greedy people see this as delicious ingredients being taken away from them, the wise know that this just makes the whole meal taste far better.

Only time will prove if Apple or Microsoft’s approach is the right one. But my cooking instincts tell me that Microsoft is throwing everything into the pot and the result is going to be a tasteless mess.

Topic: [/technology]


Fri, Sep 16, 2011

: Drive

This is an odd film. It feels like it should be intellectual. There’s great drama and performances, some cool visceral action, and a fascinating romance. Yet that intellectualness feels forced like it was added on top of a mediocre script. Many times I was baffled as to what, exactly, what happening. The dialog would be ordinary and yet the characters were weighing every word as though it was profound. Maybe I am just dense, but I couldn’t see it. I don’t mind some ambiguity — it’s often awesome — but this had too much, too often.

There were a few times it worked. My favorite was the scene where the husband comes home from prison and finds his wife hanging out with our driver hero. Their chat is full of innuendo and mystery. The whole scene feels on edge. You’re half expecting one of them to do something violent at any moment. You don’t know if the ex-con knows something, suspects something, or if the whole thing is just ordinary innocent conversation. It’s terrific.

But in other scenes, like with the mobsters who are pulling all the strings, I just felt left out. Maybe it’s because I don’t understand mobster stuff (I’ve yet to see The Godfather, for instance), but I found following who was who and what was what difficult.

In the end, especially with the strange ending (which I didn’t like), the movie felt a touch flat to me. The odd thing is I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I was fascinated throughout, never bored, and there were a ton of absolutely terrific moments. But there were also moments that seemed great while they were happening but afterwards I felt let down, realizing that nothing profound had actually happened. Unusual.

There were also a couple of strange bits of plot that made no sense. For instance, there’s a key scene where our hero dons a head mask. He’s a stunt driver and borrows it from a movie set. I thought that was brilliant. He was obviously going to use it to hide his identity in a vital manner that would fool all the bad guys. But then… he does virtually nothing with it! I saw zero need for it. There was no point.

Ultimately, that’s the way the film felt for me. It’s an interesting ride, but we don’t go anywhere. Still a film worth seeing — the direction is fantastic and the acting excellent (Carey Mulligan as the love interest is breathtaking) — but it’s too much like real life in that there’s no clear resolution or understanding of why anything happened. And isn’t that what art is supposed to show us?

Topic: [/movie]


: Gardening

I haven’t yet mentioned much about my garden. I’m not sure why: it’s been a major new part of my life this summer. I started it last spring. Keep in mind I know zero about gardening, have never liked gardening, and in fact had somewhat of a negative view of it. I think that’s both because I have a black thumb (every plant I’ve ever had has died) and because my grandfather, who was an avid gardener, made it seem like a huge amount of work (he’d spend so many hours working in the garden it depressed me).

But last spring I visited an uncle of mine in Tennessee. He has a small farm and a huge garden he was just in the process of planting when I was there. Since I now eat a ton of vegetables under my new diet, I suddenly became interested in the process. He made it look easy and when I got home, I started investigating the process.

It turns out it’s not quite so easy, but I had my yard work guy do most of the grunt work (tilling and planting). I spent some money, too, buying soil and plants, and hoping it all wasn’t a waste. The big question was sunlight. Unless I put the garden in my front yard, the only place was the back, which is shaded between the house and tall trees behind. But we figured it would get five or six hours of light which we hoped was enough. The thought was that in the worse case, I might have to adjust what I grow next year, but it couldn’t hurt to try a variety of plants this year.

I’m not sure it’s enough light: one of the first problems I ran into was rolly-polly bugs eating my zucchini plants. It turns out they love cool shady spots and the tender leaves of young squash plants (once the plants are more mature, they leave them alone). I had to rebuy and replant a few of those zucchini, but despite everyone warning me that I’d have an overabundance of squash with eight plants, so far I’ve only harvested one medium zucchini and a small yellow squash. There are more out there now, but they aren’t growing much. I think something’s not right: not enough sunlight, not enough water, or too much water. Who knows? Apparently gardening is all trial and error and voodoo and superstition.

(I did learn that one of my mistakes was not cutting off the small dead squashes. You need to pick the zucchini to encourage the plant to make more. I left it too long thinking it would get bigger.)

My lettuces were awesome for a while, but they were done by mid-summer. I didn’t realize that’s how they worked. I thought I’d keep having lettuce all summer, but they don’t last long. I guess you’re supposed to keep planting new ones and plant them at different times so fresh ones are coming up right as the old ones die out. The broccoli is similar. It grew up huge and I got several harvests and then it was gone. (But well worth it: very delicious.)

I thought my melons were completely dead, but we finally got some hot weather and recently I’ve seen a few small melons forming (one’s a little smaller than an ostrich egg, the others are the size of chicken eggs). I’m worried it’s too late in the season but if I could get at least a melon or two before winter that would be awesome.

Here’s a picture of what I think is a butternut squash and a baby watermelon:

Aren’t they cute? And yes, they are actually on the sidewalk. It’s the weirdest thing: the squash and melon trails are growing out all over the sidewalk behind my house. It’s like they’re trying to get away from the dirt of the garden! My theory is that maybe the cement walk holds heat from the sun and that attracts them.

My baby carrots and onions did fine, and the celery is looking good. I had one green pepper plant that was doing awesome with two fruits growing while the others were tiny and not doing anything. I finally decided they weren’t getting enough sun, so I relocated them to a different part of the garden. Within a couple of weeks they had fruits and now there are a bunch growing. The original “great” plant had its biggest pepper go bad (it got all rotten) and today I just noticed its second one is having a similar problem (a large black hole in the bottom and it’s turning from green to yellow). The plant is still very tall (twice as big as the relocated ones) and there are two small peppers up top, so the plant seems okay. I’m not sure if bugs or something else happened to the peppers. I sure hope I get at least a few before winter!

But the biggest success so far has been my tomato plants. I love tomatoes and I eat a lot of them, so I put in eight plants. I figured half would die and I’d be lucky to get a handful of tomatoes. Instead, they all have been thriving! But it’s been hard all summer to see the yellow blossoms, then the tiny green tomatoes, and not have them ripen. But they are hitting their stride now!

Here’s a picture of tomatoes I got over the past few days and have ripening in my kitchen:

This is what I picked just this evening!

A few of these aren’t quite ripe yet, but I read that they actually ripen better inside. Out on the vine they are subject to insects, weather, and other issues, so the moment they start to redden, if you bring them inside they’ll ripen perfectly (and be just as delicious). A couple of those at the top that are the most green had small bad spots I didn’t want to grow any bigger so I thought I ripen them inside rather than let them get worse out in the weather.

I must also put in an aside here about how good these home-grown tomatoes are. I had people telling me I’d never buy store-bought again and I thought that was nuts, but now I know the truth. Store-bought look red and pretty, but they have zero flavor. They aren’t bad tasting; they just have no taste. They’re all water. These tomatoes I have grown are incredible. They are so juicy and flavorful they just burst in your mouth with deliciousness. I can cut up a small cherry tomato into quarters and each tiny quarter has more flavor than a whole store-bought tomato. Seriously. I used to use a whole large tomato on my salads just because I like the moisture and tomatoes are low-calorie. But I realize now it was also because the things had no flavor — I needed a lot of tomato on my salad just to taste it! Now I can use one of my small ones and it’s just unbelievable how good they are.

My other success has been my cucumber plants. I have two and I’d forgotten I even had them until they started producing fruit. The one in the above picture is my fifth one, I think. Just like the tomatoes, these cukes are scrumptious. My mom doesn’t even like cucumbers and she was eating several slices of mine! This one is huge! It’s my biggest yet. (The previous one I measured at 12” from tip to tip and this one’s even bigger.) It was getting so fat I decided to pick it as I’ve heard they taste better when they are skinnier (they get seedy if they get too big). I’ve still got that 12” one in the fridge (I had some of it on my salad for dinner tonight) so it’ll be a little while before I even get to this big one and find out how it tastes. I hope I didn’t leave it too long. I’ve been watching it but tonight it suddenly seemed twice as big overnight!

I haven’t mentioned my strawberries. When I bought my house it had two long rectangular planter boxes next to the garage. For years I’ve thought of doing something with them, but I wasn’t sure what. But after my interest in gardening this summer, I felt inspired. I figured up the boxes (they needed some support beams put in) and bought plastic trays, soil, and strawberry plants. It’s a nice system because the whole thing is waist-high, so tending the plants is much easier than on the ground. They seem to be flourishing and I have been getting strawberries, though not really enough to be significant. (My 20’ worth of plants produces a handful of berries every day or two.) But the berries are incredibly sweet, far sweeter than the berries I buy at the store. They are really good by themselves or on ice cream or frozen yogurt.

So that brings you current with where I am in my gardening adventures!

There’s hopefully at least another month before cold weather sets in here, so I still hope to get some more things from the garden. I’ve learned a lot and I’m already thinking about what I’ll do differently next year. (Chief on the list is cutting down a tree in my backyard that’s blocking the sun, and rethinking where I plant what in my garden. For instance, I won’t put the lettuce in the area of bright sunlight or hide the peppers behind the tall tomato plants.)

I’m certainly not planning on becoming a farmer or anything like that. But there is something amazingly satisfying about growing your own food. Not only is it healthier and more economical, but it’s far tastier. And you burn calories working in the garden!

Topic: [/gardening]


Thu, Sep 15, 2011

: A New Blogging System

I started blogging back in the dark ages before it was even known as blogging. Back then (in 1999) all I knew was that I had a website and wasn’t updating it. I wanted to have something regularly to write about, so I came up with the idea to write about movies I watch and books I read. Back then there really didn’t exist much in the way of “blogging” software (seeing as blogging didn’t really exist) and the web publishing systems that did exist were expensive and complicated.

So I did what I usually do in those situations: I wrote my program to do my blog. The program’s incredibly ugly see the picture, but it’s worked fairly well for me for over ten years. I have updated and changed it considerably over that time, but the basic premise stayed the same: the program simply keeps a list of entries and generates the appropriate .html files for the site.

There are a number of disadvantages to that type of system. The most obvious is that every time I add an entry, the entire site must be regenerated. Of course my program is smart about that — it only saves the changed pages. But internally it must generate the entire site: there’s no other way for it work. That means that the more entries I have, the slower the site generation process becomes. That’s not a huge deal with today’s computers — even with ten years worth of entries my entire site still only takes seconds to generate. But the process feels slow. (Just the fact that I have to use a special program to write in feels slow.)

While I like the full control my blogging software gives me, an even bigger disadvantage is that I’m limited in how I can publish. For instance, modern blogging solutions will let me blog with an app my phone or any web browser. I often delay blogging currently not because I haven’t written the post but because it’s a hassle to publish it.

Most modern blogging systems are all dynamic. That is, they create the site as people visit the blog. The advantage of this is that you can easily make site-wide changes instantly. But to do that, the blogging system must be software running on your web server. They usually use a database. This raises all sorts of complications, from installation and configuration hassles, security implications, speed and reliability, and more. While I wanted the benefits of a dynamic site, I wasn’t excited about the process of getting there.

I’ve been thinking about switching to a “real” blogging solution for many years now. I even tried to use a few years ago, but I found the process cumbersome. A bigger issue was that I couldn’t find a way to import my previous ten years of blogging. I didn’t want to start over: I wanted to migrate.

Recently I’ve been looking at various systems. Some, like Squarespace, seem impressive, but they are expensive ($8/month and up). I’m already paying for a web host: why do I need to pay another monthly fee for a blogging system? (And I’d have to pay it again for each blog I set up. Yikes!)

I looked at other systems and they range from free to inexpensive, but most require a database running on your website and are complicated to learn, run, and maintain. I know zip about databases and I’ve heard horror stories of them becoming corrupted and people losing decades worth of blogging entries. I didn’t want that. Besides, every time I looked into those systems, it felt like I needed a year of school just to understand how to install the blasted thing, let alone configure it and use it. (The documentation for open source software is usually horrendous.) I mostly don’t like the way the systems make me feel like an idiot. They assume so much knowledge on my part it’s frustrating. (I really hate web development with a passion hotter than Chernobyl.) I end up not wanting to even learn the tech. The tech also changes so rapidly — if you’re out of it even for a few months it’s all new. Everyone’s switched to a new hot language or new standard and you have to start over!

Introducing Blosxom

A few days ago I discovered a mention on my webhost’s site about a blogging system called Blosxom. I started reading about it and immediately got interested. The key thing about Blosxom is that it doesn’t use a database: it uses ordinary text files. Each entry’s a separate file and you store them in folders by topic. The files themselves are awesomely simple: the first line’s the title of the post. Everything after that is the text of the entry. That’s it!

I love simplicity and Blosxom sounded like just the thing for me. I was still a bit baffled about how to install and use it — those IT support documents sure make everything sound complicated — but in the end it’s really fairly simple. (I did run into some more complex things later, but getting it up and running was just minutes.)

Blosxom is written in Perl. It’s just one long Perl script. I don’t know Perl and the code looks like gibberish, but it works great. You just install the file on your web server. (My host gave me instructions on how to use SSH and install the file using the command line. That took some figuring out and I got it to work, though I’m not sure that was strictly necessary as I’ve been able to edit the file via FTP since then so I don’t know why I couldn’t have used FTP to begin with.)

There are a handful of settings inside the script you need to modify to customize Blosxom for your site. It’s not difficult — they’re just variables like the name of your site, the URL to your site, etc. — but it probably would be easier if the settings file was a separate document. Right now you edit the actual blosxom.cgi script, which can be a little intimidating.

The most important setting — really the only critical one — is to tell the script where to find your blog files. You just specify the file path to your folder of your posts. (This is on your website, not your local machine.) Once you do that, you can make a simple test post file and go to your website to test it out. You just add blosxom.cgi to the URL of your site, like this:

After a few minutes of playing, I started to think Blosxom was pretty cool. There was still the big question of migrating all my old data, but since I wrote that program myself, that didn’t seem difficult. And I loved that my new blog format would be plain text files so it’s not like I’d be converting to some obtuse, proprietary format.

I think it took me an hour or so to get my conversion program perfect. Getting the basic conversion working wasn’t long, but there were tricky things, like making sure I converted any self-links referred to in my posts to the new system. There were also some unrelated delays and I had to figure out other aspects of the posting format. For instance, Blosxom gets the date-time of a blog post from the date-time stamp of the file. That meant my exporter had to modify the date-time stamp of each file (not difficult, but an extra step I had to realize was needed).

Since then I’ve been tweaking the site, installing Blosxom plugins, and learning. The saddest thing I’ve found is that Blosxom isn’t much supported any more. It seems like many of the developers have moved on to other things. A lot of the plugin sites have disappeared, too. But that’s also a sign of a mature product: basically Blosxom is a simple tool that works and there isn’t a big need for improvement.

Sweet Markdown

I was most pleased, however, to find that one of my favorite concepts — a plain text file format called Markdown — works with Blosxom! The idea behind Markdown is brilliant: it’s a plain text formatting system that doesn’t look like any kind of mark-up at all.

For example, in my most of work I use XML. I like XML because it’s plain text, but the tags aren’t exactly unobtrusive. Here’s an excerpt from an article I’m writing for RSD:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8" standalone="yes"?>
<MainHeadline>Fun With Comics</MainHeadline>
<SecondaryHeadline>How Marc solved a
comic problem</SecondaryHeadline>
<Byline>by Marc Zeedar</Byline>

<Article><ArticleFirstPara>My favorite
use for Real Studio is solving day-to-day
problems. With Real Studio I feel like I
myself can live up to Apple's iPhone
slogan, "There's an app for that" by
writing whatever I need!</ArticleFirstPara>

That looks complicated, right? It’s not — the tags are simple and fairly obvious — but it’s definitely not the easiest thing in the world to look at when you’d rather concentrate on writing. With Markdown, your text actually looks very similar to how it ends up on the web.

In Markdown, lists look like this:

- item 1
- item 2
- item 3

That prints out like this:

  • item 1
  • item 2
  • item 3

And italic and bold words are formatted in a way that’s easy to do and looks like the final rendering.

And _italic_ and **bold** words are formatted in a way
that's easy to do and looks like the final rendering.

Even ugly things like web references are elegantly handled:

Here's an excerpt from an article I'm writing for [RSD](

And I can quote text simply by prefacing each line with > just like quoted email:

> I never travel without my diary.
> One should always have something
> sensational to read in the train.
> -- Oscar Wilde

appears like this:

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train. — Oscar Wilde

(By the way if you’re wondering how I created the above non-rendered versions, Markdown makes that super easy: just indent the lines and Markdown treats everything as code. That means HTML tags are converted to entities so they show up as text, not HTML. Pretty sweet!)

I haven’t used Markdown much though I love the concept (for years I’ve used a similar plain text approach for my fiction writing — it would be trivial for me to convert most of that to Markdown), mainly because I didn’t have a way to run the Markdown plugin. (Technically that’s not true: I could have run it, I just didn’t know that and didn’t have it as part of my workflow and I hadn’t added in support to my Z-Web Maker blogging tool.) Anyway, in learning about Blosxom I learned that Markdown is a Perl script, too, and it’s simple to drop it into the Blosxom plugins folder and bingo, every post you make is automatically converted from Markdown to HTML on-the-fly as Blosxom renders your site! (I also installed John Gruber’s Smartypants plugin as well. It converts all my posts’ punctuation to smart typography.)

So now I can format all my posts using Markdown. My old posts, which used HTML tags, don’t need to change because Markdown allows you to mix in HTML whenever you need it. (For instance, I could use regular HTML tags for <i>italic</i> if I wanted and Markdown wouldn’t care.) But Markdown makes so many things, like web references, quoting text, and more, so much easier, and it looks far more appealing on-screen, that I’ll use that more and more.

A New Workflow Now that I’ve got the new site up and running, the question is how do I work with the new site? That’s the beauty of this new system. Since posts are simply text files on my website, I can create/edit them with any editor and FTP them to my site and they instantly appear.

Right now I’m writing and editing this post live on the web. Well, nearly so. Basically I’m editing this post on my FTP site using BBEdit. Every time I hit “Save” the file is saved on the FTP site, so if you come visit while I’m doing that, you’ll see the change immediately. It’s awesome for me, because as I’m learning, I can preview it immediately on the site. (Which is why, if you’re reading this as I write it, you’ll see a lot of experimental garbage as I test things. That stuff won’t appear in the final version of this post.)

I bought a program called Textastic for my iPad and it really is fantastic. It lets me edit color-coded HTML, XML, Markdown, and other text formats and I can bring in my text from Dropbox or an FTP site. That means I can do similar editing to BBEdit right on my iPad!

Being able to blog on the fly like that is huge, but I also wanted the ability to blog by email. Blosxom doesn’t support anything like that, but that’s not a problem. I just wrote my own program to do it! It’s fairly simple: it simply runs in the background and checks a special email account I set up. When it finds a new email, it downloads it. Then it saves the whole thing as a text file in the correct folder and it posts it to my FTP site. It was a little tricky getting everything to work and it’s not flawless yet, but it works pretty well. Several of the recent posts I’ve made here I did via email — not that you’d notice any difference!

I even made my program support images, so if my email message contains pictures, those automatically get posted as well! Now, in theory, I can be somewhere, take a picture with my iPhone, and blog about it instantly. And I’m doing this for free, with standard lo-fi tech. I love it.

The bottom line is this will make my blogging much easier, faster, and better.

What does this mean for you?

Currently, not much. Hopefully the site will still work and there’ll be no immediate changes from a reader’s perspective. But in the long-term, this should make me more enthusiastic about blogging, so posts will be more frequent and reliable. I also see this as just the beginning. I’ve already made some enhancements to the site (for instance, I’ve hidden the links and archives on my sidebar by default which makes things look less cluttered) and I hope to do more. (I’d like to do a completely different design, but for now this one works.)

For me, since this is my low-traffic personal site, this is where I experiment and learn, so I’m hoping to leverage my new Blosxom knowledge and create several more blogs for my various websites. Some of them will be more complicated than Z-Web (though I won’t have to worry about them being backwards compatible with the old site).

Topic: [/zweb]


Fri, Sep 09, 2011

: Colombiana

I’m a sucker for these kind of action flicks, but the trailer made it look a little too sleazy showing the female lead running around in her underwear with a gun and stuff, so I was hesitant. The reviews were also not great. But I finally did see it and I liked it.

It was different from what I expected. I expected a brainless revenge-type story about a hit woman, but I was surprised at the serious approach the film took to the business of killing. We see, for instance, the elaborate steps the woman takes to keep her identity secret and avoid the police. That was realistically done. The woman’s hits were also creative and exciting. Where the film falls apart is in the human elements.

The little girl’s parents who were murdered at the beginning of the film are utter mysteries. We barely meet them before they are killed. I did like that we follow the little girl for longer than I expected, but the scenes with her were inconsistent. The girl’s uncle, who takes her in and raises her, is much more interesting (especially the scene where he convinces her that to be a good hit-woman she’ll need to go to school), but he’s barely in the film. The girl has a boyfriend, but that feels tacked on and meaningless, though supposedly it’s the heart of the movie as it provides her with a connection.

The bottom line is that this kind of film is meant to be enjoyed for the action and cool stunts. It succeeds somewhat in that regard. Some of the fighting was pretty average, but I liked most of the hits she had to pull off and how she did them. (And no, she’s not in her underwear the whole movie like the trailers implied.)

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Sep 02, 2011

: The Debt

I wanted to like this but was a little worried going in because it felt too much like Oscar-bait — overly dramatic war film with an All-Star cast — but it turned out to be excellent. It’s not an action-type story, but more cerebral, and I loved that.

For example, a key part of the film is when the three spies hold the war-criminal prisoner while they wait for their government to figure out a way to smuggle him out of East Germany. That seems like a simple enough of a solution — except when you’re actually faced with the delicate realities of keeping a person captive for days on end, in secret, it becomes complicated. The prisoner must be watched by someone every second, and someone has to feed him and help with his bodily needs. Combined with that you have the conflicts of Stockholm syndrome (relating to the criminal) versus the horrible things he has done (a Nazi doctor who murdered and did fiendish medical experiments), and the psychological stress on the spies is tremendous. That was my favorite part of the film; I loved the way those complexities were presented.

My main criticism is that the film is very obvious in how it hides information from the viewer — it practically taunts us. For instance, it begins present day when we meet the three main characters as they are today. There’s plenty of hints about what happened to them forty years earlier when they undertook their secret mission, but the film cruelly shifts away just before revealing anything. Sometimes when that kind of thing happens the revealed secret is disappointing. In this case, it’s not… but it’s not exactly earth-shattering, either. (I actually liked the secret very much. It was extremely realistic and logical and elegantly simple.) My point is that the teasing and over-emphasis on the secret distorts the film in a gimmick twist-ending piece, and that’s not really what this is about.

The ending, or unfortunately endings, since this has several, is weak because it doesn’t know when to stop. It’s also a little far-fetched, though not so much it ruins the rest of the film. Mostly it just doesn’t live up to its own high standards and is too contrived.

The bottom line is I liked this. The performances, pacing, setting, and plot were all terrific. It’s not quite a five-star movie, though, because of few of those flaws are glaring, but it’s definitely worth seeing. I really liked it.

Topic: [/movie]