23 December 2008

My Tivo HD/Comcast Saga comes to a Triumphant End!

About a week ago, I was in a pit of despair about the fact that I'd had 2 visits from Comcast installers and still my new TiVo HD was not hooked in to my cable. Comcast Customer Support kindly took notice of my blog rant and offered assistance. I was hoping that the "third time's a charm" and I wouldn't need it, but unfortunately that visit didn't go so well either. So, after a call to Comcast Support line, emails and calls with the Support reps who reached out to me via my blog, and a tag team effort by three technicians, everything is right with the world. My TiVo HD is now functioning as more than just a fancy Netflix Streaming receiver.

To be honest, I was hesitant about taking advantage of the Customer Service, especially when they said they would put a note on my upcoming Troubleshooting work order. I've seen that backfire with other companies who essentially mark you as a technological hypochondriac and give you worse service. But, fortunately, that wasn't the case here. Although one tech started to mention another call in which it was actually a faulty TiVo unit and not a problem with Comcast, they were true to their word and stayed for almost 60 minutes to ferret out the mistake made during my last installation attempt and make sure I was receiving all the channels in my package.

Storm Response Forgets Pedestrians

Yesterday, WBZ posted an article and a poll asking whether there should be a law to require vans and SUVs to clear snow from their roofs before driving. This is a fantastic idea and 78% of respondents agree with me. It's not just rude, it's dangerous.

But as I walked to the T in Jamaica Plain the past few mornings, I started wondering if such a law would actually help. After all, there's already a law requiring home- and business-owners to properly shovel their sidewalks, yet every winter major neighborhood streets like Centre (north of the South/Center businesses), Boylston, Paul Gore and Green remain un-shoveled, becoming treacherous moonscapes and forcing pedestrians to walk in the street.

But it isn't just lazy folks (or those in a battle of wills with their landlords) that cause problems. Plows pile giant mounds of snow up onto curbs, blocking the normal flow. In years past, I've just considered this my grumbly fate in winter, but this year it strikes me as particularly backwards. After all, a record number fo commuters switched to using the MBTA this year and most of us require some amount of walking to get to the bus or T stop. It just seems completely outdated that snow removal is still so ver car-focused.

19 December 2008

Snowstorm 2.0

What's better than a giant snowstorm where either you got to leave work early or you'll spend 5 hours crawling home along the Pike? Knowing every bit of data about that snowstorm thanks to Web 2.0 tools.

Winthrop Sq, downtown, 4 pm


18 December 2008

Awesome Women: Molly Wood

I love Molly Wood. As an Executive Editor with CNet, I've been watching/listening to her on Buzz out Loud and my CNet TiVoCast for years. And she just rocks. Not only is she a woman who knows and loves all kinds of tech and gadgetry, but she's a woman who is very pretty but a) on TV (well, okay, the internets, but still) because of her brains, not her looks and b) not insanely TV perfect airbrushed like some tech shows and podcasts use to lure in the guy nerds. Also, she seems to strike a good mom-work balance. She tweets about her kid a lot, but not too much and not horrible tone-deaf parent stuff and she very publicly went through pregnancy, maternity leave and return to work. So, yay Molly Wood.

17 December 2008

Zappos is my new favorite

So, after my little rant about poor service, here's a GREAT service story. I ordered a pair of sneakers from Zappos lat night at about 6:00 pm EST and they are on the UPS truck headed to my house as I type! I even got this expedited shipping for free - it's either part of their holiday free shipping promotion and/or because I payed by PayPal. Awesome.

16 December 2008

My TiVo HD/Comcast Saga Rant

I love TiVo. I love them irrationally in a way that a smart person like myself really shouldn't love a consumer brand. But, seriously, TiVo is awesome. Not only does it serve a technical function that makes me happy (time shift my television watching, allow me to skip commercials, help Suggest new shows I might like and connect me to content through Amazon), but it does it in a friendly, usable way. Even the remote control was thoroughly thought out.

I've had a TiVo Series 2 since about 2004 and have very little complaints. They even replaced the hardware when it started malfunctioning - twice! This last box had lasted through 3+ years and 3 different apartments and is still going strong. So, even though the USB 1.0 is a bit slow for downloading my shows or transferring to my PC and even though it can't handle HD, so my cable/TV/TiVo setup is needlessly complicated, I really wasn't tempted to upgrade to TiVo HD. That is, until they announced Netflix streaming would not be supported on the Series 2. I've been pretty satisfied with Amazon Video On Demand (formerly Unbox) and I may downgrade my cable package and get my TV shows there next year, but I've been frustrated with the lack of new releases to rent (many are available only for purchase for the first few weeks) and I missed the breadth of Netflix's selection.

So, my shiny new TiVo HD arrived a week ago. I tore open the box, thinking I was less than 30 minutes away from my new media heaven only to find the very first paper on top informed me that TiVo HD does not work with my cable box. Rather, I needed to call my cable provider to come install a CableCARD directly into the TiVo. This was unpleasant news. I have had only disappointing interactions with Comcast and I wanted to set up my TiVo NOW. This was also unexpected news. There was no part in the order process that mentioned the CableCARD requirement. (In TiVo's defense, there was a teeny little link to an Installation video in my Welcome email, but a) I've installed 2 other SD TiVos and b) why would I watch the video before the TiVo arrived anyway?)

So, I called up Comcast and said "I just purchased a TiVo HD and the instructions say I need to get a CableCARD installed, can I make an appointment?" The operator put me on hold for a second and returned and gave me an appointment window on Friday. I worked from home and waited and waited. The installer knocked on my door about 10 minutes before the appointment window ended to tell me he was working in an apartment upstairs and would be down right after. I waited and waited for about 40 more minutes - what the heck were they installing up there?

Finally, Comcast guy returns and he has a giant box in his hand and says "So, we're going to remove your CableCARD and install a DVR?" and I stared at him and said, "No, exactly the opposite. I have a new TiVo DVR, I do not have any CableCARDS and I need one." He looks over the work order, which also lists all my current equipment and, sure enough, "See, there it says 'Remove CableCARD,' but here I can see you don't have any on the account." The tech was very nice and apologetic (even though it wasn't his fault), told me he had no CableCARDS with him, mumbled that they'd done the same thing to him at the last call, and called Comcast to schedule a new appointment for me on Monday.

Now it's Monday and a different technician shows up, with CableCARDS but, perplexingly, also with an Comcast DVR box. Anyhow, he starts the installation process and then gets to an error message. He calls in to wherever to report the error and I can hear pretty much all of both sides and it turns out my tech did a few things in the wrong order. There's lots of back and forth and a TiVo reboot and some other activities, but, essentially, the technician screwed up and has now been at my place for almost an hour so he tells me I'll need to reschedule because he can't manage to install 2 single stream cards so someone will need to come back on a day when a single multi-stream card is available (TiVo says either setup should work fine).

Most of this is really Comcast's fault, but I also found the Installation Guide poster provided by TiVo to be fairly confusing. Two points in particular:

  • Step 1 says "Install CableCARD" but then the smaller print says to complete rest of the installation steps 48 hours before the cable guys arrives. So, shouldn't "Install CableCARD" be the last step?
  • TiVo provides YPbpr cables, but also supports HDMI, you just have to buy it yourself. The installation instructions only reference the YPbpr cables through the first 8 steps. I actually began to wonder if TiVo needed to go through setup and either download and update or have me manually change a setting before I could use my HDMI cable. But then way down at step 8 or 9, the small print says "Oh yeah, by the way, you could have substituted an HDMI cable way back at Step 4"

So, now, I guess because Comcast disabled my box before the failed CARD installation, I have a Comcast HD DVR feeding into my still-working SD TiVO and a nearly useless HD TiVo just hanging out.

On the bright side, I got Netflix streaming hooked up and it's FANTASTIC.

12 December 2008

Cool Neuroscience Fact of the Day

Ever since I read Proust Was a Neuroscientist, I've found and been recommended a number of strangely related books on topics ranging from aphasia to Pragmatism to anxiety disorders. All really interesting and all of which make me wish I had any sort of grasp of biology so I could learn about this beyond the pop/mainstream books. Oh well.

Anyway, I am currently reading The Mind and The Brain, a book about emerging discoveries in neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change itself structurally) and, specifically, how adults can use attention to purposefully rewire their brains. The book covers everything from OCD to Buddhism to quantum physics in explaining why that old adage that you can never learn anything new after the age of 12 is completely false. Many of the experiments used to show this plasticity involve the somatosensory cortex. The somatosensory cortex registers sensations around your body and is typically mapped out so that nearby body parts map to nearby spots on the brain. For example, the area that registers touch of the index finger is usually next to that of the middle finger. Depending on use and experience, more used neighbors can steal neurons and synapses from less used. So the boundaries between regions can be kind of grey.

All right, that's a lot of lead up to the cool fact. In the somatosensory cortex, the area that maps to the genitals is actually located right next to that of the feet, and some scientists posit this may explain why so many people find feet erotic - because rubbing someone's toes is just a few milimeters away (in the brain) from rubbing something a bit more exciting! Crazy.

02 December 2008

Are You Kidding Me?

So, now, I would like to applaud the press for finally waking up and/or growing a pair and doing things like research, asking questions, comparing previous statements to current claims... but you all are about 7 years too late.

The scrutiny over the Clinton selection is killing me. I swear, this is the first time this decade that anyone besides Jon Stewart realized you could go back and pull up old footage of politicians contradicting themselves. You know what, it's irrelevant in this case. I think we're all adult enough to understand there are certain requirements in a campaign and that attacking your opponent is one of them. This pose of bewilderment that Obama would turn around and pick competant, experienced team members who ran against him is just ridiculous.

Where was this magic recording and playback technology when the Bush administration was saying they didn't say there was a link between al Quaeda and Iraq before the war? I could list any number of other examples, but I think we all have our own favorites.

So, why are they doing this? Is it practice because they can't remember how to be journalists so they are starting with something stupid and meaningless? Is it just the continuation of the virulent anti-Hilary sentiment? Or are there not enough kidnapped white girls to fill the 24 hour cycle?

23 November 2008

Ads I Watch on TiVo

I've been hoping that a theme would kind of organically evolve for this blog, but, as with everything, I'm too much of a generalist and can't seem to focus. So, I've decided for now to keep this still my random, general blog and start another on one of the few subjects I *do* spend a lot of thought on - TV. To that end, I have started Ads I Watch on TiVo and I'll keep a feed of those posts on the left.

07 November 2008

Send a (hundred) Message(s) to Obama

Maybe I am having selective memory, but I can not remember a point in my lifetime when so many organizations were mobilizing their members to sign a positive petition and send a supportive message to the President. I keep being amazed about the pent up desire to make a difference that has been let loose in the past few days.

So far, I've been solicited by:
the WE Campaign

I think I'm going to start feeling silly about it soon, but for now it's still pretty awesome.

05 November 2008

Yes We Can, Now We Must

I've heard a lot of people worried that Obama can only fail to live up to the lofty expectations we've set for him. His reference that we can't solve our many current crises in a year or even a term touched on that as well. But as I think about it and talk to everyone I know who is so happy and full of hope, I realize that these are expectations we've also set for ourselves. As much as we want from Obama, he's already given us the most important thing we need - Hope. I know so many people laugh at this campaign theme as naive and insubstantial, but it's what we really need now.

We've been through nearly a decade of evidence that our best efforts and intentions get us nowhere. For those who opposed Bush, we saw our voting franchise ignored twice and an administration that lied and trashed all the institutions of our democracy while we, the people and our (should be) surrogates in the media raged impotently. In the face of a great tragedy, our Commander-in-Chief asked us not to sacrifice and pitch in, but to shop. He later hid the very real sacrifices made daily by our soldiers from the public eye and consciousness. In the wake of a Katrina, the government abandoned an entire city and, again, made no call for the country to band together and help our fellow Americans. In the face of a mounting oil crisis, there was no call to abandon our gas guzzlers, no pumping of tax dollars into public transportation infrastructure to help make that possible.

Now we have a leader who will lead us, as us to sacrifice, challenge us to innovate, and create the kind of public discourse that allows us to show the best we all have to offer.

03 November 2008

McCain on SNL v2

You know, John McCain's appearance on Saturday Night Live this week was so much better than the last time, it made me wish he'd hurry up and lose and go back to being the John McCain we all used to like.

24 October 2008

Campbell Brown Rules

I don't pay much attention to the relatively interchangeable pretty people who read the "news" on the 24 hour channels, but lately Campbell Brown has been rocking my world. First, she called out the real Palin-related sexism (that she was being shielded like a fragile flower from the big, mean media) amid all the wolf-crying from the right. Now she proves she's objectively calling it like she sees it by putting her foot down about the ridiculous storm that has sprung up around Palin's very expensive wardrobe. Both Feministing and Broadsheet has some interesting dissection of the wardrobe and Brown's point.

As usual, I tend to agree with Rebecca Traister of Broadsheet

I didn't think it was sexist when it broke as a mini-story (see also: Edwards' haircut, Kerry's botox, McCain's 15 houses) but the four-day fetishization is pushing me to: Move along, folks, the lady bought too many expensive clothes. Nothing to see here. And can't help but feel that the gawking would be less intense and prolonged if it were about a man's wardrobe.

I was really surprised (and annoyed/bored) at the fact that this was a big story for days. I mean, seriously? I understand it's highly symbolic of the gross hypocrisy of Republican pandering to "Joe Six Pack" while all the while supporting legislation that hurts the average American on taxes, public services and health care. But, seriously, that's what they are literally doing - so we don't need to harp on the symbol. How about actually harping on the facts? How about the fact that misogynistic rage dripped out of McCain's mouth as he snarls "health of the woman" in the last debate? How about the fact that McCain dismisses a tax package that benefits the vast majority of working Americans as "socialism"?

Then again, the so-called comedy stylings of the candidates got at least as much press, so I guess you can't expect much when you have to fill 24 hours a day.

04 October 2008

Local Drivers

I spent the past week in Tampa, FL and noticed two big differences between driving around Boston and driving here. First, the vehicles are MUCH bigger. I saw more Hummers on Monday alone that I see around Boston (excluding the limos) in a month. I rented a compact, so it surprised me to find a Jeep Compass waiting for me. I guess compact is a relative term.

The other big difference is that everyone was just so polite. People respected appropriate following distances and let you change lanes or make your turn without all the hurry, hurry rage we have up North. It was particularly interesting, since I had just been discussing local driving habits with a couple of New England transplants to California. In particular, left hand turns. Around New England, most people expect the first guy in line to gun it to make a left hand turn ahead of oncoming traffic, while in Los Angeles, everyone waits patiently, but then up to 5 cars will take the left on red while all the other lanes sit by, knowing this is the deal.

While each of these examples is technically going against the rules of the road, they work because everyone follows them. This is why I contend that Rhode Islanders are much worse drivers than we Massholes. MA drivers may be jerks, but we are consistent jerks. Around Providence, the only time I ever see a turn signal is in the middle of a dangerous and illegal manouever (such as taking a left hand turn from the far right of 3 lanes with plenty pf traffic in the other two) and it's always a gamble as to whether the car in front of you will go through the green light or stop and wait to go after it turns red.

19 September 2008

Women Matter: Getting Regular Women Engaged in Politics

Last week, I lamented that Palin Fever seemed to have exposed a real disconnect between feminism (or more generally, all people working on behalf of women in politics) and the "woman on the Street." The fact that hordes of women were flocking to throw their support and adulation behind a woman who has no track record of actually helping their situation in meaningful ways first horrified me, then made me sad that somehow our message had gotten lost to these women, even alienated them.

But hooray for Smith College! The current issue of the Alumnae Quarterly is focused on politics and the campaign and featured Women Matter, a site founded by Smith alum Nancy W. Bauer specifically to engage women in the political process by discussing the links and impact of policy on what they call Life Issues. It's a non-partisan site that seeks to clearly lay out the issues and explain the various possible remedies. Each Life Issues section also ends with concrete action a woman can take - from the simple act of registering to vote, to how you can get informed of your local and national representatives' positions, to contacting those representatives to tell them where you stand.

I think this is just fabulous. After all, I can understand how someone not brought up or educated in an environment of political participation or activism would fall prey to the cynical view that your votes doesn't even matter or that the only ways to engage are through specific interest groups. With these simple, personal, concrete steps, I think any woman can get involved and start to build confidence in their voice and that it carries weight in the process.

Unfortunately, I really hadn't heard of them before this. I'm hoping this is my own ignorance, since I really think this is an organization that ought to be a reference for everyone from the TV Talking Heads to high school Civics teachers and, of course, individual women.

17 September 2008

Google actually IS changing the way I think

Periodically, there are arguments about how Google is making us all stupid by "thinking" for us - much the same way that no one knows how to spell anymore thanks to Microsoft Word and the advent of cellphones means no one actually remembers anyone's phone number. It's debatable as to whether this is actually dumbing us down. I suspect it's more like allowing students to use calculators so they can spend more time actually learning algebra and calculus and less time doing tedious multiplications and divisions.

But that's not what I want to talk about. I recently noticed a very fundamental way that Google changed my thinking. When I first downloaded Google Desktop Search some time back, there was some little happy markety type phrase about "Search, don't sort" and referring to some utopian future where I would never have to create a folder hierarchy on my computer again. I'd just dump it all in one place and use tagging and searching to immediately access what I was looking for. I laughed. I had a great system already, and I just kept on extending it, using GDS as more of a dynamic shortcut than a real search tool.

Then I got a new job and a brand new, absolutely blank computer. In the interim, I had also taken to Google Reader and Google Docs, both of which reinforced aspects of that non-hierarchical vision. It's been months and I still have less than a dozen folders (outside the default Pictures, Music, My Scans) and typically do use search as the primary method of finding and accessing documents. So, thanks Google!

12 September 2008

Rachel Maddow: Keeping me Sane since 2008

So, I have had a kind of crush on Rachel Maddow since Feministing clued me in early last month. But nothing could prepare me for the overwhelming rush of love and happiness she brought on, when I sat down with my TiVo last night, after my day of great Palin-induced feminist/existential angst. Just being able to turn on the TV and see an example of a smart, funny woman in this prime time boys club chair restored my faith in the progress women have made... as well as the progress men have made in adapting and honestly embracing a new reality instead of fighting it or pandering to it. And, let's face it, Rachel Maddow is more than TV-level attractive, she's just plain hot, and she would probably have to stick to radio if that weren't the case, but no one is judging her competence based on her "sexy librarian" look or telling her she has to "put on a skirt" to be successful.

So, please, read Rebecca Trainster's profile, then Watch The Rachel Maddow Show and rejoice.

11 September 2008

No, The Political is Personal

Over my work-related period of radio silence, a LOT has happened. Well, really one thing - Sarah Palin. My initial reaction was to laugh out loud - the tone deaf choice of an unknown, un-vetted, completely unqualified women just to un-subtly lure those crazy old leftie ladies who were still grumbling about Obama winning over Hilary? Literally, could McCain's campaign go anymore horribly off track?
But her immediate and aggressive acceptance among right-wingers started to shake my convictions that this was the last nail in the coffin. It was a bait-and-switch! She's not really there as a Hilary replacement (though she is certainly bouyed by the energy and conversation created by Hilary), she's there to energize the base, to allow Republicans to actually like their ticket. And worse yet, she's their Obama. Just as Obama brought many previous non-voters from ubran and working class backgrounds into the fold, Palin is the kind of candidate who appeals to the Red State "little guys" who have been seriously sidelined since the loss of Huckabee. I cringed, I got worried, but it's all still politics and the game can change at any minute. And, let's remember, as much as the outcome is deadly serious, this part is still just a game.
Then two articles I read today brought up a far deeper sense of dread. In the Washington Post's piece on the way that Palin has become the new fluffy celebrity, this campaign's Paris Hilton, a woman on the street is quoted as putting forth the mind-exploding idea that

"She exemplifies what a genuine feminist is," said Elizabeth Hauris, who owns a company that manufactures cloth diapers. "She's pro-life, pro-family, nurses her son, carries him in a sling, which epitomizes the idea of close attachment."

Actually, that's nearly exactly the opposite, honey. Feminism is supposed to be about women NOT being strapped to their babies (literally or figuratively) and I'd venture that if there are only two things all feminists agree on, one of them is that we necessarily must be pro-choice.

This kind of co-opting of this campaign's legitimate suge of feminism was annoying when it came from talking heads and GOP aparatchik, but it's absolutely terrifying when it comes from the ground up. Rebecca Traister, as always, have an insightful and balanced take on this new zombie feminism.
In this strange new pro-woman tableau, feminism -- a word that is being used all over the country with regard to Palin's potential power -- means voting for someone who would limit reproductive control, access to healthcare and funding for places like Covenant House Alaska, an organization that helps unwed teen mothers. It means cheering someone who allowed women to be charged for their rape kits while she was mayor of Wasilla, who supports the teaching of creationism alongside evolution, who has inquired locally about the possibility of using her position to ban children's books from the public library, who does not support the teaching of sex education.
She goes on to say "But if we inadvertently paved the way for this, then the Democratic Party mixed the concrete, painted lanes on the road, put up streetlights and called it an interstate. The role of the left in this travesty is almost too painful to contemplate just yet." But, the thing is we have to contemplate it NOW.

We need to take a hard look at why these women feel alienated by real feminism (or the strange, fractured version that trickles down to them through the media) and why they are starving for validation of their more traditional choices. While we've all been fighting at the far edges, pushing our rights further and further towards equal, the Right swooped in an co-opted the middle ground. Smart Women Everywhere are already debating whether ironic cupcake baking is good or bad, but most women are still struggling through the real life choices of work and motherhood and how far expectations and mores have changed in just a single generation. We've left these women behind, we haven't done the best service by them because we barely even see them and they barely even see us. Their idea of "feminism" has been so distorted by everything from FOX News to Saved By The Ball and the Pussycat Dolls that it's no wonder so many young women, who are actively reaping the benefits of feminism, don't even know it and outright reject that label.

This is not to say the front line should fall back, it is vitally important that we keep pushing forward. But we have to shore up the rear, too. We have to ensure that women who choose to take on more traditional roles for themselves feel included and can see how much we are already helping them with work and pay issues, health care and family leave issues, and other day-to-day concerns. And it's possible - after all, don't we all know women who are in just that position? Women who did choose to scale back or leave work all together when they first had children, but who are no less feminism because it and already enjoy the validation of their choices by the friend family and peers?
We have to make sure that we don't lump all career moms into one big basket of scorn and pity in an effort to avoid taking steps backward. It's going to mean a lot of work - teasing out the signs from the signified, putting out messages for everyone along the path, and still knowing when to fight hard against the Palins of the world who want to force us into a state of choicelessness - but it's clearly time to start digging in before feminism becomes any more diluted and convoluted.

20 August 2008

Language and Religion

In the leadup to the Olympics, I read a lot of articles about how English is rapidly changing and being appropriated into new dialects, especially in China and India. I read another one today, via the Neuroanthropology Wednesday Round Up. All of the stories I have read tend to take the same attitude, namely that this is the normal evolution of a living language, these offshoots are valid and may eventually evolve into fully legitimate dialects or separate languages, rather than just mistakes. And that seems like a very reasonable stance, given what we know about the past evolution of language.

Anyone who has studied the history of religion (or, heck, even watched the History Channel) knows that a similar process has gone to work in that realm. Judaism has produced two full-fledged offshoots, and each of the three has multiple sects within the wider umbrella. Similarly, Buddhism mutated as it spread across Asia, into forms that more suited the history and practices of each region. Which brings me to another article, found a few clicks away from the same Round Up, on the modern westernized version of Buddhism. In The Buddha according to Brooks, Donald S Lopez, Jr (and many of the commenters) discount what they call Buddhist Modernism as somehow less authentic than those variations which evolved earlier in the East. This is a position I just can't understand. Either religion evolves like language and branches are just as valid as the trunk, or religion is The Truth and all variations from the original are invalid. You can't have it both ways and demarcate with terms like "colonial" and "elites" just to coincide with yoru own favored version.

15 August 2008

Boston Should be More like Budapest: Part II

So, my second suggestion for Boston to shape up and act more like The Best City On Earth involves a confluence of our strange, puritanical ideas and insane property values. Specifically, outdoor drinking and eating. This summer has really felt like a renaissance for Boston in that regard, with the opening of Charlie's Beer Garden and the deck at Deep Ellum. There's always been sidewalk dining on Newbury & Boylston streets as well as some roof decks here and there, but they are plagues by the crazy laws that a) require patrons to order meals, not just drink and b) requires the outside to close early. It really lacked a lot of the charm of european street cafes in Paris and Amsterdam, since the servers were always hurrying you along to turn over the table.
Deep Ellum and Charlie's Kitchen seem to have circumvented these restrictions by putting the outdoor seating in the back. And it's awesome. Deep Ellum's deck is vastly superior to Charlie's Beer Garden, though I hesitate to say that and drive more folks their way, since overcrowding is one of the problems at Charlie's. the Deep Ellum deck is a leafy, woody oasis of relaxation, great drinks and food. It's the closest think I have seen in the US to Budapet's Kerts.

Kert is the hungarian word for garden and is applied to venues that are entirely or mostly outdoors, often taking over a courtyard garden for just a summer before the building is demolished/renovated. The good ones tend to pop up every year, moving from available location to available location and advertising mostly by word of mouth. A few of them have settled down into permanent or semi-permanent digs. They range from simple beer gardens that serve no wine or liquor and have mismatched second-hand furniture to trendy hotspots with overpriced specialty cocktails and well-known DJs. And they all rock.

These places can afford to serve a few mugs of cheap beer and let folks linger and talk for hours in part because of the great deal they must be getting on these otherwise-vacant lots (some of the earlier ones were actually illegal squatters) and the European idea that cafes and bars are places for people to meet and spend time with their friends, not just money-making machines that should push the patrons out as soon as the coffee is served.

Boston Should be More like Budapest: Part I

I love Boston, it's one of my Top 5 favorite cities. I love that it still has neighborhoods with individual character, that it's a public transport-oriented city, that it is filled with students and academics, and I am even charmed by many of the quirky provincial/puritanical vestiges in our laws and customs. But I love Budapest more. Budapest is my Number One city and I think there are so many things we could learn from them to make our own city better.

The first is how to handle your bankrupt public transportation system. While the MBTA is experiencing record numbers in terms of ridership, their hands are tied and they can make no improvements to service (As an aside, if they just didn't waste all that money on the quickly aborted Radio T and the GPS tracking that doesn't actually accomplish anything, they could probably manage to add a couple more drivers/buses to routes 1, 86, 66 and 39, where they are desperately needed). All the T can seem to do is make excuses, predict fare hikes, and beg for a bailout. In fairness to the T, when I ride the subway, I tend to get where I am going in a reasonable amount of time with only minimal frustration. The bus system is a lot worse, but I am still grateful that this isn't LA and I have the bus option.

In contrast, the Budapest transport agency (BKV) is in pretty dire financial straits, but appears to actually be improving service. It definitely helped that the government offered a bailout, but the BKV didn't just sit back and continue business as usual. They have been selling off non-core parts of the business (such as a tourist funicular), selling older trams and trolleys to collectors, and working to cut down on fare dodging. Back in April, they announced there would also be service cuts & changes rolled out in September, and the details of this plan were announced today. As I began reading the document, I rolled my eyes at what I assumed was euphemistic language about "harmonizing" and "efficiency" But then I read the details of the changes. In some cases, yes, routes were cut back or combined to result in less service than before, but on the subways and major buss/tram lines, there seem to be only improvements, including:

  • Subways running from earlier in the day through later at night
  • Schedules for intersecting routes have been aligned to cut down on transfer waiting times (and, as the BKV actually uses its GPS system, this isn't just hot air)
  • Many major tram routes running more frequently
Why can't the MBTA do this sort of thing?

13 August 2008

Stupid Men & Hot Women: TV

(I recently got push-polled in a good way. I regularly read feministing and they conducted a reader poll. A majority of the questions were about the new Community blogs area, an idea that many sites are now doing to capture the power of user-generated content. I had pretty much ignored this new development, but ended up adding the Community RSS feed to my Reader after the poll. I've been rewarded with at least one really interesting post per day [though, that is out of dozens of kind of 'meh' ones] and that's how I came across this post on a totally other blog. So, now to the meat)

First, it's true, all awesome women I know and love dream of being crotchety old ladies who don't have to conform to any expectations. I hope to do this myself, though sans cats.

And I definitely agree that TV tends to portray competent and responsible women as nags and killjoys, but I've spoken to a lot of men who feel stung by the "King of Queens" paradigm as well. After all, there are only a few kinds of men on sit-coms - shlubby dufuses and hapless pitiable man-whores tend to be the majority. Even the supposed everyman heros, like Ross on Friends or Ted on How I Met Your Mother are pretty annoying and lame. While I guess there may be some lazy idiots sitting around wondering when that hot babe of a wife they are entitled to is going to show up, most smart men I know are just as offended by the gender stereotypes as we are.

Makes you wonder who, exactly, they make these shows for anyway?

05 August 2008

The Simplest Explanation

Late last week, I heard a followup to an earlier story, commenting on the big flap caused when a reporter revealed a trend among teenagers, namely that forgoing condoms during sex is considered a step on the commitment ladder. Adults were appalled and outraged and let NPR know. Meanwhile, the reporter said she had not expected such a sharp reaction. Now, part of me says "Come on, get real teenagers + sex = angry, angry parents and you must know that" but the other part of me can see exactly where she is coming from. I was reminded of this story again today by Feministing (includes link to original story), which offered up an odd, half-hearted explanation/endorsement "I do think this is one of those work arounds to heteronormativity."

I think both Feministing and the angry parents are missing the simple point that the NPR reporter probably got (thus her surprise). These teenagers are simply modeling adult behavior. After all, how many serious adult couples do you know that use condoms? Hormonal birth control or a vasectomy are far more effective, so the condom's only role at that point is disease prevention. And, one of the hopes in a committed, long-term relationship is that there is no outside sexual activity, so no new infections.

Don't you remember when you were a swoony teenager and thought you were with The One? Or, really, think about college. Many couples were engaged before or just after graduation, so the idea that you had found your life partner seemed even more realistic. While we can all look back now and realize that each of these relationships was just a temporary step along our road of growth and development, they didn't feel that way at the time. In fact, having been through few or no serious break-ups, don't you recall having a much stronger faith in the permanence of those early couplings?

Of course, I would warn any 15 year old I know against this plan because I know from experience that there's a high probability this relationship will end and/or someone will be unfaithful along the way. Also, teenagers have much less access to alternative forms of birth control and are fairly unlikely to be getting a full STD test battery at the start of each new relationship. But I think if we take the simple step of looking at it from their perspective, it becomes a much more manageable situation.

30 July 2008

Wyatt Cenac is AWESOME

Just last week, a friend and I were discussing the best new cast member of The Daily Show in a loooong time - Wyatt Cenac. This guys rules. It's always hard to explain "funny" but we boiled it down to a slightly unexpected perspective and a willingness to go the extra foot (as opposed to the extra mile and ruin the whole thing). We were specifically discussing his bit where he visited a Jewish retirement community in Florida to talk about that demographic's resistance to Obama. I couldn't help but wonder if he would sputter out or have his creativity squelched, but last night reassured me that this guy is going to be great for a long time.

29 July 2008

Listen to the Money Talk

Obama has been making a point of talking about the transformative impact the internet has had on politics. His campaign is a great example of how many individuals donating normal amounts of money can have as much of an impact or more than a big political machine. Well, here's another way you can put your small dollars to work in our democracy - buy an ad speaking out against warrantless wiretapping. Thanks to SaysMe's strategy of buying ad air time in bulk and then reselling in bite sized units (kind of like how TerraPass allows individuals to participate in the carbon exchange market), you can pay from $6-$600 (depending on channel and air time) to run this ad.

Also interesting is comparing the rates for different channels - particularly CNN vs MSNBC vs Fox News. CNN is clearly the big gun of that pack.

28 July 2008

IP and... Fruit?

Being technically inclined, I tend to think of Intellectual Property issues arising through technology - things like who owns the idea of a system (say, Facebook) or how technology is enabling new distribution channels for music, movies and writing and creating new questions of ownership and rights. But I never in my life thought there were IP issues relative to fruit! I learned this fascinating fact from the author of Fruit Hunters on NPR's Splendid Table. It turns out that fruit is surrounded by all kinds of sordid acts and espionage. Who knew?

25 July 2008

Enough with the Julia Allison already!

Despite what I wrote yesterday about my love for the window we now have into the insane world of New york media, I really do wish Radar would just shut up about Julia Allison. Don't you know that ever pixel you print about her only makes her stronger? Also, she is deadly uninteresting.

24 July 2008

I love Media Drama

In the not too distant past, when people still actually read things printed on paper as their main source of information, newspapers and magazines were fairly impressive institutions. A few gossip doyennes and editors became visible Personalities, but most journalists toiled away as faceless bylines, which somehow helped to fuel the idea that we should put our trust in these people and their work because they must be more objective, more analytical, more intelligent than the rest of us.

But that has all changed, now that anyone with a blog can be both a "journalist" and a microcelebrity. And thanks to the cult of over-sharing that has developed, we all get a peek into the catty high school that is New York Media. And, holy cow, is it a great show. I wish I could say there was some marvelous abstract philosophical reason I enjoy this, but I think it's just my base love of gossip. And thanks to our current internet media culture, it really is as juicy as the worst drama in your high school, only better. After all, you "know" all the players from reading their sites and then you can watch the drama unfold from all points of view.

Take today's post on RadarOnline, announcing that Jezebel's Moe Tkacik had accepted then rescinded her acceptance of a position there. The post, itself is gracious (maybe too gracious to be sincere?) but the sniggering comments are.. well, typical sniggering comments. And, just like high school, where all your past transgressions and embarrassments are part of a communal history, always ready to be pulled back in the light at a moment's notice, it only takes about 5 commenters before someone references the recent rape debacle from Moe's disastrous embarrassment of an appearance on Thinking and Drinking.

Of course, if Emily Gould is any indication, it's as exhausting and emotionally painful for the participants as all that high school drama was back in the day. Which makes me feel a little guilty.. but not enough to stop reading as long as they keep posting.

22 July 2008

You Are Not Who You Think You Are

Ever since I read Proust was a Neuroscientist, I've been particularly stuck on one idea introduced in the chapter on the plasticity of neurons. The first cool fact is that all those things your parents and teachers told you about how your brain "freezes" at about age 12 and it will be exponentially more difficult to learn new things after that is just hogwash. Related to that (or, heck, maybe it was in a whole different chapter and I'm just remembering it this way, since this book also taught me how grossly unreliable memory can be) is the fact that neurons actually have a short and rapid lifespan so that "you" are constantly being passed on through successive generations of neurons. This just fascinated me, thinking of your identity, memory, executive function and so on being passed like a relay. Except, of course, it's more like a school or sports team because there are so many constituents - every year a class graduates and a new class enters, those still there try to impart the spitit and values and traditions of the school to the newcomers, but something is always changed in the process. Meanwhile, the institution itself continues to go on as a seemingly continous and fairly stable entity.

This idea of subtle and constant mutations in your brain was still stuck in mine as I have continued to read The Metaphysical Club, which covers a lot of philosophical ground related to the changes in ideas about individuality and identity. And that got me to thinking about how our personality and identity is constantly shifting, even though we tend to think of it as just plain constant. At my advanced lab with a sample size of one, I've had the opportunity to observe this in light of big changes. For example, a new job. After all, for most adults, your job is implicitly or explicitly a major part of your identity, though you often still consider yourself as very separate and even in opposition. Lots of people adopt the "This is just my paycheck" attitude, but over time that becomes less and less true, as the office culture quietly works on your brain for 40+ hours a week. But you'll probably never notice this until you leave, because you still conceptualize yourself as the person who walked in the door on Day 1 who just happens to be in this environment.

Now, as much as I like just pondering this in the abstract, I think it has some concrete applications. First off, it can certainly help account for the extremely low success rate of rebound relationships. In cases where it isn't an obvious silly fling, you are probably choosing what you think is a good partner - but is actually (at best) only a good partner for old You, ignoring all the changes that have come about during your last relationship. I think the same applies to many unhappy job seekers, who embark on what they think is a great to position that fulfills most of their needs and desires, only to find they have a whole new set of needs they hadn't even acknowledged.

21 July 2008

Another Opportunity to Think Deeply about Marriage

It seems that these days, trashing the wedding industrial complex has become the focus of most marriage-related debates. And, let's be honest, especially when it's Sarah Haskins or your best friend stuck with a hideous bridesmaid dress, that's fairly enjoyable. But this does seem to have shifted the public conversation more toward "Giant white dress and 500 guests or simple suit and only close family?" and away from bigger issues of the lingering patriarchal vestiges, what we should learn from the 50% divorce rate, or whether "till death do us part" even makes sense as our life expectancies close in on 100.

So it was nice to see that the joy of legalized gay marriage in California has opened the door for some serious thinking. Stuff @ Night's Jeannie Greely takes a funny-serious look at the ambivalence around winning a set of rights that also comes with such a huge, conventional cultural weight (I can't help but note that her vision of a giant lady commune was pretty much my dream through most of my early 20's). Meanwhile, Coutney A. Martin has a piece tackling her own feminist ambivalence about this new embrace of marriage.

They both echo thoughts I've had, myself. I'm ambivalent (at best) about the institution of marriage and often felt a big tug of war between the logistical and concrete reality that marriage is more than a symbol - it is 1000+ rights handed to you with a nice bow on top - and the abstract concept that maybe we shouldn't be pushing everyone toward marriage, but reevaluating the whole thing and then getting everyone equally to there... whatever "there" ended up being. I'd say both women express these ideas much more eloquently that I ever could, so stop reading me and click through!

18 July 2008

Strange Marketing Email

I'm definitely very sensitive to the fact that sending marketing emails can be a tightrope of tone - you want to be friendly and personable, but it's really just a mass email and you need to maintain some professionalism. here is the strangest email i have received from a legitimate mailing list I actually want to be on:

I'm sorry, but there's a --- class Wednesday night I want to make sure you don't miss. If you register anytime, that would be great.

I even enabled my mail to download images in case there was some comical character who was supposed to be making this statement, but there wasn't.

Since When is Art Supposed to be Apolitical?

CNN is reporting that pro-gun groups are up in arms about the new art exhibit Wounded in America, now on display in Los Angeles. The exhibit uses words an images to display the tragic results of gun violence - including accidental, intentional and even self targets. The stated aim is to raise awareness of how dangerous guns are and the kind of damage they can cause. Obviously, pro-gun groups are not going to enjoy this type of exhibit, but the statements made in the CNN story were so ridiculous, trying to invalidate the whole exhibit on the grounds it is "politically motivated." Well, so what if it is? Isn't art always inherently from a specific perspective and usually trying to make certain points? Why should "Guns are dangerous and cause harm" be any less valid than "These images are merely symbols and not reality"?

17 July 2008

Advice column sluts

So, I have a weird fascination with advice columns, probably because Dear Abby and Ann Landers were the most exciting parts of the local paper in my no-stoplight-but-many-cows hometown. As a result, and thanks to the web, I regularly read Since You Asked, Dear Prudence, Dear Abby and Ask Margo. I don't know anyone else who finds reading advice columns as entertaining as catching up on celebrity gossip, so I'm probably the only one who ever notices this, but the same question is often answered by two or more columns. I guess the questioner wanted to get the highest probability of a published answer and sent her letter (all three instances I can think of were women) or maybe to get a range and choose her favorite answer. It just seems like such a strange phenomenon to me.

The latest example is that today's Dear Margo addressing a gym bore was just recently answered by Prudie.

14 July 2008

When Should a Woman's Right to Choose Be Overruled?

Most people in the US and other Western countries with similar laws and mores equate Reproductive Rights and Freedom with access to contraception and abortion. But though the right to choose when NOT to have a baby is an important plank in the platform, and the one that most needs vociferous and vigorous defending, it's equally important to defend a woman's right to choose when TO have a baby. And that covers everything from equitable labor laws allowing women the freedom to have children without being "punished" to forced abortion and state-imposed limits on number of children. But is the time drawing near that we all have to consider limiting the "allowed" number of children per couple the lesser of two evils? While the UN Population Day report certainly doesn't go that far, it does remind us that the current and upcoming crises of scarce/expensive resources such as oil, water and grain are compounded by overpopulation. And I think it makes sense to begin to consider how this would affect the progressive stance on the issue before our backs are against the wall.

Fortunately, the UN report is very level-headed and calls for women in poorer countries to be given greater access to information and contraception so they can choose to have smaller families if they want to. Considering that the birth rate has dropped in Western countries as women were given access to eduction and work opportunities, and given more access to family planning services, the issue may work to correct itself. And, even if more stringent steps become necessary in the future, the foundation of an educated and empowered female population is crucial for those rules to be effective and humane.

I'm actually both cracking myself up and feeling kind of sick, thinking about a "child credit market" a la the emerging carbon credit markets that are part of emissions cap & trade system. God, how scary would it be to be selling your right to bear a child.. and what a crazy new sphere it would open up for economists!

11 July 2008

CVS Has to Start Enforcing its Policies with Employees

I was infuriated, but not surprised, to read a blog post on feministing describing a CVS employee stepping waaay out of bounds and trying to refuse to sell a pregnancy test to a teenage girl. As much as I love CVS, they have been a bit lax and hypocritical on the family planning front for years. Around the time Emergency Contraception (aka Plan B) first became available OTC, CVS gained a great deal of good press by pledging to ensure availability and prompt dispensing of EC. This was and still is a big deal because many stores, such as WalMart, have opted to allow their pharmacists to refuse this legal medication to women on the basis of their personal moral stance against birth control. Other pharmacies are avoiding the issue entirely by simply not stocking the pill.

Just weeks later, a CVS pharmacist in Coventry, RI refused to fill an EC prescription and there was no real fallout for CVS, nor did they take action beyond issuing a lame apology. To know that know the minimum wage cashiers are being allowed to run roughshod on their customers' rights is just disgusting.

09 July 2008

See, Google Cares About Your Privacy.

...at least in the most practical and personal sense. Of course, I have often and loudly praised Google for farming and storing all my information, so that I never need to remember another address, flight reservation, or pretty much anything ever again. But some people are not so into it, due to privacy concerns, particularly after numerous actual Identities were ascertained from AOL's massive cache of anonymous data. I occasionally think of that when, say, Googling my latest hypochondriac fear or searching on something embarrassing, but it's a price I am still willing to pay because I get so much benefit.

That said, Google introduced a new feature today that will help with more immediate, logistical privacy concerns - do you wonder if your ex still remembers you use "fluffycakes" as the password for every account you have? Is the "keep me logged in" cookie still set at your old job, giving your replacement hours of entertainment while following your personal drama? Well, now you can find out and log them out remotely (and maybe think about changing that insecure password) with the new Activity Log and Remote Sign Out. Right on, Google.

07 July 2008

The Resurrection of TripSense

Progressive Insurance announced today that it would expand its TripSense program - a program by which subscribers install a kind of "black box" data recorder in their car, agree to upload their data to Progressive, and receive discounts for good driving habits. I think that is awesome. I am a big fan of Big Brother technology that uses its data for good, rather than restrictive or penalizing ends.

I participated in a trial of TripSense back when I was a Progressive customer. This was merely a data collection phase and I received an incentive discount for participating, but not based on my actual driving habits. I'm very excited to see it put into action, especially now that Progressive has moved into the MA market.

03 July 2008

Long Tail Economics Interpretation

The differing opinions of this TechCrunch article on Long Tail economics and the research to which it refers just shows another example of how context and interpretation are so important to Math. The original article analyzed movie and music purchases from online sources and concluded that most money is still spent on mainstream items, rather than obscure or specialized items and therefore, there is no money to be made in the Long Tail. TC disagrees and uses the hyper customization of Google AdSense as a counter-argument.

But, even more importantly, the statistics themselves don't necessarily bear out the conclusion. All they really tell us is a fairly self-evident fact - that, yes, popular music and moves are, in fact popular. And that there is more money to be made in selling widely popular items, because the volume is much higher.

What would be a more useful set of data would be to compare a Long Tail inclusive vs a Totally Mainstream service, offering the same items. For example, Blockbuster vs Netflix. Because then the availability of obscure and specialized items becomes a competitive differentiator. For example, if I find that Netflix has the Hungarian film Kontroll available while Blockbuster does not, I am more likely to sign up or stay with Netflix and to also use them to rent Indiana Jones or Sex and the City. So, while Netflix may not be making a ton of money thanks to a few dozen people renting Kontroll, they are making money as a result of their Long Tail offerings and coincidentally depriving a competitor of that money.

01 July 2008

Evolution and God

Today's edition of Salon has an interesting interview with Karl Giberson, author of "Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution" Giberson's ideas, a lot like those of John Haught, are the kind that I think I'm going to get behind when I read the abstract of an article or interview, but I always end up frustratingly shaking my head at what seem to me to be hand waving, suspicious leaps in logic, or following something down a crazy path to an illogical conclusion.

But today's article struck me for two reasons in particular.

The first reason is that I happen to be reading The Metaphysical Club and I am fascinated about how so much of early modern science and philosophy was based on the end goal of reconciling God with Science. So it's fascinating to see what has changed in a century... and what hasn't.

The second is the question for which Giberson has no answer: "Evolution is taught in American high schools and yet many still don't believe in it. How can that be counteracted?" I've actually been mulling this quite a bit, as I have been reading about the various tides of acceptance and rejection of Darwin at the turn of the century. I think for American schools, the problem is that it gets dumbed down. I'm not sure if this is a tentativeness related to the strong fundamentalist Christian presence in our society, or just a misguided idea that 10th graders wouldn't understand.
I remember being a little uneasy with the idea of evolution when I first learned about it. Not because I believed in God or an Intelligent Designer (I still don't), but because it seemed so fuzzy and to have so many holes. And I also got the distinct impression that evolution implies directionality of progress. I saw that Natural Selection was the best explanation so far, but I already understood that science itself is evolving and that models don't necessarily reflect reality beyond being able to make accurate predictions.
Since then, I have been introduced to both the concept of the Selfish Gene and of the true randomness implied in Natural Selection. This allowed everything to fit into place. So, ironically, I think a more sophisticated and complex teaching of evolution will help make it more easy to understand for a 15 year old. And if it makes more sense, it will be more easily incorporated into a young person's world view.

27 June 2008

Bye Bye, Helio

I just got official word as a Helio customer of something that has been rumored for a while - Helio was acquired by Virgin Mobile. Kind of sad, part of why I signed on with Helio was the geek cred, the other part was the awesome dual slider device with a low cost unlimited data plan. But, I've been planning to defect when my contract comes up next year, anyway.

Sure, the device is sexy and my GPS-enabled Google Maps were far more accurate and speedy than a friend's AT&T BlackJack. Sure, I snap and share pictures and video easily and can quickly get my GMail on the go. But I would have to pay extra to synch with my corporate exchange server, it's doc viewing support is so-so, and the built in browser was so very, very bad that they threw their hands up and embraced Opera Mini. And now the same dual slider form is available on lots of phones, along with some even better options for a thumb typer like myself. And the iPhone helped launch a lower cost data plan structure at AT&T.

So, goodbye sexy Ocean, hello conformity with my new iPhone or Windows Mobile SmartPhone.

Two Coffe Shops, Two Great Artists

Who knew I liked 3-dimensional art so much? By coincidence (or maybe it's the direction of a local movement) the Starbucks near my office is currently displaying sculptural photography by David Stickney. I am absolutely in love with the piece called Harvey's:

And JP Licks is displaying Assemblages by Amy Hitchcock.

If only I hadn't spent my rebate check on the movers, it would definitely be going to one of these two v cool artists.

24 June 2008

No more Rape or Racists?

Oh, good, I'm glad we got rid of rape and that there aren't any more racists in America. I mean, that must be why we don't get to use those ugly words anymore, right?

22 June 2008

I Kissed a Girl Redux

I heard Katie Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" for the first time today. When the DJ announced it was the next song, I wondered if it would be a remake of the song by the same title by Jill Sobule from my younger days. Well, the words were different, but it was exactly the same song. It was the exact same ethos of experimentation with the safe mention of a boyfriend so no one has to worry that this is a *gasp* lesbian song. I'm a little sad that mainstream pop songs haven't moved toward a more explicit acceptance of homosexuality as perfectly normal, but it could have been worse - it could have reflected the Girls Gone Wild kind of experimentation which occurs only for the sake of turning guys on.

It was an interesting coincidence (for me at least, maybe I'm the last kid on the block to hear this song) coming in the same week when a study was released that shows women's sexuality to be more fluid than men's. In other words, most women can be just as easily turned on by women as men, because it's the context not the person that is the trigger.

So, maybe the reason the song remains the same over this past decade is that the pendulum of mainstream attitudes toward women's sexuality has finally reached a happy medium resting point. Art just preceded the science to prove it.

20 June 2008

19 June 2008

Why Are You Trying to Make Me a Morning Person?

Over the past week, I've read two articles on becoming a morning person. Newsweek has a typical rehash of tips for tricking your body into doing the unnatural (and notes as an aside that it might be your genes' fault and not your lack of willpower that keeps you at the snooze button). More interesting is the Slate piece, that follows a woman and her boyfriend as they follow doctors orders to become morning people. Though the piece ends on the obligatory high note of making progress, it it fraught with the sheer agony and futility of trying to reprogram your internal clock.

But, seriously, in this day and age of telecommuting, offshore call centers, flex time and so on, is there really still this societal pressure to conform to some industrial revolution 9 to 5 ideal?

18 June 2008

My TIVo DRM Rabbit Hole

As I have said before, I love TiVo. It stands on its own as one of the best inventions in media in the past decade or so, and it has become an integral part of my media consumption experience.

However, since the introduction of TiVo To Go, I am often perplexed by the application of DRM technology. In some cases (TiVoCasts) it seems overly strict, in others (TiVo To Go for Portables) it seems like the easiest way to pirate I can think of.

I currently take advantage of the TiVo To Go feature in two ways - 1) I copy content over to my Desktop and external hard drive as just a cheap way of expanding my TiVo storage space. When I have more free time, I transfer them back to TiVo and I'm able to watch the season in order, at my own pace. 2) I convert to a portable format and watch on my Ocean on the T.

But yesterday, I stumbled upon the strangest thing of all. I previously lived in a household with two TiVo boxes under a single account. Now one of those boxes lives in Seattle and one came with me. We transferred account ownership of "Happy TiVo" to my name, to make sure everything was kosher. When that happened, my Media Access Key changed.
[In case you aren't a TiVo To Go User, the Media Access key establishes the trusted relationship between your TiVo and your computer. You can only transfer recordings to a computer with a matching Key. ] I thought that was weird and grudgingly dug through the TiVo menus to get to my new Key and enter it on my Desktop.
That was when I discovered that the two movies and the entire second season of Heroes I had stored on my Desktop were no longer considered valid files and could not be transferred back to the Happy TiVo from whence they came. Strange.
I ended up watching most of the second season of Heroes on my laptop while I was unpacking in my new apartment. By Monday, I had managed to set up all the components of my living room media center and was ready to watch the rest on my big screen.
But when I plugged in the external drive and tried to play them from my Desktop (I have a combo HDTV/giant monitor) Windows Media Player complained that it was an unrecognized format. After appropriate experimentation, I determined that the Media Access Key is not only required to transfer the recordings, but also to play them back! I had just lucked out in that I had not bothered to update the Key on my laptop, so it still matched the old recordings, allowing them to be played back there.

So, my situation is pretty unusual and it has a happy ending, but I think it's a great illustration of how convoluted things get when you try to apply fairly non-subtle forms of DRM to content. After all, I was actually using all the same hardware from start to finish, yet by the end, it was only by fluke that I had not been locked out of content I had every right to access.

12 June 2008

A Tale of Two Booths

Coming from a background in Post-Production, I am used to doing two main exhibitions each year - NAB in Las Vegas and IBC in Amsterdam. In a given year, I would also participate in one or more smaller or regional exhibitions. These were grueling tradeshows, consisting of 4-5 9-hour days filled with nonstop talking, constantly on my feet. The audience was there to consume. Sure, they wanted to be educated on which tool to buy, but they wanted to buy a specific tool for a specific need - say a color corrector panel or a film restoration system.

Now that I work for an intranet portal company, I've been to a few smallish events, culminating in a booth at Enterprise 2.0. It was like falling through the looking glass. The Demo Pavilion was only open for two short sessions on two of the conference days. And most attendees were interested in consuming ideas, not products. People were there to be educated on concepts and technologies - What is microblogging? How can Wikis help my company? - not necessarily specific products.

All in all, very interesting. Though I don't think there's any judgment or lesson to be drawn, I find the comparison quite interesting.

04 June 2008

Ode to the Subway

Last week was, on balance, a bad week for the MBTA. Overshadowing the fact that ridiculous gas prices are driving up MBTA ridership, there was both a fire and a trolley crash. However, despite all that, I couldn't help but stop and think about my great love for true rapid public transportation, be it the T, El, Metro, or U-Bahn. A good (or even just adequate) subway system cuts down on drunk driving, cuts down on any kind of driving and allows for freer movement of workers to better jobs. In more abstract ways, it helps create a better city. Cities with great metro systems, like New York, engage in a virtuous cycle of car-free living where essential services, such as food shopping, are easily accessible via public transportation. Because of the availability of these resources, fewer people are compelled to start driving and the cycle goes on. This can also help discourage the homogeneity of Big Box stores which require large amounts of square footage and, to an extent, creates real-world "long tail" niche serving stores.

Okay, okay, this is very rose-colored. And I acknowledge that public transportation generally underserves the poor and minority populations and can be plagued by choices made for political reasons, rather than due to sound planning. And, let's face it, every rider on earth complains about how terrible their system is, no matter how good it is objectively. But none of that diminishes the fact that metro systems bring real social, economic and environmental benefits to the cities they serve.

Personally, I can feel an added vibrancy to cities with a real metro system. The constant movement of people, the fact that I can get to any event or restaurant I choose at will. I first fell in love with the metro in Budapest and now make it a priority to learn the metro system of any new city I visit or live in. Besides empowering me to go anywhere I want, they also enable me to get wherever I need. I don't have to rely on unscrupulous cab drivers or any other questionable means of transportation and orientation.

In other words I love subways - for reasons both rational and irrational.

03 June 2008

Them's Fightin Words, Zoho

A couple of weeks ago, I read that online productivity suite Zoho now integrated with your Google ID. I thought that was pretty odd, since most people - like me - with a Google ID would probably already be using Google Docs. But as I read on, I saw this quote from Zoho evangelist Raju Vegesna

One thing we noticed is, when users try both Zoho and Google, more than 70% of them prefer Zoho. It made sense for us to do this. We want more users to try our apps.

So, it seemed like a good time to try Zoho. I had been initially annoyed by the dearth of features on Google Docs when I started with them over a year ago. But when I came back to good old Google about 6 months later, I was pretty pleased. However, as with all shiny new toys, eventually the love started to fade a bit and I began to see the flaws. Most annoying was the horrific tables support. When I tried to nest tables, everything just went to hell. And importing DOC and DOCX files with tables in them always yielded unexpected results.

So I gave Zoho a go. I immediately saw that there were more buttons in the GUI, while Google hides all but the most common features behind menus. Unfortunately, two really important buttons appear to be missing (or very well hidden in the clutter) - Paste as Plain Text and Remove All Formatting. At first, I dismissed this as a little thing, but it has become more and more frustrating over the past two weeks.
However, two great features far outshone this minor glitch. First is Templates. The second is Tables support. Google Docs has really abysmal support for nested tables. I know I mentioned that about a paragraph ago, but it really bugs me.
What ultimately keeps me from making the switch is the unfathomable fact that Zoho does not auto-save as I work. Wha? That's just not right. Google Docs is constantly saving new versions that I can quickly revert to if I make a mistake. Why wouldn't Zoho do this, too?

For now, I am sticking with both - using the appropriate tool at the appropriate time. Zoho is good, but not so good that I am willing to completely jump ship.

PS I aspire to have the job title "evangelist" one of these days.

29 May 2008

The Dangers of Blunt Force

If you are interested in the complex issues of ownership, IP rights and enforcement mechanisms, this detailed saga about the recent DDoS attack at Rev3 is a gripping read.

My hope is that incidents like this will prove to be so obviously ludicrous (and, quite frankly, illegal) that it will act as a watershed moment, like the Sony Rootkit did for music, and force visual media producers to wake up and start addressing their "problem" as an opportunity.

23 May 2008

Your Life Online and Your Privacy

Interesting, two different accounts this week of young women who are, by any reasonable measure, micro-celebs online and the unfortunate backlash that can entail

Emily Gould, formerly of Gawker overshares about the negative consequences of oversharing and then hooking up with another oversharer and Ariel Waldman attacks Twitter for allowing ongoing, unspecified harassment.

So, now that we are all celebrities in our own niche, where is the line between regular person online and legitimate public target?

Another Tool for My External Extended Brain

Now, I used the singular Tool, but there are actually two tools - Delicious Library and Media Man. But they are really the same tool, nearly identical. Some have argued that Media Man is a total ripoff of Delicious Library, but, that's what happens when you refuse to build your tool on Windows - someone else will do it instead.

Both tools catalog your media library - books, music, movies, etc and cross-reference with Amazon for full details. Especially cool is using your webcam as a barcode scanner to avoid the tedium of data entry. Sadly, they don't quite reach my dream of being able to index and search actual content, but I suspect that's a pipe dream for now, anyway, given the IP dustup over Google Books. So, realistically speaking, pretty awesome.

Now if only it would integrate with my Evernote... :-)

22 May 2008

Ditch the Wii and Check Out Maya

Bored of Wii Fit after only a week? Then check out Amazon marketplace or eBay to pick up a copy of Yourself Fitness instead. Sadly, these are the only places to pick up the title (for PC, Xbox and Playstation) because the company appears to have fallen to a pretty rocky position since a 2004 lawsuit and the supposed follow-up game for 360/PS3 is always "just around the corner." But the business woes of ResponDesign are in no way reflected in the quality of the game.

The center of Yourself Fitness is your "personal trainer" Maya. She's sternly encouraging, not too mush of a cheerleader nor too much of a drill sergeant. The program requires you to complete a fairly basic fitness evaluation first, to set the initial difficulty levels in each area - cardio, upper body, lower body, core and flexibility. After that, it uses more complex logic to make things easier or harder on you, based on your mood and your response to previous workouts. Additionally, you make a commitment to work out a certain number of times per week and Maya keeps track, giving you a guilt trip when you skip out too often. You also have regular fitness evaluations to track your progress. And, like all video games, the more you play and progress, the more you unlock - in this case music selections and workout locations, not to mention the new moves that are added as you become more comfortable with the old ones.

I like this game because, first and foremost, it's pretty hard to skip. I can always find an excuse not to hit the gym, but this is right there, in my house. Better yet, it's hooked up to my TV, so if tempted to blow it off I can taunt myself into it ("sure, you have time to watch that repeat of Reaper, but not to just do your workout?"). I also see results, which is more important to me than anything else. When I finish a workout, I am sweaty and I often have sore muscles the next day. After using the cardio training focus for 2 weeks, I saw a measurable drop in both my resting and active heart rate, which I can even notice as I walk home from the T.

My only real complaints are that I can't use my own music and that there's no guidance regarding hand weight size or when it's time to move up a pound or two.

21 May 2008

Is Evite a Necessary Evil?

I'm starting to think there will never be an evite killer. Yeah, Evite is ugly - surpassed only by most MySpace pages, it's bloated, you have to become a member to use it and you always get stuck looking at those stupid Red Envelope ads after you reply. But is there anything better out there? So far, I've been stymied by the sparseness of mobaganda and my friends still hate me for the Renkoo spam they get from my one invitation on that service years ago. And a perusal of the other evite alternatives just appears to be lipstick on a pig.

20 May 2008

Yes, Sweetie is a Medium Deal

I've been mulling the whole "sweetie" incident over the past few days and I've come to the conclusion it's kind of a big deal. Not a feeding frenzy Big Deal or a campaign-derailing Big Deal, but a good teaching moment. I think Broadsheet nailed it:

Someone could call a professional woman "sweetie" and mean it in an avuncular, affectionate, non-harming way -- the way Barack Obama no doubt meant to deploy it. But just because a word is not meant as an offense, does not mean that it isn't diminishing, paternalistic and disrespectful.

I have no doubt that Obama will do good things for working families and the working poor (who are disproportionately women), and this in no way diminishes that. Policies and ideology are more important, in terms of choosing a candidate, than personal quirks and imperfections. But, just like I correct anyone who says, "That's gay," in my presence, the point should be made that perpetuating even unconscious sexism ought to be avoided.

16 May 2008

Best Book I've Read This Year

My new intellectual crush has got to be Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist. The book provides a sweeping multi-disciplinary look at modern artists (visual, literature, even food) and how their art anticipated truths that would later be discovered by science or, in some cases, expressed a more whole truth than science is currently capable of. It sounds ambitious and difficult, but it's actually quite an easy read.

The reason I enjoyed the book so much is that this is the sort of cross-referenced education I wish we could all receive in school. I hated that, though taken in the same year, my American Lit course did not keep pace with my American History class, so that I lacked the full context in which these novels were created. In fact, history class, itself was a mess of silos. In World History, we marched forward in time through the traditional "western" history track of Greece to Rome to Renaissance to Reformation to America. Our textbook ignored the rich history of the Byzantine Empire in favor of the bleak Dark Ages and frequently had to circle back to suddenly explain things like "Who are these Ottomans?" and "What's been going on over in Japan all this time?"

But beyond the sheer pleasure of reading a book crafted by a mind knowledgeable enough to divine these previously overlooked connections, I also enjoyed reading it as a call to arms to bring science and humanities together. Lehrer doesn't state this goal until the final chapter, though he talked it up while promoting the book, including the On Point appearance that inspired me to go out and buy it. And it isn't a hard conclusion to come to on your own. As you read through the book and see how scientific advancements of the day inspired Middlemarch or how modern visual art inspired writers to seek the same abstractions in literature, it's not a far leap to wonder how much more quickly science could have arrived at the same conclusions, if only it were open to the influence of art.

I will admit that the Virgina Woolf chapter on the Emergent Self, the Ghost in our Machine, made me a bit uncomfortable. It's the first example where science has not yet proved the "truth" in the art, unless you count the possibility that science has proved that it can not prove that the Self (or soul or whatever you choose to call it, yourself) has a physical neurological correlate because it hasn't got one. But this is just an example of the whole point of the book. My discomfort arises because I was brought up to believe that if science can't prove it, it must not be real and this is exactly the attitude that closes the door on true cross-disciplinary collaboration. And maybe, as Lehrer points out in the Coda chapter, there are some things that science will never be able to help us know.