AP’s impossible text DRM dreams

AP Protect, Point, Pay

AP Protect, Point, Pay - Click for full size

So, it’s just text content, but it can call home, track where it has been, and secure digital rights. Good luck with that.

Posted in Current events, Other, Tech and games | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Christian Civil Liberties Union calls for book burning in Milwaukee

Here we go again. I think I’m becoming desensitized to these stories. I just can’t muster up the moral outrage like I used to. CNN reports:

The strife began in February when West Bend couple Jim and Ginny Maziarka objected to some of the content in the city library’s young-adult section. They later petitioned the library board to move any sexually explicit books — the definition of which would be debated — from the young-adult section to the adult section and to label them as sexually explicit.

Ginny Maziarka, 49, said the books in the section of the library aimed at children aged 12 to 18 included homosexual and heterosexual content she thought was inappropriate for youths.

She and her husband also asked the library to obtain books about homosexuality that affirmed heterosexuality, such as titles written by “ex-gays,” Maziarka said.

“All the books in the young-adult zone that deal with homosexuality are gay-affirming. That’s not balance,” she said.

So, fundie Christians are offended that books in a library say being gay is okay, and they call for the books to be removed from the library re-labeled as sexually explicit and moved to the adult section (thanks for the correction, WBCFSL and Frack). “Inappropriate for youths” they say. Apparently they don’t realize how hypocritical this is, considering all the violence, sex, and rape in their own holy book.

Censorship attempts like this are pretty typical, alas. As CNN noted, the American Library Association reports more than 500 such instances in the United States in 2008, mostly in schools and public libraries. But this story gets weirder:

Outside West Bend, the fight caught the attention of Robert Braun, who, with three other Milwaukee-area men, filed a claim against West Bend calling for one of the library’s books to be publicly burned, along with financial damages.

The four plaintiffs — who describe themselves as “elderly” in their complaint — claim their “mental and emotional well-being was damaged by [the] book at the library.”

The claim, unconnected to the Maziarkas, says the book “Baby Be-bop” — a fictional piece about a homosexual teenager — is “explicitly vulgar, racial and anti-Christian.”

Braun, who says he is president of a Milwaukee group called the Christian Civil Liberties Union, said he singled out the book because it “goes way over the line” with offensive language and descriptions of sex acts.

The call for burning the book showed his passion, Braun, 74, said. “I don’t sit on the fence when I do these things. When I make a decision to speak up on something, I go for it.”

The name “Christian Civil Liberties Union” is pretty hilarious, especially in this context. I think the phrase “civil liberties” doesn’t mean what they think it means.

Their case obviously isn’t going anywhere. They have no legal basis for their claim. Still, this story means that there are actually people out there who consider book burning to be defending the civil rights of Christians.

Also, here’s Ginny Maziarka’s blog. It’s hilarious, in a surely unintentional way.

Posted in Atheism, Current events, F***ed up, Opinion | Tagged , | 5 Comments


Last week I was in San Francisco to see the de Young museum. Now I just (yesterday) got back from Sea Ranch.  I’ll be back to posting normally soon.

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Video games and the Hollywood effect

“Indie” games, or independent video games (games developed without support from a major video game publisher) have become quite popular recently in some circles of gamers, and I couldn’t be happier.

The majority of these games are so-called “casual” games, or video games aimed at a wider and generally older audience. They tend to be puzzle-oriented, and attempt to be both simplistic and addictive (see: Bejeweled). However, it is in this same world of indie games that you’ll find the most artistic, experimental, and innovative titles on the market today.


Aquaria, an indie action/adventure game

These two types of games barely even resemble each other, so why are they both lumped under the umbrella of “indie game?” That label, as I explained above, refers to a lack of support from video game publishers. By that, I mean financial support. These games are made on the cheap.

This limitation is what leads to the two different types of games. Game developers can focus on games that are quick and inexpensive to develop but have relatively high return (casual games), or they can push boundaries and work outside the box, because they don’t have the pressure of a financial backer expecting a commercially successful product. In a way, the developers of the artsy indie games owe something to the developers of the casual games — the digital distribution that allows for modern indie games to reach such a wide audience was largely pioneered in the name of casual gaming.

But major video game producers spend millions of dollars on massive projects like Grand Theft Auto and Halo. How can a small team of developers with a tiny fraction of that budget hope to compete? The answer should be obvious, but you’d be surprised how many times I’ve heard this exact question. Quite simply: more money does not a better game make. When a company like Electronic Arts invests a large amount of funding in a game, they want a safe investment. Experimenting is risky. Doing the same thing everyone else is doing is a safe bet. No one ever got fired for making a World War 2 shooter.

This is one of my favorite quotes, from the brilliant Brian Eno:

“Hollywoodization”:  This is the process where things are evened out, rationalized, nicely lit from all sides, carefully balanced, studiously tested against all known formulae, referred to several committees, and finally made triumphantly unnoticeable.

A major game publisher throws money and people at a project, and the result is something accessible and safe. It isn’t groundbreaking, or even different in any substantial way from anything else on the shelves. But that’s all consumers expect, and it’s against the financial self-interest of the company to deviate from this line and take risks that might alienate consumers. Sure, they might end up with the next Sims (innovative, unconventional, and ridiculously financially successful), but they could just as easily end up with the next Grim Fandango (innovative, unconventional, and a financial failure).

Big publishers have their place, of course. Something like Bioshock could not have been done independently in our current game market. My hope for the long run is that indie games will increasingly become competition for big budget games, and hopefully this will put pressure on the game producers to innovate in order to stay competitive in the market.

In the short run, however, my hope is that “regular” gamers are willing to step outside their comfort zone of magic spells and machine guns and try something new.

A screenshot from the unrelentingly experimental and artistic game The Path

A screenshot from the unrelentingly experimental and artistic "game" The Path

Something new, like The Path, a game that isn’t really a game. It’s more of  an interactive, digital work of art. Emotional, symbolic imagery is the weapon of choice here. The Path is sometimes classified as a “horror” game, but the horror doesn’t come from sudden surprises or gore — it comes from those moments in our lives that shake our whole foundation and force us to accept human existence for what it is. It’s a game about growing up, understanding, and changing. It’s vague enough that you can easily connect to it, but it’s specific enough that the imagery and ideas take hold of you and stay with you for days. The only instruction given to the player is to “follow the path,” and in order to play this game you must break this rule. The only objective, if you can call it that, is to lead your “little read riding hood” to her “wolf,” a deeply symbolic encounter that results in your character walking slowly, through the rain, head cast down in despair, toward grandmother’s house. In a sense, the game makes you force the character into this. After your character walks through the rain to grandmother’s house, the game takes control out of your hands completely, as you walk through an abstract, expressionistic house that is constantly shifting around you and represents your character’s fragile mental state.

I could write a lot more about The Path, but hopefully you get the idea. It’s certainly no Halo. It’s nothing like a traditional game, and many critics intensely dislike it for this reason. One of the developers asked, on his blog, if the world was ready for The Path. At the time it struck me as an arrogant thing to ask, but in retrospect he was right to ask it. I really hope the world is ready for games like The Path.

Posted in Noteworthy, Tech and games | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Komm, süsser Tod

(Title is in German… translates to “Come, Sweet Death”)

Originally written in Japanese by director Hideaki Anno and sung in English, this song features prominently in the movie End of Evangelion. You can find alternate translations and additional information here. This video contains the original, unedited footage from the movie where the song appears (to anyone who hasn’t seen Eva: yes, that footage is actually from the movie), however, the soundtrack version of the song has been dubbed over to remove the dialog and sound effects that play over the song in the movie.

I love this song. When I hear it, I basically stop whatever I’m doing and listen. It’s so emotionally powerful, especially when paired with the striking imagery from Anno’s brilliant movie End of Eva. Every few days (seems more like every day recently) I go back and watch this video, for whatever reason.

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Firefox 3.5 in Ubuntu 9.04 64-bit

As I’m sure you’re aware, Firefox 3.5 was officially released.

I had been using the beta version previously, but had a bit of trouble updating to the final release. The main obstacle I ran into was that I use a 64-bit build of the browser, along with 64-bit plugins for flash and java. I wanted a way to update to the final release via my package manager, and it wasn’t too difficult.

The first thing I tried was adding this repository for nightly builds of Firefox, as it seemed to be the most common solution given at the time to the question of installing the latest Firefox release:

deb http://ppa.launchpad.net/ubuntu-mozilla-daily/ppa/ubuntu jaunty main

That ended up getting me 3.5.1pre, which is not what I wanted. I don’t want the nightly builds of Firefox — I want the stable, final release.

After a bit more digging, I found the solution. I removed the above line and added this line to /etc/apt/sources.list:

deb http://ppa.launchpad.net/fta/ppa/ubuntu jaunty main

… ran sudo apt-get update to update the package list with the information from the new repository, then sudo apt-get upgrade to check for updates on installed software. For me, this upgraded the firefox-3.5 package, which I already had installed previously to run the beta.

For those of you who didn’t have the package already, you just need to add the above repository then install “firefox-3.5″ and “firefox-3.5-gnome-support” (with sudo apt-get install firefox-3.5 firefox-3.5-gnome-support), and the package manager will take care of installing all the dependencies.

If you want to use a 32-bit version of Firefox (or, I should say, if you already are and have no reason to change), I recommend you use Ubuntuzilla to manage your Firefox installation. It will automatically download and set up the latest Firefox release, and monitor it for updates.

Now I’m enjoying the latest Firefox release! It isn’t really earth-shattering, seeing as how I’ve been using the previous versions as they’ve worked up to this one, but it’s still a damn nice browser.

EDIT: I should add that the above instructions will leave you with a program named “Shiretoko,” with Firefox 3.0 still installed along-side it. This is what you want. If you open the “About Shiretoko” page you should see “Version 3.5.” This is Firefox 3.5, just going by a different name.

Posted in Tech and games | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Alan Turing’s birthday

Alan Turing

This is Alan Turing, one of the most brilliant men of the last century and the father of computer science. He was greatly influential in the fields of logic and mathematics, and he worked on codebreaking for the British government during World War II, devising several techniques for breaking German codes.

He was born on June 23, 1912, 97 years ago. On June 7, 1954, he killed himself by ingesting cyanide — an act he was driven to do after being arrested, prosecuted, and forced to take experimental and dangerous hormone treatments by the British government. His crime? Homosexual acts were illegal under British law at the time.

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Piracy and shoplifting

A common talking point you hear from the RIAA/MPAA and the media corporations is that piracy is stealing. You wouldn’t steal a DVD movie, so why would you download a DVD rip from a torrent site?

Well, the obvious problem with this is that piracy isn’t stealing. Under the law, piracy is “copyright infringement” — stealing implies depriving another of a possession or property, and piracy does not take anything away from the owners of the copyright, other than an abstract loss of potential profit. In other words, when a DVD is copied, the original DVD remains intact.

A less obvious difference between copyright infringement and stealing is the amount of trouble you’ll be in for committing each of them, respectively. This woman was fined 2.4 million dollars for downloading 24 songs, or about two albums worth of music. What do you think would have happened if she had just been caught attempting to steal two albums from a record store? Her punishment would have been much less harsh, at the very least.

This seems very counter-intuitive. Stealing obviously and directly harms another person, by depriving them of property. Piracy does no such thing. As a trend, perhaps, piracy is harmful to copyright holders (I contend that it is not nearly as harmful as it is made out to be in this respect, but for sake of argument I’ll concede this point here), but it’s absurd to claim that, on an individual level, copying a CD deserves orders of magnitude more punishment than stealing a CD.

There’s still room for disagreement here — I’m only pointing out that the rhetoric on the side of the copyright holders is hollow and misleading. There’s a legitimate case to be made on their side, but they aren’t making it — to me, that says something important. I’m not here to play the part of the anarchist, calling for the abolition of copyright. There are two extremes on this issue, and I don’t belong to either one. I do, however, think that piracy can be acceptable. Or, said in a more pessimistic way: piracy is unstoppable. Whether it’s morally defensible or not, it isn’t going away, and calling pirates “thieves” won’t change a damn thing. Actually, it might change one thing — it’ll drive those on our side to be more and more extreme in their opposition to copyright. When I bought an e-book and found that the DRM would prevent me from reading it on my device, I pirated it — and, importantly, I felt doing so was morally justified. The more draconian the DRM, the more people will pirate. The more media companies pull Youtube videos and send take-down letters, the more people will pirate. We’re watching corporations actively participating in their own demise.

In the words of Lawrence Lessig: they criminalize our culture. I’m sure everyone reading this article can think of some funny, original, creative Youtube video that was removed because it contained some copyrighted material. Is it any surprise that we fight back?

I can’t really say I believe downloading an album is “fine,” morally, but I do it anyway. I still buy albums I like (as I do with games, movies, etc), but that comes out of a need to give back to the artists. I never buy media just to have it, because simply having the CD means nothing to me; I could have just downloaded it. The only thing the propaganda and rhetoric does is make me feel less and less guilty about piracy.

Posted in Current events, Noteworthy, Opinion | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

NASA has a sense of humor

Attach Orbiter here. Note: Black side down.

Attach Orbiter here. Note: Black side down.

Source: Wikipedia.

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200th Anniversary of Thomas Paine’s Death

Last week was the 200th anniversary of his death. In remembrance, I thought I’d post some of his more inspirational quotes:

  • THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.
  • Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.
  • The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. ‘Tis not the affair of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent—of at least one eighth part of the habitable globe. ‘Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected, even to the end of time, by the proceedings now. Now is the seed time of continental union, faith and honor. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; The wound will enlarge with the tree, and posterity read it in full grown characters.
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