Wednesday, March 29, 2006

ESPN!

The Final Four college basketball tourney is in Indy this weekend. Normally, I wouldn't really care -- I can't think of anything I care about less than college sports. But ESPN Sports Center is shooting live at the Artsgarden for the week. It's huge, on the production side. I've spent most of my work time for the last month dealing with various aspects of getting the ESPN people here and happy. They arrived on site Sunday, and they leave by next Wednesday. In the meantime, they're shooting around 20 hours of television. I'm really giving 100% (I've always thought it was dumb to say 110%; what you mean is doing your absolute best, so why exaggerate?) for this. I'm actually letting them cut holes in walls, and I'm doing everything I can to make life easier for their production guys. Their staff are all experts, and I'm learning a lot talking to them. Frank Gatto is doing their lighting -- he's one of the biggest names in television lighting, and it's been great working with him. He's amazingly good at what he does.
We're really a great venue for this sort of thing, and apparently we're a lot nicer than most. One of their staff was telling me scary stories about a recent road show they did, where the venue billed them $10k for power for their office space. It's also pretty traditional for the venue to charge for absolutely everything: ice, chairs, tape, that sort of thing. A lot of places even charge a rental fee for things like power cables, by the cable. We don't charge for anything, just the room rental rate and the staff. And one of the staff is even factored into the room rate. They're getting a serious deal from us on the rental rate, too. We really should've charged more; we're not even charging them for three of the days they're here.
So, bottom line, if you've got cable, check out ESPN this week; that's my venue! Woo hoo! Go [insert team name here]!

Grandma

I visited Grandma Gill in the hospital this afternoon. She fell sometime Monday night, and mom found her Tuesday night. She had broken her arm and the orbit of her left eye, and she might have had either a stroke or a heart attack. We're not sure exactly what happened yet; it's also possible she just fell and got a concussion. This isn't the place to go into lots of details, but she's not in great shape. Keep her in your thoughts, and say a prayer if you're so inclined.

Friday, March 24, 2006

reflexive politeness

There's a running American joke about reflexive politeness. I remember the pre-show movie ad wherein the comedian is talking to the ticket taker: the ticket guy says, "enjoy the show," and the comedian says, "you too." I just did one of those. I just told my boss, "Hey, I'm heading to the dumpster with these boxes. Want me to pick up anything for you?" Oh, well. At least I'm instinctively courteous instead of instinctively rude....

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

another podcast pet peeve

Sorry about the alliteration. English-major thing. Anyway, I've been noticing something else about podcasts that irritates me. Earlier, I complained about high-bitrate mp3 files, but that's only a problem while you're downloading them or storing them. Now I'm irritated by the huge number of podcasts that start and end with really loud music. Music is fine; it sets the tone for the work that follows. But more often than not, it's recorded much louder than the actual voices. If you're wearing earphones, you've got them cranked pretty loud to hear the speech. When the music kicks in, it's almost painful. I can't figure out why it's so difficult for people to normalize their volume level.
And, good news -- my wife got me an mp3 player! It's a Zen Nano, from Creative Labs. I've had it for a whole day now, and it's great. It's got lots of cool features, it's light and tiny, it's easy to use, and it sounds good. Not surprising, really; who's better at audio than Creative?
Thanks for the cool toy, Laura. You spoil me rotten!

what do you do?

It's stock Americana to complain about the universal introductory question: "What do you do?" By which people mean, "What is your job, and where do you work?" Generally the people who complain the most about this are the ones who don't want to be defined by their work -- people in low-paying service jobs, musicians with day jobs, people with hardcore hobbies that define them much more than their jobs. The complaints are all generally along the lines of, "my job doesn't represent me at all; how dare people ask what I do and assume they know anything about me?"

This question never really bothered me. Today I finally realized why. When people ask me what I do, I answer: "I'm a techie." It's what I do, and it's also what I am. It describes me as well as one word possibly could, and it's much broader than most people's job titles. Whether I'm at work or not, it pretty much defines my life. I enjoy being a techie. And I'm good at it.

Monday, March 20, 2006

censorship in schools

I heard a creepy story this weekend. A musician I know works for a school. Someone e-mailed them the text of a song, and the school's filtering program blocked the message. The reason? The text contained the word "dong", in the context of "those merry ding-dong wedding bells a-chiming". I found it disturbing that employees are so closely watched.
It got me thinking, though. What's the best innocent use of a word that wouldn't get through an obscenity filter? The only one that comes readily to mind is the word "crapulence". It means "gross intemperance in eating or drinking", but it sounds mildly naughty. If you can think of anything good, let me know.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Hi-def voices

I've been noticing that a lot of podcasts are huge files. I know most tech-savvy people have high-speed access these days, but I'm still amazed that people aren't a bit put off by 15-meg downloads for ten minutes of audio. Most podcasts seem to be recorded in mp3 format with a bitrate of 192kbps. That's actually better than CD quality. For voices. Audio quality is generally a factor of the weakest link; somebody recording on a crappy analog mic plugged into their computer (or, worse, on the built-in mic on their MP3 player) won't get clean audio anyway. Transcribing a noisy, bad-quality recording to hi-def digital doesn't reduce the noise or improve the quality; it just gives you bad sound reproduced in hi-def.
For comparison, when I transcode books-on-CD to mp3 I usually use a bitrate of 36k or so, which is comparable in quality to AM radio. And I can condense 10 CDs down to under two hundred megs.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Raven Shield expands

I got a comment on my earlier post about Rainbow Six 4: Lockdown (and how much it sucked). The anonymous poster said there's a full expansion pack online for R6: Raven Shield, and it's a free download. The retail expansion pack was Athena Sword, and it was great. The new one is called Iron Wrath; it's really a full expansion, complete with cutscenes and new weapons. The download is 997MB, which took forever, but I installed it and started the first mission. It's a lot of fun so far, and it seems about as different from Athena Sword as AS was from Raven Shield. I'll let you know what it's like when I have more time to actually play, which probably won't be until next week. Anyway, there really aren't a lot of new games on my list, so I'm planning on making this one last and not just cranking through it in a long day. And, I really should be writing instead anyway.
On a side note, if you're a pretty serious Rainbow Six fan, I'd recommend googling the AlleyStrike mission; it's probably my favorite user-created level for Raven Shield. It's chock full o' bad guys. When you play the terrorist hunt mission and select the number of enemies, that's the number of additional enemies, on top of the ones that are in fixed positions. If you set it to 35 (the max), there are actually around 108 bad guys in the building, and it's pretty challenging. If you're incautious, it's actually possible to run out of ammunition. A hint: almost none of the bad guys wear gas masks....

Sunday, March 12, 2006

pie in the sky?

I'm working a contemporary Christian/gospel concert, and I couldn't help but notice how many different songs in this genre sound just like the Depression-era folk song, "Pie In The Sky". That is, you could record just the instrumental tracks for PITS, and sing at least a dozen different gospel songs to it. I wonder if rock songs do the same thing. I know a lot of early rock songs used the same four-chord guitar progression, but that's pretty far removed from the pie-in-the-skyness I've been noticing with Christian music.

To hit, or not to hit?

I've got a personal dilemma going on, so I'm going to think on paper. In my wild youth, I did the world's best martial art: a style of Indonesian pentjak silat called bukti negara. It's intelligent, it's efficient, and there's no other fighting art that compares to its effectiveness. I've been exposed to a pretty broad range of martial arts, so I speak as somewhat of an expert when I say how effective it is. Unlike a lot of styles, it's based around absolute principles of body mechanics and physics. Instead of teaching techniques (as in, "when someone attacks like this, you do this"), it teaches you how to move efficiently, where your strengths are, where your angles are, and where your opponent is weak. All martial arts are based on (usually) unspoken assumptions. Judo, for instance, generally assumes that you'll always be attacked by a single, unarmed opponent on firm, level ground. If these assumptions are violated, it's to your detriment; if you're attacked by multiple opponents, or if one's carrying a machete, you're pretty much hosed. Silat is based on unspoken assumptions, too: it assumes you'll be outnumbered, surprised, and that your opponents will be armed and you won't be. It makes no assumptions about environment, opponents' skill, or available space. If any of silat's assumptions are violated, it works out to your benefit. Silat in general, and bukti negara in particular, is the most effective, practical martial art I've ever seen, and I really enjoyed it.
So, if it's such a great art, why did I quit? I had three big reasons and a few little reasons. One big reason: the art was shifting away from its core principles. The powers-that-be started changing the art to make it more structured and easier for people with no understanding to teach. The formal curriculum consists of djurus, solo short forms that teach the tools and structure of the art; and sambuts, which are two-person forms that teach the body mechanics of one's opponent (I'm leaving out a lot here, but this isn't intended to be a formal treatise on silat). The PTBs reworked the sambuts so the movements no longer depend on your position relative to an opponent, but on your position on a series of lines on the floor, effectively removing combat body mechanics from the formal curriculum. Those of us who knew the old way kept the understanding, but it was awkward and nonconstructive practicing the "new, improved" curriculum.
Reason two is that the structure of the art somehow turned political. I tested for guru muda (in English, roughly apprentice teacher) in Los Angeles with another student from Indy, a student from Ohio, and a student from Germany (who was largely self-taught). The student from Ohio was pretty darn substandard; her curriculum was imprecise and occasionally dead wrong, her applications weren't fluid or effective, and she had no power. I learned later from people who had taken the test previously that they omitted some of the test, apparently because they knew the Ohio student couldn't have performed. I'm still fuzzy on why it was important that she pass the test, but they passed her, just as they passed the two of us from Indy -- and we really knew what we were doing. I was originally honored to be in the company of the other guru mudas, all of whom were amazingly good at what they did, but the rank was made nearly meaningless when the Ohio student passed. After this I started noticing a lot of other politics in play, too. The whole experience cooled my excitement for the art.
The third reason was pretty typical -- as you get better at something, the learning curve really flattens. The skill level of someone in the art for six years is noticeably better than the skill level of someone in the art for four years. But the better you get, the less there is to learn. You can refine a lot, but there's no practical difference between someone who's been studying for thirty years and someone who's been studying for fifty. It's not that I knew everything when I quit; it's more that I was learning a lot less in each class than I was when I started. And a lot of what I had to learn wasn't anything new; I had to refine a lot of things I already knew and deepen my understanding of things I didn't understand fully. And, in some ways, I could do that just as well on my own as I could in class (of course, I didn't keep up with it on my own; that's my fault).
A side note: one of the of the minor reasons I quit was that one of the instructors just really disliked me. Normally this wouldn't bother me; I wouldn't go to class for a hardcore martial art and complain about getting hit. A good pounding even feels somewhat edifying, like a learning experience. What changed my mind? I had hand surgery about a year before I quit and spent a week in the hospital. I was so gung-ho about the art at the time that I showed up for class the day after I got out of the hospital, with an arm splint and cool bandages. I explained to the gang that I had to take it easy a little, if I got hit wrong I'd be back in the hospital for another week -- and this one wouldn't be covered by workmen's comp insurance. So, the first guy I worked with that night was Guru Andy, and the very first thing he does is slam me in the hand, hard. It's pure wild luck that that hit didn't cost me another week in the hospital and $10k in medical bills. You really are putting yourself in the hands of your training partners, so it's important that you trust them. And I really don't trust Andy. I had a few other minor reasons for leaving, too, but this is the only one that makes a good story. :-)
The changes in the art itself made me doubt I was in the right art (that is, the art I started with), and I felt like I wasn't learning as much as I once was. So, when Laura and I bought our house and I had the nightly choice between class and plumbing, or painting, or wiring, I worked on the house. Then I just never went back to class. I didn't feel like it had much to offer me anymore.
So, now it's five years later. I really do miss being active in the martial arts; I enjoyed the training and the practice. I enjoyed most of the people I worked out with. And bukti negara itself was amazing. I'm debating starting silat again. The class is pretty small, I hear; it was never big, since it's a hard art to learn and you tend to get beat on more than in the typical martial art, but it's apparently down to Guru Dave and three students. I also heard that the Pendekar (roughly, grandmaster) cleaned house and stripped a lot of the politics -- and the political people -- out of the art. The formerly top-secret traditional style on which bukti negara is based is apparently public knowledge now, and it sounds interesting to learn. And my cousin might be going back too, with a friend of his who studied for a short while. Still not sure if they're doing sambuts to lines on the floor, though I suspect they are; once you've put enough mental energy into rationalizing a change, it's hard to go back. A big down side, class is now $75 a month. I've forgotten most of the curriculum; I can only make it reliably through the first four of the eight djurus, and I've almost completely forgotten the sambuts. I'm not nearly in the physical condition I was when I was studying. And, I work a lot of evenings; I don't know how easily I could fit it into my schedule. And part of my brain is thinking that if I were to restart a forgotten art, it should be tai chi.
And so I'm debating. I've got a while to decide; I'm working evenings for the next three weeks, so it's not even an option until then. If I start again, it'll be a long-term commitment, and I won't want to quit again. So I'm trying to put a lot of thought into this before I decide.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

console games -- they suck

I've been a huge fan of the Tom Clancy Rainbow 6 games; they're fun to play and highly replayable, and you can find hundreds of user-created maps online (only problem: no save function. If you die, you have to start the level over). The newest game in the series is Rainbow Six 4: Lockdown. It started its life as a console game, which they ported to PC. After playing the demo, I decided I don't like console games. On the plus side, you can now save -- and the graphics are good, pretty comparable to F.E.A.R. for the PC. On the down side, the game's a lot less versatile. The UI is actually less functional than the previous R6 games, and you can do a lot less in the game. You can no longer change viewpoint characters during play, the pre-mission setup doesn't let you change characters, teams, number of characters, or armor levels, and the viewpoint is awkward. The friendly AI for your teammates is so bad that you're generally better off just telling them to hold in place while you go on to finish the mission objectives solo; even the first time I played, with my teammates "helping", the mission stats at the end showed that I made around 50 kills, while the three of them combined had 7. And, the shotgun is pretty much a useless weapon in this game; it took me seven or eight well-placed shots to kill an unarmored enemy at medium range. And, the gameplay is pretty darn linear, and not very challenging. Even on hard difficulty, I only had to restore from a saved game twice.
But everything is prettier. If this is any indication of what console gameplay is generally like, I can see why they're best regarded for their sports games. As for me, I think I'll go back and replay Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory -- or, better yet, some of the add-on missions for Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield.
On a side note, I just looked up reviews of Lockdown. PC Format says, "It's managed to create a whole new genre: the untactical shooter." Oooh, slam!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

podcasting, maybe

I've been heavily into podcasts and audio blogs for a few weeks. I've even started dumping them to my Axim and listening to them in the car via the cassette adapter that came with Laura's XM radio. Amelia Scott's audio at Flak Magazine is intelligent and funny, and a few I found at random at the iTunes site are pretty good. But a lot of them are pretty bad. Pretty much any random idiot can just ramble into a microphone and call it a podcast; there's no editorial process. And a lot of it seems to stem from having an enormous ego. Podcasters are convinced, on a deep level, that they're so special and so unique that whatever they have to say is inherently interesting to anyone who would happen to listen. I'm easily capable of that level of ego, so I'm thinking about starting my own podcast.
My first thought was that I don't really have an audience; it'd be a lot like shouting to an empty room. But that's the beauty of the internet. A better metaphor would be walking onto a stage, blindfolded, with earplugs in, and shouting. Sure, it's probably an empty room -- but it might not be. There might be dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands of people listening. I could even delude myself into thinking that absolutely every computer-literate person on the planet was tuning in weekly to hear me! I might even be famous, and just not know it!
See? Ego. I think I'm a natural.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

(young) butts in seats

People in the performing arts have been noticing for years that their audience generally has blue hair (not the kind in a mohawk), and they're finally considering this a problem. Much hand-wringing is happening in arts-organization boardrooms about the problem of how to get young people interested in theater. A consultant came to town last week, and apparently they've decided that the solution involves some kind of centralized ticketing system so young people can have one-stop arts-ticket shopping, and better direct marketing. I wasn't at the symposium, since it would violate the social order to have people who move heavy things mingling with people who sympose. I heard about it after the fact from an attendee, and here's what came out of my mouth, more or less verbatim:

That's nonsense. We're talking here about my exact generation, right? And, specifically, the segment of us who will buy theater tickets. Guess what? We've ALL got internet access, and we ALL know how to use Google. If we want to find a show, and buy tickets, we can do that already. Pretty much everyone already sells tickets online, so the internet IS our centralized ticketing system. Look around more specifically. Notice that some shows have a lot of young people in the audience, and some shows don't? That's because we already see the shows we want to. I worked Pump Boys & Dinettes, and it's possible I was the youngest person in the building. Because I wouldn't have voluntarily sat through it if I weren't being paid. But I was pretty near to the average age in the Mozart Project at Clowes last weekend. People my age see all the theater that appeals to them, but that's just not much theater. We need to get students into theaters so they develop taste, and we need to make theater whose target market is me and mine. But that's a risk--nobody wants to alienate the bread-and-butter audience who sees all their shows. Face the fact that me and my grandpa have different tastes, and right now you're selling to him, not to me. And no amount of direct mail is going to get me into Pump Boys. The other end of this is that people are pricing their so-called target market out of their audiences. I was thinking about Cirque [du Soleil] tickets last weekend, but almost nobody my age can afford $90 for a ticket in the cheap seats.

It's pretty typical that nobody wants to tackle an enormous problem like this. The solution might be obvious: How do we get more young people into the arts? Make Art That Appeals To Young People. But that would require a complete rework of the way people choose, produce, and practice art. People would rather jump at an easy solution for a false-yet-distracting problem, than even consider looking for what might be a long-term, challenging, and difficult solution for the real problem. Part of the solution might be to truly segment the audience: make theater for young people, and theater for older people, instead of trying to find a common ground. Such common ground exists, but it's rare and therefore a bad basis for a business model.
Finding creative solutions to the wrong problem -- I believe computer people call this "premature optimization" -- is a hallmark of difficult questions. The first time I noticed this was with the American auto industry. Many hands were wrung and teeth were gnashed about the fact that American cars were losing market share. They did a lot of looking at marketing and image, because apparently some corporate paradigm relates sales to image and style, rather than to actual quality. That's true for jeans, not for cars. The fact is, people were considering a used American car to be as reliable as a Japanese car with twice as many miles. It probably took them twenty years to ask the right questions and learn the real lesson: Make Better Cars. Remember when the RIAA got worried about losing ground to music piracy, and launched its huge effort against file sharing? After three years of this, they saw their first actual drop in sales, and screamed that what they needed was more anti-piracy efforts. The actual problem is one they don't want to face: people are losing interest in buying the music they're stamping out. An idea like Make Better Music isn't part of the plan; it's easier to push for stronger DRM and sue the occasional file trader than it is to rework the glitzy image-centered hit machine that the music industry has become. Same problem with Hollywood. It's easier to scream about illegal movie sales and file sharing than it is to recognize and admit that people just aren't as interested in the movies you're making.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

near miss

I know I haven't posted anything in a while; I've been a bit busy, and I've also been trying to Write. And, time I spend blogging isn't time I'm Writing. But I had a close call today, and I thought I'd share. I was helping a friend change a tire on his Nissan Pathfinder; this was at the lot at Delaware & South towing in Indy. They apparently dragged his tire, because it was pretty torn up. They said, of course, that tires aren't their problem. He'll probably be taking them to small-claims court. Anyway, we jacked up the truck, pulled off the scrap tire, and were about to put the spare on when the jack slipped and dropped the truck. I had heard of jacks slipping, but I'd never seen it happen before -- and I've changed a lot of tires. When the Pathfinder fell, I was holding the tire in place to line it up with the lug bolts. So the bottom of the wheel well dropped on my hand, pinching my fingers between the quarter panel and the tire. It hurt a lot, and what you could see of my fingers didn't look good. The weight of the vehicle was pretty much resting on my fingers. My friend didn't realize what had happened at first, until I said, "Hey, could you please jack the truck back up?" I stay calm when this sort of thing happens. It's not that I don't panic; I just panic by being very unnervingly calm. I held the jack while he cranked it back down (you have to lower the jack before it'll fit back under the car), and waited patiently while he frantically jacked the car back up. My fingers looked somewhat crushed where the car was resting on them; they didn't really start bleeding until the weight was off. It took a few minutes before I could move them. In the meantime, we finished changing the tire. We noticed that the quarter panel was actually bent from holding the weight of the car; I'm pretty impressed that I still have fingers. After a few hours, some ice, and plenty of Advil, the swelling had mostly gone down and the bleeding had stopped and I had pretty good movement in the middle two fingers. The outer two are still pretty darn sore and stiff, and I'm suspecting I'll lose the nail on my index finger. Still, I'm overall pretty happy about it; the worst-case scenario is SO much worse.
While I was waiting for Andy to get the truck off of my hand, the back of my mind was replaying all the hand accident stories I've heard recently, some of which were pretty bad, making the front of my mind spend the time hoping I'd still have fingers. It oddly didn't seem to take long to jack the truck back up, but it seemed to take forever to wind the jack down so it'd fit under the truck. Maybe it's that jacking the car up seems important, but winding the jack down seems trivial and therefore seems to be a waste of time (even though most of your brain knows it's an necessary step). Funny how your brain works.