January 2004

Waiting periods

Most Hollywood celebrities have never seen a pointless gun law that they didn’t like, so I’d like to turn the tables on them.

I hereby demand a ten day waiting period on celebrity marriages.

And Britney, sweetie, next time you want to get married in Vegas, I’ll be waiting for you in the poker room at the Luxor. Kiss-kiss.

Casino poker lessons

How to annoy the guy who’s slowplaying pocket aces: flop a full house with 43 unsuited.

I made the list!

It’s not a very exclusive list, seeing as the FBI bullied every hotel in Vegas into handing over data on who had reservations for New Years Eve, but it gives me a warm glow to be one of the 300,000 new entries in the “suspected terrorist” database.

I’m guessing that the hotel that made the token effort to resist turning over their guest list was The Palms, which is the current hot celebrity hangout. What agent could resist checking out Britney’s travel/marriage/annulment schedule?

Altec Lansing inMotion

I’d love to supply a link to this extremely cool iPod accessory, except that the manufacturer doesn’t list it on their web site, and Apple’s online store generates nonsensical URLs that don’t share well.

Altec Lansing inMotion

Instead, imagine a white plastic brick, about the size of an O’Reilly book, that opens up into a surprisingly good mini-speaker system that doubles as a fully-functional iPod docking station. It’s quite loud for a system with only 2 watts/channel, and distortion is well-controlled at reasonable volumes. It’s compatible with older iPods and other devices through the Aux port (short cable supplied), which I’m connecting to my PowerBook for a significant sound boost.

They claim up to 24 hours of life on four AA batteries, or you can use the supplied wall-wart to run it on AC.

Party on, Mr. Constantine

As expected, Keanu Reeves as Hellblazer‘s John Constantine is going to suck. Even if you manage to get past the fact that they’ve made him an American and set the movie in Los Angeles.

Keanu Constantine

Save the varmints!

The city of Boulder is dealing with an overabundance of urban prairie dogs by paying to have them trapped and relocated (presumably to some location that has so far managed to remain free of this infestation). Cretins rejoice:

“I think there's absolutely no reason to exterminate one more prairie dog,” he said. “I don't think a good reason can be given. I believe we are faced with a moral imperative to save every last remaining animal.”

My favorite part is that this clown actually thinks prairie dogs could become an endangered species unless steps are taken to protect them. Protect as in “prevent future land development by humans”. Apparently he hasn’t managed to figure out how these cuddly little rodents managed to take over Boulder’s open spaces in the first place…

Western Union misses the boat

I recently had a reason to ask a stranger for a favor. There was this Mac game I was interested in that was about to be released in Japan. There are lots of companies who import Japanese console games, a few who import PC games, and even one or two who buy up the rights to make translated versions of hardcore sex “dating sims”. But nobody seems to be interested in the Mac games.

I was able to find it on amazon.co.jp, and they even support a mostly-English UI for people whose Japanese is less than perfect (or, in my case, barely there). Unfortunately, they won’t ship certain products overseas. Books, music, movies, no problem; computer games and consumer electronics, not a chance.

Given how Silicon Valley works, I figured the odds were good that one of my friends knew someone who was currently in Japan, and I wasn’t disappointed. Zane and I exchanged email, I had the game shipped to his place, and he reshipped the package to my house. Neat, simple, and it took about a week and a half, start to finish.

Except for reimbursing Zane for the shipping costs. I’ve had good luck with Western Union in the past, so I went to their site and sent him the money, and emailed a link to their list of places he could pick it up.

A few days later, he wrote back, telling me that Western Union had apparently contracted with the smallest bank in Japan, which only had branches in the Tokyo area. He’s in Hiroshima, which is, shall we say, “not close”.

He had two basic choices: open an account with the tiny bank by mail and then ask them to mail him a check, which would take about three weeks, or travel to the nearest bank branch, which was roughly equivalent to taking the train from San Diego to San Francisco.

After many days and more than half a dozen toll-free phone calls, I managed to get someone at Western Union to look at a map of Japan, at which point they refunded my money. I then went back to amazon, pulled up Zane’s wishlist, and bought enough stuff to pay him back.

Oh, the game? Mahoromatic Adventure, with the limited-edition scented hand towel (currently hanging on my office wall). :-)

Sampling Windows trends

My pictures site gets about 28,000 page requests per day (way down from the days when my bandwidth was unlimited). 87% comes from Windows and 5% comes from Mac users, which sounds about right. Less than half of one percent comes from Linux users, which narrowly beats out the “known robots” column, but loses by a factor of two to Windows 95. This also sounds about right.

WebTV comes in at just under half the size of Linux, which is a surprising showing for a product that only has about 650,000 subscribers left.

Windows XP beats out other flavors, but it’s still used by only 54% of my Windows-based viewers. 98, 2000, and ME get 22%, 15%, and 7% respectively.

One page-hit a day comes from someone claiming to run Windows 3.1. I disbelieve.

Dear Hollywood,

Please stop doing this.

A remake of Walking Tall, starring The Rock. Kill me now.

Citi wants me, and they're not alone

I have a mortgage with CitiBank. I have a home equity loan with CitiBank. I have a Platinum MasterCard with CitiBank. Apparently, this isn’t good enough for them.

Today’s mail contained pre-approved offers for a Citi Platinum Select MasterCard, a Citi Dividend Platinum Select MasterCard, and a Citi Diamond Preferred Rewards MasterCard.

Would it surprise you to learn that the basic Platinum Select has the best interest rate of the three?

But those are just amusing. The real excitement in today’s mail was the postcard announcing my selection as an honest-to-gosh Nielsen Family. I have arrived.

Sadly, I don’t think their logbook has a space for “watched six anime DVDs and a full season of Babylon 5 over the weekend”.

One question answered...

Latest Apple press release: “With Apple Loops support, future versions of Logic Pro will easily import projects from GarageBand.”

That wipes out about half a dozen common complaints about GarageBand.

GarageBand notes

First off, the iLife ’04 installer does not ask if you want icons for all five apps added to your Dock, it just puts them there.

Second, when you launch GarageBand for the first time (or, at least, when I do), it pops up a dialog box saying:

Can not find /Users/jgreely/Music/GarageBand
Please make sure this directory exists

Why won’t it just create it for me, or find it after I create it? Because GarageBand can’t follow aliases. iTunes is happiest if your iTunes library remains in ~/Music (although that bug might be fixed finally), but I wanted to strip down my home directory for backing up onto DVD and investigating FileVault. So I made ~/Music an alias to /Users/Shared/Music. iTunes is perfectly happy with this, although .Mac Backup is not. Add GarageBand to the list of Apple-supplied applications that are incompatible with Apple OS features.

Third, only one project can be open at a time. This would be fine, given the memory requirements, if it weren’t for the fact that the program exits when you close that project. Just as bad, it insists on opening the last active project at startup, so if you want to start a new one, you have to sit through the overhead of loading the old one, and then remember to use “New” in the menus before closing it. Blech.

Workaround: clear the “Open Recent” menu. On the next launch, you’ll get the Open/Create dialog again.

Fourth, faux wood grain and “dark brushed metal” looks silly.

Update: the overhead of loading a project is non-trivial. I created a simple 32-measure “song” with four loops, and loading it at startup added fifteen seconds to the application’s launch time (1.25GHz PowerBook G4, 1GB RAM). Oddly enough, the far more complicated demo song “Reflection” that’s included in the package added only eleven seconds.

Update: changing the length of a song does not trigger a “do you want to save?” dialog box. I thought that was interesting, especially since it’s ridiculously difficult to drag the end-of-song slider around. As far as I can tell, it has a selection area that covers approximately 3 pixels, and if you miss them, you move the playhead instead. Hello? UI designers? Make the damn triangle bigger!

Other than that, I’m having fun mixing loops and discovering just how much (or, more precisely, how little) I retain from the piano lessons I took 24 years ago. On that note, I’m glad I didn’t order one of the USB keyboards that Apple is pitching as a companion to GB. I got to try one out at an Apple Store, and while it’s a decent enough gadget that fits nicely on a desk, I grew up with an honest-to-gosh piano in the house — a spinet grand — and cheap plastic keys just feel wrong.

Then I spotted this Roland FP-5 with a USB interface…

It will be a while before I recover any kind of skill at playing, so for now I’m amusing myself with loops. Since all the other kids are doing it, here‘s a highly-repetitive background track I knocked together out of the included percussion loops. I used all the default settings for a new “song,” so it’s 6:40 long (at the default tempo, the shortest possible song is 1:02).

Mind you, it loops every four seconds, but both iTunes and my iPod insert a short delay when they loop back around, so the long version minimizes the breaks in the sound. If you don’t really feel like downloading 6 megabytes of, well, crap, here’s the 1MB version.

If you have GarageBand and Jam Pack, the really short version is “drag these loops into the timeline and tweak their volume and balance knobs”:

  • Conga Groove 01
  • Conga Groove 11
  • Djembe 01
  • Indian Tabla 01
  • Motown Drummer 24
  • Tambourine 01
  • Shaker 11
  • World Bongo 04
  • World Maraca 03
  • World Triangle 01

Slot wars

Back in October, I participated in a phone survey about proposed legislation to expand gambling in California. I rather liked the structure of the survey, and made a mental note to keep an eye out for the results.

I’m guessing the results didn’t match the expectations of the group who commissioned it, because this recent news story not only fails to mention a survey, it leaves out several of the facts that were presented to me in the questions.

It doesn’t mention that the Indian Gaming Association’s arguments against allowing card parlors to install slot machines included “Larry Flynt and other pornographers will profit from this” (how? They didn’t say). It doesn’t mention the ban on opening new card parlors, a “more for me and none for thee” trick from the sponsors.

The indian casinos are right about one thing: if slot addicts can get their fix in San Jose, they won’t drive the “two hours” to Jackson Rancheria. Of course, if Jackson’s billboards mentioned the fact that alcohol is prohibited on the premises, nobody would drive there anyway.

Scam and spam

Somehow this garbage made it past Mail.app’s generally quite effective spam filters. Once. Email addresses and paypal payment information deleted to avoid inadvertently helping this fraud (I forwarded it to Paypal first, of course…).

It’s an amusing, imaginary, tale of woe, combining equal parts bad parenting, bad storytelling, and bad English. And why does a poor father in Chile have an email address at a Russian ISP, anyway?


Pocky and Pretz for everyone!

Just received a large order from AsianMunchies.com. This is not a porn site.

No, the box contained a large stash of Tomato Pretz, Salad Pretz, Vegetable Curry Pretz, and Pocky G, flavors I can’t find at my local Albertson’s or nearby asian groceries.

I’m particularly fond of Tomato Pretz, and if I’d known how much I was going to like them, I’d have bought a lot more when I wandered into Uwajimaya in Seattle.

Great stuff, and unless you’re one of those Carb-Fearing Atkins Disciples, you’ll find that most flavors are quite compatible with a losing-or-at-least-not-gaining lifestyle.

GarageBand resource usage

There are a lot of discussions about how GB seems to be a bit of a pig, especially compared to other applications that have much the same functionality (or, in the case of Soundtrack, include many of the exact same samples and features). So, naturally, I did some testing.

On my 15-inch 1.25GHz G4 PowerBook, with 1GB of RAM and the optional 5400 RPM hard drive, I can have at least a dozen software instruments playing at the same time, as long as no more than three of them are pianos.

In my testing this evening, I created an unplayable song that had eight software instruments: two drums, six pianos. Drop one of the pianos, and it pops up an error dialog and then continues to play some of the instruments. Drop another one, and it plays fine, although the display updates are sluggish. Add in four non-piano software instruments (specifically, a shaker, a triangle, a bongo, and an upright bass), and it still plays, although the display can barely keep up.

I was even able to add seven sampled instruments after that without creating a failure, although the display was hopeless and top claimed GB was using 384% of the CPU (when it finally managed to update). top also reported that GB had about 250MB of active physical memory and 450MB of active VM.

Obviously, in addition to the existing recommendations about CPU and disk speed, GarageBand users who are having problems need the following advice: “buy lots of RAM or cut back on those darn pianos!”

Oh, and an interesting note from my testing is that it wouldn’t let me have more than sixteen software instruments in a song, even if my system could support them. The error message was badly written, implying that I couldn’t add any more tracks, but it definitely meant “tracks containing software instruments”.

Definitely version 1.0, and an update is obviously needed soon (especially for improving how it interfaces with MIDI keyboards and audio input devices), but still worth playing with.

Update: passed this along to MacInTouch, after someone with the slightly-faster 17” PowerBook complained that it took forever to launch GB and open a song. The person who read my response asked me set the Energy Saver settings to “Automatic” and unplug the AC adapter. That actually worked fine, and didn’t affect load times or playability. Setting it to “Longest Battery Life” slowed down the launch and load times by maybe 15%, and stopped playback dead in its (17) tracks. And, unlike the earlier error dialog, this one clearly identified the processor performance setting as the culprit.

Oddly enough, when I went back to my standard high-performance settings, I was able to add another piano track without killing playback. I suspect there’s a memory management issue that is cleaned up by saving your song and restarting GB.

Update: The sixteen-software-instruments limit is configurable under the “advanced” pane of GB’s preferences. It’s currently set to “automatic” on my machine, and no doubt it auto-adjusts based on system specs. There’s also a tweakable “voices per instrument” setting, which may be the smoking gun in some of the dramatically different results people are getting on similar hardware: if the heuristic used by the “automatic” setting is flawed, it may be overestimating the power of certain hardware configurations.

Update: The guy with the sluggish 17” PowerBook has now reported that running the usual mix of disk-repair utilities (one of the most common solutions for odd OS X behavior) fixed his GB problems.

Suddenly, I regret my LASIK surgery...

…because it means I cannot remove my glasses to blur out horrible sights.

Starsky and Hutch, the movie, starring Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, and Snoop Dogg. Adding insult to injury, it’s A new comedy from the director of “Old School” and “Road Trip”.

The less said about The Son of The Mask, the better. Gouging out your own eyeballs with a spoon will be the summer fad, I think.

Bowling for Bullshit

Michael Moore has apparently infested a new generation of “documentary” makers, including this schmuck who documented the alleged effects of eating only at McDonald’s for thirty days.

Given the obvious bias that he went into the project with, is it any surprise that his results were negative, or that he’s become the darling of the entertainment media for presenting this dreck at Sundance?

Hey, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s document the effects of only eating raw organic produce for thirty days. Surely our test subject will emerge as a paragon of health and virtue!

Or dead from malnutrition. It depends on exactly which of those “healthy” foods he eats, and in what proportions and quantities. If he demonstrates the same sort of intelligent decision-making that Morgan Spurlock did at McDonald’s, my bet’s on malnutrition.

Update: I no longer think it’s sufficient to use scare-quotes when referring to deliberately-misleading documentaries of the sort produced by Moore and imitators like Spurlock. Since he term mockumentary is already taken, I hereby propose documockery, which I think has the right ring to it.

Update: His girlfriend is a vegan chef. Care to guess how much meat protein he was consuming before his little “test”? I’m surprised he didn’t get sick sooner; habitual veggies aren’t known for their meat tolerance.

Advice for desperate comment spammers

Not only is it painfully obvious when you come by to try to bump the page-rank for German credit “repair” agencies by manually spamming my comments, but it’s pointless, because my comment pages don’t show the MTCommentURL field.

If you put the URL in the body, it will actually work (for a few more minutes, at least), but then it will be even more obvious what sort of cretinous lowlife you are, and make it even easier to delete your spam.

Why don’t you go join that asshat who tried to kill himself by eating everything on the menu at McDonald’s for thirty days? You’ve already got the public vomiting down pat, so the weight gain and failing health should be a snap.

Objective nonsense

Take a good look at the way Time/AOL has framed the questions in this “objective” comparison of presidential candidates. Fair and balanced, they ain’t.

GarageBand: adventures in UI design

GarageBand only allows you to have one project open at a time. This is not an obvious or necessary feature of a music program, but at first glance, it’s defensible in the context of Apple’s iLife package. For a bunch of more-or-less free tools designed for light use by non-professionals, allowing multiple documents adds the risk of clutter and confusion (not to mention memory management and engineering effort). iTunes, iMovie, iPhoto, and iDVD all work the same way, right?

Well, no, they don’t. iTunes and iPhoto simply don’t have the concept of multiple projects. Something is either in your library or it isn’t. iMovie and iDVD are single-project-based, but the projects generally have a much larger scope. I’m sure a lot of iMovie users wish they had an iPhoto-like clip library to store their favorite video elements in, but for the most part, few people are going to want to edit more than one movie at a time.

This is not the case for music, especially in an application that encourages experimentation. One of the very first questions I saw on the various GB forums was “how do I make my own reusable loops”. Tied with it was “how do I import MIDI tracks”.

The answer right now is “through painful workarounds.” To make your own loops, you export your performance to iTunes, find the AIFF file on disk, load it into the SoundTrack Loop Editor that’s part of Apple’s free AppleLoops SDK, manually mark it up, drag the tagged file into GB’s loop browser window, and then wait while the complete index of available loops is rebuilt. To import MIDI files, you download two third-party freeware packages and string them together to fool GB into thinking that you’re playing the music on a keyboard.

Even the simple act of cutting and pasting between songs is made difficult by the single-project design. You can do it, but only within the same session, because GB clears its private clipboard on exit. And it exits whenever you close a project. So, if your goal is “copy my cool bass track from RockDude into BluesDude,” the order of operations must be Cut, Open, Paste. Anything else will wipe the clipboard and force you to start over.

Sure, after you’ve done it a few times, you’ll adjust your behavior to match GB’s expectations, but isn’t that precisely the problem that consumer-friendly creative applications are supposed to avoid?

Variant Nigerian scam email

This one’s new: it’s targeted by last name, claiming that someone sharing your last name died in Nigeria, leaving $6 million in a bank account. The fraudster presents himself as an accountant at the bank holding the money, and offers to split the take with you if you’ll pretend to be the next of kin. The cool thing is that he sent it to an address that has never received a non-spam message, clearly establishing that he bought a low-quality mailing list instead of scraping web sites.

Best line: “I guarantee that this will be executed under a legitimate arrangement that will protect you. From any breach of the law”

Actual clever wrinkle: the email address you’re supposed to contact is at the official-sounding “justice.com”. This is apparently a service of the legitimate site findlaw.com, a web portal for legal professionals. This may backfire on my new friend…


getting MIDI into GarageBand

First pass at a third-party MIDI importer for GB, courtesy of Bery Rinaldo. Much nicer than the previous workaround.


MSNBC home page, just now:

At first glance, I saw it as a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” moment. Then I realized they were talking about a real whale, not an overweight American tourist. :-)

“Need a clue, take a clue,
 got a clue, leave a clue”