For the past two days, a new BitTorrent-related weblog has been TrackBack-pinging an entry I wrote about BitTorrent and its inventor every time that the author posts a new item. (It’s been something like eight pings over that time period, from a site that seems to have started up four days ago.) None of the author’s posts have referenced mine, nor have any of them have addressed the issues (assymetric bandwidth usage, centralization of tracker servers, Wired’s piece on Cohen) that came up in my post — in short, none of them continued the conversation in a way that justified using TrackBack to generate a contextual relationship. Since it felt so much like spam, I went to the site, found the “Contact Us” link, and jotted off a quick email to ask for a little bit of explanation, but it bounced back as undeliverable. I then got another TrackBack this morning, so I added the site to my blacklist.

It’s this kind of TrackBack spam that I find particularly insidious — by being marginally related to the posts that are pinged, it’s more than likely to be either accepted or ignored (rather than deleted) by a lot of site authors, meaning that the spam attempt will succeed. To me, though, it’s the difference between going into a boat show to advertise breast enlargement pills and doing the same thing at a cancer conference — it might be a smidge closer to the intended audience, but it’s still miles and miles away.

Count me in with Norvy and Cory; I’ve been successfully using Quicken 2001 for the past three and a half years, and if Intuit really intends to disable my ability to use it online come April, then what I interpret that as is telling me that I can’t trust them to sell me a product that I can count on. Intuit says that they retire products in this manner in order to “focus resources on enhancing our products and providing support for more current versions”; my version of that statement is that I’m going to retire my patronage of Intuit in order to focus my support on companies that don’t pull the rug out from under me.

onion skin mitoses

Whoever’s responsible for the Flickr account at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Center for Distance Education has been doing cool things with microscopic photography, including a view of an onion’s outer layers that has a few actively dividing cells evident, a view of frog blood (who knew that, unlike those of mammals, reptile red blood cells have nuclei?), and a shot of a few paramecium swimming around.

And given that it’s a distance learning group that uploaded the pictures, I assume that Flickr is now being used to help provide images in an educational curriculum, which is just plain awesome.

Isn’t it the sickest kind of irony that the man who parked his SUV across a set of railroad tracks in order to commit suicide, then changed his mind, but caused a horrible train derailment and 11 deaths by leaving the truck on the tracks might face the death penalty?

Well, that certainly didn’t take long — the repairs to the damaged line of the New York City subway system will take six to nine months, not five years (as was originally projected by the agency that runs the trains). The people over at Gothamist think that it was all a bit of cover-your-ass, which makes sense seing as the system is running a deficit and was already looking to raise fares to cover expenses.

So, I’m at the point where I want to take Firefox and shove it straight into my Powerbook’s trashcan. It’s become an unpredictably unreliable application, and it’s not clear to me that there’s anything I can do about it except trawl Bugzilla, add my experiences where possible, and hope and pray that sometime it’ll all get fixed. Some of my current frustrations:

Occasionally, issuing any keyboard-based shortcut command (e.g., CMD-T to open a new tab, or CMD-W to close a tab) issues that command twice. And while this is merely annoying at times, it’s downright infuriating at others — like when I intend to close the currently-open tab, but Firefox instead closes it and the one beside it containing something on which I’m actively working, completely losing whatever it was I was doing. (Oddly, when Firefox finds itself in this state, certain other keyboard shortcuts stop working entirely, like CMD-Q to quit.) There’s an entry on Bugzilla for this, but it’s still listed as an unconfirmed bug. That entry also links the behavior to the use of Java, which I’m not sure is the only cause, since there are times that I’ve seen the behavior when there isn’t anything Java-related open in any tab or window.

At other times, Firefox stops allowing me to enter any text whatsoever into any text box, including the address bar, the search box, or any text input field on a web page in a window. (There are times when I have multiple Firefox windows open, and interestingly, when the bug happens, it only happens in one of the windows.) About 75% of the time, I can “fix” things by switching to another app and then back to Firefox; the other 25% of the time, there’s nothing I can do but close the affected Firefox window entirely, losing all the tabs that are open in that window, including any work I might be doing in those tabs. (There’s a Bugzilla entry on this one, as well.)

Then, there are certain bits of Flash content that will bring Mac Firefox to its knees, and (in a common theme) force me to force-quit the browser and lose all of my work. As far as I can tell, there are a bunch of open Bugzilla entries for this (172175, 233702, 244987, and 106397 are the ones I found in my not-so-quick survey), all of which have in common the fact that if you can see the Flash object that’s causing the problem, holding down the mouse button lets it continue to run, but doesn’t let you salvage your browser or your work.

And lastly, there’s the occasional thing that, while still a bug, has less to do with reliability and more to do with good ol’ missing, broken, or just plain odd functionality. My best example of this is that on the Mac version of Firefox, you cannot open a new window — or do any menu-based tasks — when the only window open is the either the Download Manager or the Preferences window. The interesting thing to note about this is that, in its most basic causal form, the original bug was filed on December 9th, 1999, and around 50 other bug reports have been marked as duplicates of this bug, meaning that people have run into it over and over again without the error being fixed. (And that doesn’t count the five or six currently open bugs that look like they’re headed to being classified as duplicates, nor does it count the bugs that were classified as duplicates of other bugs which were then classified as duplicates of this one. Holy recursion!)

So, lately I’ve found myself having both Safari and Firefox open, and using Safari whenever I need to do any real work. That’s sad; I like having the same browser on my Macs and PCs, and I like the openness of Firefox, but I don’t like the number of times I’ve lost important sites or work to its bugginess.

Holy shit — the C line of the New York subway system might be out of service for five years? (Newsday has coverage here, as well.) What an unbelievable nightmare for New Yorkers; what a similarly unbelievable vulnerability in the transit system.

doppler, blizzard of 2005

Yeah, so there’s about 18” on the ground already, the snow is moving horizontally outside our windows, and the latest report says that it’s all supposed to keep up through tomorrow evening. Send rations!

The release of TiVoToGo has raised my interest a bit in the processes of video encoding and DVD authoring, and wow is it all complicated! In my searching and learning, these are the apps that have popped to the top of my hit list, as well as the apps that have annoyed me a bit; I figured that this might be helpful to at least one other person out there.

ffmpegX: This is an awesome OS X app that serves as an easier-to-use interface to a bunch of command-line video and audio manipulation utilities. For me, it fills in the step of “transcoding” (converting) video files between various formats, which is necessary if I want to write pretty much anything to a DVD that can be used on set-top players. The only downside I’ve found is what I’d call merely decent documentation — it’s definitely not good enough for people like me who don’t have a ton of knowledge or experience with bitrates, codecs, framerates, and the like, but good enough to be used in concert with Ye Olde Google.

Auto Gordian Knot: This is a similarly awesome great but spyware-laden app for Windows, similarly interfacing with a bunch of command-line utilities to do its thing. It reads from a few video formats (including physical DVDs), and writes into DivX and XviD, making it ideal for taking full-size MPEG files or DVDs and crunching them down to more manageable files for taking on the road. (This is the role AGK is serving in my little production line.) Given that, on various forums, the author is relatively unrepentant about including spyware in the app and doing little to notify users that it’s there, I’d be hardpressed to recommend AGK to anyone; I’m now using ffmpegX on my Mac for this.

Sizzle: This OS X app comes highly-recommended on most Mac video-related sites, and while I like the fact that it makes writing set-top-playable DVDs pretty easy, I’m less than wild about the menu format that it imposes on the resultant DVDs (what can I say, I’m a stickler for usability!). Notable is the fact that Sizzle doesn’t do any transcoding, so after I use ffmpegX to do the conversion, Sizzle steps in to write the DVD.

XRay, HandBrake and forty-two: These are three OS X apps for ripping backing up DVDs; they take a DVD and create video files viewable by apps like QuickTime, Windows Media Player, mplayer, or your viewer of choice. I have played with them a little bit, and they seem to do what they claim to, and do it well. (XRay will also handle a few other formats, like QuickTime and XviD, but it’s also the one of the three that isn’t freeware.)

GraphEdit: This is a Windows app, part of the DirectX SDK (or downloadable alone here), that shows you the chain of codecs that are used on your machine to decode and display a video (and audio) file. A lesser-known feature of GraphEdit is the ability to create custom chains of filters that do more than just displaying the file (for example, transcode it, split the audio and video into separate streams, or any of a thousand other things). This is a must-have on Windows, if for no other reason that debugging codec problems.

DivxToDVD and The Filmmachine: These are two Windows apps that convert AVI files (DivX, mainly) to DVD-format files, suitable for writing back to a DVD. I use the former, DivxToDVD, when I want to write AVI files back to DVD so that we can take them to friends’ homes and watch them with their DVD players. OK, it’s not an app, but the website is way more helpful than any app could be. Between explanations of the various terms and formats, tutorials for common tasks (much more Windows-centric than Mac, but that’s understandable), details about formats supported by various pieces of equipment, and well-visited forums (including a Mac-specific one), you can find information about whatever it is that ails you over at VideoHelp.

I’ve left comments open on this post, so if there’s anything that anyone else has discovered that’s useful to someone like me (in the beginning stages of learning), feel free to share!

So why do the studios do it? Why do they hassle voters, piss off filmmakers, and risk losing awards (and the financial rewards thereof), just to prevent piracy in a group that isn’t likely to pirate in the first place? It’s because breaking international piracy rings is hard, and stopping individuals from swapping MPEG files on the Internet is impossible. But hassling people who love movies—be we awards show voters or just ordinary moviegoers—is easy, because they know where to find us. In short, the studios are looking for their keys where the light is best, even if it’s miles away from where they dropped them.

Jacob Weinstein has an interesting post about the screener DVDs that the studios send out to people who vote on movie awards.

I made my debut today over on PVRblog today, posting about the built-in webserver that’s part of the new TiVo operating system.

the tivo dude

When the latest TiVo upgrade was released back on January 3rd, I put in a priority request for an upgrade and sat back to wait; most everything I saw said that it would take around four to six weeks to distribute the new version even to those who made it onto the priority list. (Since I use a Powerbook — a machine unsupported by TiVoToGo — as my primary laptop, I wasn’t in any huge hurry to start playing.) Tonight, for no reason at all, I decided to force a daily call — and lo and behold, in came the update! Over broadband, it took about eight minutes to download, another six to eight minutes to process, and final ten or so minutes (and two restarts) to load and return control back to me. (I took a couple pictures of the upgrade process and resultant changes in the menus.)

Happy happy! Now, if TiVo can get on that MacOS support for TiVoToGo, I’ll be pleased as can be.

Signs are pointing to this being the first year that around half of Americans file their taxes online, in part due to the success of the IRS Free File program. This program is the result of a 2001 initiative which aimed to improve electronic communication between government agencies and and other agencies, as well as businesses and citizens; one result which was explicitly mandated by the program was that the IRS had to come up with a way of providing free electronic tax preparation and filing to at least 60% of of individual taxpayers. Last year, about 3.5 million taxpayers used the program to prepare and file their returns; this year, the entry of heavyweights Intuit and H&R Block into Free File can only make that number skyrocket. Some of the Free File vendors have restrictions on who can use their services (principally based on total income or what state you reside in), but others — like Intuit’s TurboTax Free — are open to all comers.

Given that most people have pretty uncomplicated taxes, I would have to imagine that there will be a slew of people who flock to Free File this year. I’d be interested in people’s experience with the web-based preparation applications!

Interesting — while updating a setting on one of Shannon’s domains today, we noticed that Dotster added the .info version of the domain to her account for free last week, without asking or notifying her in any way (other than it just showing up in her account list). Shannon and I both got a number of notices from Dotster over the past few months that they were giving away 25 free .info domains to all of their customers, and we ignored the notices. The logical conclusion from this is that we just weren’t interested, right?

If my assumption is correct that she’s not the only one for whom they did this, then that begs the question: isn’t this a profound waste of domain names, and particularly, of domain names that were likely not registered by the owners of their .com correlaries as conscious decisions?

While checking in for his flight from London’s Gatwick Airport to Dallas-Fort Worth, Cory Doctorow found himself asked for a list of the names and addresses of every single person with whom he’d be staying in the U.S., a request which was explained as the result of some unnamed security regulation. He asked for escalating levels of detail about the unusual request, to much confusion, and eventually was told that his Platinum AAdvantage cardholder status absolved him of any requirement to provide the list. (That last part is the oddest to me — could there really be TSA directives that are as specific as making exceptions for people who are members of the elite frequent-flyer programs? If so, can AAirpass members expect to have a certain amount suspicious information ignored given their contribution to the business of air flight?)

It frightens me how much about air travel is now dictated by some functionary’s proclamation that an odd rule or occurrence is the result of heightened security. (My own, way less-significant, example: last month, Shannon and I were unable to check in online for the return leg of a flight for which online check-in for the first leg hadn’t been a problem. When I called to ask why, I was told that the representative didn’t have a definite answer, but that it was very likely to be security-related. It was clear that that statement ended the conversation, and ended any inquiry into whether there could actually be a problem with the online check-in system.) It’s all just so silly; I hope that, at a minimum, John Gilmore’s case ends up forcing a greater deal of transparency upon the security-related apparatus that has grown so prominent over the past four years.

About twice a month, I get a request from someone to help them migrate their -based weblog over to or . (It’s a migration I did, and wrote about while misspelling Movable Type, back in 2002.) Each time, I’d send along my script and a hastily-written set of quasi-instructions, and as you’d expect, it ended up not being all that clear. So when I got a similar request today, I finally got off my ass and wrote up a documentation page for the process.

So if you’re looking to get off of Manila (or Weblogger, or Buzzword, or any of the other Manila-based hosting sites), take a look!

This is my new favorite picture; I might actually make it into my desktop, it’s so cheesy.

In news both interesting and frightening, the for Panix, the oldest commercial in New York, was hijacked out from under them on Friday night. Both the notice about the hijacking and various progress reports about how it’s been handled by the involved companies have been posted on Panix’s temporary home on the net and over at the North American Network Operators Group (NANOG) mailing list (search for “” and you’ll find the posts), but the short version is that the registrars have handled it horribly, leaving Panix without use of its primary domain name for going on 48 hours now. And what people need to remember is that, during the time Panix hasn’t been in control of the domain, whoever was responsible for the hijacking can easily have had computers running which have been able to capture every single username, password, piece of email, file, and whatever else clients have sent to what they thought were valid machines. Pretty .

The thing that’s most surprising to me is that this hasn’t gotten a whole hell of a lot in the way of press; as of right now, searching Google News for “panix” brings up only three relevant news articles. Honestly, this seems to me to be the perfect example of how the internet has expanded faster than the ability of the relevant organizations to protect the immense time, energy, and money people invest in it, but the story’s not getting much coverage right now. I imagine that if were the domain hijacked, we’d be hearing more about it, but it’s not like Panix is a small fish, it’s just not a blue whale — and that’s enough to shove the story off the radar over a holiday weekend. Alas.

Count me firmly in the camp of those that think Technorati’s new tag system is a damn fine new bauble. Before today, there were tags for two of the big sources of content online (photos and links); now, there’s a tagging system that encompasses both of those and then throws in the biggest content pool of all, weblog posts. And there’s no reason why participation in the Technorati tagging system is limited to traditional weblog-based content, either — at a bare minimum, all a content producer needs to be able to do is and ping Technorati’s server. What a great way to expand the social networking side of content!

(And since there’s already one out there, for any of the crochety, uninspired “pioneers of the Web” who might have found themselves intimidated by Technorati’s uncomplicated explanation of the service, never fear — Matt Bridges has created a Technorati Tag bookmarklet that makes it even easier.)

Wasn’t supposed to be the great example of a large website that was designed to adhere to standards and valid markup? If so, then someone should check in on the company’s compliance officer; he might have died at his desk.

Seriously, the degeneration of ESPN’s website has reached the point where, on my G4 Powerbook and via a dedicated T1, it takes over 14 seconds to load in Firefox, and over 16 seconds to load in Safari. There’s over 105 Kb of Javascript included in the site’s home page, added to the 114 Kb of images and 58 separate objects loaded from 14 different URLs (not including any additional objects that piggyback along with the Javascript files or Flash movies). That’s all just abhorrent, and the perfect example of the fact that even if they managed to wrangle the site into compliance, it’d still tremendously suck. It’s no wonder the sports URL my brain types out before I have a chance to think about moved to about six months ago.

Am I the only one who felt that the ending to tonight’s Law & Order just felt cheap and weird? (For those who don’t know what I’m talking about and want to, the spoiler is below; you have to highlight the text below to reveal it.)

DA Arthur Branch (Fred Thompson) sat Serena Southerlyn (Elisabeth Rohm) down to tell her that she’s being fired. Her response: “Is it because I’m a lesbian?” How is this an appropriate piece of information to introduce, for the very first time, in the last five seconds of Rohm’s L&O life?

My favorite broken website of the day: the “Request Credit for a Referral” page of TiVo Rewards.

Back in mid-November, some friends of mine bought a TiVo, and when they activated their service, they put me in as the person who referred them. I got an email from the TiVo Rewards asking if I would like to sign up for an account and get credit for the referral, which I then did. (Irritation #1: despite the fact that I already have an account for my own two TiVos, the company required me to sign up for a separate account because my friends used an email address different than the one I have on file with TiVo. Period, no question, no ability to actually apply those points to the account I’ve had with them for years.)

The referral credit never showed up, so I started doing a little investigation and learned that there’s a way to request credit, but it has to be done within 60 days of my friends activating their service. (Irritation #2: the process requires that I provide the cryptic TiVo Service Number of my friends’ account, meaning that they have to navigate through their TiVo menus to the right place, write down the 15-digit hexadecimal number, and then send that to me.) Today, we were finally able to hook up long enough to get their service number, and I went to the aforementioned page to request the credit… only to find that the field specifying the year of their service activation doesn’t allow you to choose the year 2004. You know — the year that ended less than a week ago, that’s not an option.

Luckily, I was able to call, reach a competent customer service person with less than a ten-minute hold time, and get her to recognize the problem; she spoke to the relevant people and had them apply the credit while I was on the phone. (Irritation #3: the TiVo customer service phone line makes you go through one of those “tell me what you want to do” voice trees, where you have to guess the right phrase that’ll get you on your way.)

What’s the lesson here? Be careful that your customer loyalty programs — like TiVo Rewards — don’t make your customers more irritated with you than they do loyal to you. Having to chase down the credit for my referral, and then being unable to do so through the intended channels, makes me less likely to want to refer people to TiVo again, and thus, ends up having the opposite of its intended effect.

Fascinating — did you know that the rules for using Continental’s in-flight power outlets specify that you must remove your laptop’s battery before plugging in? No other airline (American, United, Lufthansa) seems to care; Delta even mentions the convenience of being able to charge your laptop’s battery as one of the perks of using the in-flight power outlets.

Good to know, good to know.

There’s a respectable article in yesterday’s Financial Times about weblogs as businesses, complete with quotes from Matt Haughey, Rebecca Blood, and Nick Denton. And while it’s a good read in its own right, it’s all the better for Matt proclaiming that I (well, anyone) could be the next Britney Spears!

I know that everyone’s linking to it, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out Deborah Solomon’s New York Times interview with Jeanne Phillips, the chairwoman of Bush’s inaugural committee. In the middle of a snoozer of an interview, Solomon threw out two awesome zingers:

I hear one of the balls will be reserved for troops who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Yes, the Commander-in-Chief Ball. That is new. It will be about 2,000 servicemen and their guests. And that should be a really fun event for them.

As an alternative way of honoring them, did you or the president ever discuss canceling the nine balls and using the $40 million inaugural budget to purchase better equipment for the troops?

I think we felt like we would have a traditional set of events and we would focus on honoring the people who are serving our country right now — not just the people in the armed forces, but also the community volunteers, the firemen, the policemen, the teachers, the people who serve at, you know, the — well, it’s called the StewPot in Dallas, people who work with the homeless.

How do any of them benefit from the inaugural balls?

I’m not sure that they do benefit from them.

Then how, exactly, are you honoring them?

Honoring service is what our theme is about.

God help us.

First, much of the bloggers’ vaunted fact-checking was seriously warped. Their driving assumptions were often drawn from flawed information or based on faulty logic. Personal attacks passed for analysis. Second, and worse, the reviled MSM often followed the bloggers’ lead. As mainstream media critics of CBS piled on, rumors shaped the news and conventions of sourcing and skepticism fell by the wayside. Dan Rather is not alone on this one; respected journalists made mistakes all around.

Corey Pein’s wrap-up of what he calls Blog-Gate — the weblog “takedown” of Dan Rather over the Bush National Guard memos — is well worth a read. As you can probably guess from the quotation marks in the previous sentence, Pein challenges the notion that weblogs proved to be an infallible check on the so-called mainstream media, reminding us of the facts that got lost in the rhetorical insanity of the pile-on.

My favorite quote from this USA Today article about the growing trend of supersized, SUV-accommodating parking spaces comes Guy Bjerke. He’s the chairman of the planning commission in Concord, California, a town which is considering eliminating compact car spaces in favor of SUV ones, and he said:

“A lot of us are frustrated trying to pull into compact parking spaces. My wife drives a minivan, and I drive a sedan. But even with those cars, some of those compact spots seem pretty small.”

Well, no shit, buddy — one should probably expect that cramming a sedan or minivan into a compact car space would be a bit tight! Next, I’d imagine that he’ll be expressing his surprise that shoving those D-sized batteries into his wristwatch is enormously difficult…

(Interesting: could this be the same Guy Bjerke who has both Radio and TypePad weblogs?)

There was a great article in the New York Times over the weekend describing how, with the continued growth of the Hispanic population in Texas, linguistics has reared its head in the form of disagreement about how to pronounce placenames. Having grown up in San Antonio, Texas, this is a hilarious read; I never understood why Texas is “TEX-us”, but Bexar County is “Bear” County.

Thanks, Steve; as predicted, my copyright notice (at the bottom of the right-hand content bar) was yet another that was rooted in 2004. All fixed!

Sigh… Milo Dysplastic? Don’t the Associated Press and Reuters have, you know, editors around on New Year’s weekend?

To flesh out the info in the news reports, myelodysplastic syndrome — MDS — describes a group of conditions in which the precursor cells in the bone marrow (stem cells of sorts) gain mutations and stop producing the child cells that make up normal blood (white cells, red cells, and platelets). MDS is preleukemic, in that the mutated stem cells don’t crowd out the normal ones, but rather function alongside them. Once that crowding-out occurs, though, that signals the evolution to actual leukemia.

(And to highlight the biggest difference between the worlds of adult and pediatric cancer: according to this summary, there are about 13,000 new diagnoses of MDS each year, and every news report has mentioned that this makes it a pretty rare condition. Alas, that’s also a good estimate of the total number of new pediatric cancer diagnoses, of all types, that are made annually.)

After Anil won the staying-power portion of the first search engine optimization contest (the “nigritude ultramarine” one), a followup contest was announced, this time for the phrase “seraphim proudleduck” and for a considerably higher-value award (£1000, or over $1900 with the current exchange rate). Pairing the second contest’s surprisingly lucrative prize with horrid, make-your-eyes-bleed website (what is that, teddy bear porn in the lower righthand corner?!?), a few people surmised early on that this was all a scam — and unsurprisingly, it appears that it was.

(Hilariously, while the first contest was not a hoax, the website set up by the the people running it appears to have been hacked; I wonder how long it’s been like this!)