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Scary things

[this is a somewhat long post that’s not really about cats]

In the spirit of Halloween (if somewhat late)… a few weeks ago I listened to an interview with Neil Gaiman where he was asked what’s the thing or event that had scared him the most, ever. His answer had to do with reading one of his stories in public; if I were asked that, until very recently what follows is the story I would tell.

My wife and I have a cat. It is a somewhat large cat. Not fat; large, as in a large breed. We got him from a shelter as a kitten, so as far as we know he’s not a pure breed anything, but he has many of the features of a breed called Norwegian Forest Cat – like long tufts of hair in his ears and extending down between his toes, which are both adaptations to snowy climates (sadly, our cat has never seen snow). And the size, of course; Norwegian Forest Cats are some of the largest domestic cats around. You may be wondering, well, how large can this cat be? And I’ll tell you: when I’m sitting on a chair, if the cat stands up on his hind legs and stretches one of his front legs up, he can almost reach my shoulders.

Which brings me to the story I was going to tell. You see, cats can move around very, very quietly. Let me tell you, when you’re home alone, in a very silent house, concentrating on something on your computer, and all of a sudden someone taps you on the shoulder from behind… yeah, quite scary.

These days, though, what scares me a bit is Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. But this is not entirely Amazon’s fault; it is a bit because of Netflix, a bit because of Taylor Swift, and a lot because of Benjamin Crowell.

You may not have heard of Benjamin Crowell. He is a physics teacher in California, but also a sci-fi writer. One of his short stories, “A Hole in the Ether”, appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine in 2013. That story is set in a not-too-distant future – 60 years ahead or so – where copyright is very, very important. All devices verify and enforce that any content being seen or heard has been properly licensed; any unlicensed content is reported to the authorities, and penalties are kind of harsh. There’s no such thing as “public domain” or “fair use”; there’s no such thing as “buying” content, either: all content is streamed, even books. And you can’t even turn back the pages without paying for a repeat “performance” – can’t let people stream the same content twice, now can you? Of course, you can only stream content that is available for streaming, and since books are seen as “long-form entertainment” with limited replayability (reading a book takes several hours, few people reread books) media companies are not that interested in that market; most books that are not tied in to recent movies or that are not otherwise famous are not often available (the story revolves around an old phone – from the 2020s – that is left as inheritance when someone dies and that contains an archive of thousands of public-domain books, obviously not licensed and therefore illegal to read; the story doesn’t really end well).

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? So, that’s what Kindle Unlimited reminded me of. Not much – just a bit. Kindle Unlimited lets you read books without buying them, in a subscription model that looks very much like what we’ve had for music for a while now – Spotify, Pandora, Google Music, all do this kind of thing. And they all have this inherent flaw that, well, you can only stream what you’re allowed to. What’s there today may not be there tomorrow, as Taylor Swift so aptly reminded all of us last week. But what got me thinking a bit about this even before that was Netflix, where I had “Battlestar Galactica” (the new version) in my queue for a while, and it was suddenly gone as if it had never existed – the contract expired on Oct 1st so the show is gone. Sure, it’s not like I don’t have enough stuff in my queue, but still, what’s next? Do I have to rush and finish all seasons of “The West Wing” quickly? I learned recently that Ken Burns’ documentaries were almost dropped last July as well, and I haven’t even started with “The Civil War” yet; do I need to find a quiet corner and some 12 spare hours as soon as possible? There is a constant “flow” of content that goes away from Netflix at seemingly arbitrary times.

(I later found out that there are sites where you can see what content will expire soon; as of today, I have 5 days to finally watch “Donnie Darko” before it expires, but “The West Wing” seems safe)

Of course, you can still buy music any time. And DVDs, as long they’re not from Disney. And books, on paper and on bits, DRM notwithstanding. But, you see, I can very easily see a path from the world of today to the world of “A Hole in the Ether”, and widespread DRM, widespread streaming and Kindle Unlimited are all steps along that path. I think Kindle Unlimited scares me more than the others because I have more of an emotional attachment to books than to music or film (and, still, I have embraced ebooks entirely very quickly; that may have been foolish).

A counterpoint one could easily make is that we have always had public libraries, and Kindle Unlimited looks quite a bit like a paid library for ebooks (and most public libraries loan out ebooks these days, even). But the thing is, public libraries buy books, and once they have them no publisher is going to pull a book from circulation; and, really, public libraries are not in it for the money, they don’t care that some of their books are not all that popular (that said, I think ebook loans from public libraries probably suffer from the same contractual problems that Kindle Unlimited does). I also happen to think that if public libraries did not exist yet, establishing them nowadays would be nearly impossible, but that’s another story.

Just to make it clear: I don’t think Kindle Unlimited is a bad thing or evil, and I love music subscription services. I think widespread DRM is much worse, and definitely evil; I think content that you buy but that can be taken away from you afterwards is an even worse evil and another step in that bad path; I think abuses of the copyright system are evil; I think geographical restrictions on content are evil. And I would love to live in a world in which all kinds of content were available at all times – a world in which Netflix (or whoever, I’m not picky) were allowed to stream anything ever made would be fantastic. But I’m scared of a world in which the only way to access content is to get it on demand from a limited repertoire and in which “owning” books, music or films is not something one can do – and I see us as a society taking more and more steps in that direction.

And that is scary.

Time keeps on slipping…

So, what’s the statute of limitations on being able to say “I have a blog”? Can I still do it after 13 months without a single post?

Random airport notes #2

I was interrupted by the boarding call while writing the last post, and ended up never coming back to it… but there was more I wanted to add:

– still on Virgin America: after we’d been stuck on the tarmac for over an hour (bad weather around JFK, lots of delays) waiting for permission to taxi away from the gate, the captain started an announcement with “good news, everyone” — but it was actually good news

– in the last month, I went through security in large US airports four times; in none of these I was required to go through one of the “nude scanners”, nor was I touched by anyone at any time (but I don’t get why is it that I’m not allowed to go through the metal detector wearing a jacket — jackets, like shoes, need to go through the x-ray)

– Qantas premium economy in their 747s is… good, but not brilliant; however, if you manage to get an exit row seat, you’ll have an amazing amount of leg room (seriously; I’m tall, and I couldn’t touch the seat in front even if I wanted to)

Anyway, I’ll be glad not to see the inside of an airplane again for a while…

IPv6 ready

$ host -t AAAA www.netwhatever.com
www.netwhatever.com has IPv6 address 2607:f298:1:130::29f:98ed

That’s all for now.

Music and media

I was looking at my iTunes playlist with the 25 most played songs in my collection, and I was a bit surprised at how many of them only are in my playlist at all because of other media (TV, radio, movies); a random sampling:

Either I watch too much TV or I don’t really listen to much music. Or both.

On double standards

I have just finished watching the first season of Buffy (yes, I am a few years late), and I couldn’t stop myself from comparing Sunnydale High to Hogwarts. (mild spoilers for both series follow)

You see, Hogwarts seemed to be under the constant threat of being closed due to risks to the students. For example, in Chamber of Secrets, after a student is attacked by the basilisk the headmaster is suspended and the school comes very close to being shut down. Similar situations occur later in the series — and this is among people (wizards and witches) who are (or should be) used to magical monsters and risky situations. I mean, Hogwarts is not the safest of places in the best of days; the whomping willow alone is an OHS nightmare, and don’t get me started on the moving stairways. It’s a wonder that they don’t lose several first-year students every year.

In contrast, Sunnydale High is supposed to be a regular school somewhere in California; except for the fact that Sunnydale lies on top of the “hellmouth”, it should be pretty much your ordinary small-town school. However, in the first season of Buffy, at least 10 students are killed on school grounds; one principal and one teacher also die (two teachers, if you count the replacement science teacher), not to mention the school mascot and the students who are killed at the dance place — oh, and there’s also the girl who catches on fire, plus several assorted injuries all around. Still, no one seems to care that much. You barely see the police showing up at the school (except for the men in black who take the invisible girl away). At no point there is any threat of closing the school, or even of parents taking their kids out of such a clearly dangerous place.

So, I am not quite sure what to make of this. There seems to be a clear case of double standards at work; either that, or British wizards are much more paranoid that Californian muggles, even where supernatural events and creatures are involved (by the way, wouldn’t Giles know about Hogwarts? Angel should, too). That might make some sense, as the wizards would know how dangerous the supernatural creatures are, while the muggles wouldn’t — but you don’t need to know that to realise that a school where over a dozen people are killed in one year is not a good place to send your kid to.

I guess I will just write that off as the effect of the hellmouth on the Sunnydale residents…

Random notes on a rainy Tuesday

Considering that a book that costs $36 from Borders can be had by just over $14 from the UK, including shipping, I can’t really see what’s the big deal with Amazon charging more for e-books from Australians than from Americans. In fact, a 40% surcharge sounds like a great deal.

The lack of available books, now, that’s a big problem. Not Amazon’s fault, though.

Just over a week ago, I visited the Tesselaar Tulip Festival, up in Silvan. Beautiful flowers, not so beautiful weather… The best pictures are here. (also in the album below, if you have Flash enabled)

I have wondered about this more than once… Why are there no calorie counts on pet food labels? (for reference: dry food is much more caloric than wet food)


Apparently, having a Mac causes you to stop writing in your blog. Or not.


I surely have neglected this blog for a while… to make up for it, and to try to kick things back in movement again, here is a list of random stuff from the last few months:

  • I have recently started playing with development of native applications for the iPhone (and/or iPod Touch); other than having to learn a slightly different flavour of C than what I’m used to, it’s not particularly hard, and it’s in fact fun (but, come on, the SDK is 1.8GB! that took forever to download)
  • but, and I have to say this, Objective C has some weird syntax constructs
  • I do realise that it’s been over six months since I wrote part 2 of the stories from my last holidays, and that at this rate I’ll go on holidays again before I’m done; I’ll try to rectify this
  • speaking of which, I’ll be in the US for about a week in early July (in Las Vegas and its vicinity)
  • I’m not sure whether I like the way Battlestar Galactica ended (no spoilers follow); my first reaction was that I liked it a lot, but then I started noticing “loose ends” or weird events, and I started liking it a bit less. A colleague and I even attempted to draw a timeline of the events of the universe of the series (from Kobol onwards), with some success, but that didn’t dispel many of my problems with the ending. I eventually decided to stop thinking about it, and re-watch the whole series in three or four years
  • now, the ending of Life on Mars (American edition) was cool
  • seriously, is the FIA trying to kill Formula One? who thought it would be a good idea to schedule a race for late afternoon in a place that gets monsoonal rains every day? I know it’s all about money and the European viewers, but one would think they would prefer to wake up a bit earlier and watch a full race instead of the half-race we had on Sunday
  • I watched Monsters vs Aliens in 3D; while it had some cool moments, I’m not sure it adds that much to the experience; most of the time I kept thinking “this would be much better on an IMAX screen”… (you see, the narrower screen limits the extension of the 3D elements); anyway, fun movie, in 2 or 3D

Let’s see if I can keep this alive…

Dancing Wozniak

I voted for Steve Wozniak! Have you?

(no, I didn’t see him dancing; does it matter? It’s Woz!)

To Read Later

A few weeks ago I found out about a very nice Firefox extension called Read It Later. It allows one to easily save links in a list to be read later: you get a “check mark” on the address bar that you can simply click on to save the page you’re looking at (much like the star used to bookmark a page). You can also right-click on a link to save it directly from the context menu. More importantly, you can sync the list between different browser installations (say, home and work) and you can also access the list from anywhere by going directly to the website (they even have an iPhone interface) or via an RSS feed.

As I said, I liked it straight away and started using it; it’s very convenient. There’s only one problem: it assumes that, even though you don’t have time to read something now, you will have time later. I’ve been finding out that this is not necessarily the case, as the size of my list has been growing almost monotonically since. I guess I need to cut down on my reading ambitions.


I’ve been back in Melbourne since Tuesday, and by now I’m almost fully recovered from the jet lag and the very long flights. Pictures are forthcoming.

Some quick random notes about the US:

  • the last time I went there was in 1999; lots of things changed since them, and they seem to have become a bit too paranoid about security (not that this is news to anyone); going through security checkpoints in airports is hell
  • that said, going through immigration on arrival was a breeze, and everyone was very polite
  • I fully expected free wi-fi to be much more prevalent than it actually is; in NY, you can find free access points in some parks (I used the one on Bryant Park, behind the public library) and in Apple stores, but in not many other places (paid wi-fi is everywhere, though)
  • also not news, but… Las Vegas is unbelievably hot in summer; the average summer day there is about as hot as the hottest days in Melbourne
  • the number of weird people per square km is much higher in the US than in Australia; the best one I’ve seen was a guy walking down the street with a cat sitting on the top of his head (and yes, I have a picture)
  • I’ve met Adam Savage; that was very cool

More details soon.

Don’t try this at home

In the US, before each episode of Mythbusters, Adam and Jamie ask people never to try at home what they’re going do in the show (in Australia this warning is not shown, for some reason).

This is why. (and this is the episode I’m talking about) (this one too)

Random April Fool’s Notes

G’day Mate: tomorrow’s Internet, today. Courtesy of Google Australia.

By the way, the theme of Google’s jokes today seems to be “time travel”. Speaking of which, someone in today’s Buzz Out Loud was complaining that, because April 1st starts early in Australia, they were seeing jokes on 31 March. Well, spare a tought for the Australians who will only see the American jokes on 02 April, waaaay too late for them to be funny.

And this has got to be a joke: Sydney’s stressed brains are shrinking, says the ABC. “Stress from high house prices and sporting failures is shrinking Sydneysiders’ brains, compared to those of their counterparts in Melbourne”. Well, I knew I had picked the right city!

Best Seinfeld episode ever: The Marine Biologist. Best Friends episode ever: The One With All The Haste (but not with Channel Ten’s cuts). Best McGyver episode ever: Hell Week (close second: Ugly Duckling). Just thought I’d say it.


In 1987, the American ABC network started broadcasting a show created by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, of The Bedford Falls Company, with music by W. G. “Snuffy” Walden. “thirtysomething” (not capitalised) was a drama dealing with the lives of, well, thirty-somethings: the main characters are Michael and Hope Steadman, interfaith couple (he is Jewish, she’s Christian) with two kids; other characters include Elliot, who works with Michael in advertising; Michael’s sister Melissa; Elliot’s wife Nancy, who develops cancer later in the series; Michael’s former roommate Gary, who dates Melissa but then marries Susannah and later dies in a car crash, just as Nancy recovers from cancer; and a few others. It was a show about real life without being about anything in particular; it’s sort of a drama version of Seinfeld. It was very well received by critics and public, and aired for four seasons (85 episodes in total); it also won one Golden Globe and several Emmys.

I first heard about this show in the early 90s, and I first watched an episode in 1996 or 1997, when a cable network in the US was showing repeats every night. I really enjoyed it, despite the fact that I wasn’t then in my 30s (I am now). This is one show I would like to buy in DVD, but it’s not legally available (there are a few illegal versions that you can buy on the net, but they’re not cheap and the quality — so I’m told — is very poor). Apparently there’s a company now working in restoring the original film stock used in the series and converting it to digital formats, which might be a first step towards releasing a set of DVDs…

Update 10 May 2009: the DVD is coming! Season 1 is available for pre-order from Amazon.com, to be released in 25 August. You can pre-order it from here: thirtysomething: The Complete First Season

A few years later, in 1994, the same ABC network started broadcasting another show created by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, with music by W. G. “Snuffy” Walden. “My So-Called Life” wasn’t too different from “thirtysomething”, but it focused on another period of life: the high school years. The main character is Angela (brilliantly played by Claire Danes), who is in the process of finding her place in life — as are most teenagers at this time of their lives. We also get to know Brian, the geeky neighbour who’s in love with Angela; Jordan, the not-so-smart handsome guy Angela’s in love with; Rayanne, the party girl; Rickie, the latino bisexual friend of Rayanne’s (and later Angela’s); Graham and Patty, Angela’s parents, also going through interesting changes; and many others. This show was also loved by critics, and had (still has, in fact) a huge and amazingly dedicated following. Not huge enough for ABC (or maybe not huge enough at the time), as the show ran for only one season of 19 episodes. It still managed to win a Golden Globe that year (for Claire Danes).

Once again, when I first watched this show (probably in 1995) I was not in the right age bracket. Still, I fell in love with the show. I could see myself as Brian, and the way Angela showed the indecision of the teenage years was very convincing; it was beautiful. And the parts of the plot involving her parents were sort of a “fortysomething” embedded in the middle of the show. I used to have all the episodes in VHS (recorded from MTV, oddly enough), but those are long gone… I do have the soundtrack CD, though (as I do for “thirtysomething”).

Not long after, in 1996, ABC did it again with “Relativity”, another Herskovitz/Zwick show with soundtrack by Mr Walden. This one was about two twentysomethings who meet in Italy, fall in love and continue their relationship after they get back to the US; it dealt mostly with family relationships and the interaction between the relatives of the main characters. It was also short-lived: despite a large fan following, it was cancelled after 17 episodes. In 1999, the trio had a bit more luck, as their new series, “Once and Again”, had three full seasons, with a total of 63 episodes. I have to say that I watched the first few episodes of “Relativity” and didn’t like it that much, and I’ve never watched a full episode of “Once and Again”… it’s in my list for the future, though.

Which finally takes me to the point of this post. Last month, NBC aired in the US the first episode of a new series by Herskovitz and Zwick, “quarterlife” (once again, no capitals). It is a peculiar series, as it was first shown online: starting last November, short episodes were released every few days, and NBC “stitched” them together to show them as a regular 48-minute TV episode. It is about a group of twenty-somethings; the main character, Dylan, is a hopeful writer who works for a women’s magazine and keeps a video blog where she talks about her life and her friends. All other characters are somehow artistically inclined (a dancer, two film producers etc.), and the website of the series actually acts as a social network for artists. I’m not sure how it did online, but it didn’t work too well for NBC: they cancelled the show after airing a single episode (of a total of six that were produced; the other five were aired, all together, on cable a few days ago, and everything is still available online).

My impression of that first episode was that it showed some promise, but it was probably trying to hard to be “cool”. I don’t know why the ratings were so low as they were, though; it was not a particularly bad show, and I don’t think everyone had watched it online already. Sadly, we’ll never see whether it would deliver a good result… at the end of the day, Herskovitz and Zwick (and their company) have a track record of producing TV of great quality, which doesn’t always attracts that much of an audience as one would expect. Their shows are always very close to real life and real situations, and they make you think, and feel for (and with) the characters. That’s not something you see every day.