Archive for November, 2007

The Oral History of the Screen Savers, Part 1

November 16, 2007 Leave a comment

For me, it started sometime around 2003, when I got interested in a program called The Screen Savers on a cable channel called TechTV — may it rest in peace. But for them, it began in 1998, with a network called ZDTV. However, from what I’m told, the Screen Savers I knew were largely the same as those that began the project.

TSS premiered alongside its network, as one of the channel’s flagship programs. Consisting of an hour (and sometimes longer) of tech news and discussion each week day, filmed live, it offered an entirely unique format.

But that doesn’t hardly do it justice. The show was more than just its content and format, it was its people. People like Leo Laporte, Patrick Norton, Jessica Corbin, Sarah Lane, Kevin Rose, Dan Huard, Yoshi DeHerrera, Roger Chang, and Robert Heron. With all of that genius together, the show was really something unique. The nature of the daily, live format allowed for the up-to-date news and information that makes or breaks technology news providers.

I could go on further to describe the show itself, but suffice it to say that it was unquestionably one of the finest shows I’ve ever watched.

Now, when ZDTV changed its name to TechTV, and when The Screen Savers got a new set, it was always for the better. But in 2004, when Comcast (cable company and owner of G4, the formerly gaming-focused channel) acquired TechTV, things went bad. Comcast had already dropped TechTV from its line-up in many areas because of perceived competition between it and G4, although they had very different markets. Nonetheless, with the acquisition of TechTV, Comcast decided to ostensibly merge it with G4, creating the originally named G4TechTV.

However, from the word “go” on the merger, things were headed South. The very first casualty was Leo Laporte. Despite being an exceedingly personable and likable host, he ended up out the door. Reading up on the situation, I’ve found there are conflicting reports stating that he left over contract disputes or that he just felt like leaving, among others. My understanding is that Comcast essentially didn’t want him around on the show (I guess he wasn’t hip enough?), so he had a “resign or get fired” choice. He chose the former.

It didn’t really matter, because mere months after the merger, which The Screen Savers had so far ridden out with only a line-up change, Comcast announced that it was laying off most of the former TechTV staff and dropping the TechTV part of the channel’s name, so it would once again be just G4. Most every major figure on TSS was given the boot. One notable exception to this was Patrick Norton, who (I believe) smelled what was coming, and decided to stay behind in San Francisco when Comcast moved production of TSS to Los Angeles a few months before the layoffs.

And those Screen Savers who “survived” the shake-up were promoted to hosting duties, in what I can only conceive was a mad grab to keep an audience that Comcast seemed intent on driving away. To further this effort, Comcast renamed the show to (I kid you not) Attack of the Show and changed the format from being focused on tech news to being more of a variety show. Now, I had stopped watching the show at this point, but it came to my attention that during May 2005, the last vestiges of the old cast left the show.

In time, AotS would come to symbolize the current state of G4: horribly conflicted on its true identity and market. Although it still claims to be focused on gaming and technology, the current state of G4 reminds me of what would result if Spike TV and TechTV had gotten together. The current lineup for G4 includes such gems as The Man Show and Ninja Warrior, a Japanese reality show where normal folks attempt “ninja-like” acts like lifting heavy things

This interregnum after the sundering of The Screen Savers was a dark time indeed, but of late things have begun to look up substantially. More on that on Monday.

Categories: Real Life

Good Point: 15 November 2007

November 15, 2007 Leave a comment

Tom Morello, whose guitar playing skills I’ve expressed appreciation for in the past, and I’ve mentioned his role in Guitar Hero III, but today I found out something much, much deeper and darker.

He’s a Trekkie.

In 1998, Morello – a die-hard Trekkie – contacted Star Trek producer Rick Berman and asked to have a cameo in Star Trek: Insurrection. Berman agreed, as his son was a fan of Rage Against the Machine. Despite four to five hours of make-up and the high temperature in which they were working (they were filming in the desert), Morello states that he “was on cloud nine because I got to talk to Jean-Luc Picard” (referring, of course, to actor Patrick Stewart).

Because his Son’a character could barely be seen, however, Morello was asked to appear on an episode of Voyager, this time as a Human Starfleet officer.

Sure enough.

Categories: Uncategorized

Awash in a sea of XML and JavaScript

November 12, 2007 Leave a comment


I spent the whole weekend trying to come up with something to one-up Bob’s comment about cats versus dogs with, in order to continue the fun-to-write Battlefronts theme. But all the other conflicts that came to my mind were either too large in scope (Windows vs Linux), too close to call, or already covered in this space (Firefox vs Opera vs IE). Oh well.

On the other hand, I did get something productive done in that I finally got a camera and I’m now dabbling in a bit of photo-blogging. Not sure how it’ll turn out, but you’ll know as soon as I do.

The entire idea of photo-blogging came to me while I was walking across the main courtyard on campus, where the Campus Crusade for Christ had set up a three-sided column with the heading “Thoughts on God” and left the rest blank for people to write in. An anonymous contributor added “God is dead. -Neetche” with it spelled exactly thus. The attempt to give an air of intelligence by quoting that was just so undercut by the inability to spell Nietzsche that I found it worth sharing. But of course, I couldn’t without a camera.

I don’t have much as of yet, obviously, but I’ve already contributed a picture to the Consumerist blog photo pool, which the Consumerist blog uses to provide illustrations for posts. I also ended up tipping them off for a story a while ago, and had to use a public domain picture to illustrate my point because I had no camera. I should have done this way sooner.

Also, because doing all the photo work in the GIMP seemed like it would interface poorly with the extremely-AJAXed style of Flickr, I looked around at the online photo editors (which likewise run in a sandbox forged of AJAX) and ended up using Phixr, which can pull images from a Flickr account and save them back. It looks to be well designed and so far, darn convenient.

I have seen the future, and it is Web 2.0.

Categories: The Internet

Battlefronts, Part 2

November 9, 2007 2 comments

Let’s pick up from last time, when we were discussing the way that Vi has crushed Emacs, seen Emacs driven before it, and heard the lamentations of Emacs’ women. But as I also mentioned before, there is another topic of debate, which isn’t quite such a shut-out: KDE and GNOME.

Now, normally I wouldn’t bother with a topic that’s been covered so many times, but in this case, I’m willing to make an exception: not only did I come to side with one faction because of some unusual circumstances, but I’ve got an expert witness whose testimony I found especially interesting.

To start off with, I should explain what GNOME and KDE are. Well, for starters, they’re both acronyms, which make them annoying to type. This annoyance is actually measured on an exponential curve, such that typing GNOME is about three times as annoying as KDE. Reason #1 to use KDE.

But seriously, they’re two types of desktop environments. They are two different systems for managing how your desktop … environs. For example, in Windows, there’s just the one desktop environment, which is what you use when you click the Start menu, or use the taskbar, or put something on your desktop. KDE and GNOME both do this taskbar/start menu trick to varying degrees, but the real difference comes behind the scenes when controlling other things, such as setting your wallpaper or desktop keybindings.

But each environment also has its own set of native utilities that work best (or in some cases, only) when run inside their proper environment. For example, where Windows has Notepad, GNOME has Gedit (pronounced “gee-edit” or “get-it”), and KDE has Kate. As a general rule, if the name of the program starts with a K, it probably is meant to run in KDE. Examples include KNetworkManager, Konsole, Katapult, and Konqueror.

Underlying each environment, however, is a certain design philosophy, which for GNOME is “extreme user-friendliness” and for KDE is “extreme power user-friendliness.” This is not to say that GNOME is unfriendly to power users, nor KDE unfriendly to novices, but each keeps its eye on its own goal. Ironically, GNOME attempts to re-invent the wheel by replacing the Start menu in the lower left corner with three menus in the upper left, on the upper status bar, while KDE keeps the Windows concept of the Start menu and centralizes all the applications in that “K menu” — although doing a better job of organizing its contents. I say that this is ironic because one of the tenets of interface design is the principle of least surprise, which dictates that a user coming from a lifetime of Windows would expect those options to be in the lower left menu. This would be the least astonishing to the user and therefore make KDE slightly more user-friendly in this respect.

At any rate, for whatever reason, GNOME is the default environment for the two Linux distros with a focus on a user-friendliness that I’ve used (Fedora Core and Ubuntu). The Fedora Core experience comes from my days of taking a Linux class that used Fedora Core. Because GNOME was the default, it took a bit of ingenuity for a beginner with our experience to switch to KDE, as well as being slightly outside the rules, as we were all supposed to be running GNOME. This made running KDE not only clever, but slightly cool because we weren’t supposed to do it.

But this actually offered an excellent grounding in the differences between the environments. Because I used KDE on my class computer, and … er … “helped” classmates on their GNOME machines. It was at this point that I started to be soured on the fanatical focus on user-friendliness of GNOME, which solidified my bond to the leather-jacket-wearing Fonz-eqsue KDE.

Some months later, during my second semester of Linux, one of the computers in the class was converted to running this other Linux distribution by the name of Ubuntu, which claimed to be super user-friendly and ran GNOME by default, so I was instantly wary. How good could any distro be that applied the GNOME ideas to the entire operating system? Well, at the time, I found not very well. In the end, I was once again frustrated by GNOME and left with a rather sour view of Ubuntu.

So when I got my laptop for school a few months ago, I’m not sure exactly why I decided to install Ubuntu on it, but it probably had to do with its reputed good record for support and recent popularity among the tech community. But I was determined to avoid GNOME. As it happens, there is an Ubuntu official derivative called (surprise surprise) Kubuntu which comes with KDE and all of its retinue in place of GNOME. Plus it replaces the muddy — I mean “earthy” brown color scheme of Ubuntu with a nice shiny blue.

Up to this point, I had been using openSUSE, a completely separate distribution which I had picked up in my second semester of Linux while I was doing my project on Linux servers, for which openSUSE was much better suited. But openSUSE’s power never really managed to balance out its frustrating errors. It is still in use at my house to run the network’s print server, but if I had to reinstall from scratch, I’d probably use something else.

It was exactly this feeling of dissatisfaction that made me recalcitrant to try openSUSE on my laptop, so Kubuntu it was. But I promised myself that if it got too “kid-gloves,” I would switch to another distro. But it never really has. KDE has made it all come together for me, and turned me into a believer. If Ubuntu was a cult, I’d be drinking the bright-blue Kool-aid.

My father is also approaching my position in this respect, since he spent almost an entire weekend wrestling with an Ubuntu install (running GNOME, natch) before trying again with a copy of Kubuntu, which solved the myriad problems he was running into with GNOME not allowing him to log in and such. Of course, he has to use Windows for his work, so he can’t really make the switch if he so desired, but it’s good to know I’ve made another believer out of him.

Which brings me to my aforementioned expert witness on the KDE versus GNOME debate: Linus Torvalds himself. A few of the best (and harshest quotes):

This ‘users are idiots, and are confused by functionality’ mentality of Gnome is a disease. If you think your users are idiots, only idiots will use it. I don’t use Gnome, because in striving to be simple, it has long since reached the point where it simply doesn’t do what I need it to do.

There is a huge difference between “being easy to use” and “only being easy to use.” “Being easy to use” is important, because it means that there isn’t a very high learning curve. That’s good.

“ONLY being easy to use” is bad, because it means that once the initial learning curve is over, maybe you know the program, but you can’t actually do what you WANT to do. And that’s bad. That’s really bad. It’s actually much worse than being hard to use to begin with, in many ways.

Follow the link for more information, quotes and some half-hearted responses to Torvalds’ criticism from a GNOME project developer.

I really do hate to see the entire work of the GNOME folks be so ripped apart, because there’s been so much work put into GNOME, but I have to agree with old man Linus. GNOME just doesn’t do what I want it to, whereas I’ve yet to fully explore the vast options in KDE, not to mention all of the various packages to extend KDE’s ability.

I’ll easily concede my loyalty to KDE lies in historically poor experiences with GNOME, but I haven’t yet seen or heard a good reason why I should bother to switch to GNOME and stop evangelizing to KDE.

Categories: Real Life, The Internet

Good Point: 8 November 2007

November 8, 2007 Leave a comment

If you hadn’t heard, the writer’s strike is going down. Given that I do most of my television viewing online already, I’m definitely in favor of the cause, and will basing my decision to purchase DVD box sets on the outcome of the negotiations. I’m also pretty pre-disposed to be sympathetic to the writers because JMS is stumping pretty hard in favor of him and his fellow writers getting more than nothing from some of this digital distribution.It’s also entirely appropriate that they’re getting the message about this problem of internet video out in the best way possible.

That kind of sucks because Heroes got really good this week. But now they’re preparing to bifurcate the season for lack of scripts, not to mention the wholesale cancellation of the planned Heroes spin-off miniseries.

It’ll also be pushing Joss Whedon’s new show Dollhouse back by more or less as long as the strike lasts.

Categories: Good Point

Battlefronts, Part 1

November 7, 2007 3 comments

For some inscrutable reason, nerds, especially of the FOSS persuasion love to split themselves up and fight to the death, usually over meaningless issues. The best example I can think of to illustrate this is the “debate” of Emacs versus Vi.

They are both ostensibly “text editors” and therefore comparable, which has caused much in-fighting and internet flaming. (As an aside, every single person I’ve met face-to-face who’s expressed a view on the topic sides with Vi.) The problem here is that it’s like comparing apples and The Big Apple. While you can type text into both Vi and Emacs, and then save it as a file, with Emacs, you could then take that file, upload it to your FTP server, send out an email telling your friends about it, post about it on a forum, chat with your buddies about it on IRC, crunch some numbers about it with a calculator, and then blow off some steam with a game of Tetris. All without leaving the Emacs window.

Vi, alternatively, doesn’t even support a mouse. You can move around with the arrow keys, once you get started typing something, but forget about clicking and dragging. (That brings me to one thing that does connect Vi and Emacs: to the regular Ivan coming from Notepad/Word, the learning curve on both Vi and Emacs are nearly vertical.) The usefulness of this limitation on Vi is that, because it runs entirely in a console window, it can be run while remotely logged into another computer. (This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that it is possible to force any windows of Emacs opened by your remote session to open on your local machine, but it requires a bit of SSH voodoo.)

As I see it, Emacs is, in essence a virtual machine which adds a layer between applications written to run in Emacs and the operating system. Because the same version of one application, such as a web browser, will run in any version of Emacs, it sort of serves the purpose of Java, except that Java is useful. Emacs is trying to be an operating system inside an operating system, and that’s just not all that helpful.

On the other hand, Vi just edits text. And its got enough power that I have a coffee mug whose entire outer surface is covered in little tricks, printed rather small, on how to do neat stuff with a few keystrokes. But what it really comes down to is that the “war” between Vi and Emacs is over. Vi has won. When every version of Linux comes with your text editor (in this case, Vi Improved), it’s game over.

This is a debate that I closely correlate in my mind to the QWERTY versus DVORAK keyboard-layout debate, which is likewise a settled conflict. It won’t go away, there are zealots who are more productive with the non-standard item, and 99% of the public doesn’t care enough to understand why they should switch to the side of the wild-eyed guy who’ll tell you that it’ll make you 300% better at computing.

Author’s Note: The above was originally intended to be an introduction to a post on the fanboy wars over KDE and Gnome. But writing about Emacs is just so hilarious, I couldn’t help turning it into a full post. Check back Friday for more about the desktop environment war, which is still very much alive and kicking.

Categories: The Internet

Good Point: 1 November 2007

November 1, 2007 2 comments

This isn’t new, but it has only recently come to my attention: The Daily Tar Hell (PDF) from 2 February 2007. It includes stories such as “Faculty scientists discover dinosaurs slain by magic” (“Smith and Potterkins’ diorama shows caped dinosaurs with pointy hats ridden by elaborately dressed humans. The humans would command the beasts in Latin, using phrases such as ‘veni, vidi, vici’ or ‘carpe diem’ to inspire them into battle. The dinosaurs would then use their magical powers to call down meteors from space to act as bombs.”) as well as “Prized Alum Niphong [sic] To Open Ethics Center” (“‘What I like to do is commit crimes myself so I can get into criminals heads — wear their shoes,’ he said. ‘Nothing confuses a jury more than suppressing exonerating evidence and telling your client to dream up new stories every week.'”)

Note: This is, of course satire. This particular piece was perpetrated by the staff of The Technician.

Categories: Good Point