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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Animation Marathon: Spirited Away and The Iron Giant
So the animation marathon was on a bit of a hiatus, as I was pretty much playing along with the Filmspotting guys, and they got caught up in best-of-2006 lists (like me) and film festivals (not yet for me, but the Philly fest is in April). They started up again last week, and will be finishing up on Friday. I'd already seen the last two films in the marathon, but unlike the other ones I saw before (Akira and Ghost in the Shell) my opinion of these has not changed much (they're just as good as before). As such, I won't be spending a ton of time on either one... but I think these are the two most enjoyable films in the marathon. There will be one more post after this one, wrapping up the marathon (though I have a sneaking suspicion that this will not be the last of animation on this blog). Without further adieu, here are the last two films in the marathon (these reviews will be considerably less spoiler-laden than other marathon reviews).
  • Spirited Away: Of the four Hayao Miyazaki films that I've seen, I believe this to be the best. This is either a really easy film to review, or really hard. Easy because all it requires is that I give it an enthusiastic recommendation (which I do, go see it!). That's all you really need, but I'll give you the primary (spoiler free) reason: the film's story has many turns that are unexpected, but necessary and logical. For the most part, I didn't know what to expect for the duration of the movie. By the end, I couldn't see any other way the story could have progressed, but I couldn't see where it was going at any point in the story. I guess I should mention that this sort of story actually turns some people off (in the Filmspotting review, Adam felt like I do, while Sam didn't particularly like that part of it, though he still recommended the film). Visually, it's spectacular, and Miyazaki perfectly captures some of the subtleties of childhood (like, say, Japanese cootie shots). And this is where the hard part comes in: because of the unexpected way in which the story progresses, I don't want to ruin it for you. Just go watch it. When you're done, check out Steven's spoiler-laden thoughts.
  • The Iron Giant: As I already mentioned, I've seen this film before, and I liked it a lot. It was similar to what I was used to in an animated film, but also very different. Upon revisiting it, I was not all that surprised to find that the film was made by Brad Bird, the creator of The Incredibles. Both films share a similar quality, and they're both great (personally, I prefer The Incredibles, but Giant is still quite good). The Iron Giant is probably the best American 2D animated film in the past 10 years or so.

    The Iron Giant

    It follows the story of an innocent giant alien robot that lands on earth and befriends a little boy. A paranoid government agent wreaks havoc when he finds out about it and tries to destroy the robot (which is programmed for self-defense). There are a lot of things to like about this movie: the story, the characters, and the visuals are all great. But in the end, it's the childlike Giant that steals the show. Sam from Filmspotting called the Giant one of the greatest characters ever, and it would be hard to argue against that. It's got the elements of a preachy movie, but it doesn't go too far overboard, and it's incredibly entertaining anyway. (More screenshots and possible spoilers below the fold)
This just about wraps up the animation marathon. Another short post covering what Filmspotting is tentatively calling "The Harryhausens" (animation marathon awards) and we're done. Here are a few other screenshots from The Iron Giant. Again, possible spoilers ahead.

The Iron Giant Sits Down
Take a seat, Iron Giant!

The Giant is practically a child, so it makes sense that he'd make friends with another kid.

Private Hogarth reporting for duty!
Private Hogarth reporting for duty!

What do you do when you hear something suspicious in the middle of the night? Put on your army helmet and tape a flashlight to your BB Gun, of course!

Uh, oh...
The Giant isn't all smiles, all the time.

Let's just say you won't want to get on the Giant's bad side:

Puny humans!
Take that, paranoid government guy!

That's about it for now.
Posted by Mark on February 28, 2007 at 07:51 PM .: Comments (5) | link :.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Revenge of Oscar Liveblogging
It's that time again. I'll be liveblogging the Oscars again tonight, as is tradition here at Kaedrin (previous installments: 2006, 2005 and 2004). Now, I've seen more movies in 2006 than any other year I can think of and yet, I still haven't seen the majority of the nominees. Like that matters. Once again, I'll have to rely on the intangibles of the Oscars in determining who is going to win (incidentally, my average for the past 3 years is around 74%, which should tell you something about the intangibles).That said, this year's picks seem a little more popular with regular folks than last year's lineup. As John Scalzi notes:
This is another low-grossing year for the Oscars, since aside from The Departed, none of the Best Picture nominees has cleared $100 million. However, it's not the total commercial embarrassment last year's slate was -- only two of this year's Best Picture nominees have been outgrossed by a Best Documentary nominee instead of all of them. It's progress!
Indeed! However, I'm betting that within the next decade, a Best Documentary film will be nominated for Best Picture. But I digress. On with the picks:
  • Best Picture: This is actually the toughest of the major categories. The only film that gets an obvious axe is The Queen, as I suspect the voters will think the Best Actress nod will be enough. I'd say that Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima is next on the chopping block, as it's a foreign language film told from the perspective of our enemy. Little Miss Sunshine probably has a better chance than a lot of critics say, because it's the only one of the nominees that people seem to really enjoy. The academy typically doesn't reward comedies, but Sunshine has a sorta Shakespeare in Love (which somehow managed to beat out Saving Private Ryan in 98) feeling to it. The popular choices generally seem to fall between Babel and The Departed. Neither film seems to be tremendously popular with the Academy, but I'll say that The Departed will have the momentum tonight, and that will be my choice.
  • Best Director: Martin Scorsese. I mean, come on, the guy is due. Not only that, but The Departed is legitimately a great film. The only real threat comes from Clint Eastwood, but I suspect that the Academy will recognize that Clint already has two statues for directing and will want to right their several wrongs (i.e. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas). This is complete speculation, but I'd like to think that academy members, which are predominantly actors, will fall into line on this one. Hell, I bet Clint would vote for Scorsese. One other note: It's really nice to see Paul Greengrass get the nomination as he did an outstanding job in United 93, but it's a sympathy nomination that won't carry over to the award.
  • Best Actor: Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland. The only thing he has going against him is that, from what I understand, he plays more of a supporting role. But he has a lot going for him, not the least of which is that he apparently gives a stellar performance. Plus, I don't see much in the way of competition. Then again, I haven't seen any of the films in this category (!), so I could be completely off base. If Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for The Departed, I think he would have been a good dark horse, but somehow I don't think Blood Diamond has legs. Peter O'Toole has some momentum, but I don't think it's enough to unseat Whitaker as the favorite.
  • Best Actress: Helen Mirren for The Queen. No contest here.
  • Best Supporting Actor: Eddie Murphy in Dreamgirls. The film got the snub for Best Picture and Director, so I'm betting they'll have the sympathy vote in the smaller categories. Alan Arkin has a fair chance here, though.
  • Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls. I think she's pretty much a lock too.
  • Best Original Screenplay: Another difficult category. My superstition is that Screenplay awards tend to go to films that do well commercially, but sometimes don't do so well in the major categories (the most notable evidence for this that comes to mind is Pulp Fiction, but I called this a superstition for a reason). As such, I think this will go to Little Miss Sunshine. I think this may be a fair predictor to how well Sunshine will do in Best Picture (if it wins screenplay, I think it's out of the running). I think the other nominees have a fair chance, but Sunshine stands out.
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: The Departed. The competition for this is somewhat week. There is some buzz that Borat will take the statue, but I can't imagine that happening. I mean, was there really a script for most of that movie? It would fit with my Screenplay going to the more popular film theory though...
  • Editing: Another tough one, but I think this is going to be The Departed's night. I'd say there is a pretty good chance for Babel or United 93 here as well.
  • Cinematography: I'll give this one to Pan's Labyrinth, though it could also go to Children of Men (personally, I loved the cinematography in The Illusionist, but I don't think it has a chance). Also, why wasn't The Fountain nominated? I think it would have an easy win here if it were.
  • Visual Effects: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
  • Musical Score: Babel.
  • Best Song: Well, it's almost certainly a song from Dreamgirls, but three were nominated! I'll just pick "Listen."
  • Makeup: Pan's Labyrinth.
  • Best Animated Film: Cars.
  • Best Documentary: An Inconvenient Truth (though it could easily go to one of the other nominees).
  • Best Foreign Language Film: Pan's Labyrinth.
Well, that's it for now. Check back around Oscar time for lots of updates! Feel free to post your picks in the comments...

Update 8:28 pm: Oh boy! Only 2 minutes to go! I don't get the appeal of the preshows. The Barbara Walters special is theoretically neat, but they didn't have anyone interesting this year. And I really, really don't get the red carpet stuff. But I'm not a fashion nerd, so whatever.

Update 8:33 pm: This montage where all the nominees goof off is a great idea. If only these people were more interesting when they give their acceptance speeches. Still, this makes for a great way to start the Oscars. Good sign? Or downhill from here?

Update 8:39 pm: Ok, Ellen's not doing that bad. I even laughed a couple of times. But I'm going to start drinking. This is probably a bad sign.

Update 8:42 pm: "It's not that we don't have time for long speeches, it's that we don't have time for boring speeches." Brilliant. I've heard that the Oscar producers have been pushing for winners to be more interesting and do less "thanking" of random people. We'll see, I guess.

Update 8:48 pm: Pan's Labyrinth takes the Art Direction award, and deservedly so. Apparently I missed this one when making my pics, but I probably would have picked this one. Annnnd, yep, boring speech.

Update 8:55 pm: Will Ferrell & Jack Black are funny. Comedies really don't do well at the Oscars. The last outright comedy that won was Annie Hall in 1977. I don't know if this augors for or against Little Miss Sunshine. And John C. Reilly joins the show! I honestly think that dude should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Talledega Nights. Funny stuff.

Update 8:58 pm: Pan's Labyrinth takes the Makup award. So far, I'm 1 for 1.

Update 9:01 pm: Poor kids. Not only were they forced to get up in front of the entire world and read bad jokes off the teleprompter, but they're presenting the award for animated shorts.

Update 9:02 pm: Yeah! The Danish Poet won. Woo Hoo! I can't believe it won! It's so exciting! Holy shit, I never thought they'd reward that short! This is great!

Update 9:04 pm: West Bank Story wins the live action short award, and the clip they showed is actually kinda funny (it's a comedy/musical that takes place between to falafel stands in Israel/Palestine) . And holy crap, Jack Nicholson has no hair! Sorry, just saw that. And this guy is actually giving a decent speech.

Update 9:07 pm: Man, I hate trackbacks. I'm temporarily removing the Scalzi link at the top of this post, as I have to wait for the trackback to fail every time I update this post. I'll put it back in later. Sorry John!

Update 9:13 pm: This sound effects choir is pretty neat. Another good idea. Hey, is that Michael Winslow from the Police Academy movies? This is pretty awesome.

Update 9:16 pm: Sound editing jokes were actually kinda funny. Another award I neglected to pick. Sorry. Letters from Iwo Jima takes the award and... yep, boring thank yous. Seriously, maybe they should forbid anything but a generic thank you and we'll get more interesting acceptance speeches.

Update 9:18 pm: I guess we're getting all the boring awards out of the way first, huh? I wonder how they decide what order to do the awards in. Sometimes they'll put big awards at the beginning of the show, which I guess is supposed to suck in viewers, and then keep them watching until the end. Which is better? You got me. Dreamgirls wins Sound Mixing. It being a musical, I guess that makes sense (another award I didn't pick).

Update 9:25 pm: Best Supporting Actor goes to... Alan Arkin! I'm 1 for 2 now, but I don't have any issues with it. Hmm, does Ellen know if Scorsese won? This would be kinda cruel if he didn't.

Update 9:35 pm: I've made no secret that I hate the musical performances at the Oscars (with the notable exception of Blame Canada and that time Antonio Banderas came out and sang that song, which was so bad as to be entertaining). Putting two in a row is a mixed blessing. It's bad because, well, I have to endure it. But it's good because we're at least getting some of it over with, like ripping off a band aid really fast. I almost wish they'd do all the nominees now.

Update 9:37 pm: Yay global warming!

Update 9:43 pm: Ok, so not only has Jack Nicholson shaved his head, but he's wearing sunglasses too. Every year, some idiot does this. Samuel L. Jackson made it work. Nicholson kinda does, but a part of me just thinks he got high and didn't want anyone to know. Best Animated Feature goes to Happy Feet. Crap. I'm 1 for 3.

Update 9:46 pm: Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms, yo! Montages are actually pretty entertaining...

Update 9:51 pm: William Monahan wins for The Departed, making me 2 for 4. He at least makes a funny comment at the beginning of his speech before devolving back into the thank yous.

Update 10:01 pm: Costumes, yet another award I neglected to pick, goes to Marie Antoinette. Her speech was filled with thank yous, but it was still kinda decent...

Update 10:07 pm: As Tom Cruise kisses some studio head's ass, I just want to mention that in the above entry, I didn't mean to imply that Marie Antoinette's reanimated corpse gave an acceptance speech. It was the costume designer for the movie, not Marie. Whoa, what's going on with her neck? Again, I'm not referring Marie Antoinette, but the studio head woman.

Update 10:11 pm: Ellen got Stephen Spielberg to take a picture of Clint Eastwood and her so that she could put it on MySpace. It was funnier than it sounds.

Update 10:14 pm: Cinematography goes to Pan's Labyrinth, and I'm at 3 for 5.

Update 10:21 pm: Heh, Robert Downey jr making fun of his drug abuse. Why are there only three nominees for visual effects this past year? Strange. Oscar goes to Pirates, and after a rocky start I'm at 4 for 6. Another joke in an acceptance speech! And I can tell he made it up on the spot because he referenced a joke from earlier in the night.

Update 10:30 pm: Mitchieville is also liveblogging: "If you are watching the Osacrs right now, you're listening to two insufferable foreigners yammering on about nothing. Just hurry the hell up, foreigners, I gotta pee." And holy crap, Pan's Labryinth doesn't win! How can this be? Seriously, what's going on here? I've never heard of "Lives of Others" but come on, how can Pan's Labryinth lose this award? I guess it was a little too dark for the academy...

Update 10:33 pm: A tribute to Snakes on a Plane? Why not?

Update 10:37 pm: And best supporting actress goes to Jennifer Hudson. I guess they can't all be upsets. I'm 5 for 8. Ok, she thanked God twice. Kissass.

Update 10:40 pm: It's not the Superbowl, but the Oscars always has some good new commercials. There's been a couple, but the highlight has to be Wes Anderson's American Express commercial about a half hour ago: "Can you do a .357 with a bayonet?" Heh.

Update 10:50 pm: Hey, it's Jerry Seinfeld and they let him badmouth theaters. Nice. Best Documentary goes to An Inconvenient Truth. Shocker. I'm 6 for 9. Yay global warming.

Update 10:55 pm: Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western scores are so awesome, and I had no idea that he did all these other ones and oh damn, a music performance that isn't even one of this year's nominees. I'm getting another beer.

Update 11:00 pm: I think Ennio Morricone just cursed in Italian and Clint is just winging it in an attempt to cover it up.

Update 11:09 pm: Best original score goes to Babel and I'm at 7 for 10. Guy is boring. You get the picture.

Update 11:11 pm: Oh shit, the president of the Academy. And he's cheating on a bet. Run!

Update 11:15 pm: And Original Screenplay goes to Little Miss Sunshine. I thought this was a tough category, but now that I think about it, Sunshine was the obvious choice. Hence my pick, and I'm at 8 for 11.

Update 11:28 pm: Best orignal song goes to... An Inconvenient Truth? Huh, I guess I should have seen that coming - by having three nominations, Dreamgirls probably ended up splitting their votes. Plus, Hollywood is falling all over themselves for Al Gore. Hopefully no more music performances tonight. Indeed, we're getting to a point where the only awards left are going to be big ones. Yay global warming. I'm at 8 for 12.

Update 11:35 pm: Michael Mann's look at America? Intriguing, but it turns out to be just another montage. A good one, though.

Update 11:44 pm: Gah, I forgot about the Editing award. It goes to The Departed, and she makes an interesting comment about this being the third Scorsese film to win for Editing. Is the next half hour going to be all Marty, all the time?

Update 11:46 pm: Dammit, I forgot about the annual dead people montage. Come on, get to the good awards people!

Update 11:52 pm: As an aside, why wasn't Philip Seymour Hoffman nominated for MI III? Oh, and Hellen Mirren wins, of course. In fact, I wrote and published this before she actually won.

Update 11:54 pm: You see, I was right. She won (Take that, Sov!). And I'm at 10 for 14. The way they're going, they're probably going to put Best Director as the last award announced. And Scorsese will lose.

Update 12:04 am: Just announce the award already! Alright, Forest Whitaker wins, got it, NEXT! (No, I'm not impatient, why? I'm at 11 for 15.)

Update 12:07 am: Three Amigos? Uh, yeah, whatever, just tell us that Scorsese won. Please.

Update 12:10 am: Holy fuck, he won. Three 6 Mafia: One, Martin Scorsese: One. It's a dead heat now. Heh, I bet he's had that "check the envelope" joke ready for 15 years (and like, 5 nominations). Great speech, and thank God we won't have to endure the "Will he win" debate every time he makes a film (we probably will, but one can hope).

Update 12:14 am: And The Departed takes best picture. Congrats Marty, it's a great night for your film.

Final Update 12:17 am: Ungh, it started out good, but went mostly downhill until the end when Scorsese won. I ended up at 13 for 17, which is around 76% (a little above average for me). So much for this being a night of upsets (except for Pan's Labyrinth losing out on best foreign language film, which it totally deserved.) I think maybe I'll have to take the DVR approach that James Berardinelli mentioned in his post, thus condensing the Oscars into about an hour or so.

The Actual Final Update 2.26.07, 7:00 pm: It appears that Alex has also liveblogged the event, while Steven thinks that the Academy is running out of time to give Roger Corman the lifetime achievement award (I concur).
Posted by Mark on February 25, 2007 at 10:31 AM .: Comments (7) | link :.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Liveblogging on Sunday
A lot of people don't like to watch the Oscars anymore. For the most part, their reasons are sound: it's a long, boring, essentially meaningless awards show in which a bunch of self-congratulatory Hollywood insiders kiss each others arse (to put it nicely). Personally, I find that I'm able to deal with it mostly because I liveblog the event and usually get drunk. It's one of those rare occassions where a live event coincides with my blogging schedule, so I feel obligated to oblige. Anyway, I just wanted to let everyone know that I'll be updating all night on Sunday. Feel free to stop by and comment. I've been doing this for the past couple of years, and it's actually kinda fun. See previous installments here: 2006, 2005 and 2004. See you Sunday!
Posted by Mark on February 22, 2007 at 10:54 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Link Dump
Various links for your enjoyment:
  • The Order of the Science Scouts of Exemplary Repute and Above Average Physique: Like the Boy Scouts, but for Scientists. Aside from the goofy name, they've got an ingenious and hilarious list of badges, including: The "my degree inadvertantly makes me competent in fixing household appliances" badge, The "I've touched human internal organs with my own hands" badge, The "has frozen stuff just to see what happens" badge (oh come one, who hasn't done that?), The "I bet I know more computer languages than you, and I'm not afraid to talk about it" badge (well, I used to know a bunch), and of course, The "dodger of monkey shit" badge. ("One of our self explanatory badges."). Sadly, I qualify for less of these than I'd like. Of course, I'm not a scientist, but still. I'm borderline on many though (for instance, the "I blog about science" badge requires that I maintain a blog where at least a quarter of the material is about science - I certainly blog about technology a lot, but explicitely science? Debateable, I guess.)
  • Dr. Ashen and Gizmodo Reviews The Gamespower 50 (YouTube): It's a funny review of a crappy portable video game device, just watch it. The games on this thing are so bad (there's actually one called "Grass Cutter," which is exactly what you think it is - a game where you mow the lawn).
  • Count Chocula Vandalism on Wikipedia: Some guy came up with an absurdly comprehensive history for Count Chocula:
    Ernst Choukula was born the third child to Estonian landowers in the late autumn of 1873. His parents, Ivan and Brushken Choukula, were well-established traders of Baltic grain who-- by the early twentieth century--had established a monopolistic hold on the export markets of Lithuania, Latvia and southern Finland. A clever child, Ernst advanced quickly through secondary schooling and, at the age of nineteen, was managing one of six Talinn-area farms, along with his father, and older brother, Grinsh. By twenty-four, he appeared in his first "barrelled cereal" endorsement, as the Choukula family debuted "Ernst Choukula's Golden Wheat Muesli", a packaged mix that was intended for horses, mules, and the hospital ridden. Belarussian immigrant silo-tenders started cutting the product with vodka, creating a crude mush-paste they called "gruhll" or "gruell," and would eat the concoction each morning before work.
    It goes on like that for a while. That particular edit has been removed from the real article, but there appears to actually be quite a debate on the Talk page as to whether or not to mention it in the official article.
  • The Psychology of Security by Bruce Schneier: A long draft of an article that delves into psychological reasons we make the security tradeoffs that we do. Interesting stuff.
  • The Sagan Diary by John Scalzi (Audio Book): I've become a great fan of Scalzi's fiction, and his latest work is available here as audio (a book is available too, but it appears to be a limited run). Since the book is essentially the diary of a woman, he got various female authors and friends to read a chapter. This actually makes for somewhat uneven listening, as some are great and others aren't as great. Now that I think about it, this book probably won't make sense if you haven't read Old Man's War and/or The Ghost Brigades. However, they're both wonderful books of the military scifi school (maybe I'll probably write a blog post or two about them in the near future).
Posted by Mark on February 21, 2007 at 08:16 PM .: link :.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

World Domination Via Dice
One of my favorite board games is Risk. I have lots of fond memories of getting annihilated by my family members (I don't think I've ever played the game without being the youngest person at the table) and have long since mastered the fundamentals. I also hold it responsible for my early knowledge of world geography and geopolitics (and thus my early thoughts were warped, but at least I knew where the Middle East was, even if the map is a little broad).

The key to Risk is Australia

The key to Risk is Australia. The Greeks knew it; the Carthaginians knew it; now you know it. Australia only has four territories to conquer and more importantly, it only has one entrance point, and thus only one territory to defend. Conquering Australia early in the game guarantees an extra two armies a turn, which is huge at that point in the game. Later in the game, that advantage lessens, but after securing Australia, you should be off to a very good start. If you're not in a position to take over Australia, South America will do. It also only has four territories, but it has two entrances and thus two territories to defend. On the bright side, it's also adjacent to Africa and North America, which are good continents to expand to (though they're both considerably more difficult to hold than Australia). This being the internet, there are, of course, some people who have thought about the subject a lot more than I and developed many detailed strategies.

Like many of the classic games, the original has become dwarfed by variants - games set in another universe (LotR Risk) or in a futaristic setting (Risk: 2042) - but I've never played those. However, I recent ran across a little internet game called Dice Wars. It's got the general Risk-like gameplay and concept of world domination via dice, but there are many key differences:
  • The Map and Extra Armies: A different map is generated for each game. One of the other differences is that the number of extra armies (or Dice, in this game) you get per turn is based solely on the number of territories you control (and there's no equivalent to turning in Risk cards for more armies). This nullifies the Australia strategy of conquering an easily-defensible continent, but the general strategy remains: you need to maneuver your forces so as to minimize the number of exposed territories, slowly and carefully expanding your empire.
  • Army Placement and Size: Unlike Risk, you can't choose where to place your armies (nor can you do "free moves" at the end of your turn, which are normally used to consolidate defenses or prepare a forward thrust). If you mount a successful attack, you must move all of your armies except one that you leave behind. This makes extended thrusts difficult, as you'll leave a trail of easily conquered territories behind you. This is one of the more annoying differences. Another difference is that any one territory can only have a certain number of armies (i.e. there is a maximum). This changes the dynamic, adding another element of entropy. Again, it's somewhat annoying, but it's easy enough to work around.
  • Attacking and Defending: In Risk, the attacker has a maximum of 3 dice, while the defender has a maximum of 2 dice. Ties go to the defender, but attackers still have the statistical advantage, no matter how many armies are facing off. If both territories have an equal amount of armies, the attacker has the statistical advantage. In Dice Wars, the number of dice used are equal to the number of armies, and instead of matching up single dice against each other, they just total up the dice. If the attacker's total is greater than the defender's, they win. Again, ties go to the defender. So in this case, if two territories have the same number of armies, the statistical advantage goes to the defender. Of course, you generally try to avoid such a situation in both games, but again, the dynamic is quite different here.
The game's familiar mechanics make it easy to pick up, but the differences above make it a little more difficult to master. Here's an example game:

dice wars

Of course, I'd already played a bit to get to this point, and you can probably spot my strategy here. I started with a concentration of territories towards the middle of the map, and thus focused on consolidating my forces in that area. By the time I got to the screenshot above, I'd narrowed down my exposure to four territories. I began expanding a to the right, and eventually conquered all of the green territories, thus limiting my exposure to only two territories. From there it was just a matter of slowly expanding that wall of two (at one point I needed to expand back to an exposure of three) until I won. Another nice feature of this game is the "History" button that appears at the end. Click it, and you watch the game progress really quickly through every battle, showing you the entire war in a matter of seconds. Neat. It's a fun game, but in the end, I think I still prefer Risk. [hat tip to Hypercubed for the game]
Posted by Mark on February 18, 2007 at 08:33 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Intellectual Property, Copyright and DRM
Roy over at 79Soul has started a series of posts dealing with Intellectual Property. His first post sets the stage with an overview of the situation, and he begins to explore some of the issues, starting with the definition of theft. I'm going to cover some of the same ground in this post, and then some other things which I assume Roy will cover in his later posts.

I think most people have an intuitive understanding of what intellectual property is, but it might be useful to start with a brief definition. Perhaps a good place to start would be Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;
I started with this for a number of reasons. First, because I live in the U.S. and most of what follows deals with U.S. IP law. Second, because it's actually a somewhat controversial stance. The fact that IP is only secured for "limited times" is the key. In England, for example, an author does not merely hold a copyright on their work, they have a Moral Right.
The moral right of the author is considered to be -- according to the Berne convention -- an inalienable human right. This is the same serious meaning of "inalienable" the Declaration of Independence uses: not only can't these rights be forcibly stripped from you, you can't even give them away. You can't sell yourself into slavery; and neither can you (in Britain) give the right to be called the author of your writings to someone else.
The U.S. is different. It doesn't grant an inalienable moral right of ownership; instead, it allows copyright. In other words, in the U.S., such works are considered property (i.e. it can be sold, traded, bartered, or given away). This represents a fundamental distinction that needs to be made: some systems emphasize individual rights and rewards, and other systems are more limited. When put that way, the U.S. system sounds pretty awful, except that it was designed for something different: our system was built to advance science and the "useful arts." The U.S. system still rewards creators, but only as a means to an end. Copyright is granted so that there is an incentive to create. However, such protections are only granted for "limited Times." This is because when a copyright is eternal, the system stagnates as protected peoples stifle competition (this need not be malicious). Copyright is thus limited so that when a work is no longer protected, it becomes freely available for everyone to use and to build upon. This is known as the public domain.

The end goal here is the advancement of society, and both protection and expiration are necessary parts of the mix. The balance between the two is important, and as Roy notes, one of the things that appears to have upset the balance is technology. This, of course, extends as far back as the printing press, records, cassettes, VHS, and other similar technologies, but more recently, a convergence between new compression techniques and increasing bandwidth of the internet created an issue. Most new recording technologies were greeted with concern, but physical limitations and costs generally put a cap on the amount of damage that could be done. With computers and large networks like the internet, such limitations became almost negligible. Digital copies of protected works became easy to copy and distribute on a very large scale.

The first major issue came up as a result of Napster, a peer-to-peer music sharing service that essentially promoted widespread copyright infringement. Lawsuits followed, and the original Napster service was shut down, only to be replaced by numerous decentralized peer-to-peer systems and darknets. This meant that no single entity could be sued for the copyright infringement that occurred on the network, but it resulted in a number of (probably ill-advised) lawsuits against regular folks (the anonymity of internet technology and state of recordkeeping being what it is, this sometimes leads to hilarious cases like when the RIAA sued a 79 year old guy who doesn't even own a computer or know how to operate one).

Roy discusses the various arguments for or against this sort of file sharing, noting that the essential difference of opinion is the definition of the word "theft." For my part, I think it's pretty obvious that downloading something for free that you'd normally have to pay for is morally wrong. However, I can see some grey area. A few months ago, I pre-ordered Tool's most recent album, 10,000 Days from Amazon. A friend who already had the album sent me a copy over the internet before I had actually recieved my copy of the CD. Does this count as theft? I would say no.

The concept of borrowing a Book, CD or DVD also seems pretty harmless to me, and I don't have a moral problem with borrowing an electronic copy, then deleting it afterwords (or purchasing it, if I liked it enough), though I can see how such a practice represents a bit of a slippery slope and wouldn't hold up in an honest debate (nor should it). It's too easy to abuse such an argument, or to apply it in retrospect. I suppose there are arguments to be made with respect to making distinctions between benefits and harms, but I generally find those arguments unpersuasive (though perhaps interesting to consider).

There are some other issues that need to be discussed as well. The concept of Fair Use allows limited use of copyrighted material without requiring permission from the rights holders. For example, including a screenshot of a film in a movie review. You're also allowed to parody copyrighted works, and in some instances make complete copies of a copyrighted work. There are rules pertaining to how much of the copyrighted work can be used and in what circumstances, but this is not the venue for such details. The point is that copyright is not absolute and consumers have rights as well.

Another topic that must be addressed is Digital Rights Management (DRM). This refers to a range of technologies used to combat digital copying of protected material. The goal of DRM is to use technology to automatically limit the abilities of a consumer who has purchased digital media. In some cases, this means that you won't be able to play an optical disc on a certain device, in others it means you can only use the media a certain number of times (among other restrictions).

To be blunt, DRM sucks. For the most part, it benefits no one. It's confusing, it basically amounts to treating legitimate customers like criminals while only barely (if that much) slowing down the piracy it purports to be thwarting, and it's lead to numerous disasters and unintended consequences. Essential reading on this subject is this talk given to Microsoft by Cory Doctorow. It's a long but well written and straightforward read that I can't summarize briefly (please read the whole thing). Some details of his argument may be debateable, but as a whole, I find it quite compelling. Put simply, DRM doesn't work and it's bad for artists, businesses, and society as a whole.

Now, the IP industries that are pushing DRM are not that stupid. They know DRM is a fundamentally absurd proposition: the whole point of selling IP media is so that people can consume it. You can't make a system that will prevent people from doing so, as the whole point of having the media in the first place is so that people can use it. The only way to perfectly secure a piece of digital media is to make it unusable (i.e. the only perfectly secure system is a perfectly useless one). That's why DRM systems are broken so quickly. It's not that the programmers are necessarily bad, it's that the entire concept is fundamentally flawed. Again, the IP industries know this, which is why they pushed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). As with most laws, the DMCA is a complex beast, but what it boils down to is that no one is allowed to circumvent measures taken to protect copyright. Thus, even though the copy protection on DVDs is obscenely easy to bypass, it is illegal to do so. In theory, this might be fine. In practice, this law has extended far beyond what I'd consider reasonable and has also been heavily abused. For instance, some software companies have attempted to use the DMCA to prevent security researchers from exposing bugs in their software. The law is sometimes used to silence critics by threatening them with a lawsuit, even though no copright infringement was committed. The Chilling Effects project seems to be a good source for information regarding the DMCA and it's various effects.

DRM combined with the DMCA can be stifling. A good example of how awful DRM is, and how DMCA can affect the situation is the Sony Rootkit Debacle. Boing Boing has a ridiculously comprehensive timeline of the entire fiasco. In short, Sony put DRM on certain CDs. The general idea was to prevent people from putting the CDs in their computer and ripping them to MP3s. To accomplish this, Sony surreptitiously installed software on customer's computers (without their knowledge). A security researcher happened to notice this, and in researching the matter found that the Sony DRM had installed a rootkit that made the computer vulnerable to various attacks. Rootkits are black-hat cracker tools used to disguise the workings of their malicious software. Attempting to remove the rootkit broke the windows installation. Sony reacted slowly and poorly, releasing a service pack that supposedly removed the rootkit, but which actually opened up new security vulnerabilities. And it didn't end there. Reading through the timeline is astounding (as a result, I tend to shy away from Sony these days). Though I don't believe he was called on it, the security researcher who discovered these vulnerabilities was technically breaking the law, because the rootkit was intended to protect copyright.

A few months ago, my windows computer died and I decided to give linux a try. I wanted to see if I could get linux to do everything I needed it to do. As it turns out, I could, but not legally. Watching DVDs on linux is technically illegal, because I'm circumventing the copy protection on DVDs. Similar issues exist for other media formats. The details are complex, but in the end, it turns out that I'm not legally able to watch my legitimately purchased DVDs on my computer (I have since purchased a new computer that has an approved player installed). Similarly, if I were to purchase a song from the iTunes Music Store, it comes in a DRMed format. If I want to use that format on a portable device (let's say my phone, which doesn't support Apple's DRM format), I'd have to convert it to a format that my portable device could understand, which would be illegal.

Which brings me to my next point, which is that DRM isn't really about protecting copyright. I've already established that it doesn't really accomplish that goal (and indeed, even works against many of the reasons copyright was put into place), so why is it still being pushed? One can only really speculate, but I'll bet that part of the issue has to do with IP owners wanting to "undercut fair use and then create new revenue streams where there were previously none." To continue an earlier example, if I buy a song from the iTunes music store and I want to put it on my non-Apple phone (not that I don't want one of those), the music industry would just love it if I were forced to buy the song again, in a format that is readable by my phone. Of course, that format would be incompatible with other devices, so I'd have to purchase the song again if I wanted to listen to it on those devices. When put in those terms, it's pretty easy to see why IP owners like DRM, and given the general person's reaction to such a scheme, it's also easy to see why IP owners are always careful to couch the debate in terms of piracy. This won't last forever, but it could be a bumpy ride.

Interestingly enough, distributers of digital media like Apple and Yahoo have recently come out against DRM. For the most part, these are just symbolic gestures. Cynics will look at Steve Jobs' Thoughts on Music and say that he's just passing the buck. He knows customers don't like or understand DRM, so he's just making a calculated PR move by blaming it on the music industry. Personally, I can see that, but I also think it's a very good thing. I find it encouraging that other distributers are following suit, and I also hope and believe this will lead to better things. Apple has proven that there is a large market for legally purchased music files on the internet, and other companies have even shown that selling DRM-free files yields higher sales. Indeed, the emusic service sells high quality, variable bit rate MP3 files without DRM, and it has established emusic as the #2 retailer of downloadable music behind the iTunes Music Store. Incidentally, this was not done for pure ideological reasons - it just made busines sense. As yet, these pronouncements are only symbolic, but now that online media distributers have established themselves as legitimate businesses, they have ammunition with which to challenge the IP holders. This won't happen overnight, but I think the process has begun.

Last year, I purchased a computer game called Galactic Civilizations II (and posted about it several times). This game was notable to me (in addition to the fact that it's a great game) in that it was the only game I'd purchased in years that featured no CD copy protection (i.e. DRM). As a result, when I bought a new computer, I experienced none of the usual fumbling for 16 digit CD Keys that I normally experience when trying to reinstall a game. Brad Wardell, the owner of the company that made the game, explained his thoughts on copy protection on his blog a while back:
I don't want to make it out that I'm some sort of kumbaya guy. Piracy is a problem and it does cost sales. I just don't think it's as big of a problem as the game industry thinks it is. I also don't think inconveniencing customers is the solution.
For him, it's not that piracy isn't an issue, it's that it's not worth imposing draconian copy protection measures that infuriate customers. The game sold much better than expected. I doubt this was because they didn't use DRM, but I can guarantee one thing: People don't buy games because they want DRM. However, this shows that you don't need DRM to make a successful game.

The future isn't all bright, though. Peter Gutmann's excellent Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection provides a good example of how things could get considerably worse:
Windows Vista includes an extensive reworking of core OS elements in order to provide content protection for so-called "premium content", typically HD data from Blu-Ray and HD-DVD sources. Providing this protection incurs considerable costs in terms of system performance, system stability, technical support overhead, and hardware and software cost. These issues affect not only users of Vista but the entire PC industry, since the effects of the protection measures extend to cover all hardware and software that will ever come into contact with Vista, even if it's not used directly with Vista (for example hardware in a Macintosh computer or on a Linux server).
This is infuriating. In case you can't tell, I've never liked DRM, but at least it could be avoided. I generally take articles like the one I'm referencing with a grain of salt, but if true, it means that the DRM in Vista is so oppressive that it will raise the price of hardware… And since Microsoft commands such a huge share of the market, hardware manufacturers have to comply, even though a some people (linux users, Mac users) don't need the draconian hardware requirements. This is absurd. Microsoft should have enough clout to stand up to the media giants, there's no reason the DRM in Vista has to be so invasive (or even exist at all). As Gutmann speculates in his cost analysis, some of the potential effects of this are particularly egregious, to the point where I can't see consumers standing for it.

My previous post dealt with Web 2.0, and I posted a YouTube video that summarized how changing technology is going to force us to rethink a few things: copyright, authorship, identity, ethics, aesthetics, rhetorics, governance, privacy, commerce, love, family, ourselves. All of these are true. Earlier, I wrote that the purpose of copyright was to benefit society, and that protection and expiration were both essential. The balance between protection and expiration has been upset by technology. We need to rethink that balance. Indeed, many people smarter than I already have. The internet is replete with examples of people who have profited off of giving things away for free. Creative Commons allows you to share your content so that others can reuse and remix your content, but I don't think it has been adopted to the extent that it should be.

To some people, reusing or remixing music, for example, is not a good thing. This is certainly worthy of a debate, and it is a discussion that needs to happen. Personally, I don't mind it. For an example of why, watch this video detailing the history of the Amen Break. There are amazing things that can happen as a result of sharing, reusing and remixing, and that's only a single example. The current copyright environment seems to stifle such creativity, not the least of which because copyright lasts so long (currently the life of the author plus 70 years). In a world where technology has enabled an entire generation to accellerate the creation and consumption of media, it seems foolish to lock up so much material for what could easily be over a century. Despite all that I've written, I have to admit that I don't have a definitive answer. I'm sure I can come up with something that would work for me, but this is larger than me. We all need to rethink this, and many other things. Maybe that Web 2.0 thing can help.

Update: This post has mutated into a monster. Not only is it extremely long, but I reference several other long, detailed documents and even somewhere around 20-25 minutes of video. It's a large subject, and I'm certainly no expert. Also, I generally like to take a little more time when posting something this large, but I figured getting a draft out there would be better than nothing. Updates may be made...

Update 2.15.07: Made some minor copy edits, and added a link to an Ars Technica article that I forgot to add yesterday.
Posted by Mark on February 14, 2007 at 11:44 PM .: link :.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us
Via The Rodent's Burrow, I come across this YouTube video on Web 2.0:

It's an interesting video, but I have to admit that the term Web 2.0 always bothered me. This is odd, because obsessing over terminology is also annoying. As you can see, I'm in a bit of a bind here. Web 2.0 has become a shorthand for the current renaissance in web development which is focused new web services and applications that emphasize social collaboration and openness. That, of course, is a lame definition. Most definitions of Web 2.0 are. However, I think Paul Graham hits the nail on the head in his essay on the subject:
Web 2.0 means using the web the way it's meant to be used. The "trends" we're seeing now are simply the inherent nature of the web emerging from under the broken models that got imposed on it during the Bubble.
Right on. Key to understanding "Web 2.0" is the concept of the internet itself. I should also note that the web and the internet are not the same thing. The internet is a collection of interconnected computer networks (i.e. the physical hardware), the web is a collection of interconnected documents and data that lives on the internet. If you don't understand the historical resources that lead to the topology of the internet, "Web 2.0" won't make much sense. The internet is made by human beings, and it's history extends back to the 1950s (well, the branch of mathematics that represents our thinking about networks is called graph theory, which finds its roots in the early eighteenth century, but the physical internet has its roots in ARPANET, the 1950s governmental precursor to the internet), but it was not a centrally designed system.

Structurally, the internet is like an ecosystem. It's essentially a self-organizing system, and the gigantic information resource we call the web is the emergent result of billions of interactions. Note that while this information resource was the goal, the system's designers did not go about planning what that information would look like. Their primary strategy was to build an efficient system of collaboration. Sound familiar? "Web 2.0" isn't really new. It's the whole point of the internet. Sure, there are specific technological advances and tools that have accellerated the process (i.e. thanks to AJAX, javascript actually kinda became a legitimate web-based scripting language), but the technology of the internet and the web are just the natural extensions of the grand experiment of life, driven by evolution and selection.

The web isn't all that different, but we are, and we're taking advantage of it.

Update 2.14.07: It seems that this post has kicked off a little discussion of Intellectual Property, starting over at 79Soul with a response by me here.
Posted by Mark on February 11, 2007 at 08:07 PM .: Comments (4) | link :.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Say Hello, Dammit!
I'm apparently about a month late to the party (what else is new?), but National De-lurking Week is a neat idea, so I figured I'd give it a shot. Like a lot of bloggers, most of what I write here is primarily for my own benefit. At the same time, it's always nice to know that someone is reading, and I wouldn't publish it on the internet if I was writing only for myself. However, one of the frustrating things about blogging is that it can be difficult to know who is reading. I have been lucky enough to have a small group of regular readers, most of whom comment regularly on the blog (thanks guys!). And I've picked up a few more regular readers over the years as well, though many of them tend to be lurkers - people who regularly visit, but don't comment.

This post is aimed at that second group of people. To be honest, I'm not even sure how many there are, but if happen to be a regular reader of this blog and haven't commented, please do so! As Sheryl puts it:
...I just read a Psychology Today article which notes a direct correlation between weight loss, and commenting on your favorite blogs, so leave a comment because it will make you skinny. Not that you're fat, because you're not!! So tell me how long you've been reading my blog, or your favorite book, or the first word that pops into your mind when you hear the word shish-kabob, and remember, if you don't leave a comment, you're letting the terrorists win.
And heck, if you're a regular commenter (or someone who doesn't comment often), feel free to comment about whatever you like. After all, I have a feeling there aren't going to be so many comments on this post, and I'd love to hear from everyone.

It's National De-lurking Week. Say Hello, Dammit!

Update 2.11.07: Well then, this was not so much of a success. This is mildly strange, as I can see from my referrer logs that there are people coming here that have not posted. Either they're not reading this post, or they're being rebellious. Strange. Thanks to all who commented, though:)
Posted by Mark on February 07, 2007 at 07:49 PM .: Comments (9) | link :.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Link to Someone New
Once again, time has run short (big game* stuff), so I'll simply resort to throwing a few links at you under the pretense that I'm fighting the closed loop of blogreading that many fall into (previous installment here). So here:
  • Pointless Attack of a Random Person from Wikipedia: A humorous and exceedingly random blog really gives it to Paul LaFarge. Who the hell is that? Go and read.
  • Fantastic Films?: Kelson gives a brief preview of some movies to look forward to, including an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Stardust (a film I didn't even know was being made - I must be slipping in my old age). This blog is also notable (to me, at least), because the author uses Opera. Awesome.
  • The Wii Sports Experiment: This guy bought a Wii and lost 9 pounds in six weeks from the exertion. The only change he made to his daily routine was to play 30 minutes of Wii a day. This man is justifying the purchase of a Wii for thousands of husbands, everywhere.
That's all for now. Sorry for the lameness of recent bloggery. Things have been busy lately, but are finally slowing down again. More to come.

* I should trademark the phrase "Big Game" so that people can't say that either.
Posted by Mark on February 04, 2007 at 11:06 PM .: link :.

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