Archive for October, 2007

The Thinker

Review: Elizabeth: The Golden Age

The Washington Post, reviewing the recently released Elizabeth: The Golden Age sniffed that it is a costume drama without the drama. As I recall, the first movie had no lack of costumes either. I will grant the Washington Post film critic Desson Thomson that it is not quite as good a movie as the 1998 prequel, which I reviewed. However, this movie, made nine years after the first, does star the two who made the first movie so memorable: Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I and Geoffrey Rush as her trusted adviser Sir Francis Walsingham.

So, as the Post suggests, is it really making up for the lack of the drama with costumes? Thankfully, the answer is no, providing your idea of drama can embrace the conflicts within each of us. Granted, the story unfolds a bit slowly at times. There are times when the director seems more enamored with showing us what it was like for visiting dignitaries to meet the Queen back in the 16th century than to advance the plot. Often director Shekhar Kapur feels the need to prove he is creating cinema. He does this by ordering the camera to move. He seems particularly inclined to have the same camera circle Elizabeth, which coincidentally does show off her fabulous costumes. At other times Kapur seems to be channeling Steven Spielberg, making sure his heroic subjects are framed backlit or from low camera angles.

Thankfully, both Geoffrey Rush and Cate Blanchett can more than compensate for Kapur’s roaming camera and the occasionally wooden dialog. Both are exceptional actors who would be challenged doing poorly with any material. They do fine jobs picking up their parts after nine years.

The film documents the bleak period leading up to and including the Spanish Armada of 1588. At the cost of bankrupting his country, King Phillip II of Spain felt compelled to build a huge armada to invade Great Britain and end its Protestant apostasy. History teaches us that his failure was largely a result of bad luck rather than Queen Elizabeth’s sterling leadership. In 1588, the Royal Navy barely existed. As a result of the Spanish Armada, England would learn a powerful lesson: to survive it must be the nation that ruled the seas.

In this movie, we perhaps get too much screen time with the adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh. He shows up near the start of the film, to offer the land he colonized in the New World called Virginia to his Virgin Queen. At first, Elizabeth is not impressed by this man many on the court call a pirate. In time Sir Walter Raleigh, at least as he is portrayed in the movie, moves from being a curiosity of Elizabeth’s to an object of infatuation. She wishes he could be her lover. Yet even with her royal powers, she realizes that it is an impossibility. Raleigh’s true love is the sea, but his affections are for Elizabeth’s lady in waiting. She eventually succumbs to his roguish charms and bears his bastard child. We are treated to a fine performance from Ms. Blanchett as she shows Elizabeth’s wracking conflict from trying to reconcile her affection for Raleigh with her duties to the state and her jealousy. In many ways, this movie is far more about her impossible love interest in Sir Walter Raleigh than about her conflict with Spain. Since we know the outcome of the latter, how she reconciles the former is perhaps more interesting.

We also see plenty of Mary Stuart in this movie. Mary Stuart, Elizabeth’s cousin is a Catholic. She considers herself England’s true queen, since Elizabeth is presumed to be infertile. Because of her threat, she is imprisoned in a gilded cage of a castle. There she conspires to support the Spanish Armada and bring back the one true faith to her country. She eventually pays with her life for her treason. Samantha Morton does an exquisite job of portraying the papist Mary, Queen of Scots. Her portrayal is one excellent reason to see this movie.

Sir Walter Raleigh, played by Clive Owen, can be overshadowing. Raleigh is accurately portrayed as a man’s man, whose love is foremost adventure and the sea. Toward the end of the movie, when he directs the Queen’s forces against the armada, he seems like naval version of Tarzan, so comfortable is he swinging among the ropes and the rigging. These sorts of scenes perhaps deserve criticism. Director Kapur takes full advantage of Owen’s swarthiness and handsomeness. Fortunately, his powerful shadow cannot eclipse Ms. Blanchett’s fine portrayal of Elizabeth.

I am sorry to disagree with the venerable Washington Post, but this Elizabeth is a movie worth your time. Overall, the quality of the acting tends to help you overlook its relatively minor faults. While not quite as good as its predecessor, it remains a worthy, if somewhat more muted successor. Sequels rarely live up to the original film. That is the case here, but this is far better sequel than most and far more than just a movie with lots of people dressed up in costume. I rated the first movie a 3.3. Elizabeth: The Golden Years earns a solid 3.0.

 
The Thinker

Needed: a Department of Managed Growth

Freedom, bumper stickers often inform us, is not free. Freedom is not free but stupidity can be very expensive. For example, the Congressional Budget Office is suggesting that the eventual cost our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be end up costing taxpayers $2.4 trillion dollars. That is quite a bill to future taxpayers (since of course we will not increase taxes) for unnecessarily invading Iraq. The lesson of the Vietnam War should have informed us that our war would be folly. However, we let our paranoia and patriotism override our common sense. Speaking for future taxpayers: ouch!

Life tends to teach us useful personal lessons. It only takes one episode of being locked out of your home to always remember to bring your house key. However, collectively we often seem incapable of learning from our mistakes. Albert Einstein once said that insanity was repeating your mistakes expecting different results. Apparently, we prefer collective insanity. More than a thousand homes in Southern California were burned to the ground this week because of a fires fueled by a persistent drought and Santa Ana winds. Most likely, all these houses will be rebuilt where they used to stand, not with fireproof materials, but with combustible materials. Given that the geography of Southern California is unlikely to change, there are good odds that these same homes will be burned to the ground again. I would not be surprised if some of these thousand homes had been rebuilt once before because of previous fires. Logic would suggest that we require that houses built in these areas be fire resistant and have vegetation free buffers. Most likely, these houses will be rebuilt with little thought to future consequences. Moreover, to increase their houses’ sales values most homeowners will ensure they are landscaped with nice combustible trees and bushes.

Not as much in New Orleans itself, but certainly along much of the path of Hurricane Katrina, homes and businesses are being rebuilt. Here too the lure of those sandy beaches and warm climates seems to be overriding our common sense. Perhaps their building standards will be tightened a bit. Yet should another hurricane of Katrina’s size hit this area again it is likely that most of these homes and buildings will again be destroyed. Logic would dictate that if homes are to be rebuilt they should be rebuilt at least thirty miles inland, beyond the storm surge and the most dangerous winds. However, we insist on our freedom to live where we want, no matter how stupid and preventable our decision is.

Georgia and Alabama are suffering from record drought. As noted in a front-page story in today’s Washington Post, Lake Lanier in Georgia, which feeds the water supply of three states, is disappearing. Atlanta has less than three months of water reserves. Have any of these inconvenient truths done anything to taper home construction around Atlanta? Not a chance!

The greater Phoenix and Las Vegas metropolitan areas are growing at phenomenal rates. Both cities are supporting populations far in excess of their natural water supply. Both Las Vegas and Phoenix depend on water from the Colorado River. The Colorado River is so over-tapped that in many months of the year it dries up before it hits the Pacific Ocean. Phoenix gets its public water from a hundreds mile long aqueduct. Consequently, much of Southwestern America is dependent on a water supply from a single source, which is already often over-utilized. Yet housing construction in these cities continues at a feverish pace.

Here in the Washington metropolitan area more and more housing goes up in ever more distant exurbs, none of which is accessible to public transportation. Should we have another oil embargo, or if we simply cannot afford to pay the jacked up prices for our petroleum-based lifestyle these communities will be financially wrecked. These communities are also going up with little thought about whether the electrical grid will be able to support all this new demand.

If freedom isn’t free, perhaps we should acknowledge that we are not paying the true costs of our recklessness. Currently we largely depend on state and local governments to sort out growth issues. In many cases, these governments are not really managing growth. Instead, they are reacting to it. Population growth seems unstoppable. People have to live somewhere. It is easier for government officials to acquiesce.

The United States urgently needs a new Department of Managed Growth. If we have to grow to support our burgeoning population then we should at least grow intelligently. We need clear standards that must be met before an area can be developed. What is the likelihood of a hurricane hitting a given portion of the coastline? How should this inform housing construction in these areas? Which areas of the country have plentiful and redundant public water supplies? For those that do not, how do we ensure they get the water they need from elsewhere? Perhaps we should offer incentives for growth to occur where the resources can meet the growth. Perhaps we need disincentives, if not outright prohibitions on growth occurring in areas where the water supply is in jeopardy.

Perhaps we need development penalties. Right now if you build in a hurricane-prone area, you may not be able to get private flood insurance, but you can get federal flood insurance. Maybe we need to stop extending federal flood insurance to new homes, or perhaps just get rid of the program altogether. The government should not be subsidizing the cost of making obviously stupid personal choices. For example, if you want to build that house on the Gulf shore, it should only be allowed if you can self-insure your property.

With growth comes concern about the availability of fresh water. In many areas, there are not enough rivers and lakes to provide water for public use. How much ground water is available in a given area? At what rate can it be tapped so that it is sustainable? Here my agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, can help. In addition to its renowned work in the area of earthquakes, an even bigger portion of it (the part that I work for) measures and monitors the nation’s surface water, ground water and water quality. The system I manage has much of this information available free to the public. The USGS Climate Response Network compares levels in wells with historical averages. This information can inform land use planners. From my perspective (and I am speaking for myself, not in any official capacity) this is an un-sexy area that needs much more funding. I hope the government decides to move ahead with a water census for the nation. Sending humans to Mars may be a worthwhile endeavor, but arguably making sure we have aligned our public water supplies with our population is far more important.

This nation will thrive in the 21st century by applying intelligence to our inevitable growth. It is how we will stay ahead of other national like China. While overall we do a better job of managing growth than most nations, we are also far behind more enlightened countries like those in the European Union. This has given the EU a strong competitive advantage. The economic consequences and personal pain due to natural events, much of it preventable, simply wastes our resources and works to our competitive disadvantage.

To effect real change we need to change. We need new laws that recognize that the effects of population growth and global warming must be managed holistically. Unfortunately for Republicans, these sorts of issues cannot be wholly sorted out at the state and local levels. They require national and in some cases international management. That is why other efforts I am tangentially involved in, like systems of systems being developed to monitor the world’s oceans, are critical not just for our nation, but for the world.

First things first. We need to rethink how growth is managed in this country. Yes, it will tick off many people with short-term mindsets and dollar signs in their eyes. For our nation’s future, and for the benefit of future generations who will suffer due to our short-term thinking, we must manage growth much more intelligently.

 
The Thinker

Making the new look

Before I resume general blogging, here are some notes and observations from moving my blog from Movable Type 3.3 to WordPress. If you are considering WordPress for your blog, you may find this interesting.

Printer-friendly versions. For those of you wondering what happened to printer-friendly versions of my blog posts, they have not gone away, just changed. Simply print whatever page you want. Ads, comments and text in the right two columns will not be printed. To see what I mean do a Print Preview. As part of upgrading, I decided that using @print Cascading Style Sheet commands was a more intuitive and better way to implement this feature.

Redirection. I felt it was crucial that links that used to work on MovableType still work in WordPress. I documented some of how I solved this in this post. In some cases, changing WordPress’s permalink structure did not solve my problem. I had to dig into the details of an Apache mod called mod_rewrite. Like many things about Apache, the syntax was a bit cryptic but I struggled through it. I discovered an undocumented “feature” that WordPress will periodically rewrite part of your .htaccess file between the “# BEGIN WordPress” and the “# END WordPress” lines. Once I put my mod_rewrite redirection commands before the “#BEGIN WordPress” line, my redirection commands were no longer overwritten. I had to redirect both my category and newsfeed links using mod_rewrite. I also had to edit a number of blog posts to correct URLs to my tag libraries.

Widgets vs. Plug-Ins. Widgets are objects that show some form of content which you can drag and drop into your sidebars. Plugins are programming extensions that add to or change the behavior of WordPress. Widgets require no programming, but plugins generally require a certain amount of programming skill to integrate them into existing templates. While I am a competent programmer, I found that if I looked long enough I could do it faster and easier with a widget. Go with widgets if you possibly can.

Things I like about WordPress

  • Administrator Interface. It is much easier to navigate its administrator interface. The tab and sub-tab metaphor is so much more natural than Movable Type’s combinations of menus and tabs.
  • Themes. The number of ready themes for WordPress is staggering and they look good. There are clearly many first class artists out there anxious to show off their talent. Even better, they are all free! I had a hard time choosing between them, but eventually settled on the Andreas-04 theme by Tara Aukerman. I chose it primarily because it would look familiar, but was classier than what I had (which in itself is quite a complement).
  • Plugins and Widgets. Like with WordPress themes, there seem to be an almost unlimited number of these gizmos that will extend and customize WordPress. The hard part is finding the one you need. Some only work on earlier versions. Some are a bit flaky. With a couple of exceptions, I was able to find a plugin or widget for each of my complex needs.
  • Pages that are not posts. I like the fact that I can use the editor to create pages that are not posts. The “About” page in the top right corner is an example. This gives me a way to put up relevant information like “I am going on vacation for a week” without it being treated as a blog post. If Movable Type had such a feature, I missed it.
  • Blog post editor. Finally, a WYSIWYG blog editor. I may have to stop using MS Word to compose my blog posts. In addition, adding objects like images is done by simply pressing a button. Sweet.
  • Blog post protection. You can password protect a post so only those who know the password can read it. I also understand you can create communities of users who are privileged to read certain categories of posts. I do not need this feature but it is nice to know it is available.
  • Emails to all subscribers. MT 3.3 could not do this.
  • Search. Text search is built-in and very fast, unlike MT 3.3, which was unnaturally slow. Moreover, there is nothing to program. Just drop the search widget in on one of your sidebars and you are done.
  • User accounts. I like that users can create accounts and see versions of the blog. Users can also be granted special privileges.
  • Dynamic text generation. Finally, the end of static pages. Blog content (except for specially designated permanent pages) are rendered on the fly. Static pages simply add overhead and reduce flexibility.
  • Blog hiding. With one button, you can hide your blog from search engines.
  • PHP based. PHP is much easier for the layman to program. So if you need to tweak or extend WordPress you do not necessarily have to be a rocket scientist to do it.

Things I liked better in Movable Type

  • Archive and category management. In MT, archives and categories by default will show all entries. In WordPress, the number you get in an archive or category is the number that you allow displayed on your index page, which are typically 10 or 15 posts. I hope WordPress eventually fixes this limitation. Meanwhile, you can use the Different Posts per Page plug in that will give you equivalent functionality. However, WordPress does allow archives and categories to be placed on sidebars by dragging the widget to the spot you want.
  • Tags. WordPress seems to have a bug in that it cannot distinguish between a tag and a category when they are named the same. MT does not have this problem. In general, tags are better thought out in MT, perhaps because they are brand new to WordPress. MT will suggest tags to use if you type part of it on the command line. This is more intuitive.

Useful Widgets

  • Daiko’s Text Widget. This is very useful because you can embed PHP code inside it yet drop the widget into a sidebar. It became my solution for showing “The Best of Occam’s Razor” posts in my sidebar.
  • AdSense Manager. This widget made adding Google Adsense code very straightforward. Its only limitation is that there appears to be no way to tell it to display ads only on certain pages. I would prefer to hide ads on my index page.
  • Creative Commons License Widget. This widget made it easy for me to add my licensing information without hard-coding HTML.
  • Get Recent Comments. In MT, I found I had to code some template tags to show my recent comments on my blog pages. With WordPress, I just used this widget and I could place recent comments on all my pages.
  • Subscribe2. Handles advanced email notifications. With the Subscribe2 widget, you drop the control on your page. With it, your readers have much more flexibility. You can unsubscribe (a feature not available in MT 3.3) as well as select to get emails only for certain categories.

Useful Plugins

  • Akismet. The Akismet plug in is a godsend. It redirects comments and trackbacks through the Akismet spam engine, which seems to be a foolproof way to ensure spam does not affect your blog. Akismet is so essential that it is built into WordPress. However, it must be enabled. To enable it, you first need to get an Akismet key by creating an account on the WordPress site and then enable Akismet spam filtering on your blog. If you do not bother you will soon wish you had.
 
The Thinker

A new look

As you may have noticed, the blog has undergone something of a facelift. After a couple weeks of struggling, I moved my blog from proprietary Movable Type software to open source GPL WordPress software. While not all the features of the old blog are in place it is 95% there. It is good enough to switch while I tackle the remaining features that still need work.What is still missing? I have not yet succeeded in moving over the post tags. I tried to write a program to do it for me, but it is complex. It may be easier to copy and paste the tags for all 700+ posts piecemeal over the next several weeks than to finish debugging the program I wrote.

I have not yet found a WordPress plug in or widget that will show all tags on a master tag page. Instead, for now I have a “tag cloud” which you can see in the second column. The tag cloud lists popular tags, but not all of them. In addition, since I have tagged recent posts only, the tag cloud does not accurately represent all the post tags.

Email notifications are also incomplete. Notifications in WordPress are fancier than what I had in Movable Type. To receive an email when a post is made, simply enter your email address in the box in the second column and press the Send button. You can unsubscribe the same way.

If you take the time to create an account on this site, then you can subscribe to notifications for certain categories only. By creating an account (look for the link under the Meta section in the right hand column), you can also tweak your notification settings to request either an excerpt or the full post. In addition, you can request the post be formatted as HTML or as text.

Other features not installed: a Google Search box and disabling ads on the main index page. In addition, some utilities I wrote (such as one that lists all my posts with word counts) need to be rewritten. Perhaps these will come with time.

Overall, with a fair amount of research, ingenuity and elbow grease I was able to replicate virtually all of the features I had on Movable Type.

I hope you enjoy the new look. I believe that by using WordPress I will be able to offer more features for readers. I will also have an easier job of maintaining this place. In a future entry, I will get into my lessons learned from this rather major move.

 
The Thinker

Tasting Tallahassee

I lived in Florida for five and a half years. Part of it was spent finishing high school in Daytona Beach; the other half was spent rushing through a four-year degree at what was then called Florida Technological University (now the University of Central Florida) in Orlando. Being a northeastern boy, spending the latter half of my teen and early adult years in Florida was a big change. Overall, Florida did not agree with me. After graduation, I migrated back north to the Washington D.C. area where I have been happily but expensively abiding ever since.

Florida was too weird for my tastes: too hot, too humid, too old, too flat and too much weird nature including giant armor-plated rats (armadillos), pervasive monster-sized cockroaches and conjugating bugs. During mating season, “love bugs” would smear your windshields and gunk up your radiator grills. It was also too conservative: Baptist churches overwhelmed the religious landscape. Anita Bryant got tired of selling orange juice while I was there and found it convenient to attack gays and liberals instead. While Orlando seemed a much more happening place than Daytona Beach, not enough of the right stuff (like jobs) was happening there to make me hang around.

The Florida panhandle remained unexplored territory until business took me to Tallahassee last week. I wondered, would it be more of the Florida I remembered or much different culturally and climatologically?

Four nights in Tallahassee in October are not long enough to say for sure. One thing surprised me: Tallahassee has hills. Granted, they would hardly qualify as hills in most other states but they are enough to be noticeable. Perhaps that is why Florida put its capitol building on a Tallahassee hill. From there you can look down on the state, such as it is.

Yet what of the rest of Tallahassee? The trip from the very laid back Tallahassee airport to my hotel was not encouraging. It tells you something when you routinely pass by business establishments with iron bars in front of their windows and doors. Happily, the neighborhoods improved as we moved toward the center of the city. Our hotel just east of the capitol on Apalachee Parkway seemed situated in a more prosperous and growing area of the city. It came complete with an Applebees and a mall.

The Washington area is hardly known for its low humidity. Nonetheless, the humidity in Tallahassee, which hit us from the moment we disembarked our plane, was pervasive. During our five days and four nights, it never abated. The Courtyard Inn where we stayed was reasonably upscale. Even so, the effects of living in a humid climate were impossible to mask. The cold air coming from my air conditioner unit was cold enough, but it also smelled of mildew.

I have returned to Central Florida a number of times since I left in 1978. In many ways, particularly around the Orlando area, it has grown cosmopolitan. The same does not feel true of Tallahassee. It may host two large universities. It may have nicer areas on its northeastern side. Many roads may even come with bike trails, a nice touch I also saw in my last business trip to Madison, Wisconsin. At its heart, Tallahassee feels good ol’ boy redneck, with a dash of Cajun thrown in. There are Starbucks in Tallahassee, but proportionately far fewer than in most cities. A search on Google Maps shows only eight Starbucks in the entire city. This was a source of consternation to our group, for whom quality coffee was critical. The Carmel flavored water represented as coffee at the Courtyard Inn didn’t quite do the trick.

There was a dearth of other expected institutions in certain parts of the city. I take these for granted elsewhere. Where I live you cannot walk two blocks without tripping over an ATM or a bank branch. In certain parts of this city, ATMs and banks were simply unavailable. You could drive for miles on the major roads and find neither. Maybe in these neighborhoods people like from paycheck to paycheck. Maybe they use neighborhood cash checking businesses instead. However, I found the lack of banks in many areas of the city disturbing.

Also disturbing were the number of obese citizens in Tallahassee. Maybe obesity is part of the good ol’ boy culture. Thank goodness for the students, who generally have fewer weight problems. They provide some balance to a city that is disproportionately not just overweight, but obese. Perhaps the obesity is one consequence of farm subsidies, which have made grains and processed foods so plentiful and cheap, while pushing up the cost of quality vegetables and fruits. A doctor specializing in diabetes should consider moving to Tallahassee. He would have no lack of clients, particularly among the African American community. I imagine Glucophage manufacturers would want to set up special distribution outlets in Tallahassee to handle the demand.

Wherever I go on my employer’s dime, I try to take in some of regional cuisine. As you would expect being near the Gulf coast, there is plenty of seafood, as well as Cajun cooking in Tally. I have not yet been to New Orleans, but I suspect the Cajun cooking we sampled is not quite as good as what you can find there. Naturally, being in the South, finding grits and black-eyed peas on the menu was a given. Barbeque joints are also popular. The hardest kind of food to find in Tallahassee is the quality healthy kind. There are no Whole Foods in Tallahassee. I am not sure a Whole Foods store would be commercially viable there. The obesity epidemic in the city is no doubt fed by the many, many greasy fast food joints available in the city.

One upside to living in Tallahassee is that it is a cheap place to live. 1960’s era housing, particularly the run down three-bedroom ranch type house with a carport can be had for a song. While you may not get the variety of foods found elsewhere, at least food is cheap. A retiree looking to pinch some pennies could pinch many pennies living in Tallahassee.

Overall, my northeastern biases are probably showing. If you prefer relatively slow traditional Southern living with some of the advantages of living in a city, Tallahassee should meet your needs rather well. While in Madison, Wisconsin at the end of September, I was impressed enough by the city to mention it to my wife as a possible retirement community. I think we can rule out Tallahassee as a place to spend our golden years. Nonetheless, I was glad to becoming acquainted with Tallahassee, although my acquaintance is likely to remain fleeting.

 
The Thinker

You Porn: A Traveler’s New Best Friend?

A couple weeks back I read somewhere, probably on Craiglist, about a web site called youporn.com. Hmm, YouTube, YouPorn. I think I had a good idea what sort of content would be found on this site. Being of prurient mind, well over 18 as well as a blogger who is always looking for something novel to write about, I checked out the site.

As I expected, it was a site modeled somewhat after YouTube.com. Here you can upload your personal pornographic videos to share with others not offended by sexually explicit content. Moreover, just like on YouTube, you can rate the various videos. This may give you an idea of what’s hot and what’s not. Naturally, before you can get into this digital red light zone you first have to assert that you are at least 18 years old. This takes only a single mouse click.

The folks at YouTube go out of their way to ensure there is no sexually explicit content on its web site. However, on YouPorn, you expect the graphic and the lurid. Instead of YouTube’s white backgrounds, you get a dark black background. You feel like donning a raincoat when you enter the site. On its main screen, you can see what was recently uploaded, with the highest rated videos of the day appearing first. By placing your mouse over one of the preview images, you can see a number of snapshots from the video. You have to click on the image to bring up a page with the video on it. Once there you then click on the larger embedded image to start the movie. As best I can tell, there are no gay movies to be found on youporn.com. However, lesbian flicks, at least those where buffed up women pretend to be turned on by other women, are plentiful.

The video quality is often not that great. Like YouTube, it appears that uploaded videos are in a Flash video format. If you go to YouTube regularly, you know what that means: the videos load relatively quickly, but lack a little something in resolution. Some of the videos are so fuzzy and grainy that you will need to substitute imagination for explicitness. However, at least they load quickly and stream. (Stream means you do not have to wait for the whole thing to download before you can start watching it.)

Nor as best I can tell, are most of these videos actually amateur videos. Most of them appear to be blatant rip-offs of vignettes from “professional” or semiprofessional pornographic web sites. The videos appear primarily oriented toward horny men, although I imagine there are many women who also like their video sex raw. In short, expect more of what you would see elsewhere on the web or on Usenet in the alt.binaries.erotica newsgroups, just with less resolution.

There is another and perhaps crucial difference between YouPorn and most other adult oriented web sites. On YouPorn, you do not have to buy a pass in order to view its content. You do not even get annoying pop up ads. You do get advertising, of course, but the ads appear to the right of the embedded videos. The ads are what you would expect: generally adult sex personals and girls with web cams, all of whom presumably will want to start their meter running when you pay them a visit.

In short, YouPorn is free porn for the masses. The video quality may lack something. Given the hordes of horny Internet users out there, its servers may sometimes slow down. But it appears that YouPorn will always be there for you. It is your new trusty if somewhat dirty digital friend, always ready to transport you into a much hotter and more perverse world than you likely encounter in real life. But then, when has pornography ever modeled real life?

I am currently in a hotel in Tallahassee, Florida. It, like most hotels these days, comes complete with high-speed Internet service. I take this for granted now but until I learned about YouPorn, I had no idea exactly what this meant for the frequent traveler. It is now possible to have safe sex on the road, as long as you lug your laptop and do not mind having sex with yourself or your trusty battery powered device. I hope that though you will try to muffle your orgasmic screams rather than rouse the curiosity of your hotel neighbors.

It used to be that Leisure Suit Larrys would congregate in front of the hotel bar hoping to score there, but usually without much success. Those with deeper pockets could call an on-call massage service and hope they provided more than a massage. Given how hard it is for travelers to find sex on the road, and how dangerous it would be if it were found, YouPorn is providing a valuable service to the traveling public. You get much better, or at least much more explicit porn on YouPorn than you can get from the soft-core stuff on your hotel’s private TV channel. Nor will you acquire a social disease. Except for any friction generated by your fingers, hand or vibrator, your sex will be virtual rather than real. Perhaps you will have a new sin to whisper to your priest at your next confession, but otherwise there seems to be no downside.

Therefore, I predict a decline in hotel bars. Massage parlors and escort services may also be taking a financial hit. For better or worse, YouPorn will be changing the dynamics of both online pornography and local sex businesses. It is far from pornographic perfection. Yet it is the 80% pornographic solution that travelers can turn to in need. It is also a possible solution for the many millions of sexually frustrated people out there who would like to have sex but for whatever reason cannot acquire it.

I once wrote a very popular entry wherein I compared ex porn star Sharon Mitchell with sainthood, because of her tireless work within the adult industry to ensure that porn stars do not transmit STDs. YouPorn is also providing a public health service, by giving those who need it a safe outlet for their sexual urges. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Read the rest of this entry »

 
The Thinker

Between Places

The chocolate raisins at Grove’s Natural Snacks are excellent. That much I have concluded from repeatedly spending time between flights here at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport. The hard part is not buying too much of it. When I pass through the airport, I limit myself to two scoops. I never have a problem finding this particular concessionaire, since I have been here often. It is in Concourse C, at the top of the escalator, just to the left. Perhaps one of these days I will try the chocolate pretzels, but right now, I stick with what I know.

I know little airport secrets. If you want a decent meal at this airport, your best bet is to take the underground subway to Concourse E, the International Terminal. In Concourse E at certain times of day, you can watch a pianist in a tuxedo playing at a Grand Piano. The piano is parked at a bar in front of the food court. Here, among the tangle of international travelers and soldiers looking bound for Iraq, you can chow down with fast food from Panda Express and hear a pianist play, probably for the thousandth time, As Time Goes By. If a pianist is not present, the piano also works as a player piano.

Time does indeed go by here at Hartsfield International but after many passages through the airport, it starts to feel like something of a second home. This is my third pass through Atlanta Hartsfield so far this year. I will connect through here again later this week on my way home. This trip has me bound for Tallahassee, another city where my agency has an office and which I would likely not otherwise visit. A few weeks ago, I was sent to Madison, Wisconsin. Since there are no direct flights to Madison from Washington Dulles International Airport, my trip required a connection through Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Here was one of those major airports I had not really become acquainted with before. I expected it to look shopworn, but the airport authority has done a nice job maintaining the property. The dancing neon lights above the movable walkways between concourses that are synchronized to New Age music were a nice touch.

Invariably when visiting a hub airport, instead of rushing to my next flight, I have two and a half hours to kill. I think this is because relatively small and prosaic destinations like Madison or Tallahassee have fewer flights. So here, I wait. Having little else to do to kill time, I ride the trams between concourses. I look around. I take in the atmosphere, for a large airport is really a city in itself. I like the little viewing area of the taxiway at Concourse A. I like looking at the fancy international gates in Concourse E. Delta Airlines is the 800-pound gorilla at this airport, of course, and they keep expanding their international destinations. You can fly directly to Africa from Atlanta. If you need a nonstop flight to Moscow or Prague, you can find them at this airport too.

I keep hoping that someday one of these airports I frequent will offer free wireless internet. I might as well wait for a pony. Airports are expensive endeavors. Even with the landing fees, ticket taxes and hundreds of eateries and concessionaries pumping in revenue into the airport authority’s coffers, more revenue is always needed. The good news for us data consumers is that this market is consolidating. Soon you will be able to purchase one wireless airport service and use it everywhere. Some airports though have yet to catch up with the times. Washington Dulles, for example, has no wireless service at all, but is touting its availability next year. I realize there is a lot of renovation going on at my airport, but wireless networks are commodities. It should not be that big a deal to add a wireless internet service. Moreover, since the Washington area is one of the most wired places in the world (and in fact, the Internet’s hub rests a few miles away in Herndon) it seems odd that this airport remains relatively in the digital dark ages.

The hottest seats at Atlanta Hartsfield are often on the floor. You will see travelers with their laptops plugged into any outlet they can find, and they are not always next to chairs. So they end up on the carpet or on the tile floor, transfixed in their computer screens and oblivious to the noise and chaos around them. Hartsfield is becoming more computer friendly however. More eateries are providing countertops with electrical plugs in them.

The repeated airport announcements warn us that the security level is Code Orange, but no one cares. We are inured to recorded announcements. For many of us airports are way stations. Yet there are most of the comforts of home here, all available for a price, of course. In most airports now, you can get a neck massage if you need one to ease your flying anxiety. Near Concourse E here in Atlanta, if so inclined, you can pray in an interfaith worship room. The Starbucks are ubiquitous, of course. Most of us are docile, but you will see the occasionally intent businessperson or flight attendant scurrying with unusual haste down a concourse. Other passengers looked ticked when people block the escalators with their luggage. Get a clue people: walking passengers may be in a hurry to make a connection. They need space to pass on the left. As for the restrooms, Larry Craig would have plenty of opportunities to try out his widened stance. While I have no idea whether some are hotspots for kinky homosexuals, there is plenty of room to do a toe dance with your bathroom neighbor if so inclined.

Some part of our obesity epidemic must be related to so many of us traveling through airports. There are simply too many temptations to resist. Here in Atlanta, chocolate raisins are my weakness. At Washington Dulles, I often succumb and buy a Frosty at the Wendy’s in the Concourse D. At Denver International, I invariably find myself in Concourse C, so it is up a level to Wolfgang Puck’s to find something tastier than fast food.

At some point, like now, I find myself parked at my gate more than an hour before my flight, too cheap to pay for Internet access, but lugging my ultra heavy IBM Thinkpad, which my employer says I need to drag around. I often feel like Sisyphus toting that thing. So here I sit on my ass and pass time blogging. Usually I am determined to blog on some weightier topic. Tonight, I just feel like chronicling one of my many passages through these air portals. Increasingly airports, like them or not, are becoming a part of my life. I might as well write about them.

For the record, this is my seventh airport voyage of 2007. It should also be my last. I will be glad to be done with the travel for the year. At least this trip offers the benefit that I get to stay in my time zone. Tonight I will arrive at the Courtyard Inn in Tallahassee and post these ramblings for your amusement. I will be kept busy all week, so this may suffice for my blogging until the weekend.

 
The Thinker

I smell a cover up

Curiouser and curiouser. Just how far down the rabbit hole does this domestic spying business go anyhow?

If the Bush Administration has its way, not even the Congress will know. Well, maybe a few key members of Congress with the proper clearance will know. Of course, because publicly revealing their knowledge would be a crime, they are keeping their lips zipped.

What we do know (at least at this moment) is that Congress is balking at extending existing wiretap provisions in the domestic spying legislation that it hastily passed this summer. Democrats in Congress want more court and congressional oversight on calls placed between American citizens and potential terrorists overseas. The current legislation delegates to intelligence agencies decisions that traditionally were authorized by the courts. In addition, President Bush is now insisting that the Baby Bells be granted retroactive immunity from the law for facilitating unlawful wiretaps and access to calling records. The Democratic Congress is asking the very reasonable question: “How can we know whether to grant the Baby Bells this immunity when you won’t tell us what they did?” The Administration retorts that it cannot tell the committees responsible for intelligence legislation because in doing so state secrets could be exposed.

Well! Something here stinks to high heaven, that’s for sure. The Administration seems to be tacitly admitting that the actions taken by compliant telephone companies was probably illegal. The nature, size and scope of the illegality though are largely unknown because only a trusted few know what the Baby Bells actually did. One thing is clear: the administration does not want them to held liable. Why? Because the Baby Bells were just doing their duty for God, country and the American Way, which means that if something illegal did happen they should not pay any penalty.

Naturally, I hope that the Congress refuses to pass a bill with such a provision without first knowing the full details of these transgressions. If, as I expect, President Bush vetoes a bill that does not contain the immunity provisions, then I make the following modest proposals instead. First, the bill should grant the Baby Bells immunity if and only if the President agrees to waive his right to pardon any individuals in his administration who may have facilitated this lawbreaking. Second, the bill should require that a special prosecutor to investigate this matter. This way if violations of the law occurred then those who instigated them could be held accountable.

The way I studied government, no one is above the law. Yet in this case, the Bush Administration appears to want to retroactively ensure that no one will have to pay a price for their decision. They want to frame the debate as one of national security, and not pay a price for the fact that they arm-twisted the Baby Bells into facilitating these likely illegal acts. They want us to believe what is simply not true: that they were not required to first petition Congress for these powers.

A decade ago, such an action would have been routinely dealt with by the Justice Department. If there were any concern that the Justice Department could not be impartial, a special prosecutor would be appointed. Few in Congress now trust the Justice Department to impartially go after any violation of the law. This sad and sordid squabble tells us just how badly our system of checks and balances has eroded during this administration. It simply does not give a damn about its duty to ensure that the laws are faithfully and impartially executed.

If the Democrats are more worried that they will be judged “soft on terror” then ensuring our civil liberties and agree to these requirements then the Administration wins through intimidation. Moreover, Congress’s ability to exercise meaningful oversight is further degraded. This is no time for the Democratic congress to capitulate yet again. It needs to demonstrate that it truly is a coequal branch of government. Moreover, in this case it holds the Trump Card. President Bush needs an extension to the badly named Protect America Act. These proposed minimal accommodations to the current egregious law are entirely reasonable. I hope the Congress stands firm. In the process, it will help restore both the rule of law and our system of checks and balances.

 
The Thinker

So what’s the problem with Mitt Romney being a Mormon?

From time to time, I rail about the various forms of discrimination and prejudice that are sadly still rife in our country. For example, I have complained about marriage discrimination, which in most states does not allow committed gay and lesbian couples to enjoy the same privileges as us heterosexuals. I have huffed at the State of Virginia for making adultery a crime. I have groused about nanny-ing legally adult college students, which at least here in the Old Dominion means that at certain public universities women can get antidepressants but not birth control pills from campus health clinics. I have railed about DC Voting Rights, or more specifically the lack of full voting rights in the District of Columbia.

As best I can tell Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and well-moneyed presidential candidate, is not a victim of religious discrimination. However, he is a victim of plain old fashioned and really quite mean spirited religious prejudice. Oh Lordy, Mitt happens to be a Mormon.

The horrors! Because he is a Mormon, Mitt must be one step away from having a second wife. Lord knows with all his millions that he is spending on his own presidential campaign that he could afford another one. In much of the South, despite his love of family and his generally conservative credentials the fundamentalist Christians are busy stuffing their ears when he comes to town. It is not just in the South where Mitt is getting something of a cold shoulder, but he probably receives more of it there than in other parts of the country. Many of us still respond to Mormons the same way we do to telephone solicitors.

Mitt is not trying to convert anyone to Mormonism, at least not as part of his run for the presidency. In fact, he is doing his best not to call attention to his Mormonism. He wants to be President of the United States, not head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Since reputedly Mitt is something of a born salesman, perhaps if he loses his White House bid he will start working his way up the Mormon church hierarchy instead. Right now he just wants to be treated (and here is a radical idea) just like anyone else running for this high office.

For many of us this will not do. Perhaps if Mitt were to stop believing in those special words allegedly transcribed by Joseph Smith these voters could embrace him. He could embrace the Southern Baptist Church instead. Or the Methodists. He could even convert to Roman Catholicism, since being a Catholic is no longer a bar to the presidency. Given that Mitt has a history of changing his political stripes to suit the times, why not require him to change his religious stripes in order to get our vote?

It does not look like that will happen. Mitt is a Mormon and is likely to always remain a Mormon. For him to give up Mormonism he also has to estrange himself from much of his family and his social circle. Mormonism is a faith, but like most of us born into a religion, it is also a way of life and a way of seeing the world. Maybe John McCain can be a bit disingenuous, calling himself a Methodist for years until he runs for the presidency. (Now he says he is a Baptist.) With few exceptions, it appears that once you have swallowed the Mormon Kool-Aid, you are a Mormon for life. I empathize. I swallowed the Roman Catholic Kool-Aid because I was born into a family of Catholics. I left the church shortly after turning adult. Nevertheless, Catholicism is still inside of me. Its perspective still colors much of my world. I will no more wholly excise Catholicism than Mitt would successfully excise his Mormonism.

So why are all these Christians upset with Mitt being a Mormon? Most of them are devout Christians, and Mitt would count himself as one of them. Just like his Southern Baptist friends, he wants to bring as many people to Jesus Christ as possible. He clearly loves his wife. He has raised a very healthy and happy family. He is very successful both politically and financially. However, many Christians just cannot see any Mormon as Christian. Why? Apparently, they think the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, was either delusional or a fraud. They do not believe he found those divinely placed silver tablets in upstate New York. They do not believe he was a messenger from God. They especially do not believe that the Book of Mormon is some sort of newest testament. Of course, the whole polygamy thing really upsets them, even though Mormons abandoned it long ago. Had society been more accommodating toward their lifestyle they would not have moved en masse to Utah. They were the 19th century’s version of Pilgrims, spurned by their own neighbors and forced to move far, far away to practice their faith.

So is it the silver tablet thing that gets traditional Christianity up in arms? Or is it the polygamy? Or is it both? My question is, “Why should it matter anyhow?” Have these Christians excised that portion of the Bible where Jesus speaks so lovingly about universal brotherhood? Jesus did not scorn the lepers, or the prostitutes or the Samaritans. He broke bread with them and spoke to them as equals. As for those silver tablets, is there any less evidence for them than the many miracles attributed to Jesus? Did Jesus really ascend into heaven? Did he really bring back the dead? Did he really feed thousands with a few loaves of bread and some fish? According to the Bible, he did all these things along with the impressive feat of raising himself from the dead. It is in the Bible, but the Romans and others in that time and place apparently never bothered to write these remarkable feats down. My guess is that most Christians believe in Jesus’ miracles because they were taught to believe them. The same is true with Mitt. The evidence that Joseph Smith encountered those silver tablets with the Book of Mormon on them is no more ludicrous than Jesus feeding thousands with a few loaves and fishes.

The tenets of most faiths by definition are unprovable. That’s why they call it faith. Christians or anyone who are leery of Mitt Romney based on his religion need to look in the mirror. The only thing that may make your faith more “reasonable” than someone else’s is that more people agree with your faith. That proves nothing. Except for a few dissenters like me, back in March 2003 most Americans were convinced Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and our national security was in peril. They were wrong. Being part of a consensus does not mean you are right. It just means you have many people who agree with you.

Now it just so happens that I have my issues with Mormons too, particularly in the way they treat their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. However, I refuse to say their faith is anymore unreasonable or unworthy than anyone else’s faith, including my own Unitarian Universalism. The reality is that while many of us believe in our souls in the rightness and correctness of our faith, our faiths are not provable.

Our founding fathers refused to establish any religious test in order for someone to hold office. A new president is not required to take the presidential oath on a Bible, or even to add, “So help me God” to the oath (which in fact is not even in the oath of office). He or she does not even have to swear to uphold the oath, just to affirm it. Our founding fathers were smart. They knew that a person’s religious faith or lack thereof had no relationship to their ability to serve in a public office. Instead, we were invited to judge someone based on their history, their character and their views.

For my part, I will try to vote in the spirit of our founding fathers. While I may not like Mormonism in particular, I also know that it is no more unreasonable than any other religion out there. Like most faiths, it has many admirable qualities. If I discriminate against someone solely based on his or her religion, I am doing myself and my country a disservice. We have huge problems to deal with in this country. We need to most competent people possible in public office. Ruling out someone based solely on their religion (or lack thereof) simply adds to the considerable odds that we will not get the person we need for our next president.

Cut Mitt some slack.

 
The Thinker

WordPressing

I hope to change my blogging software to WordPress within the next month. Currently I am using Movable Type to host this blog. I would like to say I am a loyal Movable Type customer, since I have used it for the nearly five years I have been hosting this blog. However, since its license allows me to use it for free for personal use, I never actually bought the software. That is not to say I have not given its owners, SixApart, some money. I needed to buy support when I re-hosted this year in order to make the dynamic publishing feature work. That cost me $50 and made me start wondering if I wanted to convert to WordPress, which serves all its content dynamically.

No, I stayed with Movable Type not necessarily out of loyalty, but mostly out of convenience. Just as after a certain point it is hard to move from Quicken to Microsoft Money because of the hassle of retraining, so it seemed easier to stay with Movable Type than work my way through the myriad issues associated with moving from one blogging solution to another.

Nonetheless, I am taking the plunge. I recently received an announcement from SixApart informing me that Movable Type 4.0 was ready. It extolled all its wonderful and latest features. Did I really want to upgrade and spend the considerable time learning how to use all these new features, particularly when I would not use most of them? Should I stay with Movable Type 3.3 until it gradually deteriorated into irrelevance? On the other hand, should I bite the bullet and move to what most of us non-commercial bloggers use today, which is WordPress?

Since yesterday was a holiday for me and being geeky looked more appealing than weeding the garden, I took the plunge. Installing WordPress, an open source blogging solution, turned out to be painless. I had to create a new MySQL database instance (easy enough to do in phpMyAdmin), copy the files over to my web server, edit a few settings in a configuration file, and then run the installation program. Installation time: about 15 minutes.

Next step: move 700 plus blog entries and 400 plus comments from Movable Type to WordPress. After digging through the WordPress documentation, I discovered I had to export my entries in Movable Type then import them into WordPress. It was relatively straightforward. Total time: another 15 minutes.

Unfortunately, by default all my WordPress posts will have URLs that are completely different from the URLs generated by Movable Type. All those search engine links would become obsolete meaning that Google might unlist my blog again. This would not do, so I went hunting through the documentation to find out how to solve the problem. Blessedly, WordPress has a way so that you can create a customized path and post names for your entries. I could make the resulting URLs look just like on Movable Type. Problem solved?

Not quite. There was a significant number of impedance issues resulting from blogging for five years with Movable Type. For one thing, until mid 2005, Movable Type limited entry name URLs to 15 characters. (Before that, entry names were numbers, like 000001.html.) Therefore, if your entry was titled “This is a long entry name” the resulting URL was “this_is_a_long.html”. If you wrote another entry with a similar name Movable Type would make sure you didn’t reuse the same name, so the next one was “this_is_a_long_1.html”. During one Movable Type upgrade, this limitation went away so I allowed entry name URLs to be up to 50 characters long, but this still left hundreds of entries where the entry name URL was truncated at 15 characters. In addition, WordPress puts dashes where blank spaces would be in your URLs. Movable Type substitutes underscores. I followed the helpful online advice but still had hundreds of mismatched URLs. Eventually, in frustration I wrote a little PHP script that identified the mismatched URLs. I also came up with a strategy for fixing discrepancies in the 15-character entry name URLs. Many of these entries had underscores in the last character that had to be fixed. Most of these could be fixed with one SQL statement.

When I make the switch to WordPress, my individual entry and monthly archives should now match correctly. Category archives though are not so simple. Had they been stored under /category/archive_name it would be straightforward but I have them under /archive_name. I am still pondering how to solve this one. The most expeditious way seems to be to create symbolic links.

In addition, currently there is no way to move over my Movable Type entry tags. This is an issue that must be solved before I can migrate the blog. The good news is that by examining how tags are stored in Movable Type and WordPress, I think I have found a way to do it using SQL and PHP. I will be testing it when I have some spare time. Moving over the tags was not possible until I first had addressed the inconsistent URLs.

I know there are all sorts of other embedded URLs that will break that will need to be addressed. These include tag archive URLs, feed URLs and differences in the search interface. Then there is the look of the blog itself. There is no utility to move over Movable Type templates, so once rehosted in WordPress, this site will have to look a bit different. Fortunately, WordPress has hundreds of themes to choose from, and they are much easier to edit than Movable Type templates. My WordPress blog is a work progress and can be viewed here. If you have any feedback on the look and feel let me know.

Overall, WordPress is slick. The user interface is much more straightforward and feels more powerful than Movable Type. It is also wholly written in PHP. Movable Type started out as a Perl application, and in my current incarnation, it is a mixture of Perl and PHP. However, I understand PHP and loathe Perl, and I know that PHP is highly scalable. WordPress will be very fast and easier for me to customize with my own programs than Movable Type. WordPress, being open source, is unlikely to disappear. Both Movable Type and WordPress have plug in architectures, but WordPress has a huge user community. Consequently the selection of templates, plug ins and widgets is much greater. Moreover, it is likely that upgrading WordPress will be much more straightforward and less of a hassle than Movable Type. Therefore, I am confident this project will pay off in the end.

I thought there would be more users who had moved over their blogs from Movable Type to WordPress. While there are clearly some, the online documentation was inadequate. Therefore, I have been contributing to improving the documentation by adding my experience in the WordPress Wiki. While wikis have been around for a while, I am still taken aback that I can make changes instantly to their official online documentation and no one bothers to review these changes.

So I expect things to look a bit different around here within a month. One thing will not change: I will continue to set high standards for myself for all the entries I place here.

 

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