Archive for May, 2007

In Italy, the pigeons are lovely this time of year

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

Good news, folks: I survived ten days of bachelorhood, as Mrs. Toast has returned from her trip to Venice. Here’s just a few random photos of the scenic beauty she enjoyed while there:




Um, are you sensing a theme here?



It is a fact that Venice is ever-so-slowly-but-surely sinking into the sea, and from what I can tell from her photos this must be due to the tons of pigeon poop that accumulates every year in the Piazza San Marco.

I think there are a couple of other photos on her digital camera that are not of pigeons, and I’ll try to pull out and post a couple of them soon. In the meantime, here’s one shot taken in London’s Gatwick airport that is sure to make Chandira homesick:


In case you’re wondering, the reason she took this picture is because she knows that I sho’nuff do loves me some o’dat Walker’s pure butter shortbread. Mmmmmm, yes. And there’s nary a pigeon to be seen.

Only in Texas…

Tuesday, May 29th, 2007


…would a cow skull — and a fake one at that — be considered something to “beautify your yard or garden”.

Words just fail me.

Memorial Day

Sunday, May 27th, 2007

As a kid between the ages of about 10 and 15 back home in Massachusetts, Memorial Day was always one of the biggest days of the year for me. Not only did it mean backyard cookouts, or a picnic in the park, but the day heralded the official start of Summer — which meant that vacation from school was not far behind.

It was also one of my favorite days because of our town’s Memorial Day Parade. You should understand that in the tiny town of Hamilton where I grew up, there was very little excitement. The two big events of the year were July 4th — when the town hosted a carnival, midway, fireworks and bonfire — and our one and only parade each Memorial Day. When you’re a small-town kid, parades are a Big Deal, and I was always thrilled by the pageantry of the uniforms and the marching bands. (I guess maybe I had a little of The Music Man in me, which was popular around the same time.) Every year I would bedeck my bicycle with red, white and blue crepe paper streamers through the spokes and flags on the handlebars so I could ride it in the parade alongside the other kids who did the same. People would wave at me and applaud my decorative efforts, and I loved it.

At the same time, however, the true meaning of Memorial Day was not lost on me. I remember from my American History lesson:

Memorial Day was first officially observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the headstones of both Union and Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery after a proclamation issued by Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. It was a holiday primarily observed in the North until after World War I, when the focus changed from honoring soldiers killed in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died in any war.

In the years of my youth from about 1958 through 1963, the holiday was almost all about paying homage to the veterans of World War II, which was not exactly a distant memory then. To put this in perspective, think about fifteen years ago today, when the big stories were the devastation of South Florida by Hurricane Andrew, and President George Bush The Elder puking on the Prime Minister during a visit to Japan (Bill Clinton would be elected to succeed Bush later that same year). Then remember the first Gulf War in 1990. Doesn’t seem like that long ago, does it? That’s how folks in my home town thought about the Big War in Europe. Most vets were fairly young, in their 40′s and 50′s, and there was a strong feeling of pride, honor, and appreciation for these former soldiers who had, quite literally, saved the world from fascism and evil.

Our town parade always started at the Hamilton Cemetery where local victims of the war had been laid to rest, and after a solemn ceremony including a 21-gun salute, the parade commenced down the main street to downtown. Naturally, there was considerable sorrow for those who had lost their lives, but it was tempered with a resolute pride that they had done so for a worthy and just cause, in the defense of freedom.

Today, of course, it’s a different story, as American pride hasn’t been quite the same since WWII. In large part this is a legacy of Vietnam, when returning veterans were (unjustly) spat upon as “baby-killers”, and America was forced to end the conflict, if not in defeat, at least without accomplishing its military objectives. This was a terrible time in our country’s history, not just because of the casualties on the battlefield, but for the polarizing effect the war had on those at home. Not since the Civil War has a conflict so divided brother from brother, turned friend against friend, or neighbor against neighbor. The political fight at home took center stage even from the military theater of operations, and in some ways we’ve never been the same since.

In the intervening years, it seems that to those who think of Memorial Day as more than just a long weekend marking the beginning of summer fun, there has been much less pride and a lot more sorrow, which has been particularly true during the last few years of our Iraq involvement. Let me make it perfectly clear that I make a huge distinction between our soldiers who are over there doing their jobs with honor as best as they can, and Dubya and his gang of neo-con idiots who got us into this mess in the first place. It’s no secret that I strongly disagree with our country’s Iraq policy, nor do I subscribe to the theory that “if we don’t fight them in the streets there, we’ll be fighting them in the streets here”. To me, the reason we’re caught in the middle of this civil war is simple: Bush had a score to settle, and he values oil more than blood. There’s no longer any viable way for us to “win” in Iraq, at least in the traditional sense of the enemy laying down their arms in surrender, and the sooner we get the hell out of there the better.

Yet politics are meaningless to the men and women in Iraq who are doing the dirty work, following the orders of their superiors, taking the risks, and most importantly, losing their lives — and they have my utmost respect. The fact that many of us question the wisdom of continuing our involvement in Iraq in no way diminishes the sacrifices made by the 3,400-plus Americans who have died in this war that is more than four years old. Regardless of my political opinions, I honor their memory, service, courage, and the fact that they gave their lives for this country. I will say a silent prayer on Memorial Day for the families of those who grieve over the loss of a loved one in Iraq or Afghanistan, as well as Vietnam, Korea, and World War II.

So if you know a veteran, tell him or her “thanks” for their service.

And to George Bush, say “enough”.

Battle over internet radio continues

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

The movement to save internet radio from the disastrous jacked-up recording industry royalty fees that will potentially shut down most webcasters is gaining momentum.

Background

If you’re unfamiliar with this issue, it’s a fairly complex subject, but here’s a quick recap: last March, a 3-judge panel called the Copyright Royalty Board, or CRB, voted to change royalty fees paid by net broadcasters from a straight percentage-of-profits model to a “per-song, per-listener” scheme, regardless of any income (or lack thereof) the station might have from advertising, subscriptions, or donations. Representing an increase of 300 to 1200 percent, the new rates which go into effect on July 15th are retroactive to January 2006 and will put most stations — including many Public Radio outlets — out of business. (See this Newsweek article for more info.)

To put this in perspective, imagine for a moment you have an income of $40,000 a year and you’re taxed at 15% by the IRS, so you pay them $6,000. Then one day you get a letter informing you that the new tax amount on your $40,000 income will be $72,000 (a 12x increase). Wouldn’t make much sense, would it — how can you pay more than you make? Now imagine you have zero income, but your tax is still $72,000! WTF??

Congress Gets Involved

In the weeks since the initial ruling, a grassroots movement has sprung up among internet broadcasters and their listeners seeking to overturn the CRB’s flawed decision. Two bills (H.R.2060 in the House, and S.1353 in the Senate), together known as the “Internet Radio Equality Act“, would establish fair and reasonable fees paid to those who create music, while assuring that net radio will not be killed off. Considering that most legislation languishes on Capitol Hill with very little interest from the general public, these measures have picked up phenomenal support in a very short period of time, as thousands of people (including myself, and hopefully some of y’all as well) have written or phoned their elected representatives to tell them that they do not want internet radio to become extinct.

Predictably, the RIAA (through its affiliated organization that actually collects the fees, known as SoundExchange) immediately cranked up the rhetoric by issuing a press release referring to the legislation as a “money grab by corporate webcasters”. Among other patently false statements, they claim that the bills are a “blatant attempt to strip artists and record labels of their hard-won royalties for the use of their sound recordings on Internet Radio”. (Click here to read a short article debunking the RIAA’s absurd propaganda.)

Business Week magazine’s online edition recently took an in-depth look at both sides of this issue, first presenting an article dated May 11th by SoundExchange director John Simson. At last count it had received over 60 comments, nearly all of them taking the view expressed in the words of one reader who said, “what a transparent load of crap from Mr. Simson.” In contrast, four days later BW published the reasoned viewpoint of Laurie Joulie of Roots Music Association to much more favorable reader response; it’s therefore quite easy to see where public sentiments lie on the matter.

Latest Skirmish

As a direct result of the outpouring of support for the House and Senate bills, SoundExchange got a letter last week from Representatives Howard L. Berman (D-CA) and Howard Coble (R-NC). Acting as part of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property, the Congressmen urged the RIAA to “initiate good faith private negotiations with small commercial and noncommercial webcasters with the shared goal of ensuring their continued operations and viability.” Sensing the tide of public opinion turning against them and fearing legislative intervention, the RIAA has made a so-called “compromise offer” to defer imposition of new fees to what it terms “small webcasters” until 2010, while proceeding with the increases as planned for everyone else. But this alleged “compromise” is a Trojan Horse that would still stifle internet radio. For one thing, it doesn’t offer to change the new fee structure, only to postpone it. This would be like the IRS in our hypothetical example above saying, “You still owe us the money, but we’ll give you until 2010 to pay it.” For another thing:

“The proposal made by SoundExchange would throw ‘large webcasters’ under the bus and end any ‘small’ webcaster’s hopes of one day becoming big,” SaveNetRadio spokesperson Jake Ward said. “Under Government-set revenue caps, webcasters will invest less, innovate less and promote less. Under this proposal, internet radio would become a lousy long-term business, unable to compete effectively against big broadcast and big satellite radio – artists, webcasters, and listeners be damned.”

SaveNetRadio said that this kind of charging w ould put internet radio out of business, and is not what was intended by US lawmakers.

“A standard that would set a royalty rate more than 300% of a webcaster’s revenue was not what Congress had in mind, and it must be adjusted if the industry is going to survive.”

You can still help

The Internet Radio Equality Act still needs your support. Even if you’ve already contacted your representative, don’t let off the pressure. This sort of lobbying is exactly how things are accomplished in Washington, so please use the handy tool below which will provide information regarding who to contact as well as some talking points if you need them:


The I.R.E.A. would establish that webcasters pay a fair and reasonable fee of 7.5% of their revenue in royalties, the same rate paid by satellite radio broadcasters. Traditional over-the-air broadcast radio does not pay anything because labels consider airtime to be promotional, an arrangement that has existed for the last 70 years. It’s based on the long-accepted idea that if you hear a song you like on the radio, there’s a good chance you might buy a CD by that artist. However, with recent CD sales in free-fall for a variety of reasons (not the least of which being the stupidity and arrogance of the record companies) the RIAA is becoming increasingly desperate, and terrestrial radio is very likely to be their next target.

More on that in another post.

Social commentary

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2007

Like a lot of other folks, I have a YouTube account. I haven’t logged in to it for a while, so when I did today I wasn’t too surprised to see these messages:


OK, that’s understandable. But what really hurt was this:


Ouch. I guess I need to get out more.

Mr. Toast’s Household Hints

Friday, May 18th, 2007

Well, tomorrow’s the big day: I say “arrividirche” to Mrs. Toast, who will be heading across the Big Pond to begin her 10-day adventure in Venice. This has been a busy week, between packing, last-minute checks with the airline, making advance arrangements for her water-taxi from the airport to the hotel on arrival, as well as coordinating with the three other ladies who will also be escaping their husbands for a week to go on this trip. She’s quite excited about it, naturally, and has a long list of restaurants, museums, and other must-see spots.

Venice is one of those places that I think everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. Who knows, in another 100 years it may not be there any more, as the city is being ever-so-gradually reclaimed by the sea. “Decaying” is a word often heard to describe it these days, as its population of permanent residents today stands at only about a third of what it was in the 50′s. Recurring flooding and rising tides have left many palazzos decrepit and uninhabitable, and at night parts of the historical city center are as abandoned as an empty movie set. Yet, when I was there in 2002, I was totally fascinated, awed and inspired by this place that is unlike any other on earth, and its graceful, sophisticated ambiance must be experienced firsthand to truly be appreciated. But while Venice indeed belongs on every traveler’s “life list“, there is a paradox there as well: the place is already completely overrun with tourists, and the more people that come, the more damage is done to the fragile ecosystem of the lagoon. There is also a danger of the city absorbing too much of the “foreign” culture of its visitors, to the point that it begins to resemble a parody of itself. But it has survived this long, and is resistant to change — even if maintaining old traditions can sometimes be difficult:

“Venice is an incredible, fragile city,” said Anna Somers Cox, the chairwoman of the Venice in Peril Fund, a British organization dedicated to protecting Venice from flooding. In her experience, she said, the city hews to the preservation of its cultural past at the expense of adaptation and rational city planning. “It matters terribly if you can’t introduce a new idea to help run the city,” she said.

Although I’ve been trying to help my wife prepare by getting her acquainted with the area around her hotel in relation to the other places to see that I remember from my own visit (with considerable help from Google Earth, I should add), I still feel slightly depressed about not being able to go this time. And, to be perfectly honest, the prospect of fending for myself for ten days is a bit daunting as well; I’m ashamed to admit that my cooking skills since marriage have deteriorated to the point where doing much more than opening a bag of Cheesy Poofs or microwaving a frozen burrito can be a bit challenging for me.

However, no need for you to worry, readers — I will survive, if for no other reason than with the help of the following tips that I received today from our local weekly ad-rag. Frankly, I never realized some of these things would actually work but I’ll have ten whole days to try them out and see for myself:

  1. Budweiser beer conditions the hair
  2. Pam cooking spray will dry finger nail polish
  3. Cool whip will condition your hair in 15 minutes
  4. Mayonnaise will KILL LICE, it will also condition your hair
  5. Elmer’s Glue – paint on your face, allow it to dry, peel off and see the dead skin and blackheads
  6. Shiny Hair – use brewed Lipton Tea
  7. Sunburn – empty a large jar of Nestea into your bath water
  8. Minor burn – Colgate or Crest toothpaste
  9. Burn your tongue? Put sugar on it!
  10. Arthritis? WD-40. Spray and rub in, kills insect stings too
  11. Bee stings – meat tenderizer
  12. Chiggerbite – Preparation H
  13. Puffy eyes – Preparation H
  14. Paper cut – crazy glue or chap stick (glue is used instead of sutures almost hospitals)
  15. Stinky feet – Jell-O!
  16. Athletes feet – cornstarch
  17. Fungus on toenails or fingernails – Vicks Vapo-Rub
  18. Kool aid – clean dishwasher pipes. Just put in the detergent section and run a cycle, it will also clean a toilet. (Wow, and we drink this stuff?)
  19. Kool Aid can be used as a dye in paint. Also try Kool Aid in Dannon Plain yogurt, or as a finger paint. Kids will love it and it won’t hurt them if they eat it!
  20. Peanut butter will get scratches out of CD’s! Wipe off with a coffee filter paper
  21. Sticking bicycle chain – Pam no-stick cooking spray
  22. Pam will also remove paint, and grease from your hands. Keep a can in the garage
  23. Peanut butter will remove ink from the face of dolls
  24. When the doll clothes are hard to put on, sprinkle with corn starch and watch them slide on
  25. Heavy dandruff – pour on the vinegar!
  26. Body paint – Crisco mixed with food coloring. Heat the Crisco in the microwave, pour into an empty film container and mix with the food color of your choice!
  27. Tie Dye T-shirt – mix a solution of Kool Aid in a container, tie a rubber band around a section of the T-shirt and soak
  28. Preserving a newspaper clipping – large bottle of club soda and cup of milk of magnesia, soak for 20 min. and let dry, will last for many years!
  29. A “Slinky” will hold toast and CD’s!
  30. To keep goggles and glasses from fogging, coat with Colgate toothpaste
  31. Wine stains, pour on the Morton salt And watch it absorb into the salt.
  32. To remove wax, take a paper towel and iron it over the wax stain, it will absorb into the towel.
  33. Remove labels off glassware etc. rub with peanut butter!
  34. Baked on food – fill container with water, get a Bounce paper softener sheet and the static from the Bounce will cause the baked on food to adhere to it. Soak overnight. Also; you can use 2 Efferdent tablets, soak overnight!
  35. Crayon on the wall – Colgate Toothpaste and brush it!
  36. Dirty grout – Listerine
  37. Stains on clothes – Colgate
  38. Grass stains – Karo Syrup
  39. Grease Stains – Coca Cola, It will also remove grease stains from the driveway overnight. We know it will take corrosion from car batteries!
  40. Fleas in your carpet? 20 Mule Team Borax – Sprinkle and let stand for 24 hours.
  41. To keep FRESH FLOWERS longer, add a little Clorox, or 2 Bayer aspirin, or just use 7-up instead ofwater.

With the help of this list, I should be more than prepared for any contingency. Now please excuse me while I go get some Kool-Aid and a bag of Cheesy Poofs; I feel a case of Orange Fingers coming on.

I guess this means we’ve won the war on terror

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

It sounds like a joke, or a news headline that might have been thought up at The Onion, but unfortunately it’s real: embattled Attorney General Alberto “I Can’t Recall” Gonzales is proposing a new crime of “attempted” copyright infringement. No longer will it be necessary for you internet music and software pirates out there to actually infringe on someone’s intellectual property; all you would have to do is “attempt” it. Furthermore, under the A.G.’s proposals, you could be imprisoned for life under certain circumstances for using pirated software. Forget robbery, rape, and murder: finally, someone is cracking down on the real criminals in our society!

Gonzales and the Bush administration are pushing Congress to pass a bill known as the Intellectual Property Protection Act (IPPA) of 2007, which is likely to receive the enthusiastic support of the movie and music industries, and would represent the most dramatic rewrite of copyright law in years. Apparently it’s not enough for the RIAA to sue college students, dead people, and others thousands of dollars each for downloading tunes such as Duran Duran’s “Girls On Film“. The new laws would give authorities broad powers to, among other things:

  • Permit more wiretaps for piracy investigations. Wiretaps would be authorized for investigations of Americans who are “attempting” to infringe copyrights.
  • Allow computers to be seized more readily. Specifically, property such as a PC “intended to be used in any manner” to commit a copyright crime would be subject to forfeiture, including civil asset forfeiture.
  • Criminalize “attempting” to infringe copyright. Federal law currently punishes not-for-profit copyright infringement with between 1 and 10 years in prison, but there has to be actual infringement that takes place. The IPPA would eliminate that requirement.

This is just incredible, and I hardly even know what to say. With all the serious problems this nation faces at home and abroad, this is what these guys find important? It is very disturbing to me that we seem to be getting closer to a police state every day as our civil and digital rights are gradually and continually being chipped away by this administration. At this rate, soon even thinking about downloading music illegally will become a crime.

The good news is that so far the IPPA has not gotten any sponsors, which it needs to go forward, and that Gonzales’ current low regard on Capitol Hill could inhibit support for the measure. New testimony presented this Tuesday revealed that in 2004, Gonzales pressured Attorney General John Ashcroft (who was in a hospital bed recuperating from pancreatitis at the time) to certify the legality of Bush’s warrantless eavesdropping program. Ashcroft rebuffed Gonzales, but the White House certified the program anyway. The Attorney General has been less than forthcoming about the matter to say the least, and his selective amnesia and general air of incompetence have not served him well in committee hearings. Further testimony next week by Gonzales’ former White House liaison, Monica Goodling (under a grant of immunity), is likely to erode his credibility even more. Yet, don’t count him out by a long shot, as respected political columnist Margaret Carlson reports on Bloomberg.com:

How interesting that World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz was being forced to negotiate his resignation, but Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is sailing along like Mark Twain, with rumors of his demise greatly exaggerated.

It’s shocking that Gonzales continues to hold down one of the most sensitive jobs in Washington now that his cluelessness has been exposed for all the world to see.

He still rises each morning to run a Justice Department he knows almost nothing about, nor who decided to get rid of eight U.S. attorneys. He knows just enough to swear that no one at the White House had anything to do with it.

Gonzales holds onto his lease with a political loyalty so blind and unbending as to trump every other instinct, including embarrassment over barely being able to recall his own name before Congress.

The one bright spot is that as I write this, there are only 614 days left of this national disaster called the Bush administration. We can’t get these morons out of office soon enough.

I think they mean “rate”

Monday, May 14th, 2007

Happy Monday! Hope everyone had a nice Mother’s Day weekend.

I started my day today, as I do most every day, with a cup of coffee and checking my e-mail. Here’s an actual, un-retouched screen grab from this morning’s “in” box:

marriott.jpg

Whoa, now that’s what I call a hotel amenity. I guess these must be your high-class “designer” rats, which are apparently exclusive to the Marriott, and not the ordinary garden-variety rats you might find at a Holiday Inn or Motel 6.

Get out the credit card, I gotta book this one toot sweet!

Joost Crazy

Friday, May 11th, 2007

For the last month or so, I’ve been a beta-tester for the new interactive video-on-demand service called Joost (pronounced “Juiced”). You’ve probably heard of it; Joost is being hyped by many as the Internet’s next “killer app“, and is the brainchild of Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, those two wacky Scandinavians who brought you Kazaa and Skype. Joost positions itself as “Internet Cable TV”, but to me it’s more like a large collection of videos grouped by common subject matter into “channels”. In this way, it resembles YouTube more than your local cable service, except the videos are all high quality and professionally produced; there’s none of the “user-generated content” found on YouTube and other similar sites.

Programs on Joost range in length from one or two-minute shorts up to full-length features of 90 minutes or more. You can pick and choose from an inventory of about 150 channels, including offerings from CNN, The Comedy Channel, MTV and many others. (See the full channel overview here.) Note that these are NOT exactly the same as their cable TV counterparts. If you select MTV, for example, you can choose only from a limited selection of programs, mostly episodes of “Laguna Beach”, “Punk’d”, and “My Sweet 16″. Other channels feature game shows, music videos, comedies, sports, and a few (but not many) movies.

All the video is streamed directly over the web to your machine, in real time, on demand. You pick the program you want to watch and start viewing it, no worries about it being “in progress”. When the show’s over, if you do nothing Joost will play the next program in the list, like a cable TV station. However, you can stop it at any time and come back later, or pick another program on another channel. For the geek minded, Joost is technically known as a “hybrid peer-to-peer application”, which uses the same technology its founders developed for Kazaa. A diagram and explanation of how it works can be found here.

Here’s a few screen shots of the basic interface (click each pic for a larger version):


The quality of the video is pretty decent, which came as somewhat of a surprise to me after being used to the small-sized, grainy content found on most other sites. Joost can stream either in a window or full-screen, and looks quite good in either.

Up until recently, Joost was available only to a very small and select number of beta testers. I had submitted my request to join way back in October, and just got my “invitation” to sign up last month. The first few weeks after I began watching were pretty rocky; evidently a lot of people got their invites at the same time I did, and the service had trouble handling the sudden increase in load. Videos would stutter or not play at all, and for a while I was jokingly referring to Joost as “The Error Message Channel” because most often what I saw was this:


I was not the only one, either, as the developers noted on their blog:

As you might have discovered already, we’re having some problems with the central servers in Luxembourg… We’ve been flooded with demand, which is fabulous and ultimately will make the system stronger, but since it’s unaccustomed to this level of usage it’s stumbling a bit, whereas we’d like it to be sprinting.

However, a new version of the program was released this week, and most of these problems seem to have been fixed. It still burps occasionally, but I’ve been able to watch for several hours at a time without any major interruptions. Some of the shows have been quite interesting. For example, I like documentaries, and found a fascinating film on the National Geographic Channel called “Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories“. An ordinary guy by the name of Mike Shiley just decided one day, pretty much out of the blue, to pick up a camera, go to Iraq, and shoot a movie about normal, everyday life there; it’s a point of view you definitely won’t get from the US military’s PR machine. Another favorite has been “The Saturday Morning Channel”, which features several old cartoon series that I loved as a kid, including Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Joost claims they’re adding new content all the time, and have made deals with some big-name distributors to feature their programming. Record companies are beginning to take notice of Joost as a way to promote their artists, so there are quite a few music videos on the site. You’ve probably never heard of most of them, but that’s the whole point.

The best part is that it’s all free to watch. Joost makes money by inserting occasional commercials into the program stream, just like a regular TV station does, but the good news is that they limit the ads to two or three minutes per hour as opposed to the ten to twelve minutes per hour that you’re subjected to on broadcast TV.

At the moment, Joost is still in the beta stage and requires an invitation to sign up and start watching. However, as a current beta tester, I can “invite” as many people as I want — so any readers of this blog who would like to try it out, just drop me a note to mrtoast AT suddenlink DOT net, and I’ll be more than happy to send you one. A couple of caveats to keep in mind:

1) You MUST have a high-speed, broadband internet connection. Dialup will not work, and the fatter your pipe is the better. 1 mBs downstream is the bare minimum, 2 mBs is recommended, and 3 or 4 will rock. (If you’d like to test your connection speed, click here.)

Note that Joost has the following to say on their web site about bandwidth:

“Joost is a streaming video application, and so uses a relatively high amount of bandwidth per hour. In one hour of viewing, approximately 320Mb data will be downloaded and 105Mb uploaded, which means that it will exhaust a 1Gb cap in 10 hours. Windows users should note that the application continues to run in the background after you close the main window. For this reason, if you pay for your bandwidth usage per megabyte or have your usage capped by your ISP, you should be careful to always exit Joost client completely when you are finished watching it.”

Since my cable-modem service provider charges a flat monthly fee and does not cap my bandwidth, this is not a problem for me, but may be an important factor if yours does. Call them and ask if you’re not sure.

2) Joost requires a fairly snappy machine. The newer your PC and the more memory you have, the better it will work. The following system specs are recommended:

  • Windows XP Service Pack 2 with DirectX 9.0c
  • Pentium 4 processor (or equivalent), 1GHz
  • 512Mb or more RAM
  • A modern video card with DirectX support and at least 32Mb of RAM
  • About 500 MB free disk space

3) Like any other form of TV, Joost will be a HUGE time sink. You will find hours of your life disappearing in front of the screen, so be sure you have lots of spare time on your hands.

4) Finally, remember that Joost is still in BETA. It is not guaranteed to work. It might conflict with other stuff on your computer (although I haven’t had any real problems). No technical support is provided. It might scare your dog. It may cause cramps, nausea, headache, irritability, sleeplessness or warts after prolonged use. Not responsible for direct, indirect, incidental or consequential damages. For educational and recreational use only. Not recommended for children. Close cover before striking. May be slippery when wet. Use only in a well-ventilated area. No purchase necessary, void where prohibited, your mileage may vary, etc.

Seriously, I don’t mean to scare anyone off — as I say, my experience has been pretty good, with no conflicts or serious problems. As with any new software that hasn’t been fully tested yet and may still be a bit buggy, I would advise at the very least setting a system restore point before installing Joost. A backup wouldn’t hurt either, but like any smart computer user, you’re doing that on a regular basis anyway, right? Of course you are.

Will Joost ever replace “real” TV? Probably not, especially once HDTV really gets off the ground in 2009 when analog goes dark. The founders point out that Skype hasn’t put the phone companies out of business either, and is merely an alternate method of providing a service. But Joost is still a very big step in a direction that many broadcasters have been thinking about for a long, long time, and it will only get better as both the quality of the content Joost can deliver and the technology behind it continues to improve. Even with its current limitations, I’m still quite impressed. Again, if you’d like an invitation to check it out for yourself, “joost” let me know.

Law and Order

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

I did my civic responsibility and reported for jury duty today. OK, that makes it sound like I had a choice in the matter; a warrant would have been issued to arrest me if I hadn’t shown up in response to the summons I received in the mail.

The last time I was called to serve was several years ago, and in that instance I was selected to be on a panel hearing the case of a teenager who had been charged with making a “terroristic threat” at his high school. Apparently in the course of a verbal altercation with one of his teachers, the boy made a remark to her that had been construed as threatening. He later claimed he was “just kidding”, and after hearing the evidence I was tempted to believe he had simply opened his mouth in the heat of the moment before engaging his brain, with absolutely no intention of acting on it. I initially held out on convicting him, but my fellow jurors managed to convince me that in our post-Columbine climate, any such remarks should be taken extremely seriously regardless of intent (just like you don’t make jokes at the airport about having a bomb in your suitcase), and that the counseling and discipline he would receive as a result would serve to straighten him out. We therefore found him guilty, and I hope he’s a better person for it today.

However, that trial lasted a couple of days and was not exactly what I considered a barrel o’ fun, so I was not looking forward to the prospect of being chosen again when I went to the courthouse this morning. While I am certain there are many people who consider the opportunity to participate in the American justice system to be an honor and a privilege, most of the other potential jurors sitting around me during the first round of voir dire appeared to be thinking not so much about civic pride, but more along the same lines as I was: “Oh God, please don’t let them pick me.”

I was also a bit self-conscious about the portable oxygen equipment I need to bring with me whenever I go out anywhere, which was making its customary “click-whoosh” sound with each breath I took. It’s not that loud, really, but in the hushed courtroom it seemed quite noticeable, and I was aware of getting “the look” from a few people in my vicinity — the one I sometimes get when people see me wearing an oxygen cannula in public, and think “what’s wrong with him?” and perhaps worry that whatever it is, they might “catch” it.

So I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised that, when the judge gave us a 15-minute recess following the first round of jury selection, the court clerk walked up to me while I was standing in the lobby waiting to go back in. She asked my name, and politely told me that since I appeared to have a serious medical condition, I could be excused if I would like. I hesitated only momentarily before saying, “OK, thank you!” and getting the heck out of there.

Now I’m wondering if I should have declined and stayed, or if I was dissed without realizing it. Just because I have trouble breathing doesn’t mean my other faculties are impaired. But I’ll be an optimist: the courtroom was full, and the clerk knew she had a much larger candidate pool than needed, so she was most likely being kind to offer to let me leave.

Anyway, as a result of my experience today, several quotes come to mind, the first by comedian Norm Crosby: “When you go into court you are putting your fate into the hands of twelve people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty.”

More recently, humorist Dave Barry said: “We operate under a jury system in this country, and as much as we complain about it, we have to admit that we know of no better system, except possibly flipping a coin.”

My favorite line, however, comes from Otto Bismarck, who remarked over a century ago, “People who love sausage and people who believe in justice should never watch either of them being made.”

This is just wrong

Saturday, May 5th, 2007

Yep, it’s for real … this was in a catalog from a company that sells high-quality tools and woodworking supplies to home craftsmen. Their customers tend to be the kind of people who custom-build their own furniture and have a shop full of power tools and equipment worth five figures or more. Some of these guys take their hobbies pretty seriously.

If I really stretch my imagination, I guess I can see how building a casket for a departed close family member can indeed be the ultimate “personal touch”. And I suppose a psychologist could make a case that doing so could help the survivor to deal with their grief. When someone close to you dies, you feel so helpless; but in this case, here’s one small thing you can still have control over, and that labor of love might help bring closure and acceptance.

Nevertheless, I still think a do-it-yourself casket is pretty bizarre.

NBC’s Brian Williams on new media

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

The NBC news anchor and managing editor spoke before a crowd of NYU journalism students last month on the challenges that traditional journalism faces from online media. The following quotes from his speech have been widely circulated since then, but in case you missed them:

On bloggers:

“You’re going to be up against people who have an opinion, a modem, and a bathrobe. All of my life, developing credentials to cover my field of work, and now I’m up against a guy named Vinny in an efficiency apartment in the Bronx who hasn’t left the efficiency apartment in two years.”

On YouTube:

“If we’re all watching cats flushing toilets, what aren’t we reading? What great writer are we missing? What great story are we ignoring? This is societal, it’s cultural, I can’t change it. We should maybe pause to think about it. Because like everybody else, I can burn an hour on YouTube or Perez Hilton without breaking a sweat. And what have I just not paid attention to that 10 years ago I would’ve just consumed?”

More details here. Not surprisingly, Williams has been roundly criticized for these remarks in the blogosphere for coming off as “self-important” and a “knucklehead“, but I’m not so sure that he doesn’t have a good point. Remember that he was addressing journalism students, not the general public. These folks will graduate from college trained to become our next generation of professional newspaper, magazine, radio, and TV reporters, and the landscape today is vastly different than 10 years ago when people like Williams were learning the craft. We now have an army of “citizen journalists” who, armed with their cell-phone video cameras and blogs, have the ability to reach a potential audience of millions.

But in any creative field, whether it be music, art, or journalism, there will always be tons of chaff for every few kernels of wheat. It’s up to the consumer to sort it out for themselves and choose what they think is most valuable, whether it’s NBC, Fox News, the Daily Kos, Michelle Malkin, the New York Times, or any other source. I think Williams was simply saying that there are a lot more choices available these days, and the value of that information can be difficult to determine when everyone writing on the Internet presents themselves as an “expert”.

“On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”

More on internet radio

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

For anyone who might be unclear about the effect of the new fee structure recently set by the Copyright Royalty Board on small internet broadcasters, let me draw an illustrative parallel. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it should give you a rough idea of the problem.

Let’s say you’re in a band. For the last year or two, you’ve been playing at a club called “The Royalty Lounge”, and charge $5 a head to get in. You’ve agreed to give the club a 12 percent cut of your door proceeds; each week you average about 100 people, so you pay the club $60 and split the remaining $440 with the rest of the band. Fair enough, and simple too.

Now one day the club owners have a meeting and decide they’re not getting enough money from you. Instead of a flat percentage, they want you to pay them a fee of 12 cents per song per person for every song you play. So the first thing you have to do is count the exact number of people in the club during each and every song in your set (which is a pain because it adds a layer of record-keeping you didn’t have to deal with before), and tally up all the figures at the end of the night. But let’s assume for this example that it averages out to the same number of 100 people. You play four sets of ten songs each, which means you owe the club 40 x 100 x 0.12 = $480, which is 800% more than you had to pay previously! That leaves you only $20 for yourself and the band.

Now let’s take the analogy one step further, and add this wrinkle: due to increased competition from other clubs who don’t charge a cover, “The Royalty Lounge” decides it’s going to become non-commercial, which means that you can no longer collect the $5 entrance fee, so you now have no income whatsoever. But, at the end of the night you still must pay the club 12 cents per song per person. How long could you and your band survive under these conditions? It wouldn’t be long before you were forced out of business.

This is the position that small internet broadcasters find themselves in as a result of the new CRB rules. I may seem a bit reactionary about the sinister motives of the RIAA in this matter, but there’s no question in my mind that this is anything but a coincidence. The music industry was totally blindsided by the mp3 phenomenon back in the Napster days, and is determined to avoid any loss of control over their “product” as technology continues to change the way music is made, distributed, and consumed. Sure, they want to keep selling you CD’s at inflated prices, but despite outward appearances it’s not about the money from webcasting fees; killing off internet radio is an attempt to turn back the clock to the days when the major labels had total control over who could hear what, as Lucas Gonze says on his website:

To the major labels, revenues from webcasting royalties are not significant in comparison to revenues from the iTunes store and comparable online distributors. The iTunes store, mainly. If the webcasting industry disappears from the face of the internet, that is an acceptable level of collateral damage as long as revenues from premium services like iTunes rise enough.

Lost in all of this is any concern whatsoever for the public’s exposure to new and eclectic artists, or for independent commercial-free stations that play what they want to play without pressure from labels or advertisers. The music industry wants whatever remains of internet radio after this debacle to become a boring corporate medium overrun with ads, mediocrity, and payola — just like commercial broadcasting is today. And their lobby is powerful enough that they just might get away with it.

UPDATE:

A recent development offers some hope; last Friday, Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) introduced legislation co-sponsored by Rep. Donald Mazullo (R-IL) and captioned H.R.2060, The Internet Radio Equality Act” which would set aside the flawed CRB decision, establish an equitable fee schedule on a par with other radio services, and keep independent voices from being silenced.

Today (5/1), webcasters will be converging on Washington for a “Hill Walk” to make members of Congress aware of the measure and petition their support. If I were closer and physically able, I would be there — but instead I’ve done what I can do, which is to contact my own representative in the House, Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX). He sent me this reply:

There are many Stations in East Texas that are operated by volunteers and radio enthusiasts that are harmed by the CRB’s ruling. It is my hope that Congress will exercise oversight in this matter and come to a resolution that ensures these Stations will be able to continue to offer listeners a broad range of music and program content.

All right! So it would appear that Louie “gets” the issue and is on board; with any luck there will be enough noise from the general public that this legislation will move forward. If you’d like to help, see here for details, including links to write your Congressperson.

Ask them to please support H.R.2060, The Internet Radio Equality Act. Thanks.