Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Why Blackface is Still Funny

Buster Keaton appears in blackface in several movies, including one that I have seen recently College.  I have to admit that it was a bit jarring as I wasn’t expecting it.

However, when Downey appear in blackface for Tropic Thunder it’s pretty funny.  So this poses an interesting dilemma – why do I act with shock at one depiction of blackface and amusement at another depiction of blackface?

While the scenes of Buster Keaton in blackface were funny, it wasn't caused by the appearance of blackface.  Keaton is the Butt of the joke - so desperate to find a job to support his college career that he is willing stoop so low as to pretend being 'colored' to get a waiter job.

However, this comes into conflict with modern sensibilities - there is no shame in ethnicity, so the tension between what the Butt is implying ('colored' people are inferior) and our notions of what is acceptable ('colored' people could be waiters, customers or restaurateurs) prohibit the gag from succeeding in the way that was intended.

In Tropic Thunder Downey's character is also the Butt of the joke, but it is not because he is having to degrade himself.  In fact, the intent is the opposite - the character is so conceited that he surgically alters his appearance.  Downey feels that this simple act of reconstruction actually gives him the full past experience to actually make him black and understand the difficulties that a minority may actually have to endure.

We laugh at Downey because he believes that appearing in 'blackface' makes him more than he is.  We fail to laugh at Keaton because he believes that appearing in blackface makes him less than he is.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Thoughts On Citizens United

Several random thoughts on this wonderful case:
Nothing about this case says anything about corporations as individuals.  The first amendment reads: Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech.

If me, my brother Darryl and my other brother Darryl decide to take out an ad on TV saying that politician Bob is a douche and you shouldn't vote for him that's OK.  If we own a private business - that's OK.  If we have incorporated - that's not OK?  I don't get the distinction.  I certainly don't agree with giving Congress the ability to decide who can and who cannot speak or what they can say during certain portions of the year.

This specific case was the showing of an anti-Hillary movie within 100 days of an election.  I assume that people that are upset about this ruling would be OK if it were illegal to show Fahrenheit 9/11 within 100 days of an election?  That seems more than a little odd to me.  Where does the line get drawn?  Does Wag the Dog count as campaign speech?  Or Inconvenient Truth?  Why does GE get to say anything it wants, but Microsoft can't?  Do blogs count as media now?  Or is it only 'traditional' media that should be exempted from barriers to political speech during a campaign?

Once you decide that it is OK to draw lines on who can and cannot speak you have to give someone the power to decide who and what those things are.  And guess what?  Those rules are more likely to benefit the well connected than the average Joe.

Big corporations don't need help influencing the process - they already are.  The barriers are only really effective against those that don't already have power.


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Thursday, January 21, 2010

My Digital Life – Part I: Video

I start with video because it is the most difficult and due to this difficulty has forced my hand in a couple of different ways.

To recap this is what I’m trying to accomplish:

  • No physical media.  Period.
  • Access all video from any device.
    • Zune
    • TVs
    • PSP
    • Laptops
  • Rich metadata associated with the video.

That’s not a very long list but requires a metric crap-ton of software to accomplish.

I 0nly have two TVs and two different personal devices (Zune and PSP), so you would think that this would be easy.  But there are some severe challenges.

First, internet video isn’t very good yet.  Netflix is the best of the options available, but its catalog is still pretty limited.  Hulu has a pretty wide selection of content, but the catalog is really shallow – only a handful of episodes are available at any particular point in time.  This really sucks if you discover a show late and want to get caught up.  All of the other options are worse than terrible.  The network sites have all of the problems of Hulu – only a handful of episodes – but none of the positives.

This forces me to use either traditional cable television or satellite.  As much as I hate my local cable provider and I didn’t really have an option. 

Which brings me to severe challenge number two – a set-top box is usually pretty limiting and my first requirement I said no physical media so I need to figure out how to stream my digital content to whatever set-top box I decided to use.

In order to accomplish everything that I wanted to accomplish I needed flexibility which means CableCard, so I bit the bullet and bought a TivoHD and subscribed to [insert evil cable company here].

I considered several options for my set-top box:

1) An HTPC.  This was actually my first choice.  I really wanted to make this work.  Mostly because it offers the ultimate in flexibility.  Whatever you wanted to do should ultimately be possible with a full PC, right?  Just one problem – there aren’t any CableCard cards available for PC (is that unnecessarily redundant?) if you do-it-yourself.  Kinda bullshit in my opinion, but whatever.  No HTPC for me.

2) [Insert evil cable company here] provided equipment.  Just kidding, I never considered it.  They have crap for interfaces, they are slow and overall – just suck.

3) Tivo.  The first and best DVR.  The interface is so intuitive that my father-in-law had absolutely no problems just figuring it out.  The remote is the epitome of elegant design.  Plus:
*Tivo is aggressively adding internet based content like Amazon Unbox, Netflix, YouTube, Rhapsody.
*There is a well established online community doing third party development to add functionality to the platform (this becomes important later).
*They have a take-it-with-you option with TivoToGo that fits into my everywhere on any device concept.

For my second TV I considered multiple options:

1) First was the XBox 360.  Seemed to be  a logical choice, after all I was using:
*Windows 7 for a media server. 
*It’s a decent Media Center Extender
*It does HDTV natively.  
*It also does Netflix natively with Zune content and other services (I’m certain) to come. 

On paper it looks like the perfect option - however, it sucks.  Every time you start up the extender service it has to rediscover the whole library before you can actually watch/listen to anything.  Media Center is pretty, but that just isn’t enough.

2)  Windows Media Center directly connected from the my media server.  Another seemingly logical choice, especially since it cuts out the middleman of the 360 as described above.

Oddly, I liked it even less than the XBox and I’m not 100% certain that I can explain why.  I think that the primary reason is that it does not do a very good job of handling ripped television shows.  They are displayed in the same flat format that movies are shown as.  It’s options in the realm of internet video are also pretty limited, though better than the 360.

The other major shortfall is the lack of control around metadata.  You have to just trust that Media Center is going to correctly identify the movie and pick the right pictures, descriptions, etc.

3) Boxee, again directly connected to my TV.  Again, I didn’t like it, but have a hard time explaining exactly why.  It’s got a nice interface, but it doesn’t handle multi-episode content all that well.  The internet video plugins work seamlessly with the rest of the interface.  It has tie-ins with social networking if you feel compelled to tell everyone immediately exactly what you are watching and/or listening to.  But it’s missing a certain something. 

4) XBMC.  One thing that you have to admit about XBMC – its gorgeous.  Seriously, check out the screenshots and they don’t even do it justice.  If you like eye candy then there is really no choice other than XBMC.   Both XBMC and Boxee offer total control over your metadata, but XBMC is far better at automatically detecting your content and giving your some control over fine tuning the details.

XBMC also does an amazing job of handling multi-episode content by sorting shows into shows – seasons – then episodes.  It keeps track of what you have already seen and can even hide descriptions for stuff that you haven’t seen so that it isn’t spoiled.

While XBMC does offer an almost unlimited supply of internet content the integration sucks.  It is so bad as to be almost unusable.  Using the plugins that allow streaming off of sites like NBC and CBS completely destroys the continuity of the the eye candy.  Its like losing yourself in the beauty of Avatar and having jack Black wonder onscreen to tell a fart joke.  The rest of the experience more than makes up for this lacking so I’ll overlook it for now.  But at some point I may have to switch to another product just so that I don’t ever have to experience XBMC’s implementation of internet TV.

So that’s it – all of that work just to figure out that I need a Tivo and an HTPC running XBMC.    If you have noted that I haven’t gotten to gigantic challenge number 3 – making it all work together – you can tell that this is going to be a huge pain in the ass.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My Digital Life

I’ve been predicting for almost three years that the age of media (DVD, CD, etc) is coming to an end.  Digital is the way to go – and not just for music.

Streaming video content is becoming more than adequate for most users and fairly mainstream.  Unfortunately, nothing really works together the way that it should.  In my perfect world my home would have one device that serves all of my content to any device.

This isn’t really possible today – certainly not easily – but its getting close.  This post is going to serve as an anchor for a series of posts on how I make it all work together.

Here is the scope of what I am trying to do:

Everything digital – no media and make all of the video, documents, music and pictures available from:

  • All four laptops (his, hers and 2 kids)
  • All digital music players
  • TVs
  • Speakers (inside & outside)
  • Social networks

Oh, and I want to protect the most important stuff from a home disaster and the less important stuff from physical failure.

Doesn’t sound too hard does it?

At some point, I’d like to tie in some home automation stuff too (turn off/on lights, close blinds, etc, etc).  Some kitchen automation could potentially be interesting as well.

To start with here are some of the devices/services that I am trying to make work together:

  • Tivo
  • Windows 7
  • XBox 360
  • Wii
  • PSP
  • Zune
  • SanDisk MP3
  • XBMC
  • Flickr (only one account, but multiple people need to manage)
  • Facebook (at least 3 accounts)
  • Twitter
  • Comcast voice
  • Google Voice

Did, I mention that I also wanted all of our phone numbers to kinda work together too?

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Friday, January 01, 2010

It’s Getting Better All the Time

Whether or not you think 2010 is the start of a new decade, one thing that we can agree on is the explosion of editorials proclaiming that the last decade has been the ‘Worst. Decade. Ever.’

And I admit that there was a lot to be depressed about: 9/11 and the ensuing loss of civil liberties, Guantanamo Bay, Iraq & Afghanistan wars and general TSA nonsense.

The ever escalating War on Drugs and the militarization of the police.

Bush.  Medicare part D.  Exploding deficits. TARP. NCLB.

Obama. TARP.  Exploding deficits.  Basically Bush Part II, only more so.

Kelo and continued erosion of property rights.

Yet in spite of the constant encroachment of government into every aspect of our lives are lives have gotten immeasurably better.

The explosion of digital media: iPods, Netflix, streaming video, Kindle.

Ubiquitous cellular service and smart phones so that we can be connected everywhere all the time (unless, of course, you are an AT&T customer).

Social networks allowing us to keep in contact with those that we care about all the time.

Blogs – which for me, has given me a far better education that anything I have gotten in formal schooling.

Hybrid cars, long last batteries, $300 computers, high speed internet, HDTV, game consoles, self-checkout, Bluetooth, cheap storage, the emergence of Google, the re-emergence of Apple, medical advances too numerous to mention.

The list really just goes on and on.  So the next time you read one of those stories telling you how crappy the last ten years has been ask yourself – do you really want to go back and live with the stuff that was available in 2000?

I know that my answer is a resounding ‘No!