g r o t t o 1 1

Peeve Farm
Breeding peeves for show, not just to keep as pets
Brian Tiemann
Silicon ValleyNew York-based purveyor of a confusing mixture of Apple punditry, political bile, and sports car rentals.

btman at grotto11 dot com

Read These Too:

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James Lileks
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As the Apple Turns
Entropicana
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Capitalist Lion
Red Letter Day
Eric S. Raymond
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Aziz Poonawalla
Corsair the Rational Pirate
.clue
Ravishing Light
Rosenblog
Cartago Delenda Est



Cars without compromise.





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 1/28/2002 -   2/3/2002
 1/21/2002 -  1/27/2002
 1/14/2002 -  1/20/2002
  1/7/2002 -  1/13/2002
12/31/2001 -   1/6/2002
12/24/2001 - 12/30/2001
12/17/2001 - 12/23/2001
Sunday, September 25, 2005
20:58 - Night on Mt. Hamilton

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Last night, through some kind of string-pulling on the part of a friend of mine, a group of us went up to Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton for a seven-hour tour of the facility, including two of the ten or so observatory domes scattered across the ridge at the top of the mountain.

Here's the observatory, the face that looks out over the bay and can be seen from anywhere in Silicon Valley:



And here's the view from there after the sun has gone down:



First we toured the 120-inch reflector, the big dome on the second peak with the late-50s architectural elements like flat metal banisters on cherrywood-paneled staircases in the foyer. Inside is this monster:



Then, once the sun had gone down, we went to the large dome in the main observatory building, the 60-foot-long 36-inch refractor that had been completed in 1887.



Almost 120 years old and still in nightly use. Most of the equipment and furnishings, including the guard rails on the catwalk around the dome and the spiral staircase up to it, are original. So is that gorgeous hardwood floor down there, which is on a hydraulic lift so it rises and descends to give the astronomer access at any height throughout the dome to the end of the telescope. All the hardwood planks are bent into that circular design and lacquered over; when the floor moves up or down, it's with eerie smoothness and quiet.



This is pure Vernian steam-punk chic right here: look at the huge dials on the axial mounts there. The astronomer would have had to call out coordinates to his assistant perched up on the central pier, and he'd turn those big ship's wheels to aim the telescope. "Bring it about to seventeen hours right ascension, Mr. Hawkins!"



Nowadays, the astronomer moves the telescope by hand, using the leverage available at the end and the counterweights at the middle; if you get it going up and away, an astronomer without a lot of body weight gets taken for a ride.

And under the hydraulics in the central pier is where the crazy philanthropist who endowed the place is buried:



We spent until midnight aiming the scope at cool stuff in the sky, ending with a view of the rising Mars.

There aren't many cooler ways for a geek to spend a Saturday night.

Friday, September 23, 2005
15:21 - Is that a bong-g? ...Oh, you have asthma? All right, move along...
http://musicthing.blogspot.com/2005/05/tiny-music-makers-pt-4-mac-startup.html

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Here's an interesting little article on the origins of the current Mac startup chime, first introduced on a 1991 Quadra, and composed by Jim Reekes, an engineer in the trenches who surreptitiously dropped it into the ROM:

After I changed the startup sound (which required much persuasion and working around the system) the ROM engineers continued changing it with each new machine. Some of them were weak, such as the Stanley Jordon guitar strum used on the first PowerMacs. I objected to it, because that sound had no "power". The engineer wasn't a recording engineer, and not familiar enough with audio. The sound was hallow and without depth. When Steve Jobs returned in 1997, I heard he wanted only one sound for all Macs. He wanted the "good one" which was the one I created. At least that's how I heard the story, and I was still working there at the time."

The article also links to MacTracker, a little app that I've had installed for a long time—it has the startup chimes for every Mac ever made, as well as the long-vanished "Death Chimes". Just wait'll you hear those: they're the saddest things I've ever heard, like an attention chime in the Airport of the Damned—and I can just imagine them haunting my dreams if I were a Mac programmer back in the 80s. (Especially that one model where the Death Chime, in its final incarnation before being retired, is a car screeching into a wall.)

The part of this article that someone was initially showing me, though, was this cover of "Stranger in Moscow" done by Transformer di Roboter, who used the startup chime as the ongoing bass line. The result is something that sounds to me like a cross between Dirty Vegas and Katamari Damacy, and it works really well. Definitely a keeper, I think.

This is the kind of thing that people outside the Mac community probably see as making about as much sense as collecting Magic cards; but for those within it, all this lore and pop-culture is as much a part of the computing experience as the startup chime itself. Although I wonder: since the advent of the nigh-crashless Mac OS X, has the chime lost some of its mystique, becoming less and less ingrained into people's minds as part of their daily lives, now that we hear it so seldom anymore?


13:27 - America, meet the new Dell Dude
http://www.dellditty.com/

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Well, John Gruber might have had trouble finding the official product page for the Dell DJ Ditty... but I guess that's because he didn't know about this site, which Kris found.

He warned me not to go there. I didn't heed his words. And I am sorry.



It's mind-numbing. From all appearances, they sunk more money into producing this website than they did into the design of the Ditty—and I'll be amazed if they sell enough Ditties to break even on it.

And "Instructor Mitch Ferrence"... wow. Is this supposed to be a parody of the dancing-silhouette iPod ads, somehow? I hope so, though I doubt it—because it's the only way I can fathom that Dell thought this would connect with any potential buyer in a positive way. If they're sincere... yow. Just imagine it: "I didn't buy an iPod because I didn't want to be associated with those dancing shadow guys on all the Apple ads. But—hey! This Mitch Ferrence guy is my dawg, yo! Sign me up for those full-length instructional videos on lip-syncing and disco dancing!"

Also notice how, in the videos, the narrator introducing each one tries so hard to make the ridiculous name of Ditty sound hip: "Introducing Mitch Ferrence—maestro of the Dell DJ Dit-tay!" I mean, they don't have much to work with, and perhaps the ad agency knew it; they must have been told they'd be going up against the iPod campaign, and the first-stringer ad-men must have deserted their posts and scuttled for higher ground, leaving behind only the interns and rookies too new to the business to know what happens to your land and loved ones when you try to out-hip a Chiat-Day blitz. It's a game attempt, I suppose, but (as Chris pointed out) there is nary even a photo of the Ditty that shows its screen with anything but a Dell logo on it. This much hand-fluttering misdirection and weaselly vagueness about the device itself... well, let's just say I don't think the Steve is pacing around at 3AM with hot toddies and Nyquil these days.

Remember the Dell Dude? We haven't seen much of him lately, have we? I guess Instructor Mitch Ferrence is the new guise under which he walks the earth.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005
17:07 - One day the cargo planes will return
http://daringfireball.net/2005/09/ditty

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Wow. John Gruber has the goods on the elusive, mysterious iPod shuffle killer, the Dell DJ Ditty:

12. Note footnote attached to claim in “Product Highlights” that the Ditty can pack 220 songs into 512 MB of memory, roughly twice the songs Apple claims can fit on a 512 MB iPod Shuffle.

13. Follow footnote to see explanation that this storage estimate requires encoding songs as 64 kbps WMA, which bit rate is half that of Apple’s default of 128 kbps AAC, and roughly equivalent in fidelity to that of transmissions carried over tin cans and string, but which, perhaps, is not a dirty marketing trick, but, rather, a fair assessment, considering that anyone with such profoundly bad taste in industrial design who would consider purchasing this device probably also has such bad taste in music as not to notice that their 64 kbps-compressed songs sound like mush.

14. Sit back and recall, with tremendously smug satisfaction, a decade’s worth of tech industry punditry holding that superior design would never get Apple anywhere, and that Apple should instead, you know, be more like Dell.

He's got a picture, too, which apparently took some effort to find. I guess Dell wants teachers to confiscate these from kids thinking they're Bic lighters. Which you know they'd do. I had campus cops swoop in on me from time to time for carrying a bassoon reed soaking in water in its case before first-period band.

Sheesh. DJ Ditty. Yeah, that's a name that'll roll off the tongues of the hip set. You know, every day I see another reason to be glad Apple never listens to the criticism of clueless naysayers and does its own thing.


11:16 - I wish I could set it to ISO 9000

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I have a question about digital photography that perhaps someone can answer.

Why is it that the ISO ("film speed") equivalency settings on modern digital cameras, particularly those with CMOS sensors (as in my Canon 10D), give you quality and performance so close to what you'd get with film of the same speed?



This is an ISO 1600 shot taken at the San Jose Giants championship game on Monday (they won). Pretty grainy, huh? Which is pretty much as you'd expect: there wasn't much light, and I was using a long lens without much of a huge aperture. Cranking up the ISO to 1600 was the only thing I could do to get a reasonably fast shutter speed.

But why does ISO 1600 on a CMOS sensor look just as grainy as ISO 1600 on film?

Is it by design, or an amazing coincidence?

These are two completely different technologies. ISO speeds on film, as I understand it, depend on fundamental limitations of film chemicals to react with light, and there isn't much that can be done to make an ISO 1600 film roll react as smoothly to light as an ISO 200 roll. But with digital, we're talking about an entirely different set of problems, right? CMOS technology keeps getting better... doesn't it? Who's to say that a CMOS sensor can't be made that reacts to light at a 1600-equivalent speed without going grainy?

Or is it that the photon density really is that low—that in the amount of light that enters the lens from a low-light scene, passes through a tight aperture, and hits the sensor in 1/250 of a second, there are really so few photons that there's a measurable distance between where one photon hit it and where the next one over did? I don't know the physical details well enough to know if that's what's going on, and it seems unlikely to me (I'd always been under the impression that even in the dimmest light, billions of photons were hitting any microscopic square of surface in any given millisecond). But maybe I'm wrong.

And maybe I could have kept from appearing so ignorant by doing a little research or some calculations or something. Hey, it's what I'm supposed to be trained for.

But even so, it seems that digital cameras ought not to be bound by the same restrictions as film cameras, and if CMOS sensors could be made to react that much faster without displaying graininess, just imagine how photography would change...

UPDATE: Several people have noted that what I'm seeing here is noise, not grain; and noise is a necessary side effect of cranking up the gain on the sensor when the signal-to-noise ratio is low, as in low light. Thanks to all who mailed!


10:57 - Blank Space Race
http://coldfury.com/index.php/?p=5777

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It's way too easy to make fun of NASA's latest Grand Aspiration: to return to the moon for only half the inflation-adjusted cost as last time, by 2018. But Mike at Cold Fury does it anyway, since just because it's easy to mock doesn't mean it doesn't deserve it.

This is what it's come to, then? Issuing reassurances to the public that it won't cost us anything in blood or treasure to make sure that the long-ago-hard-won Moon won't become Chinese by default, out of our lack of interest?

On the question of cost, Mr. Griffin said space represented a long-term investment that should not be sidetracked by immediate concerns of tight budgets and crises like Hurricane Katrina.

“We’re talking about returning to the moon in 2018. There will be a lot more hurricanes and a lot more other natural disasters to befall the United States and the world in that time, I hope none worse than Katrina,” Mr. Griffin said at a news conference.

This is the Moon, guys. Remember, the Moon? And you're talking about Katrina? In twenty years Katrina will be a blip, like any other local disaster with a media-friendly name, like Loma Prieta or the Good Friday earthquake/tsunami, and as easily recovered from. I know Mr. Griffin is having to answer questions from a press corps trying to win perspicacity points by raking together disparate nettling counterarguments from all across the news spectrum, as they seem to have discovered that a great way to get noticed is to stump a politician with a question like "Wouldn't you say that Social Security reform is an irresponsible path to follow considering that there have been unusually rainy Octobers in seven out of the last nineteen years that Republicans have been in office?" —and I know NASA may not have had to prepare any answers weighing its own future against Katrina relief, so this might have come as a surprise. I don't know if the guy would have said anything differently if General Honore had had his back. But regardless, this all tells me simply that NASA doesn't know what it's for anymore.

As Steven Den Beste once said, it's a fallacy for someone to say, "Hey, if we can put a man on the moon, then we can damn sure come up with an alternative to fossil fuels," or some such. They're totally different kinds of engineering problems. Putting a man on the moon is something we accomplished with the technology of the 1960s. In brutal honesty, there's not all that much high technology involved in putting people into space. Space didn't require the development of new kinds of physics or the discovery of amazing new sources of energy. There's nothing all that revolutionary about filling up a big tank with liquid oxygen and lighting it on fire. Space is all about math. Lots and lots of math. Whereas the Moon Shot was akin to the invention of the car in the annals of human accomplishment, the development of an alternative fuel source would be more like the invention of the Star Trek transporter.

Space wasn't about conquering Nature or ushering in a new technocratic Future, though those were side effects. It was about something else, something a lot more fundamental and parochial. It was a WPA project in all but name, a way for Americans to unite behind a common purpose that would pay off in scientific dividends secondarily, but grand theater above all. It's What We Can Do if We All Pull Together.

The Moon Shot, as I understand it from the perspective of someone born years after Man last set foot there, was never a practical matter when you came right down to it. It was purely a point of national pride: We gotta get there first. Never mind that there's nothing actually there. It's the principle of the thing. And that sounds terribly cynical, written in today's language... but at the time, it didn't have to be. People actually got behind it. A matter of pure vanity got hearts genuinely pumping, even on the evening news. And yet today, we're so steeped in self-effacing irony and the reflexive recoil from anything that looks like "propaganda" that just to even show reruns of "The Omega Glory" risks losing advertisers. We're too smart for such parlor tricks today. In this atmosphere, the entire point of going to the Moon is wasted.

Sure, I'd like to see it happen. I just don't think anyone—in NASA or in the general public—really knows the visceral, binding power of the concept of going to the Moon in the first place, and now they're just going through the motions as befits our faded interest in that whole anachronistic long-ago Future.

UPDATE: On the other hand, maybe things aren't so grim. Check out this reader e-mail to Dean Esmay, following many similar threads of thought, and Dean's quite compelling response.

I do think we've sacrificed a lot with our mad rush into sophistication and malaise and irony in latter decades; but I can't deny that I'd just as soon live today as back then.

Monday, September 19, 2005
12:57 - Afghanistan's gonna be all right

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Why? Because of the posters. Especially that one on the bottom.

I just can't be too pessimistic about any country that turns to superhero cartoonishness in its civic iconography. That's the kind of thing you see in a country with a happy future.

Via Kevin.

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© Brian Tiemann