Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Dems Are Screwed

The premise of this post might seem a little odd, given how many of our GOP friends were recently shown the door. This fact is essentially a vote of no confidence in our government's leadership in Iraq, which is for many people, the ONLY issue.

Iraq is a boondoggle of epic proportions. We have opened Pandora's box. It's pretty clear that what we've been doing has been bad, but there's no obvious solution, either. The sentiment of America at this point seems to be, well, cut and run. The failure in Iraq has unquestionably brought tremendous political gains for the Dems at this point in time. But in the long term, the destabilization of the middle east can only bring public sentiment back to the Republicans.

At first glance this may seem like a counterintuitive conclusion. But there are several things to remember:

1) Many Americans equate the war on terrorism with the war in Iraq
2) Future terrorist attacks against this country are likely
3) The American populace has a short memory

So, what does the future hold? Anti-American sentiment in the Middle East is as strong as ever. Another terrorist attack on the United States seems inevitable. When this predictable future act of terrorism occurs, the pendulum will always swing towards the GOP.

After 9-11, the Republican administration capitalized on fear of terrorism to create unthinkable power in the executive branch at the expense of civil liberties and privacy. We, the citizens, mutely allowed this to happen, satisfying ourselves with such rhetoric as "if you aren't breaking any laws, then what do you have to hide." They generated broad public support for the war that most people now believe was a gigantic mistake. It is only recently, as the American body count tops 3,000 and we see only deterioration, that sentiment has shifted away from the war.

But what happens the next time we are attacked? It will be 9-11 all over again - except this time, the GOP will say "we told you so." Whatever happens will be blamed on Iraq, which is already considered a new breeding ground for terror. So consequently, the GOP can blame the Dems decision to pull out of Iraq (or to not send more troops, or whatever we do) for the attack.

My point boils down to this: Iraq is screwed. There is no good outcome, whether we stay or go. But the change in policy that is happening now (as a result of public sentiment) will be attributed to the leadership of the Dems. So the next time something bad happens, the GOP will blame the Dems' Iraq policy.

Of course, this is ridiculous. Iraq is screwed no matter what we do. But the average citizen has a short memory, fears terrorism, and believes that "an eye for an eye" is a great way to exist in the world. So the next time our backs are against the wall, the GOP just pulls the Iraq card - blame the dems for cutting and running, we told you so - and it's back in the high life again for the GOP.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Free as a bird

Somewhere between Portland, Maine and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on Monday, "Freebird", that altogether too familiar Lynyrd Skynyrd song came on the Sirius Super Shuffle. I love Sirius, by the way. Even the age of the portable music player has not entirely solved the problem of boredom on long drives. Traditional radio is almost useless, since you need to change stations every half hour or so, assuming you can even find something other than a right-wing religious talk show in much of the country. Satellite radio, while not entirely perfect (e.g. some channels suffer from heavy rotation on occasion), is a nice companion on long drives.

But back to Freebird. Perhaps it was the fact that this was about my 16th hour of driving in three days. But I started analyzing the (few) verses to this song. Such activities are usually a mistake. On the surface, there's not much to the story here. It's not like I was trying to make sense of Terrapin Station in an acid-induced haze, wherein the mysteries of the universe are revealed. No, this is just Freebird.

Anyway, I suddenly had this realization that the song has another layer. Perhaps this is supposed to be obvious, perhaps I just never bothered to think too much about the song. But on this day, it spoke to me in the way that only a cheesy, overplayed, excessively dramatic, multiple-false-ending rock-and-roll anthem could.

If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be travelling on, now,
'Cause there's too many places I've got to see.
But, if I stayed here with you, girl,
Things just couldn't be the same.
'Cause I'm as free as a bird now,
And this bird you can not change.
Lord knows, I can't change.

So the story seems simple enough. He's leaving his girl, trying to make excuses (it's not you it's me), blah blah. You've seen this all before. But really, there is much more. Our hero here is speaking from a place deep in his soul, a place where a raging conflict lives on. A conflict that can never be resolved, and is in fact the foundation of his sorry existence.

I'm as free as a bird, and this bird you cannot change

The protagonist proclaims his freedom, as the factor driving his departure. He must be free, and she will never change that. Lord knows I can't change.

Herein lies the unfathomable conflict that, really, prevents the narrator from ever truly being free. Freedom is necessarily at odds with the inability to change. How can one be free if one can never change? In fact, the hapless wanderer is trapped by his conflict, his past, his fear. He almost convinces himself that he is free, but there is a great irony underlying the claim. He speaks initially as one living for the moment, yet he belies his freedom with this painful admission of failure - he cannot change.

Bye, bye, its been a sweet love.
Though this feeling I can't change.
But please don't take it badly,
'Cause Lord knows I'm to blame.
But, if I stayed here with you girl,
Things just couldn't be the same.
Cause I'm as free as a bird now,
And this bird you'll never change.
And this bird you can not change.
Lord knows, I can't change.
Lord help me, I can't change.

Looking at the words in print, it becomes so clear. The final cry for help, the hand reaching from the raging sea as he slowly sinks below the surface. He is destined to live this cyclical life, like Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill every day. But unlike Sisyphus, he finds no solace in this pattern. He longs for true freedom even as he acknowledges that he has none.


Okay. Maybe that was altogether too much mental energy spent on Freebird... but strange things happen during the heart of a long drive...

Monday, January 29, 2007

About time... Verizon G'zOne

It looks like nearly 15 years after the mainstreaming of the cellular telephone, we've finally got one that does the only thing I've ever wanted one to do: survive. I've personally destroyed my mobile phones in many different ways. Of the nine or ten of these things I've owned since 1993, most were replaced due to destruction rather than obsoletion. Some were commonplace mishaps, like a simple drop on the pavement, or death by downpour. The most unusual was a freak accident, in which I got into my car and the phone slipped out of my pocket as I sat down. I pulled the car door shut at exactly the moment it was falling across the bottom of the door frame and crushed it like a cockroach.

Verizon has made available the Casio G'zOne and by all accounts, it can take a beating. Now, at $419 (retail) you can probably buy a half-dozen throwaway phones for the same money, but considering the frustration and downtime involved in getting a new phone, it might be worthwhile - especially for those like myself who are, er, hard on their phones. And I am sure that the Verizon associate will, without a hint of irony, try to sell you the accidental damage insurance on top...

This site has photos of stress-testing the gadget (thanks slashdot), and indeed it survives a rigorous battery of challenges that test Verizon's claims about the ruggedness of the phone.

Anyway, I'm a believer. I'm using a razr v3c now, and hate most things about it. It's already died once (and was replaced under warranty), but despite being a flimsy piece of crap, it's actually survived quite a few drops. So at this point the only excuse I have to drop $400 would be gadget envy... we'll see how long I hold out.

Monday, January 22, 2007

DRM 2.0

Digital Rights Management (DRM) gets a lot of press these days. DRM is what prevents you from being able to make copies of songs you buy from iTunes. I won't go into the whole history and complexity, since it's easy enough to find plenty to read. But the short version is, DRM is designed to prevent you from copying media. This could be physical media such as a DVD, or something you downloaded, like from Apple iTunes store.

The practical implication of this for most people is it's a pain in the neck to use music or video, for which you paid, in flexible ways. For example, you can't use something from iTunes on a zune (or any non-iPod device, for that matter). You can't "loan" a downloaded song to your friend. If there were a single DRM scheme that was standardized, it would still be inconvenient, but at least then you'd be able to use your music on different machines. However, there exist many, non-interoperable schemes.

The music industry has always defended these schemes as necessary to protect themselves against rampant piracy. Yet, rampant piracy exists, and continues unfettered. Movies show up on the internet sometimes even before they've been released in the movie theater, not to mention before any official DVD release! CDs have no inherent copy protection, and anyone can easily make freely distributable MP3 files from a CD. These facts don't sit very well with the music industry's rationale for DRM, which effectively encumbers the end-users ability to use music and video which they paid for, in a legal manner.

The truth is far more sinister. At last the music industry has admitted that DRM isn't really about piracy, it's about making money. They want to make people pay for the same thing many times over. What used to be considered fair use, the music industry aims to make technologically impossible, essentially making you pay for the same thing more than once.

The irony, of course, is that the pirates continue on their merry way, as they always have, whereas the actual paying customers get less and less value -- and logically, as one gets less value, one probably tends to buy such a product less. And as the DRM schemes become more complicated, very real problems are starting to crop up for people who are simply trying to use hardware and media they legally own in normal ways, as PlayStation3 owners are discovering.

Personally, I'm a music lover. I buy a lot of music, I see a lot of live music. I'm also a technology freak. I just bought my first iPod against my better judgment - an 8 gig nano - because it's such a cool little whisker. But I also own a 4-year old 60 gig Creative Zen xTra, which while not nearly as slick, is perfectly functional and is my car jukebox. I have no intention of getting rid of it until it dies. And finally I have a Slim Devices Squeezebox, which is by far greatest piece of music technology invented since the LP and anyone who loves music owes it to themselves to get one. So, you'll never see me shopping at iTunes for my music, since I won't be able to use it on any of those devices except the iPod.

Think about this. The way iTunes works is the equivalent of Sony trying to sell you CDs that would only work in a Sony CD player. Remember the Betamax? And iTunes goes one step further - it only works on your "CD player", not your friend's. Most people would laugh out loud at this idea as it applies to physical media. Yet Apple has only managed to get away with it so far because for a lot of people, the iPod is the "industry standard" MP3 player and they don't realize or care about this fact. And this has a wonderfully insidious marketing strategy for Apple, since they have made it very difficult for people to buy anything other than an iPod.

Well, there's evidence that this philosophy may change in the near future. Many independent record companies already sell their music DRM-free. (Ironically, if you buy the same music from iTunes, it comes with DRM anyway). But there are whispers of majors beginning to expirement with this idea. And despite the claims that piracy is the whole point of DRM, the impetus for this change is, yet again, money. Finally, a beleaguered industry is thinking about doing what any good business person knows without having to wage a multi-year, billion-dollar battle: provide you customers a good product at a reasonable price, and they'll keep coming back.

I suspect that Apple is starting to, well, crap in their pants at this idea, since the end of DRM for music means the end of the iTunes/iPod stranglehold on the digital music market. But this is nothing but good for us, the consumers.

New name

It seemed appropriate, since this is my place to dump all those little bits of technical trivia and solutions that I know I'll forget. It's the external hard drive for my brain, a backup for my fallible grey matter.

I also figured a blog called "kitty" would likely get me coming up in pornography search engines. Hmm, maybe that's a good thing for traffic..