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Archives for : May2008

Swing Hacks reprints… really?

I just got word from O’Reilly that they’re reprinting Swing Hacks in a couple of weeks, and want Josh and I go go over the unconfirmed errata that have piled up over the years.

Gotta say, I’m very surprised by this. Swing Hacks was a book I’ve always had kind of mixed feelings about. The parts I wrote are nowhere near as good as my QuickTime book, but it sells 10 to 20 times better. Also, there’s a newer and slicker book in the same space, Filthy Rich Clients by Chet Haase and Romain Guy (who are now, respectively, working on Flex at Adobe, and working on Android at Google).

Still, I can’t complain: Swing Hacks got me out of my royalties hole with O’Reilly from the QuickTime book, which never out-earned its advance, so now I actually get a little money every quarter from SH. Sure, it’s “don’t spend it all on one fill-up” money, but still, it reminds me that the book is out there and people still find it useful.

Holy crap, Tune Studio is shipping?

So, like a month ago, I was thinking I should blog with the bold prediction that the Belkin Tune Studio, which I’d mentioned once or twice, was never actually coming out. In a nutshell, my thinking was that having slipped over a year was a bad enough sign (software trouble interfacing with the iPod, perhaps?), but that more importantly, the annual refresh of the iPod line was looming for Fall, and this year’s could plausibly be the refresh where the classic iPod architecture gets dropped in favor of Touch devices. The Tune Studio doesn’t work with the iPhone or iPod Touch, presumably indicating that Belkin has put all of their eggs in the classic iPod basket, and limiting their viability to the continuing relevance and existence of that line.

Belkin Tune Studio

So, I’m so damn smart, right? Then how come the Tune Studio page now has a big ol’ “ADD TO CART” button, replacing the “coming soon” that had been there for so long? Surprise, surprise, they actually shipped.

And yet… I’m not getting one. It would have been really useful for the three conferences where I was recording sound this year: Mobile & Embedded Developer Days, the Java Posse Roundup, and JavaOne. But those are all done now, and I’m not attending any more conferences in any authorized-to-record-audio fashion for the rest of the year. Besides, if I need something like this, instead of a plug-in mixer, maybe I’ll get a portable recording rig, like the Belkin Podcast Studio.

Yeah, if that ever comes out.

Betwixt the novice-expert shift

I’ve been doing a lot more iPhone coding this week, finally putting together app logic (where I started with my iPhone work) with GUI. It’s starting to come together faster, and I find I’m remembering more details and making better first guesses, often in lieu of digging through docs.

I wouldn’t have said this last night, hung up on a problem with the navigation stuff. What I found is that a sample app I was working from is highly dependent on side effects and relationships expressed not in code but instead implicit in Interface Builder. Just work from the guides and be willing to build dynamic parts with code and it’s not bad at all.

A political math problem

Given that the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 10,578 on the first trading day after President Bush’s inauguration, and given that inflation during this period has hovered around 2.75 percent, where does the DJIA have to close on his last day in office to be able to say that stocks were able to stay ahead of inflation during his tenure? Monkeying around with a continuous interest calculator, it looks like it needs to be around 13,180.

Today, the DJIA opens at 12,992. So it could be close.

For what it’s worth, with the Dow’s conventional-wisdom historical average of 10% annual gains, continual interest says we should be at 22,300 today and 23,500 next January 20. Pretty sure we’re not going to get there. Not unless we retroactively remove all the current Dow stocks and replace them with Google, Apple, and Exxon.

WWDC Sells Out

WWDC runs out of room and has to stop taking would-be attendees (at, what, $1300 each?) Clearly the iPhone SDK effect, though WWDC had been showing consistent growth over the last few years anyways.

For me, the most interesting announcement is the fact that Apple will be putting sessions up for sale on iTunes “shortly” after the conference. Previously, a small number (boo) of sessions have been made available for free (yay), but usually months after the conference (boo again). Actually, the really interesting part about this “sessions for sale” thing is the fact that WWDC sessions, other than the keynote, are NDA’ed, and the conference as a whole requires ADC (or, now, iPhone Developer Program) membership to attend, and the content of WWDC is under that program’s NDA terms. So, when a session goes up for sale on iTunes, will its content no longer be NDA? And how short is “shortly”?

Oh, and check out the very ambitious DHTML schedules page, complete with animated slide from daypart to daypart. But don’t hit that page with your iPhone… I’ve tried twice and hung Safari each time. Perhaps there will be a WWDC iCalalendar we can subscribe to…

Flash! (No, not the plugin)

Over the weekend, I took the kids to see Speed Racer. We only made it through an hour — Keagan was repeatedly stage-diving into his seat and I worried we were annoying other patrons — and his fidgetiness speaks to the fact that the movie is too damn talky. I mean, we’re talking about the usual “evil corporations” plot, in this case trying to use the protagonist to fix races. It shouldn’t take that long to get across. But moreover, it’s another one of those “talk, don’t show” mistakes that you’d expect people like the Wachowskis not to make. Think back to the first act of The Matrix, how you were lured in by sequences like Neo in his cubicle getting a package, which contains a cell phone, which rings as soon as he touches it, and on the other end is Morpheus, telling Neo things about the police raid on his office as they’re happening, things that nobody on the other end of the phone call could possibly know… and with each exchange between the two, you’re thinking “what the hell is going on here?” Where the heck was that skillful story-telling in Speed Racer (or, for that matter, the second and third Matrix movies)?

That said, the visuals and the action and the sense of fun in the movie are underrated by the critics. Quinn is still saying “go Speed Racer go!” a couple times a day for no particular reason.

Roger Ebert’s review takes an unnecessary side-track into the minimal merits of the original anime series, apparently casting aspersions that it and other anime of the time were of a lower quality than other contemporary series. Having grown up at the time, I don’t buy it. I’ll take the low sheet count in the original Speed Racer for the sake of unconventional story elements, like the irony that Speed doesn’t know that his rival Racer X is actually his long-lost brother. To the Japanese, this has a bittersweet flavor that American TV in the 70’s, cartoons or otherwise, was incapable of. By comparison, I distinctly remember Batman and Robin having a chat on Super Friends… and by “chat” I mean that their lips and only their lips were moving, for two damn minutes… about why they couldn’t scale an eight-foot chain-link fence. By comparison, Speed Racer had cars frickin’ exploding in the opening credits.

Over on Anime News Network, Zac Bertschy points out what may be the most remarkable trait of the film: “it’s clear they’ve managed to perfectly emulate the unironic, impossibly sincere and simplistic storytelling of the original show.”

And that’s the element that makes it perfect for kids, and pisses off people who think too much about this kind of thing. There’s a wonderful quote I saw once — ah, thank you Google for finding it again for me — that Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play. Yet after a certain point, we resist this natural desire to treat our fun seriously. A sci-fi or fantasy film cannot take itself too seriously, the critics insist. I’ve never seen this position played better than it was by Mike Wallace, in an interview with Rod Serling, on the eve of the premiere of The Twilight Zone. The video’s on YouTube, with the critical question split right between parts 1 and 2, with Wallace following up a question about self-censorship versus doing meaningful work in the half-hour format by asking Serling, with absolute seriousness, “but you’re not going to be able to are you? You’ve given up on writing anything of importance for television.”

For what it’s worth, I consider The Twilight Zone to be the best TV show of all time, but that certainly wasn’t a popular opinion at the time. Sci-fi was Captain Video and Commander Cody… silly trifles for children. The idea then, and today, of fantastic elements being taken seriously still rubs people the wrong way. Write about poor people in the South, or lonely drifters in diners, and you deserve seriousness. Write about wars in the stars or mobile suits and you’d better have your tongue in your cheek. Or go camp. Or better yet, become a complete parody of yourself.

Yet how often does this approach actually work? Tongue-in-cheek rarely works — a Princess Bride is a once-in-a-generation thing — and usually the subtext that gets through to the audience is the voice of the producers saying “you’re a fucking idiot to be watching this shit.”

I think that’s what pisses people off about a lot of cultish entertainment: it dares to take itself seriously.

Perfect example of what not to do: Sci-Fi’s recent Flash Gordon series. Stuck with a license that the producers apparently had no belief whatsoever in, they changed so many of the details as to end up with a bad season of Sliders (and that’s saying something). Yet, knowing that what most people remember of the property is the gawdawful 1980 Dino Di Laurentis movie, they aimed for camp. Unsurprisngly, the intelligent viewers who came for the intense drama and dark political metaphors of the new Battlestar Galactica had no need for camp nonsense.

Much better was the 1979 animated TV series, which I recently picked up when Right Stuf had a sale on BCI titles. Looking at it today, it’s clearly the most faithful adaptation of the 1930’s newspaper comic strip, and despite numerous flaws, it’s clearly a labor of love on the part of its producers. The series has a number of fascinating stories behind it, not the least of which is that it started as a live-action movie which proved unaffordable to Filmation, which sold the live-action rights to Di Laurentis, in exchange for more money to make an animated version. The movie was shelved and re-cut into the first four episodes of the Saturday morning series, finally airing as The Greatest Adventure of All, shown only once, in 1982, in the middle of the night on NBC during a week off for Saturday Night Live. It’s practically the stuff of legend, by cleverly starting the story with Flash as a resistance fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto in WWII, discovering that Hitler’s getting weapons from another world, which eventually leads him to adventures on the planet Mongo. Someone dumped their VHS recording to YouTube, but it wasn’t licensed for the DVD box. Oops.

The DVD does describe some awfully clever tricks on the part of the usually-pedestrian Filmation to achieve visual effects way beyond the norm for 1979. They took models, painted black with white lines, ran them on wires while shooting on high-contrast film, then inverted the image to get black lines, skipping the pencil and xerography steps and being ready for painting. You can see the results, along with a hell of a lot of rotoscoping, in the opening credits.

Clearly, this project was a labor of love, and it shows. The first four episodes, cut down from the movie, are all you need to watch, as the rest of the first season really doesn’t go anywhere, and the second is dragged down by wretched changes requested by NBC, such as saddling the show with a cute mascot-type character. It’s also a sign of the times that NBC hated the show’s serial nature, as it prevented them from rerunning more popular episodes more frequently — remember, this was a Saturday morning cartoon, meaning they generally made 13 a year and re-ran them four times a year already.

The problem with a serial story at that time was that they didn’t have the creative freedom — or the faith in their audience — to have the story make permanent changes. They couldn’t alter the basic premise of the show, kill off main characters, or even have anyone learn a lesson important enough to matter the next week. Or, most importantly, end. It may have been good work at its time, and underappreciated then and now, but it pales to contemporary work from overseas. After all, in 1979, Doctor Who was in its salad days with Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor, wryly explaining to Romana atop the Eiffel Tower (in “City of Death”) that in the vintages of years, 1979 is “more of a table wine.” Blake’s 7 was putting the “anti” in “anti- Star Trek” with a fine, polished cynicism. And anime saw its biggest franchise launch in the form of Mobile Suit Gundam. Scenes like the famous Ghiren’s “Hail Zeon” speech, in which we see the reactions of a number of characters to a neo-fascist using his brother’s funeral as rallying cry to war, show a complexity, a nerve, and a desire for relevance that American television was nowhere close to in 1979.

After all, in that year, US prime time had the robot dog and “Hardy Boys in space” drivel that was the original Battlestar Galactica.

See how much better things can be when you take your premise seriously? And it only took us 30 years to catch up.

Apple TVii

Daniel posted a blog a few months back making the case for opening up the Apple TV via a public SDK, similar to the iPhone SDK. I like the argument, but as I think about it, I wonder about another option:

What if the next Apple TV were to be an iPhoneOS-powered device?

Imagine this. Start with the current Apple TV, but replace the OS with the iPhone’s touch interface, and then use a motion-sensitive pointing device like the Wii remote:

Apple TV+Wiimote

Then, just as you point at Wii UI items like channels and buttons today, you’d drive the Apple TV UI more or less like you use today’s iPhone. The accuracy of the Wiimote is about as good as the touch screen, and certainly quicker than the pedestrian up-down-left-right remote used today. Moving through lists of TV shows or podcasts would be far more pleasant with a flick of the wrist to fling the menu, just like a finger-flick on the iPhone.

Multi-touch wouldn’t be practical, of course, but you probably wouldn’t need the major multi-touch action — pinch to zoom — on a big HDTV screen, and the remote could incorporate some equivalent functionality, like a slider for zooming for example.

Big picture: open up the Apple TV to all the apps that are being written for the iPhone SDK (minus apps whose functionality is meaningless in a non-mobile setting, of course), broaden the reach of the iPhone SDK to developers, get more Apple TV boxes into houses and further the reach of the Apple-centric standards like H.264 and enhanced-for-iTunes podcasts.

Apple Insider reported on Apple filing a patent for a Wiimote-like controller, and speculated it might be for an Apple TV. Point it at a Cocoa Touch interface on an HDTV, and the result could be all kinds of awesome.

“One More Thing” for WWDC? A little doubtful after the redo that Apple TV got just a couple months ago, but if it’s the right product, why not?

Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)

Computer books headed to the library

In this picture: computer books (and three sacks of the late, great Newtype USA) that are going to the library as we lighten our load in preparation for a summer-fall-ish move to Michigan. As I move my development focus to iPhone and Mac, it’s an opportunity to part with books that I don’t expect to need in the future.

Going:

  • Java in a Nutshell, 5th Edition
  • CVS Pocket Reference
  • The Elements of Java Style
  • Mastering Internet Video
  • Physics for Game Developers
  • Adobe Flex 3: Training from the Source
  • Managing Projects with make
  • Java Foundation Classes in a Nutshell
  • J2ME in a Nutshell
  • Jini in a Nutshell
  • JavaScript: The Definitive Guide, 3rd Edition
  • Running Linux, 2nd Edition
  • Java Network Programming, 2nd Edition
  • Ant: The Definitive Guide, 2nd Edition
  • Java Threads, 3rd Edition
  • Java 1.5 Tiger: A Developer’s Notebook
  • Head First Design Patterns
  • Java 2D Graphics
  • Java AWT Reference
  • Java Swing
  • Core Jini
  • Hard-copy printouts of various Blu-Ray docs (going to plain-paper recycling instead of the library, of course)

Staying:

  • QuickTime for Java: A Developer’s Notebook (duh)
  • Swing Hacks (double duh)
  • Filthy Rich Clients
  • Cocoa in a Nutshell
  • Objective-C Pocket Reference
  • Version Control with Subversion
  • Learning Cocoa with Objective-C
  • Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X
  • QuickTime Toolkit, Vols. 1 and 2
  • Carbon Programming (this was on the fence… haven’t really needed it and hope not to)
  • Hands-On Guide to Flash Video
  • Zero-Configuration Networking: The Definitive Guide
  • Video Compression Demystified
  • Interactive TV Standards (another one on the bubble)
  • The MPEG-4 Book
  • Computer Graphics Using OpenGL, 2nd Edition
  • Final Cut Express HD 3.5 Editing Workshop
  • Producing Flash CS3 Video
  • Learning GNU emacs
  • The Little LISPer (sentimental value)
  • Computers as Theatre
  • Death March
  • Programming in Prolog (hell, you never know…)

If you want to rescue any of these before they go to the Cobb County Library System, find a way to get yourself out to our house in Marietta this week. Same goes for the nearly-complete set of Robotech comics and paperback novels. Heck, I’ll throw in a bagged set of original Watchmen comics that have been collecting dust in the garage.

Diskettes are quaint

So, I offered to help Mike get his first adventure game, LSJUMBLE II off of some old diskettes he got from a fellow Stanford band alum. I thought it would be as simple as getting a USB floppy drive from Fry’s.

Unfortunately, what he has are the 800 kb variable-speed double density diskettes, which are NOT supported by any of the USB floppy drives. Apparently, I’ll need to find an actual Mac with such a drive, and I sent my antique Macs to electronics recycling earlier this year.

Another question: if I can get at such a Mac (maybe at WWDC or the Apple compatibility labs) and make a disk image, how the heck am I going to get the data off the antique and into the modern world? The end of the floppy predates the inclusion of USB, ethernet, and wifi.

LocalTalk and MacTCP, anyone?

Mobile test

Testing a WordPress plugin to facilitate blogging directly from the iPhone…