Tuesday, January 31, 2006

King spins into her grave

Normally one expects a little rest between the time you day and the time something happens so terrible that you find yourself spinning in your grave. Such is not the case for Coretta Scott King, who died just hours before Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court, hereafter to be known as The Court of Shame and Infamy, marked the end of any progress in human rights in this country for the foreseable future. And thus King started spinning before she even made it to the coffin.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

the good, the bad and the icey

While I don't care for macho sports like football or boxing, I have developed a fondness for the more elegant sports, notably figure skating. In the same week I saw the best and worst figure skating television broadcasts I have ever seen.



The worst was on ABC. It was just listed in the TV guide as "figure skating," and listed as a sports show, so one would expect your basic skating competition. But instead there was some bizarre artsy pseudo documentary whatsit. Rather than just showing the event, they tried to make it into some sort of story. They would show chopped up routines, sometimes most of a routine, sometimes just a few seconds, and often the skater would be shot in a closeup that prevented you from seeing what she was doing, or they would use some weird filter or make the screen glisten. This was intercut with backstage moments in which skaters and their coaches and families were talking (at one point you only see a routine on the TV another skater is watching), and then there's a narrator filling in the gaps and trying to make it dramatic (apparently ABC doesn't see a skating competition as inherently dramatic.


It was the sort of special someone would create in a sitcom. You know, there's some kooky character - Diane from Cheers, Kramer from Seinfeld, Jack from Will and Grace - in some fluke lands a job directing sports, and says, "people don't want to see the same old thing, they want it jazzed up and made into art." And then they make some crazy bit of nonsense and they get fired.


A day later, I saw Hilton Skating And Gymnastics Spectacular. I missed the first half hour (I just tuned into it accidentally), but I see Bravo is reshowing it (it was originally broadcast on NBC).


A combination of the two best Olympic sports, this was an all-star lineup of Olympic medalists getting together for a flashy exhibition. For the most part gymnastics and figure skating alternated, but in some cases they would perform synchronized routines. The gymnastics was not so much Olympic routines as Ed Sullivan show routines, with all sorts of crazy leaps and spins and gymnasts tossing other gymnasts in the air. The most memorable figure skating routine involved a giant cube as a prop, and must be seen.


The only weird thing was the final number, sung by some American Idol loser (excuse me, runner up). Even though it was an international collection of skaters, the final song was America the Beautiful, as though the Hilton's wanted to say; you foreigners are great, but we're still going to whip your ass in the next Olympics. But all in all this was everything I want in skating and gymnastics. And there wasn't a single weird filter or artsy edit in the whole thing.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Roberts - the new Scalia?

It is disturbing that in the Supreme Court's ruling that the federal government can't prevent states from permitting assisted suicide that the court's two most conservative members were joined in the dissent by new Chief Justice Roberts. The hope was Roberts would not just be another Scalia, especially since likely current nominee for the court Alito almost certainly is, but hope is fading. If Roberts is, as it now looks, a third Scalia (following longtime Scalia wannabe Clarence Thomas), then we will have four Scalias on the court, which is four more than should be on any court. Be afraid, be very afraid. And for god's sake call your congressmen and tell him to block Alito.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Justice Alito: say goodbye to your freedoms and rights

The New York Times has a good editorial on supreme court nominee Alito, pointing out that his testimony, often referred to in the press as cautious and non-controversial, is actually pretty worrisome. I'm really pretty scared of this guy. I feel the US. is on a precipice, ready to plunge into something between a 1950s-style America of repression, blacklists and a clamping down on free expression and liberties,and the version of this country portrayed in The Handmaid's Tale. Unfortunately the Republicans are so powerful that they can really rewrite this country now, twisting it to their will. I think the only chance we have to retain any true semblance of American freedom and Democracy is to get the Republicans out in the next election, but I have no confidence in spite of all the Republican corruption scandals that the Democrats are prepared to make a strong enough case to the American people to convince them there is a viable alternative to Republican sleaze. With Alito on the court and Republians probably still in charge for the next decade I think you can expect this country to be completely trashed, a resort island for the rich in a sea of poverty, misery and oppression. And I hope I'm wrong, but that's the way we're heading.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

New TV series, final verdicts on 2005

This fall has been notable for all the pretty good but not great series that I felt borderline about. The Night Stalker started well but jumped the shark in the forth episode. I kept giving it a chance for a few more episodes based on its early promise, but finally decided to give up when episode 7 seemed, while not as bad as the last couple, just dull. But it turned out to be the first of a two-parter, so I thought, well, I'll watch one more and then stop. Then ABC canceled it. That's right, they showed part 1 and then canceled it before airing part 2. Pretty obnoxious, huh?


Last I heard, the networks had only canceled two shows, Night Stalker and Threshold. I'm a little sad about Threshold, because it had good characters, but I'm not brokenhearted by any means. Threshold wasn't a must-see show, but I did like it, and it was certainly better than the non-cancelled Supernatural, which I remain borderline about. For me, character is important in a show, and Supernatural's generic pretty boys just don't do it for me; the show feels like it was designed in committee. It's watchable, but I'm just not excited about it.


Of the dramas, the one that turned out best was Bones, which gets by on its interesting characters, most notably Dr. Temperance Brennan. My first take on Temperance was she was a hot chick version of Dr. House, but as I continued to watch I thought that with her amusing confusion regarding popular culture and her distanced yet sincere approach to people she's really more like a hot chick version of Data from Star Trek: Next Generations. She's funny, she's likable and she has good chemistry with the FBI guy. And the stories are getting a little more interesting. Still a little contrived and obvious, but at this point the drama I would most miss.


I also took a quick look at Ghost Whisperer. It was critically panned but is a big hit so I thought I'd take a look. It's blank, soft-headed and soft-hearted and quite tedious, at least from the half of an episode I saw; more Touched by an Angel than Medium.


The most notable shows this year are both comedies, My Name is Earl, which I think is the funniest show of the season, and Everybody Hates Chris, which runs a close second. It took me a while to see Chris, because there were shows I liked opposite it, but now I can finally write my mini-review of it, along with a couple of the new replacement shows.


Everybody Hates Chris


Premise:Everybody hates Chris, obviously.


ReviewIt's tempting to compare this show with Wonder Years, since they're both about young boys who grew up in previous decades and both narrated by the adult versions of those boys, but Chris is a much less sentimental, nostalgic show with more edge to it. I would say they're probably equally good, although I might like Wonder Years better simply because I grew up at the same time in the same sort of suburbs. But Chris is very funny. I've never cared much for its overrated creator Chris Rock, I don't think he's that funny and he strikes me as awfully misogynistic, but the young Chris hasn't acquired that disturbing anger that defines the older Chris, making him much easier to relate to. Perhaps as the show goes on we'll see him become a bitter, successful comic.


InJustice


Premise:Sometimes innocent people actually go to jail. Someone should try and get them out!


Review
This has potential. While every other crime show is about a brilliant investigator bringing down a criminal, this is about a brilliant lawyer freeing the unjustly incarcerated. An organization lead by a flamboyant corporate lawyer (with perfect flamboyant, successful lawyer hair) played with gusto by Kyle MacLachlan investigates cases where the wrong person may be behind bars. I've only seen one episode, but it was pretty interesting. It's a very television view of law, in which you prove someone is innocent by finding the real culprit, and the first episode gets a little too fancy in the reason the injustice happens (apparently over-eagre DAs aren't enough), but it's got a lot of the fun investigation quality of the Law and Order shows. I also like it's rather progressive nature and suspicion of power and authority, so I hope they keep doing a good job and have some success. Anyway, I always like Kyle so it's nice to have something to watch him in.


The Book of Daniel


Premise:Jesus thinks you should stop taking tranquilizers.


Review:I was so looking forward to this based on the commercials. It looked like a sort of Desperate Housewives soapy comedy about a priest who deals with a bunch of crazies and has face to face talks with a witty, irreverent Jesus Christ. It's a shame the person who put together the ads didn't put together the actual show, which is one of these sincere, Everwoodish dramas. Even Jesus isn't really that witty; the ads edited his dialog for more punch, but the conversations themselves are genial and sometimes light hearted but not especially funny. I got bored and stopped watching about a third of the way through the two-hour premiere.


Four Kings


Premise:Four guys hang out and hope their show doesn't get canceled?


Review:I only watched about five or ten minutes of this, it struck me as another of the bland, generic, unfunny comedies that are flooding our airwaves. I couldn't be bothered.

Outlook 2002 vs. Thunderbird 1.5

I have just tried my most complete dalliance with Thunderbird, the free open source mail reader by the same organization that brought you my favorite browser,



I had looked at Thunderbird before, but had decided not to use it because it has no calender. This was especially important in therms of my PDA, which I would sync up with Outlook. There is a calendar extension for Thunderbird that is quite popular, although at the moment on the Thunderbird site it has a low user rating because so many people are angry that it hasn't been upgraded to be compatible with the latest versions of Thunderbird. But it wasn't a complete solution ayway.


I decided to give Thunderbird a try after my PC died and I went to a backup. While I was using a different hard drive and thus didn't have all my saved mail, and since I have taken to carrying a Nintendo DS instead of a PDA, I figured what the hell. When I got my old hard drive (in my backup PC) I started using Outlook again, but at some point when checking memory usage with the task manager it looked as though Thunderbird used less memory, and since I only have 256 MB in my backup PC memory is at a premium. So I actually imported all my mail from Outlook into Thunderbird and used it for several days.


This comparison is between Outlook 2002, because I don't have 2003, versus Thunderbird 1.5, which is actually not quite released. If you go to the website you will see they only have an earlier version. I can't recall where I found 1.5, they don't make it that easy to find but I found it somewhere, probably through google. There's actually a 1.6 Alpha version floating around now that I haven't tried.


Memory Usage

First off, I was wrong about the memory. Both programs are constantly taking memory and giving it back. When I first had them running I saw Thunderbird at about 20,000 KB and Outlook at 40,000, plus I had a program called K9 running to deal with spam in Outlook, and that was another 9,000. But as I kept testing I found that both programs would, depending on what they were doing, go up to around 40,000, and while Thunderbird would drop down to 15,000 from time to time, Outlook would, when minimized and not doing anything, drop down below 10,000. The memory issue became even less significant when I decided to see what other people thought of Outlook versus Thunderbird and found a very good rundown that mentioned an anti-spam add-in for Outlook called SpamBayes that can be installed into Outlook. This meant I no longer had to run K9.


Spam Filtering

Thunderbird has good internal spam filtering, which now also includes support for SpamAssasin, which helps evaluate spam somehow. Outlook 2002 has some simple junk filtering but it's not good for much, but with the discovery of the free add-on SpamBayes I now have integrated spam filtering in Outlook. I just started using SpamBayes, so I can't say how good it is, but it seems promising so far. Unfortunately it lacks support for anything like SpamAssasin and also lacks DNS blackhole list support (these are lists of known spamming domains). (Thunderbird also doesn't support the DNS lists.)


Stability

In terms of stability, Thunderbird wins hands down. Outlook has always tended to freeze and crash on me. To make matters worse, any time it crashes, the next time you start it there's a diagnostic process that, with all the mail I have, takes several minutes, during which time I can't use Outlook. This is typical of Microsoft products, which always approach any system crash by doing something annoying that takes a long time. It often does this recover thing even though it was closed normally; sometimes Outlook just gets into a state where it always feels it crashed and starts up with the recovery thing every damn time. Thunderbird is less prone to crashes and freezes and if it does crash it doesn't take extra time to restart.


Filtering
Outlook by a mile. Outlook supports very elaborate filters. For example, I belong to a Freecyle New York Yahoo group from which people can offer stuff they're throwing out. I have a filter in Outlook which looks for freecyle emails with offer in the subect (you can also post "wanted" requests, which I filter out and which also has one of a number of items I'm specifically looking for (a receiver, a disk of Outlook 2003, etc.). This can't be done in Firefox, which has a much less sophisticated filtering system. The best I could do was create a folder for all freecyle mail (with wanted filtered out) and then create a search folder that searched for items I want. A search folder is a neat thing where you can create a virtual folder that looks for specific things, for example, a search folder that shows all your unread mail. Back when I used to use Entourage, Microsoft's vastly superior mail reader for the Macintosh (for some reason Microsoft's Mac division makes better software than their PC division, at least in terms of Microsoft Office), I could see all my unread mail or flagged mail at a glance, but in Outlook 2002 there's no way to do that. On the other hand, I just learned that Outlook 2003 has their own search folders, which is why I'm hoping someone will give away an unwanted disk of it on freecycle. Thunderbird's search folders are imperfectly implemented so I'd be curious to see how Outlook does it.


Datebook integration

Outlook has really good datebook integration. You can actually drag an email into the calendar folder and it will pop up with an appointment with the email in the body, which I thought was incredibly neat when I stumbled across it. The Calendar is really good, you can easily drag appointments to different dates and other good things. For Thunderbird 1.5 all there is now is ReminderFox, a very basic extension that keeps track of appointments. It's an admirable attempt but rather clunky.



Address book
I like the way you can create and manage multiple address books in Thunderbird. I could make a friends address book, a business address book, etc. and populate them from my main address book. This was useful because I could then have a friends mail folder and just say, any mail from this address book should go to that folder. You can create multiple address books in Outlook 2002 too, but it's a pain and you can't work with multiple address books at once, so there's no way to divvy my existing addresses into new address books. So while if I had a populate friends address book I could indeed use it to send friends emails to a specific folder, it would be hard to set up (right now I just filter for individual senders). On the other hand, Outlook has categories, which is handy. If I could filter for email from people in specific categories I'd be all set, but I can't.


Thunderbird also doesn't have a built-in way to add addresses to an address book. There is an extension that does it, but it doesn't seem to be good at recognizing when you're putting in a duplicate, although I only tested it a little so perhaps it's better than it seemed. It's also not been upgraded for 1.5, but another extension called MR Tech allows you to force install extensions, and doing that I found the add contacts extension works well except for the duplicate thing. But Outlook does a better job of adding contacts.


Security

People claim Thunderbird is more secure, and I have no idea but I thought I'd just mention that. I have Outlook set to be careful about attachments and not run anything when I open an email, so I haven't had any security problems, and I suspect the people concerned about security are as careful as me and aren't really having problems with Outlook either.



Conclusion

As much as I would like the free, open source Thunderbird to be better, it is trounced by the corporate giant. I don't know how it compares with Microsoft's free Outlook Express though, so perhaps for those who don't want to pay extra for a mail reader it's a good bet.


I suspect someday Thunderbird will surpass Outlook, but it will take a while. Firefox is so good because so many people are coding for it, taking on additions and creating extensions to allow you to do an incredible number of things. Extensions are a main selling point, something Microsoft has never really understood. Even when I tried looking around for an integrated anti-spam filter for Outlook I couldn't find one until yesterday, because Microsoft doesn't offer a central location for that sort of information. This is very stupid of them; if they embraced the amateur coder community they could have much more useful and powerful products, but Microsoft is a control freak and seems to hate encouraging outside code. Anytime Windows Media Player 10 crashes, perhaps just because the PC crashed, when you restart the player it turns off all your plugins. Microsoft's disdain for add-ons is, IMO, a major failing that will become more and more of a hindrance if they don't rethink things.


Right now there aren't nearly as many extensions for Thunderbird, and I think that's simply because not as many people are interested in using it, so there are less people working on improving and modifying it. But as Thunderbird improves, more people will use it, and more stuff will be created for it. Once there's an integrated calendar that syncs with the popular PDAs, which is being worked on, a lot of people will make the jump. Eventually there will be a tipping point in which Thunderbird is so close to Outlook that open source fans will start jumping over in droves and there will be a huge increase in extensions and improvements, and then Thunderbird will start pulling away from Outlook. But from what I see I don't expect for that to happen for at least another year. But someday, I suspect, I will come back to Thunderbird.