The Real Star Spangled Banner?

Previous Trivia Answer: Noel Redding.

Today’s Trivia Question: Famicom is the Japanese version of what brand name?

I got to see my first Major League Baseball game in-person tonight. You would think that guy from Tennessee, someone who has walked the sands of Central Asia and the Nullarbor Plains in Australia, wouldn’t see his first MLB game as all that important, but it was. Partially for how it ended, but I will get to that.

I was in Boston on business for the day, and I was enjoying the view from the 22nd story window of my hotel, when I noticed some blazing lights in the distance, not far from where some clouds had gone down only a few minutes before. I quickly realized that a Red Sox game must be going on several blocks away, so I took the elevator to the ground floor, dodged the taxis, and made my way to the general location of the stadium.

I arrived only 30 minutes into the game and then gave John Stephany a call, since he was the only person I know would appreciate the fact that I was standing outside of Fenway while the Bo Sox where in a close race for the playoffs.

While leaning against the wall of Fenway and taking to John, I suddenly realized I was in a line to buy tickets. I waited until I got to the front and realized that I was in some sort of cancer survivor line that had formed around me while I was on the phone. The ticket guy quickly realized I wasn’t dying of anything right away (at least, not yet), so he let me pay the full fare for the cheapest ticket: $45.

And it was worth it. The game was back and forth through the first 5 innings, and then everything got quiet until the 9th. In the bottom of the 9th, the Boston fan started feeling it. You know: it. They started clapping with every batter, chanting with every chance at the plate, all until there were 2 men on, and then the atmosphere was electric.

Then, David Ortiz came to the plate for the Red Sox, and then everything fell in place. After a few foul balls, Ortiz hit one just to the right of the Green Monster and into the history books.

The crowd lost it. Everyone was hugging everyone around them. The guys behind me, which had been trying to figure out who was going to be hit with foul ball next throughout the whole game, started lifting everyone in a 3-seat radius up over their heads in a bear hug, elated over the outcome. Liberals hi-fived conservatives. Suburbanites shook hands with city dwellers. Someone threw beer on me.

All was right with the world.

Neighborhood Texture Jam = Show Not to be Missed

Previous Trivia Answer: Woodrow Wilson.

Today’s Trivia Question: Who was the bassist for the Jimi Hendrix Experience?

Right after the Chess Club (CD release show), I headed over to the NTJ gig at the Hi Tone. I only heard about the show because Doug Walker, the instrumentalist for Chess Club, told me about it; otherwise, I was heading home.

For those that are dead, or just don’t visit this site a lot, I’m a big fan of Neighborhood Texture Jam. They are not only a band from my youth (I stumbled into their first album release party, for Funeral Mountain), but NTJ is also a band from the annuls of Memphis alt rock/punk history. I think I will have a serious conversation 50 years from now about what it was like to Joe Lapsley and the boys, and I will have to wax eloquent for hours on end.

For free beers, of course.

OK, if you want to see photos of what I am talking about, check out the images available here.

Still with me? Good.

I actually overheard a conversation with Joe before the show. He was pumped for it, in the same confident, yet true, way an artist may approach his piece. He was wearing what looked to be a rented tux, and the nightstick in the cumberbund made immediate sense.

NTJ performed a rock opera for the first 35 minute. The 1st act was about the racial riots in Philly in the early-70s. A chorus from a song in the 1st act went something like: “We know know to get the job done; nightstick in the cumberbund.” Did I mention that Joe had a nightstick in the cumberbund of his tux.

The 2nd act had something do to with an Oedipal complex, but I couldn’t be sure.

The 3rd act featured a 7-foot model Japanese carrier and Joe singing an entire song while poking his eyes out with sharpened drum sticks and using blood bags for effect. The very last song involved Joe singing it as a ghost, hidden under a white lace sheet, atoning for his sins and wishing all of us to avoid them.

After the rock opera, Joe said, slowly into the mic, “Thank you for listening. Now we will play our entire regular show.” He then immediately changed into a Manhole shirt (club from Chicago), and NTJ played an entire show, even more intense than usual.

All in all, a magical evening.

Chess Club Does Rock

Previous Trivia Answer: Philadelphia (strangely enough)

Today’s Trivia Question: Which U.S. president is on the $100,000 bill?

I went to the Chess Club CD release party for A Generation of Pleasure Seekers last night at Neil’s. You normally couldn’t drag me kicking and screaming into Neil’s, which is strange, because it is only of the only bars in Midtown Memphis that I just do not enjoy visiting. I think it comes from the fact that it used to be a restaurant and wasn’t converted very well to a bar. Or maybe it is their frustrating sign outside that you have to look at every time you are stopped at the Madison-McLean stoplight that reads “Free Beer Tomorrow”. They really shouldn’t tease hot and thirsty Memphis drivers in the middle of July.

I work with one of the members of Chess Club, co-founder and keys-vocalist Doug Walker, but that isn’t enough to make me see over a dozen of their shows over the past three years. There is just something in their music that is infectious. You don’t sit around craving it, but when it comes on, it pulls you somewhere else. In a lot of ways, it is like a French movie or taking in an excellent art gallery. When the show is over, you’re glad you went, you’ve changed in a way difficult to quantify, and you can’t figure out how they pulled off what they did.

A Generation of Pleasure Seekers is Chess Club’s first real record. They’ve released singles before, as well as a self-produced EP, but the new album is the real deal. Produced by Jeff Powell at Young Avenue Sound, it is evident that everyone put in a lot of hours getting everything just right. The production really lifted up the masterful, yet quirky, songwriting of Doug and guitar-lead-vocalist Jason Barnett. On songs like the melodic, catchy Leche Marron, the thoughtful Boy On a Bicycle, and the Chess Club classics, such as Hey!, Hardcore Pink Hearts, and Apes, the album gives the group just a few milliseconds of clean, pure silence throughout the songs to pull the listener back into the flow of the music. I wouldn’t call it “cleaning up the songs,” but the end result is a smooth, yet textured, sonic tapestry that makes you pay attention.

Chess Club would probably be classified by most as pop, but like most labels, this one doesn’t stick well. Check them out on iTunes and see what I’m talking about. Speaking of iTunes, A Generation of Pleasure Seekers should be available there soon, but the Chess Club EP is available there now (search for “Chess Club”). The new album should be available at record stores throughout Memphis (and hopefully beyond) this week.

Sub-Eclipsed

Previous Trivia Answer: Chattanooga.

Today’s Trivia Question: What city in the United States has the greatest number of breweries?

Other than the Google Maps API, I’ve also been messing with Subversion (software used to automatically version and manage content, such as source code or web page objects) and Eclipse (an integrated development environment – basically, software used to help write software, though it can do a lot more). Today, I found a really useful document from IBM discussing, step-by-step, how to use Subversion inside of Eclipse.

Now, if they could just release a Mac Intel production release of Eclipse…

Kath got me some presents for our anniversary, including some very cool shirts (the girl has great taste, what can I say?) and a present that showed up yesterday: a 1 GB iPod Shuffle. (I didn’t get her anything – I am totally lame. I’ve been so busy lately that, while I didn’t forget about the anniversary, I just didn’t dedicate any time to working up a surprise present for her.) This is a reasonably good review of the Shuffle, one that I agree with.

I really have mixed feelings about the Shuffle. On positive side, it is lightweight, has no moving parts, is extremely small, can also be used to store non-music data files, inexpensive (I won’t feel terrible if I break/lose it), has great sound quality, and is very simple to operate. On the negative side, I’m slipping more and more into the Apple DRM nightmare, which ultimately will lead to a more confusing and controlled audio future. I already have hundreds of AAC files which, while they are not DRMed, force me to use a particuar advanced audio compression algorithm that is far from my first choice (AAC over, say, OGG). That is because, by default, the Shuffle, like all iPods, is restricted to playing only a limited number of audio file formats, including MP3, AAC, Apple’s own DRMed AAC, and some lossless formats).

Oh, well. There’s only so much I can do about that. However, something else does bug me about the iPod: that I have to use iTunes to get songs onto or off of it. I think that moving songs onto or off of the Shuffle should be as easy as just copying them from my computer’s hard drive to the Shuffle without any extra software. Thankfully, there does appear to be an answer for that. I’m thinking I’m giving the iPod Shuffle Database application a try. It allows you to copy your iPod-compatible audio files to the Shuffle without using iTunes and run a quick program to update the database used by the Shuffle to keep up with its songs.

Then again, I may wait for a while, just to see how annoying using iTunes is to move songs. Maybe I’m just making a mountain out of a molehill.

Google Maps and Geocoding

Previous Trivia Answer: 4. (From Wolfram Mathworld: A trapezoid is a quadrilateral with two sides parallel.)
Today’s Trivia Question: Which US city has the largest fresh water aquarium in the world?

I’ve been playing around quite a bit lately with the Google Maps API, using it to render Google maps, via HTML inline tags, inside websites I’ve been building. Suffice to say, like a lot of other stuff Google has made available to the, well, geek masses, I am really impressed with the power and flexibility of the tool. After getting a Google Maps API Key (currently free and required to use the Google Maps API to render your own maps) and reading the documentation (with its excellent examples), you can actually start creating custom maps right away and tying them into your existing location data.

Of course, I am a little concerned about the way this ties my various sites to Google, but I figure that, if you want to have this functionality, you are going to have to deal with someone. It might as well as a company with a slogan like “Do no evil.” (Seriously, that is one of the 10 things Google has found to be true and is part of its corporate philosophy.)

Recently, Google unveiled the ability to use its Maps API to do geocoding, which is the process of using non-longitude/latitude data (such as street addresses, zip codes, whatever) to get highly accurate geographical coordinates (essentially, longitude and latitude). I’m not sure if Yahoo Maps API offering geocoding to web developers was what pushed them to do it, but basically, the change allows programmers to programmatically look up locations and cache the geographical coordinates, which can be used to quickly retrieve future maps (retrieving a map is faster if you submit specific geographical coordinates over using address data, another few people think in terms of longitude/latitude; most people deal more with place names, addresses, and such).

it is really facinating to watch the intense competition going on between Google, Yahoo, and to a lesser degree, Microsoft, while they battle for the mindshare of web developers and programmers. Google definitely tends toward trying to get programmers on their side, by providing the greatest flexibility in how the underlying technology and infrastructure can be used. Yahoo has selected less technically-oriented web developers as their key customers, and they are focused more on making AJAX and Flash-based sites easier to integrate with Yahoo services. Microsoft… well, Microsoft is still really developing a strategy, but it appears to involve a close tie-in with existing Windows platform-based tools, like Visual Studio or Frontpage. Basically, you may, in the future, be able to get up a dynamic map in your Frontpage-built, IIS-served, .NET-powered web page simply by selecting that object in VS .Net. Woopie.

Photos Made Up of Other Photos

Previous Trivia Answer: Butter.
Today’s Trivia Question: How many sides does a trapezoid have?

One of the most fascinating things I’ve found on the Internet in the past couple of weeks is actually a new Getty Images (viral marketing) technique to get you to look at their photo collection (which is available, for a price, to be used in marketing materials or whatever). Check out Light, which puts you in a virtual environment to fly around and zoom into images to reveal even more images, and Information, which lets you continously zoom into an image until you have actually revealed another image, which you can then zoom into again.

(Both of these sites require Adobe Shockwave to be installed on your computer, which is a cousin to Flash, a widely-installed web plug-in. If you use Firefox as a web browser (and you should), you may need to install Shockwave manually, but you really need to have that plug in anyway.)

As you play with either of these sites, you will find out that the shading used in each of the images naturally decides the images from the collection used to make up that shading. After a while, you can start to predict the images that will appear once you have zoomed into a particular level. Still, it is pretty cool to be able to zoom into picture and see other images. Kinda reminds me of that Simpsons intro that zooms into Homer’s head, though atoms and then universes and ends up back at Homer’s head again. Anyone remember which season and show that was?

They Called It a Streak…

Previous Trivia Answer: Pete Sampras
Today’s Trivia Question: In a diner, when someone asks for “axle grease,” what are they asking for?

The Evil Petting Zoo streak is over. We had more than 6 people show up to play on the team last night for the P&H Trivia Tuesday, and so we split into two teams of 4, with one time taking the Evil Petting Zoo name, and the other team calling itself Evil Petting Zoo East (I played on that team). Well, long story short, we really ended up splitting the best trivia talent, and as a result, we both barely missed placing.

The streak consisted of at least placing (coming in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd) during each of the past 10 weeks. That means that you needed to go back to end of April to find a week where we weren’t in the money.

Oh, well. I guess it is time to start building a new streak!

A Lack of Value

Previous Trivia Answer: Brazil (which is the answer to just about any World Cup question)

Today’s Trivia Question: What men’s tennis player has won the most Grand Slam titles (14)?

Today, I meant to write about Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, a new movie Kath and I saw on the Giant Screen at the Muvico Peabody 22. There actually is a lot to say about this movie, which I really liked and goes a long way to illustrate what is right and what is wrong about today’s mass media culture (of which, this site is but a totally insignificant part). However, I’m forced to put off my thoughts on the movie to address something more annoying: the lack of apparent value provided by mobile communication providers, at least in Memphis. Kath and I went to investigate getting a second cell phone after the movie, and the experience left me shaking my head.

We all know that cell phones are a ubiquitous part of modern life. Everyone has one, even young people who have few other possessions, and many people have careers that depend upon them. Over the past few years in the US, the number of mobile communication providers has been shrinking, as the larger fish have been buying up the smaller fish. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, as it is part of the normal part of doing business. Consumers have come to accept the benefits and drawbacks to consolidation in various marketplaces. In Memphis, this consolidation has slowed somewhat, and there are really only a few providers of mobile communications that people have available to them: Cingular (which is really owned by BellSouth, and now, ATT), Verizon (the monster baby bell), Cellular South, Sprint, and a few other smaller players, such as Cricket.

I’m going to focus on Cingular, as I have the most experience with that company since coming back to live in Memphis in 2002, but I think my criticism actually touches each of the larger companies. And, while I actually like the service they provide, I don’t like the direction things are moving. Yes, my calls actually get through. They very rarely get dropped, and it is almost always a problem with the person I’m calling’s carrier. They provide good billing feedback, and they have a decent website to allow for as much self-service as I would like to do. But, I’m starting to wonder, are we all getting screwed anyway?

Cingular offers two kinds of service: pay-as-you-go service (called Go) and service tied to a time-based commitment (which can expire, but you are still tied to the terms of the previous commitment when it expires). The pay-as-you-go service only makes financial sense for a very limited number of people, and most of the people that use that service are only doing it because of poor credit or a lack of understanding of what they are paying for. But even people in a time-based commitment should really give some deep thought to what they are buying and why they are paying so much for it.

Here is a fact of retail: Most companies selling you products or services make most of their money from the middle of their product offerings. What this means is that, if Company X sells one widget for $10, a slightly better widget at $25, an even better widget for $50, and a top-of-the-line widget for $200, then Company X is going to make most of their money on the $25 and $50 widgets. The $10 widget will be widely purchased, but the profit on it will be so low that it won’t make much money. The $200 widget will make a good profit, but there is only a limited number of people that can afford it over the other widgets, which largely accomplish the same goals.

The mobile communications business is a shining example of this business in action. However, unlike other businesses, when even the savvy mobile communications consumer stays away from products they don’t really need or would be paying too much for, they are increasing getting screwed. It all comes down to how you use the device. If you get the most basic phone, you are committing to essentially $50/month for 2 years (once taxes and other fees are added in), which comes out to $1200, and that is only the case if you don’t go over the limited number of minutes you are given (currently 700 for the most basic plan). Plus the cost of the phone, which is about $50. If that seems like a lot of money to simply be able to have quick conversations with people for the next 2 years, that is because it is. That is a lot to pay for what is, regardless of what people have come to think today, a convenience.

More annoying is the fact that the high-end offerings really don’t offer much beyond what they offered a few years ago. Despite all of the talk of “3G” networks and quick Internet access in the palm of our hand, the reality is that high-end mobile devices continue to be (1) too expensive, (2) too proprietary, (3) too slow, (4) clunky to use day-to-day, and (5) more designed to separate you from your money than offering real value. A Palm Treo 650 with full service from Cingular will cost you at least $90 per month, just for voice and data, which comes to about $2300 for 2 years. Plus you have to buy the device for $350.

Can you check you email from anywhere (well, from most large cities)? Sure, but with a small laptop and a wi-fi connection, you can do it much more easily and be able to better reply and deal with attachments. Can you talk on the phone? Well, sure you can do that with a much cheaper device. Can you surf the web? Sure, but the experience on such a small screen and relatively slow network (when compared to cable and DSL) is painful. A lot of Treo users just don’t bother except for very specific things. Can you keep your addresses and other contact info in the phone? Sure, but you could do the same in a cheap $100 Palm PDA for whole lot less.

In short, the pace of mobile technology, considering both the devices and the speed of the network needed to utilize them, has not kept pace with computer-based technology over the years and continues to fall behind. This is largely because of the increasing control the ever-shrinking mobile communication companies have over the marketplace. These companies dictate what kinds of devices their manufacturer partners will make for consumers. In addition, mobile communication companies maintain a pretty strong grip on how their network is used. You aren’t likely to see a problem with file sharing on a mobile network, largely because it is more efficient to do that on a standard, wired Internet connection, but also because mobile companies don’t have to put up with it. In fact, they don’t have to put up with anything that doesn’t tie their customers to them for a long time, providing them just enough features not to transfer their service to the shrinking number of other providers in the immediate area.

Unlike areas like computers, we are unlikely to see positive disruptive technologies to shake up the marketplace and make mobile communication providers give more value to their consumers. This is why Cingular and other companies turn off the wi-fi capabilities of the Treos they sell: if you use your device on another (better) network and aren’t eating your minutes, you aren’t contributing to Cingular’s bottom line. This is also why, though the branding and retail marketing of mobile devices by mobile communication companies, you aren’t likely to see any kind of truly useful unified device any time soon. You know the kind of device I mean, one that will let you communicate how and when you want, in the way that you want, and provides hooks into other types of technologies (such as GPS) that will allow you to do more with less effort.

The potential exists, technologically, for a reasonably useful and affordable unified device to be made available in about a year. However, I don’t expect them to become widely available in less than 5 years. Too much money can be made in making all of us pay through the nose for upgraded features we really don’t need while we stay in line, waiting for the marketplace to provide the answer to our prayers. But, much like the electric car, it simply isn’t in the best interest of the the shrinking number of companies that sell mobile products and services to give us what we really need, especially if we are more than willing to pay for stuff we don’t need and will reap those companies a bigger reward.

Like most of the times the marketplace fails the consumer, we have only ourselves to blame.

In the end, Kath and I walked away from getting a new mobile phone. We may look again later in the year, but I won’t get my hopes up. We simply need many more people to say, “Enough! I’m tired of paying more and more for the same old thing. Give me something new and better or I’m not going to pay you anything.” Until then, we should all just be prepared to wait.

Do You Want to Play a Game?

Today’s Trivia Question: What was the first country to win two consecutive World Cups (1958 and 1962)?

I’ve learned something interesting about blogging, namely, that it is like a lot of other useful things that you might do on a computer: Any activity for which you can get paid for doing with a computer, such as programming, will trump any non-paid activity, such as blogging.

I’ve been burning the midnight oil a lot over the past few months working on various for-hire programming efforts. I’m trying to develop a strategy to that will allow me to write on this site daily, in spite the fact that I spend too much time in front of a computer anyway.

Speaking of computers, as any reader of this site might note, I’ve talked in the past about the potential of the Intel-based Macs, and I’m writing this on a relatively new MacBook. In short, I can say that all of the hype wasn’t really hype at all; the machine performs wonderfully and is easily the best computer I’ve ever owned. More on that later.

The new format for my postings will involve a trivia question and then an update on what I’ve been thinking about, playing with, enjoying, or whatever. Each trivia question will be answered the following day, but feel free to post your answers to the trivia question in the comments.