Glenn's Junk Chest

An assortment of Glenn's writings, photography, gaming resources, flash movies, and other creative output.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Blog: Thousand Visits

Well, Glenn's Junk Chest just had its thousandth visitor, which is cool. One additional cool thing is that the anonymous Ms. Thousand wrote a truly great comment on the piggy bank post, so the occassion was marked by something more than just a blip in my logs.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Family: Cracking Open the Piggy Bank

When I graduated from high school in 1987, one of the graduation gifts I was given was a small wooden chest. I don't have as much detail on the chest as I might like, but it was brought over to America from Europe by one of my paternal ancestors, and so is quite old, if not exactly valuable. Not having any immediate use for it, I kept important papers in it for a while, and then decided to use it to store spare change.

The Mighty Money Bin
All of my spare change, in fact, for the next ten years or so. During that time, I ate a fair amount of fast food, and it seemed like every time I'd pay with cash, I'd get a bunch of change, and then I'd stick it in my pocket. Periodically, I'd notice that my pockets were too full of change, and I'd drop it in the box. I'm not really dedicated to any kind of coin collecting, but when an interesting coin came my way, I'd throw it in the chest as well. The resulting box full of money was actually kind of fun to play with, in an Uncle Scrooge's money bin kind of way. (Something I'd always wanted.)

Eventually, the box was too full of change to be used for important papers anymore. I got married, stopped eating so much crappy food, and the rate of accumulation slowed, then all but stopped. (When you buy food at a nicer restaurant using a plastic card, there's rarely change, after all)

Recently, money's been kind of tight. Very recently, it's become extremely tight. Enough so, that we've made some tough decisions, like giving up our South Beach diet (meat is expensive) and deciding not to go to Gen Con this year. And with some sorrow, I decided to convert the contents of the box into something more spendable. Liana, the kids, and I spent about an hour and a half sorting through the coins, removing all the silver dollars, half dollars, Aladdin's Castle tokens, and miscellaneous foreign coinage. When we were done, Liana suggested weighing the bag, since it was nearly too heavy to lift. How much does 15 years of pocket change weigh, anyway?

It turned out to be 78 pounds, about as heavy as my two daughters combined.

How much is that worth? I wondered. Trying to be conservative with my wife, I guessed two hundred. On the phone with my brother, I was less guarded, and I guessed four to five hundred. The actual total of 1430 quarters, 2027 dimes, 1261 nickles, and 5296 pennies was six hundred seventy six dollars and twenty one cents, which, while it doesn't solve any of our longer-term financial problems, will certainly buy a lot of groceries.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Gaming: Spike's Journal Updated

I've written a new entry for Spike's Journal, which has just passed 2000 visits. Occassionally I check the logs, and I find it gratifying that with fair frequency, people stop by and spend more than an hour reading the story so far. According to a recent commenter, Spike's Journal has been mentioned in the back of Knights of the Dinner Table #98, which is nice if true. My wife is going to track down a copy for me.

It's actually proving to be something of a writing challenge, however, because of the unpredictable nature of D&D games. It's hard for me to foreshadow, for instance, or begin new plot threads, when I don't yet know what's going to happen, and can only control it to a very limited extent. Hell, the party has come close to dying twice, so I have to wonder what exactly I'll do if Spike should cash it in. That said, it's been a very rewarding experience, and I'm beginning to hope that I can follow Spike all the way through the dungeon. Time will tell.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Clotho: A Slashdotting, Once Removed

Many of you will already be familiar with Slashdot, a website that posts "news for nerds" touching on many topics, including new gadgets, video games, biology, physics, politics, copyright and other topics that are of interest to the nerdy. The site is so popular, and receives so much traffic, that when there is a link from a front-page article to another website, that website often can't handle the huge traffic generated from Slashdot and goes down in flames. This is referred to as being "slashdotted".

Some of the work that my company, Clotho Advanced Media, Inc. does for UW-Madison is fairly innovative, and Preston (my brother and Clotho's chief architect) was at an Accelerate Madison gathering last night, and spoke to reporters, and was quoted in an article about how video games can be used to teach, and the article linked to Clotho's main website.

That article was then linked from Slashdot, because news about how video games can be used to teach is exactly the sort of thing that Slashdot likes to link to. So, not quite a slashdotting, but only one degree of separation away from one. Maybe next time.

Now, that was enough to put some of us at the office into a flurry of activity. We make a product that converts MediaSite video presentations into Flash video presentations, so we'd like to take the video of last night's presentation and present that online as quickly as possible. In addition, the application development that Preston indirectly refers to using the Neverwinter Nights game engine is my project for the UW-Madison, which is only just getting started, and I don't have anything to show yet.

So, no pressure.

Wiki: Wowzers

So, thanks to my office, I've been forcefully introduced to Wiki. Wikiwiki is the Hawaiian word for fast, and the idea is that wikis are supposed to be the quickest possible way to create a collection of interlinked web pages. HTML has been replaced by a sort of simple shorthand that's very human readable, even in its unprocessed form, and highly functional (even attractive) in its processed form.

A wiki page might be entered like this:

==Wikis are Fun!==
===About Wikis===
Wikis are a very cool way to write a lot of [[web pages]] very quickly.
* They use a human-readable syntax.
* They are usually editable by visitors.

And should then look like this:

Wikis are Fun!

About Wikis

Wikis are a very cool way to write a lot of web pages very quickly.


  • They use a human-readable syntax.
  • They are usually editable by visitors.

For comparison, the HTML for such a thing would probably look like this:

<h2>Wikis are Fun!</h2>
<h3>About Wikis</h3>
<p>Wikis are a very cool way to write a lot of <a href="">web pages</a> very quickly.</p>
<li>They use a human-readable syntax.</li>
<li>They are usually editable by visitors.</li>

The first cool thing about wiki pages is that creating links is easy. You just put the link inside your text with a syntax like [[Foobar]]. The word Foobar will then show up as a link. If there is already a Foobar page in the wiki, you'll have linked to it. If there isn't, the word will show up in red, and when you click it, viola, you'll be creating a new page called Foobar. In this way you can build an interlinked hierarchy incredibly quickly.

The other cool thing about wiki pages is that they are usually collaborative. This means that anyone who visits a wiki page can edit it. There are obviously potential ways that this can be abused, and potential problems with authority and expertise, but it's still an awfully cool thing. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia, with nearly half a million articles in English alone, that has been created in this way.

Anyway, my office has decided to do our internal documentation in Wiki, partly to save time, and partly because it standardized the myriad of approaches that were previously being used. It should also allow our non-technical staff to quickly gather presentation-ready material out of the base. I'd link to it, but because it is an internal wiki, it's behind security, and you can't get there.

However, I recently wrote an extensive wiki page on non-roman text, and since it contains no customer information, I thought I'd post it out on a public wiki farm, which is a service that allows people to set up wikis of their own, in much the same way that allows people to set up blogs. Feel free to stop by, and if you'd like, make corrections and additions, because that's the wiki way.

(Unfortunately, it doesn't look quite the same as the Clotho internal wiki, because I wasn't able to find a free unrestricted wiki farm based around MediaWiki, which is the wiki engine that both Wikipedia and Clotho are using, but this is still close enough that you can get the idea.)

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Movies: Trailer Musings

Well, having seen the new teaser trailer for Fantastic Four, and having commented already on the trailer for Sin City, I'll say now that Jessica Alba as a blonde may not be quite so hard to accept as I had feared. I'll also say that the Thing looks better in action than my initial impressions might have lead me to believe. So, here's hoping.

In other trailer news, some of our winter fare is starting to have trailers in Japan, and the trailer for The Incredibles is pretty interesting because it really seems to present a much more accurate picture of what the movie is about than the American trailer did. I also find the name change to "Mr. Incredible" as the title interesting. I'm also wondering whether スカイキップテン:ワールド・オフ・トゥモロー (sukaikipputen: waarudo ofu tumarou) will make a bigger splash in Japan than it did here. I loved it, and I bet it goes over well with the Japanese, it seems like their kind of thing. And if you've got broadband, it's worth watching the trailer just to hear the announcer say the title in Japanese at the end.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Blog: Some New Links

I've added some new links, including a link to Dashi's Journal. It's a serial collection of off-the-wall photographs and illustrations which I often find amusing, if occassionaly not safe for work. The titles are in Russian, but don't let that stop you, as the humor is mostly visual.

I've also added a list of about half of the webcomics that I read, and I'll add in the rest of the good ones later. I've tried, for this batch, to include a variety of webcomics that have things that the more traditional print comics don't offer.

Sadly, Claudia Jane has stopped blogging (and apparently taken down her unfinished novel), so I've removed her from the blog list for now. Who knows, perhaps in time she'll return.

Politics: Evolution in Public Schools

From a scientfic standpoint, evolution is a theory in the same way that gravity is a theory. A discussion of whether or not it should be taught in public school is thus pretty much a non-starter with me. Recently, some schools, under pressure from religious conservatives, have considered doing (or done) all sorts of inane things, from teaching intelligent design (thinly veiled creationism) alongside evolution to putting warning labels on textbooks that say "evolution is a theory, not a fact."

In what seems like one of the few good things to come out of the court system in recent years, a judge has said one such set of stickers, used in Georgia, violate the separation of church and state. To most of us, this is probably self-evidently true, but the problem is that nothing on the sticker mentions religion, nor does it contain any factual errors. The problem is that the sticker relies on a common misinterpretation of the word "theory" when applied to science, and further reinforces that misinterpretation by careful wording, but without reference to creationsim or actual factual error, how can a judge rule against it?

I found his rationale insightful.
His conclusion, he said, "is not that the school board should not have called evolution a theory or that the school board should have called evolution a fact."

"Rather, the distinction of evolution as a theory rather than a fact is the distinction that religiously motivated individuals have specifically asked school boards to make in the most recent anti-evolution movement, and that was exactly what parents in Cobb County did in this case," he wrote.

"By adopting this specific language, even if at the direction of counsel, the Cobb County School Board appears to have sided with these religiously motivated individuals."
Well put, Judge Cooper, well put.

Apple: Small Toys, Big Excitement

Apple has released some new products, as expected, and I'm really excited. There's the tiny iPod Shuffle, that I'm almost certain to acquire, since at $99 for the smaller capacity one, it's pretty damn affordable. I haven't previously thought the iPods were worth the money for me, but this is perfect.

There's also a new productivity suite, iWork, which includes Pages, a new word processor. I'm itching to get my hands on it and put it through its paces. The Macintosh hasn't had a really good word processor since MS Word 5.1 stopped working properly. The Microsoft Word for OS X that I'm using now is adequate, but only barely, and it does crash from time to time. I don't know if Pages will suffice, but if it even comes close, that'll be a pretty exciting development.

But I'm most excited by the Mac Mini. In part I'm excited because it's a computer that I can comfortably recommend to a lot of people I know that already have some stuff, like monitors and keyboards, but need a new computer. It's a computer that I can envision using to replace just about any old and ailing macintosh at a really low price point. In short, it's both physically and economically convienent, and that's awesome. What's really got me excited, however, is a feature of the device that's not even referenced in any of the press releases or ads I've seen.

You can hook it up to a TV. It supports the Apple DVI to Video Adapter.

While you can do this with some bigger computers, it's usually not very practical to put them near your TV. But the Mac Mini is nearly the size of a Nintendo GameCube. You can take it and put it right into your entertainment center. For someone like me, who uses a laptop for many tasks, this opens up worlds of possibility, since I can remote control it from my computer via Airport wireless. I can put movies and audio on it, and play them through my speaker. I can use my firewire video tools to capture, edit, and display video on the TV. Hell, I envision setting it up so that it's a server, video player, and jukebox, all in one, that can be used to do computing tasks on the TV when needed, or moved (it's really small) and hooked up to a real monitor if needed.

Give the thing a decent game controller, and it's like a Mac OS-based X-box that you can put your own software on. This excites me greatly. People have spent hundreds of hours trying to put thier own software onto the X-box, despite Microsoft's serious obstacles and objections. This is a more general purpose box without all the barriers. In short, I think it's time for us to sell our old G4 Tower and get one of these instead.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Apple: Whither the Tablet Mac?

It is my not-so-secret dream that someday in the near future I will be able to get a Mac OS based tablet computer. Every time a new set of announcements from Apple roll out, I check to see if they've finally released one. But as of yet, if you want a tablet computer, you have to use Windows XP, which I really don't have much interest in doing.

It's probably a futile gesture, but if you feel as I do, you could sign this petition.

In other Apple news, there should be some new stuff announced tomorrow, including (possibly) a $499 model. If it's really cool, I'll post about it.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Copyright: Audio from DVDs

I know nothing about such things but plan to be learning soon. Is there a way to pull a music/audio track off a DVD and burn to a CD? (We will soon have both a DVD and CD burner)
Short answer: yes.

Medium answer: Yes, if it's a commercial DVD, you'll need a utility called a DVD ripper that allows you to pull the audio track of the DVD, and then another utility to convert the audio into something you can burn easily to a CD.

Long answer: Yes, but it may be illegal to do so, even if you own the DVD and your use of the music/audio would otherwise be considered fair use under copyright law. There are two possible reasons for this, neither of which has been adequately challenged legally.

The first reason is that the studio does not consider you to "own" the DVD in question at all, they consider you to be using it under "license". As a result, they have attempted to prohibit certain actions that you would normally be able to perform under the law. Since you have never agreed to the terms of this license, probably even implicitly, this is mostly deceitful bullshit, but I'm not a lawyer, so you do this at your own risk. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be against the law for them to falsely claim that you're not allowed to do certain things with what you bought, even if those things are perfectly legal, such as making a backup copy.

The second reason is more complex. When the DVD format was released, the studios were hesitant to embrace the format for fear of perfect digital copies expanding the already significant role that piracy, especially in Asia, plays in that industry. Since nothing can be done about the Asian problem, or large-scale psuedo-commercial piracy ventures, the studios insanely decided to attack the much lesser problem of "casual" piracy. Since people that pirate videos routinely are hardly even slowed by their measures, the effort, like most copy-protection, damages law-abiding customers the most.

Their approach to this was two-pronged. The first part is that every DVD player manufactured is supposed to be part of the DVD consortium, and the manufacturer pays a one million dollar fee to the consortium to get encryption codes to read the content off of commercial DVDs. Only software with the code can read the DVD, thus, computers wouldn't be able to easily copy the data in a useful form. This had the side-effect of almost completely stopping any "small" video operations which couldn't pony up the fee, such as a free open-source DVD player for linux. This scheme is called the Content Scrambling System (or CSS).

The second part of the approach was legislative. Using the various lawmakers that Hollywood and the music industry have in their pocket, an inane piece of legislation generally referred to as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) was passed. While the bad (or at least corporate-serving) provisions of this law are too numerous to account here, one of them is highly relevant. Under this law, it is illegal to "traffic" in devices or software intended to circumvent copy protection. In other words, even if your use of the data from the DVD would be otherwise clearly and indisputedly legal, such as making a CD to listen to in your car, the acquistion and distribution of the software or hardware necessary to perform the act is a crime.

Now, there are those of us in the tech community (most of us, probably) that don't think it's OK to backhandedly take away our fair use rights by making it illegal to acquire the tools needed to exercise those rights. This is like assuring us that it's still legal to travel freely, while making it illegal to buy and sell cars. As a result, a _lot_ of work has gone into circumventing the copy protection on DVDs. Because the people designing or implementing the system were relatively inept, and in part because the US export regime at the time prevented the use of any truly strong encryption, the encryption has been cracked, and the keys and software necessary to decode a DVD are now generally available. A number of programs for both the Mac and PC will take a DVD and extract the tracks from it. If you're on a Macintosh, I recommend going to Version Tracker, and typing "DVD" into the search box. I've heard good things about MacTheRipper, however, though I'm unsure of its suitability to audio-only extraction.

OK, once you've "ripped" the DVD, you'll have a bunch of files to deal with. Here's a guide to the types of files you may see.

.VOB - this is a dvd-format video and audio file. If you've got this, you'll need another tool to extract the audio/video tracks from it if you want to work with them seperately. A .VOB file may be all you need if you're making another DVD, however.

.PCM - this is an unencoded audio file. It's similiar to a CD audio file, but I believe it's at 48Mhz instead of 44.1Mhz. You won't see this very often, because such files use too much space on disk when multiple audio tracks are desired. If you do see one, it's probably a good place to start, because it's encoding is relatively simple. Many audio programs can probably convert this into something CD burnable quickly and easily.

.AC3 - this is a dolby digital encoded audio file. The encoding is fairly complex, and it can include anywhere between 1 and 8 tracks of audio. The most commonly found will be 2 (left and right) or 5+1 (left, right, center, back-left, back-right, + low frequency effects). This format is proprietary, but many tools out there can be used to convert it into a stereo file that can be burned to a CD. Try and find a good tool, as simply taking the left and right channels out of a 5.1 mix is going to result in dialogue that's too quiet, you'll need to mix in some of the center channel to both left and right. Good software should handle this automatically. There may be multiple audio tracks, so be careful to get the one that's in English.

.DTS - this is a Digital Theatre Sound Encoded file. They're less common, and should always be accompanied by an .AC3 as well. Unless you know something I don't, stick with the AC3.

.m2v - this is MPEG2 video with no audio.

.m2a - this is a MPEG2 audio file. DVDs for the US market aren't supposed to have these, but DVDs sold in Europe might. There was some liscensing or patent problem that caused this, but I don't remember the details.

One final note: the DVD consortium requires that all DVD players support an analogue copy-protection scheme on the outputs called Macrovision. Any commercial DVD producer that wants to pay a small fee can turn it on with a single bit on any disc. This is pretty meaningless if you're going to "rip" the DVD as above, but is a real problem if you want to, say, copy a DVD onto a video tape. That said, I don't believe that macrovision has any effect whatsoever on the audio outputs of the DVD player. So, if all the above is proving too much, you really ought to be able to hook up the DVDs audio outputs to the audio inputs of your computer, and simply record the whole thing in a CD-friendly format and burn it. There will be more quality loss, but probably not a lot, and may be easier than any of the above for certain purposes, especially if this is a one-time deal.

Fun: zefrank

I know, you come, and you come to be amused, yet many times, I disappoint. Many things there are that I wish to post, yet the writing and the doing, sometimes it takes too long, sometimes I procrastinate, sometimes I try, but the words are ungainly and ill-suited for presentation to as fine a guest as you. But still you come, to be (as I said) amused, and if I disappoint, whence shall your amusement spring?

Today, it is my dearest hope that you shall find fresh and to your liking.

While its entertainments are so numerous that even I have yet to sample them all, I especially direct you to Communication #1, which has valuable advice for all who must write business correspondence. I further direct you to Buddhist, Christian, and Athiest, for guidance in your spiritual life. The simple joys of snm #1, are sure to be entrancing, and are suitable even for the very young. Finally, if you are familiar with the so-called "Nigerian spam", you might be interested in this sincere request.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Family: Christmas 2004

Well, my family and I went down to visit my in-laws in Missouri this year. The journey itself takes about 9 hours for us, and was a little more eventful than usual since there had been a heavy snowstorm there. Cape Girardeau has many strengths, but neither its citizens nor its infrastructure were quite up to the 14" or so of snow that got dumped on them for Christmas this year.

As we drove south out of St. Louis and into this blizzard, I was astounded afresh, as I am every year, at how bad people are about driving in adverse conditions. When I hit the slick, icy roads, I slowed down to what I thought was a reasonable 30-40 miles per hour in the right lane, which was somewhat clearer. That didn't stop people from trying to pass me at 60 in the ice-covered left lane, however, and I kept thinking as they wobbled past that I was going to see one of them crash right there in front of me. Thankfully, I did not, but we did see plenty of evidence that other drivers were not so lucky. We kept saying how drivers in Missouri didn't know how to cope with the conditions, but while there may be some truth to that, I tried to remind people Wisconsin has no shortage of people that drive like idiots as well.

Marble Trail
I enjoy the showmanship of the whole Santa Claus thing, but am kind of insistant that the illusion remain a little threadbare. I bought the children a box of marbles this year, and when my kids decided to leave out milk and cookies for santa, I left a trail of marbles from the base of the Tree around the room, under a table, and behind a sofa to the crumb-covered plate, where I left a note that said "Thanks". But when the kids needed to put the marbles away, I went and got the marble tin from my bedroom. I think that's the tone I want to set, little hints here and there, but nothing that overtly shatters the illusion before they're ready.

Despite my family not having as much money as we have in recent years, we managed to exchange some pretty nice gifts. In large part, this was due to Kit's generosity. Kit, a friend of ours who we game with regularly, has been working in an IS position at AmericanGirl for about a year now, and one of the perks of working there is a chance to grab some merchandise at year end. As a result, we were able to give each of the girls more presents that we had originally planned, including an awesome AG Minis boutique set and a Girls of Many Lands doll and book for each of them. (Spring Pearl and Leyla). The girls were very excited about these things. Thanks Kit!

AG Minis
Ivy's special present this year was an Easy-bake Real Meal Oven, which she'd asked for and was very excited about. I've played with it a bit with her, and I can see the appeal. So far, we've made some cookies, some mac and cheese, and a few mini-pizzas. I find myself wanting to hack it to make it hotter, because I'm finding it hard to get the pizza crusts to come out right. Still, it does work.

Rose's "most-wanted" present this year was a Glow-in-the-dark Care Bear. I'm as surprised at anybody at the sudden resurgence of interest in toys like Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake (not a work-safe link), and My Little Pony, but there's no question that it's what Rose really wanted. For more than a month, she's been telling everybody she can that she asked Santa for a "Glow-up Care Bear". She's usually pretty understandable, but a lot of people were thinking she was saying "Blow-up Care Bear", and it was funny seeing them try to figure out exactly what that was. We got her Bedtime Bear, and each night before bed, we charge it up for her by holding it up by the light.

I got Liana two things she wanted. Firstly, I got her the X-men Legends game for the Gamecube, but I threw it in with another cheap used game so that the package would look like the Return of the King Extended Edition. Secondly, I got her the ROTK extended edition, but I wrapped an audio tape into the gift with it so that the package wouldn't look like what it was. It all felt very devious.

Happy Rose in Snow
Liana and I got her parents a nice kitchen knife. We usually end up doing a lot of cooking when we visit there, and every time I needed to cut up meat or vegetables, I tripped over the fact that their knives were either small or serrated. (I will spare regaling you with the many horrors that a serrated knife visits upon both the vegetables and the cutting surface beneath.) I don't know if the gift will convince them of the merits of having good cutlery, but I used it a few times before I left, and it's really nice. Hopefully they enjoy using it.

I myself recieved a spanking new Nintendo DS. I'm was especially excited by this because I had steeled myself not to expect it because it was really stretching our available budget. It's pretty awesome. I've been playing Super Mario 64 DS and Ridge Racer DS on it, and am eagerly looking forward to the new implementation of the best GameBoy Advance game, Advance Wars DS, even though it's not out until late in the year. Just looking at the little 3D rendered graphics on the thing makes me drool over the potential titles that might be coming. I hear the PSP is supposed to be even more impressive. I can hardly wait. (Fortunately, the fact that the DS has a slot for GBA games means that the waiting won't be too painful.)

One of the best parts is that Super Mario 64 DS is a really, really great game that I somehow missed entirely back when I used my Nintendo 64 more heavily. They've apparently juiced it up during the port, but I get all the advantages of playing a really great game on my new handheld without having to replay something I've already done.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Webcomics: Order of the Stick Book

While I have yet to share much of the large list of webcomics that I regularly enjoy, one of my absolute favorites is The Order of the Stick. It's a comic that follows the adventures of a fantasy adventuring party, all the while satirizing some of the more ridiculous or campy elements of gaming in general, and D&D in specific. If you're a gamer, I'd say it's a must-read, but it may well be worth a look even if you're not. (Certainly, if you're a regular reader of Spike's Journal, I can't see how you wouldn't enjoy this as well.)

That said, if you're not into webcomics, or just don't have the bandwidth to forge through the archives, the very good news for today is that Rich Burlew, the creator, is now taking orders for his first book. If he gets enough orders, he says he'll update the strip more often, so everybody wins. I put myself on the pre-preordering list a while ago, and will undoubtedly upgrade to an actual preorder as soon as I get an email notification that it's time to do so.