23 May, 2007

Science Fiction Author Feuds, DeathCon, and the first ever flame war on the (proto) internet

Via the Whatever, a link to a transcript of a panel at Penguicon 5.0, where John Scalzi, Nick Sagan, and Sarah Monette discuss science fiction author Godfrey Winton. I wasn't aware of Winton before I read this, but I sure as hell am interested now. Apparently Subterranean Press is coming out with an omnibus volume of his collected works, so I'll try to pick that up. Read up, enjoy, and marvel at the wild and crazy world of science fiction fandom.

18 May, 2007

Introverts, unite!

After a few weeks of non-stop action (hectic freelance schedule, houseguests, shows, and outings with friends), I finally have a weekend all to myself. So for today, an interesting article from Psychology Today: The Field Guide to the Loner. A great (if somewhat badly written) article about the 25% of us who prefer spending a weekend with a good book rather than going out and getting drunk at a bar. While I'm not averse to a night on the town with my friends every now and then (nor am I in any way shape or form averse to drinking- beer FTW!), for the most part, I prefer to hang out solo. Read a good book, watch some TV or a movie, work on my projects, etc.

Sadly, the truth of the matter is that most people aren't that interesting or engaging to be around. Why subject yourself to mind-numbingly dumb conversation, stupid pickup lines, or random chatty strangers, when you could be doing something interesting and personally fulfillng with your time? When I want to be social, I have my friends: smart, interesting, and hand-picked. Most of the time, however, I would rather revel in my own solitude. I like myself, and I like being inside my head.

Try a Silent Sunday one of these days: don't speak or interact with anyone for the whole day on a Sunday. You may go nuts. Or you my find that it's relaxing and re-energizing.

07 May, 2007

Guns into Plowshares, Anyone?

From Boston.com:
Including the $124.2 billion bill, the total cost of the Iraq war may reach $456 billion in September, according to the National Priorities Project, an organization that tracks public spending.

The amount got us wondering: What would $456 billion buy?
Among the highlights:
- Free gas for everybody for 1.2 years
- With just one-sixth of the US money targeted for the Iraq war, you could convert all cars in America to run on ethanol.
- Feed and educate the world's poor for five and a half years (WTF?!?!?!!)
- 14.5 million free rides to Harvard

This shit is depressing. Fucking warmongers.

Vernor Vinge on the Singularity

ComputerWorld has a great short interview with mathematics professor and science-fiction author Vernor Vinge (yes, he's one of Tor's) on the coming technological singularity. Not too in-depth, but a nice quick rundown of main themes. The article also links to Vinge's seminal 1993 manifesto, The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era, a short but fascinating piece of speculation.

I actually just finished reading Vinge's latest novel, Rainbow's End, a great vision of a near future where the singularity is in its early bloom. I highly recommend it, it's a great read.

04 May, 2007

TV Show Torrents thru RSS: A Piracy Primer for Purloined Programming, Part 2

In the previous post in this series, I outlined the reasons why I prefer to pirate my media, as opposed to buying it outright from the thugs fine folks in the cable entertainment industry. Now it's time to get down and dirty, into the nuts and bolts of how I do what I do.

Most TV shows nowadays are available on the internet very soon after they air, and a few enterprising pirates are dedicated to providing trackers and torrent files for downloading via the BitTorrent file transfer protocol. Legal issues aside, this is a great service for those of us who prefer to roll our own media, but the logistics of automating the process of finding, downloading, encoding, and properly archiving your media take a bit of trial and error to figure out. This is what has worked for me, so your mileage may vary.

First, a word about my setup: I've got a 1Terrabyte external hard drive attached to a Mac Mini, which is in turn hooked up to a 60-inch Pioneer Elite plasma display, and that's pretty much it, aside from a PS2 for gaming, and the speakers hooked up to the Mini. Instead of using a keyboard or mouse to control the Mini when I'm not in Front Row, I run Apple's Remote Desktop to control the Mini from my MacBook. It works like a charm. My setup is pretty bare-bones, and I like it that way. I prefer to watch everything through Front Row, Apple's media center that comes bundled with all new Macs, so I put all of my contents (Shows, Movies and Music) into iTunes. The only upgrade I possibly foresee in the future is to replace the Mini for an AppleTV (as soon as the damn thing comes with an HD-DVD or BluRay - or better yet, a hybrid- drive... otherwise, no deal), and use the Mini as a headless media downloader and server.

I've separated this tutorial into two sections. The first section deals with downloading content automatically. This is good enough for most people, but if you're anally retentive like me, and want every single file you download properly tagged, archived, and accessible via iTunes and Front Row, then stick around for the second part.

So without further ado, here we go. First, you'll need to download some software. All of this software is either freeware or shareware, and developed by independent software developers. I strongly suggest buying it, since it's not too expensive, and these guys need our support if they're going to keep working on these projects in their free time.

For the first part- Downloading:
1- Newsfire- for subscribing to Torrent feeds.
2- xTorrent- for downloading your files.

For the second part- archiving and tagging:
1- VisualHub- for re-encoding video.
2- Lostify- for editing the metadata on your files before adding to iTunes.

Part One- Downloading Torrents with RSS

The first thing you need to do is create an RSS feed to subscribe to. You can do this on www.tvrss.net.

1- Go to www.tvrss.net, and click on the 'Shows' link. You'll see a list of all the TV shows that TVrss has feeds for.

2- Choose the show you want to subscribe to. Let's choose 'Heroes' (BTW, if you're not watching Heroes, you're a retard. Now that Battlestar Galactica is off the air until January of next year, Heroes has become my favourite show). You'll be taken to a page that lists all available episodes for the show you chose.

3- At this point, the list of available episodes is duplicated, because there are many release groups releasing the same episodes at different qualities. You need to refine your search using the options located in the 'Search' area, at the top of the search results page. Choose a Distribution Group (I like EZTV for the most part, but they don't always distribute all the shows I watch), and choose a Quality setting (HRHD, HDTV, 720p, etc.), then press Search. You'll see refined search results. Each TV show is different, so you'll have to play around until you get what you want. A good rule of thumb is to switch up the search parameters until you get a list where there are either very few or no repeated episodes.

4- Once you have your list of episodes, hit the 'Search-based RSS Feed' link at the top of the Search Results list. This will generate an RSS feed for the show. If you use Safari or Firefox as your browser, it may give you the option to subscribe to this RSS feed. Ignore the hell out of it.

5- Copy the URL for the RSS feed from the address field in your browser (it should look something like this: http://tvrss.net/search/index.php?distribution_group=eztv&show_name=Heroes&show_name_exact=true&filename=&date=&quality=hdtv&release_group=&mode=rss)

6- Open Newsfire, and create a new feed. Paste the URL for the RSS feed into the Address field, and name your feed. NewsFire should automatically connect to the feed, so you should see the same results you got from tvrss.net after the feed loads.

7- Select your newly created feed in NewsFire, and go to Feeds> Edit selected Feed. Here you can set how often you want the feed to be refreshed. I have mine refreshing every 10 minutes, but that's just because I'm impatient. Make sure to check the box that says "Automatically download audio/video attachments. This will ensure that the .torrent file downloads onto your Desktop (or wherever you decide to set NewsFire to download files to) as soon as it's available.

8- Repeat steps 1-7 for each TV Show you want to add.

9- Open xTorrent, and go into the Preferences. In the Interface tab, check the box next to 'Load .torrents found in' and choose the same folder you're downloading .torrent files to from NewsFire. Also, check 'Delete original .torrent file once added to xTorrent', just to keep things nice and neat.

Now you're set up. NewsFire is constantly refreshing your feeds, so as soon as the .torrent file for a new episode is posted, NewsFire grabs it and puts it where xTorrent can find it, and start downloading the actual file. Once you've input all the shows you want to watch into NewsFire, this is pretty much hands-off.

Note: The newest version of xTorrent has the ability to subscribe to rss feeds, so theoretically you can simply put the rss feed you create from TVrss into xTorrent, and go without NewsFire altogether. However, xTorrent does not currently offer the option to auto-download any attached files like NewsFire does, so it makes little sense to do this if what you want is truly automatic downloading. The developer of xTorrent has said that he's going to put that feature into xTorrent in a future release, so when that happens, I'll be moving all my feeds from NewsFire to xTorrent, and eschewing NewsFire completely.

Part Two: Tagging and Archiving

This part requires some hands-on housekeeping for each file you download, so not everyone will want to go this far. I like it, since I'm a neat-freak, OCD'ed out mofo.

Now you have your files, and you can watch them with any media player (I like VLC player because it plays pretty much anything you throw at it), or through Front Row (if you place them in the Movies folder of your home directory). But I go an extra step, and add them to iTunes, so that they're nice and organized and I can keep them indefinitely, as well as back them up along with the rest of my iTunes content. In order to do this, you want to include the metadata in the file so that iTunes can identify whether it's a TV Show or a Movie, as well as identify the Season, Episode, etc. While you can edit metadata from within iTunes, by using the 'Get Info' command, iTunes is still a bit sketchy when it comes to TV Shows in particular, so I use an additional piece of software, Lostify, to edit the metadata before I add the files to iTunes. I also like to have everything in the same format, so I run the files through VisualHub even before I go into Lostify. Both VisualHub and Lostify create a new file when they process the old one, so you end up with two files which you'll eventually want to delete. It helps to have plenty of extra space in your hard drive to accommodate these temporary files.

1- Drag the file you downloaded with xTorrent onto the VisualHub icon, to place it in the queue. You can add as many files as you want, and VisualHub will batch process them all in one fell swoop. While VisualHub has a pre-set for iTunes, I use the pre-set for MP4 instead, since I'll be running the file throguh Lostify before I add it to iTunes anyway, and I want the best quality possible. Check the box for H.264 encoding (smaller file size, great quality), set your quality to 'Go Nuts', and hit the start button. VisualHub will create a new .mp4 file, so you can delete the one you downloaded after Visual Hub is done with it.

2- Now take the .mp4 file that VisualHub created and open it with Lostify. Here you can set all the metadata you need to properly archive your video within iTunes: Series name, Episode title and number, Season number, etc. Again, Lostify will create a new file, this time an .m4v file, so you can delete the .mp4 file you created with VisualHub after Lostify is done with it.

3- Add video to iTunes. Once you do this, the video should show up in iTunes, nicely catalogued, and should play in Front Row as well.

And that's it! Enjoy your purloined programming.

02 May, 2007

Hey, MPAA/DCMA: Fuck you.

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Give us REAL Fair Use, not lawsuits.

Give us engaging content, not sequels and remakes.

Give us the option to do whatever the hell we want with a product we legally buy. Read: I want to rip my DVDs into iTunes, along with its menus and extra features, without having to jump through stupid, stupid quasi-legal DRM-laden hoops. Or better yet, I want to 'legally' (and I use the term here in deference to their vocabulary, not as an admission of wrongdoing) purchase and download the whole shebang. Do I need to waste shelf space and pay for superfluous packaging when I know there's a better, more efficient, speedier, ecologically friendly and convenient way, and the only reason it's not accessible to everyone is because a few fat cats in the entertainment industry want to make more money than they already do? Fuck that. Those neckties must be cutting of the circulation to your brains. Make it happen, monkey boys.

In the meantime, there are those who will do everything they can to thwart your bully-tactics, and I for one will happily download whatever the hell I want, because frankly, I probably wouldn't pay for the crap that Hollywood's producing these days, anyway. The genie's out of the bottle, chumps. It happened with DVDs, it happened with BluRay, and now it's happening with HD-DVD. Sooner or later, there will ALWAYS be a crack.

For those of you who have no idea what that number up top means, or what the hell I'm ranting about, look
here and here.

01 May, 2007

Scientists Use Nanotechnology to Mend Broken Spinal Cords

It's on, baby. The singularity looms ever closer, and I say 'bring it on, bitch'. From the article on abc.com:

Samuel Stupp has a bunch of mice that used to drag their hind legs behind them when they crawled around his Illinois lab, but they have miraculously regained at least partial use of their rear legs.

Astonishingly, their severed spinal cords have been repaired, at least partly, without surgery or drugs.

All it took was a simple injection of a liquid containing tiny molecular structures developed by Stupp and his colleagues at Northwestern University. Six weeks later, the mice were able to walk again. They don't have their former agility, but their injuries should have left them paralyzed for life.

Stupp is on the cutting edge of one of the most exciting fields in medical research: regenerative medicine. If he and others in the field are on the right track, one of these days tragic diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's will be a thing of the past. And the crippled will walk again as the human body repairs itself in ways that it cannot do today.