Archive for March 14th, 2004

Back From the Future

ø

It
is refreshing that even a jaded, inveterate science fiction fan like
the Dowbrigade can still come across ideas so simple and profound that
they make us sit up an think "Why didn’t WE think of that?"

Such a moment transpired this morning as we were driving to Dim Sum
with some of the Berkman crew. On a nameless news station they were
interviewing a physicist from Berkeley University. The subject was time
travel. Dr.
Know-it-all was saying that according to our present scientific view
of the universe, according to the ground rules laid down by Albert Einstein
100 years ago, time travel is not only possible, but inevitable.

He went on to say that all that is necessary is either VERY high speeds
(like 99.9% of C) or else VERY high gravitational fields, like in the
middle of a black hole, and that while these may be beyond our present
technological limitations there
is no
reason not to assume they will eventually be reached. As an example,
he said if we got into space ship that could go 99% of the speed of light
and went OUT for a year, turned around and came BACK at the same speed,
1,000 or 10,000 years would have passed here on earth. This would be
traveling into the future, although one would hope he could be a bit
more exact with the dates before booking the trip.

He went on to aver that in his opinion, it was also theoretically possible
to travel into the past as well. However, it was noted at this point
that the interviewer noted that were it possible to travel into the
past, then wouldn’t the present be
full
of thrill seekers from the future back for a look-see?

It was here that the Doctors elegant logic left us in awe. The problem,
he explained, is that one can only go back as far as the moment when
the first successful time machine was activated.  Look for one in
your neighborhood soon.

Family Feud

ø

In
an America fraught with class, racial, religious and sexual tensions,
genealogy may yet play a role in what is shaping up to be the nastiest,
and most most divisive elections in recent history. However, despite
their obvious differences in personality, political party, and speaking
style, the two men have a lot in common. Scions
of wealthy eastern power establishment families, they both went to exclusive
private schools and
then to Yale, where they were fraternity brothers in the shadowy secret
society "Skull and Bones".

Now comes the astounding news that not only are these two great Americans
united by race, age, class, education and blood ritual, but that they
are actually blood relations! Distant cousins! Who knew? Check out Sam
Allis in today’s Boston Globe
:

Last week, Roberts walked a reporter from La Stampa, one of Italy’s
major daily newspapers, through the blood connections between George
W. Bush and John F. Kerry. They are related through five kinships —
Henry Herrick of Salem, John Dwight of Dedham, the parents of the Rev.
Peter Bulkeley of Concord, Thomas Richards of Weymouth, and the Sherman
family of Dedham, Essex, England.

As a result, Bush and Kerry are anywhere from tenth cousins once removed
to twelfth cousins twice removed among the five lines. (Can’t you just
see the pair playing Frisbee at a family picnic?)

Who knew? Admittedly, if you go back far enough we are all related,
but this seems to make a mockery of our vaulted American diversity. Like
the Klitishenko brothers fighting for the heavyweight title. Like letting
CNN and Fox define the extremes of the American political spectrum. Don’t
get us started.

A bit deeper
into the Globe
we discovered another genealogical gem.
John Kerry, it turns out, is one-quarter Jewish! Again, who knew?

John Kerry’s grandfather, Fritz Kohn, was born to a Jewish family in
the Austro-Hungarian town of Bennisch, now called Horni Benesov and part
of the Czech Republic.

Kohn moved to Vienna in the late 1870s, changed his name to Frederick
Kerry, and converted to Roman Catholicism in 1901. He arrived in the
United States with his wife, Ida, in 1905. Sixteen years later, he committed
suicide in a Boston hotel washroom. John Kerry’s father, Richard, was
6 years old at the time.

After
seeing him march in umpteen St. Paddy’s Day Parades in South Boston
most people naturally assumed the Senator was from the Kerry, Ireland
Kerrys. Who knew he was in reality from the Vienna, Austria Kohns? Actually,
he’s probably wise not to play up the Jewish angles, as big as we are
for racial and religious pride. Most Jews will undoubtedly vote for him
anyway, and there are certainly a bunch of racially retro citizens who
would never vote for ANYBODY with even a few drops of Jewish blood. Fortunately,
most of those people don’t come out from under their rocks to vote, sparing
them this year’s agonizing choice, for these two articles taken together
lead to the inescapable conclusion that both of the candidates are tainted.

Downloading Tony – Hard to Refuse, and to Use

6

As usual, the Dowbrigade is lagging behind his geekier
goombahs, bringing up the trailing edge of the early adopters. This
time it is the next generation of file sharing which has captured our
attention and pushed us once again into the world of not-quite-ready-for-prime
time software.

The technology in question is called Bit Torrent, and after hearing
people raving about it for months, and at least a half-dozen attempts
to have it explained, we finally read an explanation that made sense
to us.

The basic idea is as follows.  Suppose a friend of yours just bought
the latest Smack Mack Daddy CD, and decided that it was such an astute
and insightful commentary on modern America that everyone he knew should
listen to it.  So he posts the tunes and sends all his friends
an email saying, "Here is the link to this music, listen to it."

Now suppose that ten of the friends want to download the CD, which has
10 tracks, or songs as they used to be known. In a traditional peer to
peer system, each of the ten would start downloading the CD file from
the beginning, dividing the original posters upload bandwidth 10 ways,
until they all had a copy of the complete CD.

Using the Bit Torrent technology, however, each of the 10 would download
A DIFFERENT TRACK, and less than a minute after starting the download
would start RE-UPLOADING the data to others of the 10 didn’t have that
part yet. By the time the first cut is completely downloaded, each of
the tracks is
being distributed by several of the users, and the complete transfer
of 10 complete copies of the original CD file would be completed in a
fraction of the time it would have taken in a traditional arrangement.

Which is of course not to imply that any friends of yours or ours would
ever contemplate so egregious a violation of common decency and copyright
law. That was an unreal hypothetical, as we say in the speculating business,
and was just meant to illustrate how the damn thing works.

So great, it made sense finally, and a clever idea it was, but we still
couldn’t get it to work in real life. For one, the paradigm is completely
different from the
traditional
file-sharing standards
we know and used to love, until the RIAA turned  it into the new
love that dare not speak its name. In Bitstream, instead of searching
for music by title
or author
from a search window within the application, like you do in Kaaza
or Lime Wire, users must search for web pages full of "pointer files"
which end with .torrent. One downloads these files, which point to movies
and TV shows, mostly, and once they are on your computer you can click
on them and Bit Torrent will automatically fire up and start looking
for folks to swap the file with. In theory.

Apparently there are numerous client clones on the Wintel side of the
street, but for Mac there is only the original Bit Torrent application
from Bram Cohen (ported to OS X by Andrew Loewenstern). So we downloaded
and installed, fired it up, and waited for something to happen.  Nothing
did, and we never got beyond the absence of a search window. How
the heck are we supposed to find the files to download, we wondered.
It must be like a secret society with member’s only web sites and obscure
usenet newsgroups where they meet and share goodies.

The second time we tried, several weeks later, we had finally grasped
the idea of those ."torrent" files, and had located a number of them
on semi-pirate web sites.  They included what claimed to be pointers
to such enticing files as the latest Lord of the Rings and complete season
files for series like the Simpsons, West Wing and the Sopranos, or the
aggregated live tapes of every concert the Grateful Dead played in 1971,
or ’72, or ’68. 

We
tried everything we could think of to get the damn things to download
– drag and drop, open file, open url, single click, double click, option
click. Nothing worked the most promising results we got were a set
of empty folders with the names of each episode of the fifth season of
Friends.
We gave up again.

Finally, on the third try, we figured out that in order to make Bit
Torrent work, one needs to open Bit Torrent’s preferences panel and enter one’s
IP address in a little box.  Who knew? Luckily we remembered that
that information was available in the Network Preferences section of
the System Preferences, by choosing Built-in Ethernet from the pull-down
menu.

Once we entered our IP address, it worked like a charm! It was after
midnight at that point, and Norma Yvonne lay asleep at our side, but
we were wide awake with anticipation as we saw the first kilobytes start
to flow into and out of our iBook. We started downloading everything
in sight.

Most of the downloads failed, or were so slow it was obvious they would
never be finished, but there was one that was racing over the cable at
over 100 kbs. As we watched with incredulity, the download speed pushed
past 150 and into uncharted territory in our brief history as a file-sharing
fiend. It toped out at about 240 kps. The file was an episode of the
Soprano’s called "The Two Tony’s". There was no indication which season
it was from.

Video files are big.  To anyone used to downloading mp3’s, they
seem huge. Even at that breathtaking velocity, a single episode of Sopranos
was going to take about 38 minutes to download. It was now almost 1am,
so we went to sleep while the file compiled silently in my bedside laptop.

In the morning we eagerly reached for the iBook even before putting
on our glasses. Through squinting eyes we saw that – wonder of wonders
– there was a complete episode of the Sopranos on our hard drive, in
AVI format.

Of course, we immediately tried to fire it up, and of course, it failed
to run. Turns out that although .avi files theoretically play on the
Quicktime Player, you need to download a special file called a "codec"
which converts the avi into the .mov formula that Quicktime likes best.

You’re not done yet, though, because if you also want to listen to the
file you want to view, and it has a soundtrack in mp3 format, you
need a special program
called
DiVX
Doctor
2 to convert the soundtrack to a format the Quicktime Player can handle.
Three hours and numerous visits to the Apple site, Info-Mac and Macintouch
later, the opening shots of Tony Soprano on the New Jersey Turnpike filled
my screen. Even more impressively, the funky beat of Leonard Cohen’s
theme song filled our earbuds.

To our surprise, the episode was the very one that had debuted this
week, the first show of the 5th season. Two days later, it was available
via Bit Torrent.

Since that day (Friday, two days ago), we have tried to download at
least 100 files, including the Hulk, Brazil, Kill Bill in English, Spanish
and German, 6 episodes of our favorite animated
series,
"Reboot",
Pirates of the Caribbean, 28 Grams, Lord and Commander, all of last season’s
West Wing’s in a single file, a Lakers-Kings game from the previous night, The Iron Chef’s Greatest Shows
and a two-hour Timothy Leary special.

Not a single attempt has been successful. This could be due to Comcast,
which is introducing a new, Super Broadband service in our area and may
be mucking up existing service to induce people to move to the faster,
more expensive version. Most of the connections which have gone through
have been downloading at less than 10 Kps.  When the download slips
below 1 we usually pull the plug and consider it a mercy killing.

But we still haven’t given up.  In fact, at this very moment we
are downloading the entire 8th year of the Simpsons in a single file.  Let
us check how it’s coming. The 2.14 Gig file is 11.4% complete.  We
should have the whole thing in a short 524 hours, 36 minutes and 27 seconds.  Unfortunately,
since we are leaving the country in about 480 hours, we may have to wait
quite a while to catch up on our missing Simpson’s episodes.

Andrew Grumet, our Main Man at MIT, is all excited because he has managed
to meld Bit Torrent with RSS. He thinks this combinations of technologies
will make our dream of a video aggregator possible. We certainly hope
so, as since we went public with our dream we have wandered across, been
sent and pointed to quite a collection of video feeds in need of aggregation.  Who
knew there was so much independent video available already? Watch this
space for some reviews of some of the video streams we have discovered.

However, we cannot unequivocally endorse Bit Torrent just yet, at least
until someone comes up with a simplified and intuitive Mac interface.  It
is just too darn complicated, and has too high a failure rate for the
general public, which does NOT like having to figure stuff out, or dealing
with failure in any shape or form. Still, we have our one episode of
the Sopranos to remind us of what the future holds, and we will certainly
keep trying. Tips or leads appreciated.