Halcyon Days

Columns and reflections by Terry Britt

Archive for July 2009

Will This Chrome Shine?

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As if it was taking a war from Tolkien and going one better, Google’s announcement that it will enter the operating system market with Chrome OS is somewhat bewildering to me, given the never-ending debate with Windows vs. Mac OS vs. Linux.

John Fontana asks several key questions in his PC Advisor article on the subject.  I heartily agree with him on a couple of points.

One, trotting out a new OS option in and of itself is not compelling enough.  A new OS is a world apart from a successful OS — as ghosts of OSes past and Microsoft’s painful lesson with Vista will show.  Two, once Google does have Chrome OS available for purchase or pre-installed on netbooks (its initial target market), it really needs to already have a few heavy hitters in the application development scene ready to roll out some game-changing apps with the OS launch.  Chrome OS as a “preferred” OS for Web apps is, again, probably not going to be enough of a deal-making aspect for most PC buyers.

With the growing high-stakes rivalry between Microsoft and Google, it’s an interesting move on the chess board by the latter, to be sure.  Whether it turns out to be a very potent move remains to be seen.

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July 9, 2009 at 2:39 pm

The Royalty Rumble And Its Aftermath

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The good news for Internet Radio fans (myself included): The battle over royalty payments to song copyright holders appears to have been settled.

The bad news? Free listening might remain free only to a certain point.

The Pandora site blog has this explanation from founder Tim Westergren.  Essentially, the big webcasters will pay an amount based on either a portion of their revenue (up to 25 percent) or a per performance fee, with smaller players paying based on a percentage of revenue or expenses.

What you will find in Westergren’s blog entry about the agreement is something I expect to become the norm.  You will still be able to listen for free, but the free ride will be capped.  In Pandora’s case, it will be 40 hours per month.

I expect this to become a standard model across the board, Internet stations capping the amount of free listening time per month, beyond which you will be asked to pitch in a small access fee (in Pandora’s case, it is going to be just 99 cents) or upgrade to a paid premium service in the cases of those sites that offer such a service.

There will still be some casualties on the battlefield, especially among the smaller webcasters, some of which were totally dependent on not having to fork over a significant recurring royalties payment.  Hopefully, your favorite station will not be among those going silent.

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July 8, 2009 at 10:17 am

In The Zone

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Well, if I was going to be stuck at home for a weekend while my car was in a local garage for repairs, this July 4 weekend was the one.

Thanks to the Sci Fi Channel and the creative wonder of a man who once walked this earth by the name of Rod Serling, I didn’t need wheels and a gasoline-powered engine to go to the place I have loved since my childhood.  You know it from the hypnotic first notes of the introductory theme music.

“You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind…”

More than 35 years after I saw an episode for the first time, the name still brings an immeasurable sense of joy to my eyes and ears.

The Twilight Zone.

The stories, the characters, Serling’s insightful narration — these were all the elements that bound together to form one of the most unique television series to ever air.  Fifty years after it was first introduced to an unsuspecting American television audience, episodes of The Twilight Zone still seem as relevant as ever to the world around us in 2009.

It is that timeless quality to so many of the stories and the grains of knowledge that can be found within that I find so endearing, over and over again, every time I watch an episode and regardles of how many times I’ve seen it.  The stories still speak to me today as strongly as ever because, as Serling himself put it, The Twilight Zone “lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.”

I could have done without the car breaking down earlier in the week, but as a friend and newspaper colleague of mine noted on my Facebook page, being cooped up with Sci Fi Channel’s Twilight Zone marathon during the holiday weekend was “a pretty good consolation prize.”

I didn’t stay up all night, as it were, but saw most of the episodes even the most casual Twilight Zone fan knows, the ones that might be called the “classics.”  Most every fan of the show has an absolute favorite and I am no exception.

If you’re thinking that is “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” that would be an incorrect guess.  Great, great episode illustrating the destructive power of fear, but not my fave.

“Time Enough At Last”?  Again, great story, but that’s not it, either.  “Eye Of The Beholder”?  As shocking a story twist as you’ll ever find, but still not the top of my list.

No, the episode that stirs me without fail is one, surprisingly, that Serling did not write.  It is “I Sing The Body Electric,” an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury story about a robotic-but-lifelike grandmother that must win the hearts of three children of a widower to whom she has been assigned.

To understand why the story touches so deeply is to go the Twilight Zone itself, or rather to consider the time it first appeared.  That was the time of infinite possibilities, for better or worse, and the latter end of what many consider the golden age of science fiction.  It was before a man had set foot on the surface of the moon and long before the term “personal computer” was on anyone’s lips, much less one sitting on anyone’s desk.

But in The Twilight Zone, infinite possibilities become reality and that includes robotic grandmothers who will love you for eternity.

For me, though, it goes beyond that to a perhaps unintended metaphysical analogy.  When the children are grown and about to start college, the robotic grandmother says she must leave them to allow them to make their own lives.  She tells them she might go to another family to look after the children, but she might be dismantled.

The children-now-young-adults are worried it will mean the end for her, but she assures them by explaining that if she is dismantled, her “heart and soul” will go to a big room of voices — those of other robotic grandmothers — where everyone shares what they learned from the families they looked after.

Could there have been something more human about the robot grandmother’s existence than just her appearance, her ability to teach and learn, and her ability to love?

Again, I’ll quote from Serling:  “Fable, sure — but who’s to say?”

Author’s Note: Fortunately, you don’t have to wait until the next Fourth of July holiday to take a vacation in The Twilight Zone.  Thanks to online video, many episodes of the show can be seen for free at CBS.com and on various video compilation sites like Veoh and Fancast.

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July 5, 2009 at 7:29 pm

Incomprehensible Indigestion

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Earlier this past week, a report was released that should have made every person in this country — especially those in the “Deep South” — think twice before piling on more of anything on his or her dinner plate.

However, I doubt the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s newest findings on the ongoing rise of obesity in the USA scared anybody off any beer, hot dogs, fried chicken and chocolate layer cake over the Fourth of July weekend.  I doubt there were any cookouts canceled due to concern about all the calories, fat, and cholesterol that would be running through Over Weight 2the ol’ digestive tract and into the bloodstream.

The numbers are that scary, though.  Mississippi, after becoming the nation’s first state with an adult obesity rate of more than 30 percent, still tops that infamous list but now has company in Alabama, Tennessee, and West Virginia above the 30 percent bar.  More than one in four adults are obese in 31 states.  Worse yet are the statistics on the number of overweight and obese children.  Mississippi’s rate is 44.4 percent.  That is just a bit less than every other child in that state being either overweight or clinically obese.

But, lo and behold, what was among the “sports” headlines this weekend? Some guy set a new record in a hot dog speed eating contest.  Forgive me if I fail to rouse up the appropriate level of awe.

Speed eating and the gluttonous kooks who make it their quest for glory are just more reminders of how callous an attitude we as a nation have adopted toward food in general.  If we can’t have more of something, it’s a crying shame, and God forbid if we actuallly have to take time to chew, taste, and savor.  Sex isn’t the only arena of modern living where the mantra of “Size matters” is taken to heart.

Not everyone overweight or obese is in that situation due to overeating or the constant consumption of junk food.  Many are and our habits and atittudes toward food apparently are not changing, which could explain why no state had a significant decline in its obesity rate from a year ago.

In the midst of all this, however, we celebrate a new king of hot dog swallowing.  It is a ludicrous spectacle, speed eating competitions, in light of what more and faster is doing to so many people and doing to an already inadequate and inaccessible health care system.  It is shameful when posted next to some of the words and images revealed by my friend and former newspaper colleague Philip Holsinger, who sees many adults and children in Nicaragua for whom one hot dog would be a unprecedented feast.

Still, I don’t expect to hear much better news when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s report for 2010 comes out.  I don’t expect a decline in hot dog-eating contests, pizza-eating championships, and sushi-eating smackdowns, either.

Last night, while enjoying Sci Fi channel’s Twilight Zone marathon, I couldn’t help but appreciate the irony that can be found in the final scene of “To Serve Man” in which a Kanamit urges the spaceship passenger-soon-to-be-dinner Michael Chambers to eat.  “We wouldn’t want you to lose any weight,” the Kanamit chides.

The Kanamits would not have trouble finding choice morsels these days.

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July 5, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Robot Expressions

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The latest on blurring the line between human and mechanical comes to you in the form of the KOBIAN humanoid robot, a walking, interactive being that can also produce facial movement and body positioning to simulate emotional expressions.  If you have a Del Spooner-like distrust of robots, I’d advise skipping out on watching the video at the above link.

The Japanese technical team behind the robot’s creation says it hopes to develop the robot to a point where it could be useful assisting the sick or elderly with household chores, but that it would probably take several decades to get to that point.  Still, that could mean they’ve got it perfected right about the time I would need one…Exciting.

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July 2, 2009 at 1:07 pm