February, 2006

Feb 06


Last night I grabbed a few episodes of Sleeper Cell (Showtime) and Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi Channel) from the iTunes store to watch on my flight out. I’ve tried watching Galactica a few times and it hasn’t caught yet — this time I’m liking it better, but will save that for another post.

I’ve watched 4 episodes of Sleeper Cell now (of 7 in the first season), and it’s great. Nikhyl thought I’d like it, and I do. Basically chronicles a terrorist sleeper cell in Los Angeles, and an FBI operation to counter it. A lot of folks said it’s like “24”, also known as “Television’s Worst Directed Show,” for the fantastic way that it consistently takes mediocre D list actors and somehow turns them into the equivalent of a high school drama class. We’ll call it the “anti-sorkin”. (As an aside, Sorkin & Schlamme’s “Studio 60” is set for the fall, and I’m incredibly excited about it. With Sports Night and the West Wing as their previous 2 efforts, hard to imagine how even Matthew Perry could screw this one up. I’m pretty sure that Sorkin will turn Perry into a giant star. Giant-er than now.)

Anyway, so Sleeper Cell isn’t 24. It’s a well written, well directed and well acted drama — a little bit melodramatic at times, but excellent, nonetheless.

I’m really of 2 minds on the iTunes video store. On the one hand, it’s just incredibly incredibly easy to grab a show online and watch it on my laptop — and it’s really just perfect for business travel. And on the face of it, the economics are approximately the same as buying the DVDs. (For a 24 episode series like, say, 24, you’d pay $48, which is more or less what it would cost on DVD. Economics for shorter shows like The Shield & Sleeper Cell are a little better — you can see a season for $20 or $30.) But with DVDs, I generally buy them, watch them, then sell them on Amazon for about $20 less, all in. So take the economics out — let’s stipulate that they’re approximately the same — or really somewhere between buying & renting the media. (Although they’re available much earlier, and often before a current season is over.)

3 things, though, bother me about video downloads like this, compared to DVDs:

– Quality. Pretty rotten, really. Boxy. Not unwatchable, but as everyone starts getting used to HDTV, I think it’s going to get tougher & tougher to love these. But that may be sort of like downloadable audio — for a while it was hard to listen to, then it got good enough. So this is a temporary problem.

– DRM. Painful. I think that our idea of ownership of content is going through a pretty radical transformation now. On the plane, I wanted to be able to share the videos that I bought last night with Mike, but of course they’re locked to my iTunes account. So I can do some wacky maneuvers to get him access for a temporary period of time, or else just throw up my hands and let him buy them himself. That doesn’t really line up with my idea of content ownership, or even content rental. Doesn’t seem like I should feel like I’m doing something illegal just to let a friend watch a video that I purchased.

– Permanence. Where do I put all this stuff? Do I care? Now that I own the whole first season of Galactica and have watched it, do I really want to keep the 4 gigabytes on my hard disk? Can my 80 GB laptop drive really afford it?

Feb 06


Heading back to Tokyo for the week — giving a talk on Thursday for Mozilla Japan — will be to a pretty good-sized group of developers, contributors, and enterprises. I’m excited to go back, as it should be a little more familiar this time around. Should be fun to hang out with Schrep for a week, too. This trip seems much, much easier than last time — it’s 3 days shorter, of course (Monday -> Friday) — just seems overall less daunting than my first time. Flight still seems sort of long, but not that bad. (I’m 3 hours in now — we’ll see how I feel 7 hours from now, when we’ve still got an hour left. :-)).

Feb 06

The Cold War, by John Lewis Gaddis

Loved this book — just loved it. It’s an extremely readable account of the Cold War, written by one of the foremost historians of the period. I find myself forgetting what it felt like to grow up in the 70s and 80s sometimes — but have memories of very worried feelings about nuclear war, even when I was an early teenager. Reading the book really helped me understand the concreteness of what was going on — helped me to defuzz some of the boundaries of the war — makes it really clear that it was a war.

What I particularly like about the book is that it talks not only about the events and the context, but the ideologies that were underlying the conflict.

I’m struck by a few things:

– At root, the difference between communism (small “c” communism) and capitalism and socialism isn’t so much about end goals — by and large, the end goals are centered around improving the quality of human life. The difference is, I think, in the nature of how to effect that improvement.

– There’s another fundamental difference that the book points out: liberty is not the same as equality. And that while communism & socialism were never unclear about this point, the United States really struggled during the Fifties with which was more important.

– The Soviet Union really gained legitimacy with victory in World War 2 — for lots of reasons, but really, I think that the price that they paid for this legitimacy was the blood of their people, shed by the Nazis. And, of course, the nuclear capability that came just a few years later.

– Stalin was a bad guy. Truly.

– Korea could have gone much, much worse. As it was, a lot of things happened in Korea that really screwed up the world for the next 50 years, setting up the idea of “dominoes” falling and wars by proxy fought in regions that were increasingly irrelevant to the principals (US & USSR).

– Grand social experiments will often have unacceptably high costs. Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Stalin’s forced transformation to an industrial proletariat. Millions upon millions died because they believed in theories that couldn’t work in practice. Sometimes, of course, these experiments work: the US Revolution comes to mind, with them trying a whole new level of democracy. I think, maybe, that the difference is that in the first the experiment and responsibility for success all comes from the top, the government. In the second, the burden is placed on everyone, but they’ve got the tools — the vote — to do something meaningful. I think a lot about popular power these days during my time at Mozilla. The aggregate power of millions of people who are motived to do something, to support something, to be something — probably no other force is stronger.

– Once Stalin died, Mao really took the mantle of the soul of Marxism, even as Kruschev and the Soviets built their Communist empire.

– Deng Xiaopeng is someone that I’d like to know more about. He was the first Chinese leader to exhort Chinese citizens to “get rich.” Purged multiple times by Mao, he put China onto a capitalist road without giving up absolute government control — without introducing democracy. This would appear to me to be unique — certainly it’s difficult to tell the difference in Russia over the last 10 years between the effects of democracy and the effects of capitalism. If Putin hangs onto power for a while longer, maybe we’ll figure that out.

– Because of the threat of nuclear war between (among?) superpowers, during the last 50 years of the 20th century, stability became the single most important factor in all geopolitics. Mutually Assured Destruction is an example of that. Eisenhower explicitly had no contingency plan other than total war — because having plans for “lighter war” might make it easier to go to war and have inevitable escalation to nuclear war.

– Words matter. Symbols matter. And Gaddis points out that in this case, Actors matter. Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul, both former actors, along with Margaret Thatcher, acted like the Soviet Union was not legitimate — that it did not have an equal ethical footing to the West. “The Evil Empire.” “Tear down that wall.” More than that, though, it seems that these 3 leaders did not accept that preserving the status quo was the most important thing, that détente represented an acceptable state of affairs.

– Rejecting the doctrine of mutually assured destruction probably hastened the end of the Cold War by years. While SDI was decades away from being achievable, the idea that one side could withstand a nuclear war in an asymmetric was a revelation. It made the idea of war much more real, and much scarier.

– The Soviet Union would have crumbled sooner or later, but actions during the 80s clearly made it happen more quickly.

Anyway, I could go on and on (already have, I suppose) — very good read, and at only about 250 pages, an easy one to digest.

Feb 06

Alexander the Great, by Norman Cantor

Pretty disappointing account of Alexander the Great — I was really interested in reading this book — it’s part of the Eminent Lives series, which also put out a book about Ulysses S Grant that I liked a fair bit. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s about an era of history that’s not super-well documented or just because the author didn’t do a good job, but I found this book disjointed and not very well-written. Alexander, of course, was an interesting guy. Just not interesting enough to carry a mediocre biography.

Feb 06

The Japan Book

This is a great little book about Japan that Hinata-san gave me on my first trip (I think the edition published above is not quite the same, but maybe similar). Here’s why it’s great: goes through the geography, the politics, the religion, the culture, the language, the business, the economics — big overview. Well written, good topics, good graphics. Anyone going to Japan should pick it up or borrow it from me. 🙂