Thursday, May 26, 2005

American Idol

I've been hooked on American Idol for three years now. I know it's lame, but it's like a guilty pleasure. Actually that's a good way to describe all reality tv, but let's not get off topic here. I was definitely rooting for Bo Bice tonight. How could I not root for a long haired rocker from Alabama? But I was not surprised at all that Carrie won.

While watching the final performances on Tuesday night, I commented that the fix was in. The producers of the show knew that Carrie was much more of sure thing in terms of $$$. It will be easy for her to serve up a CD of pop-ish country dance songs and ballads a la Shania Twain or Faith Hill (or any of their dozens of clones) and sell several million records. It would be more difficult to get a by-the-numbers pop CD out of Bo. He would be better served by more of a rock record, but rock fans tastes are much more finnicky than country or pop. A rock formula is much complicated than a pop or country one.

So what did the Idol masters do? They changed the format so that the singers had to do two "original" songs (picked by the producers) and had to do a song they had already performed for their third song. This didn't really help Carrie directly, but totally killed Bo. They made him do two sappy ballads -- songs he would never have picked on his own. They let him do one song of his choice, but because it had to be something he already done they took away one of his major advantages -- his knack for putting an original, fresh intepretation of his songs. They totally took him out of his game and handed the prize to Carrie.

The sad thing is that they probably did not need to do this. Bo vs. Carrie is almost a blue states vs. red states battle all over again. And all we know how that turned out. It's even worse really. American Idol is less popular among many blue state citizens. So the red states win again.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Movie Review: Star Wars Episode III Revenge of the Sith

That's right, I'm doing a movie review. You won't see too many of these, but this is Star Wars. This is what I grew up on. I don't know how many times I made my dad take me to see A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. My sister pretended to be my mom so she could check me out of school to go see Return of the Jedi on the day it opened. So I'm kind of a big fan.

That being said, I wasn't one of those people who hated the first two prequels. Sure Jar-Jar was incredibly annoying, but so were the Ewoks. The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones were not as good as any of the originals, but they weren't bad movies. So I was not pre-disposed against Revenge of the Sith, in fact I was very optimistic about it. And I was not disappointed.

This was by far the best of the prequels. It was probably as good as Return of the Jedi and A New Hope, though not as good as The Empire Stracks Back. That is saying a lot. This is what people had waiting for and why they were disappointed at the first two prequels. They wanted something as good as the classics, and this is the only one of the prequels that delivers.

So what was so great about it? The key to any Star Wars movie is the story. Let's be honest, all of the characters in all of the movies are stock characters. The only character that ever saw any real development was Luke, and that was not until Return of the Jedi. It's the story, the myth that made the originals great. Revenge of the Sith has a great story. What makes it even better is that we all know what's going to happen. You know that Anakin is going to go over to the dark side, but Lucas manages to tell the story without it being anticlimactic. The transformation is really well done. He goes from a Jedi with doubts and fears to a Sith full of anger and lust for power.

Of course what would a Star Wars movie be without great effects? The effects are very good here, but not overdone. They don't steal the show from the storyline. They don't need to. The final battles between Obiwan and Anakin and between Palpatine and Yoda are both spectacular, as is anything with General Grievous.

The movie really left me thinking about Darth Vader and the Emperor. What got me thinking was the Emperor's quote while battling Yoda, that even if Yoda were to kill him that Anakin would wind up being more powerful than either of them. Now he could have just been talking trash, but given Anakin's hailing as "The Chosen One," one could not blame Palpatine for thinking that Anakin was going to be a more powerful Sith lord than even Palpatine. So fast-forward to Return of the Jedi. Clearly Palpatine had to be incredibly disappointed in his apprentice. I mean, what did Vader accomplsih in all those years? He led the attack on Hoth and set the trap for Luke on Bespin. Those were only partial victories and Vader had a lot of help on both.

And what about all those years between Episode III and IV? What was Vader up to during that time? You've got to figure that Palpatine would have sent him looking for Yoda and/or Obiwan. I mean, what else did he have to do during that time? And what about this talk of Vader being the most powerful Sith/Jedi ever? He didn't seem to ever surpass Palpatine. He killed Obiwan, but Obiwan let him do that so that Luke could see it and be less likely to feel any sympathy for Vader once he found out the truth. Of course it would seem likely that Vader would have defeated him anyways, given Obiwan's advanced age. Vader defeated Luke on Bespin, but Luke was very inexperienced at that point. There never seemed any doubt that Luke could defeat him in Return of the Jedi.

So Vader had to be a huge disappointment for Palpatine. Perhaps that makes sense after seeing Revenge of the Sith. Perhaps Anakin's powers were weakened by all the self-loathing he had to go through for all those years. Whatever the case, one cannot blame Palpatine at all for wanting Luke to take down Vader and take over for him. Basically all Vader was good for was as a way to get to Luke. Otherwise he was really a liability to Palpatine.
If you haven't seen funnyfox, you defintely should check it out. Pretty humorous. Personally I've been a Firefox user since it was called Phoenix. It's my default browser on my all my computers. I really like Opera sometimes too. It's great for quickly looking up documentation, like the exact syntax of Preferences for example. It's just a lot faster than Firefox (or IE for that matter.) Firefox works a lot better for Google-related sites, like Blogger and Google Maps. Opera used to really suck on GMail, too. Of course that's as much Google's fault as it is Opera's, but that's not reason enough to not use Google Maps for example.
The traction that Firefox has gained is really pretty remarkable. I've been able to "switch" my wife's parents and her sister. They were all eager to be rid of pop-ups and spyware. Firefox is really great for most people with pretty basic browser needs. It's also great for "power" users, with its myriad of extensions. Personally I use the user agent switcher and the Google bar. I'm also thinking of adding on one of the enhanced ad blockers for my home computer. I've noticed more and more sites with ads (pop-ups/flash mostly) that seem to get by the standard pop-up blockers of Firefox, IE, and Opera. That will probably only get worse for awhile.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Nine Inch Nails With Teeth Review
As mentioned previously, I am a NIN fan from the 90s and have eagerly awaited the next NIN record. With Teeth was released earlier this month, and I've been listening to it non-stop. So it's about time that I put $0.02 out there about it.

A sidenote of the Napster/iTunes age of digital music is that the idea of "album oriented" music is really over, at least for popular music. Many people will decry this, but I won't bother since it's usually stupid to protest progress. Albums (CDs more accurately) really are the sum of their songs and nothing more these days, so I will go through With Teeth, song-by-song.

All The Love In The World
I liked this song instantly. From the mellow build-up to the disco happy climax, this song is immediately likeable and memorable. It is sure to be a fan favorite, though unlikely to be a radio hit. That is the true sign of a great NIN song though. Great pop songs, but very "true" and not worried at all about being commercial.

You Know What You Are
After something mellow, you can always trust Trent to kick your ass a la Piggy - Heresy from The Downward Spiral. Great energy and aggression, but sonically not overdone (something Trent's been guilty at times in the past.) People have been making a lot of David Grohl's drum work on this record. It is great on this song (and many others.) There is definitely too much hype around his drum work though. There have been some great drumming on past NIN songs like March of the Pigs and Burn just for example. Anyways, the drums are great on this song. The chorus is a lot of fun. Some of the lyrics are a little weak (especially given the chorus,) but that has always been Trent's biggest weakness.

The Collector
Another great rocker. Great drums, again. Actually these are probably the most impressive drums by Grohl with a vicious but syncopated beat. This song would have fit on The Fragile, though it probably wouldn't have been as stripped down. This one of the first of a couple of songs where Trent actually seems cool. There seems to be a little bit of irony even.

The Hand That Feeds
Ah yes, this song. Another great beat, though this one sans Grohl. This may wind up being overplayed on the radio, but it will still go down as a great NIN song. Great, polished aggression. Cool lyrics, maybe even political?

Love Is Not Enough
This song takes a little more patience than the last one. It's a little brooding and meandering at first, but when the guitars kick on for the chorus it really takes off. The chorus again seems a little hipper than usual for Trent. This winds up being a very strong song. I actually think it would have been a great name for the record, too.

Everyday Is Exactly The Same
This is one of the best songs on the CD. Very cool lyrics. The mentally ill seems to be a theme of this record, more so than in the past. This is not depression and self loathing, but is paranoia and sedation. Great chorus that is very memorable. This song will get stuck in your head very easily.

With Teeth
This is one of two tracks on the CD that are a little weaker than the rest. It does have a cool build-up and a somewhat catchy chorus. It's "quiet" bridge is a little spooky and generally kind of interesting. Not a bad song, just not as strong as the others. Plus it's sandwhiched between two of the best songs on the CD ...

This song is just cool. Hip 80's-ish synths at the begininng that give way to a killer guitar/bass line. Cool lyrics with a cool delivery (really.) Great chorus. Yeah it's a little simplistic, but catchy and fun aggression. I love to blast this song in my car.

Getting Smaller
This song absolutely rocks. Very cool guitar and drums at the beginning and a very cool guitar line. The chorus just kicks and has great manic energy. Classic NIN lyrics and probably the coolest guitar work on the CD.

This song has my favorite beat and bass line on the record. It's also Trent's coolest of several cool songs. Probably the sexiest NIN song since Closer. I love the falsetto in the chorus. Stripped down and straightforward but fantastic.

The Line Begins To Blur
This is the "other" weaker song on the CD to me. Cool atmosphere and lyrics. Good chorus, too. This song has great "sounds" -- the kind of sounds that really make you wonder how Trent creates such things. It really took me awhile to like this song at all, but it definitely starts to grow on you.

Beside You In Time
Cool lyrics and cool sonic craftsmenship. Very cool buildup and throbbing, drone guitar. The only downside to this song is that sounds a little like it was meant to be an intro to the next song... Very hypnotic.

Right Where It Belongs
Another gem. The haunting melody and cool fade in midway both make this song so instantly memorable. I love the piano and the lyrics are also very good. One of the best NIN songs ever.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

XML Databases
I came across an interesting article on Slashdot about the future of databases. There was a lot of stuff in this article, but one thing that caught my attention was the mention of XML and databases. This is of particular interest to me in my work. There are a lot of "XML database" products out there. Many smart people consider these to be trendy junk-ware, just trying to capitalize on the popularity of XML. Many people consider XML itself to be a trend. That's a big story itself, but it seems to me that XML has only gained more and more popularity/use for about seven years now. That would seem to be unusual behavior for a trend.

Anyways, here's what I see when it comes to XML these days. XML has taken over as the de facto standard for exchanging information. EDI is not gone, but definitely fading away. XML is really good for exchanging information. The mistake a lot of people make is that XML is that they think that XML is also good for storing information. That is not really true. It is only as good as any other text file format (maybe not as good as some, but that's not relevant for this discourse.) If all you need to do is read some information in, text files (including XML) are good for this. If you only need to change the data infrequently, text files are OK. If the amount of data you need to store is small, again text files are fine. It's when lots of people need to start reading and reading in complex ways, as well as writing to the data that text files run out of usefulness. That's why we have pseudo-RDBMS systems, a.k.a. databases (they're not true RDBMS but that's yet another story.) Relational models and mathematics allow for wonderfully complex manipulation of data.

So XML databases are a sham, right? Well maybe, but maybe not. If I am a business, there's no way that I should store my data as XML. It's just not an efficient way to gain access to my data. An XML database does not change the equation here. If I need to exchange data with partners, then I will probably use XML for that. I'd prefer not to take my data and stuff it into XML, but that's probably the easiest way for my partners to accept data from me. Similarly, I can't expect my partners to send me data that is "formatted" for my database, so I will probably prefer XML from them. This still does not change my equation. I will still have to parse what they send me and store in a relational DB to gain maximum use of the data. So there is no need for an XML database.

That does not mean there is no need for XML database technology. Again, XML is great for data exchange, but the people at either end of the exchange are still going to want to store their data in a relation DB to get the most out of it. So they don't need an XML database. However, there are often "things" in between the data exchanging parties. These "things" are processes. If "something" must be done to the inbound data before it is ready to become part of my database, then that something will probably prefer to deal with the XML directly. After all, it is just an intermediate. It is not going to store the data long term, so it does not necessarily gain any value from putting the data into a relational database. It's also a fact that often these processes involve manual operations and human interaction. So the XML may need to stick around for awhile (persisted) and may need to viewed by people (queried.) Now that sounds like a time when I would need an XML database.

So if I was an engineer at Oracle, I wouldn't feel a pressing need to add robust XQuery capabilities to Oracle 11 (or whatever comes next for them.) Of course, they actually have added some of these abilities, but I think that's just because of the XML "buzz." Oracle is certainly not open source, but I would still guess that they are mapping things to their relational model and leveraging their existing technology. Anyways, the point is that XML database technology is never likely to be something needed by most companies, even if most companies use XML for data exchange. It does have its place, and that's around business processes. That could be a big market, but it will be tiny compared to the overall database market.