Musings

A modest proposal: good point, uncertain outcome…

In his editorial posting at the New Republic, “A Modest Proposal in Defense of Free Speech,” Jagdish Bhagwati suggests that the offending cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammed be published along side cartoons or articles that ridicule other religions such as Christianity or his own Hinduism. His idea would be to emphasize that the point of such cartoons and other editorial statements is not to attack Islam but rather to question any or all religions, which is a fundamental right of free speech in open democracies. This is not so likely to work despite its admirable sentiment.

As he has expressed it, the cartoon–and similar views of any other religion–are an likely to be interpreted as attacks by “secularism” against religion. This is anathema to any religiously and politically conservative Muslims, especially Islamists, who are even more alarmed by the secularism of the West than by their apparent (though not real) opposition to Islam. Indeed, such Muslims can better understand Hasidic Jews or Christian conservatives–while opposing them on doctrinal and, really, political and economic grounds. They are at least all ardent defenders of broad religious authority over many aspects of life and society. The question for them is which religion is granted that authority while for the secular person, religion should not be granted any such authority over society because religion is a strictly individual and personal choice. In an open democratic society we recognize many legitimate choices that individuals can make and further recognize that people within such a society can and do make different choices and still live peaceably together. Certainly, I side with Bhagwati on this one, but to the religious-political conservative, asserting the freedom of religion as an individual right is not the same as asserting the authority of religion over all aspects of life. To be effective in the debate with religionists (a new word), we have to get this discussion to a higher plane than the secular right to ridicule any religion.

Politics

Egypt

How do you organize? How do you sustain momentum? In a place with no opposition and no members of the government who diverge from the leadership, where do you find the leaders of a new direction? How will democratic representation work? Who asks these questions beyond just ousting Mubarak and his confidantes? How do you create something for the future that can be stable? This is very hard.

It doesn’t seem to be about the United States or Israel even as both are decried. It is about the pent up dissatisfaction of Egyptians with the example of Tunisia to emulate.

Some worry that Mubarak has maintained the peace with Israel and that democracy could bring in Islamists with strong aversion towards Israel and the US. But, democracies usually want peace with their neighbors. Islamists IN a democracy should not worry us. Only Islamists taking over the democracy and co-opting it should worry us. A real democracy likely will include Islamic parties. But when the views of the people are really being expressed they will remove any forces that usher in a new kind of repression. So, we should welcome real democracy.

Mohamed ElBaradei may be the best person to form a transitional government. Standing up to the US during the Iraq WMD standoff earned him credibility among Arabs. He was tough with Saddam Hussein and is a skilled and disciplined technocrat with deep experience in dealing with western governments. We should not be confused by the view of the Bush administration in the days leading up to the Iraq invasion, which was tainted by the distortions of Cheney and Rumsfeld who rejected anyone who didn’t support their delusions. ElBaradei did not appease Saddam Hussein nor did he trump up the case that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld wanted.

Do Tunisia and Egypt start a domino effect among other repressive Arab regimes? “It may not be tomorrow or a few months but I’m sure it is like dominoes. Before there was always an ideology – pan-Arabism or being an enemy of Israel. But now people are simply looking for their personal freedom, for food, education, a good life. The days of ideology are over” said Mazen Darwich of the Syrian Centre for Media.

This is a time to help establish democratic legitimacy in the Middle East. The US should avoid the mistakes of defending dictators who support our diplomatic policies and manipulating democracy as an ideology that only support US aims, so undermining the legitimacy of democracy for the people who aspire to it.

Politics

Democratic Disarray

The Republicans are “on message.” The Democrats are in disarray. Today on NPR, Senator Lamar Alexander corrected the interviewer by saying repeatedly that the Senate is debating a “tax increase, not a tax cut because the Democrats would be increasing the tax rates that are already in place.”

Now, how does Senator Alexander get away with such dissimulation? Why doesn’t every Democrat reply, “Bush passed a big tax cut in his first year in office in 2000. What happened to the economy over the next 8 years? It was demolished with the second worst decline in history, second only to the Great Depression. Why do Republicans claim the tax CUT was good for the economy? Did it work? Look at what happened–Bush destroyed the US economy. It’s been in place eight years. It didn’t work. Republicans can’t claim the tax cut creates jobs. We saw what happened for 8 years of Bush.”

Democrats should repeat this over, and over, and over, and over. Repetition does not hurt the message; it helps. Simple, direct, factual, and emphatic. Make it hurt.

But, with leadership like Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, the absent Tim Kaine, and the White House operating without leading, what can we expect.

It’s simple: Repeat after me. Bush pushed tax cuts in 2000. What happened during the next eight years? The economy tanked and the deficit ballooned. Bush destroyed the budget and the economy. Republican policy failed, period.

Technology

Update on Consumer Video Editing

Well, it turns out that video editing on the Mac is really a mixed bag.

iMovie is a real sleeper. It is much more capable than its “beginner” positioning would suggest. It has an excellent stabilizer. It also has a much more modern architecture than Final Cut. While it still transcodes on ingestion, it is quick about it and all effects and edits preview in real time without any manual rendering. Final Cut requires constant rendering merely to preview. Serious Final Cut users jump through some serious hoops to overcome its sluggishness.

Sony Vegas has no such difficulties. Of course it must use a low-res preview to show edits, but it generates it on the fly. Most encodings can be placed directly on the project timeline. AVCHD works incredibly easily. Instead of importing the silly directory structure of AVCHD–which both Final Cut and iMovie require–Vegas let’s you add the stream file directly to the project timeline. Later, when the project is done you can render to any of the many encodings Vegas supports as output.

Vegas isn’t the prettiest thing to look at–iMovie is–but Vegas is capable, fast, flexible, and efficient.

Technology

Consumer-level Video Editing on Windows

What a sad state of affairs.  It’s widely acknowledged that Apple has an advantage, but you have to experience it to appreciate just how bad video editing can be on Windows.  When you need more than Windows MovieMaker, things get bleak.  In addition to MovieMaker, I’ve tried Corel Videostudio, Pinnacle Studio Plus, Adobe Premiere Elements, Cyberlink Powerdirector, and Sony Vegas.  I have not tried pro-level products like Adobe Premiere or the Avid products.  So, here’s the rundown and the suprising conclusion.

  • Windows MovieMaker:  now that it supports AVCHD you can get basic things done.  It works, but doesn’t offer much flexibility.
  • Adobe Premiere Elements:  Adobe has taken over from the other Windows-related software company as the king of bloatware.   APE is a 1.2 gig download.   Installed with little of the included content, the app footprint is 610 mb.  The app takes nearly 4 minutes to boot on my 2.67g quadproc.   Why bother?  It can’t even do something as basic as white balance.  You need to upgrade to full Premiere for that.  As the self-proclaimed elegant savior of grahics arts professionals who want to work on Windows instead of Mac, this is a poor showing.  As an aside, Photoshop CS4 is another regretable piece of bloatware.  Only Lightroom shows some competent restraint.
  • Corel Videostudio:  I used this in my first round of video-making because it supported AVCHD earlier than the others, had a decent range of features, and didn’t make the process impossibly complicated.  That’s still true but 3 versions beyond version 11–we’re now at “Pro X3”–not much has changed.  The biggest problem is that they use a proprietary codec stack so if they don’t support an output mode you need, you are out of luck.  A lot of the overly friendly effort at UI just gets in the way.
  • Pinnacle:  I am not up to date.  Circa 2008 the UI was so gushy that it was hard to do things and the rendering speed was much slower than Corel.

  • Cyberlink Powerdirector:  Cyberlink is a come-on marketing gimmick company, incessantly trying to get you to upgrade to all kinds of add-on goodies.   Though they have a female CEO (plaudits), their marketing is distinctly pre-feminist with lots of tasteful but cheesy visages of western women.  PowerDirector’s UI is a bizarre gusher of nearly meaningless icons (just choose an effect;  one click; the rest is easy).

    But, there are some very technically competent people working on this product.   It has superb codec support and renders incredibly fast.  And it is possibly the only product that lets you work natively in AVCHD.  It’s just very hard to get over the UI.

  • Sony Vegas:  Sony Vegas is a product line that ranges from 49.95 to 599.95.  These are serious products for working professionals.  The UI is mid-90’s.  Bizarrely, the cheapest product, “Movie Studio HD”, and the two most expensive support AVCHD while 3 middle range variants don’t.  Sony really doesn’t cripple this product very much compared to it’s more expense consumer variants.  The $600 product has features that only working professionals would need.

    The UI is downright ugly, though the new version of the pro variant now sports the de rigeur dark grey skin.  There are lots of direct manipulation controls on top of objects, which are very hard to discover.   There are several mode toggles that have quite subtle effects.  It’s the classic case of hard to discover, but easy to use once you know it.

    The whole line is technically competent with great performance.   Rather than trying to edit natively by relying on various hardware gimmicks or special buffering to improve performance the way the other products do, Vegas edits by default in a reduced resolution mode that works smoothly regardless of hardware or video card.  There is no special configuration–it just works.

    The product comes with good codec support and works with standards-based codecs so you can add additional codecs.  Rendering speed is very good.  It boots much faster than any of the other products. The range of capabilities is far greater than any of the other products that cost 2-3 times as much.   The look is off-putting.  But, in a little more than an hour you can go through most of the tutorials that work within the live product.  These walk you through the weirdnesses, which have their own consistent logic.

    While the UI is seriously clunky, it actually works smoothly.  That is saying a lot in video editing.  When you drag some footage, it drags immediately and smoothly.  Let go, it stops.  Change an effect and it’s immediately done.  Most of the other products suffer from infuriating UI sludge.

The surprising conclusion:  for 39.95 (web download price) Sony Vegas Movie Studio HD is far and away the best consumer choice for video editing on Windows, which is good–because it works–and sad–because Windows video editing is a far cry from iMovie and Final Cut Pro.

Web Development

Another WordPress nicety

WordPress includes an embedded editor for editing php and css files.  It finds all of the files associated with your current them and presents them in a pick list.  You can edit, update the file, and preview your changes with a few clicks.  This doesn’t seem like a big deal but it is nice not to fire up your FTP tool and editor to make quick changes.

Web Development

Web Hosting

At a first approximation there appear to be three kinds of hosting services, with some overlap:

  • Foundation:  These are hosting companies with big data centers and who take direct enterprise customers.  They provide dedicated physical servers, co-location (your servers in their data center), virtual machines, and some shared hosting, though they don’t try to price shared hosting attractively because they aren’t focusing on “retail” trade.
  • Virtual Fabric: These are companies emphasizing their cloud platforms and provide much of the same capability as the foundation but with a reliance on a unified management “fabric” across their data centers to provide access to virtual machines for compute and to persistent storage and content distribution networks.
  • Retail Web:  These are hosting companies that provide a more-or-less commodity shared hosting platform for web sites.  Some of them run their own data centers but most actually buy services from the Foundation companies.  They, in effect, buy bulk and break it down to small pieces for the “retail” trade of “mom-and-pop” web sites.

I haven’t tried to research this in detail but here are some examples of companies in each category.   Leave a comment to provide corrections:

Foundation:  Rackspace, Softlayer, Media Temple, The Planet

Virtual Fabric: Amazon, Microsoft, the foundation folks

Retail Web: GoDaddy, Dreamhost, Hostgator, Precision Effect, Hawkhost, thousands more

The Retail Web offer tends to be very commoditized in terms of the software platform provided by the hoster.  But, the service, speed, and reliability are not a commodity–there are significant differences but it is desparately difficult for you to tell what they are until you try a specific service.  This and several other blogs are on Hawkhost, whose physical machines are hosted by SoftLayer.  Hawkhost has provided excellent service during the startup phase, when the most help is required.

The Retail Web software platform for shared hosting includes:

OS: usually a flavor of Linux.  Windows is very rare for shared hosting–you usually need VPCs or dedicated machines to get Windows.

Web Server: Apache or Litespeed.

Database: MySQL, SQLite, or Postgres

Server-side scripting: PHP, CGI, others (see extras)

Management tools: cPanel (or custom equivalent), PHPxxAdmin (for databases)

Extras: various web site building tools, additional server-side runtimes (Python, RubyonRails), various PHP application libraries (WordPress, Joomla, etc.), eCommerce tools

It’s nearly impossible to sort out the various retail providers.  There is a lot of sleaze out there.  You’re better off avoiding the very largest retail hosters and going with someone who provides a degree of personal service.   Rely on direct referral from actual humans you know face-to-face rather than mystery forum postings.

Web Development

WordPress vs Typepad

I’ve had 5 blogs hosted on TypePad. One is a very extensive blog based on a 3-week trip to Israel. Typepad is adequate and I was able to get done what I wanted to do. It took some CSS changes, a couple of “widgets”, and some pasted in HTML. But, it turns out to be very expensive to host 20M of content on Typepad. As I realized I would have more content, I decided it was time to self-host.

Wow! WordPress is just so much better. Let’s count the ways:

  • Dashboard is much better for managing the blog and creating content.
  • Thousands of themes make it possible to find a suitable design “out of the box”. Many themes are almost app-like and provide form-driven options for substantial customization.
  • Thousands of plug-ins do useful things to maintain your blog or add features to your blog.
  • Radically better documentation and help from the community.
  • Much, much better content management via the dashboard.

WordPress is a web app and it feels like using a client app. It is coherent and easy. There are little touches that are nice:

  • In the list of pages, posts, or comments the basic actions appear as a hover and you can click one to perform it immediately.
  • You can search the media library. This is so handy when you have hundreds of photos or other files for a blog.

There are perhaps two things that are better about TypePad:

  • Designed from the ground up to easily support multiple blogs. With WordPress you can use a site that supports WordPress MU, which includes some restrictions or you have the overhead of placing the WordPress packages of scripts with each blog.
  • While there are far fewer templates available, the templates provided by 6Apart carefully separate structure from appearance. You can change from 1 to 2 to 3 column layout and add or remove content sections within a “theme.” This is possible with some of the more mature and elaborately constructed WordPress themes, but most seem to munge structure and appearance. The negative here is that the stylesheets are very elaborate in Typepad and too “flat.” There are place-holder objects for each of the layout styles. When you modify a stylesheet it takes a while to make sure you’ve changed the right objects. They didn’t cascade their CSS enough–there are too few globals.

I haven’t done any customizations in WordPress via CSS or php. I am sure I will. Right now I am pleasantly surprised by how easy everything is and how much is built-in.