Archive for the ‘Self-referential’ category

To the Onion A.V. Club: You’re welcome

28 July 2011

The Onion A.V. Club recently began airing a series of short films titled Pop Pilgrims. Their intro sums up the purpose of Pop Pilgrims better than I could:

“When the A.V. Club travels, we always make time to visit pop culture landmarks. If something memorable happened in the world of film, TV, books, or music, we want to go there. We’re not just tourists, we’re pop pilgrims.”

The series is a lot of fun, and very informative. Yet up to now, I hadn’t really given much thought to how they were getting their information.

Most of the shorts include interviews with local “experts,” people with firsthand (or at least close secondhand) knowledge of the sites: a pastor from the church in the final scene of The Graduate, say, or the former special counsel who helped to bring Animal House to the University of Oregon campus. That’s a great way to add to the pop lore, especially when the interviewees let us in on some lesser-known facts about the site. The short about Friday Night Lights was particularly illustrative on the ingenious use of a single physical location as many different on-screen places.

In their latest installment, the first of three in Chicago, they take on The Blues Brothers. And beyond the location interview at the Music Court bridge in Jackson Park—site of the Nazi rally in the movie—it would appear that a major portion of the three-minute short was put together by someone sitting down with some editing software, a DVD of The Blues Brothers, and a web browser displaying my site: Chicago Filming Locations of The Blues Brothers.

I say this because of the similarities in the captions that accompany several of the locations—not merely addresses, but phrasings that are somewhat distinctive due to my choice of words and their order. A standout example is their “Jackson Park between East Lagoon and 59 Street Harbor, Chicago, IL,” a near-verbatim copy of my notation, plus a typo and minus “South of Museum of Science and Industry.” (For whatever reason, both in their location shots and the caption, the A.V. Club has obfuscated the proximity of the bridge to MSI—just as the movie did.)

I’ll even go so far as to suspect that all of the on-screen captions, even the addresses, were cribbed from my site. Of course it’s impossible to say that for certain, unless the folks at the A.V. Club fess up—which is why, despite my desire for 100% perfect accuracy, I realize now in hindsight that I should have included a few “ringers.”

In the excellent book by Jeopardy über-champ Ken Jennings, Brainiac, he describes how trivia writers will often add ringers: little bits of unique, often incorrect data, used as markers to let the writers know when their work has been borrowed by others. The classic example Jennings cites is that of “Columbo’s first name: Philip,” a falsity inserted by Ken Worth into his Trivia Encyclopedia in the early 1970s—and which subsequently appeared in the first edition of the Trivial Pursuit game.

Worth’s subsequent lawsuit, and its dismissal in court, made clear that factual data, raw information, is not copyrightable. I’m not complaining about infringement or anything like that; that would be silly. I didn’t create the data—I merely compiled it from numerous sources (which I credited) and built on it with quite a bit of legwork (i.e., on-site location scouting).

An offhanded credit by the A.V. Club, for saving them from that same legwork—even just in the accompanying text, not on-screen—would have been the forthright, ingenuous thing to do. No matter, though; I remain their avid reader and fan, and I get pleasure out of knowing their little secret: that they visited my site and found it useful, regardless of how they used it.

You’re welcome, A.V. Club. Sincerely.

[Follow-up: Less than three hours after I posted this, I wound up in a friendly email exchange with A.V. Club general manager Josh Modell, who admitted that he “most definitely” used my site as a resource and offered to add a note and link to the bottom of their piece (now already in place). If you’ll pardon a cliché, I must say this: The Onion A.V. Club—too cool for school.]

When DIY is not the best way

1 November 2010
Categories: Self-referential

Several years ago, I started hosting my personal website kevinforsyth.net on a server in my home office. I had several reasons for doing this, but mostly they boil down to the desire to teach myself about LAMP (Linux-Apache-mySQL-PHP) platforms. It also enabled me to have full control over the system. There was also the added benefit of recycling one of my old computers, a desktop that was insufficient for my Windows needs (it failed miserably to run XP), but more than robust enough to handle Linux.

After a few years, I replaced my desktop again, which enabled a trickle-down upgrade to my web server as well. I chronicled that improvement in August 2006 as one of the earliest entries in this nascent weblog.

It was fun, and I learned a lot—and made a few painful mistakes, one of which cost me about three years worth of digital photos—but self-hosting had its inherent problems. One of the biggest was the need to support and repair all the hardware myself. That hit the hardest when my router bricked itself while I was less than twenty-four hours into a two-week vacation in China. With no means to replace it from thirteen time zones away, I had no recourse but to accept that my website would be offline until I returned home.

All that went into the category of acceptable risks and costs, outweighed by the benefits mentioned above. Nevertheless, as my Linux knowledge reached a comfortable plateau, the educational benefit of continuing to self-host started to decline. Those acceptable costs grew in relative size, until the cost/benefit balance grew close to equal. Meanwhile, the thought that a hardware failure could again take my site offline for an indefinite period was always in the back of my mind, quietly nagging.

With all that in mind, I came to the conclusion last week that I would be better off putting my site on a proper third-party hosting site, and leave all the hardware and maintenance concerns to someone else. The last year of self-hosting had resulted in a monitored uptime rate of 99.46%—fractionally better than Ivory soap, but not as good as the 99.5% minimum guaranteed by most hosting providers.

Part of that downtime was due to power outages—another accepted risk—but it was as I found myself writing yet another monthly check for expensive ComEd-supplied electrical power that I got to thinking about the hidden cost of self-hosting. Sure, the server was a free re-use, and the open-source software was free too—but the electricity to run it was not. I call it a hidden cost because it’s lumped in with what it costs to run the television, the refrigerator, the air conditioning, and all the other household appliances.

So I did the math. I assumed that my home server, a Pentium 4 computer with a pair of hard drives and doing light-to-moderate work, draws 125 watts. (This is a very rough estimate, but probably close to the ballpark.) The electricity, at ComEd’s average rate of ten cents per kilowatt-hour, will cost $110.59 per year.

A reliable third-party host may be had for about $50 per year. That’s a savings of $60 per year, possibly much more than that. And all those worries about hardware failures, network failures, power failures—those are on someone else’s mind now. (Plus my home office is no longer stiflingly warm.)

I went with HostDime, a Florida-based company that has been extraordinarily helpful and instrumental to the success of the company for which I work. They’re really stand-up guys. It was a no-brainer to throw them a small bone and purchase my hosting from them.

I had my site online with them just two days after signing up, and a couple of minor support questions I sent them have been swiftly handled. On top of that, download speeds are double what I saw with my self-hosted site—just an extra side of bacon with this breakfast of win.

New cover, same old dog-eared book

13 May 2009
Categories: Self-referential

I have decided that this weblog is in need of a name change.

I originally named it Spontaneous Publicity on a whim, from the line in the movie The Jerk where Steve Martin’s character sees that the new phone books have arrived and excitedly exclaims, “This is the kind of spontaneous publicity—your name in print—that makes people.”

This was back in September 2005, when my first entries into a nascent weblog were about other weblogs having taken notice of my Blues Brothers map. To have other people talking about my website was, quite literally, “spontaneous publicity”—which immediately made me think of that movie line, and thus I had a title for my weblog.

Of course, since then my topics have ranged much further from self-referential contemplation of my website and its place in cyberspace (this entry notwithstanding). The title has no relevance to these topics.

In addition, I find that the domain name for the dot-com version of this title is held by some Microsofter and his family, and is used for the usual semi-literate stuff-going-on-in-our-lives rambling of all blogs—I won’t denigrate it any further than that, per the “glass houses” rule. Suffice to say that we both got our titles from the same source, but they bought the domain name when I didn’t bother to do so. By the way, my blog pre-dates theirs by more than two years. But no matter.

Here’s the funny thing, and the one reason I’m reluctant to change my weblog’s name. If you Google “spontaneous publicity weblog” my site, not theirs, comes up first. This is because Google loves me. (Of course, if you use the loogie-word “blog” instead of “weblog,” theirs wins.)

Still, that’s probably not enough reason not to change it. Moreover, a good reason to change the name is this: I’m not all that big a fan of The Jerk.

I have a front-running candidate for the new title. It comes from having clicked on an external link in my entry on Angelo Testa the other day, in order to check that it was still a good link. It came back successful, with this result:

www.wright20.com 460
Angelo Testa
sculpture
USA, c. 1978
11.5 h x 28.5 w inches
: A Boolean argument was expected. Provenance: Collection Of The Artist; Daniel Czubak, Chicago
$4000-$5000

As I read the description, I thought to myself: that’s an interesting title for that work. It took me several seconds to realise it was in fact a database error—“A Boolean argument was expected.”

Here’s a point in favour: current Google results imply it would stand out a little more…

  • “spontaneous publicity” = 2440
  • “A Boolean argument was expected” = 1210

Best of all, the title is in a vague way a better reflection of what this weblog is about. The arguments one finds here are distinctly not Boolean. There are no clear-cut, black-and-white, Manichaean dichotomies here. Just a whole lot of shades of grey. Kind of like the new “inove” theme it’s using.

Even the Dutch love the Blues Brothers

28 March 2007
Categories: Self-referential

Another blog has come along to tout my Blues Brothers map. This one’s in Dutch, and was posted early on 28 March 2007:

Het zal jelui bekend zijn dat ‘t epische muziekdrama The Blues Brothers—de film van de jaren tachtig, werd gefilmd in Chicago. Alle reden dus voor ondergetekende om de diverse filmlocaties van Robert Landis’ masterpiece eens nader onder de loep te nemen. Met andere woorden: ik zal, gebaseerd op deze voortreffelijke pagina, even langswippen bij die locaties—mits ik in de buurt ben—en gedurende de komende maanden op deze plek een fotografische impressie geven. ‘t Zal niet allemaal even spectaculair zijn, en tal van locaties zijn compleet veranderd, maar niettemin: dit is geschiedenis mensen. Mis ‘t niet!

Which, according to Babelfish, says something like:

It [is well known (?)] that the epic music drama The Blues Brothers—the film of the [Eighties]—was filmed in Chicago. All reason therefore for undersigned to evaluate the several film locations of Robert {sic—it was John} Landis’ masterpiece once closer. In other words: I, based on this excellent page, [will take a look (?)] at those locations—provided that I am in the [‘hood]—and during the coming months on this spot a photographic impression to give. [It] will be not all even spectacular, and numerous locations have completely changed, but [nevertheless]: this is history people. Wrong [it’s] not!

(Haven’t included a link to the weblog… because I’m not sure yet whether it’s a smutty site or not.)

Minor tweak, major improvement

3 January 2007
Categories: Self-referential

On Tuesday, 2 January 2007, I made a minor update to my Blues Brothers map that both improved its function and reduced the number of extraneous image GETs.

The long of it… Previously, when clicking on a marker, the popup balloon would be undersized for the content. Part of the screen capture image and any text below it would be superimposed on the map rather than on a nice clean white background, making it hard to read. Clicking on the marker a second time would redraw the balloon in a proper size, but each click sends another GET command for the image (even though the subsequent clicks usually result in a “304 – not modified” response).

I was stuck on thinking that a fix would require some complicated and obscure tweaking of the Google Maps API, but the actual solution is mindlessly simple. My sudden realisation may be considered a dope-slap epiphany. When the balloon is first drawn, the image has not yet been downloaded, so the browser doesn’t know how big it is. It assumes that the image is 0 pixels high, and draws the balloon accordingly. (This seems like a silly assumption, but I suppose it’s better than assuming it’s 1000 pixels high.) Then the image is downloaded, and since it’s much more than 0 pixels high, it overshoots the bottom of the balloon. Follow-up clicks redraw the balloon, and now since the browser knows the image size in advance, the balloon is drawn in a proper size.

To fix it, all I needed to do was include the height of the image in its tag, thus giving the browser advance warning. I added another variable to the data set: iheight. The elegant part of this is that with only a few exceptions, all of the images are 100 pixels high. Therefore the iheight declaration only needs to be included in the exceptional entries. The code now checks for iheight==null, and if so automatically sets the value to 100. All the code to accomplish this only increased the total download size by 207 bytes. This margin is more than absorbed by a reduced need to click twice on each marker.

By early Wednesday morning, the logs were showing success. A visitor arrived and viewed nearly every marker on the map—yet only clicked once on each.