Archive for February, 2005

A Crazy Muthafucka Named Nina

Feb 22, 2005 in Music

One of the most unusual covers I’ve heard in recent memory is Nina Gordon’s acoustic rendition of NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton.” Nina is formerly of the group Veruca Salt, and is now a pop-folk singer currently recording her second solo album.

Nina’s site also features covers of 80s hair metal bands Skid Row and Cinderella. A video mash-up of Nina’s cover with the original NWA video can be found here.

Maybe you can keep it after all…

Feb 17, 2005 in Tech

In relation to my Napster article that was published today (see last post), I just learned that some resourceful Napster users have figured out how to circumvent Napster’s copy protection.

Napster’s files are encoded in Windows Media (.wma) format, and use Microsoft’s Janus DRM (digital rights management) technology. Napster files cannot be burned to CD or freely copied unless they’ve been purchased, and if you cancel your subscription, your downloaded music will no longer play.

This workaround uses Winamp plugins that encode the files into .mp3 or .wav format in real-time. Newer versions of Winamp are bundled with a Windows Media plugin that plays your .wma files (no more Windows Media Player!). With a properly configured output plugin, it’s fairly trivial to rip your protected .wma files into free .mp3 or .wav files. This is different than simply recording a .wav file from the output of your sound card (ala Napster’s claims).

I’ve tested this with the out_lame plugin, which encodes the file currently playing into .mp3 format. It can be a little touchy (it took over half an hour to figure out how to keep Winamp from crashing). Just load your playlist, configure the plugin in Options -> Preferences -> Plugins -> Output, and hit the play button.

For iTunes users, the Hymn Project software allows you to to convert Apple’s protected AAC format into free, unprotected formats. (This is good if you want to play your purchased iTunes music in a non-iPod player.)

All of this demonstrates the difficulty (and ultimate futility) of protecting digital media. Copy protection schemes can be broken or bypassed, and many DRM schemes ultimately irritate and inconvenience consumers. It’s good that services such as iTunes and Napster exist to provide consumers with digital music downloads, while compensating artists and record labels (well, mostly record labels). But ultimately, the record industry may have to find new avenues for making a profit, because listeners aren’t going to stop sharing and aquiring free music.

What, there’s no “i” in front of it?

Feb 17, 2005 in Tech

I’m not a big fan of Apple (I’m chuffed at my “Crapple Macintrash iSuck” joke), but I have to admit that the $500 Mac Mini is pretty sweet. (Monitor, keyboard and mouse not included). Yes, it’s that small. Not long after the launch of the $99 iPod Shuffle, Apple steps up with another miniature, low-priced product. I’m amazed they were able to do it. Finally, they got their heads out of their asses and started making products for the consumers that don’t want to spend an extra $500+ for shiny hardware.

The specs are modest, but sufficient. Apparently, there’s no room for a sound card in that small case. And just like replacing the battery in an iPod, upgrading it isn’t cheap and easy. Want wireless, a DVD burner or extra RAM? Gotta send it in for service. The required accessories probably aren’t cheap either. But still, it’s an impressive and affordable piece of engineering. With the new Shuffle and this piece of machinery, it won’t be surprising if Apple increases it’s desktop computer market share and tightens it’s already firm dominance on the portable digital audio market.

As an aside, Apple has a problem with not opening up their hardware or software. Your iPod only works with iTunes, and vice versa. Unlike the PC (what they used to call “IBM compatible”), Apple never licensed the hardware for other companies to manufacture, which means they got buried in the market when the PC rose to dominance (along with a little company called Microsoft). This means that you can buy PC hardware that’s cheaper, bigger and more powerful than just about anything Apple makes (the Power Mac G5 excepted). The iPod and iTunes will continue to dominate the portable digital audio market, but for how long?

On a related note, check out my article on the Napster to Go service.

White House press scandal: The story gets juicier…

Feb 15, 2005 in Current Events

You may have heard about Jeff Gannon (real name James Guckert), the now-former White House correspondent for tiny right-wing website Talon News, owned by a Republican operative from Texas named Bobby Eberle.

Guckert received daily White House press credentials for almost two years, despite his lack of journalistic experience. (It’s worth noting that Guckert was unable to get a Congressional press pass, often a prerequisite for getting a White House pass). Guckert lobbed partisan softball questions at McClellan and Bush, and was recently exposed by liberal bloggers after Bush called on him during a televised press conference. Guckert has since left Talon News, and Talon has scrubbed all of his stories from their site.

Now it turns out that Guckert may be a gay escort. Yesterday, AMERICAblog uncovered numerous gay websites registered to Mr. Guckert and found nude photos on other gay websites that strongly resemble Guckert. He also owes over $20,000 in back taxes to his home state of Delaware. In addition, Guckert is rumored to be connected to the Valerie Plame leak (Plame, the wife of diplomat Joseph Wilson, had her CIA cover blown by columnist Robert Novak, after Wilson concluded that Saddam did not attempt to purchase uranium from Africa, as alleged by the White House).

Guckert responds to many of the allegations in a Editor and Publisher interview here. As of today, E&P reports that Guckert is no longer speaking to the press.

All this comes on the heels of revelations that several governmental departments paid three syndicated columnists to shill for White House policies. Democrats are now calling for an investigation into how Guckert got the coveted White House press credentials. The mainstream news media hasn’t quite picked up on the latest developments yet, although the Washington Post’s Dan Froomkin and C-SPAN have covered it, among others.

So how did a reporter for a small partisan news website owned by a Texas Republican activist — a reporter with no legitimate journalistic credentials — get repeated access to White House press briefings? Why did Scott McClellan call on him by his assumed first name? Why did Bush call on him in a rare televised press conference? Did he have access to the Valerie Plame leak, and why? Was anyone aware of his private life?

More Red/Blue State Propaganda!

Feb 12, 2005 in Linkage

Hear the Issues is a political website chock full of maps, charts and statistics that examines various factors across the 50 states. Many of the statistics that were passed around during the 2004 election are featured here, including:

  • The infamous IQ and education ratings of red and blue states. Using two different sets of data, the author concludes that there is a significant correlation between education levels and red/blue state status. Blue states scored higher than the national median by a 2 to 1 ratio.
  • Gay Marriage and Divorce Rates: The states with the highest divorce rates (and the lowest average of same-sex couples) tend to be red states, whereas the states with the lowest divorce rates (and the highest average of same-sex couples) tend to be blue states, with a concentration in the northeast.
  • Teen Pregnancy: Again, the highest teen pregnancy rates tend to be in the red states, with the highest percentages concentrated in the southeast. Bush’s home state of Texas ranks number 2.
  • Federal Funding Expenditures: The states that receive the most money from the federal government per dollar of taxes paid in tend to be rural red states. The states that receive less money from the federal government than they pay in tend to be populous blue states.
  • The Effect of Politics on the Dow Jones: Since 1928, Democratic administrations have seen the highest average stock market gains. Republican administrations see the wildest swings, with a higher average yearly gain/loss, but a lower average gain overall.
  • There are many other interesting maps and charts on this site, examining trends such as television, music and automobile preferences, consumption and geography, soda vs. pop, regional dialects, and the 10 regions of US politics.

    Freedom of religion… Just watch what you practice

    Feb 12, 2005 in Current Events

    In one of his first acts as Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales is appealing to the Supreme Court to block a Brazilian church’s use of a hallucinogenic tea.

    The O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal church of New Mexico uses hoasca tea as a sacramental brew in it’s religious practice. This practice is rooted in the practices of the aboriginal tribes of the Amazon basin, much like the Native American Church’s use of peyote.

    A study published in a medical journal on the use of hoasca indicated generally positive effects in those who imbibed for sacramental purposes. Several lower court rulings have affirmed the group’s right to use hoasca for religious purposes.

    I guess I don’t need to point out the hypocrisy of an administration that wraps itself in the cloak of religion, yet denies religious freedoms for small groups that engage in unconventional practices. If that isn’t what freedom of religion is all about, then I don’t know what is.

    The World’s Smallest Website

    Feb 08, 2005 in Linkage
    has the dubious honor of being the world’s smallest website, literally. An 18×18 pixel tile contains a functional website, along with tiny adaptations of classic games such as pacman, pong, asteroids and more. Just try not to go blind.

    A mention of Sri Lanka that has nothing to do with the tsunami.

    Feb 06, 2005 in Music

    Sri Lanka — a southeast Asian country largely ignored by the rest of the world — has been getting a lot of press lately due to that tragic tsunami. Now there’s another reason for Sri Lanka to be mentioned in the press: the debut album from Sri Lankan-born Maya Arulpragasam, performing under the moniker M.I.A.

    M.I.A. is shaping up to be the UK’s hottest musical export since Dizzee Rascal. Maya combines UK garage with dancehall rhythms, ghetto patois, and Bhangra influences, and her music could be best described as “Dizzee Rascal meets Peaches.”

    Her debut album Arular will be released on February 22, and is already shaping up to be one of the most anticipated albums of this year. Here are some mp3’s of her first two singles, also included on the upcoming album:

    M.I.A - Galang
    M.I.A - Sunshowers

    Flash! Ahh Ahhh!

    Feb 06, 2005 in Film

    In light of my last post about forgotten musical films (in this case, 1986’s Crossroads), has this post about 1981’s Flash Gordon, and posts the entire Queen soundtrack for download. This will definitely be getting airplay on the impromptu radio show I plan to do tonight.

    The Dustbin of Film History: Crossroads (1986), starring Ralph Macchio

    Feb 01, 2005 in Film

    For some odd reason, the memory of this film came back to me, and I wondered where the hell it went, and also, is it even available on DVD? Turns out that yes, it was released on DVD this past year.

    For those who don’t know this film (or have long forgotten about it), it stars Ralph “Karate Kid” Macchio as a guitar-slinging Juilliard student who drops out to explore the Missisippi Delta with an aging black bluesman he sprung from an old folks home. I haven’t seen it in over twelve years, and I remember begging my mother to take me to see this R-rated movie when I was 12. (She didn’t, but I saw it a few years later when it ended up on cable television.)

    Despite it’s obscurity, the film does have a cult following, as evidenced by the glowing reviews on IMDB and Amazon. Crossroads’ major claim to fame is that it is probably the only guitar movie ever made. The film’s climax is the most memorable part, a “duel with the devil” between Macchio’s character (guitar by Ry Cooder) and Scratch (aka Satan), played to the hilt by former guitar god Steve Vai.

    This review on Amazon by an Itamar Katz probably sums up this movie best:

    “As a cinematic work, Crossroads is nothing special. Except for Joe Seneca who was great as the aging blues-legend on the run from the devil, the acting is awful. Ralph Macchio is decent, except that he’s doing the EXACT same character he did in Karate Kid. The love interest between Eugene and Frances is silly, shallow and simply doesn’t work. The screenplay, above all, is terrible. The directing and photography are good, which makes the film at least bearable.

    “But the film is just an excuse for one of the most amazing soundtracks I’ve ever heard. Classical guitar, Robert Johnson classic blues, Muddy Waters electric blues and hard blues rock run throughout this film wonderfuly; for bluesmen and guitar lovers, Crossroads is a must. The ending with Steve Vai, above all, is one of the greatest scenes I’ve seen and makes the whole movie worthwile - and both Vai and ‘Eugene’ play a KILLER guitar… Overall, a very mediocre movie and for many probably boring, but a cult classic and a musical masterpiece.”