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You’re welcome, civilization

In other New Year’s Nonresolutions, I’m no longer going to be pretending that various software companies’ and FOSS projects’ ridiculous capitalization “policies” for their names are anything except the nonsense that they are.

If I’m starting a sentence with your project or product name, I’m capitalizing it. But I’m not capitalizing the whole word unless it’s an actual initialization or acronym, and I’m not CamelCasing it unless it’s an actual abbreviation.

Complain about this and I will slap you with a policy dictating that you can only write my name (or the names of any projects I’ve ever released or will release) in blackletter text rendered at 16pt (American points), in #3754A6, all caps, and that you have to stand up whenever you read it (silently or out loud) or think it. And I decide whether or not the font you’ve chosen is considered a genuine blackletter. No one other than the complainer will be required to follow this policy.

I feel better already, don’t you?

What Breaking Bad would look like if it was on broadcast television

[editor’s note: proceed with caution; this page contains ideas that may prove upsetting to decent-thinking persons. but they’re not my ideas; they’re the ideas of network executives, and I simply amassed them based on years of observation and reflection. so I’m fine with printing em.]

Breaking Bad.

We all love Breaking Bad.  But let’s face it: the fact that the series was snatched up by AMC is a two-sided coin. What I mean is: Yes, it means fewer commercials—but it also means a lower budget and a lot fewer viewers than it would have if it were produced by one of Hollywood’s top-tier broadcast networks, like ABC, NBC, CBS, or even Fox.

It’s too late now, but it’s still interesting to think about how the minds at the top of these time-tested entertainment empires would have moved the same source material.  Let’s take a look at this alternate universe that we’ll never get the chance to experience, side by side with what we’ve actually seen.

 

Walter White

Age: 50. Occupation: High school teacher / kingpin.

walt

The actor playing Walt needs to be 50 years old; that’s part of the storyline.  But he does need to be “TV 50″—we want audiences to actually tune in to watch the show, after all.  Which is to say: the camera needs to like him.  Paul Bettany is tailor made for this part: he’s thin, like a science nerd would be, but he can still believably deliver in the action sequences.  And people gravitate towards him, which is critical to establishing a hit show.  Plus, years of experience shows that there’s nothing US audiences love more than a British actor portraying an American protagonist.

Jesse Pinkman

Age: 25. Occupation: drug cook / chump.

jesse

Jesse is the secondary protagonist, a former student of Walt’s.  Since he’s a young guy, it’s your chance to add some star power that will attract a younger audience.  He needs to believably get caught up in the criminal underworld and hold his own against a wide variety of thugs and ne’er-do-wells, while still being someone the producers can send out on the talk show circuit.  Actor:  Scott Speedman.  OR WHOEVER.

Skyler

Age: mid-Forties. Occupation: mom.

skyler

Walt’s wife Skyler is there to be a dramatic foil to Walt, so she too needs a commanding screen presence. But there do need to be changes.  In the original series, Sklyer is an accountant, but she spends the majority of her time taking care of the kids.  That’s pretty dull (and that’s dull on both counts), and doesn’t give her much of a story arc to work with. So she needs her own angle. Bryce Dallas Howard gets the part, but the character needs updating so that she’s a corporate “fixer,” negotiating high-priced mergers and acquisitions, frequently by jetting off to exotic locations.  Unless the series is on Fox, in which case she’ll be a police psychologist, instead (which really ups the tension when the fuzz starts hunting down Heisenberg).

Hank Schrader

Age: 45. Occupation: DEA agent.

hank

Hollywood is committed to equality and to making shows that look like America looks.  And that means there needs to be a black character.  Secondary character.  Law enforcement is the perfect fit—it flips all of the stereotypes on their heads: Hank is the good guy, see?  Out to get the drug dealers.  On the other hand, the DEA is kind of an abstract agency that doesn’t really do much.  It would work if Hank is an undercover DEA agent, but for just regular detective stuff, the FBI would be far better territory from the audience’s perspective.  Second choice: the CIA, which opens up all kinds of counter-terrorism story possibilities.  After all, terrorists use drug trafficking to finance their sleeper cells.  How awesome does that sound, just in that one sentence? Actor: rising star Dayo Okeniyi.

Marie

Age: late thirties? Occupation: nurse or orderly or something.

marie2

Skyler’s sister, married to Hank. First off, since it’s impossible to get actual siblings, you can’t get too caught up in figuring out whether Skyler and Marie look similar enough to be relatives.  Establishing that they are sisters is a simple matter of dialogue: in the first two episodes, have them address each other “Hey, sister” and answer the phone “Hi sis!” a few times and reference “mom” to each other in conversation; people will pick up on it subconsciously, and you can drop it after the first month.

On the other hand, Marie’s boring job of medical technician or something is irrelevant and weird.  Good that she’s in the profession, yes, but it’s far more dramatic if she’s closer to the action. So she’s a neurosurgeon or maybe the head of oncology for the hospital.  She can even be the one that operates on Walt! In fact, that has to be what happens. And on Jesse and Hank, too; possibly several other characters, in emergencies. Actress: Anybody.

Walt Junior

Age: 15. Occupation: student driver.

junior2

Junior is Walt and Skyler’s son, who goes to the high school where Walt works. His main purpose in the story is to elicit sympathy and have medical bills.  In the AMC version of the show, he has CP, which is certainly great, and we want to support that community as much as possible, but sheesh: talk about a downer.  Junior definitely needs to have a chronic medical condition, cause that needs to drive Walt to his illegal activities, but it needs to be one people can relate to.  So, blind or deaf.  Everyone can understand those (and pretend to have those conditions, momentarily, so they can relate to Junior).  Blind is clearly the better choice: not only does he get to wear shades, but his blindness is symbolic, of how he’s blind to his father’s criminal secrets.  Get it?  The writing Emmys are going to stack up.

Although if the show is on Fox, Junior’s struggle will be not-quite-as medical, in that he really wants to be a dancer and the town is pressuring him to play quarterback instead. Actor: Who just had a CW series canceled?

Holly White

Age: 0. Occupation: dependent.

holly

Holly is Walt and Skyler’s infant daughter in the AMC series. Which is okay, I guess, but it’s far more interesting for everyone if she’s a spunky middle-schooler instead. She can have all kinds of great subplots, like being embarrassed by her parents, sneaking out of the house, her friends pressuring her to try drugs (IRONY); you name it. The point is, you need a young female character in order to get young female viewers.  Her storylines can get bigger every year as the audience grows and she becomes a fan favorite. Actress: Jessy Schram.

Saul Goodman

Age: late Forties. Occupation: lawyer.

saul

Saul is everybody’s attorney; you need an actor with gravitas to play that role: somebody who knows how to wear a suit; somebody who can be “slick” and charm a courtroom full of jurors. Somebody people want to emulate: the audience needs to be drawn to Saul’s success. He knows how to work the system.  Actor: That guy from Lost.

Tuco

Age: Thirties. Occupation: drug dealer.

tuco

Tuco is the first drug dealer Walt and Jesse tangle with. He needs to look like a drug dealer.  I.E., gangsta. All-black clothes, nickel-plated .45’s, the whole deal.  He does need to be Latino, so that it’s clear he comes from a cartel. Note that this does not affect the racial-balance quota; Tuco is not a main cast member, but as long as we have Hank we’re covered. Actor: Who’s played a drug lord before?

Gus Fring

Age: Fifties. Occupation: Big bad.

gus

Gus is the biggest drug trafficker in the region before Walt gets into the game. But c’mon: he needs to look like a drug kingin, not look like a dork. There can be only one choice for this part: the man himself, Jimmy Smits. Gus has to fill out a suit, rock the mirrored shades, and look like he deserves to be behind the wheel of that Bugatti he drives.

Mike

Age: Sixty-ish. Occupation: P.I..

mike2

Mike is the private investigator who “works” for Saul and also for Gus. He’s tough-as-nails and not afraid to get his hands dirty. Thus, he should look like a P.I. looks: fit enough to win in a bar fight, but with stubble so you know he’s street-smart. P.I.s are magnetic characters by nature, so you need a magnetic actor. He has just as much story potential as everyone else; just imagine what could happen if he rescues Holly from danger at Walt’s insistence?  Again, the drama writes itself.  He will also need a signature vehicle, like a brand new red Ford Mustang convertible, to take to stakeouts and make rescues with. Actor: Whatever that guy’s name is.

Gale

Age: 40. Occupation: second-string drugmaker.

gale

Gale is a genius scientist like Walt, hired on to kick the operation into high gear, and later turning into a competitor whose skill level threatens Walt and Jesse’s dominance. But you can’t just have a character that important be a bland blob or a lighter-weight nerd-clone of Walt himself.  To really create drama, he needs to be Walt’s total opposite: streetwise and dangerous.  Someone that drives the action; someone who makes things happen—someone who’s active, not passive.  Actor: Michael Trucco. Also, seriously: better name.  At the very least, “Dale.”  Preferably something more rugged, but also one syllable, like “Tagg” or “Kane.”

Todd

Age: 22. Occupation: bug zapper.

todd

Todd is one of Mike’s connections with criminal ties. He starts out working with a shady front business, then gets involved in other operations, then helps tackle the drug trafficking, too.  He’s essentially competition to Jesse, much like Gale Kane is to Walt. So they have to match wits, match fighting skills, match each other at gunplay, etc, etc. “Team Jesse” vs “Team Todd”! Although Todd would be a lot more interesting if he had more dimensions, like he works as a criminal informant sometimes, too, and is searching for his brother’s killer on the side. He can also rescue Holly from imminent danger a few times, which opens up all kinds of new Mike/Todd storylines for the audience to soak up.

Skinny Pete

Age: 25. Occupation: addict.

skinny

Skinny Pete is one of several friends of Jesse’s from the drug underworld. As someone on the low side of the drug empire business, they walk the line between dramatic tension and comic relief.  But with a name like Skinny Pete, there can be only one choice for the actor: Jorge Garcia. It’s irony again! That’s the fuel that makes dark comedy burn.  Although you would also want to combine him with Badger and Combo; too many friends makes for convoluted plotting.

Hector

Age: 200. Occupation: invalid.

hector

Hector is a former crime boss that tangles with Gus, Walt, and Hank.  Like all of the other drug dealers, he needs to be Hispanic, but he also needs to be old, which leaves Miguel Ferrer as the only choice. Good thing he’s a Tinseltown legend, and can be intimidating even though he’s elderly.

Agent Gomez

Age: 45. Occupation: DEA agent.

gomez

Gomez is Hank’s partner. Or coworker or whatever.  Do DEA agents have partners?  Presumably so, since they’re buddy cops.  In any case, the AMC version makes a pointless casting mishap with a generic person in the role.  Fortunately, that can be corrected by making Gomez a far more interesting strong, female character (the show needs that, and it’s the right thing to do).  The new Gomez should also be Hank’s boss, not his partner, to show that she’s empowered, and she needs to be a butt-kicking supercop on her own, to be a good role model.  Which means she gets to use her sniper skills and her hand-to-hand combat skills at least once per season, and means she does the rescuing, not Hank.  All while adopting a child.  Actress: Moon Bloodgood.

The Cousins

Trouble

cousins2

Okay; sometimes you just gotta admit that they nailed this one the first time through. Do I smell spin-off?

Crystal Meth

Plot device

meth

Walt sells drugs.  That’s vital to the show.  But seriously: crystal meth is the wrong choice on a number of levels.  First, it’s only used by rednecks, and that’s not good TV.  Second, it’s not really clear how you make crystal meth, and rather than spend time explaining that, you gain a lot of story time by working with something that has more action built right into it.

So, coke.  People understand coke, it’s worth a lot more money, and it has far more potential for drawing in other circles of characters and cartels.  For instance, Gus can be Colombian, which is where the cocaine comes from (without that, it’s a bit murky how the drugs move across the border anyway). Walt can use his science skills to chemically treat the cocaine so that it’s undetectable, so he still has to be a genius, and you can move the drugs in nightclubs and fancy bars, which is a way better backdrop than street intersections.

Although if the show was on Fox, it could also be replaced by an exotic synthesized hallucinogen that creates wild visual effects.

Albuquerque

Location

city

Forget it.  The new setting is Los Angeles.  First of all, nobody can spell the name of the dang place.  Second, in case you haven’t noticed, nobody lives in Arizona; it’s a desert wasteland.  You wouldn’t believably have high-powered government offices, hospitals, lawyers with fancy cars, private eyes, kingpins, and scientists in the middle of nowhere.  That part of the country would have maybe a medical clinic and a part-time country lawyer.  Third, it’s a big empty spot that looks drab no matter which direction you turn—there’d be no cinematography. Television is a visual medium.

LA is a far better environment on every level: you have nightlife, you have ghettos, you have classic locations and rich, colorful streets and buildings to shoot in. You have gangs and FBI offices and expensive medical facilities for Walt and Marie.  You have sophisticated people. And, best of all, all of it looks great. No question here.

Cancer

Premise

cancer

Last, but certainly not least, there’s the issue of Walt’s health.  On the original version of the show, Walt has lung cancer, which talk about a downer even compared to the other downers.  It doesn’t even make sense to start, since you get lung cancer by smoking (and we can’t have him do that). But worse yet, it’s slow and depressing, and it’s not interesting to see in diagnosis or in treatment.  And it doesn’t even tie in to the plotline of the show??  How confusing is that?

Far better is to have Walt’s dramatic medical condition be something that relates to who he is.  Like, instead of being a teacher his whole life, maybe he used to be in the army using his chemical skills some way in the field, like as an explosives expert.  And when he was in Iraq, he got that Gulf War Syndrome or got an accidental dose of poison gas from one of Saddam’s biological weapons stockpiles. But he doesn’t know it until later.  Or it’s classified operation, like maybe it was really people in his unit going rogue who had the chemical weapon, because they were stealing it, and he fought back and destroyed it, but he got sick in the process, and the commanding officer doesn’t kill him but says “I’m going to leave you to die slowly, just like they did to my wife” or something like that, so Walt has a grudge but he can’t prove anything. That makes the sickness relevant to the story. That makes it part of who he is.  That makes it drama.

Although if the show is on Fox, we can still go one better; rather than Walt destroying the stolen chemical weapon, the rogue CO injects him with a dose of it and forces him to keep quiet about the heist or he’ll detonate the capsule remotely, but then it starts to leak so Walt knows he only has so much time left so he heads down a dark path of drug dealing in order to make contacts that will lead him to the members of his old unit and he uses the money he raises to track them down so he can exact vengeance one by one.  And also Hank was a paratrooper in the same unit but he doesn’t believe Walt’s story and also Walt’s name is changed to “Walter Badd” and the show is called “Breaking Badd.”

It’s perfect.

[editor’s other note: I originally intended to end with a photocollage mock-up of the alternative cast and the revised show name, but when I started making it it just made me depressed because of how realistic it is that that’s how it’d actually go down. so use your imagination instead.]

What it’s like to use Linux sometimes

A radio play in one act. For two performers.

COMPUTER: Hello, user! Your wireless card isn’t going to work today.
USER: What?? Why not? It worked yesterday. In fact, it worked all last week.
COMPUTER: Tough. Today it won’t.
USER: Well, you can’t trick me. I haven’t touched the configuration since the last time I logged in; everything will be fine.
COMPUTER: No, it won’t. I’ll connect to your AP, but all of your DNS lookups will time out.
USER: Ha! I’ve got you! I’ll change the DNS settings so that the queries are directed to my other box.
COMPUTER: No you won’t. The network settings are hidden.
USER: They aren’t hidden; I’ve done this before, when I set up a DNS server on my other box and my router to handle local hostnames.
COMPUTER: That doesn’t matter. Every six months, all of the system admin tools are changed and replaced by your distribution. Whatever you learned last time is of no value.
USER: Pfft. I’ll still find it.
COMPUTER: You can try, but the names of the applications have changed too. Plus, the desktop environment you use has been revised twice, so none of the system admin apps are available in any menus.
USER: So? I’ll search for them. I guess that’s what I’m supposed to do.
COMPUTER: You can try, but you won’t guess the names. And the descriptions of the apps are not indexed by the search tool back-end.
USER: Now you’re just lying; I’ve read in blog post after blog post that the search framework indexes the descriptions of the applications.  I think I even heard it in a talk.
COMPUTER: Knock yourself out, then.
USER: Dammit! What the hell did they describe this thing as?? I’ve tried “network,” “connection,” and “settings” — all it finds is a VPN setup tool and something to configure Twitter accounts! I’m running out of synonyms.
COMPUTER: Don’t feel bad; the app you’re thinking of probably isn’t installed by default anyway.
USER: That’s absurd; of course the system admin apps are installed…. Right? And if it’s not, I’ll install it.
COMPUTER: From where?
USER: Gar.  Wait a second; I don’t need to mess with that anyway — I’ll edit /etc/resolv.conf
COMPUTER: Won’t help; you’re using DHCP.
USER: Well, I’ll just edit the DHCP settings…
COMPUTER: In what, the network admin tool?
USER: Dammit! No, no; can’t get out of control — I’ll edit the DHCP configuration files by hand. Let’s see … there appear to be two of them, in /etc/dhcp/ and /etc/dhcp3/ … I wonder which one is the right one?
COMPUTER: You should probably look that up.
USER: Ah; good idea. Let’s open Googl — Dammit!! Not funny!!
COMPUTER: Okay, that was a low blow. But you were getting ahead of yourself.
USER: Well, it backfired anyway. I just realized I don’t *need* DNS at all; I can look up all of the IP addresses I want to visit on one of my other PCs, then enter them by number in the location bar.
COMPUTER: Actually, you can’t. All this time, you assumed we were having a DNS problem, but in fact all of your traffic is going to time out, even if you enter the addresses by number.
USER: That’s ludicrous. Clearly that indicates a connectivity problem; I’ll log in to the router.
COMPUTER: Heh heh; good luck.
USER: Who needs luck? It’s six feet away, and I’m already connected to it. I can type in 192.168.1.1 and bring up the admin interface … any moment now … oh come on, hurry up … Dammit!!! What the hell is going on here?
COMPUTER: I can’t divulge that.
USER: Well it must be a hardware problem. Everything has been working fine for weeks, I haven’t touched the software or altered the configuration, and it isn’t on the router’s side.
COMPUTER: That’s a possibility; you should check to see if there are known issues related to this.
USER: Okay; I will, from by other box…. Well, my distribution has nothing similar sounding in the issue tracker, and everyone on the forum says it’s probably the DE at fault…. Although everyone on the DE mailing list says my distro changes some of the defaults, so they don’t support it. Unless it’s the browser…. But the browser forum says I’m eleven versions out of date, since they now issue “mandatory” updates every three days; what I’m running through my distro is “unsupported.” And I could download an update and install it manually over the distribution’s repository package, but then they wouldn’t support me if it turned out not to be the browser’s fault … plus I can’t download it anyway, since I have no connectivity. But I’m not sure that helps anyway. Clearly something was working fine yesterday and isn’t today. If it’s not hardware there’s very little else it could be. Apparently everybody in the kernel driver community hates this WiFi chip because of some dust-up in 2007, but I can’t really apply what they say about it on the mailing lists, because they’re all running a development kernel on some distribution that I think they seem to have written from scratch. But it doesn’t matter: it’s hardware; I can verify that by booting into OS X on the other partition.
[ -REBOOT- ]
COMPUTER: Welcome to OS X; everything is running normally.
USER: Dammit. Maybe if I just use OS X for a few days, the problem will go away again all on it’s own.

Wish List: FMtransmit-o-navigator

I love the built-in FM transmitter that came in the N900 Maemo phone; it’s a thousand times easier to take you music (or audiobooks) with you on the go, especially in the car.  No cables necessary whatsoever. The only weak point is that there are so many FM stations that if you’re on a road trip, you have to adjust a lot to find a free frequency.  [Note: changing the FM transmitter frequency is a colossal pain; impossible to do while driving, which is its own bug.  Activating/deactivating the transmitter is also inconvenient, but at least there is a community-developed widget to fix that.]

Based on my personal motto “never do for yourself what a computer can do for you”, what I’d really like to see is a way to automatically find an unused frequency.  For starters, can you even find that information, even offline?

Supposedly, you can.  The site radio-locator.com has US coverage data, and individual maps.  But it’s not very usable (ie, you can’t see multiple coverage maps and where they overlap_, and they ask for fees for reuse.  The FAQ page at http://www.radio-locator.com/cgi-bin/page?p=maps says they harvested the data from the FCC, but not precisely where.  But if they can do it, an open project could, too.

If you had the info for each station, it wouldn’t be hard to plot it together on a free map (if you can’t tell, I’m a total GIS novice). Then plotting the “best frequency” choice for a given road-trip itinerary would be a shortest-path search.  In 3-d. The 2-d map, plus the “used” frequencies in the third dimension.  You might could find one frequency usable for the entire trip, or if not, a list of frequencies with the fewest possible numbers of switches.

It would be superdoubleplus awesome if your FM transmitter could change *for* you as you passed (via GPS location) from one frequency coverage area to another, but that’s extra credit.

So who’s with me?

TCB w/ GTD via VTODO

I’m busy. And like everyone and his brother (although not my brother), I’ve read David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) and thought about how his organizational theories might line up with the way I work.  If you’re uninitiated, GTD is a collection of methods and tidbits that Allen says are better for keeping your projects organized and your head clear than the old-fashioned alternatives.  It has quite a following, and I like a fair number of the informational nuggets inside.

The trouble is implementing GTD in software — there are a zillion and a half software solutions, all of which are single-purpose, incompatible with each other, and walled data gardens.  Most are not even cross-platform, nor do they support networked backends, meaning you must keep duplicate copies of your info and worry about syncing it. I’ve learned to dislike such solutions for personal data — I want my personal wiki to be available to me wherever I am, I want my addressbook available on every device where I might need to call, email, or send an IM, etc.  So I don’t want my GTD projects sealed in a single-purpose app on one computer.

I have found a GTD Web app that I like quite a bit: Tracks.  It is free software (of course), it is simple in its interface, and it provides output data in a lot of useful formats — including iCalendar feeds. I can access and update Tracks from desktop Linux, Mac, Blackberry, Maemo, and Symbian platforms — all of which I use regularly. The only trouble is that it produces read-only feeds, meaning it does not integrate into any of the available calendaring apps. That would be too easy.

But more importantly, looking at Tracks got me thinking about how to represent GTD information in a standard format. Since it is essentially calendar scheduling and to-do management on roids, the best fit of any RFC’ed standard is VTODO.  Lots of calendaring apps already support VTODO, although in most it takes a back seat to VCALENDAR.

The question is how to represent GTD’s unique ideas in VTODO. As a refresher, the important concepts in GTD are that you track “next actions” — single-step to-dos that are more easily managed and attacked than large-scale projects.   But you also keep track of projects as a whole, and you sort your next actions by context — at home, in the garage, calls to make, emails to send, etc.

Though individual VTODO tasks are a natural fit for next actions, how to map projects and contexts is not as clear.  VTODO has 33 defined properties (although two of them are mutually exclusive, if I read correctly).  Some are basic (description), some are calendar-like (duration), some computery (geolocation), some Exchange-like but potentially useful (attendees).

The “categories” property seems to be the only real option for GTD incorporation — but is it better used as a “project” field or as a “context” field? Whichever you choose, the other field will have to be represented some other way, perhaps as an iCalendar calendar. That is because VTODO items must belong to an iCalendar; they cannot be separate. Thus you cannot just have a single calendar for all of your GTD items. You could have one calendar for each context, and within it use VTODO “categories” for each project, or you could have one calendar for each project, and use the VTODO category to denote the context associated with the action. Which is better?

At first glance, it seems like one calendar per context is better; contexts are less transient than projects, and if you wanted to make certain contexts available only on certain devices, the calendar subscription method makes that possible.  What doesn’t work so well is that most calendaring apps don’t pay much attention to “categories” support — predefined categories are always trite alternatives like “work” and “birthdays,” you cannot create new categories from within the task manager, you cannot vary display colors on the basis of category, and so on. You are also supposed to be able to assign multiple categories to a VTODO task, but that is also unsupported in the client apps I have tried — Thunderbird, Chandler, Evolution, probably some more….

In fact, as I am typing this entry right now, I’ve discovered that I cannot open and edit existing tasks in Thunderbird/Lightning.  I can right-click and access menus for progress, priority, and calendar, but progress and priority are grayed out.  I certainly can’t change the due date, location, or status.

I guess the ultimate question is why are there so many single-purpose GTD silo apps out there, while our existing calendar applications need so much work on task support. Am I missing something? Is there a killer task-supporting calendar out there?

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