Monday, May 25, 2009

Logitech Harmony One Universal Remote

Back in February, I finally decided to research a good universal remote for the growing maze of settings and devices which constituted my home theater setup (M'ame Cyte was beginning to display a marked aversion to the operation of our shiny new television. It was time to act, lest that purchase be retroactively rethunk).

Usually, these searches rapidly bog down in a host of conflicting reviews, and lists of pros and cons which balance each other maddeningly. It was astonishing, then, to encounter such near-unanimity about the quality of a product as I found when I read about Logitech's Harmony One remote. Apart from some quibbling about its lack of RF capabilities (though IR repeater kits are cheap and easy to install), everyone seemed to like it.

After over three months, I can honestly say that I know what everyone was talking about. The thing is simply a joy to use, is eminently configurable, and feels so natural and comfortable in the hand that I sometimes forget to put it down.

The great innovation of Logitech's remote designs is their emphasis on an activity-based (as opposed to a device-based) interface. When you go from sequential menus prompting you to power up multiple devices, switch them to their correct inputs/outputs, then select which controls will be active at any given a tidy little touch screen which invites you to "Play A DVD," you are looking at a tasty little quality-of-life truffle indeed.

Speaking of touch screens, this lengthy and very informative review walks you through the highly intuitive configuration software through which you can customize that screen's soft buttons (not to mention assigning a variety of functions to the remote's hard buttons). You then simply plug in the USB device cable, and synchronize the remote to the settings you've specified. Neat!

Once synched, you activate the desired event by tapping the gently but highly visibly lit screen button, and hold the remote pointed at your components. It then executes a macro which activates and sets up your various devices in turn. If the beam should be blocked, or something else leave one or more components out of phase, there is a handy "help" button which prompts you to answer a series of yes/no questions ("Is the TV on?" "Is the TV set to [HDMI2]?" etc.), followed by "did this fix the problem?" You then operate the familiar hard buttons (which are themselves softly backlit, activated via accelerometer by a gentle shake).

Those hard buttons, by the way, are the result of many hours of beta testing to devise the most logical, comfortable, and generally ergonomic configuration possible. The results are very impressive. Each set of logically-grouped controls (e.g., "play/pause/stop/record, etc") corresponds to a different "plateau" of the comfortably stepped ventral surface of the remote, so the hand is guided intuitively to a given group of functions without having to take your eyes off the screen. The buttons themselves are shaped and positioned such that even someone with such atrocious kinaesthetic memory as myself can navigate the face of the remote by touch, hardly ever getting the buttons mixed up.

The total package is so small and sleek and light, that it is hard to believe the density of functionality that Logitech was able to pack onto its sports-car slick face. When not in use, the remote drops smartly into a charging cradle (the batteries are user-replaceable!), complete with a handy little white LED (whose brightness you can set) so you can find it after you've shut everything down (by means of a simple hard button which powers down any components which happen to be on at the time).

At less than $200 US, this is the remote for those who have any but the most rudimentary home theater setups.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Hope-A-Dope (UPDATED)

The Spanish word for "change," in the sense of what you get back for what you pay on a purchase, is vuelta, which also means "turning" or "returning." This bilingual pun has been on my mind as I've watched some of the changes in Obama's promised policies with regard to the Long War (or whateverthefrack he ends up allowing it to be called). There have been many turnarounds, and many on the Left are expressing the uncomfortable sensation of having paid too much for what they bought.

Charles Krauthammer, writing in the WaPo, focuses his characteristically keen-edged wit on the matter:
If hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue, then the flip-flops on previously denounced anti-terror measures are the homage that Barack Obama pays to George Bush. Within 125 days, Obama has adopted with only minor modifications huge swaths of the entire, allegedly lawless Bush program.
Indeed. I've speculated in the past on the effects which Presidential-level access to Intelligence data and analysis might have on Obama's perspectives on how to meet the threats arrayed against us. I was not encouraged by his rash decision to issue an Executive Order to close Gitmo. He could not possibly have come up with a plan to deal with the inmates and the multiple obstacles to placing them anywhere but their current Island Resort.

Sure enough, even Congress seems to have become belatedly hip to the fact that the One's grand gesture was all hat and no cattle. Obama seems, astonishingly late in the game, to have been confronted with the fact that the worst of the worst of Gitmo's residents will not be accepted back (or will face torture and death) in their home countries, our much-vaunted allies want no part of them, and it appears that rehabilitation has been in short supply. Further (and this is a point I've hardly seen covered), the presence of seasoned and ideologically intense Jihadis in a general American prison population constitutes a very real danger of radicalizing that population, not to mention the dangers to communities which might host such prisoners and become the targets of retaliatory strikes (up to and including attempts to spring their incarcerated coreligionists).

Moreover, since soldiers in the field can hardly be expected to observe the conventions of Mirandizing and evidentiary protocol, the likely result of trying many of these detainees in a civil court would be the release of manifestly dangerous individuals into the population. Again, those military tribunals which were painstakingly crafted (and judicially vetted) during the Bush Administration are starting to look kinda good again...

Look, I've said it before, and I'll say it again: if Obama has a series of coming-to-jebus moments and reneges on some of his ill-considered campaign promises in the larger interest of the safety of this Nation, then I'm all for it. I'm not even going to waste bandwidth whining about how nice it would be to have some public acknowledgment of how more complete Intelligence has yielded some of the same solutions at which the previous Administration arrived. I know full well that such public humility would constitute political suicide for the President. Not gonna happen.

My only hope here is that Obama does not get strong-armed into some politically expedient and dangerous compensatory gesture which undermines some of the sensible accommodations to reality in which he's engaged thus far. If he needs to slap some lipstick on the war pigs he's inherited, in order to set himself apart from his predecessor, while still making it unsafe to be a Jihadi in the world, then so be it. I only hope that, when the time comes to contemplate re-electing our POTUS, then observant people on the Left and Right (and everywhere else) will take his judgment and foresight (and the lack thereof) into serious consideration.

Krauthammer has some hopeful words on this subject, and I wish most strenuously that he is describing things accurately:

There is something much larger at play -- an undeniable, irresistible national interest that, in the end, beyond the cheap politics, asserts itself. The urgencies and necessities of the actual post-9/11 world, as opposed to the fanciful world of the opposition politician, present a rather narrow range of acceptable alternatives.

Among them: reviving the tradition of military tribunals, used historically by George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Winfield Scott, Abraham Lincoln, Arthur MacArthur and Franklin Roosevelt. And inventing Guantanamo -- accessible, secure, offshore and nicely symbolic (the tradition of island exile for those outside the pale of civilization is a venerable one) -- a quite brilliant choice for the placement of terrorists, some of whom, the Bush administration immediately understood, would have to be detained without trial in a war that could be endless.

The genius of democracy is that the rotation of power forces the opposition to come to its senses when it takes over. When the new guys, brought to power by popular will, then adopt the policies of the old guys, a national consensus is forged and a new legitimacy established.

That's happening before our eyes. The Bush policies in the war on terror won't have to await vindication by historians. Obama is doing it day by day. His denials mean nothing. Look at his deeds.

I for one will be looking very carefully at those deeds. You should, too.

UPDATE: Plus ca Change...

UPDATE 2: Over at Pajamas Media, an interesting case is made:

Writing in on May 18, in an [2] article called “The Cheney Fallacy,” [Harvard Law professor, Jack] Goldsmith argued that Barack Obama is waging a more effective war on terror than George W. Bush. The reason is not because, as Cheney argues, Obama has torn apart the proven methods used by the previous administration, but because of the new administration’s “packaging.” Bush’s policies actually had legitimacy and efficacy, he writes, but the Bush administration showed a foolish indifference “to process and presentation.” The Bush administration, Goldsmith contends, tried to act unilaterally on military commissions, detention and surveillance, avoiding seeking political and legal support from Congress. It thus aroused deep concern about an unnecessary expansion of presidential power, one that was exacerbated by expansive rhetoric.

In contrast, Barack Obama began with credibility, speaking as a critic of Bush’s terrorism policies and as a champion of civil liberties. Yet, as scores of commentators have noted, he has continued rather than scuttled Bush’s terrorism policies. He has done this, as yesterday’s speech showed, while trying to appear still as a strict opponent of the old Bush-Cheney policies, thereby deflecting the clear evidence that he has in fact continued them. Aside from the left-wing which will now increase its criticism of Obama as a sell-out, most of the nation is responding to Obama with the understanding that he has changed to keep the old policies intact because he has learned that there is a real terror threat—and hence he cannot keep to promises made during the campaign.

Goldsmith points out that in eleven different ways, Obama has carried out existing Bush policies that have enraged so many people. Goldsmith writes: “The Obama policies also reflect the fact that the Bush policies were woven into the fabric of the national security architecture in ways that were hard if not impossible to unravel.” The Bush and Obama policies are close, he reasons, because they reflect “longstanding executive branch positions.” Various administrations have detained enemy forces during war without charges; have used military commissions for war criminals, and refused habeas corpus review to aliens detained outside the United States.

The idea has a ring of truth; many (including myself) have said that the Bush Administration's maddening inability to present and manage its narrative for its policies has been perhaps its most damning failure (aside from its comprehensive tarnishing of the Republican brand through a sustained evisceration of fiscally responsible economic policy...another post). This was so, even (or perhaps especially) because its underlying strategy for the multi-pronged waging of the Long War was so adeptly (if, as I hardly need to point out, imperfectly) crafted. It seems that every apparently loose thread that the One and his people decide to pull turns out to be connected to something important, which is, in turn, connected to something vital, and ultimately belongs to a sloppy-looking but viable web of responses to complex problems that permit no neat solutions.

If Goldsmith is right, and Obama can continue to wage an effective global war on Islamist Extremism, while massaging the packaging such that it becomes more palatable to critics of the last Administration, then I suppose I can live with that. But it leaves a sour taste in my mouth. If plain speech and clarity of purpose have indeed failed to secure an air of legitimacy for the stalwart defense of Civilization against the creeping blight of barbarism, and all that has been needed is a sufficiently sophisticated facade of doubleplusgood doublespeak, then so be it. But if so, then it has incrementally degraded my estimation of just what it is we are fighting for.

The direct confrontation of evil, the appeal to fidelity and forthrightness among allies, and the unflinching dedication to defend the lives and rights of innocents while observing lawful checks on power seem pretty good sources of "legitimacy" to me.

I suppose that might just be too much to Hope for.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pakistani Contingency Plan?

Last week I came across this story on the Fox News site, and I thought I would put it out there for consideration:

The United States has a detailed plan for infiltrating Pakistan and securing its mobile arsenal of nuclear warheads if it appears the country is about to fall under the control of the Taliban, Al Qaeda or other Islamic extremists.

American intelligence sources say the operation would be conducted by Joint Special Operations Command, the super-secret commando unit headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Stratfor's George Friedman's America's Secret War had described the wrangling between Washington and Islamabad on the matter of their nukes in the months following 9/11, and the pressures which the US placed on Pakistan (mainly through overtures to its bitter foe India) to allow US operatives into Pakistan to work with the Paki military on securing those weapons. I remember thinking at the time that this was also a splendid opportunity to characterize in detail the location and nature of that arsenal, against a future need to deny them to any Jihadi-friendly elements of the Pakistani military and the ISI. This was another of those things which I was grudgingly comfortable not knowing about in detail, owing to the extreme sensitivity of the matter. It was a pretty big leap of faith, but I was reasonably confident that the Bush Administration took these things seriously enough to be working diligently behind the scenes, and to have a plan in the hopper in case the unthinkable were to occur.

I have no such faith in the seriousness of the Obama Administration. However, I do place a great deal of faith in the capabilities and focus of our Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces. If there is a way to neutralize those nukes and keep them out of the hands of extremists, then this is the bunch that will pull it long as their hands are not unduly tied by an irresolute and ideologically-blinkered C in C. In fairness to the Obama Administration, the article does sound this hopeful note:

JSOC is made up of three main elements: Army Delta Force, Navy SEALs and a high-tech special intelligence unit known as Task Force Orange. JSOC was instrumental in Iraq in finding and killing Abu Musab Zarqawi, the deadly and most prominent Al Qaeda leader in the Middle East.

There is speculation in the intelligence community that a secondary reason for Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal being named the next commander in Afghanistan is that he headed JSOC in 2006-08 and is read-in on its contingency missions in Pakistan.

I'd also had a feeling that Gen. McKiernan's replacement with Gen. McChrystal was related to the crucial role that Special Forces would play in the Af-Pak theater. Mainly, I saw this as the function of SF operators in the recruitment and training of indigenous assets, as well as intelligence gathering and assorted covert ops. However, the potential, in extremis, for deploying SF units in the service of taking Paki nukes off the table for Islamists demands a level of expertise on-site which Gen McChrystal would be able to bring. This may have been one of the sub rosa motivations for replacing the the very capable Gen. McKiernan so soon after he'd assumed his post.

As uncomfortable as I am with the idea of a nuclear-armed Pakistan, I stronly hope it does not come to that. It would enflame Pakistani nationalism and anti-Americanism to a very dangerous degree, and we would have to get it absolutely right the very first time. But if the alternative is losing track of even one nuke (or even critical components thereof), then the risk would be eminently worth taking.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Beliefs in Need of Change

The estimable Victor Davis Hanson over at Pajamas Media offers this scathing overview of the Obama Presidency so far. Withering stuff. But, much as I have tried to give credit where it is due, I am inclined, reluctantly and sadly, to concur with his overall assessment:

Missed opportunity? Obama could have had a one-time stimulus, then vowed to balance the budget. He might have praised wind and solar as he asked the carbon industry to ‘get us through.’ He could have politely disagreed with Bush, but framing differences in the tragic notion of no good choices. He might have cooled the overseas apologies, savvy that other nations have more to apologize for than his own. Obama should have established zero-tolerance for tax avoidance at a time of record tax increases. He could have remonstrated with Wall Street, and sought to rein in excess without Europeanizing the financial sector. He could have proactively reformed entitlements with bipartisan support, rather than, as will happen, drastically address them in the 11th hour. But then to do all that would be to assume he never went to Trinity Church, knew no Rev. Wright, Ayers, Khalidi, etc., did not run mysterious campaigns that eliminated opponents before the elections, was not the most partisan Senator in Congress, and avoided rather crude social and racial stereotyping while campaigning. Most who read this will not agree, given the mesmerizing effect of the Obama charisma. But in time, unless there are radical changes, I think the nation will come to learn that such talent was not put in service to our collective welfare.

Indeed, alas.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Abrams Seeks Out, Finds New Life

As previously mentioned, I went for the midnight showing of Star Trek on Thursday night...only to discover that midnight was not the first showing that night! Since the distinctiveness of that Witching Hour show was gone, my friends and I paid homage to yet another youthful tradition, and hopped over to another cinema for the 11:15. Rebels are we.

I was filled with trepidation, both for the sanctity of Star Trek in my heart, and for the seemingly impossible task of any film to live up to the hype which this one was generating. I left with both fears decisively put to rest.

Star Trek was one of the most satisfying SF films I have seen in a very long time. On nearly every level, it met if not surpassed the very high expectations I had placed on it, and did so with a deft and sure hand. Opening with a vertiginous shot of a starship coursing through the heavens (this production had some good sport with the relativity of "up" and "down" in space, an experience which I fear will be utterly lost to those bootleggers and downloaders who will experience this film on anything but a large screen in a dark room), the story handily dispenses with canon in a way which time-travel grumblers will find irritating, but the rest of us will accept as a license to take this story and the universe in which it unfolds on its own merits. That first sequence holds a very human and very tragic emotional resonance which has been all-too rare in Star Trek films. This is an experience which is repeated throughout the story; at every juncture where Trek fans would be justified in expecting some abstract, technological solution, or pat lip service to the struggle of imperfect beings trying to find answers in a dangerous universe, this film surprises. It takes chances and fires full phasers on more than one sacred cow. The changes it makes to the established Trek universe are far more than merely cosmetic. Big things happen. Relationships are fundamentally different..and yet fully recognizable and sensible within the new parameters which it sets.

Some reviews (look for my comment on this one) have decried the casting, whining about the lack of gravitas or derisively snorting drivel like "Star Trek: 90210" or somesuch. Nonsense. The actors in this film positively took ownership of their roles with neither slavish mimicry of their forebears, nor self consciously irreverent iconoclasty. They simply claim them, and shape them as recognizable but novel characters. Honorable mention, though, goes to Karl Urban's McCoy, where the late, lamented DeForest Kelley's voice shines through so vividly it all-but brought a tear to my eye. Zachary Quinto's Spock brings a vulnerability to the character which brought the half-human, half-Vulcan duality and struggle into high, sometimes tragic relief. For those who lament the lack of Nimoy's calm assurance, it is worth remembering that the early Spock was not as cool as he became in subsequent episodes of the original series. He was still a bit raw, and this is very much in evidence in the film. And Abrams' Spock has far bigger things to deal with than the familiar character from the "Trek Prime" timeline... Chris Pine's Kirk offers up a bruised and rebellious streak which Kirk Prime's life was too straight-edged to permit, and it is great fun to watch our familiar character begin to emerge from the formative experiences which this new James T. Kirk lives. He is a talented young man from whom we may expect great things to come.

I just wouldn't be me if I didn't take some time to talk about the visuals. Great gods on garlic bread, but they made me ache with hillocks of geeky squee! I was not a big fan of the new Enterprise design. I was skeptical of the hot rod warp engines and the shiny white bridge. I didn't think the thing would convey the necessary heft on the big screen. May I please have a side of curly fries with those words? ILM has reclaimed its throne with the visuals for this film; the space sequences were alive with spinning, Newtonian motion and a real sense of the scale of things. The new ship was a character which defied expectations as decisively as any of its crew. It just looked beautiful on screen, moving with a lumbering grace and real presence and mass. The sound design was yet another motive for the bittorrent crowd to bite the bullet and get out to a cinema: the sound in this film was concussive and crackling with power. Every time a ship went to warp, the theater rang with the massive thud of Einstein's brain dropping from a high place. Phaser fire ripped the air so violently you could practically smell the ozone. The whole 'sound in space' matter is dealt with in a reasonable way as well; when we the viewers are watching a space sequence, we hear explosions and such, but the fact that this is a convention for entertainment's sake is illustrated by the times when people in the film directly experience the awful silence of the vacuum. You'll see what I mean.

I want to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, so I'll keep this brief. Star Trek is a film which honors the spirit of the original with all due reverence, but strikes out in its own direction, and makes it thoroughly worth the trip. It is a smart, gripping, expertly-paced tale, which also happens to be startlingly funny without resorting to the cheeky, cheesy sort of humor which one has had so frequently to bear with an affectionate wince in previous Trek films. Is it perfect? Not at all. There are liberties taken with the science which took me out of the movie on more than one occasion (would somebody please read up on black holes and prepare a primer for future Star Trek writers?!). But if purity in science is what you are looking for, then you have long-since given up on Trek anyway, so that one kinda nulls out. There are obvious narrative short-cuts taken at times in order to position characters in their familiar spots. Again, of all the plot holes which have opened up in previous Trek films and shows, these are pretty minor and (IMHO) easily glossed over, given the overall quality of the film.

Abrams' Star Trek manages to keep the best of Trek safe and inviolate within my memory, while offering the chance to have altogether new adventures in a changed but familiar universe. Indeed, it was fun to look for the things which would tend to happen in familiar ways even given the altered initial conditions (and yes, I'm thinking attractor basins in the problem space). It simply works on so many levels that I find myself thanking Abrams' team for bringing a new vitality and energy to the franchise.

I can't wait to see where they go next.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Awkward Moment on the High Seas

And from the top drawer of the Irony Files...

An expedition team which set sail from Plymouth on a 5,000-mile carbon emission-free trip to Greenland have been rescued by an oil tanker.
So, to review: The wind generator and the solar panels were shorn off by high (solar-driven) winds...

I'll refrain from the crude humor about giving tanks and praise.