Saturday, October 5, 2002

Crack TV

24's first season is available on DVDAbout a year ago we got TiVo. Without exception, it is the greatest thing to ever happen to TV. The most immediate result was that we were no longer homebound Sundays nights between 9:00 and 10:00pm. We were free to watch, in crystal clear digital quality, the adventures of Mulder and Scully regardless of Fox's schedule. Life was good.

And then the end came. Our little televised world ended and the X-Files was no more. A good friend of ours asked, "Without X-Files, is there a reason left to own a TV?"

24 of them, in fact.

At first glance, "24" is just a concept show. Each episode is one hour, shown in real time – 24 episodes in a season combine to form one whole day. But it's the writing that really makes the show. "24" oozed suspense and tension. The episodes started with us sitting on the edge of the couch and ended with us screaming at the TV as it faded to black. They were so engaging, we forsaked TiVo and watched them live. We had to. We couldn't wait.

Now, some have called us obsessed. I prefer to think of us as enthusiastically addicted.

First season cast: Elisha Cuthbert, Leslie Hope, Kiefer Sutherland, Dennis Haysbert, and Sarah ClarkeThe first season dealt with several parallel and intertwining plots. Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), head of the LA Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU), has to wrestle with a plot to kill the first African-American presidential candidate, Senator Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), while trying to free his family (Elisha Cuthbert and Leslie Hope) from Serbian terrorists commanded by Victor Drasen (Dennis Hopper). In the course of the show, Mrs. Bauer gets amnesia, a naked lesbian blows up a jetliner, Lou Diamond Phillips gets killed, first one, then two moles compromise CTU, and an intricate power struggle is fought in the Palmer campaign between the Senator, his wife, and their spin doctor.

All through the first season we encouraged our friends and family to start watching the show TV Guide called "the best new show on TV." Fox even helped those late-comers by re-airing episodes a week behind schedule on FX. Alas, given the nature of the show, many people would start watching episode "11:00 to 12:00" and find themselves hopelessly lost.

So we're telling you now...before the second season starts. Watch "24" from the start and we'll be hooked.

Ford will be sponsoring the season premier, commercial free, on Fox, Tuesday, October 29 at 9:00pm Eastern. fb

Democracy in Action

Let's be honest. The Florida election system for the last two years has been a joke (or a nightmare, depending on how you spin it). First, hanging chads in 2000. Then the disaster of the 2002 mid-term primaries. It's enough to send Florida packing off to Cuba.

But at least it's not Iraq. While the issues of war, sanctions, and weapons inspections are debated from one corner of the nation to another, we can at least all take solace and agree: Their election system is a joke. Florida, by comparison, is a democratic and electoral model.

It was announced Wednesday, October 16, that Saddam Hussein won another seven-year term in office by an overwhelming – and we're not making this up – 100% of Iraq's 11,445,638 eligible voters.

Let's be clear about this. There were no butterfly ballots or optical recognition tabulators. Not a chad in sight. The ballots were simply a "Yes" or "No" referendum on the Iraqi president's return to office. Many Iraqi voters went so far as to mark their ballots in blood. Nazi elections never garnered this kind of margin.

These sort of results just aren't possible in democratic society. Not even if one party rounded up the other and shot them all – then did the same to inter-party dissenters – could results ever come close in the US. I wonder how many Republican Guard are standing outside the polling stations, guns trained on the "enthusiastic" electorate. I wonder if the election commission even bothered to count the returns.

At a news conference in Baghdad, Izzat Ibrahim, vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, Iraq's supreme decision-making body, defended the results. "This is a unique manifestation of democracy which is superior to all other forms of democracies even in these countries which are besieging Iraq and trying to suffocate it."

Oooooh. A subtle little jab there.

When a reporter remarked on the ridiculousness of the election results, Ibrahim responded, "Someone who does not know the Iraqi people, he will not believe this percentage, but it is real. Whether it looks that way to someone or not. We don't have opposition in Iraq."

Of course, the referendum is supposed to send the United States and Great Britain a message: The Iraqi people support their president. Instead, the message we're getting is: Iraq's democratic process is a joke...Saddam autocracy is absolute.

I really think Saddam and Ibrahim are missing the point of democratic elections. If they are going to fake it, at least fake it well. Have 35% vote "No", for good measure. Make it look like there is a dialogue or – God forbid – a choice. fb

A New Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta diskUntil the nineteenth century, the hieroglyphs of Egypt were a linguistic mystery. Egyptians, Arabic-speakers for nearly 1,200 years, had lost the knowledge of their own ancient tongue. British and French linguists, anxious to solve the riddle, scoured Egypt and the reaches of the Nile for some clue to the dead language. Their searches were all in vain.

The Rosetta Stone was found by accident. Napoleon's army, fortifying themselves in Egypt to resist a British attack, found the 2,000-year-old basalt slab in a pile of rubble blown apart by cannon fire. Etched in the black stone was a text translated into three languages: Greek, demotic, and hieroglyphic Egyptian. It was the key to breaking the hieroglyphic code. Within a few years, the language was cracked. Within a decade, French and British linguists were able to read hieroglyphic inscriptions that had stood silent for over a thousand years.

Chance saved the Rosetta Stone: Arab conquers had built it into the walls of a fortress at Rosetta – cannon exposed it to French adventurers who immediately recognized its significance. But the ancient Egyptian language is just one of the legion of languages the world had lost to the past. Indeed, of the myriad languages still spoken today – an estimated 7,000 – many linguists agree that 50 to 60% of them will be dead before the end of the 21st century.

Inspired by Egypt's Rosetta Stone, a team of engineers, linguists, and scientists are building a new artifact to stand the test of time: The Rosetta disk.

A detail of the Rosetta disk design and information structureThe Rosetta Project is building an online database of all the languages it can codify, to preserve them for the duration of human existence. But digital media, while long lasting, is limited by the obsolescence of software. An optical disk might last a thousand years, but will Microsoft Word 98? So the project is also developing the disk, an analog artifact which, mass-produced and distributed, will hopefully survive to the distant future as a standing record of human language and culture.

But the Rosetta Stone carried only three languages of one text. The disk will hold much more.

The design of the disk – both in aesthetics and information – is impressive. Each disk features a globe surrounded by radiating spokes. Within the spokes are 27,000 inscribed data pages – 27 pages for each included language. Like the Rosetta Stone, each language is translated, or transliterated if the language has no native script, into one parallel text (Chapters 1-3 of Genesis, the most widely and carefully translated writing on Earth). Additionally, each language features a glossed vernacular text, and English description, maps, the number system, grammar, and a basic vocabulary. Each language is grouped by continent and identified by a number that corresponds to a number on the central map. Surrounding the spoked ring of languages is a tapering spiral of Genesis translated into 8 major world languages (English, Russian, Hindi, Spanish, Hebrew, Mandarin, Arabic, and Swahili) begins at eye-readable scale and diminished to nano-scale. This reducing ring of text intuitively instructs uninitiated readers of the disk to get a microscope to see more.

All of this data fits nicely onto one disk. 3 inches across.

The technology used to create the disk was developed by Los Alamos National laboratories and Norsam technologies. Each nickel disk is protected by a 4-inch stainless steel and glass sphere – this glass magnifies the tapering text by a factor of 6x. In the base of each sphere is a steel ribbon that individual owners can use to mark their names, locations, and dates for posterity.

When mass-produced, the disk will be distributed to interested parties, institutions, and individuals. Currently, however, version 1 of the disk goes for $25,000 a piece. As of this writing, they have only sold two.

Though the final object is little larger than a paperweight and we'll need a 1000x microscope to read the inscribed texts (or, I suppose, we could buy the planned book) the Rosetta disk is an information architect's dream come true. And we desperately want one. Let others pass down watches and books to their children – I'll give mine the corpus of all human language. fb