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Subsidies aren't sticky

Most subsidy programs are expected to be temporary. The government gives a nascent industry a chance to blossom, which they see as an investment. Once the industry is established, there are jobs for locals and taxable revenues for the state. But the film industry is not normal industry. Traditionally, film production companies start up to produce a film, after which the film is released and crew goes its separate ways to either join an existing production or start up a new company to produce a new film. Individual productions are also highly mobile. If crews will move thousands of miles for light or scenery they'll definitely keep moving to follow the money.

I started thinking about this after reading that World War Z is pulling out of Philadelpha after the city's film tax credits were suspended. In most other industries who see their subsidies cut they'd grumble about it, then look at their equipment and warehouses and sunk costs and home mortgages and suck it up. But film production is fundamentally ephemeral. You do it till it's done. If you're lucky you can re-use some of what you've built for your new project, but every project is different.

There are other reasons to subsidize film production. Bringing attention to your area, for example, seems perfectly reasonable. New Zealand has attracted lots of tourism with its "perfect slice of Middle Earth". But spending tax money to "establish" a mobile project-to-project industry seems like a fool's errand.
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A Simple Overview of Web Security, session IDs, and Firesheep

Let's say your computer is logged onto Facebook. On the other end, the Facebook web server is worrying about who you are, and whether you're allowed to see what you're asking to see. If it thinks you're you, it'll let you see your friends' pictures.

After you successfully log in, websites give your browser a session ID. A ticket that proves you logged in. You don't need to enter your name and password every time you load a page because the session ID proves that you already did. When you "sign out" the browser destroys the session ID and you can't load private pages until you sign in again and a new one is created.

Session IDs can be stolen by anyone who shares your network. If you're blogging from an airport, hotel, or coffee shop your fellow patrons can find your session ID, present it to the web server, and impersonate you. They can see private LJ posts, place bids on eBay, and make comments under your name in Facebook. I've done this for legitimate reasons - copied my browser's session ID to wget so that I could save copies of online documentation. Someone who runs a packet analyzer can copy your session ID and do worse. Firesheep is particularly easy to use. With one click, someone can steal your session ID and start browsing as you.

Websites can prevent this with encrypted HTTPS connections. But some websites don't, because the encryption required for HTTPS uses more resources. Others leak session IDs by mistake. Even if everything else is secure, one "http://" on one page can be enough to leak your session ID to someone who shouldn't have it.

The HTTPS everywhere plugin won't protect you everywhere but it will force PayPal, Facebook, and a few other websites to use HTTPS when they'd rather not.

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a more robust option. It puts all your traffic safely inside an encrypted pipe where it can't be seen. If your employer hasn't set one up there are commercial options. I tried StrongVPN which works pretty well, costs $7/month or $55/yr. (As an added bonus they'll let you pick your IP address - handy for watching Netflix/Hulu or BBC while overseas.)

If you're really daring you can set up your own VPN. These instructions describe how to set up an OpenVPN relay on Amazon EC2. I've actually done this, and it works pretty well. I'm attending 27c3 next week, where it seems like a good idea to be careful about such things. (I'm also trying to get L2TP/IPSec working, but no luck yet. Pointers welcome.)
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Chasing Subsidies

Visual effects studios are notoriously low-margin operations. We're a lot like contractors for Las Vegas casinos. We build these big gorgeous palaces and leave. We collect the same paycheck whether the movie makes a billion or loses millions. (Studios like Pixar and Dreamworks retain ownership and distribution of their own content and are in a much better position, unfortunately not true for the rest of us.)

Chasing subsidies is a good strategy for cash-strapped companies trying to make ends meet. Advocates say production subsidies boost local economies. Detractors say that the subsidies cost more than the benefits they produce, distort the market, and decrease long term stability. Productive or not, the subsidies are real and significant. The UK is offering 20%, New Mexico 25%, Canada 35%, Michigan 42%. Vancouver actually pays 50% of some artists' salaries. Cash-strapped California is in no position to offer anything. Asylum VFX recently closed, citing the inability to compete. "We couldn’t compete with the tax incentives from other countries. The work I’ve seen coming from around the world, the U.K. especially, is stellar."

On one hand, I think the industry would be better without subsidies. Studios could set up wherever costs were actually cheaper, not artificially cheaper. Taxpayers wouldn't be burdened by costs with uncertain gains. Artists wouldn't worry about work drying up when budgets get tight and subsidies are cut.

On the other hand, the world is what it is. Subsidies are real and significant. Work flows to them, and so do I. After seven years at Sony Pictures Imageworks I've given notice and accepted an offer of employment at Double Negative in Soho, London. I've admired their work for years, I've been impressed by their presentations at VES and Siggraph events, and I'm looking forward to being a member of their team and new resident of Europe. If you're visiting or passing through, please ping me and say hi.
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ZFS update: Solaris Express 11

A few months ago Oracle bought Sun, throwing OpenSolaris into doubt. That doubt became certainty when Opensolaris was cancelled, never releasing 2010.03. For the last few months I've thought this basically put an end to ZFS as a solution for hobbyists, tinkerers, and anyone who doesn't have a commercial relationship with Sun/Oracle.

This week Sun/Oracle released Solaris Express 11. I visited their website and stumbled onto their download page. The "Oracle Technology Network Developer License Terms" only permits you to "use the Programs only for the purpose of developing, testing, prototyping and demonstrating your applications", but it appears to be a fully functional version with a snv_151a kernel. It also supports ZFS v31, which supports filesystem encryption as a new feature.

I moved my ZFS disks to NexentaStor after Opensolaris was killed, but I was never really happy with it. The web management interface was slow, seemed clunky, and I was never really sure what it was doing under the hood. Performance didn't seem especially great as well. Moving my system to 11 Express puts me back into familiar territory. It requires using a command prompt, and without the Opensolaris community it can be more difficult to find answers to questions, but it seems faster and more stable and I'm quite pleased with it.

(Random bug: it won't install to a USB flash drive. Actually it will install, but I get errors when I try to boot from it. You also need to add a line to /etc/pam.conf for CIFS to share passwords with the system.)
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Vancouver BC: Final Thoughts

Returning to San Francisco after a week in Vancouver, the contrast was stark. SFO, BART, and the city all seem very grungy by comparison. Both cities have homeless people but Vancouver's seem fewer, healthier, friendlier, and less likely to cause problems. A friend living in vancouver for several years told me that in the States he'd always wonder where his taxes were going. In Vancouver there's no wondering - trash gets picked up, potholes get filled, community centers are open, health care is available. You pay more taxes, but you feel like you're getting something for your money.

For cost of living, rent (at least downtown) seems slightly cheaper than San Francisco and on par with LA. K says that groceries are not too expensive if you're a careful shopper. On the other hand if you just buy whatever's on the shelf you can end up spending a lot; prices can be quite high depending on where you're shopping. I also noticed that prepared food and drink (restaurants/diners/bars) is fairly expensive. A pint of beer that costs $3 or $4 in America costs $6 or $7 at the Railway Club, a not particularly fancy bar. It feels like most restaurants printed the menus in 2004 when the exchange rate was low and never bothered updating the prices.

For living, it's pretty unbeatable if you enjoy the outdoors. The air is fresh, the forest comes right up to your doorstep, and there's hiking/skiing/snowboarding literally 20 minutes away. People from the southwest coast might complain about the rain, but if you've spent time in places that have weather the frequent clouds and occasional to semifrequent rain seem easily bearable. If you're looking for a thriving metropolis or art scene it's a distinct second place behind big cities. There's good stuff going on, but less of it. In London, San Francisco, New York, or Tokyo you might decide which of four events to attend. In Vancouver you're more likely to decide between the event or something quiet. I find the San Francisco art and social scene occasionally overwhelming, and a somewhat simpler life seems appealing.

For work, it's a promising with a few caveats. On one hand there's a lot of work - a lot of companies either there or moving there. I also mentioned that experienced artists, particularly those with technical skills, are very rare in Vancouver. Unfortunately there's a reason for that. Salaries for experienced, technical artists seem to be lower in Vancouver than other places. A senior artist with a decent portfolio can earn a much better salary by moving south, and many do. In theory film tax incentives could push this the other way since companies can afford to pay Vancouver artists more if they're getting refunds, and that might be how things pan out in the long term. But in the short term, expect offers lower than what you can get from other places.

I had a much better time in Vancouver than I expected, and I'm looking forward to hearing the impressions from my colleagues after Siggraph 2011 next August. Siggraph says it's "a nice place to call home" and I think they might be right.
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Vancouver BC: Final Weekend

Friday evening I took the SkyTrain out to Commercial Station where some friends suggested I might find a good neighborhood. South of the station it was mostly dollar stores and a fairly chavvy neighborhood, but walking north on Commercial I found some pretty nice stuff. A little less upscale with a younger, kinda hippie vibe. Cafe Deux Soleils was packed with people, taking a $5-$10 sliding scale cover to hear a few small bands, and seemed very North Berkeley. At the north end of Commercial I took a bus into Gastown. While Yaletown night life is mostly high end (and mostly wannabe high end) nightclubs, Club 23 in Gastown plays psytrance on Friday, a club inside (or next to) Save-On-Meat was attracting a decent punk crowd, near a country/western club with a giant red convertible cadillac with Texas longhorns parked out front.

I ran into a friend outside a dubstep show who introduced me to Trevor Adams, owner & creative director of Leviathan, who do work for TV. We ended up having a very good half hour talk about what it's like to live in Vancouver, what it's been like to work here in the past, and how the recent influx of film companies has changed things. Film shops generally and Digital Domain particularly have sucked up a lot of freelancers into longer-term positions, pushing salaries up in the direction of SF/LA rates. What I heard not just from Trevor but from a lot of people I've talked to this week is that Vancouver needs senior and technical talent. It's easy to find animation school grads who can use Maya. Harder to find someone who knows what to do at a shell prompt. Difficult to find anyone who can write a script to rename a sequence of files, let alone people who have worked in a complex pipeline. Experienced artists, particularly those with technical skills, might find a warm welcome in Vancouver.

On Saturday I met up with Ian and we walked around Kitsilano, "the Santa Monica of Vancouver". If I lived there it would require two bus rides and a transfer to get to the office in Yaletown, so I probably won't move there, but for people who work at one of the studios near city hall or go to school at the university I can see it being a good place to live. Walking back through "Kitts" along the sea wall gives you a great view of the main island, plus the ships docked in English Bay, plus North Van and the mountains on the other side. Very nice place to walk your dog if you've got one. Our walk took us back to Granville Island where we met up with Jesse, my co-worker from the LA office in town for a family reunion, who agreed that Vancouver would be a pretty nice place to live if he had to move somewhere. After lunch we split off from the group, and K and I went over to check out Chinatown. She found the T&T Market - the largest, cleanest asian market we'd ever seen in North America. Huge seafood section with not just live crabs and lobster but live shrimp, clams, scallops, etc. We spent the afternoon in Chinatown which was very large but also seemed a little sparse. There are shops run by Chinese people but they seemed a little sparse, a little generic, and don't seem like much to write home about. I got the feeling that the Chinese population living in Chinatown 30 years ago has largely integrated itself into Canadian culture, leaving a "chinese district" something of an anachronism.

We didn't have a lot of time on Sunday because we were leaving on an early afternoon flight, but K got the idea of getting a Zipcar and going over to Grouse Mountain. Without traffic it's a 20 minute drive from downtown and 8 minutes on a cable car to the top of the mountain for a very beautiful view of the whole area. Cable car tickets were $40, but a one year pass is $100 and a one year family pass is $200 with half price tickets for guests. There's also skiing, zip lines, and other things to do at the top of the mountain. We only had time for an hour up top before it was time to head to the airport and fly home but I'm glad we went.
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Vancouver BC: Monday through Thursday

I've been visiting the office for the past few days so I've only had time to explore during non-work hours. During the day our office manager took me on a little walking tour around Yaletown. At the bottom of the hill there's a seawall with a bike trail that goes all around the island, and he encouraged us to rent bikes and do the ride this Saturday. I'm not sure I'll have time this trip but it sounds quite nice. Tuesday evening we had dinner with Tony and his wife, who took us to a Chinese Indian restaurant as an example of the kind of multi-ethnic fusion food that you can get in Vancouver. Tony made the point that we're seeing Vancouver right after a huge influx of money and building from the winter Olympics, and we should probably expect things to regress back to the mean as time goes on. That said, I get the feeling that the Vancouver's average is a lot higher than San Francisco's.

Tuesday evening I had dinner with Tamara who's been here for several years. She took me on a walk around City Hall which was a pretty nice area. It's near some big stores and also some smaller shops, plus an easy walk to the Canada Line which takes you downtown in 2 stops. The buildings are mostly what they call "strata" - either apartments or things that look like larage houses but are actually 3 to 6 living spaces packed into what looks like a house. This is a common arrangement in San Francisco, where large houses were subdivided into condos, but Tamara says here they'll actually demolish an old house down to its foundation and build a completely new 4-6 unit "strata" house from scratch. Seems like a nice sort of living arrangement in places where a house would be too expensive and an apartment would be too claustrophobic.

I asked Tamara what she misses and what I would miss about moving to Vancouver, and she said mostly it's the social and professional scene. Lots of art exhibits and bands tour San Francisco but never make it up to Vancouver. In the bay area particularly there's also a geeky social and professional environment that you don't get so much of here. Los Angeles is a movie town, with billboards for shows and production services everywhere, and random conversations usually end up talking about that. San Francisco is a geek town, with billboards for VLSI verification and IT infrastructure and the next big web thing, and conversations usually end up talking about that. Vancouver is just a town. A very beautiful, clean town full of friendly people, but some might miss no longer living somewhere that caters so specifically to that thing you do.

Wednesday evening I had dinner with Richard Sandoval, who I'd worked with at ESC on the Matrix sequels and Imageworks on Spider Man. He's over at Digital Domain Vancouver now, and had very good things to say about working there. While Pixar Canada seems to be concentrating on animated shorts and television specials, and Imageworks seems to be focused (at least initially) on animation, Digital Domain is jumping with both feet into full shot production. I'm acutely aware of how challenging it can be to transplant a studio's pipeline to a remote facility, but it seems like a good decision and admire their moxie. Richard had previously been working in London and said that while that location offered slightly better health care and a lot more drinking, Vancouver seemed like a very nice place for those of us approaching middle age to settle down and stay a while.

On Thursday evening K and I walked northwest on Davie, to Denman, to Robson, and southeast on Robson back to our hotel making a 4km circuit of downtown Vancouver. The southeast side of Davie is a gay friendly neighborhood - same sex couples eating dinner, rainbow flag stickers in business windows - but nothing to write home about for someone who's been living a few blocks from the Castro. Coming up Denman we walked through an outdoor set where they were filming "Fringe", with John Noble sitting at a sidewalk table talking to an assistant between takes. K and I are fans of the show and it kinda made our evening. We had dinner at Kintaro Ramen, possibly the best I've had outside of Japan. There were a ton of Japanese stores and izakayas in that corner of the island, putting to rest all of my earlier concerns about not being able to find what I enjoy from the Japantown back home.
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Vancouver BC: Day Two

In contrast to Saturday, Sunday weather was gorgeous. The sky had patchy clouds in the morning and was completely clear in the afternoon. I found this absolutely beautiful day reassuring after my Saturday first impression.

Morning excitement: I found an ATM that had been tampered with after withdrawing $300 and getting $280. I wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't counted. The money gets dispensed from a slot, and someone had smeared a tacky substance on the inside the slot that catches a bill or two. There was a note on the ATM asking "if you notice that this ATM has been tampered with, please call the Vancouver police". I'm here to get to know Vancouver, so I decided to get to know the police. They responded in 25 minutes which is I guess about average for non-emergency, were appreciative of what I'd found, and followed up later to make sure I gave them my photos. While I waited I saw two different sketchy people walk past the ATM and check it for money.

I've been invited to Canadian Thanksgiving at a friend's house, so I went into the West End to get some wine from the BC Liquor Store. (Alcohol sales seem more restrictive here; Canadian grocery stores do not sell alcohol.) BC Liquor seems like an almost exact clone of BevMo, except it's run by the government and the prices are higher. The California MacMurray Ranch Pinot that I got for $25 sells for $15 in Oakland.

What I was calling "the north half of the west end" is actually Cole Harbor. Very clean but a little desolate. It's mostly tall 20-30 story apartment buildings, built up to give a view of Vancouver Harbor which is exceptionally beautiful, with ships passing in and out of the harbor and condos on the shore behind them on the heavily forested North Shore mountains. There's a big promenade along the shore, a seaplane harbor and landing area for bush pilots going up north, and a "Children's Water Park", basically an area where kids can run around while jets of water rain down on their heads. (I'm not sure what the attraction is in Vancouver where you often get that for free.) The Vancouver Convention Centre is in Cole Harbor, and anyone coming here for Siggraph 2011 will probably spend a lot of time around here.

Buses run all over Vancouver. They are clean and run more or less on time. My Nexus One's map app supports public transit navigation. Its advice about where to walk, which bus to catch, and when those buses would arrive has always been spot-on. This evening's bus happened to take me through Chinatown and I realized what I'd missed. Partly it was the rain keeping visibility poor, partly it was late with few people on the streets, and partly I'd taken a turn too early, but it turns out that there really is a pretty huge Chinatown after all. Not as cramped as San Francisco or Yokohama Chinatown. Definitely deserves a closer look later. On the bus I had a chat with two Chinese people who I thought were locals but it turned out were fellow tourists from Beijing.

I had Canadian Thanksgiving dinner at my friend's place in Burnaby, which was quite pleasant. I asked how similar the holiday was to the American holiday, and the table's consensus was that it was probably mostly a derivation from American Thanksgiving, a month earlier since the Canadian harvest comes earlier. Wikipedia says that Thanksgiving started with a dinner by Martin Frobisher in 1578, giving thanks for his safe return from unsuccessfully seeking the Northwest Passage. But Thanksgiving didn't actually become a civic holiday until 1872, in honor of Prince Edward's recovery from a serious illness. Almost every Canadian I've asked does not know either of these things, so (historical trivia aside) I'm assuming that the real reason they celebrate Thanksgiving is because eating with friends is fun and turkey is delicious.
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Vancouver BC: Day One

My employer recently opened an office in Vancouver, joining a growing number of movie companies that have started or moved here for livability and tax reasons. I've been given the option of moving to Vancouver, but the only time I've been here was six years ago for about 48 hours. I'm visiting Vancouver for a week to give the city a "test drive" and see what I think about living here. Friends and colleagues seem interested in what I'm finding, so I'll be writing occasional posts. My first day was all about taking care of small business and staying out of the rain, so I apologize in advance if it's a little boring. If there's something in particular that I should check out please leave a comment.

My very first impression of Canada was the customs and immigration screening, which did not go smoothly. For some reason they found it suspicious that Kathryn was arriving two days after me, and they got even more suspicious when I tried to explain that I was here to explore what it would be like to live and work here but I did not yet have a work permit. Leafing through my notebooks and finding nothing but Japanese homework, doodles, and indecipherable notes about BSDFs somehow reassured them that I wasn't going to be any trouble, and they stamped my passport.

Finding my way around Vancouver is difficult. Partly it's the unfamiliarity, but mostly the sky is so overcast that I can't tell what direction the sun is. "Good weather" in Vancouver is "cool and moist". Very overcast, humid. The weather started as a light drizzle in the morning, changing to a heavier drizzle in the afternoon. Even inside your clothes are damp and everything feels cold and moist.

Canadian ATMs take American cards and dispense colorful holographic money with a picture of the Queen on them. Not a big surprise, but since I arrived on a morning flight, low on sleep, the transition is as striking as the change from B&W to color in "Wizard of Oz". Also the old pennies have a young queen but the new pennies have an old queen. It's like if Dorian Gray was designing the money.

Vancouver is supposedly 20-30% Chinese, but walking around my first day I heard mostly Japanese being spoken. That might be more the demographics of Yaletown. I asked two people speaking Japanese at a cafe whether there was a Japantown, a Japanese district, or at least a Nijiya and they said no. "H-Mart" downtown is a very good korean grocery store, and the regular grocery stores sometimes have more Chinese stuff than you'd find in the states, but I can't find a good Japanese grocery store like there are in LA or SF. The most Japanese thing I've found so far is Japa Dog, which my friends in Japan tell me is not even slightly authentic but was very delicious nonetheless.

My Tmobile/Nexus One phone doesn't get data in Canada, and I was looking to get a SIM. Rogers covers the same GSM bands as Tmobile, and my phone roams on Tmobile, so I figured it would be a good choice. Unfortunately their prepaid doesn't do data, and they wouldn't let me sign up for a month-to-month plan. My American credit rating is excellent, but my Canadian credit history is nonexistent. I can see the problem that Google Voice is angling to solve. Canadian plans are cheap but voice mail is extra, and incoming display of caller ID is extra, and SMS is extra.

In the afternoon I went over to the regional Burning Man decompression, which seemed small and sparsely attended. I was there at 5:30 and 7:30 - perhaps it got going later. The trip gave me a chance to walk around Gastown and Chinatown. Architecturally, Gastown looked a little like Dickens era Britain, which is unsurprising since it was settled around that time. Unfortunately it seemed a little deserted - maybe it was the rainy drizzly weather keeping everyone indoors. Chinatown also seemed fairly desolate, in contrast to SF Chinatown which is so crowded it's sometimes hard to walk down the street. Maybe it was the weather, or maybe I just didn't stumble into the good part. I ended up having dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Gastown, paying $17 for a plate of two tacos, rice, beans, and salad at La Casita. If I leave the SF/LA mexiplex I will definitely need to redefine my acceptable taco parameters.

In the evening I went out for beer with a co-worker who's also looking around up here. He's married with a kid and seems to like what he sees. He had taken the $2.50 SeaBus to North Vancouver which he says is a little boring and suburban but also beautiful, with nothing but 1200 miles of wilderness to the north of you.

Near my hotel, Granville Street was closed to traffic for Saturday Night. There are a lot of clubs and bars on Granville in addition to pizza / buffalo wing / poutine "drunk food". The street was full of club-hopping twenty and thirtysomethings and was extremely lively, but I didn't spend a lot of time down there since that scene is not really my thing.

My hotel's terms of Internet service cautions users that "Individuals using the Internet may find material that is inaccurate, incomplete, misleading, not age appropriate, controversial or offensive to them." This is possibly the greatest understatement I have ever read.