« September 2002 | Main | November 2002 »

October 31, 2002

Happy Halloween!

Or a Happy All Hallows' Eve, if you prefer.

Sadly, after bringing bags of Coffee Crisp miniatures back with me from my last trip to Canada just for this occasion, I have to travel today and tomorrow, and so won't be around to pass them out. And here I thought I'd be giving away the coolest candy in the state. There's always next year.

T-Mobile and Airport Lounges

In the Wall Street Journal, an article on T-Mobile expanding its Wi-Fi coverage to the airport lounges of the three largest US airlines:

T-Mobile USA Inc., formerly VoiceStream Wireless, is partnering with American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines to let people get high-speed wireless Internet connections in nearly all of the airlines' domestic clubs over the coming year...

The move is also a big step forward for Wi-Fi. T-Mobile's service is already in about 1,800 Starbucks outlets and 25 lounges of AMR Corp.'s American Airlines. But the company's latest plans provide new options to a critical audience: the business traveler.

While analysts are skeptical that many people at an urban coffee shop will pay for Wi-Fi, airport lounges, hotels and convention centers are popular destinations for people who will. Every year, Delta's Crown Room Clubs, for example, gets seven million passenger visits. That could provide T-Mobile, the sixth-largest carrier in the U.S., with a new revenue stream at a time when the industry is ailing. It could also give the company an edge over competitors who haven't yet rolled out Wi-Fi, and are still relying on high-speed wireless networks that can actually be painfully slow...

In addition to the airport expansion, T-Mobile will add the service to another 200 Starbucks and 400 Borders book stores over the next eight months. But it isn't the only player in that game. A company called Wayport Inc. now offers wireless in nine airports (soon to be 10), as well as hundreds of hotels around the U.S., including the Four Seasons and the Marriott. Another firm, Boingo Wireless, has pooled together Wi-Fi networks in hundreds of airports, the lobbies of hotels like the Sheraton, and mom-and-pop cafes across the country.

I've used the T-Mobile Hotspot service (formerly MobileStar at Admirals Clubs many times, and it's well done. I have a pay-as-you-go plan, so I only pay while I'm actually using time, and login typically takes less than 20 seconds from start to finish. It's a great way to catch up on mail between flights. I can recommend it.

October 30, 2002

Idea for the Day I

Combine Epinions and Match.com to create a dating service with user reviews.

Think about how much more useful than today's dating services this would be. For the honest personal ad poster, it would be a boon, because while writing a personal ad about oneself that sounds neither too boastful nor too modest can be difficult, it's easy to say great things about someone else. For the personal ad reader, it would be even more of a boon, because one could compare the ad and the corresponding "reviews" in an instant. Of course, reviews wouldn't be good for the dishonest ad posters, so then they would migrate to other online dating services, quickly giving the review-based service the reputation as the place where honest people go for online dating.

I predict that Match.com, lavalife, or a similar major dating service will offer this as a feature within six months.

October 29, 2002

Do Computers Improve Learning?

Poor school districts often complain that they're unable to buy as many computers as their richer counterparts. Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise. From an article in the current issue of the Economist:

In the current Economic Journal, Joshua Angrist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Victor Lavy of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem look at a scheme which put computers into many of Israel's primary and middle schools in the mid-1990s. Dr Angrist and Dr Lavy compare the test scores for maths and Hebrew achieved by children in the fourth and eighth grades (ie, aged about nine and 13) in schools with and without computers. They also asked the classes' teachers how they used various teaching materials, such as Xeroxed worksheets and, of course, computer programs.

The researchers found that the Israeli scheme had much less effect on teaching methods in middle schools than in elementary schools. It also found no evidence that the use of computers improved children's test scores. In fact, it found the reverse. In the case of the maths scores of fourth-graders, there was a consistently negative relationship between computer use and test scores.

Having helped out with computers at my childrens' elementary school some years ago, I find this believable. Computers in schools are too often used as high-cost substitutes for other learning methods. Instead of practicing typing on a $100 typewriter, use a $1,500 computer and call it keyboarding. Instead of using the card catalog, use Google.

When computers are used for things that only computers can do -- high-quality educational programs, such as the legendary Rocky's Boots -- then I think they can be useful in schools. But I'm willing to bet it's a rare school computer that is consistently used for such tasks.

October 28, 2002

"Douglas Adams Was Right"

From KurzweilAI.net, an article by Seth Lloyd on the computational universe:

The amount of information you could process if you were to use all the energy and matter of the universe is 10^90 bits and the number of elementary operations that it can have performed since the Big Bang is about 10^120 ops. Perhaps the universe is itself a computer and what it's doing is performing a computation. If so, that's why the universe is so complex and these numbers say how big that computation is. Also, that means Douglas Adams was right (the answer is "42").
Technically speaking, Adams proposed that it was the Earth that is a computer calculating the question to the answer "42," and not the entire universe, but it's nice to see that he was on the right track.

An interesting bit is when Lloyd computes the final end to Moore's Law:

if you want to know when Moore's Law, this fantastic exponential doubling of the power of computers every couple of years, must end, it would have to be before every single piece of energy and matter in the universe is used to perform a computation. Actually, just to telegraph the answer, Moore's Law has to end in about 600 years, without doubt. Sadly, by that time the whole universe will be running Windows 2540, or something like that. 99.99% of the energy of the universe will have been listed by Microsoft by that point, and they'll want more! They really will have to start writing efficient software, by gum. They can't rely on Moore's Law to save their butts any longer.
If other civilizations exist in the universe, and if they're more than 600 years beyond us in computing technology, how have they solved this problem?

October 27, 2002

A Modest Proposal

What if we just send the Raider Nation into Iraq? In the words of USA Today:

By the way, what took so long for Romo to become a Raider? Fighting, biting, spitting, indictments -- hey, dude, welcome to Raider Nation!
Imagine being an Iraqi and seeing these guys show up looking like Gwar. You'd surrender immediately! (On that subject, we should probably send Gwar in with them. They could do the modern metal version of the helicopter assualt scene from Apocalypse Now.)

October 26, 2002

The Orange SPV

From infoSync, a review by Editor-in-chief Jørgen Sundgot of the first phone based on Microsoft's Smartphone 2002 (time's running out, gang) platform, the Orange SPV:

When Microsoft first announced its Smartphone 2002 platform -- back then codenamed Stinger, I must admit that although I was not among the people that giggled by the mere thought of Windows on phones, visions of crashing phones was the first thing to pop up in my head (I power-use Pocket PCs and know how often I must reset them). Thankfully, after spending a week with the SPV from UK based carrier Orange, I've found that Microsoft has done a good job of adapting to the world of mobile phones: not an excellent one, but a good one.
The review concludes with the following:
The Orange SPV is a device that relies on raw power to perform its tasks, and it's very feature-rich. Its interoperability with Windows, Outlook and Exchange is unparalleled, and Microsoft has done a good job of adapting the user interface to one-handed use. Despite its positive aspects, however, the result seems unpolished as a number of glitches -- some minor, some major -- are evident even after a relatively short period of testing. We'd recommend buying the Orange SPV -- if you want a versatile phone, and don't mind the occasional glitch.
  • What's positive: Easy to navigate, great display, raw power, feature-rich
  • What's negative: Performance drops, poor voice quality, unreliable GPRS connectivity, disconnect on standby
Interestingly, in a separate editorial, Jørgen says that while his "gut feeling" is that "smartphones will be big," he himself isn't planning on using one anytime soon:
My question numero uno, though, is whether I see myself using a smartphone, a connected handheld or a combination of a mobile phone and a non-connected handheld comunicating by means of Blueooth or another wireless standard to keep me connected when I'm out and about. I'm struggling to choose, since each solution has its advantages, and since I'd like to have just one primary device to carry with me all the time. Believe me, keeping one device in sync is hard enough, two is frickin' difficult and three is close to impossible. For the time being, I've decided that a smartphone just isn't for me. I need to be able to process data and not just access it while I'm out of the office, and even though the Nokia 7650 and Orange SPV have all the capabilities I need their input solutions hampers them too much to be of any real use.
I think I've come to the same conclusion: that what I want is not necessarily a smartphone, but rather a good solid phone with GPRS or CDMA 1xRTT and Bluetooth. This will save me the pain of synchronizing yet another device, and will allow me to choose the PDA that best meets my needs.

October 25, 2002

Portable Replay

I somehow missed this news from the Intel Developer Forum last month:

SONICblue Incorporated (Nasdaq: SBLU) and Intel Corporation today announced that they are working together to develop the ReplayTV Portable Video Player (PVP), a new product that will allow people to enjoy digital entertainment on the go.

The product, currently in development, combines the performance and low power consumption of Intel XScale technology-based processors with SONICblue's Emmy award-winning ReplayTV platform. The pocket-sized device will allows users to watch time-shifted television programs transferred from their SONICblue ReplayTV, as well as play video, audio and photos transferred from a PC...

SONICblue's PVP will house a large capacity hard drive and support multiple audio and video formats, including native ReplayTV files, so recorded television content can be transferred directly from ReplayTV set-top boxes for portable enjoyment. The SONICblue ReplayTV PVP will also connect to a PC so that users can transfer and play personal, MP3 and other commercially available multimedia content from their PC. The high-performance and low power consumption of the Intel XScale technology-based processors will enable users to enjoy high-quality video for several hours without recharging the battery.

Thanks to Richard Boyd for the tip.

October 24, 2002

"Do You Risk Growing Young Alone?"

Via an article on KurzweilAI.net, a story in the Washington Post on life extension efforts at the edge of current science and beyond:

For ["visions of godlike immortality"] you want the revolution described by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce in a July report. It points to the four rapidly evolving and intertwining "GRIN" technologies -- genomics, robotics, information and nano-engineering. Together they hold the potential of "a tremendous improvement in human abilities, societal outcomes and quality of life," the report says.

"The human body will be more durable, healthy, energetic, easier to repair, and resistant to many kinds of stress, biological threat, and [the] aging process," the report states.

That's why the inventor and author Ray Kurzweil, 54, is personally eating very few carbohydrates and fats, taking more than a hundred supplements and trying not to be too big of a nag to others his age. But he almost can't help himself.

"If I look at my kids -- kids in their teens, twenties or even thirties -- unless they have unusual problems, a decade or two from now they will be young and the revolutions will be in full force. They don't have to do a lot to benefit from really radical life extensions," Kurzweil says. "The oblivious generation is my own. The vast majority are going to get sick and die in the old-fashioned way. They don't have to do that. They're right on the cusp."...

But to get there, you've got to take care of yourself now, he insists.

The story concludes by asking useful questions:

Will the new young people who are only in their twenties ever be able to compete with the old young? Especially if the old young have seen their compound-interest money grow startlingly?

In ancient lore, Gilgamesh built the walls around the city of Uruk as a monument that would make him immortal. If we did not fear death, would we lose our will to achieve? Would you put all of life forever before you? "What's the rush? I'll get to that when I'm 100." If you did not have to seek your immortality in children, would you have them?

If life stretches out for a very long time, do you avoid risks? Or do you court them? Is there a growth market in recreational life-risking? Will more people emulate George Bush, the elder, by parachuting out of airplanes at the age of 72?

If immortality is at hand, do we need religion?

If death is never imminent, is love as intense? Do Romeo and Juliet inhabit the world only of the very biologically young?

What happens if you seek youth and your partner does not?

Do you risk growing young alone?

Are we, as Kurzweil says, truly on the cusp of a revolution in which people no longer need routinely die from disease and old age? The death of death would be the most fundamental sociological revolution imaginable. Everything would change -- everything. It's easy to imagine a scenario in which a wealthy few are immortal while elsewhere, people continue to starve. That would be a mean world in which to live. Having said that, when useful anti-aging therapies become available, I want them as much as the next person.

We have to start thinking about the implications of this line of research and prepare accordingly.

October 23, 2002

"Until One is Committed..."

Today's quote is from The Scottish Himalayan Expedition, by William H. Murray:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:
"Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."
The Scottish Himalayan Expedition doesn't appear on Amazon, but can be purchased from a handful of rare book dealers on Abebooks.

October 22, 2002

Doonesbury on Blogs

Garry Trudeau is writing about blogs in Doonesbury this week. Worth a look. Thanks to Karin for the heads up!

More on the Bomb

My friend Paul Gustafson responded to my blog entry yesterday, in which I wondered whether a demonstration of the atomic bomb would have sufficed with the Japanese, or if not, whether we could have found purely military targets:

I once saw a tape of a retired Harry Truman being asked these questions. As I recall, the reasoning went something like this (the following memory is probably also laced with the opinions of my father, who, having survived Normandy, was on a boat headed for the Pacific when the bomb dropped):
  1. Allied (read American) lives were Truman's first priority -- and the casualty projections for a land assault on Japan were staggering. Drained from the victory in Europe, the Americans needed a victory in the Pacific -- fast.

  2. The bomb was new. No one was absolutely positive it would work in production. To waste it on a demonstration was not a credible option (see #1 above).

  3. They only had two (or three) bombs ready. The next few were weeks, if not months, away. If one or two didn't stop the war... a land invasion was going to be necessary (see #1 above).
I share your admiration of Japan -- but you and I only know the post-WWII Japan -- the one rebuilt by the US. Japan, prior to the bomb, was a very different place.

Given the circumstance, I'd have to say the terrible decision Truman made was the right one.

Thanks for the insight, Paul.

On reflection, I think I understand why Truman made the decision he did, and I don't hold it against him. Having said that, I think other options existed. If another bomb was a month away (I don't know the actual figure), was it worth a month's more war to try to save so many lives? The Hiroshima blast alone is estimated to have killed 200,000 people over time.

I worry that I'm projecting current sensibilities onto past times. The targeting of civilians seems to have been common practice by all major powers during World War II. The Japanese killed between 200,000 to 370,000 people in and around Nanking in a four-month period. The Germans killed nearly 40,000 people in the UK during the first year of the Blitz. The British and Americans killed an estimated 25,000 people in Dresden in a three-day period near the end of the war. In this context, is it right of us of me to second-guess the decision to use atomic weapons to end the war in Japan?

October 21, 2002

In the Land of Trinity

I spent two days in Los Alamos, New Mexico last week. It was my second trip there in the last couple of months. Los Alamos is presently home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, but of course is best known as the development site for the world's first atomic weapons during World War II. (A page of historical links can be found here.)

Here are a couple of photos of Fuller Lodge, which housed Manhattan Project scientists during 1945-1947:

My emotional reaction to being in Los Alamos is a mixed one. On the one hand, given the knowledge at the time, I'm glad the United States decided to build the bomb, and proud, in a sense, that we finished it. If the Third Reich had made more progress, and if we hadn't, we could have found ourselves in a situation in which Hitler had atomic weapons and we didn't. It's a horrifying scenario. On the other hand, I'm sorry that we used it against the Japanese. I often wonder if a demonstration would have done the trick instead of actually using it. And given the decision to use it, why target cities filled with civilians? Why not a purely military target?

October 19, 2002

Where's the Outrage?

After much thought, and having the opportunity to listen to much of the Congressional debate during some long car trips, I ended up coming to the conclusion that I supported the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. I felt -- and continue to feel -- that Saddam Hussein is the kind of person who will only respond to force or to believable threats of force. Therefore, if we were to disarm him, the only way to do so was to make it clear that we would go to war over it -- and we would absolutely have to be willing to do so if he continued to flaunt the world's wishes. It was a harder decision than I would have anticipated, but I'm glad I took the time to think through my position.

Now the North Koreans have come along and made a mess of everything. From an article in the Wall Street Journal:

President Bush was notably silent on the subject of North Korea -- even as he denounced Iraq -- and the White House is painfully aware of the complications. U.S. officials said that the administration has known since early July that North Korea had acquired key equipment for enriching uranium, but the White House was hesitant to go public with the evidence as it was gearing up for a confrontation with Baghdad.

"There was a lot of thought about how to deal with the new information. No one wanted to distract from Iraq," said one U.S. official, adding, "the timing of this thing is terrible."

If I were a member of Congress, I would be furious with the Bush administration right now. At the time that the administration was making the final push for the authorization of force to prevent an "axis of evil" nation from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, they knew from the North Koreans' own admission that another member of the axis either already had nuclear weapons or was close to having them. What's more, the North Koreans have a delivery system capable of delivering such weapons throughout Japan. The next generation of this delivery system will be able to reach Alaska.

If this isn't material information in the war on terror, I don't know what is. Yet the administration chose to keep it from Congress while they were debating whether to authorize war against a rogue nation. I find that unacceptable, and I'm deeply surprised to see no discussion of this fact to date. Where's the outrage?

October 15, 2002

Il Returno de Wallace i Gromit

Wallace and Gromit have returned! From a story on BBC News:

Oscar-winning animated duo Wallace and Gromit have returned after a six-year absence in a series of short films -- and BBC News Online has exclusive footage.

Maker Aardman Animations has produced 10 one-minute movies featuring Wallace and his canny pet dog Gromit, entitled Cracking Contraptions.

The films are launching on Tuesday with the world exclusive premire of the first short, Soccamatic, on BBC News Online. The film is downloadable and free to view.

The story contains links to both streaming and downloadable versions of the first of the 10 shorts. There's more good news as well:

The pair's creator, Nick Park, is currently working on a script for the first full length Wallace and Gromit feature film with Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks studio, to be be released in two years.

"We wanted to get Wallace and Gromit out there again because we missed them really," he said.

"The short films were partly to train people up for doing the feature film.

"I was nervous at first because no-one has animated them for a long time. But it's worked a treat. I've been very impressed."

Apparently we'll be able to pay $9.95 to see all 10 shorts beginning next week. According to Atom Films:

AtomFilms today announced the premiere of Wallace & Gromit's Cracking Contraptions, a new series of ten short films from Aardman featuring two of the world's best-loved animated characters. The first episode, titled Soccamatic, will debut for free at noon PST on October 15 at http://wallace.atomfilms.com. One week later, AtomFilms will present the world premiere of the entire Cracking Contraptions series exclusively to online subscribers...

Like the earlier Wallace & Gromit films, Cracking Contraptions was produced by master animator Nick Park. This time, Park asked past collaborators Chris Sadler and Loyd Price to direct the project. "Wallace and Gromit are like family to me," said Park. "I couldn't be prouder of Cracking Contraptions, which provides new insights into the unique relationship of my characters. And considering their love of advanced technology, the Internet is the perfect place for these guys."

AtomFilms has made it very easy for novices and techies alike to own Cracking Contraptions. After paying a one-time fee of $9.95, subscribers will gain instant access to all ten episodes and a special "making of" feature. The episodes can be downloaded to a subscriber's computer for unlimited high-quality playback, or streamed for online viewing. The series will be delivered exclusively in the Windows Media video format, with digital-rights-management services provided by SyncCast.

That last bit is worrisome -- what sorts of "digital rights management" will be imposed on us? -- but it is a small blemish on what has to be considered wonderful news. 10 minutes of Wallace and Gromit now, with a feature film to follow within a couple of years. This was just the sort of news I needed to brighten my day.

October 11, 2002

Satellite Radio versus Terrestrial Digital

From an article by Wired News on the approval of terrestrial digital radio, developed by the firm iBiquity Digital:

"The only advantage of satellite radio was that they could say they were digital, and now that argument goes by the wayside," said Dennis Wharton, the National Association of Broadcasters senior vice president of communications. "And we are free and local. If you can get what you want and it's free, there really is no argument for satellite radio."
This is as specious an argument as I've read in a while. It assumes that radio today is actually reasonably good, and that people enjoy listening to it. Personally, the only radio I can tolerate these days is NPR.

October 06, 2002

Glad We Cleared That Up II

Said by my brother Eric over dinner last night:

"It's not that I'm uninterested. It's just that I don't care."
In the words of Dennis Miller, "Jimmy crack corn and I don't care? Jimmy crack corn and I don't care? What the hell kind of attitude is that?"

October 03, 2002

The World's Funniest Joke?

From the Globe and Mail, a story on LaughLab, an attempt to determine the funniest joke across cultures:

Drum roll, please an on-line search for the world's funniest joke has produced a winner.

In a year-long experiment called LaughLab, a British psychology professor asked thousands of people round the world to rate the humour value of a list of jokes; they could also add their own favorites.

In December, Dr. Richard Wiseman and his associates announced the front-runner, an old gag involving fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, his sidekick, Dr. Watson, and a tent. In the final tally of some two million votes for 40,000 jokes that was announced Thursday, however, a new joke emerged as a round-the-world rib-tickler:

A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head.

The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: "My friend is dead! What can I do?"

The operator, in a calm, soothing voice, says: "Just take it easy. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead."

There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy's voice comes back on the line. He says: "OK, now what?"

Of course, as we all know, the joke that is truly the world's funniest was destroyed after being used by the UK against Germany in World War II.

October 01, 2002

This Needs to Stop

At a time when the economy doesn't need it, we have an expensive labor lockout at West Coast ports:

The Bush administration said it was monitoring the shutdown, which some economists say will cost the economy $1 billion a day for the first five days, with the cost rising exponentially if it lasts several weeks.
What's the problem? Why are labor and management arguing?
Dividing the parties is the issue of technology on the docks. The port employers want to install electronic gear to automatically clear trucks in and out of terminals and track cargo within the terminals. Currently, much of that work is done manually by ILWU marine clerks.

But the ILWU is concerned that such technology threatens the union's jurisdiction on the waterfront and many union jobs. Annual salaries for ILWU members, who load and unload cargo, average about $106,000 for those working 40 hours or more a week. Marine clerks, who type in data and keep track of cargo, earn about $128,000 a year, on average if they work a similar number of hours. Foremen, working full time, have an average annual salary of $166,000.

Let me see if I have this straight: people who make up to $166,000 per year as cargo handlers, data entry clerks, and supervisors are resisting the introduction of technology that would make the ports more efficient.

Okay, this needs to stop right now.