« December 2002 | Main | February 2003 »

January 31, 2003

"I'm Pulling Out All the Tricks"

Karen Mann is writing an article on blogging for the News & Observer, which I believe may appear in next Wednesday's issue. She interviewed me for it back in December, and then attended the January RTP Bloggers lunch to gather more material. At the lunch, she mentioned that she'd need a photograph for the story and asked who might be interested. Nothing. At last I said, "I'm the least photogenic person at the table, but someone has to do this," and with that, it was done.

Yesterday, Mel Nathanson came to the office to photograph me for the story. I was expecting something simple, but he had in mind a much more artistic portrait. "You're going to be doing some contortions," he said, and he was right.

He asks me to move my face next to the keyboard. I do. "Closer." I move closer. "Closer." I move closer still. "Closer." Now my chin is touching the keys. "Perfect."

My colleague David Easter photographed the session:

When Mel got me into the desired position and began shooting, we had the following exchange:

Mel: Perfect. This is great.

Me: Really?

Mel: Yeah. You're going to look hip and cool.

Me: If you can make me look hip and cool, you're an even better photographer than I thought.

Mel: Well, I'm pulling out all the tricks.

Ah well. In any case, we should be able to see the final results next week.

January 30, 2003

Greetings from Sunny Pyongyang

A press release from the government of North Korea earlier this week:

Japan urged to behave itself

Pyongyang, January 28 (KCNA) -- Japan has neither a justification nor a qualification to interfere in such an important matter as the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, says Minju Joson today in a signed commentary. The Japanese authorities groundlessly pulled up the DPRK over its withdrawal from the NPT, the commentary notes, and continues:

It was the U.S. and the IAEA, its cat's paw, which compelled the DPRK to withdraw from the treaty.

The Japanese authorities, however, are faulting the DPRK, a victim.

The same is true for the issues related to the DPRK-Japan Pyongyang Declaration. Japan is totally to blame for the non-compliance with the declaration.

Japan linked the already settled issue and unimportant issues which carry no great significance in improving the bilateral relations to the issue of compensating for its past crimes, thus deliberately hamstringing the process of establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries.

It is persistent in its moves to isolate the DPRK, taking advantage of the U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK.

The nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula is not an issue which admits of Japan's meddling.

The issue can be settled satisfactorily only if the U.S. totally drops its hostile policy toward the DPRK and respects its sovereignty and vital rights. The DPRK and the U.S. are, therefore, the direct parties concerned to the settlement of the nuclear issue.

It is foolhardy of Japan not to understand this simple reason and go reckless.

Japan will have to pay a very high price if it continues running wild, ignorant of the true nature of the nuclear issue.

So, to sum up:

  • Japan has neither "justification nor a qualification" to insert itself in the issue of its paranoid, totalitarian neighbor -- the neighbor that has launched a ballistic missile over it -- acquiring nuclear weapons.
  • The US and the IAEA "compelled" North Korea, a "victim" in this situation, to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
  • North Korea's past abductions of Japanese citizens are "already settled... and unimportant issues which carry no great significance." Meanwhile, Japan must compensate North Korea for its "past crimes."
  • Japan will "pay a very high price" if it continues to act in disagreement with North Korea on the issue of North Korea's withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Note that this comes on the heels of an obvious effort by the US to deescalate the war of words.

Assuming rational, self-interested decision-making on the part of the North Koreans -- the use of the nuclear issue to make diplomatic, economic, and security gains -- it would seem that they have decided to push this issue much closer to the brink than might have been anticipated in an effort to maximize their return. In other words, if they have the US backing down, offering previously denied concessions, why shouldn't they keep pushing until they're absolutely convinced no more concessions will be offered and an attack could be imminent?

January 29, 2003

Super Bowl Commercials

USA Today's list of the most popular Super Bowl commercials can be found here.

  1. Anheuser-Busch: Football-playing Clydesdales turn to zebra referee to review call on replay.
  2. Anheuser-Busch: Guy sidesteps "no pets" rule at bar by using his dog as a hairdo.
  3. Pepsi/Sierra Mist: Zoo baboon catapults to cool off in a nearby polar bear pool.
  4. Anheuser-Busch: Strongman contest to lift fridge of Bud Light hijacked by fans.
  5. Anheuser-Busch: Buddy warns guy his fiancée will look like her mother in 20 years.
  6. Reebok: Terry Tate, "Office Linebacker," enforces office rules with gusto.
  7. Pepsi/Sierra Mist: Dog cools its master with fire hydrant blast.
  8. Anheuser-Busch: Beer drinker in clown suit grosses out bar patrons.
  9. Pfizer/Trident: Fifth dentist from Trident's "four out of five dentists" claim is bitten by a squirrel.
  10. Anheuser-Busch: Beachgoer's pickup line with conch shell bites him back.
Looking at the list, what is so obviously striking is the dominance of commercials for beer and soda. In the latter case, Pepsi is heavily promoting a new brand in a crowded and undifferentiated product category. In the former case, Anheuser-Busch is promoting two brands -- Budweiser and Bud Light -- that represent the nadir in quality of their product categories. If they didn't advertise their beers so heavily, sales would drop precipitously, because -- let's be honest here -- very few people drink them for the taste (and God help those who do). In other words, the lower the quality or the less differentiated one's product, the more reliant one becomes on advertising. Done right, it works, but it's the most expensive method of promotion available.

At the Super Bowl party I attended, the consensus opinion was that it was a weak year for commercials. Combined with a laugher of a game, the event was a disappointment this year. Given the good games we've had in most recent years, and the good runs of commercials, I suppose we were due for a letdown at some point.

January 28, 2003

"This is the Worst President Ever"

Via Radio Free Blogistan, Helen Thomas, White House correspondent since, hmmm, forever, on our current president:

As veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas signed my program Thursday evening at the Society of Professional Journalists' annual awards banquet, I said, "First time I ever asked a reporter for an autograph."

"Thank you, dear," she said, patting my arm. "Don't lose heart." ...

As she signed my program, I joked, "You sound worried."

"This is the worst president ever," she said. "He is the worst president in all of American history."

The woman who has known eight of them wasn't joking.

This shouldn't come as a complete shock. Thomas has already written and spoken of her concerns about the Bush administration.

Liberals will see this as the wisdom of a legendary reporter who has made it her business to know eight presidents. Conservatives will see it as the senile rambling of an elderly laughingstock. As for me, being neither, I'm still considering it.

January 27, 2003

"So, Are You For or Against the War in Iraq?"

Before Joi Ito left for Davos last week, we spent some time together on the phone. We had been talking shop for half an hour or so when the following exchange occurred:

Joi: Okay, that takes care of business. So, are you for or against the war in Iraq?

Me: Is that like asking, "Do you still beat your wife?"

This led to another half-hour conversational thread. That discussion wasn't on the record, so I won't reproduce it here. I will say, though, that Joi led me to do a great deal of thinking about the possible war in Iraq. He has been quite open about his opposition to this war, so it's not revealing anything to say that he still holds that position (or at least did a few days ago; seeing Colin Powell speak seems to be influencing his thinking) and is making me consider my position carefully as a result.

January 26, 2003

The Golden Rule and Pedestrians

Along High House Road in Cary -- a larger town next to Apex, where I live -- is a row of Christian churches, from the merely large to the super-size. Having just gone running along the sidewalk that fronts the churches, all I can say is that regardless of religion, when it comes time to high-tail it out after the service, clearly the Golden Rule doesn't extend to looking to the right for pedestrians while making a left turn out of the parking lot.

"They Could Have Checked My Records"

I'm not generally a fan of lawsuits, but were I the woman in this story from the Seattle Times, I'd be suing, too:

A Tacoma woman with an incurable brain tumor has sued Walgreen Co., saying that when she arrived to pick up her painkiller prescription one day, a pharmacist had her arrested.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Pierce County Superior Court, Shannon O'Brien, 35, said she went to the drive-up window at a Walgreen Drug Store two blocks from her home in Tacoma's north end last July 7. The pharmacist on duty thought she had faked her Percocet prescription and called police, the lawsuit stated.

"I was in hysterics -- crying, very upset and very embarrassed," O'Brien said Thursday. "They could have checked my records. I've had the same medicine every month." ...

According to the lawsuit, when the pharmacist called the University of Washington Medical Center's neurosurgery department to ask about it, he was told that O'Brien's doctor, Alexander Spence, was unavailable, so the prescription couldn't be confirmed right away.

That's when the pharmacist called Tacoma police, the lawsuit said. O'Brien was still sitting in her car at the drive-up window when they arrived...

Her lawyer eventually succeeded in getting the felony prescription-fraud charge dropped -- after her doctor provided confirming information to the Pierce County prosecutor's office.

On what planet does, "I'm sorry, the doctor is unavailable to confirm the prescription" lead immediately to "This person needs to be arrested"?

The Pierce County Superior Court page on the case can be found here.

January 25, 2003

Life Imitates Blogs

The other day, I wrote about the intersection of adventure writing and blogging, using a hypothetical blog written during a disaster on Mount Everest as my example. Now, via Xeni Jardin comes a story in the New York Times on the movement to establish a permanent Internet connection to the Everest base camp:

IF the 25-below-zero temperature, howling wind and grim effects of altitude sickness do not make most of those trying to scale Mount Everest feel a world away from home, the near-complete lack of communications on and around Everest surely does.

This year, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary's first ascent of Everest, climbers on the mountain will have the chance to connect with the world below by e-mail. That is because Tsering Gyaltsen, the grandson of the only surviving Sherpa to have accompanied Hillary on that famed climb, is planning to build the world's highest Internet cafe at base camp.

Soon it will be possible to blog from anywhere. In fact, as far as I know, one could already blog from Everest via an Iridium phone equipped with a data kit -- it would just be expensive and slow (2.4 kbit/s).

January 24, 2003

"These Animals... Showed They Are Worthy of Being Followed"

From the BBC, unusual penguin behavior at San Francisco Zoo:

Penguins have become involved in a marathon swimming session at San Francisco Zoo.

Feathers appear to have been ruffled when six new birds were introduced to the colony in November.

The newcomers from Ohio took to the pool immediately and the other 46 joined in.

But instead of occasional dips, the penguins started swimming frenzied laps of the pool from dawn to dusk.

Nothing has deterred the birds: when zookeepers drained the pool for cleaning, they simply jumped in and waddled around the bottom.

Some experts believe the arrival of new birds from Ohio may have confused the existing colony of Magellan penguins.

One theory is that they are trying to migrate as penguins would in the wild.

Magellans typically travel up to 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometres) in search of food, but captive birds have not shown this type of behaviour before.

Another possible explanation is that the new birds set an example to be followed by the others in their repeated laps of the 130-foot (40-metre) long pool.

Ian Hiler of the Audobon Aquarium of the Americas told the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper: "Usually there are one or two dominant birds.

"Somehow these animals came up and showed they are worthy of being followed."

Keeper Jane Tollini has looked after penguins for 18 years, but she is baffled by the apparently bird-brained behaviour.

"The minute the six hit the pool, not only did they get in the pool and stay there, they convinced the other birds to do likewise," she said.

Six penguins arrive at one zoo from another and convince their 46 new companions to follow them around the pool continuously during daylight hours. It's an interesting phenomenon. How did the new penguins communicate their intent? What was it that led the other penguins to begin following them?

January 23, 2003

The Economist on Copyright

The Economist weighs in with an article on copyright and the Internet:

Digital technology... is reducing the cost of publishing and distributing works to almost zero, which should be a boon for creative people, but has also made the unauthorised copying of works virtually costless and, more important, perfect. In retrospect, the copyright balancing act ["between the public's access to new ideas and the incentive to creators to produce and publish them"] has survived only because of the imperfections of earlier copying methods.

Content industries want to respond by abandoning the idea of balance altogether. Through a combination of software encryption and new hardware, known as Digital Rights Management (DRM), they want to make digital copying of their work impossible without their permission. They also want a legal framework that allows them to enforce and protect their rights. For them, intellectual property is property, pure and simple.

The article goes on to pose a number of intriguing questions:

What would happen if the content industries, through a combination of law and technology, were to achieve total copyright protection of their works? Oddly enough, this might not be as comfortable for them as they believe, nor as disastrous for the public as their critics fear, for two reasons. First, one of the most startling things about the internet has been the vast volume of free content that it immediately made available, and that has continued to grow by leaps and bounds. Not everyone wants to get rich from creative work. Millions of people seem more intent on reaching an audience than generating revenue, and do not need the incentive of copyright protection to create something. They include some established writers, artists, musicians and film makers, as well as legions of wannabes.

Second, digital technology is not only making it easier to copy and distribute content, but also to generate it. This is true even of the most expensive medium of all, movies. If content industries overplay their hand, they could end up alienating and losing much of their audience. They are, after all, only intermediaries between creators and consumers. The public may not be willing to tolerate the control of their behaviour that DRM schemes would impose. People may accept copy protections on some products, but are likely to refuse to buy machines which make it hard to copy content in the public domain.

Conversely, what would happen if copyright were to be abolished entirely, as many cyber-libertarians advocate? Again, this might not prove as liberating as they hope, at least in the short term. Content industries would be unlikely to realise their threat to withhold their products from the digital marketplace. Instead, they might digitise everything as fast as possible, but rely more than ever on technological rather than legal protection. In any race with hackers trying to break through encryption barriers, the media companies would probably stay far enough ahead to suppress most piracy. Governments might do more to criminalise attempts to break these barriers, as Congress did in passing the DMCA. But even if they balked at this, they would be unlikely ever to ban the erection of such barriers.

In this scenario, the most commercial books, music and movies would remain behind a pay barrier. "Fair use" of these would be lost, unless granted by the creator, and copies that consumers could make for private use would be tightly controlled. It is true that, without legal backing, this control would endure only as long as the copy protection withstood technological advances, but content providers would probably also experiment with business models other than outright sale, such as subscription and advertising.

Ironically, these two outcomes seem rather similar. So is the debate about copyright irrelevant? Eventually, perhaps. But first there will be constant warfare between those who see copyright protection as a threat to the new digital world, and those who see that world as a threat to their wallets. Certainly, the content industries are likely to experience the most upheaval. They may be able to retard the growth of copying on the internet for a time, but they cannot hold back the advance of technology altogether. This will undermine their existing business models, based as they are on print, analogue broadcasting and the sale of physical products such as compact discs. Even if the "total copyright protection" scenario sketched above prevails, content providers will have to reinvent themselves. But whatever happens, creativity is unlikely to grind to a halt. The show must go on.

It's a good point to be made. Singers sing. Painters paint. Writers write. Art has survived millennia of societal, technological, and cultural changes, many far more radical than those posed by the Internet. Will Universal or Bertelsmann exist a century from now? Perhaps. If they do survive, wiill they exist in anything like their current form? Probably not. But irrespective of this, we will be listening to new music, and reading new writing.

There were neither neither agents nor promoters, neither copyright law nor copy protection at Lascaux. There was simply the creative impulse. It is a fundamental, undying truth of the human existence.

The City of Brotherly Love

From a pre-Super Bowl article by Peter King:

I think there's one thing I forgot to tell you from Philadelphia. As I left the Veterans Stadium turf for the last time and approached the tunnel to walk up to the Eagles' locker room, a fan who had imbibed approximately 17 shots of Jagermeister rained this down on me: "HEY KING! YOU F

January 22, 2003

Blogging Into Thin Air

Following up on my previous blog entry...

The typical non-fiction adventure book is written either:

  1. A participant who is not an author, or
  2. An author who was not a participant
In the first case, we overlook the writing lapses and read because of the author's personal experience. In the second case, we overlook the absence of first-person narrative and read because of the author's writing and researching skills. Ideally, though, adventure books are written by great authors who participate in the events they chronicle. This is rare enough, but rarer still is when a great author participates in adventure drama of the highest sort and lives to write about it. This is exactly what led to Jon Krakauer's masterpiece Into Thin Air. From a review of the book by the late nature photographer Galen Rowell:
Jon Krakauer... was a client on a 1996 expedition [to Mount Everest] that made headlines around the world as members paying $65,000 each perished with their guides. An extremely accomplished climber. Mr. Krakauer joined the expedition as a journalist. His epic of tragic lust, Into Thin Air ranks among the great adventure books of all time...

Since the tragedy was reported in real time by satellite phone, the book resembles "All the President's Men" more than a mystery novel. Its remarkable narrative power and lurking problems are both due to journalism by a key participant...

Krakauer... deserves to emerge as a hero instead of a character compromised by guilt over what he might have done differently. He truly seized the moment and used a unique combination of skills to survive climbing Everest in appalling conditions and to write a book of rare eloquence and power that could remain relevant for centuries.

What does all this have to do with blogging?

Blogging is inherently attractive to many (though not all) journalists. It offers the ability to tell the rest of the story -- the nine-tenths of the material that didn't make it into the published work. As blogging grows, it's reasonable to expect that more and more journalists will take it up, including some of the world's best. At some point, chance will result in the intersection of a great journalist, a dramatic event, and mobile blogging. When that happens, blogging's prominence in popular culture will skyrocket.

Imagine that Krakauer had and used blogging tools on his expedition to Everest. It's a reasonable assumption if blogging had come into existence five or six years ahead of schedule. Would Krakauer have continued to write and upload blog entries during the midst of the crisis? My hunch is yes. Authors want to be read, and everyone would have been reading what he was writing. To be sure, "intothinair.blogspot.com" would have been a very different work than either Krakauer's Outside article or his book, which involved increasing amounts of introspection. A blog of the events would have been raw and immediate, without the reflective qualties of his printed works. But it would have had its own unique power.

This is going to happen soon -- within five years at the most.

RTP Bloggers Lunch

I was fortunate enough to attend my first lunch with the RTP Bloggers group this past Monday (sorry for the delay in posting this). It was great to be able to sit down with people who share the same interest in blogging techniques, tools, and trends.

Here's a good chunk of the group:

This particular lunch was unique in that we were joined by Karen Mann, who's writing an article on blogging for the Raleigh News and Observer. Here's Karen discussing the finer points of blogging with Mark Pilgrim:

As can be expected, some of the bloggers there have covered the event:

In his entry, Dave wrote:
Frank was eager to answer the reporters questions about the future of blogging. Frank believes that blogging, or more accurately moblogging, will become pervasive. Blog entries will be shorter, often just pictures, or video snippets. Sony Blogman, right Joi? Frank also believes that, within five years, a talented author will blog some major event and the whole world will tune in... think Into Thin Air except written real-time by a moblogger. I'm not sure if those ideas are all Frank's or not, but I'm subscribing to Frank for more stuff like that.
Are those ideas mine? Well, "Sony Blogman" didn't come from me, but other than that, yes. Now that I've been outed, I have to write more about these memes while they're still fresh. I'll tackle the Into Thin Air idea first.

Anyway, as I said, it was great to meet so many people who share common interests... and who themselves are quite interesting. Thanks for having me as part of the group!

January 21, 2003

"More Go"

I haven't laughed this hard in a long time.

Windows users, download this. Mac OS users, download this. If the direct links fail, go to Nike's running site here. Click on the Nike Shox NZ icon. Click on Learn More. Click on Commercials.

For best effect, watch it more than once. It gets funnier and funnier.

Enjoy.

January 20, 2003

Roll-Overs and SUVs

From a story in the Economist this week:

SUVs [are being attacked] for their poor safety record from the head of America's road-safety body. Jeffrey Runge, a former emergency-room physician who became administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2001, said this week that roll-over crashes accounted for 3% of car accidents in America but 32% of deaths. SUVs' occupants are three times more likely to die from their vehicle rolling over than are the occupants of saloon cars. In 2001, there was a 22% increase in roll-over accidents.

Car companies have long known that one reason why customers choose chunky SUVs and pick-ups is that they feel they are safer in such vehicles. The companies also know that this widespread belief is nonsense. It is true that large cars are safer than small ones for the occupants. But large cars which do not have a particular propensity to roll over are inherently safer than SUVs.

I drive a compact SUV, the Ford Escape. I bought it while living in Seattle -- I wanted a relatively inexpensive car with four-wheel drive for heading up to the ski slopes. Here in North Carolina, it's rare that I engage the four-wheel drive, but when I do, I feel safer. Could it be that my passengers and I are generally less safe in an SUV?

January 19, 2003

The Eric Eldred Act

Larry Lessig has a great idea (found via boing boing): levy a "tiny tax" on copyrights after 50 years. If the tax isn't paid, copyright lapses and the work moves into the public domain. Excellent.

Larry's blog entry on the topic.

Larry's New York Times op-ed on the idea.

A FAQ on the "Eric Eldred Act".

January 18, 2003

Coherence in Personal Choice

In an article on abortion in America, the Economist writes:

Republicans usually oppose government regulation in the name of free choice. Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, even goes so far as to call the Republicans the "leave-us-alone coalition". But on the most sensitive subject of all -- reproductive rights -- conservatives are now on the side of government control. The Democrats are no more coherent: a party that will do anything to protect a woman's right to choose an abortion will not support her right to choose a public school for her child.
Compare this with a blog entry I wrote last month.

January 17, 2003

"An Indifference to Life"

Last week, the New York Times ran a series of articles, "Dangerous Business," on "McWane Inc., a privately held company based in Birmingham, Ala... one of the most dangerous employers in America." One of the articles in the series, "At a Texas Foundry, an Indifference to Life", focused on Tyler Pipe of Tyler, Texas, a pipe foundry whose former owners, owners, the Tyler Corporation, "were conventionally paternalistic. They distributed turkeys at Christmas and door prizes at the annual employee barbecue." Then in 1995, Tyler Corporation sold Tyler Pipe to McWane, and its descent into Hell began. Anecdotes told in the story range from the demeaning to the unimaginable:

On June 29, 2000, in his second month on the job, [48 year-old master electrician Rolan] Hoskin descended into a deep pit under a huge molding machine and set to work on an aging, balky conveyor belt that carried sand. Federal rules require safety guards on conveyor belts to prevent workers from getting caught and crushed. They also require belts to be shut down when maintenance is done on them.

But this belt was not shut down, federal records show. Nor was it protected by metal safety guards. That very night, Mr. Hoskin had been trained to adjust the belt while it was still running. Less downtime that way, the men said. Now it was about 4 a.m., and Mr. Hoskin was alone in the cramped, dark pit. The din was deafening, the footing treacherous under heavy drifts of black sand.

He was found on his knees. His left arm had been crushed first, the skin torn off. His head had been pulled between belt and rollers. His skull had split...

It was not just a conveyor belt that claimed Mr. Hoskin's life that warm summer night. He also fell victim to a way of doing business that has produced vast profits and, as the plant's owners have admitted in federal court, deliberate indifference to the safety of workers at Tyler Pipe...

Since 1995, at least 4,600 injuries have been recorded in McWane foundries, many hundreds of them serious ones, company documents show. Nine workers, including Mr. Hoskin, have been killed. McWane plants, which employ about 5,000 workers, have been cited for more than 400 federal health and safety violations, far more than their six major competitors combined...

The story of Tyler Pipe, drawn from company and government documents and interviews with dozens of current and former workers and managers, is a case study in the application of the McWane way. It is the anatomy of a workplace where, federal officials and employees say, nearly everything -- safety programs, environmental controls, even the smallest federally mandated precautions that might have kept Rolan Hoskin alive -- has been subordinated to production, to the commandment to keep the pipe rolling off the line...

In late 1995, the Tyler Corporation sold the foundry to McWane. In one stroke, McWane had bought one of its main rivals and acquired its largest plant.

Within weeks, senior executives flew in from Birmingham and set about executing a plan of stunning audacity: Over the next two years, they cut nearly two-thirds of the employees, yet insisted that production continue apace. They eliminated quality control inspectors and safety inspectors, pollution control personnel and relief workers, cleaning crews and maintenance workers...

Even the most basic amenities did not survive. The barbecues and 401(k) plan were easy enough targets. But items like soap, medicated skin cream and hand towels were eliminated from the plant stockroom as unnecessary "luxuries," company records show. If they were available at all, they had to be specially ordered with approval from top managers.

Several workers said they were told by their bosses to bring their own toilet tissue. Near the cupola, managers rationed crushed ice for the workers' drinks, company records show. Out by the loading docks, they eliminated portable heaters used by forklift drivers to warm up in winter. "We do not provide comfort heat for individual employees," Dick Stoker, the works manager, explained in a memorandum.

Restrictions were placed on safety equipment. Protective aprons, safety boots and face shields were no longer stocked and readily available. Heavy, heat-resistant $17 gloves were replaced by $2 cloth ones. As a result, workers wrapped their hands in duct tape to protect from burns...

Morale plummeted, but profits soared. Senior managers say they were told that Tyler Pipe earned more than $50 million in 1996 -- double the reported profits for the five-year period before McWane arrived...

On Jan. 22, 1997, [a] maintenance worker, Ira Cofer, descended alone into a machine pit. "Downsizing had ended the earlier practice of entering the pits with a buddy," OSHA investigators later wrote. When Mr. Cofer's sleeve snagged in an unguarded conveyor belt, he struggled desperately to free himself. It was nearly three hours before his screams were heard.

"Eyewitnesses said that the friction of the belt had sanded his arm away, so that even his elbow joint was worn smooth and flat," investigators wrote.

Mr. Cofer's arm had to be amputated.

This sort of thing is one of the reasons I'm no longer a libertarian. Relying on freedom of choice to constrain the more brutal tendencies of the marketplace sounds like a good idea when you're writing thought pieces, and I can imagine societal and technological changes that might make it work. The world we live in today, however, precludes such ideas.

If you emasculate safety regulations and the people who enforce them, then some businesses will take advantage of the change by decreasing worker safety. A significant segment of society, with relatively few skills and low wage prospects, will feel compelled to work for such employers even at immense risk to themselves. To write off whatever happens as a result to personal choice -- to say the workers freely decided to take the jobs they did and so bear responsibility for what happened to them -- is the kind of philosophy that may be true at a theoretical level, but is nothing short of ludicrous in the real world.

January 16, 2003

Blogs = Inconsistency Detection Tools

Dave Winer on Larry Lessig five months ago:

Lessig asks "What have we done about it?" in re technology patents. Here's what we can do and are doing. Develop new ideas and don't patent them. That's the most any developer can do. How about a conservancy for developers who don't take patents. Get people intellectual credit for their creations to balance the proprietary credit they are not demanding. Lessig is so damned irritating. He says "We've not done anything yet." Arrrrgh. Incorrect. He's not done anything yet. Perhaps his friends haven't done anything yet. Does Dr Lessig understand technology any better than Rep Coble?
Dave Winer on Larry Lessig today:
It's like a thing of nature, watch a natural-born blogger find his voice. The Supreme Court will have to stand by you and me someday. The executive branch of the US government will eventually do what China does. A few more loops and we'll be there. All roads lead to that. We will be within our rights, in every way. The First Amendment will protect what we do. The Sonny Bono law will seem like a small thing. Then, we will be very glad to have a highly principled constitutional scholar who hasn't sold out on our side -- and that's you Professor Lessig, in case you haven't figured that out yet.
Five months ago, Lessig was "so damned irritating," hadn't "done anything yet," and perhaps didn't "understand technology any better than [Representative Howard] Coble." Now he's a "natural-born blogger" and a "highly principled constitutional scholar." Hmph.

The Black Armband is Gone...

...but not forgotten.

As for the future, Larry Lessig is on to something:

It has often been said that movements gain by losing in the Supreme Court. Some feminists say it would have been better to lose Roe, because that would have built a movement in response. I have often wondered whether it would ever be possible to lose a case and yet smell victory in the defeat. I'm not yet convinced it's possible. But if there is any good that might come from my loss, let it be the anger and passion that now gets to swell against the unchecked power that the Supreme Court has said Congress has. When the Free Software Foundation, Intel, Phillis Schlafly, Milton Friedman, Ronald Coase, Kenneth Arrow, Brewster Kahle, and hundreds of creators and innovators all stand on one side saying, "this makes no sense," then it makes no sense. Let that be enough to move people to do something about it. Our courts will not.
I, for one, am far more aware of and passionate about this issue than I was six months ago. I owe that to Professor Lessig.

The Onion Nails It

From The Onion, Bush On North Korea: 'We Must Invade Iraq':

WASHINGTON, DC--With concern over North Korea's nuclear capabilities growing, President Bush reassured the American people Monday that "extreme force" will be used to remove Saddam Hussein from power if the Iraqi president fails to give up suspected weapons of mass destruction.

"For years, Kim Jong Il has acted in blatant disregard of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation Of Nuclear Weapons, and last week, he rejected it outright," Bush told reporters after a National Security Council meeting on North Korea. "We cannot allow weapons of mass destruction to remain in the hands of volatile, unpredictable leaders. Which is exactly why we must act quickly and decisively against Saddam Hussein." ...

"North Korea has a full-scale nuclear program underway, one which may even now have the capability of striking the western U.S.," Bush said. "Even more alarming, Iraq is actively trying to scrounge up enough money to buy something nuclear on the black market, ideally something that can fly through the air." ...

At a Jan. 10 press conference, Bush had strong words for the North Korean dictator.

"Kim Jong Il, you have withdrawn from international nuclear treaties and cruelly starved your own people," Bush said. "The world at large will not let your evil deeds go unchallenged. Someone, somewhere will hold you accountable, sooner or later. I do not know who this person is, but somebody will."

This is so close to the truth it's scary. Funny, but scary.

January 15, 2003

This Blog is in Mourning

boing boing is in mourning after the Eldred v. Ashcroft decision:

This blog will be wearing a black arm-band for the next day in mourning for our shared cultural heritage, as the Library of Alexandria burns anew.
Thanks for a great idea, Cory.

Damn

Via Slashdot, Disney wins in Eldred v. Ashcroft.

Mark your calendars for 2018, when Disney will be back before Congress arguing for another extension.

The Chameleonic Mac

From MacCentral, a story on the so-called "chameleonic Mac."

The shape of things to come perhaps: An iMac that glows in a variety of different colors depending on what you like or what's happening in the box. The United States Patent & Trademark Office has noted Apple's application for a patent for something the company calls an Active enclosure for computing device. As described, the technology might make future Macs change their appearance using a light effect...

This patent could lead the way for Apple to provide iMacs or other computers tinted using light itself -- either in a single color or "a plurality of colors."

Through dense technical and legal language, the requested patent apparently calls for what Apple calls "chameleonic" computers to be built using "an illuminable housing," using a light source comprising Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs). The housing would also contain "a light pipe" used to distribute illumination to spots within the computer's chassis.

The invention goes beyond just changing your iMac's color to suit its surroundings, however. Apple also describes a potentially useful application for its "active enclosure:" Showing you what's going on inside the box. Apple said that its technology could adapt to display input and output, for example. Or, the chameleon Mac could change color to let you know that a specific task or event was taking place.

It's more than just colors, too. Apple said that "dynamic light effects," are possible too, like rainbows, stripes, dots, and flowers, for example. You could turn your Mac into a lava lamp.

This could be just an interesting idea that has been patented as a precaution, or it could be indicative of Apple's future plans in chassis design. If the latter, one can imagine some pretty cool effects.

January 14, 2003

"Both Entrees Taste Exactly the Same"

From Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback column yesterday:

Aggravating/Enjoyable Travel Note of the Week

Flight attendant announcement 34 minutes into United Flight 81 from Newark to San Francisco Friday morning:

"Good morning ladies and gentlemen. It will be our pleasure once we reach a comfortable cruising altitude to serve you breakfast this morning. Our choices are a cheese omelet and a Belgian waffle. Because it is not possible for us to board exactly as many of each meal as we may need, we apologize in advance if your first choice is not available. Please do not be upset, however, as both entrees taste exactly the same."

Oh, man, have I been there.

January 13, 2003

Answering Scot Hacker on Violence in Games

Scot Hacker asks the following question in his blog today:

Quite a bit of interesting discussion tagged onto the end of my Unreal Tournament post. Without trying further to identify ambiguous forces like "the cause of violence in America" (note that I never said "the cause" but only implied that it was undoubtedly a cause), I want to ask an honest question of everyone who thinks it's acceptable for children to play violent video games:

What's worse: Rape or murder?

If you think murder is worse and you let your kids play games that involve pretending to murder humans or humanoids by the hundreds, then surely you would have no objection to a video game where your character ran around raping women or girls, right?

Those of you who have posted here in defense of murder games: I would very much like to hear your defense of rape games, and to learn why you intend to let your children play them.

I respect Scot enough to take his question seriously and answer him here. I'll set aside the fundamental premise that video games are "a cause" of violence in America -- I don't agree with that, but I don't think it's germane to the discussion at hand.

Though both are despicable acts, I think murder is worse than rape.

However, it is important to note that while killing people is sometimes not defined as murder, forcible sex is always considered rape. In other words, while there are circumstances -- war, self-defense, and so on -- in which the killing of others is considered by most people to be acceptable behavior, there is never a circumstance in which forcible sex is anything other than a horrific crime. Therefore, while it is perfectly possible to create games in which killing is a reasonable activity, it would never be possible to do so for rape.

I'll also point out that the game which started this -- Unreal Tournament -- has players instantly jump back into the action after being "killed." Given this, can it really be said to depict murder? If so, it's an extremely unrealistic form of it, bearing little relation to murder in the real world.

Memo to Microsoft R&D

On Slashdot, a funny comment on the TiVo-adopts-Rendezvous press release I blogged the other day:

From: billg@microsoft.com To: Research and Development

I don't pay the two of you in R&D to play Quake all day! Find out what this Rendezvous is and copy it! I'll prepare a hot press release announcing it today. Be ready to ship by 2006.

Thanks,

Bill

Heh heh...

January 12, 2003

US and Canadian Budgets: Doing the Math

Via Plastic, a story on the contrast between the US and Canadian economies:

Considering how tightly linked the U.S. and Canadian economies are, U.S. economic troubles must be dragging the Canadian economy down too, right? Wrong," NH4 writes. "As mass layoffs continue in the U.S., Canada enjoyed record employment growth in 2002. As U.S. consumer confidence continues to drop, Canadian consumer confidence is rising. And the day after U.S. President Bush announced a $670 billion package of tax cuts ostensibly designed to stimulate the flagging U.S. economy, Canadian Finance Minister John Manley announced that the Canadian federal government would have a Cdn$8.7 billion surplus in 2002-2003, with the surplus rising to Cdn$11.2 billion in 2003-2004. By comparison, the U.S. ran a $159 billion deficit in 2002 and a record merchandise trade deficit of $222.1 billion in the first half of 2002. The U.S. trade deficit is on track to break the 2000 record of $436.1 billion, especially with oil prices rising.
Why the difference in the budget numbers? Here's a thought:

From Statistics Canada, Canada's population in 2001 was 31,002,200. From the US Census Bureau, the US population in 2001 was 285,317,559. From the Canadian Forces, the defense budgets for the US and Canada in 2001 were USD$310.5 billion and USD$7.3 billion respectively. Doing the math, in 2001, Canada spent USD$235 per capita on defense, while the US spent USD$1,088 per capita.

Had Canada spent at the US rate of USD$1,088 per capita, their total defense budget would have been USD$33,730,393,600, or CDN$52,315,840,473. Projecting forward into 2002-3, instead of a CDN$8.7 billion surplus, Canada would have run a deficit of CDN$43.6 billion. Had the US spent at the Canadian rate of USD$235 per capita, their total defense budget would have been USD$67,049,626,365. Projecting forward into 2002, instead of a USD$159 billion deficit, the US would have run a surplus of USD$84.5 billion.

Per the Canadian Forces, the 2001 US defense budget was 2.9 percent of GDP, while Canada's was 1.1 percent of GDP.

Is Canada spending too little? I blogged in November about the Canadian Coast Guard running out of money to replace uniforms. The presently impassable Northwest Passage could become navigable within a dozen years, and it's not at all clear that Canada can defend its territorial claims there.

On the other hand, is the US spending too much? For $310 billion per year -- projected to rise to $379 billion this year -- what are we getting for our money? Are we secure as a nation? What anticipated threats exist that require such expenditures? Is our military designed to deal with the problems of today's world? How, for example, is our military might serving to resolve the crisis on the Korean peninsula?

January 11, 2003

"TiVo is God's Machine"

Via Slashdot, FCC chairman Michael Powell calls TiVo "God's Machine":

"My favorite product that I got for Christmas is TiVo," FCC chairman Michael Powell said during a question and answer session at the International Consumer Electronics Show. "TiVo is God's machine."

If Powell's enthusiasm for digital recordings of TV broadcasts are reflected in FCC rulings, the entertainment industry could find it difficult to push in Washington its agenda for technical restrictions on making and sharing such recordings.

Powell said he intended to use the TiVo machine to record TV shows to play on other television sets in his home, and even suggested that he might share recordings with his sister if she were to miss a favorite show.

"I'd like to move it to other TVs," he said of his digitally recorded programming. A number of products already allow that.

A TiVo competitor, SONICblue, has been sued by top motion picture studios and some television networks over a ReplayTV device that enables users to share digitally recorded shows over the Internet with a limited group of fellow ReplayTV owners.

If Michael Powell gets the religion on why freedom of recording and playback is important, we could all win. It's one thing to work at a government agency and listen sympathetically as Jack "Boom Boom" Valenti talks about how he fought for civil rights with Lyndon Johnson and how his industry will be destroyed by the Internet. It's another to go home and realize that while all you want to do is to use your DVR like a VCR -- watch shows at another time, or in another room of the house -- that's precisely the sort of legal and reasonable activity Valenti's film industry and their counterparts in the television business want to stop.

TiVo at CES

TiVo had a slew of announcements at CES:

As a devoted TiVo owner who nevertheless sees room for improvement, here's the feature set that would make me buy a new TiVo:
  • HDTV support. I don't know when I'll have HDTV, but I want my next DVR to be ready for it.
  • Integrated DVD-R. I want to be able to burn shows onto DVD-Rs for long-term storage. Ideally, I'd like to the ability to instruct my TiVo to notify me when it has a DVD-R's worth of a single show -- e.g., "The episodes of America's Test Kitchen now stored will fill up a DVD. Create a DVD-R with these episodes and then delete them from the hard drive?"
  • Remote Web-based scheduling. Of course.
  • Integrated Ethernet port. I shouldn't have to buy an extra USB add-on to get Ethernet.
  • Media playback. Music, photographs, and videos.
I'm salivating for this. The pieces are coming into place...

January 10, 2003

Was Hitchcock Right?

From an article in National Geographic News:

Soaring seagull populations are proving a serious headache in urban Britain. Noise, mess, and the threat of physical attack have prompted a range of measures aimed at repelling the winged invaders. But as efforts to curb them fail, the gulls get ever more aggressive.

The last two summers have seen a spate of seagull-related incidents.

An 80-year-old Welshman had a fatal heart attack after being swooped on by the birds. In southwest England, a woman was rushed to the hospital with deep beak wounds to her head, and a pet dog was pecked to death. A preschool in Scotland had to hire falconers armed with hawks to safeguard its children.

Across Britain these apparent outbreaks of bird rage are on the increase. London postmen refused to deliver mail to a usually quiet street following attacks by what one resident described as a "slightly psycho herring gull."

Sound familiar?

January 09, 2003

Mafia the Parlor Game

An article on the parlor game Mafia here, and a set of rules here.

I'd like to set up a game of this. If I do, I'll report on it here.

January 08, 2003

Maneki Neko Pooh

One of my birthday gifts from my kids (with much gracious help from their mom) was a maneki neko (beckoning cat) Pooh bear. One can't help but love the intersection of Japanese and Western pop culture.

(It can't be seen from this angle, but Pooh is wearing a maneki neko costume with the face mask pulled back on his head.)

From an article on the topic:

The maneki neko (MAH-nay-kee NAY-ko), or beckoning cat, is an ancient Japanese good luck charm. Though its roots are buried as far back as the Edo era (1603 - 1868), the maneki neko still exists today in pop culture and business...

A maneki neko just isn't a maneki neko if at least one paw isn't raised. A raised left paw invites people or customers while a raised right paw invites money or good luck. The height of the paw is also significant -- the higher the paw, the more luck or people it invites..

According to ancient legend, there was once a poor priest who owned a temple, but could no longer afford to keep it open. The owner let his pet cat, Tama, go in search of a better home, since her current one was to be abandoned. (Other versions of this legend state that the priest kept Tama despite his poverty, but asked the cat to help him.) One day, the lord of the Hikone district, Naotaka Ii, passed by the temple during a fierce rainstorm. Taking shelter under a nearby tree, he spotted a cat, her left paw raised in a beckoning gesture. Curious about the cat, he followed Tama to the entrance of the temple. At that moment, lightning struck the tree, causing it to fall where the man had previously been standing. Grateful to Tama for saving his life, Naotaka Ii became friends with the priest and appointed it the Ii family temple, renaming it Goutokuji. Supported by the Ii clan, Goutokuji became very properous temple. Clay statues which would become the maneki neko were crafted in honor and admiration of Tama. She was buried in a special cemetary after she died. The statues can be seen at the Goutokuji temple in Tokyo to this day.

So the next time you're in a Japanese restaurant, you'll know the meaning of that cat.

January 07, 2003

The Department of "Homeland Arithmetic"

Via Xeni Jardin and boing boing, a story on The Edge's annual question for its community, a hypothetical request by President Bush, "What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"

Marvin Minsky's letter is the shortest:

Mr. President:

My idea is that the whole "Homeland Defense" thing is too cost-ineffective to be plausible. The lifetime cost of, for example, preventing each airplane-crash fatality will be the order of $100,000,000 -- and we could save a thousand times as many lives at the same cost by various simple public-health measures.

Conclusion: what we really need is a "Homeland Arithmetic" reorganization.

Yours truly,

Marvin Minsky
Mathematician and computer scientist
Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences; Cofounder of Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
MIT
Author of eight books, including The Society of Mind.

I'd be curious to see the details of Minsky's argument. How can we know the cost of preventing fatalities when we don't know how many fatalities we prevent? If the Department of Homeland Security prevents wave after wave of planned airplane-based attacks, then the number Minsky cites could be far too high. On the other hand, if there would never be another 9/11-style attack even without the Department of Homeland Security, then the cost per prevented fatality would rise to infinity.

An obvious counter-argument is the preventioin of the use of weapons of mass destruction. Imagine that a terrorist would like to set off a nuclear device in New York, killing, say, two million people. Assuming the entire first-year budget of the Department of Homeland Security goes to prevent this (assigning the entire budget to this tilts the numbers in Minsky's favor), then the cost per life saved would be something like $18,500 -- clearly a win. Even an order of magnitude greater cost would still be an easy decision.

Having said that, we don't know what terrorist acts increased security will prevent -- partly because we don't know what would have happened in the absence of such security, and partly because spooks will say, "If only you knew what we know..." So Minsky could be exactly right or terribly wrong. No matter what, though, he's clever.

"It's Not Over 'Til It's Over"

The wild card game between the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants last Sunday was easily one of the greatest football games I've ever seen. The Niners were down 38-14 with four minutes left in the third quarter, but came back to score 25 unanswered points and win it 39-38.

After the game, I sent an e-mail about it to my friend Paul Gustafson, who lives in the Bay Area and is a big football fan. Here was the reply I got:

LARS AND I WERE THERE! At age 8, it was his first pro football game... and we both had a BLAST! Although we thought about leaving when it was 38-14... I mean... who didn't? At the end of the game... the emotion flowing through the stadium was amazing... it was one of the most powerful athletic events I've ever attended... maybe the best ever. Certainly top five.

[...]

The great thing was that we almost left, but didn't. When it was 38-14... Lars was pretty bummed out at the way things were going. I said we could go if he wanted (because a lot of other people were leaving). But he said, "No. I'm a good 49er fan. I want to stay for the whole game."

What a great way for him to learn the "it's not over 'til it's OVER lesson."

To see that game as one's first football game would be amazing. As for me, it wasn't until attending my first Carolina Courage game last year that I I watched a professional sports team for which I was rooting win in person. Before then, every time I had attended a professional game in any sport, the team I was rooting for -- the San Francsico 49ers, Carolina Panthers, and San Diego Chargers in football, and the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A's in baseball -- had lost. Thank goodness that streak is over.

January 06, 2003

Maybe Coffee Needs a Dear John Letter

At a restaurant with two of my kids recently, I hadn't had anything with caffeine for nearly three weeks, but was tired and felt like having a large Diet Coke. As I was finishing it, my son Cameron asked me whether I was drinking something with caffeine. I replied that I was and asked him how he knew. He pointed at my hands. They weren't exactly shaking like Gene Wilder's hand in Blazing Saddles -- "Steady as a rock." "Yeah, but I shoot with this hand." -- but they were close.

Knowing that caffeine can have that effect on me, I don't use it often. At the same time, if I'm dragging and desperately need to wake up quickly, it's good to know that caffeine will do so, provided I haven't had any recently. So I avoid caffeine not only because I don't like its effects, but also because avoiding it is the only way to ensure dramatic effects when I do use it.

Writing the previous entry, I looked up caffeine on the Web and found the following enlightening passage in the How Stuff Works entry for caffeine:

Caffeine is an addictive drug. Among its many actions, it operates using the same mechanisms that amphetamines, cocaine and heroin use to stimulate the brain. On a spectrum, caffeine's effects are more mild than amphetamines, cocaine and heroin, but it is manipulating the same channels and that is one of the things that gives caffeine its addictive qualities. If you feel like you cannot function without it and must consume it every day, then you are addicted to caffeine.
I hadn't known that caffeine was an addictive drug -- in the true physiological sense of the word, not the debased version so popular these days -- until reading that. The article goes on:
The half-life of caffeine in your body is about 6 hours. That means that if you consume a big cup of coffee with 200 mg of caffeine in it at 3:00 PM, then by 9:00 PM about 100 mg of that caffeine is still in your system. You may be able to fall asleep, but your body probably will miss out on the benefits of deep sleep. That deficit adds up fast. The next day you feel worse, so you need caffeine as soon as you get out of bed. The cycle continues day after day.

This is why 90% of Americans consume caffeine every day. Once you get in the cycle, you have to keep taking the drug. Even worse, if you try to stop taking caffeine, you get very tired and depressed and you get a terrible, splitting headache as blood vessels in the brain dilate. These negative effects force you to run back to caffeine even if you want to stop.

The headaches... I remember them from my Diet Coke days (I'm now a Caffeine-Free Diet Coke drinker).

The more I read, the more I think maybe I should cut back my caffeine use even more -- perhaps all the way down to zero.

A Love Letter to Coffee

For my inveterate coffee drinking friends, an ode to coffee, courtesy of rabbit blog (AKA the ever-witty Heather Havrilesky, AKA the late, great Suck.com's Polly Esther):

Dear Coffee,

Oh, honey pie. I miss you. I'm beginning to really regret kicking you out. It was a spur of the moment decision, I admit it. I just couldn't take your mood swings anymore! The ups, and then the terrible downs! To rise, only to plummet immediately after! And let's face it, the highs just weren't as high as they used to be. We tried, sure. Time was when one quick visit from you, and I could do anything, write anything, become anything. I was funny! I was the life of the party in my pants. Even if whatever you were talking about seemed pointless, I knew it would lead somewhere fun eventually. God, life was fun with you around. You could turn anything into a joke! Rejection letters, missed appointments, overdue taxes - they were all a barrel of laughs, as long as I had you near!

Maybe I blamed you for things that weren't your fault. I thought that you made me bitchy, and kept me from sleeping at night. It turns out, I'm just a bitch who can't sleep. But how would I have known, if we didn't take a little break? See, now that I'm all alone, sulking around the house, lacking the energy to even sit up straight, I have plenty of time to take a look at my own shortcomings. I'm a moody jerk, with or without you. I'm sorry for projecting, baby! ...

I want you back, coffee. The world is even more irritating without you, and I don't even have the energy to put my irritation into words anymore. What good is a world where I don't have the energy to complain bitterly about everything under the sun?

The opposing viewpoint to follow in my next entry.

January 05, 2003

"They Have a Different Mentality"

From the Christian Science Monitor, a shocking story on forced segregation of the Roma (gypsy) minority in Slovakia:

There are about 400,000 Slovak Roma, most living in squalid rural settlements and urban ghettos. More are being moved into segregated areas each month. Despite pressure from the European Union to reintegrate national minorities, several towns in eastern Slovakia have recently passed ordinances banning Roma from entering the city limits, let alone living inside them...

Earlier this year, the last white Slovak family in Lunik IX ["a Romany slum on the edge of Slovakia's second-largest city, Kosice"] was relocated by the city, making it the largest purely Romany ghetto in Slovakia and concluding a process started by Rudolf Schuster, then the mayor of Kosice and now president.

In 1997, the Kosice city council, headed by Schuster, announced a $50 million "city beautification project" to clean up the baroque city for tourism. Part of the plan was to evict some 25,000 Roma from the center and move them to segregated areas. An internal document, signed by former district mayor Andrej Weber and viewed by this reporter, designates Lunik IX as "small, substandard housing for Roma."

"Moving Roma to Lunik IX is a normal development," says Zdenko Trebula, the current mayor of Kosice. "If you know for a fact that a certain group of people is criminal and intolerable, of course you will not want them for neighbors. Besides, Roma don't pay the rent."

Ninety-five percent of the Romany population in eastern Slovakia is unemployed, and virtually all Romany children in Slovakia attend segregated schools with a remedial curriculum designed for the mentally retarded. Because of the extreme poverty, rent default has become a major problem... [Lunik IX resident] Imrich David says even those few who can pay are being evicted. He owned his home in Stos and held a job as a skilled welder, and the town council still officially denied his right to live there..

Last summer, Mr. David tried to take his children to a cinema in the city and was told that Roma are no longer allowed to see movies. "We want to leave this country," David adds. "I just want to take my family somewhere where we will not be hated." ...

But residents of Kosice argue that they are justified in excluding Roma. "It is necessary to keep the Roma out of the center," says Peter Schultz, a leading political analyst in Kosice. "I am glad they are gone. You can't have a beautiful city with Roma, because they destroy beauty. They have a different mentality. It is impossible to integrate them into Slovak society.... The only option is to forcibly move them out of town."

This is nearly unbelievable, especially from a country that has been invited to join an enlarged European Union.

January 04, 2003

Good News and Bad News on HDTV?

From the New York Times, an article on an HDTV compromise. At first the news looks good:

Soon purchasers of new high-definition, or HD, TV sets will be able to receive programming through their cable systems as easily as they now can with an analog set, by plugging a standard cable into the back of the television. Today most HDTV sets require a separate set-top box to receive digital cable programming, and the transmission standards differ from cable system to cable system.

Under an agreement between representatives of the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, new cable-ready HDTV's to be introduced in the next few years will be plug-and-play; they will no longer need a separate box to receive digital broadcasts, HDTV versions of pay services or any other available basic cable or pay-TV programming.

Up to now there has been no industry standard for how the cable companies transmit high-definition programming, so an HDTV-capable set-top box designed for one system may not work with another. The consumer electronics industry has long argued that consumers have delayed buying digital televisions because they did not know how to connect them to their cable services, did not know if they could record HDTV programs, did not want to use a separate converter box, or feared that the sets would become obsolete.

"This agreement breaks down the biggest obstacle to the transition to HDTV," said Gary Shapiro, president and chief executive of the Consumer Electronics Association. The agreement must still be approved by the Federal Communications Commission.

Certain offerings like video-on-demand movies and interactive programming will still require a separate box under the accord, but that is expected to change as well once another agreement is reached between the two industries.

So far, so good, right? Keep reading:

While the agreement allows program providers to prevent any recording of pay-per-view or video-on-demand programs, users of hard-disk-based recorders like TiVo would be allowed to record and then watch such a program up to 90 minutes later.
So the broadcast industry is going to get its broadcast flag without legislation.

To the television industry, I just want to say this: today I watch a handful of television shows. With my work and travel schedules, my TiVo is the only way I can watch these shows consistently. If you flag 24, E.R., and Futurama so that I can't store them longer than 90 minutes, I simply won't watch them anymore. Do you hear that? My television watching will go down to near zero. This would probably be a good thing for my personal growth, but I'm sure it's not what you want. And by the way, I'm willing to bet there are many more like me.

January 03, 2003

RSS Feed Now Available

After putting it off for too long, I've created an RSS feed for this site. Better late than never.

For those of you unfamiliar with RSS, here's an overview:

Think about all of the information that you access on the Web on a day-to-day basis; news headlines, search results, "What's New", job vacancies, and so forth. A large amount of this content can be thought of as a list...

Most people need to track a number of these lists, but it becomes difficult once there are more than a handful of sources. This is because they have to go to each page, load it, remember how it's formatted, and find where they last left off in the list.

RSS is an XML-based format that allows the syndication of lists of hyperlinks, along with other information, or metadata, that helps viewers decide whether they want to follow the link.

RSS allows peoples' computers to fetch and understand the information, so that all of the lists they're interested in can be tracked and personalized for them. It is a format that's intended for use by computers on behalf of people, rather than being directly presented to them (like HTML).

To enable this, a Web site will make an RSS feed, or channel, available, just like any other file or resource on the server. Once a feed is available, computers can regularly fetch the file to get the most recent items on the list. Most often, people will do this with an aggregator, a program that manages a number of lists and presents them in a single interface.

RSS can also be used for other kinds of list-oriented information, such as syndicating the content itself (often weblogs) along with the links.

The full version of the overview and the accompanying tutorial can be found here. Comparisons of RSS aggregators can be found here and here.

For those of you who are RSS experts, I have a couple of questions:

  • My RSS feed appears properly in AmphetaDesk, but doesn't validate using Dave Winer's RSS Validator, which is supposedly for RSS 0.9x. Given that Blogger automatically generates my RSS, is there anything I can do about this? Should I worry about it at all?
  • What is the accepted style of blog entries in RSS feeds? Blogger offers three choices: titles only, titles with short text-only summaries, or full entries. Many blogs I've seen seem to use the full entry style (in which the entire blog, images and all, is included in the feed), but this would seem to defeat part of the purpose of RSS feeds, which is to summarize.
Enjoy!

The Finnish Prison System

An eye-opening story in the New York Times on the Finnish prison system:

In polls measuring what national institutions they admire the most, Finns put their criminal-coddling police in the No. 1 position.

The force is the smallest in per capita terms in Europe, but it has a corruption-free reputation and it solves 90 percent of its serious crimes...

Look in on Finland's penal institutions, whether those the system categorizes as "open" or "closed," and it is hard to tell when you've entered the world of custody. "This is a closed prison," Esko Aaltonen, warden of the Hameenlinna penitentiary, said in welcoming a visitor. "But you may have noticed you just drove in, and there was no gate blocking you."

Walls and fences have been removed in favor of unobtrusive camera surveillance and electronic alert networks. Instead of clanging iron gates, metal passageways and grim cells, there are linoleum-floored hallways lined with living spaces for inmates that resemble dormitory rooms more than lockups in a slammer.

Guards are unarmed and wear either civilian clothes or uniforms free of emblems like chevrons and epaulettes. "There are 10 guns in this prison, and they are all in my safe," Mr. Aaltonen said.

"The only time I take them out is for transfer of prisoners."

At the "open" prisons, inmates and guards address each other by first name. Prison superintendents go by nonmilitary titles like manager or governor, and prisoners are sometimes referred to as "clients" or, if they are youths, "pupils."

The story includes an amazing statistical graph:

According to this graph, the US rate of incarceration is 5.6 times that in the UK, 8.0 times that in the Netherlands, and 13.5 times that in Finland.

(According to this report from the Department of the Solicitor General of Canada, in 2001, the incarceration rate in Canada was 116 per 100,000 residents. According to this report from The Sentencing Project, Japan's incarceration rate in 2000 was 40 per 100,000 residents.)

Without suggesting that the nature of crime in the US is directly comparable to that in Finland, or that a close variant of the Finnish system could work in the US, I can't help but believe there must be a better way.

January 02, 2003

Pragmatic Libertarian? Free-Market Socialist? Progressive Constitutionalist?

In the hope of finding like-minded people, I've been meaning for some time now to set out my political beliefs. Without further ado...

I belong to no political party because no political party represents my beliefs.

I don't reflexively believe in government as the first and best source of solutions to our problems. I don't believe that spending more money on problems necessarily makes them go away; when you're burning money, more money is like gasoline, not water. I don't believe that multilateralism is an absolute; sometimes we must be prepared to act on our own if we feel we're right. I don't believe in a "progressive" tax system; I fail to understand why one person should pay a higher percentage of his or her income (after subtracting basic living expenses) in taxes than another. By all these counts, I can't possibly be a Democrat.

I believe that a fundamental right to privacy is implied in the US Constitution but should be made explicit so that it can't be infringed. I believe that women should control their own reproduction. After many years of soul-searching, though I respect the death penalty as the current law of the land, I believe it should be abolished. I believe that easy and widespread ownership of guns is a cancer in US society (but I'm at a loss as to how to address this problem). I believe that the environment is a trust given to us and must be protected. By all these counts, I can't possibly be a Republican.

I believe that the War on Drugs is a war on an individual personal choice and so can't be won. I believe that the War on Terror is a war on a strategy and so can't be won. (This doesn't mean I agree with terrorism, nor does it mean I feel we shouldn't pursue terrorists who harm us or our friends. To declare war, though, demands that we have a clear picture of how lasting victory will be achieved, else we enter a quagmire.) I believe that subsidies and trade protections for US industries are insidious taxes that, in the end, harm not only consumers at large but the industries they are said to help. By all these counts, I can't possibly belong to either major party.

After going through a phase of liberalism in my teenage years, a phase of conservatism in my twenties, and a phase of libertarianism in my early thirties, I then spent time living and working in Canada, which helped crystallize my beliefs at last.

Without wishing to overgeneralize, I nevertheless think it safe to say that Canadians generally feel that any society that doesn't provide universal medical care for its citizens is somewhat barbaric. US conservatives scoff at this idea, but then they probably feel the same way about any society that doesn't provide universal primary education. What's the difference? There is none, except that US citizens long ago came to the shared belief that universal education is a right, but have yet to come to the same shared belief about universal medical care. If it's reasonable for us to decide to educate our children at taxpayer expense, then would it be reasonable for us to decide to provide health care for all at taxpayer expense? Yes.

On the other hand, the Canadian vision of universal health care is suffused with an all-pervasive sense of fairness. Private health care is generally disallowed. If the government doesn't provide it to all, no one can have it. The entire system is run by the government at the provincial level, with mandated requirements from the federal government. The result is a highly centralized system with minimal choice in which no one seems truly happy. Severely ill patients often cross the border to the US for prompt treatment, and job actions by health care workers are common.

After seeing this system in person, and talking with Canadians about it, I came to two conclusions:

  1. Citizens of a nation must be free to decide that a particular goal is so important that the government must assume responsibility for it, even going so far as to create a new human right in the process.
  2. When this is the case, however, the programs to implement such a human right should be devised in such a way to maximize individual choice by giving participants both as much information about the programs as possible and the tools to make use of such information.
In practical terms, I agree with the goal of universal education, but feel that parents should have far more choice in where and how their children are educated. I agree with the goal of universal health care, but feel it should be implemented so that patients have the freedom to seek care whereever they choose and the incentive to spend their health care dollars wisely.

Given all the above, I can't think of a label for myself. Pragmatic libertarian? Free-market socialist? Progressive constitutionalist?

I look forward to hearing from readers with their thoughts on these issues. Am I the only person holding this set of beliefs?

January 01, 2003

New Year's Resolutions (Kinda Sorta)

Today is both the first day of the new year and my fortieth birthday, so it's a fairly momentous day for resolutions, even for someone who doesn't normally make them, like me. How can I resist the opportunity to set personal goals not only for the next year but for what is traditionally considered the second half of my life? I can't, so I'm making a few.

Having said that, I'm not the type to share my resolutions in a public forum like this. There's a quote I saw once and have never been able to track down since, even in the Age of the Internet. It was from a Frenchman from, I believe, the eighteenth century. I think he was a senior advisor to the King of France, or in a similar high-ranking post. I can't for the life of me remember the exact words, but the gist was something like this: talking about an idea can be so much fun that sometimes doing so takes away the drive to actually implement it. For this reason, I won't share my resolutions here -- but I do have some.

For those of you making resolutions, I wish you every success.