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May 31, 2003

Premises, Premises

Via boing boing comes word of Premises, Premises, a "peer-enforced marketplace for new ideas" -- like Halfbakery, but with robust tracking of idea authorship, so as to enable idea sales.

My favorite idea so far is for the Smart Alarm:

Smart Alarm is a beautifully built, Internet radio alarm clock at an irresistable price: Free. Just register online, and it's yours. The secret, naturally, is advertising: studies show that the first two minutes of audio programming people hear upon waking have more impact than anything they experience for the rest of the day. For a few precious moments, the brain's quasi-dream state inhibits its filtering of sensory impressions -- giving Smart Alarm sponsors the opportunity to inject words and jingles directly into the targeted user's mind, where they echo and re-play for hours. Advertising via Smart Alarm is expensive, but it's the most powerful way to push your message through the clutter.
There are problems with this idea, but they're solvable.

First, Marketing 101 tells us that people generally don't value things they get for free. So instead of making a free clock, make a subsidized clock and you're on the right track. Second, if the only thing the Smart Alarm plays is the advertising, then it will go into the trash in short order. I would ensure that the clock plays advertising as a part of those first two minutes, but weaves it together with user-selected content.

These problems addressed, it's a great idea. I remember waking up to an alarm clock 15 years ago -- I had to set it early because I had a flight that morning, and when the radio came on, it was playing Madonna's "La Isla Bonita." That memory has stuck in my mind ever since.

May 30, 2003

CWT's CEO Calls

Last month, I wrote a blog entry (and a follow-up) on thermal depolymerization, a potentially revolutionary new process:

The process is designed to handle almost any waste product imaginable, including turkey offal, tires, plastic bottles, harbor-dredged muck, old computers, municipal garbage, cornstalks, paper-pulp effluent, infectious medical waste, oil-refinery residues, even biological weapons such as anthrax spores... [W]aste goes in one end and comes out the other as three products, all valuable and environmentally benign: high-quality oil, clean-burning gas, and purified minerals that can be used as fuels, fertilizers, or specialty chemicals for manufacturing.
The first comment on my original entry didn't come for five days, but then the flood started. Within a couple of weeks, a Google search on "thermal depolymerization" listed my blog entry first (it's now down to third), and by yesterday, the entry had accumulated 250 comments.

With that, I wrote to Changing World Technologies (CWT), the company behind thermal depolymerization, and invited them to submit a guest entry for the blog. Somewhat to my surprise, a comment appeared today apparently written by the CEO of CWT, Brian Appel. I immediately made a call to his office to confirm its authenticity. Less than an hour later, my phone rang -- it was Brian himself calling to confirm the what he had written. Here's his comment in full:

Dear Frank,

Your web site is an interesting tool to review in part public opinion regarding our process. It provides some hope since the majority of the comments were positive and correct, but like all open forums you realize there is another very small group whose anger blinds their ability to see things clearly and who impede breakthroughs. Basically they fail to see the positive impact companies like ours will have on our environment. We were not looking for any public exposure but it certainly has found us. This exposure was not meant to be disruptive to anyones business or to be a surprise.

We have received thousands of inquires with the majority of those looking to make an investment. We are flattered by the interest. We have no current plans to hype a market or to go public, although we are asked daily to do so.

Some of the comments we received are very amusing, in particular the ones where the armchair engineers and scientists are guessing the mass and energy balances for a process that they know nothing about. It underscores why we have environmental problems because these are the same people we are counting on to find solutions to a growing concern. I think some still think the world is flat.

In any event we offer some comments to your audience. Right now we can only offer you "hope" that a more peaceful world is within our reach. Once we shortly begin operations and confirm our process we can deploy many facilities that will impact our waste markets in a more dramatic fashion.

CWT's process is for real. The plant in Missouri is complete and we are in the start-up phase. The energy efficiency is correctly stated. How we do this is our business but it is standard within many industrial applications. This is not transesterficatin, incineration, gasification or the biodiesel. Our first out plant is competitive with a small E&P company. Our diverse talented team has developed a business model that can be quickly replicated. I suggest you visit MIT's science publication web site at www.technologyreview.com and to pull up the article "Garbage into Oil". They have cleverly provided an animation of a turkey going through the process. This will help provide a visual as to what happens in our multi-step system.

You can expect additional articles in the near future regarding what we do. The SEC already opened and shut an investigation regarding our company. They also thought we were hyping something here. The goods news for all of us is that they appear pro-active in protecting the public. I applaud their efforts. To some we know that is disappointing but to the majority of you it is one more step to validate that a paradigm shift is blowing in the wind.

We are committed and focused on cleaning up waste, validating renewable energy, and helping to minimize global warming. Our partners and our staff are committed to making the world a better place.

We can not respond to all of the letters and e-mail. Most we can only say thank you for your kind words. To the negative ones this is our only comment. No statues erected for critics. Stand aside and get out of the way of real progress. The world needs solutions not town criers.

Frank, we do thank you and most of the writers for you support and comment. We know hope is resting on our shoulders. We will not let you down, as we are committed to our business, our environment and to all the worlds' well being.

Best Regards,
Brian Appel
Chairman & CEO

One more thought, some of the questions we received was from teachers looking for teaching aid information to educate our children. I taught my 11-year-olds science class the other day. They are studying the environment and effects from pollution people have created. They we all glowing with excitement. They were interested in what we could all do to make the world a better place. They didn't take the position of what we are not and what we could not do. It was refreshing to hear out of the "mouth of babes" this perspective. It gives me hope!

I had an extremely pleasant talk with Brian. He's passionate about what his company is doing and is an extremely effective spokesperson. It's clear that many people are interested in the possibilities raised by thermal depolymerization, and that we're going to be hearing much more about it in the coming weeks and months.

Brian, thanks for the call, and rest assured you and your team have a great many fans cheering you on.

[The Technology Review article and animation Brian referred to can be found here.]

MoveOn.org and the FCC

I received an e-mail from MoveOn.org today:

Dear MoveOn member,

This Monday, FCC Chair Michael Powell will hold his vote on media consolidation. There's nothing special about that date -- it's totally arbitrary. The vote will conclude a process which has shown deliberate disregard for the views and opinions of the American people. Powell has refused to even release the actual language of the rule change -- it won't be known until after the vote. And he's only held a single meeting to hear the views of the public. Even when a bipartisan group of Senators requested that he give Congress some time to discuss the impact of this change, Powell brushed them off.

Chairman Powell still has the power to delay the rule change and allow time to have a democratic debate about its consequences. Please call him today and ask him to allow a real public debate on an issue of such massive importance.

You can reach Powell's office at:
(202) 418-1000

Once you've made your call, please let us know at: [here]...

Even if Powell doesn't reschedule the rule change vote, getting thousands of calls into his office will send a strong message that the public is watching him. Powell doesn't appreciate this kind of pressure: in a recent interview, he said that "I think we're one of the most heavily lobbied federal institutions in the government, probably second only to the United States Congress. I don't, by the way, think that's a particularly good thing." We need to remind him that public involvement in decision making is what democracy is all about...

It's not too late to do this process right.

I called Chairman Powell's office to let my opinion be heard, and listened to a recorded message:

If you would like to file comments regarding broadcast ownership, go to the FCC's Web page... This is the only way this office may accept comments.
This is reasonable, except when you consider that Chairman Powell has already indicated his intent to disregard public comments. As I wrote a few weeks ago:
In an interesting twist, Chairman Powell is using an Orwellian argument -- as Cory Doctorow put it -- to justify the lack of public hearings on the topic:
In a phone interview last week, [dissident FCC Commissioner Michael] Copps said that of roughly 18,000 public comments on the proposed changes -- not counting the hundred or so from media companies or organized coalitions -- "I haven't seen any that say, 'Let's relax the rules further.' " ...

Even the nature of the debate has fallen victim to the FCC's partisan politics. While the two Democratic commissioners, Copps and Jeffrey Adelstein, argued for public hearings around the country, FCC Chairman Michael Powell said such hearings were not necessary given the outpouring of commentary reaching the commission.

In other words, we've received so much negative feedback to this proposal that we can skip the public hearings, which would merely provide more negative feedback, and go directly to voting in this proposal.
So the Chairman is telling people to leave comments on the Website, while at the same time ignoring the substance of these comments and using their numbers to justify cutting off public debate.

The Washington Post gives some perspective on the public comments:

In recent days, the FCC has been inundated with hundreds of thousands of e-mails and e-petitions. MoveOn.org, a public-interest organization founded by two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, says it has collected 170,000 signatures on a petition to the FCC, urging the agency to keep the rules in place...

Members of the National Rifle Association have sent 300,000 postcards demanding the same. The FCC's Web site has received more than 9,000 e-mail comments over recent months from individuals who claim no affiliation with corporations or associations. Of those, according to a musician's group that recently tallied the filings, only 11 comments support relaxing the media rules. Members of Congress are reporting that their offices are receiving substantial e-mail traffic as well.

Will Chairman Powell bow to pressure and hold off the vote? Will he proceed and find that one of his two allies on the Commission has cracked? Or will he hold the vote, win, and then lobby Congress not to undo his work?

Chrétien on Canada

From the Globe and Mail, an article on Canadian Prime Minister Chrétien's criticism of the US:

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien criticized the massive deficits being posted by the "right-wing" Bush administration in the United States yesterday, while boasting of his own government's economic management.

"The Americans will have a deficit of $500-billion [U.S.] this year, and it is a right-wing government," Mr. Chrétien told reporters travelling on the plane with him to Europe. "If we were to equal that, it would be a $75-billion [Canadian] deficit because we're 10 times smaller. Imagine!" ...

He said Canada is now the envy of the world, with a strong economy, political stability, and a diverse and tolerant population. He chided Canadians -- and the media in particular -- for failing to celebrate the country's successes.

The Prime Minister said Canada is the only country among the G8 industrialized nations to have put its public pension system on a sound financial footing.

He also said European leaders are envious of Canada's ability to absorb roughly 200,000 immigrants a year without the kind of political backlash that is roiling their countries. Italy, for example, expects to see its population decline from 60 million people to 40 million in a few decades, he said, but has trouble winning public support for higher immigration levels.

"How can you run a country with social programs when you have a population that is decreasing?" he said.

He added that his "failure" was that he was unable to achieve the target immigration level of 1 per cent of the Canadian population, or more than 300,000 new arrivals a year.

"For them, the question is how to accept a few."

As I noted back in January (edited slightly for clarity):

From Statistics Canada, Canada's population in 2001 was 31.0 million. From the US Census Bureau, the US population in 2001 was 285.3 million. 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$33.7 billion, or CDN$52.3 billion. 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$67.0 billion. Projecting forward into 2002, instead of a USD$159 billion deficit, the US would have run a surplus of USD$84.5 billion.

What I find interesting is that had Canada spent on defense at the same rate on the US, their deficit still would have been only CDN$43.6 billion -- not the CDN$75.0 billion figure implied by their population, which is one-tenth that of the US.

In other words, even if Canadians spent the same amount proportionally on defense as their counterparts in the US, they would still have a budget deficit 40 percent smaller, while maintaining universal health care and other benefits not present in the US.

Is the US too proud to learn from Canada?

May 28, 2003

Hi-Wi-Fi

According to Bloomberg News, Lufthansa is working with Boeing to offer in-flight wireless Internet access on all its intercontinental flights:

Lufthansa plans to equip its 80 Boeing 747-400 jets and its Airbus A340 and A300 planes with the technology as well as to "become the first airline company worldwide to introduce broadband Internet on board its entire long-haul fleet," the Cologne, Germany-based carrier said.

Boeing expects to have 150 planes equipped with wireless networks by the end of 2004 and plans to charge $25 to $35 for wireless access during international flights. The Wi-Fi networks use radio waves to send data at high speeds. To hook up, a user needs to be within about 500 feet of a so-called "hot spot" with a computer equipped with a card to receive the radio signal.

Does this mean that testing has conclusively shown that Wi-Fi (presumably 802.11b) signals don't interfere with aircraft avionics?

The original press release can be found here. It doesn't have any specifics on the wireless system.

Red vs Blue

Via boing boing, Red vs Blue, a tremendously funny set of short videos made using Halo.

Someone in Hollywood needs to give these guys a deal. Their work is funnier than about 90 percent of what passes for humor on television these days.

In fact, I predict that by the time the creative team has finished the final episode of their planned 26, they'll have some sort of development deal with a television network or movie studio.

May 27, 2003

Women's World Cup to the US

A few weeks ago, I blogged about FIFA's decision to move the Women's World Cup out of China due to SARS concerns:

As much as I'd love to see the women play here, Australia would be a great choice. I've never been, but its reputation for hospitality is well-known, and in the wake of the 2000 Olympics, they have wonderful sporting facilities. Also, while the 1999 Cup was held in the US, Australia has never hosted it. Anyway, given how political FIFA is, and given the appearance of taking an event away from China and moving it to the US, it seems almost certain they'll award it to Australia.
So much for my prognostication. FIFA has moved the Cup to the US:
America was preferred to five other countries which offered to step in to host the event, after the tournament was moved from China because of the Sars virus...

Fifa president Sepp Blatter said the success of the tournament when it was last held in the United States four years ago had influenced the decision.

"The Women's World Cup in 1999 was so successful that Fifa is delighted to see the event return to the United States," said Blatter in a statement.

Given that the World Cup obviously had to move somewhere, I'm happy that it's coming here. I didn't attend any of the Cup games in 1999, but I've seen many of the players in the WUSA (the women's professional league), and the quality of play is extremely high. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys soccer.

The Looming Problem, Part II

I blogged the other day about Dick Gordon's interview on The Connection with Barry Anderson, departing Deputy Director of the Congressional Budget Office. Here's what Barry had to say about tax cuts (this was over a week before Congress passed the tax cut package):

Barry Anderson: I view the tax cut debate much more on something along the lines of the size of government. The Republicans and the right definitely want to keep taxes lower, because they're afraid that if they don't do tax cuts, then taxes will raise to over twenty percent as a percentage of GDP [Gross Domestic Product]. It was just that level in 2000, the highest level we've had since World War II. So they want to do the tax cuts to keep the money out of Washington and leave it in the hands of the public. The Democrats are saying there are legitimate and important needs and that we need to have the taxes go back up and not be cut in order to pay for those needs without running deficits. But Dick, neither side is really being, I think, totally up-front with the public.

First of all, the Republicans. They want to limit the size of government. But if you look at their proposals, they are not at all specific of how they're going to cut spending, where those cuts are going to be. Quite the contrary: many of the Republicans are arguing for more spending, particularly for defense and homeland security. But that doesn't jibe or tie with the tax cuts.

But the Democrats aren't any better. They're saying they want no more tax cuts, and in fact the ones that were passed in 2001 to expire. But what they are not doing is saying what the impact of that is going to be on the middle class. Oh, they'll say a lot that the rich will pay more, and it's true, they will. But the middle class will also pay more. The Democrats are not coming out and saying, look, if you want these new benefits, if you want this expansion, if you want these new programs, then you, Mr. Middle Class Taxpayer, come some year in the future, are going to have to pay $2,000 more per year. In fact, Dick, if they just repealed the 2001 tax cut, which I believe Congressman Gephardt has called for, taxes would go up not just for the upper class, not just for the middle class, but for everyone across the income spectrum, even those in the lowest classes. So neither side is really being up-front with the public.

It's interesting to see someone who has been a federal budget insider for many years throw up his hands in disgust at both major parties. It reminds me of my blog entry on my political beliefs a few months ago.

May 26, 2003

"Service Animals"

The Wall Street Journal ran a story last week on the expanding definition of "service animals" being allowed on-board airplanes:

Air travel can be a messy business, especially if you are flying with a horse. Take the following excerpt from an American Airlines passenger record last week:

"PAX WAS TRAVELING WITH A MINIATURE SERVICE HORSE IN SEAT 3A. HORSE HAD A BOWEL MOVEMENT ON THE CARPET OF THE BULKHEAD. CABIN SVC HAD TO DO EXCESSIVE CLEANING IN ORDER FOR AIRCRAFT TO LEAVE FOR THE NEXT FLIGHT. STRONG ODOR ALSO HAD TO BE AIRED OUT.ÖORD CSM JP INCUSCI"

The article went on to note that after some research, American decided the problem wasn't as bad as the maintenance crew had made it out to be, and so allowed the miniature service horse on a return flight. The more important issue than the one incident is the trend:

Under U.S. Federal Aviation Administration rules, service animals may travel in the cabin with the passenger, and airlines accommodate all sorts of creatures. Since even miniature horses standing at just over 2 feet tall and weighing 70 pounds don't fit in the main cabin, they have to fly first-class...

Just recently, the U.S. Department of Transportation clarified rules that had been applied mostly to dogs so as to include "service animals," saying airlines could be forced to accommodate all manner of beasts if mental-health professionals declare that they are necessary for relieving stress and flying anxiety. If a monkey is necessary to help a passenger get through a flight, the DOT said, then the monkey can come along.

"Animals that assist persons with disabilities by providing emotional support qualify as service animals," the DOT said, noting that "service animals also perform a much wider variety of functions than ever before."

I understand the viewpoint of advocates for service animals. Some people rely on these animals for basic needs, and to deny them boarding privileges on an airplane would be wrong. But this argument poses a danger for the disabled themselves.

Over the past few decades, the US has become accustomed to the view that service dogs should be allowed anywhere people go -- airplanes, restaurants, stores, you name it. The vast majority of service dogs have been for the blind, who would be severely incapacitated without them, and dogs, through millennia of selective breeding, are completely domesticated animals that can be trained to behave appropriately in any setting. Speaking personally, when I see a service dog in a restaurant, not only do I not feel resentful in any way, I'm glad to see a disabled person able to move more freely (and, I have to admit, feel a little swell of pride for the faithful dog doing such a good job).

Now imagine that the definition of service animals does indeed expand to include miniature horses for the blind, or pot-bellied pigs for the nervous (as mentioned elsewhere in the Journal article). Will people feel the same way about such animals? Monkeys and pigs aren't domesticated creatures and can't be expected to behave to the same standards as dogs. What happens when such animals misbehave? My worry is that the backlash will reach beyond exotic "service animals" and all the way back to service dogs themselves.

Meanwhile, should I develop a fear of flying, I know that I can train a masked palm civet to help me overcome my nervousness and take it with me on all my trips.

May 25, 2003

The Origins of the Flu

The CBC's excellent news show The National had an in-depth report Friday night on the apparent origin of SARS in the masked palm civet (covered by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal).

The reporter interviewed Laurie Garrett, author of a book with the prescient-sounding title
The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance
. She had this to say about influenza as an example of ongoing animal-to-human disease transmission:

We now know that influenza is actually an aquatic migratory bird virus. So what you have happening is, aquatic birds flying over these tethered ducks [outside homes and farms in southern China] and the bird droppings infect the tethered duck. The tethered duck then passes its virus to the pig, and then the farmers become infected from exposure to an ailing pig. That's why every year, the new mutant strains of influenza always come out of China.
I never understood the influenza cycle before -- I only had this vague impression that new flu strains came from Asia. It's good to finally understand how it works (even if only at a superficial level).

Spam in Blog Comments?

Via e-mail, David Smith writes:

A thought occurs -- what is to keep the spammers from placing advertisements into the comment sections of blogs. True, you can remove it --just like you can delete emails (oh joy). I notice that chat rooms on AOL have bots sending ad messages on a regular basis, what's to keep the same thing from happening here?

I can see it on Technorati now --

Hi, I'm Pam, and I Need a ...

Probably just a matter of time, and I may be a bit paranoid, as I have been thinking about crypto/security recently.

It's a good question. My off-the-cuff answer was to predict that blogging tools would incorporate challenge-and-response systems into their commenting systems.

Movable Type already includes IP banning, which could be a simple method of dealing with spam in comments. A more robust solution might look like this:

The Allow Comments menu item now has three settings: None, Open, and Closed. A fourth, Challenge, could be added. Each copy of MT would keep a database of approved e-mail addresses and associated IP addresses. When a user posted a comment, MT would check the poster's e-mail address and IP address against the database. If the e-mail address didn't appear, or if current IP address wasn't on file for the claimed e-mail address, the comment would be held while a challenge was sent to the e-mail address. A correct response would result in the comment being displayed and the e-mail address-IP address pair being entered in the database. If, though, a response wasn't received in a certain period -- say, 24 hours -- then the comment would be deleted.

Let's just hope this doesn't become necessary.

May 24, 2003

SARS Flares in Canada

The news on the SARS front has been generally good of late. The number of active cases in Hong Kong has been decreasing steadily since 18 April, while the number of active cases worldwide has been decreasing since 11 May.

Unfortunately, Canadian health authorities are now investigating up to 25 possible new cases of SARS in Toronto:

Dr. Donald Low, director of microbiology at Mount Sinai Hospital, said dozens of people have been asked to go into quarantine after possible exposure to SARS at the North York General Hospital.

The news comes just after five suspected SARS cases surfaced at the St. John's Rehabilitation Hospital in the city's north end.

Word of a potential new outbreak in Toronto prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to reissue a travel alert Friday.

Low told reporters that SARS may have been spread by an elderly patient who developed pneumonia after an operation for a fractured pelvis at North York General.

A month ago today, I blogged an exchange between Case Ootes, deputy mayor of Toronto, and Denis Aitken, chief of staff for the director general at the World Health Organization. Ootes was complaining about the fact that the WHO's travel advisory was based in part on the export of two cases of SARS from Canada to other countries. Aitken responded:

Let me say that one case was enough to start this thing in Canada. It came from Hong Kong. In Hong Kong one case was enough from Guangdong to start the case in Hong Kong, the whole outbreak in Hong Kong.
And one case was apparently all it took for SARS to flare in Canada once again.

May 23, 2003

DIY Cruise Missile

Via boing boing, a New Zealander's attempt to build a cruise missile for less than US$5,000:

The goal of this project is to create a real, live, flying cruise missile with much of the functionality of the cruise missiles currently employed by the military forces of many western nations.

In bullet-point form, these functions and features are:

  • Satellite-based (GPS) guidance and targeting
  • A form of inertial (or other) backup guidance
  • Jet-powered for high speed, minimum flight-times
  • Low radar signature to reduce detectability
  • Fully autonomous flight capabilities
  • Onboard realitme video
Obviously, given the budget of $5,000 and the fact that all components will be "off the shelf" items, some compromises have to be made:
  • Limited range, but at least 100 miles (160 Kms)
  • Limited payload capacity, but at least 22lbs (10 Kgs)
  • Limited accuracy, but at least +- 100 yards (100m)
In addition to the above points and since the goal of this project is to show that *anyone* could build and deploy their own cruise missile, the following critera have been added:
  • Compact size, small enough to be transported inconspicuously and launched from a regular pickup truck.
  • Built using materials, components and tools that can be purchased without raising the suspicions of authorities.
  • Built using techniques that can be used in any suburban garage without raising suspicion or curiosity of neighbors.
It will be interesting to watch how his project progresses. I'm especially curious to see how he'll launch the missile from a pickup truck (release it from a moving truck at rotation speed?) and where he'll test it without endangering people and yet not splashing down in the ocean (thus losing the craft permanently).

May 22, 2003

WSJ: iTunes Music Store = Crack

From an article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal:

I had never downloaded music from Napster or other Internet services before, because it was against the law and seemed complicated. Apple has solved both those problems with iTunes. For now it's available only to Macintosh users, but it's invading a PC near you by year-end. Armed with nothing more than a high-speed modem and a hideously large credit limit, you can log on to the iTunes Music Store and enslave yourself to the 200,000 available songs, all there for the grabbing at 99 cents a pop (or pop hit). Plunk down a buck, download a song in 10 seconds flat, then sit back and enjoy.

It sounds so simple, doesn't it? So did crack cocaine. The analogies are eerie -- both involve a pipe (in Apple's case, a broadband pipe), both are cheap, and both offer instant gratification. And both, unfortunately, can cause seemingly normal people to become unhinged.

When I worked at QDesign, a digital audio technology company, we spent a lot of time talking with people in the recording industry. Surprisingly, many of them understood that the "music that goes away when you stop paying subscription fees" model was doomed to failure. It was, however, the best they thought they could do. Obviously Apple could do better.

In the QDesign days, I would talk to people who had large collections of MP3 tracks from Napster, asking them if they'd pay a dollar a track if they could buy them from a legitimate source. The answer was nearly always yes.

The iTunes Music Store demonstrates that when you don't treat your customers as children or thieves, they respond accordingly.

May 21, 2003

The Looming Problem

From an episode of NPR's talk show The Connection last week, in which host Dick Gordon interviewed Barry Anderson, Deputy Director of the Congressional Budget Office, who is departing due to his frustration with both ends of the political spectrum:

Dick Gordon: What is it that my senator or my congressional representative is not telling me?

Barry Anderson: Dick, we're facing a long-term problem. It's not a cliff; we're not going to wake up one morning and the whole government or financial system collapse, but we're facing a long-term problem that is inevitable. The baby boom, of which I'm a card-carrying member, is going to retire, begin to retire, in the next five to ten years, and as they do, the amount of government programs to assist them -- specifically, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid -- are going to rise as a percentage of our budget from about seven and a half cents per dollar that the whole country produces to double that, about fifteen cents. So right now today, people are working hard, producing all sorts of goods and services, and through our tax system and others, we're paying about seven and a half cents for the elderly that are retired now, but within the next fifteen to thirty years, that number's going to go up. That's known under current law. But what action isn't being taken now is to address the consequences of that known fact. And there are a lot of things that oculd be done, but those things aren't being done. Instead, as we sit here right this morning, Congress is debating a proposal to make the problem worse. That proposal is to add new drug benefits for the elderly. It may be a good proposal, but it will make the problem I've just described worse.

Nearly 40 million Americans had no health insurance in 2000, and yet somehow the US managed to spend 13.0 percent of GDP on health care -- 62 percent more than the European Union average of 8.0 percent, which represents countries all providing universal health care.

The US health care system is inefficient, unfair, and unsustainable. We spend far more than anyone else on health care while leaving vast numbers of people uninsured. I believe it to be vitally important that we reform our health care system at a basic level, to control spending while covering all citizens. But simply adding on new health benefits to certain segments of the population without finding a way to pay for them isn't reform -- it's pandering, plain and simple.

More of Barry Anderson's thoughts soon.

May 20, 2003

The Matrix Reloaded

I just watched Ebert and Roeper's reviews of The Matrix Reloaded, and I can't help but wonder if they didn't watch a different movie than I did. Not one but both of them saluted the sequel as superior to the original. Excuse me?

Note: spoilers ahead.

As I walked out of the theater on Friday, having just watched Reloaded, the first word that came to mind was "gratuitous". It was as if the Wachowski brothers went for the biggest budget they could get -- $300 million for the two sequels is the rumor I've heard -- and then were determined to spend it all. What purpose did it serve to show the people of Zion in a quarter-million-person rave? A Zion guard in a giant Japanese robot suit? A female diner being given an orgasm with a reprogrammed dessert, complete with a Matrix-effect internal view of the action? A meaningless fight with the Oracle's bodyguard?

More does not equal better. The subway fight between Neo and Agent Smith in The Matrix -- kung fu meets spaghetti Western meets virtual reality -- still thrills me after 10 or more viewings. The fight between Neo and a hundred Agent Smiths in Reloaded did nothing for me. Not only did it look fake (did you catch Neo's face during the fight?), but it went on... and on... and on. I couldn't bring myself to care.

I didn't completely dislike the movie. The scene with the Oracle was wonderful, and the revelations about her later on intriguing and thought-provoking. The fight scene atop the tractor trailer was stunning. The part of the Keymaker was a small one, but I found myself caring more about him -- and wanting to know more about him -- than anyone else in the movie.

Reloaded runs 2 hours and 18 minutes. An edited version -- leaving 20 or even 30 minutes and tens of millions of dollars on the floor -- would be far more enjoyable. It makes the DVD version worth looking forward to.

May 16, 2003

Democracy's Great, Except When It's Not

From Joshua Micah Marshall's Talking Points Memo:

[Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul D. Wolfowitz said something extraordinary, and deeply controversial, on Turkish television ten days ago. He essentially said that bringing democracy to Iraq was so important that the Bush administration wished the Turkish military had subverted Turkish democracy to achieve it. I explain the details in my new column in The Hill.
From the column referenced above:
Last week, Wolfowitz gave an interview to CNN-Turk, a joint venture of CNN and a Turkish media conglomerate. When asked about the future of U.S.-Turkish relations, Wolfowitz said that if Turkey wanted to get back into America's good graces, the Turks would have to admit they were wrong to deny the U.S. permission to use their territory as a staging ground for invading Iraq and, in essence, apologize.

Thatís a rough demand for a fellow democracy and a longtime ally. But what raised the ire of many Turks was another of Wolfowitz's statements: the Bush administration, he said, was disappointed that the Turkish military "did not play the strong leadership role on that issue [i.e., the Iraq debate] that we would have expected."

Outside the context of Turkish politics, that statement might seem obscure or insignificant. But in Turkey the meaning seemed painfully clear: The United States wished the Turkish military had either overruled the elected government or perhaps even pushed it aside in favor of one more subservient to U.S. demands.

As numerous Turkish commentators have noted, that's an odd stance for a country now presenting itself as the champion of Middle Eastern democracy. But it's particularly ill-conceived at the present moment in Turkish political history...

There's nothing special about saying you want democracy. The real question is whether you still want democracies -- full-fledged, multi-party, rule-of-law democracies --- even when they disagree with you. If the U.S. is serious about spreading democracy in the Middle East, thatís a question we'll have to confront again and again. Paul Wolfowitz's comments leave his answer to that question in serious doubt.

In other words, democracy is great, except when democracy leads another nation to disagree with us or thwart our goals, in which case we're all in favor of autocracy.

I wish I could say that this surprised me, but it didn't. Nothing this administration does surprises me these days. The President could announce he was invoking martial law and it wouldn't surprise me. Instituting random body cavity searches at airports? Wouldn't surprise me. Invading Syria? Withdrawing from the World Trade Organization? Resuming nuclear testing? I'd be outraged, but not surprised.

May 15, 2003

The Death of "Mrs."

Last week, I was helping a good friend of mine, not long married for the first time, with the plan for her new business. While going through various documents she had already written, I noticed one in which she referred to herself as "Mrs. Lastname," as in, "Mrs. Lastname has extensive experience..." I surprised even myself with my reaction, which was instant.

"You have to get rid of that. No one calls themselves 'Mrs.' anymore. It makes you sound like a country club, volunteer society wife. You need to use 'Ms.' instead."

We talked about it for a moment and she agreed with me, changing "Mrs." to "Ms." everywhere it appeared in the plan.

Was my reaction fair? Probably not. But I wasn't concerned with fairness; I was concerned with how my friend's plan would read to potential investors.

Is "Mrs." on the way out? I think it may be, starting with professional women and moving from there. I can't back this up with statistics, but I'd be willing to bet that its usage has been gradually decreasing since the 1970s, and dropping even more sharply in just the last few years.

May 14, 2003

Putting the Screws to Teachers

From the Province, an article on the British Columbian government's takeover of the College of Teachers:

B.C.'s education minister has taken control of the professional body that governs teachers away from the teachers themselves...

Currently the college's 20-member board consists of 15 teachers elected by teachers from various regions in B.C., four members appointed by the government and one representative from the faculties of education at B.C. universities.

But under legislation introduced yesterday by [Minister of Education Christy] Clark, only eight of the board members will be elected by the teachers. One will still be chosen from faculties of education, but the other 11 will be appointed by the cabinet.

Clark said those 11 will be chosen after she consults with representatives of private schools, superintendents, principals, vice-principals and parents...

She acknowledged the legislation will probably be unpopular with the B.C. Teachers Federation, but added: "I have to look at the broader public interest."

"We're outraged," fumed BCTF president Neil Worboys.

"Clark and her government are putting the boots to teachers.

"The teaching profession will no longer be a democratic, self-regulating body. It's going to be controlled by the minister."

So does "the broader public interest" justify any action that impinges on the rights of individuals?

While I'm no fan of teachers' unions, I'm a huge fan of teachers, and to take control of a profession's regulating organization seems wholly unjustifiable, absent evidence of corruption, which the BC government has not alleged. In fact, I can't think of another example in Canada or the US where a professional regulatory group has been taken over by the government. If anyone knows of one, I'd like to hear about it.

May 13, 2003

Regulatory Relief for Poor Media Titans

The Federal Communications Commission is apparently preparing to relax restrictions on media ownership (New York Times report here, editorial here):

Local affiliates and small broadcasting stations fear that any further growth in the networks would be detrimental to viewers in a variety of ways. They say it would homogenize entertainment, discourage local news coverage in favor of national broadcasts and reduce the commercial leverage of the local stations to offer independent programming.

[FCC Chairman Michael] Powell and other supporters of the proposal say that the rules need to reflect the changing marketplace and to help preserve free over-the-air television. In a world where consumers can receive their news and information from hundreds of channels in addition to the Internet, it makes little sense to preserve rules of a bygone era, they say.

This anecdote from the Times article is telling:

Officials said that the commission was expected to increase the national television ownership cap to 45 percent of the nation's viewers and also retain the rule that considers two viewers as one viewer of a UHF station -- the band that over the air has generally been Channel 14 and above.

The provision, known as the UHF discount, came about in a different regulatory and technological era, when a vast majority of viewers received television signals free over the airwaves and had to use special equipment like antennas that resembled rabbit ears to pick up UHF stations. Today, about 85 percent of viewers use paid services from cable and satellite providers, rendering the distinction between VHF and UHF largely a relic.

Officials close to Mr. Powell said today that... there was nothing in the public record to justify changing the way the commission counted UHF viewers and that Mr. Powell had attributed the growth of new networks in recent years to the UHF discount, including UPN, Pax, WB and Fox.

Others outside the agency noted, however, that most of those networks are hardly independent -- UPN is owned by Viacom, WB is owned by AOL Time Warner, and Paxson is 32 percent owned by NBC. Critics of the plan have focused on the UHF provision as emblematic of the selective way that the agency has approached deregulation.

"It's total hypocrisy," said Gene Kimmelman, a director at Consumers Union who has testified in Congress against loosening the rules. "If the theory behind changing the rules is that the F.C.C. needs to keep up with market conditions, to preserve a significant discount for UHF stations is simply a fraud on the regulatory process."

In other words, let's get rid of these archaic regulations, except where they might benefit the media conglomerates.

In an interesting twist, Chairman Powell is using an Orwellian argument -- as Cory Doctorow put it -- to justify the lack of public hearings on the topic:

In a phone interview last week, [dissident FCC Commissioner Michael] Copps said that of roughly 18,000 public comments on the proposed changes -- not counting the hundred or so from media companies or organized coalitions -- "I haven't seen any that say, 'Let's relax the rules further.' " ...

Even the nature of the debate has fallen victim to the FCC's partisan politics. While the two Democratic commissioners, Copps and Jeffrey Adelstein, argued for public hearings around the country, FCC Chairman Michael Powell said such hearings were not necessary given the outpouring of commentary reaching the commission.

In other words, we've received so much negative feedback to this proposal that we can skip the public hearings, which would merely provide more negative feedback, and go directly to voting in this proposal.

What can you do? You can visit MoveOn.org. They have a page set up that will allow you to send a personalized message to your Representative, your Senators, and to the FCC. If you're in a hurry, you can send a message in less than a minute. If you feel strongly about this, why not do it right now?

May 12, 2003

Lyrics for the EU

From the Wall Street Journal, a cute story -- yes, I know, one doesn't often hear that adjective applied to a Journal story -- on the efforts to create lyrics to "Ode to Joy," the anthem of the European Union:

In January, German songwriter Karl Wolfgang Barthel watched French and German leaders stand silent as the anthem played at an anniversary of a French-German friendship treaty in Berlin. It just didn't seem right, so he wrote his own lyrics. His song (translated from German) begins:

People, gather close together
On this ancient continent
We're all Europeans now,
Strife can't keep us separate....

Mark Niedzwiedz, a songwriter for Universal Music, a unit of Vivendi Universal, in Britain, was also taken by the idea and wrote lyrics to the famous melody over a weekend. Titled "Stand Together," the song starts:

We who join hands stand together
Nations bound by land and sea
Build a bridge that will forever
Span across the centuries
There will be no more division
Only a vision in our hearts....

These Tides, a Brussels-based magazine run by British expatriates "working for the post-EU Europe," has already sponsored a tongue-in-cheek EU anthem contest of its own. The winning lyrics start:

Shades of Hitler, shades of Stalin
Yes sir, no sir, three bags full
If you want to gain your freedom
Give up all the euro-bull....

Perhaps someone should give Mel Brooks a call?

May 11, 2003

Free WiFi Access

From the New York Times, an article on the wonderful and growing trend in which businesses provide free WiFi access:

Schlotzsky's Deli... [is a] mecca for free Wi-Fi. Schlotzsky's, a nationwide chain of sandwich stores that got its start in Austin, offers free Wi-Fi at 10 of its Austin restaurants, one in Houston and one in Atlanta.

John C. Wooley, the chief executive of Schlotzsky's, said he briefly considered charging customers for Wi-Fi access but quickly changed his mind.

Mr. Wooley said each restaurant spent about $2,000 to get its Wi-Fi up and running, and another $300 to $500 a month for the high-speed communications line that provides the wireless access network to the Internet... Schlotzsky's surveys over the past few months have shown that 6 percent of customers go to Schlotzsky's for the free Wi-Fi. That translates to 15,000 customers per store per year. If each pays, on average, $7 for a sandwich and drink, that adds up to about $100,000 in sales per year.

"That's a really good return on investment," Mr. Wooley said.

Free Wi-Fi access, he said, is similar to other features he has adopted to make his restaurant more appealing. "It's like the wood furniture, and the tile in the restrooms, and the art on the wall," he said. "You're doing all these things so people will select your restaurant."

For the life of him, he said, he cannot see a disadvantage to his business model. Besides the good will he generates, Mr. Wooley said, he gets a bit of low-cost advertising. When Schlotzsky's customers get their Wi-Fi signal, their browsers are directed to a Schlotzsky's page and they are asked to register before being given free rein on the Web.

"Think about how much money you'd spend on a TV spot," Mr. Wooley said. "Unlike a pop-up ad that annoys us all to no end, here you have a way to get on someone's computer and make them happy."

I wrote about Schlotzsky's WiFi plans last August; one aspect from the earlier story that isn't made clear in the Times story is whether Schlotzsky's has followed through on its idea to place antennas on its store roofs to boost its WiFi range.

If anyone from Austin reads this, and has tried WiFi from Schlotsky's, I'd appreciate comments on your experience.

A People's History of Middle Earth

Via Mike Backes, a two-part series (part one, part two) from McSweeney's, "Unused Audio Commentary By Howard Zinn & Noam Chomsky, Recorded Summer, 2002, for The Fellowship of the Ring (Platinum Series Extended Edition) DVD":

Chomsky: Here again we have the Orcs running after the Fellowship. The Orcs, apparently, are going to slaughter them, and in my estimation they would be well within their rights to do so. But do they? No, they do not. They stop.

Zinn: They stop.

Chomsky: And then they run away because the Balrog comes out. Take note of the fact that the Orcs don't appear to like the Balrog much themselves. They're scared of it.

Zinn: I'm not sure what role the Balrog really plays in this.

Chomsky: I think it just happened to be there, guarding its own little part of the mine.

Zinn: And look at these Orcs! Supposedly so evil and vicious, and yet they don't do anything. They even appear to talk it over amongst themselves.

Chomsky: Look at it from their perspective: They've been locked up in this cave. They're frightened, they know they're not good fighters. They're just a bunch of farmers.

Zinn: As evidenced by their long, ungainly swords.

Chomsky: Perhaps they've been radicalized a bit. But I doubt they are true evil-doers.

Zinn: Again, I'm not sure what role the Balrog plays.

Chomsky: I, too, am uncertain on that point.

Zinn: Here, very significantly, we have the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm. You will notice that what is destroyed is a bridge -- another potential connector.

Chomsky: On a symbolic level, that is a very good point.

Zinn: All the borders in this film are constantly being destroyed, or overrun, or eliminated, or sealed. It's all about fear -- fearing the other. Notice, too, that the Elf Legolas jumps across the ruined bridge first.

Chomsky: They'll cross this bridge and the bridge will collapse, and they'll never be able to communicate with the Balrog again, or with the Orcs inside. In fact, they're sealing off the Orcs from ever escaping. They're leaving the Orcs in the cave with this big Balrog. Now, again, surely, among these Moria Orcs were some Orc radicals -- aggressive, angry, militant radicals. We shouldn't understate that.

Zinn: Well, look how the Orcs grow up. What do you expect?

Chomsky: I mean, what other options have they?

Zinn: I dare say that, were I an Orc, I might possibly be one of those terrorist Orcs, shooting arrows at the Fellowship myself.

Chomsky: Here comes the Balrog. Notice Gandalf's unilateral action. "Quick, get away, I have to fight this thing alone!"

Zinn: Once again you see a creature that's on fire being demonized in this movie: the flaming eye, the flaming Balrog. As though being on fire is this terrible affliction to have.

Chomsky: As though they can help it if they're on fire.

Zinn: After Gandalf falls, you get another view of the so-called terrorist Orcs. You know, the regrettable side of the Orcs does occasionally come out. The violence. It doesn't help their cause when these distinct, individual Orcs take it upon themselves to lash out at the inequality of the system. But notice that even these violent Orcs don't seem happy. They're not pleased with themselves. It's a violence borne of necessity.

Chomsky: Sure. They're trapped in a cycle of violence.

Brilliant! Now all we need is former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark to offer to represent any high-ranking leaders from Mordor.

May 10, 2003

School Vouchers in DC

The Economist reports on efforts to introduce vouchers to the District of Columbia's awful school system:

The District of Columbia may contain the capital of the most powerful country in the history of the world. But the local public schools smack more of Ruritania than Imperial Rome.

Though they boast the third-highest level of per-pupil spending in the country, 70% of pupils in the District score at or below the basic level on standardised reading tests (ie, they can barely read) and 71% score at or below basic in maths. In one infamous high school, Anacostia, 92% of children score below basic in maths. Illiteracy is so rife that, when the mayor was organising a "write-in" campaign in 2002, his supporters were forced to hand out pre-printed stamps. Anybody rich enough either moves to the suburbs or pays through the nose for private schools.

Now at last there is a flicker of hope for the 67,500 children trapped in DC's public schools. On May 1st, Mayor Anthony Williams publicly embraced school vouchers during an appearance with the education secretary, Rod Paige. He now thinks that vouchers can provide opportunities for children caught in failing schools while also galvanising the system as a whole...

Introducing vouchers into DC will not only bring hope to thousands of children who are trapped in a rotten system. It will force the Democratic Party to choose between its most loyal constituency -- blacks -- and some of its biggest paymasters, the teachers' unions. So far, the party has invariably sided with the unions. But the introduction of vouchers in the nation's capital may force it to pay a bit more attention to the majority of blacks who support school choice.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC's non-voting Congressional representative, opposes vouchers:

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) celebrated National Charter School Week today at a news conference at the Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School, where the new Coalition for Accountable Public Schools announced its opposition to congressional and Bush Administration attempts to impose vouchers on the District of Columbia. Norton said that the District has the most extensive set of alternatives to traditional public schools in the country, with its 40 charter schools and 15 transformation schools. She said that both desperately need any and all available federal money to keep up with parents who are seeking admission for their children. "We will not accept discrimination that imposes vouchers on us while every other jurisdiction in the country may choose whether federal grant money goes to public or private schools," the Congresswoman said.
In other words, the problem, according to the Congresswoman, is money. DC schools need more of it. Or do they? How much money do DC schools spend today? The Washington Times knows:
A [Census Bureau] report issued Tuesday revealed that current per-pupil spending for public schools is virtually as high in the District as it is in any of the 50 states. Specifically, for the school year ending in June 2001, the District spent $10,852 per student, a mere $70 per student behind New York State, the national leader. The District's per-pupil current expenditure exceeded the national average of $7,284 by more than $3,500, or 49 percent.

Regarding current spending and capital outlays (construction, equipment, etc.), the District's per-pupil figure was $15,122, a level that was far higher than a comparable figure for any state. Indeed, the highest level of total revenues of any state -- $12,454 for New Jersey -- was nearly $2,700 per pupil below the District's. Across the nation, moreover, total revenues available for current spending and capital outlays averaged $8,521 per pupil, a level the District's figure of $15,122 exceeded by more than $6,600 per student, or by an astounding 77 percent...

These figures put the lie to the assertions... that schools are significantly underfunded. The problem, quite obviously, isn't that D.C. taxpayers and the federal government are shortchanging the schools. The problem is that the schools have been shortchanging the students for years.

In the 2000-2001 school year, DC's student/teacher ratio was 13.6 in primary schools, 13.5 in middle schools, and 14.1 in high schools. In other words, if you were to walk into a typical DC high school classroom, with 14.1 students, that classroom would represent $153,013 in spending, not including capital outlays, which would push the figure to $213,220.

In 2001, the average public school teacher salary in DC was $48,651. In other words, of the $153,013 spent in that typical classroom, only 31.8 percent went to pay the teacher's salary. Where did the rest go? It didn't go to build or maintain schools -- capital spending represents another $60,207 per classroom.

It has been said that one definition of insanity is to repeat the same actions while expecting different results. The US has relentlessly increased school spending over the last 30 years. What has it done for us? What has it done for a pathetic school system like DC's? Why do people believe that yet more spending will solve the problem?

We need to conduct grand experiments to see which education system changes will and won't work. If we don't know the answer to this question, how can we properly make reforms for the future?

May 08, 2003

Mr. Social Networking

I wrote about LinkedIn a couple of days ago. It appears to be gaining momentum rapidly; my network of connections (which I believe is the set of people from whom I'm separated by three degrees or less) has grown to over 1,000 people without much effort on my part.

Any thoughts I had of congratulating myself on my 19 direct connections on LinkedIn melted away as I watched Joi Ito's direct network grow... and grow... and grow. He's up to 220 now -- 95 ahead of the second best-connected user and a full 170 connections ahead of the user in third place.

As Count von Count would say, that's one... one connected Japanese über-digiratus... ah ah ah.

May 07, 2003

Hummer = IQ Test

GM's smash hit, the Hummer H2 starts at $48,000, gets less than 11 miles to the gallon, and now has been ranked dead last among cars sold in the US in J. D. Power & Associates' initial quality survey:

To conduct the survey, J. D. Power asked 52,000 people who bought or leased a vehicle if any of 135 potential problems emerged in the first 90 days after delivery...

The auto industry's market research generally ranks fuel economy far down on buyers' priority list, but it seems to have registered after customers bought their vehicles, as the level of fuel consumption complaints doubled.

That did not make for an auspicious debut for the Hummer in the survey, though the brand's new H2 sport utility has certainly sold well. Even though H2 starts just under $50,000, it is the only G.M. vehicle that sells well without huge incentives. But the jaws of some buyers apparently dropped when they filled their 32-gallon gas tanks. They ranked Hummer in last place among 36 brands, reporting 225 problems per 100 Hummers over all, compared with an industry average of 133.

The Hummer H2 is an IQ test. If you buy one, you fail it. It's that simple.

May 06, 2003

LinkedIn Links In

I've mentioned Reid Hoffman in my blog more than once, usually noting that he was in stealth mode. No more.

Today, Reid went live with LinkedIn, his new business. It's a social networking service, not wholly dissimilar from services such as Friendster and Ryze. LinkedIn, however, is completely focused on professional networking, and relies exclusively on mediated personal introductions to bring people together.

LinkedIn went live to a limited group of testers last night, and then was opened up for new members earlier today. What surprised me was how polished it was right out of the gate. It's an impressive service. I think Reid has a future hit on his hands.

May 05, 2003

Go Canada!

Via a Slashdot entry and a story in the Ottawa Citizen comes news of the US State Department's latest Patterns of Global Terrorism report. Canada is mentioned, mostly positively, but including the following passage:

Some US law-enforcement officers have expressed concern that Canadian privacy laws, as well as funding levels for law enforcement, inhibit a fuller and more timely exchange of information and response to requests for assistance. Also, Canadian laws and regulations intended to protect Canadian citizens and landed immigrants from Government intrusion sometimes limit the depth of investigations.
All I can say is, thank goodness at least our neighbor to the north still seems to understand the importance of civil liberties.

May 04, 2003

China, Taiwan, and SARS

From a story yesterday in the Wall Street Journal:

China on Saturday agreed to let the World Health Organization visit Taiwan in its fight against severe acute respiratory syndrome, putting aside politics after reports the island's number of SARS cases has doubled in a week.

China didn't explain its decision, but the official Xinhua News Agency quoted a Ministry of Health spokesman, Liu Peilong, as saying Friday that the mainland was monitoring the epidemic's development in Taiwan and was "concerned about the health and well-being" of the people. The report didn't give any other details...

China, where at least 190 people have died from SARS, has been accused of not doing enough to fight SARS and its change toward Taiwan may have been part of its recent effort to appear more cooperative. China earlier rejected direct WHO help for the island and blocked its efforts to join the United Nation agency.

What wasn't clear from either this story or a story on the same topic in the New York Times -- and what I want to know -- is exactly how China has been blocking Taiwan's requests for assistance. How is it that one country can disallow a UN agency from helping another country, absent a permanent Security Council member vetoing a Security Council resolution?

Canada, the US, and Drug Laws

According to the CBC, the US is threatening unspecified measures against Canada if the government there decriminalizes marijuana:

David Murray, right-hand man to U.S. "drug czar" John Walters, says he doesn't want to tread on another country's sovereignty, but warned there would be consequences if Canada proceeds with a plan to decriminalize the possession of marijuana.

"We would have to respond. We would be forced to respond," said Murray.

Murray didn't spell out what the American response would be, but he invoked images of tie-ups at border crossings and intense bureaucracy...

Murray tried to express the feeling in the U.S. that looser drug laws go hand-in-hand with an increase in crime and drug addiction among youth, and used some apocalyptic language to do it.

"You can't wall this off saying, 'We're only talking about a little cannabis.' Our experience is they come together like the Four Horsemen," he said.

I'm not sure what I find more outrageous: the implied threats against our neighbor and ally, or the ridiculous claims about the effects of decriminalization. As NORML put it:

In Holland, where politicians decided over 25 years ago to separate marijuana from the illicit drug market by permitting coffee shops all over the country to sell small amounts of marijuana to adults, individuals use marijuana and other drugs at rates less than half of their American counterparts.
Don't believe NORML? How about a report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction?
Lifetime experience of cannabis is reported to range from 10% (Finland) to 25 to 30% (Denmark and the United Kingdom) of the whole adult population, with a substantial number of countries reporting figures of around 20% (Belgium, Germany, Spain, France, Ireland and the Netherlands)... [C]ocaine and ecstasy have been tried each by about 0.5 to 4.5% of the population... As a reference outside Europe, in the 2000 US household survey, 34% of adults (12 years and older) reported lifetime experience of cannabis and 11% of cocaine.

Recent use of cannabis is reported from 1 to 10% of all adults, although most countries that have information report levels of between 5 and 10%. Recent use of amphetamines, cocaine or ecstasy was reported in general by less than 1% of adults, although Ireland and the United Kingdom have somewhat higher figures for the three substances, together with Denmark and Norway for amphetamines and Spain for cocaine. In the 2000 US household survey, 8.3% of adults (12 years and older) reported recent use (past year) of cannabis and 1.5% of cocaine.

I heap criticism on liberals who are against experiments in school reform (notably voucher-based systems) not so much because I'm positive they'll work, but because I'm sure the current educational system doesn't, and feel strongly that we should try new ideas. By the same token, though, conservatives who are against experiments in drug policy reform deserve the same criticism. The War on Drugs has been an abject failure by any reasonable measure. Why aren't conservatives willing to try new ideas?

The US could do with a lot less partisanship and a lot more pragmatism these days.

May 03, 2003

Moving the Women's World Cup

A few days ago, I drafted (but didn't finish) a blog entry in which I predicted that FIFA would move the Women's World Cup 2003 -- previously scheduled to be held in Shanghai, 23 September-11 October -- to another venue on account of SARS. I woke up this morning, opened up Movable Type to finish the entry, and found they had beat me to it:

The 4th FIFA Women's World Cup 2003, due to be staged in PR China from 23 September to 11 October, will be transferred to another country in view of the current health threat in China, which is greatly affected by the SARS epidemic...

To date, the USA and Australia have expressed interest in staging the competition. The FIFA administration will be clarifying the situation over the next few weeks, especially with regard to the timing of the championship. The final competition should, ideally, coincide with the timing of that originally planned for China...

At the same time the Executive Committee announced that the 2007 Women's World Cup would be awarded to China.

As much as I'd love to see the women play here, Australia would be a great choice. I've never been, but its reputation for hospitality is well-known, and in the wake of the 2000 Olympics, they have wonderful sporting facilities. Also, while the 1999 Cup was held in the US, Australia has never hosted it. Anyway, given how political FIFA is, and given the appearance of taking an event away from China and moving it to the US, it seems almost certain they'll award it to Australia.

This isn't the only change in sport as a result of the SARS epidemic:

The women's ice hockey world championships, scheduled to be played in China, was canceled, and the world badminton championships, to be held in Birmingham, England, has been postponed because of the large number of Asians expected to compete.

On Friday, the International Cycling Union moved the world track cycling championships to Europe.

More news on women's soccer can be found here.

May 02, 2003

Submarine Evolution

In Groton, Connecticut yesterday, I visited the Submarine Force Library and Museum. Unfortunately, the USS Nautilus was closed for repairs, but the museum was open and made for an interesting visit.

2003-05-02-01.jpg

The picture above is of the entrance to the museum. The inner ring depicts the circumference of the pressure hull of the USS Holland, built in 1898 and commissioned as the first US Navy submarine in 1900. The outer ring depicts the circumference of the pressure hull of a modern Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine.

May 01, 2003

Mystic Pizza

I'm in Connecticut for a meeting today in Groton. My colleague and fellow traveler Tim Murray found a great deal on a hotel in nearby Mystic, so that's where we're staying.

Of course, if we were going to be in Mystic, we had to eat at Mystic Pizza:

2003-05-01-01.jpg

Mystic Pizza is a real place that existed before the movie of the same name. As the story goes, the screenwriter saw it while summering in the area and decided to base her story there.

In the movie, without revealing too much, the pizza is hailed as superb, its secret sauce recipe being the key to its flavor. How is the real thing? Not bad, but not the best pizza I've ever tasted. Still, it was fun, and I'm glad we went. We shared a small pizza and then headed down the street to the S&P Oyster Company, where, as promised by the bartender, we had orders of the best oysters I've ever tasted.

Smart Mobs in Egypt

From a story in the Wall Street Journal this morning on the role Islamist groups may play in future Middle East democracies:

When the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood died last fall, Egypt's secular government tried hard to keep popular reaction to a minimum. It barred newspaper notices of Mustafa Mashhour's death and blocked the streets leading to his funeral.

Yet with only a day to organize, the Muslim Brotherhood got tens of thousands of mourners to show up. "We have cellphones and the Internet and we live in the modern world," says the dead leader's deputy, Mamun Hodaibi. "There was no secret to the word getting out."

Found here.