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August 31, 2003

Unwalkable Suburbs

Via boing boing comes news that suburbia makes one fat:

Sprawling suburbs where it is hard to get around without a car may make residents fatter: Americans who live in the most sprawling counties tend to weigh six pounds more than their counterparts in the most compact areas.

Adding to the sprawl concern: Pedestrians and bicyclists are much more likely to be killed by passing cars in this country than in parts of Europe where cities are engineered to encourage physical activity -- and whose residents typically are skinnier and live longer than the average American.

Those are conclusions of major new studies published yesterday that call on urban planners and zoning commissions to consider public health in designing neighborhoods.

"How you build things influences health in a much more pervasive way than I think most health professionals realize," said Dr. Richard Jackson of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who helped edit the research, published in the American Journal of Public Health and the American Journal of Health Promotion.

"Look at many new suburbs -- there are not any sidewalks at all... The result is we just don't walk," said John Pucher of Rutgers University, who uncovered the U.S.-European disparities.

There is growing recognition that ever-fatter Americans' tendency to be sedentary is at least partially due to an environment that discourages getting off the couch and out of the car. Do adults walk three blocks to the bus stop, or drive to work? Can children walk to school? Is there a walking or biking path to the post office, restaurant, a friend's house?

In a sprawling community, homes are far from work, stores and schools, and safe walking and biking are difficult. The research reported yesterday marks the first attempt to pinpoint just how much that matters...

Far worse were Pucher's findings that per trip, American pedestrians are roughly three times more likely to be killed by a passing car than are German pedestrians -- and more than six times more likely than Dutch pedestrians. For bicyclists, Americans are twice as likely to be killed as Germans and more than three times as likely as Dutch cyclists.

I live in Apex, North Carolina, a suburb of a suburb (Cary) of a major city (Raleigh). Apex is a small town, formerly highly rural, being developed quite quickly. Unfortunately, the development isn't bringing livability along with it.

I've been walking three or four times a week of late. Until today, I've been walking no more than an hour, and staying in my subdivision (by looping around all the streets). This morning, I decided to go on a longer walk -- two hours and about seven miles. Looping around the same streets over and over didn't sound interesting, so I decided to try to walk out of the subdivision. The busy road that goes past our subdivision, connecting it with downtown, is mostly sidewalk-free. Walking down the road was scary -- the shoulders were just a few inches wide where they existed, and the ground sloped sharply away from the road. I cut through another subdivision to get off the main road, ending up having to cross a highway at a stoplight. At the stoplight, the road crossing the highway had sidewalks on both sides, implying one should be able to walk from one side to the other, but in fact the timing of the stoplight meant that I had to run to make it across. I finally gave up and turned around when the sidewalk disappeared just as the road I was on curved sharply and I saw cars taking the curve at 40-50 miles/hour.

I don't think the managers of the town of Apex are deliberately making it difficult to walk, but it's clear they're not making it easy, either. Even where sidewalks are being built, as areas are developed, they're being built unintelligently. Along a major highway that passes through town, gradually being upgraded from two to four lanes, a long upgraded stretch features a new sidewalk that switches sides halfway. In other words, to use the sidewalk, pedestrians have to cross a busy, four-lane highway with no light or even crosswalk.

How many pounds -- and lives -- could we save with more intelligent city planning?

August 30, 2003

Opposing an Anti-Gay Marriage Amendment

The Human Rights Campaign needs people to write to their senators to oppose attempts to amend the US Constitution to prohibit gay marriage. They've made it easy with a fill-in-the-blanks page.

I happen to believe that gay people should have the same rights as heterosexuals, including marriage. Even if you disagree with me, though, you may still see the fundamental wrongness of preemptively taking away rights from a class of people, as well as taking away the rights of states to manage their internal affairs as they see fit.

Hearings on this subject are scheduled for 4 September -- just five days from now. It takes a couple of minutes or less to fill out the form and send a letter to your senators. Why not do it now?

August 29, 2003

Could Columbia's Crew Have Been Saved?

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board has released its report (available here). In one of the more interesting passages, the authors write of the possibility of rescuing Columbia's crew, had requests for inspection of possible tile damage been heeded. Two possible strategies are mentioned, on-orbit repair and rescue by another shuttle, but only the latter is considered viable. A hypothetical timeline is presented:

Following the debris strike discovery on Flight Day Two, Mission Managers requested imagery by Flight Day Three. That imagery was inconclusive, leading to a decision on Flight Day Four to perform a spacewalk on Flight Day Five. That spacewalk revealed potentially catastrophic damage. The crew was directed to begin conserving consumables, such as oxygen and water, and Shuttle managers began around-the-clock processing of Atlantis to prepare it for launch. Shuttle managers pursued both the rescue and the repair options from Flight Day Six to Flight Day 26, and on that day (February 10) decided which one to abandon.

The NASA team deemed this timeline realistic for several reasons. First, the team determined that a spacewalk to inspect the left wing could be easily accomplished. The team then assessed how the crew could limit its use of consumables to determine how long Columbia could stay in orbit. The limiting consumable was the lithium hydroxide canisters, which scrub from the cabin atmosphere the carbon dioxide the crew exhales. After consulting with flight surgeons, the team concluded that by modifying crew activity and sleep time carbon dioxide could be kept to acceptable levels until Flight Day 30 (the morning of February 15). All other consumables would last longer. Oxygen, the next most critical, would require the crew to return on Flight Day 31...

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Accelerating the processing of Atlantis for early launch and rendezvous with Columbia was by far the most complex task in the rescue scenario. On Columbia's Flight Day Four, Atlantis was in the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center with its main engines installed and only 41 days from its scheduled March 1 launch. The Solid Rocket Boosters were already mated with the External Tank in the Vehicle Assembly Building. By working three around-the-clock shifts seven days a week, Atlantis could be readied for launch, with no necessary testing skipped, by February 10. If launch processing and countdown proceeded smoothly, this would provide a five-day window, from February 10 to February 15, in which Atlantis could rendezvous with Columbia before Columbia's consumables ran out. According to records, the weather on these days allowed a launch. Atlantis would be launched with a crew of four: a commander, pilot, and two astronauts trained for spacewalks. In January, seven commanders, seven pilots, and nine spacewalk-trained astronauts were available. During the rendezvous on Atlantis's first day in orbit, the two Orbiters would maneuver to face each other with their payload bay doors open. Suited Columbia crew members would then be transferred to Atlantis via spacewalks. Atlantis would return with four crew members on the flight deck and seven in the mid-deck. Mission Control would then configure Columbia for a de-orbit burn that would ditch the Orbiter in the Pacific Ocean, or would have the Columbia crew take it to a higher orbit for a possible subsequent repair mission if more thorough repairs could be developed.

This rescue was considered challenging but feasible. To succeed, it required problem-free processing of Atlantis and a flawless launch countdown. If Program managers had understood the threat that the bipod foam strike posed and were able to unequivocally determine before Flight Day Seven that there was potentially catastrophic damage to the left wing, these repair and rescue plans would most likely have been developed, and a rescue would have been conceivable.

So there it is. Had the e-mail messages been heeded, and the shuttle been inspected -- first from the ground, then from space -- then the crew could likely have been saved.

August 28, 2003

"Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me"

There was a nice letter to the editor yesterday in the Raleigh News and Observer, our major local paper here:

Many who support the religious monument in the Alabama Supreme Court building argue that the Ten Commandments are really just basic moral virtues that any civilized society would share. "Thou shalt not murder." "Thou shalt not steal." What could be wrong with that?

What is wrong is that there is more to the Ten Commandments than generic moral common sense. The first commandment says, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." I do not have a problem with the state telling me not to murder or steal. I do take offense when a cultural elite tries to use the authority of the courts to tell me what god I should worship.

Yahweh is not my god, nor is he the god of millions of other Americans. When a building used by a court of law houses a commandment to worship a specific god, it sends a message that those who do not worship that god do not respect the law.

The monument in Alabama is an affront to patriotic Americans whose love for their country and respect for the rule of law is shaped within spiritual traditions other than the Judeo-Christian one...

The author is absolutely correct: to display a set of religious commandments that start with the order, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," represents not only official sanctioning of a particular religion, but disapproval of all others as well. That's unacceptable.

Senate Hearing on P2P

A US Senator, Norm Coleman, has called for hearings into the RIAA's lawsuits against P2P users. The EFF is asking for help:

Make sure that the RIAA isn't the only organization in the room when the hard questions start coming; tell Congress that you want the Electronic Frontier Foundation to represent your interests in the hearings:

http://action.eff.org/action/index.asp?step=2&item=2770

Our goal is to have over 100,000 letters delivered by the time of the hearing...

It only takes two minutes or so to enter your address and customize a letter to your senators. If you find the RIAA's actions unacceptable, this is an easy way to let your voice be heard.

August 27, 2003

Sirtuins Again

Here's the opening paragraph (the rest requires a subscription) of the sirtuin paper in Nature that I blogged about earlier (here and here):

In diverse organisms, calorie restriction slows the pace of ageing and increases maximum lifespan. In the budding yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, calorie restriction extends lifespan by increasing the activity of Sir2 (ref. 1), a member of the conserved sirtuin family of NAD+-dependent protein deacetylases. Included in this family are SIR-2.1, a Caenorhabditis elegans enzyme that regulates lifespan, and SIRT1, a human deacetylase that promotes cell survival by negatively regulating the p53 tumour suppressor. Here we report the discovery of three classes of small molecules that activate sirtuins. We show that the potent activator resveratrol, a polyphenol found in red wine, lowers the Michaelis constant of SIRT1 for both the acetylated substrate and NAD+, and increases cell survival by stimulating SIRT1-dependent deacetylation of p53. In yeast, resveratrol mimics calorie restriction by stimulating Sir2, increasing DNA stability and extending lifespan by 70%. We discuss possible evolutionary origins of this phenomenon and suggest new lines of research into the therapeutic use of sirtuin activators.
I admire the understated style of so many scientific papers: "We... suggest new lines of research into the therapeutic use of sirtuin activators." If this research is successful, those words could turn out to be profound.

Of course, the classic example of this is Watson and Crick's paper describing the structure of DNA:

We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest...

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

August 26, 2003

An Awful Milestone

An awful milestone has been reached:

The number of United States soldiers who have died in Iraq since May 1, when President Bush declared the end of major combat there, has surpassed the number of American deaths in the first stage of the war, which began on March 19.

More on Sirtuins

As it turns out, the link I guessed at in my previous entry -- that work on sirtuins might be connected to previous work on caloric restriction -- was correct. There's a far more comprehensive article from the Washington Post:

Scientists have found for the first time a way to rev up a potent "anti-aging" enzyme in living cells, an advance they said could speed the development of drugs to extend human life span and prevent a wide range of geriatric diseases.

The novel approach has significantly increased the life spans of yeast and human cells in laboratory dishes and extended the lives of flies and worms -- organisms that, on the level of molecular biology, age much as humans do. Indeed, the researchers said, the compounds seem to have the same anti-aging effect as a drastic reduction in calories, the only strategy ever proven to extend life in mammals but one that most people find difficult to stick to...

[T]he findings strengthen an increasingly popular notion among many scientists that the cellular enzymes at the core of the experiments -- called sirtuins -- are universal regulators of aging in virtually all living organisms and represent a prime target for new anti-aging drugs...

For years researchers have known that life span can be extended by 50 percent or more in many kinds of creatures, including flies, worms and mice, if the animal is fed a diet that is nutritious but contains about 30 percent fewer calories than usual. Recently scientists found that the life-extending benefits of calorie restriction do not occur if the animal has been genetically altered to lack sirtuins, indicating these enzymes are crucial to this process.

Now scientists are coming to understand sirtuins' role in that life-extending response. In people, they seem to halt the normal cellular cycle that ends with old cells committing suicide and instead help rejuvenate them by beefing up their DNA repair processes and stimulating production of protective antioxidants.

"What we think is that if a cell is at a point of deciding whether to live or die, these sirtuins push toward the survival mode and let the cell try a little harder and longer to fix itself," said Sinclair, who has a financial stake in a new effort to develop sirtuin-related products with BIOMOL Research Laboratories of Plymouth Meeting, Pa.

Leonard Guarente, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, is also enthusiastic about the compounds' potential as anti-aging aids.

"We're very keen on the idea that this is it" -- that sirtuins are the central regulator of the aging process -- Guarente said. He is a founder of Elixir Pharmaceuticals of Cambridge, Mass., which, like Sinclair and BIOMOL, hopes to capitalize on chemicals that can boost sirtuin activity.

The goal is to make drugs or nutritional supplements that can fool the body into thinking it's living on a radically calorie-reduced diet, in effect allowing people to eat their cake and live longer, too.

BIOMOL can be found on the Web here. Elixir Pharmaceuticals can be found here.

August 25, 2003

Anti-Aging Discovery

An interesting report from the BBC:

Substances found in food and wine may be able to extend human life, according to new scientific research.

Scientists in the United States found that the substances -- called polyphenols -- can prolong the life of yeast cells significantly. They seem to work inside human cells too.

Polyphenols are produced by many plants -- perhaps the best known is resveratrol, found in red wine...

Now researchers at Harvard University have discovered that the chemicals can prolong the life of yeast by about 70%.

They do this by a mechanism which was previously unknown, by increasing production of enzymes called sirtuins...

The researchers also found that resveratrol increases sirtuin production in human cells in the lab; and, most compellingly, that it appears to prolong the life of flies and worms.

"Everyone's been interested in the polyphenols because of their anti-oxidant properties," said Dr Konrad Howitz, one of the team...

"But this mechanism with the sirtuins is new and I guess people are going to go back to the epidemiological data on heart disease and cancer and figure out how much is down to the anti-oxidant mechanism and how much to the sirtuins."

It is too early to conclude that the researchers have found an elixir of human life -- further work is needed, and the first step is to see if resveratrol can make mice live longer.

That experiment is scheduled to start in a few months' time, and should give results in less than a year.

If polyphenols do give mice extra life, and if that extra life is healthy, the stage will then be set for human trials of something which scientists have dreamed of for centuries -- a pill or potion to make us live longer.

Interestingly, some of the same team members have a citation for a paper in Nature some years back on the anti-aging effects of caloric restriction. A Holy Grail of the field would to be to find a substance that would give the benefits of caloric restriction without actually requiring it. This could be it.

Could we finally be closing in on useful anti-senescence treatments? It seems possible.

August 24, 2003

My Next Car

I've been watching closely news on the 2004 Prius, the redesign of Toyota's successful hybrid automobile.

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Now the New York Times has a review of what I think will be my next car:

[T]he redesigned Prius goes on sale in mid-October at $19,995 -- a price that has not changed since the first version was introduced in the United States in 2000...

Having grown five inches in length, the new Prius is closer in size to the compact Corolla, yet it has more rear legroom than the midsize Camry. It is also more powerful and more fuel-efficient than the old Prius, Toyota says, and its emissions have been cut by nearly 30 percent.

With its larger cabin, the Prius is now classified as a midsize car by the Environmental Protection Agency, albeit at the lower end of the midsize range. The interior looks classier; it manages to be both elegant and a bit futuristic...

The car runs on Toyota's second-generation hybrid-drive system and its third generation of hybrid-battery technology...

Toyota has improved its system so that the Prius can operate more often on electricity only, in stop-and-go city driving. (Hence the gains in gas mileage and emissions.) But you have to keep a very light foot on the throttle to keep the gas engine from cutting in.

Because the Prius relies more on the electric motor around town, and the gas engine at speed, its fuel economy figures are higher for city driving than for the highway - the opposite of most cars. The Environmental Protection Agency's preliminary fuel economy ratings for the Prius -- which comes only with a continuously variable automatic transmission -- are 59 m.p.g. in town and 51 m.p.g. on the highway. The '03 Prius was rated at 52 in town and 45 on the highway.

Although the 1.5-liter engine was carried over from the old model, it is a bit more powerful, with 76 horsepower (at 5,000 r.p.m.), up from 70. The electric motor is also more powerful, producing 67 horsepower from 1,200 to 1,540 r.p.m. and peak torque of 295 pounds-feet from zero to 1,200 r.p.m. That compares with 44 horsepower and 258 pounds-feet for the previous model.

While this doesn't seem like a lot, the 2,890-pound Prius is hardly underpowered, even when merging into fast-moving California freeway traffic. It takes 10 seconds to accelerate from zero to 60 m.p.g., Toyota says, a reduction of 2.7 seconds.

59 miles/gallon on the highway and 51 miles/gallon in city driving? Incredibly low emissions? Plenty of interior space? Cool styling? DVD navigation system? Built-in Bluetooth? Excellent.

This is the car for environmental geeks and geeky environmentalists.

August 23, 2003

Congestion Charging, Six Months In

I've blogged before about London's congestion charging scheme (here and here).

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Now the Economist is out with a six-month update, and the news is good:

Six months after the introduction of London's £5-a-day congestion charge, it has worked better than the mayor, Ken Livingstone, or almost anyone else, expected. Traffic delays are down by a third, while average speeds in the charging zone have increased by nearly 40%. With the critics in retreat, few doubt the mayor's re-election in a year's time. William Hill, a bookmaker, offers odds of 3-1 on. Most of the 100,000 drivers who pay the charge daily are satisfied. Nearly three-quarters of Londoners say it is proving effective.
There are problems, notably a loss of revenue because so many people are choosing not to drive into the congestion charge area. But overall, the scheme is so successful that an expansion of the zone seems likely.

Isn't it time for major US cities to consider such a scheme? What would the obvious candidates be? Cities with highly dense urban cores and severe traffic problems... New York? Washington?

August 22, 2003

In Contempt

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is defying the US Supreme Court:

Alabama's top judge refused to back down in his fight to keep a Ten Commandments monument... [in] the rotunda of the state judicial building.

"I will never deny the God upon whom our laws and country depend," Chief Justice Roy Moore said in a fiery defense of the 5,300-pound granite marker, as supporters cheered and prayed on the building's steps.

The monument was still in the building's rotunda early Thursday evening, and court officials did not say when or where it would be moved.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, who had ruled the monument's placement violated the Constitution's ban on government promotion of a religious doctrine, has said it could be moved to a private place still within the building. He had threatened $5,000-a-day fines if Moore left the monument in the public rotunda.

Moore installed the monument two years ago and contends it represents the moral foundation of American law.

"Not only did Judge Thompson put himself above the law, but above God as well," Moore told his supporters Thursday.

The chief justice had appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for an emergency stay of the removal order, but the court rejected it Wednesday. Moore said Thursday he would file a formal appeal with the high court soon "to defend our constitutional right to acknowledge God."

"I cannot forsake my conscience," he said.

Presuming that Chief Justice Moore still has his job when all is said and done, how could he ever again hold someone in contempt of court, when he himself, the highest legal figure in his state, is refusing to obey the highest legal authority in the land?

While I disagree strongly with Chief Justice Moore, I'm all for following one's conscience and for peaceful civil disobedience. Having said that, there are usually consequences for such actions (or they would have no meaning). To my mind, the obvious consequence for the Chief Justice is that, in undermining the legal system, he is forfeiting his ability to continue serving within that system.

August 21, 2003

Compilation Error

Can someone help me out?

  1. Hamas (along with Islamic Jihad and Fatah) declares a cease-fire.
  2. Hamas claims responsibility for a suicide bombing that kills 18 Israeli civilians.
  3. Israel assassinates a Hamas political leader and his two bodyguards.
  4. Hamas declares an end to the cease-fire.
If this were a program, it wouldn't compile.

kickAAS

There's a new blog devoted to ending agricultural subsidies, kick All Agricultural Subsidies (kickAAS).

I've written about agricultural subsidies before. In July of last year, I wrote:

In 1984, New Zealand's government ended all farm subsidies, with a phase-out period of only one year. What happened next?
Forced to adjust to new economic realities, New Zealand farmers cut costs, diversified their land use, sought non-farm income opportunities and altered production as market signals advised -- for example, by reducing sheep numbers and boosting cattle ranching. Farmers were aided on the cost side as input prices fell, because suppliers could no longer count on subsidies to inflate demand. The striving for greater efficiency also supported environmental protection as marginal land farmed only to collect subsidies was replaced with native bush, and overuse of fertilizers ended when fertilizer subsidies were removed. The Federated Farmers of New Zealand believe their country's experience "thoroughly debunked the myth that the farming sector cannot prosper without government subsidies."
The result of all this was that the value of New Zealand's farm output has risen 40 percent in constant dollars since the 1980s. New Zealand's average increase in farm productivity per year has risen from one percent before reform to six percent since.

While the US radically increases farm subsidies -- and while Europe debates extending its massive Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to new European Union applicants -- New Zealand motors along, spending nothing on subsidies and enjoying more efficient farming as a result. In a report on French shepherds broadcast on NPR's All Things Considered (available only as RealAudio), commentator Nancy Coons recounted the following comment made by a French shepherd on a sheep drive:

"We must all [drive sheep across southern France] every year, for no other reason than to say, 'We're here. If you continue to buy the lambs shipped in from New Zealand, we won't be here any longer.'"
The irony of this is palpable. Billions of dollars in farm subsidies, and still French shepherds are increasingly unable to keep pace with competitors halfway around the world -- not low-cost Third World producers, nor massively subsidized farmers, but highly efficient, unsubsidized, First World competitors.
Subsidies enable farmers to grow crops and sell them without regard to production costs or market prices. In the US, our elected officials become angry when they believe that other countries are doing this in steel, or microprocessors, or textiles. They label this practice "dumping" and retaliate with tariffs and quotas. Meanwhile, Western governments spend $300 billion per year on agricultural subsidies with far worse effects and seem to see no inherent contradiction in their actions.

It's time for this practice to end. The popularity of kickAAS is a good sign that people are starting to understand the problem.

August 20, 2003

The Latest from MinJust

From a speech given yesterday by Attorney General John Ashcroft:

The cause we have chosen is just. The course we have chosen is constitutional. The course we have chosen is preserving lives. For two years Americans have been safe. Because we are safer, our liberties are more secure.
"Because we are safer, our liberties are more secure." This is the most Orwellian utterance I have heard from our government in memory. It roughly translates to, "the less free we are, the more free we are," which would most certainly make MinTruth proud.

The N&O on Hot Spots

From an article on Wi-Fi hot spots in the Raleigh News & Observer:

One of the biggest drawbacks for a business that offers Wi-Fi access is the possibility of Internet poachers. The area within a router's broadcast range -- usually about 300 feet -- is a "hot spot" where users with wirelessly enabled PDAs or laptops can log on.

If an access point's signal isn't encrypted, anyone with the right tech gear can get access to the Internet. If the signal is strong enough, someone can simply park their car outside a business, log on and sap the network -- and possibly snoop into private files on other computers on the network -- without ever going in and making a purchase.

[Thad] Culley, manager of The Regulator [Bookshop Cafe in Durham], has dealt with such "squatters."

Normally, the cafe's network can handle six to eight users, depending on whether one of the users is downloading a large file. If someone outside tries to log on to the network, they can cause the system to slow down or crash entirely. That's when Culley goes outside and confronts the freeloader.

"I just explain to them that it's making my service not work," he said. "Most people are really understanding."

I'll leave aside the issue of confusing encryption with access control. Public hot spots are always unencrypted -- if they required encryption, the challenge would be too much for most users, and they wouldn't log on. Access-controlled networks such as T-Mobile's are unencrypted but password-protected. I can sit in my car outside a Starbucks and reload T-Mobile's sign-in page as much as I like, but that's all I'll be able to do, since I have to sign in to go beyond that page.

I'll also leave aside the canard about snooping into private files. It's not the reporter's fault that she makes the same mistake made by most journalists, portraying unencrypted networks as inherently insecure (and, by inference, encrypted networks as inherently secure). Anyone who treats physical access to their network as their line of defense -- allowing unlimited access to sensitive resources once inside -- is foolish and will probably get their just desserts soon enough.

No, my beef is with the bookshop manager, and the implication that the use of an open Wi-Fi access point without patronizing the establishment offering it is somehow "squatting". Let me make it plain and simple: the airwaves -- especially the airwaves at 2.4 GHz -- belong to us all. It's absurd to operate an open access point, broadcasting a signal beyond the confines of one's business, and then complain when someone outside the business makes use of it. In fact, I find it not only absurd, but offensive. If The Regulator Bookshop Cafe wants to stop outsiders from using its access point, it would be simple enough for them to set up a sign-in system and offer passwords with purchases (this is how McDonald's does it). Until then, if they are going to send their open Wi-Fi signal out into the street and beyond, then I'm within both the letter and the spirit of the law to use it as I see fit.

I'm tempted to make a trip to Durham to sit outside The Regulator, use its Wi-Fi access point without making a purchase, and then when questioned, politely explain that I have no intention whatsoever of stopping.

August 19, 2003

Step Away from the Crack Pipe

Last week, one of SCO's lawyers claimed, astonishingly, that the GPL is invalid:

Now, SCO is preparing to wheel out the software-industry equivalent of a nuclear bomb: It will argue that the GPL itself is invalid, says SCO's lead attorney, Mark Heise of Boies Schiller & Flexner LLP. Mr. Heise says the GPL, by allowing unlimited copying and modification, conflicts with federal copyright law, which allows software buyers to make only a single backup copy. The GPL "is pre-empted by copyright law," he says.
Now the FSF has responded to this argument. If you don't have time to read it, it boils down to this: step away from the crack pipe.
This argument is frivolous, by which I mean that it would be a violation of professional obligation for Mr Heise or any other lawyer to submit it to a court. If it were true, no copyright license could permit the licensee to make multiple copies of the licensed program. That would make not just the GPL "illegal." Mr Heise's supposed theory would also invalidate the BSD, Apache, AFL, OSL, MIT/X11, and all other free software licenses. It would invalidate the Microsoft Shared Source license. It would also eliminate Microsoft's method for the distribution of the Windows operating system, which is pre-loaded by hard drive manufacturers onto disk drives they deliver by the hundreds of thousands to PC manufacturers. The licenses under which the disk drive and PC manufacturers make multiple copies of Microsoft's OS would also, according to Mr Heise, violate the law. Redmond will be surprised.

Of course, Mr Heise's statement is nothing but moonshine, based on an intentional misreading of the Copyright Act that would fail on any law school copyright examination. Mr Heise is referring to section 117 of the US Copyright Act, which is entitled "Limitation on exclusive rights: computer programs," and which provides that:

(a) Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106, it is not an infringement for the owner of a copy of a computer program to make or authorize the making of another copy or adaptation of that computer program provided:

(1) that such a new copy or adaptation is created as an essential step in the utilization of the computer program in conjunction with a machine and that it is used in no other manner, or

(2) that such new copy or adaptation is for archival purposes only and that all archival copies are destroyed in the event that continued possession of the computer program should cease to be rightful.

As the language makes absolutely clear, section 117 says that although the Act generally prohibits making any copy of a copyrighted work without license, in the case of computer programs one can both make and even alter the work for certain purposes without any license at all. The claim that this provision sets a limit on what copyright owners may permit through licensing their exclusive right is utterly bogus. It has no support in statutory language, legislative history, case law, or the constitutional policy that lies behind the copyright system. Were this argument actually presented to a court it would certainly fail.

I especially liked the "it would be a violation of professional obligation for Mr Heise or any other lawyer to submit [this argument] to a court" bit. Nice.

Between their frivolous lawsuits, their stock sales, and now this, it seems like SCO is digging their grave deeper and deeper. What are they thinking?

What Does This Mean?

According to Google, this page is, at the moment, the most similar to my blog in the world:

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So my blog is most like a Website detailing the construction of a home-built cruise missile? What exactly does this mean?

August 18, 2003

Delaying CAFE

From an article in Automobile magazine:

The U.S. Senate has rejected a proposal to require dramatically more efficient cars and trucks as a way to conserve oil.

The plan offered by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., would have raised standards for cars to 40 miles per gallon by 2015. Senators rejected the Durbin amendment by a 32-65 vote.

Instead, as part of its work on a national energy policy, senators adopted a plan crafted by Michigan Democrat Sen. Carl Levin and Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., that would give regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 30 months to issue new Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards.

The Detroit Free Press said Levin argued lawmakers lacked the expertise to pick a fair fuel economy target. Regulators would be directed to carefully assess new technology, automakers' product plans, the potential impact on the economy and automotive safety, Levin said, taking politics out of the process.

That's the funniest thing I've read in a while now.

Imagine that NHTSA studies the issue for the next 30 months and says yes, that auto makers should reach 40 miles/gallon by 2015. Is there anyone out there who believes that Senator Levin will then accept -- begrudgingly or otherwise -- NHTSA's findings? Is there anyone out there who believes that Senator Levin will say, "NHTSA has, as I said two and a half years ago, the expertise to pick a fair fuel economy target, and they have done so. We must follow through on our previous commitment and support these new regulations." Is there anyone out there who believes that any US politician wants to take politics out of any process?

August 17, 2003

Schwarzenegger's Beliefs

More on Schwarzenegger's stated moderate beliefs:

"I'm for choice," he said when asked about abortion on Fox TV's "The O'Reilly Factor" in May 2001. "The women should have the choice. The women should decide what they want to do with their bodies. I'm all for that."

On guns, he told a Berkeley-based youth radio station last year: "I don't run around every day with a gun in my hand. So I want kids to understand the difference; one is make believe, like we do in the movies. But in reality, I'm for gun control. I'm a peace-loving guy."

And on gay rights, he told Cosmopolitan magazine, "I have no sexual standards in my head that say 'this is good' or 'this is bad.' Homosexual -- that only means to me that he enjoys sex with a man and I enjoy sex with a woman. It's all legitimate to me."

Conservatives can rail against this sort of thing, but the reality is that Schwarzenegger's views are in line with how most California residents feel about these issues. (See the relevant polls here, here, and here.)

August 16, 2003

Schwarzenegger the Moderate?

Rush Limbaugh doesn't much care for Arnold Schwarzenegger's politics:

The American Prowler's George Neumayr detailed Arnold's politics in his article "Here's Arnold!" Quote: "[H]e spoke in generalities and banalities about his plans for the state. To the extent that he said anything, he sounded not like a fiscal conservative but a moderate Democrat. He said that he wanted businesses to come back to California so that the state government could collect enough tax revenues to provide social programs. This is the sort of obtuse comment middle-of-the-road Democrats always make, forgetting that businesses are leaving the state because they are tired of paying high taxes for those big government social programs."

More: "He has told the press he is 'very liberal' about social programs, supports abortion and homosexual adoption, and advocates 'sensible gun controls.' His entree into politics last year was a proposition Democrats endorsed because it raised state spending for what amounted to state babysitting -- before-school and after-school programs that cost the state up to $455 million a year. He has complained openly about the party's conservatism.... Talk magazine described him as 'impatient' with the religious right.... [H]e expressed disgust with the Republicans who impeached Clinton. 'That was another thing I will never forgive the Republican Party for,' he said. 'We spent one year wasting time because there was a human failure. I was ashamed to call myself a Republican during that period.'"

(Rush didn't link to the article he referenced, but it can be found here.)

In other news, Schwarzenegger named Warren Buffett and George Shultz as economic advisors. Buffett promptly went on to describe the foolishness of California's Proposition 13:

Mr. Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., took on California's famous Proposition 13, which has limited property taxes there since 1978. As an example, he pointed out the difference between his own property-tax bills for homes he owns in California and Nebraska.

His home in Omaha, he said, is valued at roughly $500,000. His current yearly property tax bill on that home: $14,401.

In California, he owns a Laguna Beach home valued at $4 million, or eight times as much. The annual property taxes on that home are just $2,264 -- a fraction of what he pays in Omaha.

More to the point, said Mr. Buffett , the taxes on his Omaha home rose $1,920 this year, compared with $23 on the Laguna Beach home. Mr. Buffett attributed the scant jump in California to the restrictions of Proposition 13, which generally limits property-tax increases to 2% a year, no matter how much the value of a property appreciates.

Mr. Buffett stopped short of saying he would urge Mr. Schwarzenegger to seek a reversal of Proposition 13 to increase property taxes -- a move that would almost certainly be attacked by many of Mr. Schwarzenegger's fellow Republicans. But he left little doubt that that is where he is leaning.

Leaving aside the question of whether California's overall tax rate is too high or too low, the reality is that Proposition 13 is fundamentally unfair. As I remember it, Proposition 13 passed in large part on voter sympathy for the elderly losing their homes due to rising property taxes. As a defense against this, it may well have succeeded. But it has also succeeded in allowing the wealthy of Los Altos Hills, Woodside, and Portola Valley who hold onto their homes to pay far less than in property taxes than more recent buyers of homes worth a fraction as much. How can that be defended as fair?

It's true that Schwarzenegger has yet to announce any specifics of what he would do as governor. But if Rush Limbaugh doesn't like him, and if Warren Buffett and George Shultz do, how bad can he be?

August 15, 2003

The Truth About Hot Dogs

What's really in a hot dog? Lisa Simpson knows...

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From The Simpsons episode, "Lisa the Vegetarian".

August 14, 2003

Jefferson versus Novak

A great juxtaposition from Eschaton:

Michael Novak tells us that religious liberty is only about Jewish or Christian religious liberty.
In addition, the defense that both Jefferson and Madison gave of the right to religious liberty depends crucially on a specifically Jewish and Christian concept of God. Theirs is not a Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim concept, let alone the concept of God in Aristotle or Plato, Kant or Leibniz. It is the concept of a God who reads our intentions, hearts, and consciences, not just our outward behavior. This God demands to be worshiped in spirit and in truth. This God singles us out one by one, and renders the arena in which He meets the individual conscience sacred.
UPDATE: According to Jefferson himself (via comments over at Big Media Matt's place):
The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason and right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word "Jesus Christ," so that it should read, "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.
Well done. When someone not only argues in favor of religious intolerance, but has the audacity to refer to Thomas Jefferson in his argument, it's great to see him undone by Jefferson's own words.

August 13, 2003

SpamBayes

Last week, Michael Morrissey blogged about the SpamBayes Outlook plug-in, saying it had dramatically reduced his spam problem. Although I run SpamAssassin, it only catches part of the spam coming to me, and my hosting setup is such that I can't change the default tolerance level to something stricter. So I decided to give SpamBayes a try. After two days of training, here are three days of results:

Total spam messages: 71
Spam messages caught by SpamAssassin: 30
Remaining spam messages caught by SpamBayes: 32
Remaining spam messages uncaught by either SpamAssassin or SpamBayes: 9
SpamAssassin false positives: 0
SpamBayes false positives: 1

So instead of 71 pieces of spam with no filtering, or 41 with SpamAssassin alone, I received only 9, or 3 spam messages per day. I'd rather get it down to 0, but I can live with that. Thanks, Michael!

As a Bayesian filter, theoretically, SpamBayes' performance should continue to improve. If it changes dramatically over time, I'll report on it here.

SCO Stock Sales

Following up on yesterday's blog entry, are SCO executives dumping stock? Via Slashdot, this from the Salt Lake Tribune:

SCO Group executives have sold about 119,000 shares of their company since it filed a lawsuit against IBM in March and the stock price increased more than fourfold.

Chief Financial Officer Robert Bench began the $1.2 million in executive share sales four days after Lindon -based SCO filed its lawsuit against Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM on March 6. Before Bench's sale, SCO insiders had not sold shares in more than a year, according to the Washington Service, a firm that tracks insider transactions...

SCO spokesman Blake Stowell declined to comment on the share sales. The company will comment on the sales when it announces fiscal third-quarter results Thursday, he said. The company has a market value of about $120 million and had 13.7 million shares outstanding at the end of April...

Bench has sold 17,151 shares in three separate sales since March 10, reducing his holdings to 228,043 shares, according to the Washington Service and regulatory filings. Vice President Michael Wilson sold his entire stake of 12,000 shares between July 14 and July 18, the Washington Service said.

For the CFO to have sold 6.9 percent of his stake over five months is probably defensible -- at that rate, it would take him a little over six years to sell his entire holdings. But for a VP to have sold his entire stake in that same five months? That doesn't look good.

August 12, 2003

FOAF and the Semantic Web

Via Marc Canter comes an essay by Shelley Powers, "FOAF, Flocking, and the Semantics of Starlings". A brief excerpt:

Marc Cantor and Eric Sigler are working on this thing that Marc is calling a "PeopleAggregator". From bits and pieces I've picked up at their weblogs, in emails, and in comments elsewhere, this application will be able to create and consume and maintain FOAF files as well as networks of interlinked people who 'know' each other, as defined in these files. More, if someone within the network designates you a 'friend' in their FOAF file, the PeopleAggregator sends you an email asking for some form of confirmation...

Rather than the network of friends being maintained behind walls ala Friendster, it's out in the open with decentralized FOAF files that anyone can read. Now, what will become the social context behind the relationships denoted as resources withing these FOAF files? And what can be the social consequences of same?

Personally, I expect the first 'Technorati of FOAF popularity" before the year is out. I wonder, what crown will we give to the man and woman voted most popular? Prom king and queen? I also wonder, how soon will we get emails saying, "Please remove me from your FOAF file -- you don't really know me" How soon will we get emails saying, "Why am I not in your FOAF file"? ...

[W]ebloggers are becoming the Semantic Web lab rats -- through our curiosity and our interest, we're the first to test these Semantic Web tools outside of labs and universities. We're the ones that propagate the data and the technologies. When faced with confusion, we'll wing it. We did so with RSS 1.0, we're doing so with Pie/Echo/Atom and now we're continuing the trend with FOAF.

FOAF is becoming the bastard child that grew from the seeds that fell between the cracks of W3C debates, or were discarded with all the other messy 'touchy feely' stuff, such as social context surrounding URIs. It's the wolf child tempered in the pack, surviving on an existence of "keep what works, throw out the rest". One can't blame it, then, if it, and we, don't behave properly when invited to the Semantic Web tea.

There's much more to the essay. Recommended.

"To... Inflate the Price of Its Stock"

This is from IBM's countersuit against SCO:

36. Rather than particularize its allegations of misconduct by IBM and others, SCO has obfuscated and altered its claims to foster fear, uncertainty and doubt about its rights and the righte others. In letters dated April 2,2003, and May 5, 2003... IBM expressly asked SCO to advise IBM as to what SCO contends IBM has done in violation of any of its agreements, and what SCO contends IBM should do to cure such violations. SCO refused. In fact, SCO's counsel stated, in an interview with Maureen O'Gara of LinuxGram, that it "doesn't want IBM to know what they [SCO's substantive claims] are".

37. SCO has obfuscated its claims and has hidden its supposed evidence because the evidence does not demonstrate the breaches and violations that SCO has alleged. Moreover, key developers and influential leaders in the open-source comunity, including leaders of Linux kernel development, have stated publicly that they are prepared immediately to remove any allegedly offending material from the Linux kernel. Rather than permit remediation or mitigation of its alleged injuries (which are non-existent), SCO has declined to reveal the particulars of the alleged violations in order to artificially and improperly inflate the price of its stock.

Coming from a company as respected as IBM, that's a serious allegation. If true, it would (or should) mean jail time for key SCO executives. Have they been profiting from the current imbroglio? I don't know, but you can judge for yourself.

August 11, 2003

The Public Library of Science

Via KurzweilAI.net, a Washington Post story on free access to medical research:

[T]he vast majority of the 50,000 to 60,000 research articles published each year as a result of federally funded science ends up in the hands of for-profit publishers -- the largest of them based overseas -- that charge as much as $50 to view the results of a single study online...

Why is it, a growing number of people are asking, that anyone can download medical nonsense from the Web for free, but citizens must pay to see the results of carefully conducted biomedical research that was financed by their taxes?

The Public Library of Science aims to change that. The organization, founded by a Nobel Prize-winning biologist and two colleagues, is plotting the overthrow of the system by which scientific results are made known to the world -- a $9 billion publishing juggernaut with subscription charges that range into thousands of dollars per year.

In its place the organization is constructing a system that would put scientific findings on the Web -- for free...

The PLoS plan is simple in concept: Instead of having readers pay for scientific results through subscriptions or other charges, costs would be borne by the scientists who are having their work published -- or, practically speaking, by the government agencies or other groups that funded the scientists -- through upfront charges of about $1,500 an article.

The shift is not as radical as it sounds, the library's founders argue. That is because government agencies and other science funders are already paying for a huge share of the world's journal subscriptions through "indirect cost" grants to university libraries, which are the biggest subscribers. The new system would radically increase the number of people who would have access to published findings, though, because results would be freely available on the Internet. By contrast, people today who do not subscribe to these journals must pay charges, typically $15 to $50, to get a reprint of -- or online access to -- a single article.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder the same thing: why should I have to pay to read the results of scientific research funded with my tax dollars?

The first PLoS journal, PLoS Biology, starts in October, with PLoS Medicine to follow in 2004. PLoS can be found on the Web here.

August 10, 2003

Crack Air Marshals

Also via Larry Lessig, via John Gilmore (earlier blog entry here) comes word of a settlement in a disturbing case involving the Transportation Security Administration:

Dr. [Bob] Rajcoomar's disturbing ordeal began shortly after take off during a flight from Atlanta to Philadelphia on August 31, 2002, when U.S. Air Marshals were called to subdue an apparently disoriented man seated in the coach section. The air marshals rushed at the unstable individual, handcuffed him, and then dragged him to the first-class section, where they placed him in the seat next to Dr. Rajcoomar, a U.S. citizen and Lt. Colonel in the United States Army Reserve and is of Indian descent. Dr. Rajcoomar asked to have his seat changed and the flight attendant obliged. For the remainder of the flight, air marshals held passengers at gunpoint and refused to allow anyone to get up, even to use the bathroom, despite the fact that the disoriented passenger had been shackled to his seat.

The nightmare continued for Dr. Rajcoomar even after the flight landed. Air marshals handcuffed Dr. Rajcoomar without explanation and took him into the custody of Philadelphia police. His wife Dorothy, who was also on the flight, was given no information on what had happened to her husband. Because the authorities confiscated Dr. Rajcoomar's cellular phone, she had no way to contact him.

After four tense hours in detention, Dr. Rajcoomar was released. TSA personnel told him that he had been detained because air marshals on board the flight did not "like the way he looked." The agency's official explanation for Dr. Rajcoomar’s treatment is that while on board, Dr. Rajcoomar had been observing the actions of the air marshals "too closely."

Even if one were to believe the official explanation over the explanation Dr. Rajcoomar reported receiving -- and I don't -- if someone is holding a loaded weapon near you, how exactly is it possible to observe them "too closely"?

The good news is that Dr. Rajcoomar has received a written apology and an undisclosed "substantial" settlement. But there's no word as to what actions, if any, were taken against the two US air marshals responsible for his detention.

Why SCO Can't Be Right

Via Larry Lessig, though it's a week and a half old, this essay (83K PDF) by Eben Moglen remains the simplest and clearest summary I've seen of the problems with SCO's Linux lawsuits. Recommended.

August 09, 2003

Monorails on Parade

Yesterday, I blogged about Seattle's forthcoming monorail. I've been thinking about one of the comments in the source article:

[Architect Don Miles of monorail consultant Zimmer Gunsul Frasca (ZGF)] said the monorail could complement the [Seattle Art Museum] because visitors could look out through tall atrium windows at the moving trains.
Why not take this idea and run with it, making the monorail trains themselves actual works of art? Think of the tail art scheme launched by British Airways a few years ago (now abandoned for political reasons), in which the tails of their aircraft were designed by a variety of artists from around the world:

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(Images found here.)

Imagine this sort of scheme applied to monorail trains, with each train designed by a different Seattle-area artist. To build public support, a process similar to Pigs on Parade could be held, in which artists would submit concept drawings, a hundred or more winners would be provided with scale model monorail trains (say, one to two meters in length), and then the resulting decorated scale models would be put on display around the city. At the end of the display period, a public vote could be held to determine the top choices, which would become official. (Alternately, the public could vote to make recommendations, with a design commission making the final decision.) As with Pigs on Parade, the trains would then be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to charity (Pigs on Parade raised over $500,000).

Not only would this generate some great art, it would get the public involved in the process as well, and give everyone something to focus on while the monorail is being built.

Seattle Monorail Project, you're welcome. I won't even charge you royalties for my idea.

August 08, 2003

Seattle's Monorail

Last year, Seattle residents voted to build a 14-mile, $1.75 billion monorail through their city. Yesterday, the Seattle Times published the first realistic portrayals of how the monorail might look. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised:

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As can be seen, the monorail will use "iris" columns, which not only reduce the footprint of the tracks (by positioning one partly above the other) but just look cool. The article discusses some of the effects of the design:

Through downtown, planners favor "iris" columns that split like the flower, positioning the northbound track next to and above the southbound track...

That blocks views in two places, but casts less shadow than traditional, side-by-side tracks. Irises make it easier to run the monorail through tight corridors and erect stations next to buildings...

Walking up Second Avenue last week, architect Don Miles of monorail consultant Zimmer Gunsul Frasca (ZGF) wove around through the planter boxes and the bystanders as he explained how a monorail adds a "fabulous kinetic relationship" to busy street corners.

Columns would wipe out a lane of parking, but the good news is that the sidewalks would also be widened by 8 feet, Miles said. That creates space for cafe tables and street trees, he said. Clumps of people at bus stops would no longer block other pedestrians.

"It allows two groups of people having conversations to walk abreast ... without having to go single file," he said.

Well done. If the monorail looks this good in practice, Seattle will finally have not only the beginnings of a mass transit system, but a public work to be proud of.

August 07, 2003

Recalls and the Constitution

When I first read about California Governor Gray Davis' lawsuit to delay and alter the upcoming recall election, I was confused. "After all," I thought to myself, "isn't the California constitution clear about recall elections?" So I looked up the relevant section of the constitution, and here it is:

SEC. 15. (a) An election to determine whether to recall an officer and, if appropriate, to elect a successor shall be called by the Governor and held not less than 60 days nor more than 80 days from the date of certification of sufficient signatures.

(b) A recall election may be conducted within 180 days from the date of certification of sufficient signatures in order that the election may be consolidated with the next regularly scheduled election occurring wholly or partially within the same jurisdiction in which the recall election is held, if the number of voters eligible to vote at that next regularly scheduled election equal at least 50 percent of all the voters eligible to vote at the recall election.

(c) If the majority vote on the question is to recall, the officer is removed and, if there is a candidate, the candidate who receives a plurality is the successor. The officer may not be a candidate, nor shall there be any candidacy for an office filled pursuant to subdivision (d) of Section 16 of Article VI.

I went back and re-read the story of what Governor Davis is claiming in his lawsuit. Here's one of his claims:

Davis and his supporters... told the court they believe the rules regarding the recall ballot are unconstitutional. They contend that voters who want to keep the governor in office have to meet a higher standard than those who want him removed. To stay in office, Davis needs 50 percent of the vote. But if he is recalled, his successor needs a plurality of votes, not a majority.
This left me no less confused. Wasn't the California constitution crystal-clear on this issue? "The officer may not be a candidate." This led me to track down the actual lawsuit to understand the claim. Here's a relevant portion:
44. For purposes of equal protection analysis, Gray Davis is in all salient respects similarly situated to other individuals who will appear on the recall ballot as nominees for the office of Governor of the State of California. Yet, recall election procedures... require 50 percent of the vote for petitioner Davis to remain Governor, but only a plurality vote for any other nominated individual to become Governor. Further, petitioner Davis is barred from being considered with others who seek to be elected to the office of Governor if more than 50 percent of the voters vote "yes" on the recall question.

45. These procedures impose a direct, severe and disproportionate burden on the fundamental rights to vote and to associate for political purposes of those individuals who support Governor Davis. Petitioners have a right under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution to have their votes counted on the same terms and with the same weight as the votes of individuals who support other candidates for Governor. Because there is no rational, substantial or compelling justification for the differential treatment imposed by these election procedures, petitioners are denied their right to equal protection of the law.

46. Petitioner Gray Davis wishes to be Governor of the State of California and to be considered for the position of Governor on the same basis and under the same terms as others who seek that office. The recall election procedures described above impose a direct, severe and disproportionate burden on petitioner Davis's right and ability to be considered as a candidate for Governor. Because there is no rational, substantial or compelling justification for the differential treatment imposed by these election procedures, petitioner Davis is denied his right to equal protection of the law.

47. The recall is not based upon any wrongdoing or malfeasance by petitioner Davis.

48. The recall election procedures... by requiring 50 percent of the vote for petitioner Davis to remain Governor but only a plurality vote for any other nominated individual to become Governor and by barring petitioner Davis from being considered with others who seek to succeed to the vacancy created by a "yes" vote on the recall question, violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

So what Governor Davis is saying is that the California constitution's recall procedures violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Now, I disagree with that, and it will be interesting to see what the California Supreme Court makes of the argument, but here's my real question: how can the governor of a state file suit against a constitution he or she is sworn to uphold? Here's the oath of office for California legislators and officers:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be,) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of -------, according to the best of my ability.
I suppose what Governor Davis is saying is that he's sworn to uphold both constitutions, and feels that the national constitution must take precedence over his state's constitution. Since his state's constitution sets out rules that disfavor him from keeping office in the current situation, I can understand why he would say this... and I could make a moral argument for his position as well... but something about what he's doing strikes me the wrong way. It's as if the US President were to disavow the US Constitution.

August 06, 2003

Quote for the Day

From the incomparable Xeni Jardin. I had apologized for missing her birthday by a day, whereas Joi Ito's birthdayroll had, of course, automatically sent her birthday wishes. She replied:

Hey, we can't all be Joi Ito.

Energy Innnovations

The last time Discover magazine covered an inventive new alternative energy source, it led to 286 comments (as of this writing) on a single blog entry of mine.

Now Discover is running a story on an Idealab company, Energy Innovations, attempting to create a low-cost, heat-based solar electricity generator. Sadly, only an abstract of the article is available online, but you can learn more by going to the company's Website:

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The Sunflower 250 is a work in progress toward our goal of one day making electricity that is cost-competitive with the grid. Today, while we are not there yet, we have a design prototype that we believe can get us there. Our design is somewhat radical, because it is not based on photovoltaic (PV) cells and has moving parts. But we believe that we can make this design much more cost-effectively than a PV-based system because it is simpler, more suitable for mass production, and uses significantly less energy in the actual production processes of the product.

Our product concentrates sunlight to a high temperature using very inexpensive and lightweight aluminized plastic petals that are each moved by $1 microprocessor-based servo motors, enabling them to independently track and reflect the sun. This allows us to place a compact heat engine at the focus of these petals that generates both hot water and electricity and yet contain it all in a stationary, low-profile enclosure...

At the heart of our mission is our drive to make renewable energy affordable and cost-effective. Even though there are enormous benefits to renewable energy that go beyond saving money on your electric bill, for a product to become widely adopted by consumers and businesses, it must make economic sense as well. When we release the Sunflower 250 into distribution in 2004, we anticipate that it will be priced at about half that of comparably rated PV-based systems. In addition, because we track the sun and can therefore gather sunlight for more hours of the day than solar cells, we believe we can be about 3 to 4 times more cost-effective. The combination of these factors will mean that payback periods will be dramatically shortened compared with existing PV systems, significantly increasing interest in installing renewable energy systems.

Sunflower 250 will be ready for distribution in late 2004 to installers serving the commercial and industrial markets in the United States. Expansion to the residential market and to markets outside the US will begin in 2005.

If my memory of the article is correct, the Sunflower 250 is intended to generate peak electricity of 250 watts, with an end-user price of $250. Assuming 2,000 watts for a typical house, that would mean it would cost -- in sunny regions -- $2,000 to forgo electricity bills once and for all. (Yes, one would have to buy electricity at night, but presuming lower energy usage during the day, when people are away, then surplus electicity would be available for sale to the grid, which might offset nighttime costs. I believe that in many or even all states, power companies are required to buy the electricity that their customers generate.)

August 05, 2003

"Small, Green Pieces of Paper"

From the radio script for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by the late, great Douglas Adams:

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western spiral arm of the galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this, at a distance of roughly ninety million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet, whose ape descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. This planet has, or had, a problem, which was this. Most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small, green pieces of paper, which is odd, because on the whole, it wasn't the small, green pieces of paper which were unhappy. And so the problem remained, and lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches. Many were increasingly of the opinion that they'd all made a big mistake coming down from the trees in the first place, and some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no-one should ever have left the oceans. And then one day, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl, sitting on her own in a small cafe in Rickmansworth suddenly realised what it was that had been going wrong all this time and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no-one would have to get nalied to anything. Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone, the Earth was unexpectedly demolished to make way for a new hyperspace bypass and so the idea was lost forever.
At the risk of offending Douglas' spirit, had that girl made it to a phone, figured out how to monetize her idea, and started a company to do it, she would have had lots of small, green pieces of paper.

August 04, 2003

Ode to Metric Paper

Via boing boing, a wonderful article on ISO paper sizes:

The United States and Canada are today the only industrialized nations in which the ISO standard paper sizes are not yet widely used. In U.S. office applications, the paper formats "Letter" (216 × 279 mm), "Legal" (216 × 356 mm), "Executive" (190 × 254 mm), and "Ledger/Tabloid" (279 × 432 mm) are widely used today. There exists also an American National Standard ANSI/ASME Y14.1 for technical drawing paper sizes A (216 × 279 mm), B (279 × 432 mm), C (432 × 559 mm), D (559 × 864 mm), E (864 × 1118 mm), and there are many other unsystematic formats for various applications in use. The "Letter", "Legal", "Tabloid", and other formats (although not these names) are defined in the American National Standard ANSI X3.151-1987.

While all ISO paper formats have consistently the same aspect ratio of sqrt(2)=1.414, the U.S. format series has two different alternating aspect ratios 17/11=1.545 and 22/17=1.294. Therefore you cannot reduce or magnify from one U.S. format to the next higher or lower without leaving an empty margin, which is rather inconvenient.

The new American National Standard ANSI/ASME Y14.1m-1995 specifies how to use the ISO A0-A4 formats for technical drawings in the U.S. Technical drawings usually have a fixed drawing scale (e.g., 1:100 means that one meter is drawn as one centimeter), therefore it is not easily possible to resize technical drawings between U.S. and standard paper formats. As a result, internationally operating U.S. corporations increasingly find it more convenient to abandon the old ANSI Y14.1 formats and prepare technical drawings for ISO paper sizes, like the rest of the world does...

Both the "Letter" and "Legal" format could easily be replaced by A4, "Executive" (if it is really needed) by B5, and "Ledger/Tabloid" by A3. Similarly, the A-E formats can be replaced by A4-A0. It can be hoped and expected that with the continuing introduction of the metric system in the United States, the ISO paper formats will eventually replace non-standard paper formats also in North America. Conversion to A4 as the common business letter and document format in North America would not be too difficult, as practically all modern software, copying machines, and laser printers sold today in the U.S. already support A4 paper as a standard feature.

I have to admit, by the time I finished reading the article, I was thinking to myself, "Why don't we adopt metric paper, anyway?" and "Maybe I should just start using metric paper on my own."

Forbes on the Consoles

Forbes reports on the videogame console wars:

More than anyone predicted, online gaming is driving the all-important software sales that are the profit engine of the $10 billion videogame industry. Dwarfed by Sony, which claims 60% of the North American market, Microsoft has bet far bigger and bolder to grab the online advantage as both feverishly race to get their next-generation consoles into stores by 2006...

The Xbox Live network launched in November and passed the 500,000 subscriber mark in seven months, beating, by 80,000, the number of people registered to play PlayStation 2 games online, despite the fact that Microsoft has sold only 9.4 million Xboxes to Sony's 51 million PlayStations. Nintendo, with 9.6 million GameCubes sold, has limited online ambitions.

Consider the case of Ghost Recon. This military-style shooting game was released on both Xbox and PlayStation 2 in November. The Xbox version was online-enabled, and the PlayStation version wasn't. Despite the enormous differences in installed base, more copies of the game have sold on Xbox, (650,000) than on PS2 (550,000).

Sony sniffs at the comparisons. "Online gaming is a very important part of our strategy, but not the end-all and be-all," says Kazuo Hirai, the president of Sony Computer Entertainment America. "When you're losing market share, you're tempted to talk about things down the road." ...

"Xbox is the superior online gaming platform, and by the next wave of consoles, Xbox will be the online brand," says Daniel Hsu, editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine.

Sony had better be careful about sniffing at Microsoft, because Hsu could well be right: Microsoft could establish Xbox as the online game console brand, then carry that branding forward to the second-generation Xbox.

Look at what has happened in PC gaming. From real-time strategy games to first-person shooters, major titles (except those aimed at children) must be online-enabled to be successful. Even the hulking exception to this rule, The Sims, is now available in a separate online version. It would be foolish of Sony to think that the console market will evolve any differently.

August 03, 2003

Garmin iQue Review

The excellent technology writer David Pogue has a review of Garmin's new GPS-equipped Palm OS device in the New York Times:

Garmin's new iQue 3600 is the first palmtop that is also a G.P.S. receiver -- a remarkable feat, considering that it's no larger than a typical Palm organizer. It runs on the Palm 5.2.1 operating system, meaning that it synchronizes its calendar, address book and to-do list with a Windows PC and can run any of thousands of add-on programs. It comes with both a voice recorder and Documents to Go, a program that lets you view and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files when you're on the move.

The iQue's bright color screen (320 by 480 pixels) covers the entire face of the device. This setup lets you hide the Graffiti handwriting area when you've got more important things to look at, like maps. It also shows the letter shapes you're making as you write, as though your inkless stylus actually had ink, which makes it easier to master the Palm alphabet...

The top of the screen identifies your current speed and direction of travel, along with the next turn you're supposed to make ("Turn right on I-95 South"). Better yet -- and safer -- a woman's voice announces from the built-in speaker, "In 400 feet, exit left," or whatever.

Over all, the experience is much like using the $3,000 navigation systems built into the dashboards of expensive cars. Because the iQue also accepts signals from W.A.A.S. (Wide-Area Augmentation System, a supplementary navigation signal broadcast by the Federal Aviation Administration for aircraft use), it's much more accurate than less expensive G.P.S. units...

Over and over again, thoughtful design touches will win you over. The next-turn information appears in huge, white-on-black lettering that's legible from three feet away (that is, the driver's seat). A bottom-mounted flip cover protects the screen from the hazards of your pocket. The car pedestal is rooted to your dashboard by the weight of fabric-covered sandbags instead of adhesive, screws, or anything else that would make it hard to transfer from car to car.

Thanks to the smooth integration of the iQue's two functions -- G.P.S. and Palm organizer -- the whole is indisputably greater than its parts. Even the calendar function is tied in: if you tap in a 7 o'clock dinner meeting at Joe's Organic Pizza, the iQue promptly displays directions.

The iQue goes for about $550 online. The next least expensive G.P.S. receiver with color screen and voice prompts is Garmin's own StreetPilot III, which costs about $675. When you consider that the price of a comparably equipped color Palm (without G.P.S.) is $400, the iQue looks like quite a bargain.

Most people would assume that a G.P.S.-enabled palmtop would appeal primarily to hikers, sailors and campers. But thanks to the iQue's ingenious driving-navigation features and points-of-interest database, it quickly becomes an essential tool for anyone who travels, whether to other cities on business or anywhere at all beyond the local beaten path. Garmin has designed an extremely successful hybrid that is worth the price -- and the taxes.

This is about as good a review as David is likely to give. The iQue sounds like a hit in the making. Now if only it had Bluetooth built in.

August 02, 2003

Ink Spam

Is it just me? In the last 16 hours, I've received 72 messages advertising printing-related products, mostly inkjet cartridges. The site URLs they advertise typically substitute "1"s for "i"s and always end in "neb.html", as follows:

http://theplacefor1nk.com/neb.html
http://1ncred1blepr1nt1ngvalues.com/neb.html
http://thesaaav1ngsdepot.com/neb.html
http://unl1m1tedvalue-unl1m1tedreturn.com/neb.html
http://spec1al1nksatspec1alpr1c1ng.com/neb.html
All the URLs resolve to a site called EvoClix. Their company information Web page states...
We'd really like to hear what you have to say about the EvoClix web site, our products and our services. Please contact us at:

Evoclix Inc
2198 Princeton St
Sarasota, Fl 34237
941 954-8660

...which brings up a few obvious questions:

  • Have spammers become so brazen that they no longer feel the need to hide their identities?
  • Why do so many scams and generally seedy operations originate in Florida? What is it about that state?
  • Would they really like to hear what I have to say about them?

Heard Over Dinner

This is from a dinner conversation with my kids Duncan (16), Cameron (14), and Kelsey (13). We had been discussing the case of a teenage girl known to Kelsey who was found guilty of shoplifting:

Duncan: That's something that girls do a lot more than boys.

Me: You mean shoplifting?

Duncan: Yeah.

Me: Do you have any evidence to back that up?

Duncan: You never hear about boys shoplifting -- it's always girls.

Cameron: That's because when boys do it, it's called stealing.

August 01, 2003

Gutting Alternative Transportation

My ex-co-worker and all-around good guy Michael Morrissey blogs about possible reductions in funding for bike paths and walkways:

Salon reports that the House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury and Independent Agencies has put together a bill that "will entirely eliminate some $600 million worth of annual federal funding for bike paths, walkways and other such transportation niceties in fiscal year 2004." Meanwhile, the bill increases highway spending: they would receive $34.1 billion in fiscal 2004, up $2.5 billion.

This is incredibly frustrating. On one hand, the government (and the people) are concerned about the environment, declining health and rising levels of obesity, our ever-growing dependence on oil, and the lack of community in this country. On the other hand, politicians are worried about being re-elected far more than they worry about long-term goals. And people are more worried about a few pennies missing from their next paycheck than they are about the long term good of their society. (And lobbyists are only worried about one thing: themselves.)

Here's an excerpt from the original Salon article:

Fresh out of subcommittee, a new congressional transportation appropriations bill will entirely eliminate some $600 million worth of annual federal funding for bike paths, walkways and other such transportation niceties in fiscal year 2004...

Members of the House's Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury and Independent Agencies know that what America needs now is fewer bike paths and walkways -- but more highways...

Under the new bill, which the full Committee on Appropriations is likely to consider this week, before it goes to the House floor for a vote, highways would receive $34.1 billion in fiscal year 2004, which is $2.5 billion more than this year, while the Transportation Enhancements program that funds bike paths and walkways would get nothing...

Micah Swafford, press secretary for Rep. Ernest J. Istook, R.-Okla., who chairs the subcommittee that wrote the bill, argues that, with the prospect of a $455 billion federal budget deficit and anticipating declining revenues in the highway taxes that fund transportation programs, the committee had to cut something.

"It's more important to provide the basic funding for roads, before you provide money for enhancements whenever you're facing a shortfall," Swafford says, citing Department of Transportation statistics that there are 6,476 structurally deficient bridges on the national highway system as one of the reasons that highways were the subcommittee's priority.

But Rep. Istook put out a press release on Friday, July 11, the day the bill made it out of the subcommittee, bragging that "$518 million is headed to Oklahoma!" leading one environmental lobbyist to attribute the whole issue to "parochial Oklahoma politics."

"Actually, it's kind of sad. He's basically eviscerating these programs that are important to a lot of other states for the sake of benefiting Oklahoma," says Deron Lovaas, a lobbyist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, another group fighting the cuts.

Representative Istook was also in the news recently for slashing funding for Seattle's planned light rail line (stories here and here), most recently giving Seattle's Sound Transit only one-fifth of the amount requested by President Bush. It would seem he has been a busy beaver.