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September 30, 2003

OpenCourseWare 2.0

Via C|NET, MIT has rolled out the second phase of its OpenCourseWare initiative. Last year, OCW offered a few dozen courses; now it's up to 500.

I can't help but be impressed by what MIT is doing. At the same time, going through the courses, I can't help but think that it's time for the information-wants-to-be-free revolution to extend to textbooks -- just as is already happening with science journals. If textbook content were developed using open source techniques, then online course offerings such as MIT's could be complete, instead of relying on textbook content as they do today. How can someone in a Third World country use OpenCourseWare if the textbook for a single course represents their gross household income for a month or more?

I understand why the textbook process existed as it did in the past. High-quality books containing well-written, peer-reviewed text were expensive to produce, and a profit motive had to exist to make this possible. But many students today would rather have their content online, printing only what they need, and peer review is simple via the Internet. Moreover, digital content can be updated far more frequently than can physical books. In other words, collaborative writing and reviewing processes can give us better, more useful educational materials than is possible with today's textbook publishing model.

September 15, 2003

Harm Reduction in Vancouver

I'm headed to Vancouver for a few days off this week, so this seems particularly appropriate. From a Salon article on efforts to create safe fixing sites for drug addicts in that city:

It's 11 o'clock on a busy Wednesday night inside 327 Carrall St.... in the smaller back room, two or three junkies at a time inject heroin or crack cocaine into their veins using sterile swabs and fresh needles under the watchful eye of a registered nurse. In here they can also receive advice on vein care, skin infections and detox programs...

The... operation is illegal, but the mayor's office has looked the other way since it opened on April 7; the guerrilla safe-injection site running here every night from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. insures junkies have sterile gear to shoot up with, and discourages them from fixing alone -- a main contributing cause of overdose... The site is the de facto vanguard of an evolving "harm-reduction" strategy that the city of Vancouver hopes will help clean up the streets and halt a decade-long illicit-drug catastrophe that's killed more than 2,000 via overdose and infectious disease.

Essentially, the situation here has been so bad for so long that the government is willing to help addicts plunge illegal drugs into their veins if it means stemming the greater tide of destruction. If the city's official plan stays on track, by mid-September street junkies will be able to walk into a storefront at nearby 135 East Hastings St. almost any time of day and get high in a safe, clean facility administered by the provincial Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. It's a prospect that's angered conservatives from Ottawa to Washington.

So far, so good. Rather than continuing with an interdict-and-punish strategy that has never worked, Vancouver politicians have realized they have to try something different. But wait -- there's a problem. The US government doesn't like what Vancouver is doing:

Vancouver's bold strategy has provoked the expected ire of conservatives -- especially south of the border, where Washington has recently watched Canada sanction gay marriage and close in on federal decriminalization of marijuana. The prospect of government-backed hard-drug use next door has the White House palpably unsettled: As soon as Vancouver's planned site gained Canadian federal approval in late June, U.S. drug czar John Walters went off. "It's immoral to allow people to suffer and die from a disease we know how to treat," he told the Associated Press. "There are no safe-injection sites," he added, calling the policy "a lie" and "state-sponsored personal suicide." David Murray, special assistant in the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, told the Vancouver Sun on May 2 that likely "unintended consequences" of the safe-injection site could force the U.S. to tighten border controls to prevent increased drug trafficking. That could, of course, negatively impact trade of all sorts.
This is offensive and stupid. It's offensive because we're telling a sovereign nation -- one consistently ranked as having a higher quality of life and better social services than do we -- how to run their country, and threatening them with consequences if they don't do things our way. It's stupid because we've had a "War on Drugs" for decades now and haven't achieved anything except a soaring prison population, yet somehow our leaders feel competent to tell others how to handle their drug problems.

The mayor of Vancouver seems highly pragmatic:

"This is a health problem, not a criminal problem," says Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell. Like many other Canadian officials, Campbell appears unfazed by Washington's rhetoric. "We have conservatives in Canada, too, and they won't look at fact or reason either," he says flatly. "I've been to Zurich [Switzerland] where they had a problem way worse than ours, and I've seen the results." The harm-reduction component of the widely endorsed plan -- Mayor Campbell was voted into office in 2002 promising to implement it -- is modeled after programs in Europe and Australia, which have dramatically reduced overdose deaths and the spread of disease.
The reality is that supply reduction simply doesn't work:
[Drs. Evan] Wood and [Martin] Schechter... cite a 2001 United Nations report indicating that only 5 percent of the global illegal drug flow is successfully thwarted by law enforcement. Still, the problem isn't on the enforcement front lines. "The responsibility lies with the politicians and policymakers who continue to direct the overwhelming majority of resources into failing supply-reduction strategies, despite the wealth of scientific evidence demonstrating their ineffectiveness," they write. "Our strong consensus [is] that curbing HIV and overdose epidemics requires a shift toward prevention, treatment and harm reduction." ...

According to the latest Vancouver drug use epidemiology report, injection drug use was the predominant mode of HIV transmission in B.C. from 1994 to 2000. A 1997 study of more than 1,400 Vancouver needle users revealed an HIV infection rate of 18 percent -- the highest level anywhere in the developed world...

Conservatives, [nurse Fiona] Gold... points out, should be equally invested in the harm-reduction strategy -- especially those who are fiscally conservative. Every HIV-infected addict dropped into the healthcare system costs the Canadian government an average of $150,000 in long-term care; the cost of 12 such patients would pay for the new site to run for a year, she says.

Once again, we find that no one wants to experiment with social policy when it goes against their dogma. Liberals are willing to allow children to rot in failing schools rather than experiment with privatization and school choice. Conservatives are willing to allow drug users to die rather than experiment with safe-injection sites and other harm reduction programs.

"It's certainly reasonable to expect that if this is successful in Canada, that some people will want to imitate it here," says UCLA's [Professor Mark] Kleiman. The prospect of entering uncharted legal waters may be another reason Washington conservatives are sounding a defiant note... "There's no doubt that those who want to keep U.S. drug policy very supply-reduction focused feel threatened by this." ...

But conservatives also argue that the positive results of harm-reduction programs overseas may not translate across different cultures or cityscapes. "I think there are far more serious difficulties with the Swiss model than have been acknowledged," David Murray of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, a social anthropologist by training, told the Vancouver Sun in May. "My impression is that the presumed benefits will turn out to be illusory." Enabling addicts to pursue their habit, conservatives say, will inevitably boost neighborhood crime and deepen urban decay...

"This isn't a game I'm playing where we win or lose, it's peoples' lives," says Mayor Campbell. "If it doesn't work, we'll try something else, but we know that pure enforcement doesn't work... The fact of the matter is, the most compelling reason to do this is the U.S. system -- just take a look at your jails. Prisons are a growth industry in the United States, and a vast majority are in there for drugs, of some form or another." Indeed, more than 70,000 inmates, or roughly 55 percent of the U.S. federal prison population, are currently locked up for drug offenses, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. "People don't come out rehabilitated, and the drug and health problems aren't dealt with," says Campbell. "We're simply trying to move beyond outdated laws." ...

UCLA's Kleiman offers... advice for a displeased Bush administration.

"A really sensible U.S. government might say to Canada, 'We think this is a really dangerous experiment, but if you're crazy enough to try it in your neighborhood, God bless you, and we'll watch,'" he says. "A scientific view of drug policy would say, 'Here's an opportunity for us to learn something.' Of course, that's not what I expect to see from Washington."

Sensible, pragmatic viewpoints and a willingness to try new ideas when the old ideas aren't working -- I don't expect to see that from any politician in the US. It's not just sad; in this case, at least, it's tragic.

September 14, 2003

Kristof on the ANWR

The New York Times Nicholas Kristof has completed a week in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- the pristine wilderness coveted by oil companies -- and has come away with a reasoned opinion:

I would endorse drilling in the Arctic refuge if it were part of a mega-environmental package that also addressed global warming, an environmental challenge where we have even more at stake than in the Arctic.

Daniel Esty, a Yale scholar of the environment, proposes such a deal -- with trepidation -- in the interest of breaking the national deadlock on environmental policy.

The package could include careful oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (exploratory drilling could be done in winter without permanent damage) and, if it turned out to be the oil lake that proponents claim, commercial drilling as well.

In exchange, the right would accept a beyond-Kyoto framework to control carbon emissions, with tighter standards but a longer time frame. The deal would include $1 billion in additional financing for solar, wind and hydrogen energy, and significant increases in vehicle mileage standards to promote conservation.

This is the kind of pragmatism, the give-and-take, the willingness to see both sides that we're going to need -- and that has been so sadly lacking in American politics of late.

Kristof concludes:

Yet President Bush's push to open the Arctic refuge is not part of such a bold and thoughtful package to break the stalemate on the environment. Rather it is simply a lunge for oil. Without trying to conserve oil, Mr. Bush would gobble up a national treasure, the birthright of our descendants, as a first resort.

The argument that I find most compelling is that this primordial wilderness, a part of our national inheritance that is roughly the same as it was a thousand years ago, would be irretrievably lost if we drilled. The Bush administration's proposal to drill is therefore not just bad policy but also shameful, for it would casually rob our descendants forever of the chance to savor this magical coastal plain...

By actually visiting the ANWR and writing about his experiences, Nicholas helped me make up my mind on the issue -- no drilling except as part of a broad, pro-conservation energy measure -- and for that I'm grateful.

September 13, 2003

Isabel Headed This Way?

Hurricane Isabel, with 160 mile-per-hour winds, may be headed for North Carolina.

The forecast path shows it hitting North Carolina sometime next week. The good news is for me that I'll be in Vancouver then -- I seem to have a knack for being on the road when awful weather hits this area -- but I'll still have family and friends here. I'm concerned, especially given what happened when Hurricane Fran struck this area (which I'll write about another time).

Sanswire's "Stratellite"

Wireless Week has a story on Sanswire Technologies:

Sanswire Technologies is keeping its dream alive of creating a national wireless broadband network with a re-designed satellite-like, high-altitude airship, the Statellite [sic].

Rather than orbiting like a traditional satellite, a Statellite is stationed in the stratosphere. At an altitude of 13 miles, the ship can provide a wireless transmitting platform that can see an area of up to 300,000 square miles.

The company plans to launch a series of the units in the United States to create a national wireless broadband network, enabling subscribers to access the Internet wirelessly at high speeds anywhere in the United States, as well in parts of Canada and Mexico.

"The new design will give us much more flexibility. Not only will we be able to offer wireless broadband services to our subscribers, but the platform can also be used to transmit other wireless services such as cellular, MMDS, fixed wireless telephony, HDTV and 3G/4G mobile," said Michael Molen, Sanswire's CEO.

The figure of 300,000 square miles struck me as quite large. It implies a radius of 309 miles, which -- though I'm most definitely not a wireless engineer -- seems far for inexpensive, bidirectional, broadband communications.

To get some idea of the size of 300,000 square miles, here's a circle of that size centered on downtown Chicago (click on any image for a larger view).

Here's the same circle from a continental view.

13 miles equals 68,640 feet; I presume they're really talking about 70,000 feet and rounding to the nearest mile. A handy calculator tells us that from 70,000 feet, the distance to the horizon is actually 356 miles.

Now, even at a distance of only 309 miles, an object at 70,000 feet is going to hang low on the horizon. From the table found on this page, at 70,000 feet, the elevation from 300 miles away is 0.4 degrees -- in other words, slightly less than the width of the Sun or a full Moon in the sky (see here for more on estimating angles in the sky). That's not much -- easily less than treetops or nearby buildings. (As a point of reference, DirecTV's satellites 1, 2, and 3 have elevations of up to 21 degrees above the horizon throughout Alaska, and many Alaskans must buy larger-than-DBS dishes in order to have a hope of receiving a signal.)

10 degrees above the horizon -- the width of one's fist (with thumb tucked in) at arm's length -- seems more reasonable to me. That equates to a range of just under 75 miles. A radius of 75 miles equals a coverage area of 17,671 square miles, which doesn't sound nearly as impressive as 300,000, but if they're just talking about covering major cities, it's not bad at all.

Here's a circle with a radius of 75 miles centered on the Empire State Building.

With a range of 75 miles, it would take only three stationary airships to cover the Boston-New York-Washington corridor.

I may be wrong about this, and the true range may be 309 miles, but even at 75 miles, it's an interesting proposition, at least for well-populated areas. The "BosNYWash" corridor has an estimated population of 40 million, and is the largest, most densely populated megalopolis in the US, and why not start with the best case? Three hovering airships to serve a total available market of 40 million people sounds great to me.

On the other hand, Sanswire claims that it will only take 12 airships to provide coverage "anywhere in the United States and parts of Canada and Mexico." I've played with my mapping program, and I just can't get this to work -- I can't make 12 circles with a radius of 309 miles each completely cover the continental US. The area of the continental US is 2,870,084 square miles, but the US is irregularly shaped, and a circular coverage pattern implies overlap in any case.

So, at the end of all this, I'm intrigued by Sanswire, but I have a few questions:

  • By a coverage area of 300,000 square miles per airship, does Sanswire mean to imply a range of 309 miles?
  • At an airship altitude of 70,000 feet and a range of 300 miles, the airship will be only 0.4 degrees above the horizon. How will users experience reliable communication at such a low elevation?
  • At a line-of-sight distance of 309 miles, what sort of power will be required to transmit to the airship? What does this imply for portable communications devices?
  • How can Sanswire provide service to anywhere in the continental US with only 12 satellites, each with a range of 309 miles?
I'm interested in the answers to these questions, both from readers with technical knowledge and from the Sanswire people themselves (whom I'll invite to respond here).

September 12, 2003

I Suppose It Was Inevitable

I received my first spam e-mail advertising anti-spam software this morning:

Spam Remedy v.1.5 Pro (3.17Mb)

Description:

The powerful, effective and intelligent anti-spam tool.
It automatically cleans spam messages out of your mailbox before you receive or read them.

I decided to check out the Website offering it and found the following:

Domain Name: NANO-SOFT.BIZ
Registrant Name: Andery Kovalev
Registrant Organization: Andery Kovalev
Registrant Address1: Lentan str. 12-b-67
Registrant City: Tallin
Registrant Postal Code: 77612
Registrant Country: Estonia
Registrant Country Code: EE
Registrant Email: andrey_k17@hotmail.com
Is it just me, or are the former Soviet Union and its republics becoming the center of Internet scams? Is it a unique confluence of technical skills and poverty that drives it?

Someone Told the Truth. Get Him!

Last week, Howard Dean -- whom, I should point out, I do not endorse for President, simply because I have not yet decided whom to endorse -- did something fairly radical while discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: he told the truth:

"I don't believe stopping the terror has to be a prerequisite for talking, you always talk. I don't find it convenient to blame people. Nobody should have violence, ever. But they do, and it's not our place to take sides.

"We all know that enormous numbers of the settlements that are there are going to have to come out," he added.

Predictably, the backlash was immediate:

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) accused him of advocating a "major break" from the United States' long-standing policy of explicitly siding with Israel in the Middle East.

"If this is a well-thought-out position, it's a mistake, and a major break from a half a century of American foreign policy," Lieberman said in a statement. "If it's not, it's very important for Howard Dean, as a candidate for president, to think before he talks."

Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) said: "It is either because he lacks the foreign policy experience or simply because he is wrong that governor Dean has proposed a radical shift in United States policy towards the Middle East. If the president were to make a remark such as this it would throw an already volatile region into even more turmoil."

Dean responded quite thoughtfully:

In an interview, Dean sought to clarify his statement but did not back down from his belief that the United State cannot negotiate peace unless it is seen as a neutral party in the region. "Israel has always been a longtime ally with a special relationship with the United States, but if we are going to bargain by being in the middle of the negotiations then we are going to have to take an evenhanded role," he said.
What a radical concept!

This reminds me of something I've thought for a while now, that there are (at least) two great unspoken truths in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:

The Palestinians must realize that Israel will never agree to the "right of return" (the idea that large numbers of Palestinians can establish Israeli residence and citizenship if they so desire). If Israel were to grant such a right, it would be destroying the Jewish nature of its state, and no state will ever voluntarily destroy itself.

The Israelis must realize that most or all of their settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are going to cease to exist. The Palestinians will one day have a sovereign state, and no sovereign state is going to tolerate dozens or hundreds of foreign islands within its territory. Anyone who thinks those Jewish settlements will still exist in a hundred years is living in a fantasy world.

Cheers to Howard Dean for being brave enough to tell the truth. I hope he continues to hold to his stance and doesn't back down in the face of pressure.

September 11, 2003

Anti-Gay Marriage Hearings

Via Million for Marriage, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights held a hearing last week entitled, "What is Needed to Defend the Bipartisan Defense of Marriage Act of 1996?", called by its Chariman, Senator John Cornyn (R.-TX). Four witnesses were allowed to speak in favor of a Constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage and civil union, while two witnesses were allowed to speak against it.

The first speaker was an African-American pastor from Massachusetts:

The American family is in serious trouble today. At present, a historically unprecedented percentage of families with children in our nation are fatherless. In fact, over 25 million American children (more than 1-in-3) are being raised in a family with no father present in the home. This represents a dramatic tripling of the level of fatherlessness in America over the past thirty years.

Unfortunately, there is an overwhelming body of social science research data which shows that the epidemic level of fatherlessness in America represents a disaster for children and society...

As compelling as the empirical evidence may be, I do not need to consult social science research studies in order to conclude that the African-American community in particular has paid a heavy price for the modern epidemic of family disintegration.

Of course, the problems of America's urban neighborhoods are well known. But the modern epidemic of family breakdown means that an increasing number of children in America are growing up under similarly difficult conditions. Indeed, for several decades, our nation has been wandering in a wilderness of social problems caused by family disintegration...

Tragically, as bad as our current situation may be, it could soon become dramatically worse. This is because the courts in America are poised to erase the legal road map to marriage and the family from American law. In fact, the weakening of the legal status of marriage in America at the hands of the courts has already begun.

This process represents nothing less than a social revolution -- advancing apart from the democratic process and against the will of a clear majority of the American people. If allowed to continue, this revolution will deprive future generations of Americans of the legal road map they will need to have a fighting chance to find their way out of the social wilderness of family disintegration.

Marriage as the union of male and female is the most multicultural social institution in the world -- it cuts across all racial, cultural and religious lines.

Significantly, this common sense understanding of marriage as the union of male and female is so fundamental to the African-American community that over 70% of all African-Americans in the United States would currently favor a constitutional amendment to protect the legal status of marriage. Indeed, polls consistently show that the African-American community -- along with other communities of color in the United States -- lead the way in their support for a Federal Marriage Amendment to protect the legal status of marriage in America for future generations.

Of course, no one involved in the Alliance For Marriage believes that saving the legal status of marriage in America will alone be sufficient to stem the tide of family disintegration in our country. But we are convinced that protecting the legal status of marriage is a necessary condition for the renewal of a marriage-based culture in the United States.

The good news in all of this is that family breakdown is a completely curable social disease. This is one of the greatest and most prosperous nations in the world. And we can do better than accept historically unprecedented levels of youth crime and child poverty because more than one-third of our nation's children are being raised without the benefit of a married family made up of a mother and a father.

We can -- and we must -- rebuild a culture of marriage and intact families in this country while we still have time.

Let me see if I can translate and condense that:

The family is in serious trouble. Fatherlessness is an epidemic and a disaster. Family disintegration has been especially hard on the African-American community. Now, I can't draw any connection whatsoever between gay marriage on the one hand and fatherlessness and family disintegration on the other, but most African-Americans are against gay marriage, as am I, so I think we should ban it.
Thankfully, this rhetorical know-nothing nonsense was balanced by the eloquent testimony of a man whose partner of 11 years was an attendant on one of the hijacked 9/11 flights:
Jeff and I had exchanged rings and we were married in our hearts. Legally, it was another matter entirely.

After his death, I was faced not only with my grief over losing Jeff -- who was indeed my better half -- but with the painful task of proving the authenticity of our relationship over and over again. With no marriage license to prove our relationship existed, even something as fundamental as obtaining his death certificate became a monumental task...

During the years we were together, Jeff paid taxes and had social security deducted from his paycheck like all other Americans do. But without a civil marriage license, I am denied benefits that married couples and their families receive as a matter of routine.

Jeff died without a will, which meant that while I dealt with losing him, I also had huge anxiety about maintaining the home we shared together. Without a marriage license to prove I was Jeff's next of kin, even inheriting basic household possessions became a legal nightmare.

Married couples have a legal safety net of rights and protections that gay Americans are currently denied. Until Jeff died, I had no idea just how vulnerable we were -- where married couples have security and protection, gay couples are left without a net...

The terrorists who attacked this country killed people not because they were gay or straight -- but because they were Americans. It is heart wrenching that our own government does not protect its citizens equally, gay and straight, simply because they are Americans.

Two years ago we were all united against the common threat of terrorism. Now, less than two years later I am sitting here and being told that my relationship was a threat to our country.

Jeff and I only sought to love and take care of each other. I do not understand why that is a threat to some people, and I cannot understand why the leaders of this country would hold a hearing on the best way to prevent that from happening.

In closing, I would like to read an excerpt from a letter that Jeff wrote to me on our last anniversary:

"Keith, we've been through much the past 11 years. Our lives haven't always been easy, but through it all, our undeniable love for each other has carried us through! I love you -- don't ever forget that! When you're feeling lonely and I'm not home with you, just pull out this letter and read my words to you once again and know how much you will always mean to me! With loving thoughts of you now and forever, Jeff."

I truly believe I have learned the meaning of the phrase -- Love is Eternal.

How someone could listen to that testimony, to such an obviously heartfelt expression of love and caring -- to the story of a family, in the truest sense of the word, stricken with tragedy -- and then go on to talk abstractedly of "protecting the legal status of marriage is a necessary condition for the renewal of a marriage-based culture in the United States" is utterly and completely beyond me. It bespeaks a lack of empathy, a self-centeredness, a moral righteousness that I hope I am never able to comprehend.

September 10, 2003

Half a Billion Cell Phones in 2004

Via the unwired list, a fairly amazing statistic:

Global cell phones sales will top 500 million next year for the first time in its history, thanks to growing demand for high-speed mobile phones and models with integrated digital cameras, according to a study by research firm IDC.
Half a billion cell phones in a year... that's one cell phone for every 12.63 people in the world (world population figures found here).
Mobile phone sales globally are expected to top 460 million units this year and then grow more than 8 percent in 2004, said IDC, which is based in Framingham, Massachusetts...

The total number of mobile phone users will approach 1.4 billion individuals worldwide in 2004, with vendors shipping more than 241 million 2.5G phones, up 42 percent from 2003, and more than 48 million 3G phones, up 140 percent from 2003, IDC said.

Cell phones with integrated digital cameras will grow 64 percent next year to almost 100 million units, IDC said. Almost 30 million smartphones, will be sold next year, representing growth of 111 percent from 2003.

100 million camera phones and 30 million smart phones? Those are real markets.

September 09, 2003

Ted Koppel on the PATRIOT Act

Via the tireless Lisa Rein, a wonderful closing statement by Ted Koppel from a recent episode of Nightline focused on the PATRIOT Act:

The men who drafted our Constitution, who framed our civil rights and protected our various freedoms under the law would, I suspect, retch at some of the bone headed, self-serving misinterpretations of their intentions that are so often used these days to undermine the very freedoms they pretend to safeguard. The miracle of American law is not that it protects popular speech, or the privacy of the powerful, or the homes of the privileged, but rather, that the least among us, those with the fewest defenses, those suspected of the worst crimes, the most despised in our midst, are presumed innocent until proven guilty. That remains as revolutionary a concept now as it was in the 1780s. It makes protecting the nation against terrorism excruciatingly difficult, but we cannot arbitrarily suspend the rights of one catagory of suspects without endangering all the others.
Eloquent and right on the mark.

Lisa hosts clips of this show on her site; you can find them at the entry above.

September 08, 2003

Sanity Prevails

Sanity has prevailed:

For a second time this year, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit Thursday that alleged McDonald's Corp. misled consumers into believing its food was nutritious and part of a healthy diet.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Sweet said the plaintiffs failed to adequately support allegations that McDonald's violated New York's consumer protection laws and made no allegations that they witnessed any deceptive advertising on the part of the fast food chain.

The Manhattan judge noted in particular that the lawsuit, brought on behalf of two New York children, failed to back allegations that any injuries suffered resulted from McDonald's representations about its French fries or hash browns.

In January, Sweet tossed out an earlier version of the lawsuit that claimed McDonald's food caused health problems in children.

In that ruling, he said, consumers "cannot blame McDonald's if they, nonetheless, choose to satiate their appetite with a surfeit of supersized McDonald's products."

"If a person knows or should know that eating copious orders of supersized McDonald's products is unhealthy and may result in weight gain ... it is not the place of the law to protect them from their own excesses," Sweet wrote at the time.

On Thursday, Sweet rejected a request that the plaintiffs be permitted to file a new version of the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

The full text of Judge Sweet's ruling can be found here.

Ho, Ho... That's Rich!

As I drove my sons to school this morning, NPR's Morning Edition broadcast a story on the Supreme Court hearing arguments today on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. Senator Mitch McConnell (R.-A Pile of Spanish Doubloons), a longtime opponent of such reform, offered his basic argument:

We don't think contributions to political parties create either corruption or the appearance of corruption.
My son Cameron thought about this for a moment and then said:
That's like the cigarette manufacturers claiming that cigarettes don't cause cancer.
Well put, Cameron.

September 06, 2003

Voight-Kampff for Politicians

Via boing boing, San Francisco's The Wave gives the Voight-Kampff Test to the city's mayoral candidates. Oh my God, what a brilliant idea!

SUBJECT 4: TOM AMMIANO

The Wave: Reaction time is a factor in this, so please pay attention. Now, answer as quickly as you can.

It's your birthday. Someone gives you a calfskin wallet. How do you react?
Tom Ammiano: I'd look for money.

TW: You've got a little boy. He shows you his butterfly collection plus the killing jar. What do you do?
TA: I'd think this was Blade Runner. That's my reaction.

TW: You're watching television. Suddenly you realize there's a wasp crawling on your arm.
TA: Call 911.

TW: You're in a desert walking along in the sand when all of the sudden you look down, and you see a tortoise, Tom, it's crawling toward you. You reach down, you flip the tortoise over on its back, Tom. The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over, but it can't, not without your help. But you're not helping. Why is that, Tom?
TA: That's interesting. I don't know. I'm a republican?

TW: Describe in single words, only the good things that come into your mind. About your mother.
TA: Tenderness. Yelling.

CONCLUSION: The self-awareness required to recognize that you're being administered a Voight-Kampff Test automatically eliminates the possibility of you being a replicant. Good work, Tom! You're human! Now watch your back.

As impressive as the cleverness of the people who thought this up is the sportsmanship of the politicians to continue through the interviews.

Highly, highly recommended.

The Economist on the Shuttle

The Economist published a withering editorial on the Space Shuttle last week:

[T]he shuttle has never adequately done what it was meant to do. It has always been a bad design: expensive, inherently risky and -- as two fatal accidents have demonstrated -- unsafe. It cannot launch satellites at a sensible price, and it lifts people into orbit only because of America's very deep pockets. America and its taxpayers need a better way to continue the development of space transport...

Despite many attempts, and many billions spent, NASA has failed to come up with a convincing alternative. And later this year, while the shuttle is still firmly grounded, China may launch astronauts for the first time. A situation could arise where China, Russia and an entrepreneur called Burt Rutan, based in a shed in the Mojave desert, constitute the world's entire potential for launching astronauts.

The Economist goes on to argue -- wisely, I think -- for a true privatization of human launch capability:

Getting people on and off the space station is not, actually, rocket science any more. It should be a routine job, and its replacement, as NASA concedes, could easily be built using cheap off-the-shelf technology. So this is the ideal moment to extract NASA completely from the business of routine space transport. NASA should have no involvement in building a replacement vehicle to visit the station: the agency has no incentive to solve the problem with a simple solution...

[W]hile NASA has been throwing money at the shuttle, a new generation of entrepreneurs and companies has been trying to enter the space business. Some, such as Mr Rutan, are competing to build the first privately financed craft to take people into space -- for an award of $10m. In five years' time, private enterprise may well be putting more people into space than governments can. There is a great deal of demand for short, tourist rides into space.

Indeed, if private enterprise can create astronauts with only millions of dollars, what might it achieve with a fraction of NASA's wasted billions? The space station is a mere 380km (240 miles) above the Earth. That is about four times further than any of today's private suborbital craft are trying to reach. But, if NASA were a customer, and not a competitor, in the business of building spacecraft, companies might have the incentive to extend their craft all the way into orbit...

[T]he existence of the shuttle doubtless inhibits the development of a private space industry and the new private companies face regulatory restrictions that do not apply to the shuttle. Remove some of these barriers, scuttle the shuttle, and a private industry may bloom. Then, some of those who once watched Columbia's perfect landing might experience the thrill of going into space for themselves. And NASA could explore the real frontiers.

I myself have wondered what would happen if the X Prize were not for suborbital flight, but for true orbital launch capability, and if the prize were $500 million -- or even $1 billion -- instead of $10 million. Who would be competing? What would they build?

Another way to do this would be for the US government to announce that, beginning in, say, 2008, it is going to select vendors to contract out all future astronaut launches (probably beginning in 2009 or 2010). Make the announcement non-rescindable and set simple, easily measurable requirements: astronaut capacity, on-orbit mission length, compatibility with existing orbital docking systems, safety proven through a series of successful launches (with safety board review afterwards), and so on. Announce how many launches the government will contract for and on what schedule, and that the government will choose as few as one and as many as three of the most inexpensive vendors whose vehicles and systems meet all the requirements. Then sit back and let visionary entrepreneurs like Burt Rutan, John Carmack, and Jeff Bezos do their thing.

September 05, 2003

Be and Microsoft Settle

In February 2002, my former employer, Be Incorporated, filed suit against Microsoft:

Be Incorporated ("Be"), brings this action to recover damages under the antitrust laws of the United States and the laws of California for the destruction of its business as a direct result of the illegal and anticompetitive practices of Microsoft Corporation ("Microsoft")..

As a result of Microsoft’s anticompetitive practices in the market for Intel-compatible PC operating systems, including its willful maintenance of its own monopoly power in that market, and in the related markets for Internet appliance operating systems and browsers, Microsoft has had a direct, substantial, and adverse effect on competition by artificially raising barriers to entry, foreclosing competition on the basis of price and performance, and stifling innovation. Buyers of PCs and software have thus been forced to pay higher prices for less innovative, inferior products. In addition, Microsoft’s unlawful conduct has forced Be to cease doing business.

Now comes word that Be and Microsoft just settled their dispute today:

Be Incorporated (Nasdaq:BEOS)(OTC:BEOSZ.PK) and Microsoft Corporation (Nasdaq:MSFT) today announced that the parties have reached a mutually acceptable mediated settlement of an antitrust lawsuit filed by Be Incorporated in February 2002, which is currently pending in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland in Baltimore. Be will receive a payment from Microsoft, after attorney's fees, in the amount of $23,250,000 to end further litigation and Microsoft admits no wrongdoing. All other terms of the settlement will remain confidential. Both parties are satisfied with the Agreement and believe that it is fair and reasonable. This is the second private antitrust lawsuit Microsoft has settled this year.

Be is currently in the process of completing its dissolution pursuant to the plan of dissolution approved by Be's stockholders in November 2001. In accordance with that plan and upon completion of its dissolution, Be's net cash will be distributed to shareholders of record as of March 15, 2002 after payment of any taxes, officers' and directors' compensation, and other expenses, and the satisfaction of any and all of Be's remaining liabilities.

I have personal reasons to be glad this is settled -- not that I stand to receive any money, but as a former executive of Be, I was scheduled to be deposed in the case soon. In a situation like that, the best that can happen is that one manages to avoid looking like an idiot -- not exactly something to be excited about.

Having said that, it would have been interesting to see the case go to trial. I don't have first-hand information about Be's allegations of interference in its fundraising efforts, and I don't think Be's argument that Microsoft deliberately destroyed the market for Internet appliances would have flown with a judge or jury. But Be made some very specific allegations about anti-competitive behavior in operating system licensing, and I would have been fascinated to see the parties debate that issue in court.

What Country Am I?

I took the Country Quiz the other day. Here are the questions, my answers, and the result:

  • How's your quality of life? [Good | Could be better] Good
  • What climate do you prefer? [Stay cool! | Mild and tropical, baby] Stay cool!
  • Do you ski? [Yes | No] Yes
  • How do you resolve conflicts? [Let's talk about it. | I hate you. Die.] Let's talk about it.
  • Are you social? [Go away. | Hi there.] Hi there.
  • How do you feel about foreigners? [They make me nervous. | Let's have open borders.] Let's have open borders.

2003-09-05-01.gif

You're Canada!
People make fun of you a lot, but they're stupid because you've got a much better life than they do. In fact, they're probably just jealous. You believe in crazy things like human rights and health care and not dying in the streets, and you end up securing these rights for yourself and others. If it weren't for your weird affection for ice hockey, you'd be the perfect person.

I wasn't trying to be Canada, but there you go.

Interestingly, when I was in Japan this summer, Joi Ito took me out for dinner to a private club located beneath the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. Walking through the lobby, I mentioned to him my affinity for Canada. "You could be a Canadian," he replied. "You like to get along with people." True enough.

September 04, 2003

LEDs Replacing Light Bulbs

An article from the Boston Globe on the effort to replace light bulbs with LEDs:

Three local companies think it's about time to change Edison's light bulb. They say that light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, are the future of illumination. Most people are familiar with the glowing red LEDs used as indicators, to show that there are messages waiting on your answering machine, for example. But today's LEDs can be used to light up restaurants, Broadway stages, and even bridges.

They're essentially microchips that manipulate electrons to produce light. Unlike Edison's bulb, there's no filament to burn out, and they don't get especially hot when they're on. Other plusses: They can last 10 times times longer than an incandescent bulb, and they require much less electricity -- up to 80 percent less -- to produce the same amount of light. And here's a stunning projection: If the world switches over to LEDs rapidly enough, it could obviate the need to build more than 100 power plants between now and 2020.

The problem is cost. Like early computer chips, today's LEDs are still too expensive to spark mass adoption. "You could replace a 100-watt light bulb with a 60-watt LED, and get the same brightness," says John Fan, chairman and founder of Kopin Corp., a Taunton company that makes LEDs. "You'd save 40 percent on power, but it would cost about $100. We need to bring that price down." ...

No one knows how quickly the shift to LEDs will happen -- the technology has been around since 1962 -- but most experts consider it inevitable. And this is an overwhelmingly positive tech trend: By some estimates, LEDs could reduce global energy use for lighting by half by 2025.

Found on Slashdot.

September 03, 2003

Riverbend and Rebuilding

From a blog by "Riverbend," a female Iraqi with a good command of English, comes this commentary on rebuilding Iraq:

One of my cousins works in a prominent engineering company in Baghdad- we’ll call the company H. This company is well-known for designing and building bridges all over Iraq. My cousin, a structural engineer, is a bridge freak. He spends hours talking about pillars and trusses and steel structures to anyone who'll listen.

As May was drawing to a close, his manager told him that someone from the CPA wanted the company to estimate the building costs of replacing the New Diyala Bridge on the South East end of Baghdad. He got his team together, they went out and assessed the damage, decided it wasn't too extensive, but it would be costly. They did the necessary tests and analyses (mumblings about soil composition and water depth, expansion joints and girders) and came up with a number they tentatively put forward -- $300,000. This included new plans and designs, raw materials (quite cheap in Iraq), labor, contractors, travel expenses, etc.

Let’s pretend my cousin is a dolt. Let's pretend he hasnt been working with bridges for over 17 years. Let's pretend he didn't work on replacing at least 20 of the 133 bridges damaged during the first Gulf War. Let's pretend he's wrong and the cost of rebuilding this bridge is four times the number they estimated -- let's pretend it will actually cost $1,200,000. Let's just use our imagination.

A week later, the New Diyala Bridge contract was given to an American company. This particular company estimated the cost of rebuilding the bridge would be around -- brace yourselves -- $50,000,000 !! ...

[I]nstead of bringing in thousands of foreign companies that are going to want billions of dollars, why aren't the Iraqi engineers, electricians and laborers being taken advantage of? Thousands of people who have no work would love to be able to rebuild Iraq… no one is being given a chance.

The reconstruction of Iraq is held above our heads like a promise and a threat. People roll their eyes at reconstruction because they know (Iraqis are wily) that these dubious reconstruction projects are going to plunge the country into a national debt only comparable to that of America. A few already rich contractors are going to get richer, Iraqi workers are going to be given a pittance and the unemployed Iraqi public can stand on the sidelines and look at the glamorous buildings being built by foreign companies.

Found on boing boing.

September 02, 2003

NYT on Schwarzenegger

A wonderfully pithy sentence at the end of this passage from a New York Times article on the California recall election:

Mr. Schwarzenegger made an appearance at the California State Fair and Exposition near Sacramento, where he... lauded the accomplishments of California's workers, but insisted he would not accept money from their unions. "I will never take money from the special interests, from Indian gaming, from unions or anything like that," he said.

Mr. Schwarzenegger has reneged on early campaign promises not to accept campaign contributions from anyone. State disclosures show he has collected more than $1 million from companies and individuals with business before the state. "I get donations from businesses and individuals absolutely, because they're powerful interests who control things," he said today.

He declined to explain the difference between special interests and powerful interests.

Who is managing this campaign?

September 01, 2003

The Homogenous Internet Ecosystem

Scot Hacker recently mentioned the analogy between "the healthy necessity of biodiversity in nature and platform diversity in the computing world." The fact of the matter is that the Internet is highly analogous to an ecosystem at this point, and an extremely homogenous ecosystem at that. Ecosystems lacking in biodiversity are especially susceptible to attack by self-replicating organisms, just as we're seeing on the Internet today. Were market shares of operating systems, Web browsers, and e-mail clients more evenly distributed among competitors, the Internet ecosystem would be much more resistant to attacks like SoBig.