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May 30, 2004

Not a Serious Question

This is absolutely not a prediction. It's not a serious question. It's just a question.

If Bush were to lose the election, what would happen if, in the interest of the war on terror, he were to declare some sort of martial law and postpone or invalidate the election results?

What is US law on this subject? How would the branches of government react?

As I said, this is most certainly not a prediction. It's hard for me to imagine any US politician doing this, even one in the current administration. It's hard for me to imagine the legislative and judicial branches acceding to such a move. It's hard for me to imagine the military supporting it, beyond a small group particularly loyal to the current President. It's just a question. An idle musing.

Of course, I'm off to Google "martial law".

May 29, 2004

Say It Ain't So

At the theater yesterday, while watching the trailer for Pixar's forthcoming movie The Incredibles, I was struck by how unfunny it was. I looked around and noticed that no one else in the audience was laughing, either. Given the stellar quality of Pixar's films to date, it would be an awful surprise if The Incredibles turned out to be... well, less than incredible.

May 27, 2004

How Could This Have Gone So Wrong?

If I remember correctly, the argument for going to war in Iraq went something like this:

  1. Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and so is a threat to its neighbors and to US interests.
  2. Iraq has encouraged and/or sponsored terrorism, including acts committed by Al Qaeda.
  3. Saddam Hussein has a long history of torturing and killing innocent people.
Now, let me see if I have this straight:
  1. We have found no stockpiles of WMDs.
  2. The war in Iraq has actually "spurred on" Al Qaeda.
  3. The US has conducted "widespread" abuse of prisoners, potentially including several deaths during interrogations.
In other words, the justifications for the war have either disappeared or we have undone them ourselves through our actions.

How could this have gone so wrong?

May 26, 2004

Natsukashii!

From a special issue (unavailable online) of National Geographic Traveler, a sidebar to an essay on Japanese ryokans:

One of my favorite things about a ryokan is the seating arrangement. When dinner is served, the honored guest is seated with his or her back to the tokonoma, a small alcove that typically holds a scroll, a vase, and an ikebana flower arrangement. I once read an explanation of why the guest sits facing away from the most beautiful part of the room: It's so that the guest actually becomes part of the room's beauty, a lingering presence that fills the ryokan for years afterward. Looking at the empty room, remembering the guest, a Japanese might exclaim "Natsukashii!" -- an expression that conveys a complicated and favorite Japanese emotion, the bittersweet nostalgia for something lovely and loved, now past. -- Cathy N. Davidson, author of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji

May 25, 2004

New Spinal Cord Injury Treatment

This story from describes the results of animal trials of a new spinal cord injury treatment regimen. Hopefully we're getting close at last to being able to truly help people with such injuries:

Rats with spinal cord injuries regained 70 percent of their normal walking function with a three-part treatment hailed as a breakthrough in paralysis research at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

The study at the university's Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, to be published on Monday in the June issue of the journal Nature Medicine, produced results "by far greater than what we've seen in anything else," said the principal researcher, Dr. Mary Bartlett Bunge.

"It opens up a potential new avenue of treatment for human spinal cord injury," said Bunge, who declined to speculate when human trials might be attempted...

The Miami study involved hundreds of animals with crushing injuries to the thoracic region of the spinal cord, which mainly causes loss of control of the legs and is the most common form of injury among the 243,000 people in the United States living with spinal cord injuries, the researchers said.

They transplanted cells known as Schwann cells from the peripheral nerves, where regeneration does occur, to create a bridge across the damaged area of the spinal cord and promote the growth of axons, the nerve fibers that transmit messages...

After eight weeks, the rats that did not receive the treatment could occasionally take a halting step but could not take one step after another, Bunge said. Those that received the treatment had regained 70 percent of their walking function, "a striking improvement," Bunge said. They could step consistently, and had better fine motor control and coordination.

May 24, 2004

Design Eye for the Usability Guy

This is brilliant. Via boing boing comes Design Eye for the Usability Guy -- five Web designers who get together to make over a page from Jakob Nielsen's useit.com Website.

The redesign uses iconic graphics, and on his Website, Nielsen explains why he doesn't use graphics. But he could still have a far more attractive text-only site -- the redesign would be vastly preferable to his current site design even without the graphics.

May 22, 2004

Fun with Blog Statistics

I have a Site Meter icon on my main page that I use to track visits. According to Site Meter, I average 28 visits to my blog per day. Not very impressive.

My hosting provider uses Webalizer to track visits to my entire site. According to Webalizer, I average 686 visits to my blog per day. Much more impressive.

My question is, which number is closer to the truth? On the one hand, Webalizer tracks all visits, including those from spiders, while I presume Site Meter does not (since they don't download images). On the other hand, Site Meter only tracks home page visits. So when someone follows a direct link to an entry on my site, or downloads my RSS feed, Site Meter doesn't count them.

I suppose it's safe to say that I get no less than 28 visits per day, and no more than 686. It's just that a 24x difference between the two is an awfully wide range.

May 21, 2004

"War on Drugs"

When I first began listening to the Barenaked Ladies -- the funniest people in music, I think -- I never would have imagined they would someday produce a song so hauntingly sad as "War on Drugs", from their most recent album, Everything to Everyone. It's set to a beautiful melody, like a love ballad, but it's not about love.

Near where I live there's a viaduct
Where people jump when they're out of luck
Raining down on the cars and trucks below

They've put a net there to catch their fall
Like it'll stop anyone at all
What they don't know is when nature calls, you go

They say that Jesus and mental health
Are just for those who can help themselves
But what good is that when you live in hell on earth?

From the very fear that makes you want to die
Is just the same as what keeps you alive
It's way more trouble than some suicide is worth

Chorus:

Won't it be dull when we rid ourselves
Of all these demons haunting us
To keep us company

Won't it be odd to be happy like we
Always thought we're supposed to feel
But never seem to be

May 20, 2004

iTMS MIAs

I've been taking note of artists whose works are mostly or completely missing on the iTunes Music Store, either because I've looked for them myself, or have seen references to their absence on the Web. This is what I've come up with so far:

  • The Beatles
  • Blondie
  • The Clash
  • Elvis Costello
  • Dave Matthews Band
  • Fine Young Cannibals
  • General Public
  • John Lennon
  • Paul McCartney
  • Metallica
  • Radiohead
  • Kid Rock
  • Steve Miller Band
  • Pete Townshend
  • XTC
Any additions to this? Any rumors as to when these artists will be added?

By the way, I'm relatively clueless when it comes to how music rights are licensed, and I've long since lost track of who owns what when it comes to the Beatles' music. Is its absence from iTMS related to the Apple Computer-Apple Corps dispute?

At the CDC

I had an interesting but all-too-short visit to the Centers for Disease Control yesterday. As I noted in my previous entry, I was looking forward to it partly because I have so much respect for the CDC -- it seems to me to be consistently competent and resistant to partisanship.

The best part of the visit was when my colleagues and I were given a tour of the CDC's new Emergency Operations Center. As I said afterwards, "It was the first government facility I've ever been in that really felt like something out of the movies." Large projection screens on the walls, flat panel displays and task lighting, continuously updating threat monitors, conference rooms with liquid crystal windows... it was all quite impressive. I didn't see more than 10-15 people while I was there -- thankfully, there are no major public health crises at the moment -- but according to our host, had I visited during the SARS outbreak last year, I would have seen every seat filled.

Sadly, no photos are allowed within the CDC, but there's a press release on the EOC here, and a few photos (none a good overall shot) can be found by going here and searching on "emergency operations".

I asked about the Andromeda Strain facility, with pools of antimicrobial fluids to swim through and an onsite nuke just in case something gets loose, but apparently that doesn't exist. Or so I was told...

May 19, 2004

A New Record

In the hopes of discerning a trend, I've been tracking the number of spam messages I receive daily for the past month. I haven't yet been able to identify a trend in the data, but I can say that yesterday set a new record for a single day: 195. This is not the kind of record I want to be setting. It's bad enough to make me think about subscribing to Mailblocks.

Off to the CDC

I'm off to Atlanta today for a meeting at the Centers for Disease Control. Besides the business interest in going, I'm looking forward to the visit because I've never been to the CDC, and it's probably the government agency I admire the most. From the outside, the CDC usually seems well-run, efficient, and non-partisan. It should be interesting.

May 18, 2004

Debating Libertarianism

I used to be a Libertarian. I'm not anymore. I think this exchange I had with a Libertarian on Plastic does a good job of explaining why.

The basic story was that a Utah woman named Briana Lane was severely injured in an automobile accident while she was driving under the influence, without a seat belt, without a license, and without health insurance. Emergency treatment to save her life required that part of her skull be removed. In what is apparently standard operating procedure in such cases, the skull fragment was stored so that it could be replaced a few weeks later. The hospital cancelled the restorative surgery at the last minute, hoping to get the state to pay for it. Meanwhile, Briana was walking around with half a skull. Media coverage ensued, her mother's insurance company agreed to foot the bill, and all was well. However, this engendered a heated discussion on about health care and human rights. Here's the relevant portion:

Crass Observations
by Russ Morrison
  1. This should have been a case of evolution in action. Precisely how stupid do you have to be to (a) drive drunk and (b) do it without a seat belt?
  2. The law that requires hospitals and doctors to treat emergency patients, regardless of their ability to pay, is one example of modern slavery: one is required, by law, to render service to another. Hospitals are, in essence, modern day plantations; the slaves are better educated, but they are slaves, nonetheless.
  3. Much will be made on this thread regarding the "high cost of medicine". It is not, however, the "medicine" that costs. It is that the costs of treating the Briana Lanes must be spread among the swiftly shrinking group that does pay. This, coupled with the fact that individuals seldom pay for their own medicine -- most treatment is paid for by government or insurance companies -- creates a strong upward pressure on the price of treatment.
Re: Crass Observations
by borkus

I've seen several posts pointing out that Lane's problems are the result of her poor judgement and break two laws (DUI and driving without a seatbelt) in the process.

Now, if Lane had been pulled over, charged and convicted of DUI and driving without a seatbelt, would her punishment have been to saw off her skull under anesthesia and subject her to six weeks of pain and blackouts? Probably not. Punishment for illegal and careless behavior are the purview of the criminal and civil courts -- not the healthcare system. Denying someone medical care because of a crime they committed has to be cruel and unusual punishment, especially since such a punishment would only apply to the poor and indigent. Also, she's a 22 year old waitress without health insurance; she's not necessarily indigent, but like many young people, she has an low skill job without health coverage.

Admittedly, it cost $200,000 to put Lane's skull back together. However, ongoing care of someone with half a skull would probably be a considerable sum as well; in Lane's case, she would have been a burden to society for the rest of her life. Now, with a skull completely covering her brain, she has 40 more years of work to pay taxes and contribute to society. Hopefully, she remembers to not drink and drive and to keep her seat belt buckled.

Re: Crass Observations
by Russ Morrison

...would her punishment have been to saw off her skull under anesthesia and subject her to six weeks of pain and blackouts?

Of course not. She isn't being "punished" -- she is suffering the consequences of her own stupidity. It is immoral to force any other person to suffer for her actions, and shielding her from any part of those consequences deprives her of the opportunity to learn from her mistakes -- if she is capable of doing so.

I wouldn't put any bets on that. Stupid people tend to remain stupid. It is unlikely in the extreme that Lane will learn anything from this event, other than that the taxpayer can be very generous.

Lane has already demonstrated that she is a net burden on society — someone who not only refused to do a minimal task in her own defence (put on a seat belt), but also actively pursued an activity (drunk driving) likely to cause her, and others, injury.

As to her paying taxes and "contributing" to make up the $200K: On a waitress' salary? You're joking, right?

Re: Crass Observations
by boosman

[S]he is suffering the consequences of her own stupidity. It is immoral to force any other person to suffer for her actions, and shielding her from any part of those consequences deprives her of the opportunity to learn from her mistakes -- if she is capable of doing so. (emphasis mine)

I want to be really clear about what you're saying here. You believe that, given that she was without insurance, no hospital or other treatment facility should have been required to treat her, whether to save her life in the first place or to replace her skull later on? If so, I presume you believe that if a hospital chooses not to accept insurance company X, and you're wheeled into the emergency room, 10 minutes from death, with a card from insurance company X, they can say, "Sorry, you'll have to go down the road to the next hospital."

This is why I gave up being a Libertarian a long time ago. Some of its precepts sound good in a theoretical sense, but then there's that pesky matter of the real world. In a Libertarian world, anyone should be able to refuse service to anyone on any basis. In the real world, we want to know that if we follow the big blue "H" signs, someone's going to save our life. In a Libertarian world, people should suffer all the consequences of their stupidity. In the real world, everyone makes mistakes, and compassionate people think that allowing someone to die for a mistake they've made is usually a bit harsh.

Re: Crass Observations
by Russ Morrison

I presume you believe that if a hospital chooses not to accept insurance company X...they can say, "Sorry, you'll have to go down the road to the next hospital."

Sure. And, in the real world, that hospital will lose all of the money that it could have gotten from X. Kaiser used to do this all the time, before the law forced them to treat all emergency patients; once the emergency is done, they still send you, frequently at great risk, "down the road".

In the real world, everyone makes mistakes, and compassionate people think that allowing someone to die for a mistake they've made is usually a bit harsh.

Depends on the mistake. And people die from mistakes all the time, compassion or no -- frequently from other people's mistakes, something that could easily have happened here (DUI accidents frequently kill or injure the sober party).

Compassionate people, for centuries, have created charitable and not-for-profit hospitals, and they do so with their own money, rather than taxpayers'.

I'm a very compassionate person. I've helped many folks, both directly and through organizations I support. But I refuse to be compassionate with your money. Courtesy (at least) and justice (at best) would seem to demand the same consideration from you.

Re: Crass Observations
by boosman

Well, the reality is that I doubt that most Americans want to live in a society where maybe a given hospital will treat their critical injuries, maybe it won't. I know I don't want to live in such a society.

Now, don't get me wrong: our health care system is broken, and I know it. We spend far more of our GDP on health care than any other OECD country and yet manage to have 40+ million uninsured Americans. To my mind, the right solution is to decide that we have reached a point as a society where everyone should be entitled to health care, and make it so. At the same time, though, I think we should implement a universal health care system in such a way as to preserve maximum choice and to encourage people to make responsible health care decisions.

Before you scream about this universal health care would be an unwarranted expenditure of your money, tell me how it's different in theory from universal primary education. Both are examples of the people deciding that what was once a privilege is now a right.

Re: Crass Observations
by Russ Morrison

To my mind, the right solution is to decide that we have reached a point as a society where everyone should be entitled to health care, and make it so.

I see. You would take a broken system, use a sledge hammer on the remaining pieces that work, and then declare that everyone should use the same broken system.

Want to preserve "maximum choice"? Then preserve it for doctors, too. And nurses. And hospitals (or, as someone else pointed out, "hospital administrators"). One does not increase freedom by removing it; no one should be forced to serve another, not matter how "necessary" or "good" the service might be.

Re: Crass Observations
by boosman

Did you actually read my comment? All I said was that I would institute universal health care and that I would do so in a way that would preserve choice and encourage good decision-making by consumers. How exactly is that taking "a broken system" and using "a sledge hammer on the remaining pieces that work"?

Here's the simple reality: within 50 years -- and probably less -- we'll have universal health care in the US, because a majority of Americans will have decided that health care is a fundamental right (just as we decided a century ago that education was a fundamental right). You're on the side that will ultimately lose this battle. The question you have to ask yourself is, do you want to be made irrelevant in the debate by advocating ludicrous ideas like allowing hospitals to let patients die on their doorsteps in the name of devotion to Libertarianism, or do you want to influence the debate in useful ways by proposing efficient market-based structures within a universal system?

Re: Crass Observations
by Russ Morrison

within 50 years -- and probably less -- we'll have universal health care in the US, because a majority of Americans will have decided that health care is a fundamental right (just as we decided a century ago that education was a fundamental right)

And in 50 years, we will have universal health care with the same high quality product that is provided by universal education. You don't want to just break what little is working, you want to destroy it altogether, and replace it with something that works just like public education.

I can hardly wait. Not only will my grandchildren be illiterate, so will my doctor.

Re: Crass Observations
by boosman

Holy crap! Do you comment on my postings without reading them, or do you willfully misrepresent them to suit your purposes?

I didn't assert an opinion about the state of the US K-12 education system. If I had, I would have said that I strongly believe in universal public-funded education. (I presume you don't, but are unwilling to come right out and say it, possibly because you know how extreme it would make you sound.) But I would also have said that I think the US K-12 education system needs far more market-based structures than it has today. There's nothing incompatible with guaranteeing every child an education while giving their parents far more say in how and where they're educated than they have today.

With all that said, for debating purposes, I'm willing to take your bait. According to the CIA, 97 percent of US citizens aged 15 and over are literate. If we take literacy as prima facie evidence that the educational system has done its job, at least at a minimal level, then that means the system has worked for all but 8.7 million people in the US. Compare that with the 40 to 44 million people who have no health insurance in this country.

You may bitch about our education system -- we all may from time to time -- but all in all, it does a reasonably good job of educating children. Yes, we all know of horror stories, and it's not to say the system couldn't work much better, but most of us send our kids to school every day feeling that we're sending them to a good place, with teachers who care, and where they can learn. (Note that I don't live in Washington, DC.) So, although I don't want a health care system structured just like public education today, even that would be an improvement over what we have now.

How about this: if we structured public education like our current health care system, we'd have 40 to 44 million illiterates in the US while spending half again as much on education as most other OECD countries. Now there's a good idea.

The same person who wrote, "I'm a very compassionate person," also wrote, "This should have been a case of evolution in action" -- or, to put it more directly, "I think that person should have died for her mistake." I think that qualifies as a use of the word "compassionate" I hadn't encountered before.

May 17, 2004

While I'm at It...

...I know it's bad form to say this, but I can't help it.

I told you so.

The Slippery Slope of Torture

For me, the last paragraph of Seymour Hersh's article on high-level involvement in Iraqi prisoner abuse for the New Yorker really sums up the situation:

"In an odd way," Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said, "the sexual abuses at Abu Ghraib have become a diversion for the prisoner abuse and the violation of the Geneva Conventions that is authorized." Since September 11th, Roth added, the military has systematically used third-degree techniques around the world on detainees. "Some JAGs [Judge Advocates General] hate this and are horrified that the tolerance of mistreatment will come back and haunt us in the next war," Roth told me. "We're giving the world a ready-made excuse to ignore the Geneva Conventions. Rumsfeld has lowered the bar."
People in favor of using torture will use exaggerated examples to make their point. For example, if we could go back in time, wouldn't we tell the CIA to torture Osama bin Laden in order to prevent 9/11? Most people probably would. (Actually, we'd simply tell the CIA to arrest those 19 hijackers, but now I'm picking nits.) But as with so many things in life, it's a slippery slope. As Newsweek wrote:
What started as a carefully thought-out, if aggressive, policy of interrogation in a covert war -- designed mainly for use by a handful of CIA professionals -- evolved into ever-more ungoverned tactics that ended up in the hands of untrained MPs in a big, hot war. Originally, Geneva Conventions protections were stripped only from Qaeda and Taliban prisoners. But later Rumsfeld himself, impressed by the success of techniques used against Qaeda suspects at Guantanamo Bay, seemingly set in motion a process that led to their use in Iraq, even though that war was supposed to have been governed by the Geneva Conventions. Ultimately, reservist MPs, like those at Abu Ghraib, were drawn into a system in which fear and humiliation were used to break prisoners' resistance to interrogation.
Once you've decided to torture one person, you've crossed a moral line. You're going to torture again when it seems necessary. If you'll torture 10 suspected Al Qaida ringleaders, you'll torture 100 suspected Al Qaida terrorists. And if you'll torture 100 of them, you'll torture 1,000 or 10,000 Iraqi prisoners. It becomes nothing more than another tool. A slippery slope.

Back to Hersh's article, as a former soldier, I'm incredibly angered at what the Bush Administration has done to the reputation of the US military. Now we're seen by many around the world as torturers, as cold-blooded killers. The reason countries sign up to the Geneva Conventions isn't altruism, it's selfishness. It's a desire to protect their own. "We won't torture you if you don't torture us." Now the Bush Administration has changed that. "We may torture you. But don't you dare torture us." But that's exactly what's going to happen. In future conflicts, from the standpoint of our enemies, the gloves will be off. If you believe the US will torture your soldiers, then you're going to be very motivated to torture any US soldiers you happen to capture. And that has made the world a far more dangerous place for US soldiers for a long, long time to come.

May 16, 2004

Warnock's Advice to Startups

My one-time boss, the great John Warnock, was awarded a richly-deserved honor this week:

Yesterday evening Dr John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe, was awarded the British Computer Society's Ada Lovelace Medal by BCS president Professor Wendy Hall CBE.

The prize is given to individuals for making a significant contribution to the advancement, or the understanding, of Information Systems. Ada Lovelace is remembered as one of the first women to make an impact on computing. She was assistant to Charles Babbage and began corresponding with him on maths and logic when she was just seventeen.

In his acceptance speech, he had some great advice for startups:

Warnock also had some advice for software startups today: "There was no great planning in what we did, the company evolved. You have to follow the river -- it's the same now. There is no magic formula, but don't hire MBAs."
This reminded me of something John said to me when I was working for him:
You can't be in it for the money. Do what you love. The money has to be a happy accident.
I've tried to keep this advice in mind ever since. I can think of one time in particular when I didn't -- when I made a decision to take a job with dollar signs in my eyes, ignoring the fact that I had serious reservations about the person for whom I'd be working -- and it turned out a disaster. I plan on not making that mistake again.

Thanks to David Smith for the tip.

May 15, 2004

Patenting Relationships

eHarmony has been granted US patent number 6,735,568, "Method and system for identifying people who are likely to have a successful relationship":

The functions and operations of a matching service are disclosed. This includes approximating the satisfaction that a user of the matching service has in the relationships that the user forms with others and identifying candidates for a relationship with the user based on the approximated satisfaction. This also includes approximating the satisfaction that the user will have in a relationship with a particular candidate. The matching service also identifies two parties for a relationship. The matching service makes available a plurality of communication levels at which the parties can communicate. Each communication level allows the parties to exchange information in a different format. The parties are permitted to exchange information at one of the communication levels.
Not that I'm an intellectual property attorney, but I think they just patented the concept of taking tests to determine compatbility. Oh, my, is Cosmo in trouble.

May 13, 2004

I'm Ashamed

From a New York Times article out today:

The Central Intelligence Agency has used coercive interrogation methods against a select group of high-level leaders and operatives of Al Qaeda that have produced growing concerns inside the agency about abuses, according to current and former counterterrorism officials...

In the case of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a high-level detainee who is believed to have helped plan the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, C.I.A. interrogators used graduated levels of force, including a technique known as "water boarding," in which a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown....

Defenders of the operation said the methods stopped short of torture, did not violate American anti-torture statutes, and were necessary to fight a war against a nebulous enemy whose strength and intentions could only be gleaned by extracting information from often uncooperative detainees.

So strapping a man down, pushing him underwater, and making him believe he might drown isn't torture?

It's beyond me how Middle America can look at the Bush Administration and think, "Good job. Let's give them four more years." I look at the Bush Administration and see damage done to the US that will take at least a generation to undo. We have dismissed the viewpoints of many of our closest allies. We have refused to sign treaties that would place limits on our misbehavior. We have engaged in a war based on false pretenses. We have asserted our right to detain suspected terrorists indefinitely, with no legal recourse. Now we find out that we have been torturing prisoners on multiple fronts.

I cannot believe that this is the sort of country the Founding Fathers had in mind. It's not the country of which I thought I was a part. But the worst part is that it's entirely conceivable that we may be in for another four years of this. If President Bush were running 20 or 30 points behind John Kerry in the polls, I would feel better -- I would say to myself, "At least America realizes how awful things are and is determined to do something about it." But that's not the case. There are plenty of people who think George Bush is doing just fine, thank you very much. And for the life of me, I can't understand that.

As ashamed of my country as I am right now, if President Bush is reelected, I'm going to feel much worse. What kind of signal would that send to other nations -- that we would voluntarily return him to office after what he and his team have done to America's reputation throughout the world?

May 11, 2004

iTunes Criticisms

Alan Kay once famously called the Mac "the first PC good enough to criticiize." That's how I feel about iTunes and the iTunes Music Store (iTMS) -- the first music manager and service good enough to criticize. So, with a library of 1,590 songs, 105 of them purchased from iTMS, I have a few critcisms:

  • For music purchased via iTMS, a proprietary Apple database provides information such as album art, music style, issue dates, and the like. For music ripped from CDs, Apple uses IMDB CDDB. Apple's data is much better -- the typical IMDB CDDB entry has misspellings, incorrect dates, and always lacks album art. Why not use the iTMS database when it includes a ripped CD and use IMDB CDDB as a backup for CDs not available on iTMS? At a minimum, Apple could provide a "Lookup" button in the "Get Info" dialog that would attempt to look up information on iTMS for a song or a CD.
  • Apple divorces the concept of the currently selected song from the currently playing song. This is a good user interface decision, but it leads to one unfortunate problem: since the "Show Song Artwork" panel displays only the currently selected song, but the selection doesn't change when advancing between songs, there's no way to always see the album art for the currently playing song.
  • Apple doesn't offer the ability to re-download purchased music -- one download is all one gets. I'd guess their argument for this policy goes something like this:
    1. You don't get new CDs free if you lose them.
    2. This would be expensive to offer.
    3. If we enabled this, it would encourage piracy.
    In order:
    1. No, you don't, but digital objects are far more easily lost than their physical counterparts -- all it takes is a hard disk crash, or forgetting to copy them during a reformat, or the like. Most vendors of digital data recognize this by either a) offering purchasers the ability to re-download data or b) allowing the data to be downloaded freely and allowing users to unlock it (and resending them the unlock key upon request).
    2. How expensive could it be? The average size of songs I've purchased via iTMS is 4 MB each -- probably less than 1 cent of bandwidth.
    3. Re-downloads would be governed by Apple's FairPlay DRM system just like original downloads, and would be governed by the same rules (play on up to five computers, burn the same playlist up to seven times).
  • The Mini Player needs beefing up. First, a button to invoke should be available in the main window. Second, an option should be provided to enable it to stay on top of all other windows. Third, if the user wants to make it larger, why not provide more information? Mini-visualizations, song artwork, and other data could be displayed if the user wants to grow the window large enough to do so.
Incidentally, of the 105 songs I've purchased, I'd estimate that I paid for about 98 of them or so (afte subtracting songs offered at no charge and promotions like those from Pepsi and Ben & Jerry's). That's an average of 22 songs per month. I wonder how that statistic compares to the average iTMS user?

May 10, 2004

I Can't Google the Answer to This

I'm curious as to whether it's possible to keep salmon in a home aquarium. Sure, sure, I know it's a strange thing to wonder about, but I've always liked salmon, and it occurred to me that it would be unique to keep them. I've heard that captive fish don't grow larger than their tank permits, so I presume that a small home tank wouldn't be a problem. Plenty of public aquariums keep salmon, so it's certainly possible in theory. The question is whether it's practical for the home aquarium keeper.

The closest I've been able to come to answering this question using Google is this page on Alaska's program to hatch salmon in classrooms. But it doesn't say anything about keeping them through adulthood. There's also this document from the US Fish and Wildlife Service on salmon incubators. But again, nothing about keeping salmon permanently.

So, is it possible? Practical?

(By the way, this is the first time in recent memory that a Google search has failed to turn up the answer to a question for me. I know we often take search engines and the content they index for granted, but when you take a step back, the resource that is the Web is truly staggering. And to think that it didn't exist 20 years ago...)

May 09, 2004

The Last Person to Know It All

Every so often, I have occasion to voice my opinion that Thomas Jefferson was the "last person to know it all." By that, I mean he lived at the end of the period in human history when it was theoretically possible for one person to be fluent in most of the sciences and humanities, and he was the last person to be intelligent and motivated enough to do so. His accomplishments included:

  • Author of the Declaration of Independence
  • Author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom
  • President of the American Philosophical Society
  • Founder of the University of Virginia
  • Governor of Virginia
  • Minister to France
  • Secretary of State under President George Washington
  • Vice-President under President John Adams
  • President of the United States (as which he conducted the Louisiana Purchase and supported the Lewis and Clark expedition)
His library formed the nucleus of the Library of Congress. He was an architect, historian, philosopher, planter, surveyor, inventor, map collector, landscape architect, archaeologist, patent examiner, mathematician, and much more.

I'd be willing to bet that, if asked to name the greatest US president, most Americans will name George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Either is a great choice. Washington was our first president and walked away from the presidency to avoid recreating a monarchy in America. Lincoln (my choice as the greatest President) saved the country from splitting apart and freed the slaves -- and many Americans have an emotional connection to him that we don't have with other presidents. The Lincoln Memorial is a very emotional place, and I tell people from other countries that they have to visit it if they want to begin to understand Americans.

With all that said, though, it's amazing to think of what Jefferson accomplished in life. As a president, he was one of the greatest (though not the greatest). But as a human being, he has to rank as one of the most impressive who has ever lived.

May 07, 2004

"I Have Never Known a Time..."

These are the opening lines of Thomas Friedman's latest column for the New York Times:

We are in danger of losing something much more important than just the war in Iraq. We are in danger of losing America as an instrument of moral authority and inspiration in the world. I have never known a time in my life when America and its president were more hated around the world than today.
It's difficult to believe that the sympathy and solidarity shown to the US by the world in the aftermath of 9/11 took place only 32 months ago. Consider this speech by France's ambassador to the US in November 2001:
President Jacques Chirac was... naturally the first foreign head of state to come to the U.S. after September 11, to meet on September 18 with President Bush at the White House, and to pay a visit to Mayor Giuliani and to the wounded city of New York on September 19. He came to express the "total solidarity" of the French people and the French authorities. He put it quite forcefully: "France will be in the front line in the combat against international terrorist networks, shoulder to shoulder with America, its ally forever."

Actually as soon as it learned of the September 11 tragedy, France expressed its complete solidarity with an America wounded to the core. If I had to take just one example, it would be the solemn ceremony in tribute to the victims, held a few days later in the courtyard of the Elysée, attended by President Jacques Chirac and the American Ambassador to Paris, Howard Leach, the two flags flying at half mast. It was the first time in history that the national anthem of a country other than France, the "Star Spangled Banner," rang out in the courtyard of the Elysée.

But the reaction was not confined to officialdom. All of France has been with America in thought. Le Monde (not exactly a paragon of exalted americanophilia, in normal circumstances), got it right when it aptly titled its editorial, "We are all Americans," a sentence that has been much quoted since. The spontaneous outpourings of sympathy and solidarity from ordinary French people in all walks of life with all sorts of convictions illustrated the magnitude of this flow of emotion. The American Embassy in Paris was literally swamped with messages of sympathy and support: sympathy from French people overwhelmed by such barbarous acts against a friendly country, and support from people who, as Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said, are still profoundly grateful to their great American ally who twice aided them in the darkest hours of their history.

"Nous sommes tous Américains." How times have changed.

Sorry About That

I've been busy, away, the usual excuses. Back to the blogging grindstone.