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February 14, 2014

PrimeSense and the iWatch

Why did Apple buy 3D sensor technology vendor PrimeSense? Before I speculate, let me make a necessary digression as to the nature of the so-called "iWatch".

I don't know what Apple is building. I can guess as well (or as poorly) as the next person, and my guess is that they're going to do to the wearable biometrics market with the iWatch what they did to the tablet market with the iPad. Pre-iPad, tablets were terrible, and a common industry question about Apple's widely anticipated entry was, "What's the killer app?" In fact the killer app was the entire iPad experience. Apple took their time, and when they came out with their own tablet, it was so much better than anything that had come before that it single-handedly defined the category.

The world is full of biometric wearables now, and I've owned two myself: the Jawbone Up and (now) the Fitbit Force -- four if you count my two heart rate monitoring Garmin GPS watches. Most of the current crop (the Up, the Force, Nike's FuelBand, et al) are glorified pedometers. My guess is that where the Up, Force, and FuelBand each collect one or two streams of data, the iWatch will collect half a dozen or more: motion, location (via tethered iPhone), heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, blood oxygenation... the list goes on. And my guess is that Apple will tie all this data together in a coherent way that makes it incredibly compelling -- and, dare I say, fun -- to track one's health and achieve personal health-related goals. The killer app will be the entire experience.

What would I like the iWatch to look like? In my dreams, it would look something like this incredible design concept from Todd Hamilton. But who knows? In my experience, Apple's new products tend to be less fanciful than our imaginations (unencumbered by reality such as they are), yet more useful on a quotidian basis.

In any case, to return to the opening question: why did Apple buy PrimeSense? Remember, PrimeSense is the Israel-based company that Apple bought for a reported $360 million late last year. PrimeSense developed the 3D sensing technology used as the basis of the first version of Microsoft's Kinect system.

When the acquisition was announced, I kept waiting for a coherent explanation of why Apple would buy them. The answers seemed to be that Apple wanted to add Kinect-style capabilities either to AppleTV or to the iPhone. Neither explanation holds much water, managing to seem at once both too obvious and insufficiently useful.

But there is an explanation that makes sense to me, and I haven't heard it anywhere else, so I'll put it forward here. What if Apple bought PrimeSense for the iWatch? One of the limitations of biometric wearables is that, being attached to the body at a single point, they typically don't have a great idea of what the wearer is doing. They can measure motion through space and time, but they're only measuring motion of one body part (usually the wrist). That's incredibly limiting. You'd like your wearable to know that you're running uphill, not just uphill; that you're doing dumbbell presses, not bench presses; that you're walking on a treadmill, not on a trail. (I'd just like my Fitbit Force to know that it's not on my wrist as it thinks, but sitting on the floor of the aircraft cabin where it fell without my knowledge the other day, where it proceeded to rack up thousands of phantom steps due to turbulence.)

Remember that one of PrimeSense's key product areas was mobile. Their Capri 3D sensor is claimed to be the smallest in the world. It's nowhere near small enough for a wrist-based wearable, but with Apple's silicon design expertise, one could imagine this changing rapidly, along with power requirements coming down. (Also, PrimeSense first showed Capri over a year ago; who knows how much smaller and more watt-frugal it is by now?)

So why embed a Kinect-style sensor in the iWatch? Because it would give Apple an incredible amount of information about what its wearer was doing. It wouldn't just know you were doing dumbbell presses; it would be able to critique your form. It wouldn't just know you were running uphill, it would know the slope and your stride length. It wouldn't just know you were sitting at your desk, it would know your posture. Combined with the appropriate iPhone- or iPad-based software, a PrimeSense-equipped iWatch could be an all-encompassing activity coach, ready to help you run faster, lift more, even hit a tennis ball better than you ever have. And combining that motion data with biometric sensing capabilities would give Apple unprecedented accuracy in calculating energy usage and body efficiency. If Apple could solve the technical challenges, it would be a home run for the iWatch.

I don't underestimate the challenges in pulling this off. As noted above, the Capri technology would need to be substantially miniaturized, and put on a serious energy diet (whatever the version showed consumed would almost certainly be too much for a wearable). Further, all the 3D sensing solutions I can think of use fixed sensors -- think of the Kinect sitting on your TV stand. An iWatch-based sensor would need to cope with its own movement through space. All this is no small amount of work -- maybe too much even for Apple in the short term. I don't know.

It's just a theory for now. But it's the best one I've heard.

August 29, 2009

A World with More Guns

Guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan, Patrick Appel writes (here and here) about the idiocy of people bringing guns to political protests.

I remember how, after the Virginia Tech massacre, anti-gun groups used it as a justification to call for additional restrictions on gun purchases. Pro-gun groups replied by saying, in essence, "if just one other student had been armed, the shooter could have been stopped, so clearly we need more guns."

In an abstract sense, I see both sides' points. Generally speaking, the nations with fewer guns and greater restrictions on purchasing them and owning them have much lower rates of gun violence, so restricting them here might have a beneficial effect. And on the other side of the debate, yes, it's true that one gun-carrying student might have been able to stop the massacre soon after it started -- or even intimidate the shooter into not going through with it in the first place.

But in the real world, both sides' arguments break down.

There are so many guns in this country, so easily purchasable, that it's hard to see how tweaking the system at its edges is going to have any effect at all. If you want a gun, you're going to be able to get a gun. It's that simple. I imagine that gun control advocates are pursuing a policy of incrementalism. They might admit in a private moment that a particular restriction won't have any practical effect on gun violence, but that as part of a gradual progression over many decades, it makes sense. But that's not how it's presented, and I'm not sure that it does make sense in the end. I wonder if, when it comes to the US, the genie is permanently out of the bottle, and in the end there's nothing we can do about it.

It's the gun rights advocates' vision of the world that I ultimately find horrifying, though. Whenever a shooting spree occurs, they remind us of how they've been calling for fewer restrictions on carrying guns, and how if just one person there had been armed, this latest incident wouldn't have had to happen. Have they thought this through to its conclusion? A nation in which a substantial percentage of people walk around carrying guns? Seriously, have they thought this through? Guns at the grocery store? At church? At football games? At political rallies? In hospitals? At business meetings? Can this be the world in which they want to live? Can they believe we'd be safer as a result in this world? Can they believe fewer people would die from guns in such a world?

August 23, 2009

Eternity

I loved this postcard from a recent edition of PostSecret:

From PostSecret
It reads:
I am a 55 year old agnostic. If, when I die I find out there is a heaven, I can't be certain which of the many people I have shared my life will be part of the people I share heaven, but I am positive I will spend eternity tossing this dog a Frisbee.

June 28, 2009

This Week's Tweets

fboosman...

...likes Starbucks' new store design direction: local craftsmen, regional motifs, recycled materials, and LEED as well. http://bit.ly/Tq88K
9:41 AM Jun 28th from bit.ly

While the new store designs are highly interpretive, they share several core characteristics:
  • Celebration of local materials and craftsmanship;
  • Focus on reused and recycled elements;
  • Exposure of structural integrity and authentic roots;
  • Elevation of coffee and removal of unnecessary distractions;
  • Storytelling and customer engagement through all five senses; and
  • Flexibility to meet the needs of many customer types – individual readers and computer users, as well as work, study and social groups.
...highly recommends this article debunking Canadian health care myths. They spend "less money... to get better outcomes." http://bit.ly/u44Sg 7:31 AM Jun 28th from bit.ly
As a Canadian living in the United States for the past 17 years, I am frequently asked by Americans and Canadians alike to declare one health care system as the better one.

Often I'll avoid answering, regardless of the questioner's nationality. To choose one or the other system usually translates into a heated discussion of each one's merits, pitfalls, and an intense recitation of commonly cited statistical comparisons of the two systems.

Because if the only way we compared the two systems was with statistics, there is a clear victor. It is becoming increasingly more difficult to dispute the fact that Canada spends less money on health care to get better outcomes.

...likes living in a place where to say "I'll have the salmon" would be strange and unhelpful -- like saying "I'll have the chicken" elsewhere.
7:29 PM Jun 27th from web

...can't get enough of Jabo0odyDubs' versions of Billy Mays infomercials. They get funnier with repeated viewings. http://bit.ly/2qFuwD
9:36 AM Jun 26th from bit.ly

Wow, was my timing bad on this one. Billy Mays died yesterday. Rest in peace, you overachieving pitchman.

...just read how one travel blogger thinks DL should buy AS. Would it be good for DL? Yes. Good for AS or Seattle? Um, no. http://bit.ly/Vs3hO
9:01 AM Jun 26th from bit.ly

...would very much like US politicians to look overseas as they redesign our health care system, but that's not happening. http://bit.ly/yeMH4
7:03 AM Jun 25th from bit.ly

Every day Washington's leaders tell us that we live in an interdependent world with a globalized economy. A butterfly beats its wings in Guangdong province, and four Wal-Marts materialize in Duluth. The peso plunges, and 30 Honda workers get laid off in Marysville. A coal-fired power plant belches carbon dioxide in Prague, and Lohachara Island sinks into the Bay of Bengal.

But change the subject to reform of the health care system, and the community of nations abruptly vanishes. No France, no Canada, no Germany, no Japan. Let there be no mention of any industrialized democracy save that of the United States, which is proud to claim 37th place in the World Health Organization's rankings of the world's health systems and 15th in the Commonwealth Fund's ranking by avoidable mortality of 19 industrialized countries (the highest rank indicates the fewest such deaths). To achieve a better score would be unpatriotic!

The political establishment's hubristic refusal to consider how other countries manage health care is encapsulated in the cliché "uniquely American," which is what Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the lead legislator on health care reform, says he wishes his bill to be. It therefore goes without saying that the finance committee Baucus chairs could find no place in this year's exhaustive health care hearings for a single expert on how other countries achieve better health outcomes for their populations while typically spending, on a per capita basis, half what we do. When the finance committee releases its draft bill this week, it will be almost completely free of foreign influence.

...just enabled emoji on my iPhone. With everything happening in the world, how trivial a tweet is that? Share and enjoy. http://bit.ly/6YAeG
6:01 PM Jun 24th from bit.ly

...is delighted to see that Doug Coupland is updating "City of Glass", his zine-like guide to Vancouver. I can hardly wait! http://bit.ly/dVOSR
8:43 AM Jun 24th from bit.ly

...thinks that, based on the PBS documentary I saw, this upcoming TR Reid book on health care should be required reading. http://bit.ly/1nT9iG
7:18 AM Jun 24th from bit.ly

June 24, 2009

"..How and If You Truly Were Ever Alive"

Dr Jerri Nielsen FitzGerald, famous for diagnosing and treating her own breast cancer from the South Pole, is gone. The Times quotes from an e-mail she sent to her parents while she was there:

More and more as I am here and see what life really is, I understand that it is not when or how you die but how and if you truly were ever alive.
You will be well remembered, Dr FitzGerald.

June 23, 2009

Two Weeks' Tweets

fboosman...

...is agnostic, but stories like this make me think that maybe I'm atheist after all. Certainly I lean that way. http://bit.ly/yndDT
1:26 PM Jun 23rd from bit.ly

A religious ruling permits ultra-orthodox Jews to operate their mobile phones on the Sabbath and religious holidays with their teeth...

Many of the ultra orthodox volunteers... work on the Sabbath and were confronted with the dilemma of how to activate their mobile phones without violating religious rules...

Rabbi Levy Yitzhak Halperin issued a new set of rules involving the use of a specially designed case that prevents phones from being shut down accidentally. To confirm response to dispatch, workers are permitted to hold a small metal pin between their teeth and press the necessary buttons on the phones.

...heard from his neighbors (she Eritrean; he Ethiopian), "we feel like we've found our long-lost brother." What a wonderful thing to say!
6:49 AM Jun 23rd from web

...already has a gift, a hug, and a phone call to show for Father's Day. What a great way to start the day.
9:17 AM Jun 21st from web

Every day, I think a little more than when it comes to loved ones and friends, the very best gift they can ever give me is their time.

...would love to get together with @DavidRPickering and @Joi in Amman or Dubai. That would be a trip to get excited about.
6:52 PM Jun 20th from web

...had tears in his eyes while reading this article about Pixar, "Up", and a dying girl's wish. http://bit.ly/174lGI
11:43 AM Jun 19th from bit.ly

Colby Curtin, a 10-year-old with a rare form of cancer, was staying alive for one thing -- a movie.

From the minute Colby saw the previews to the Disney-Pixar movie Up, she was desperate to see it. Colby had been diagnosed with vascular cancer about three years ago, said her mother, Lisa Curtin, and at the beginning of this month it became apparent that she would die soon and was too ill to be moved to a theater to see the film.

After a family friend made frantic calls to Pixar to help grant Colby her dying wish, Pixar came to the rescue.

The company flew an employee with a DVD of Up, which is only in theaters, to the Curtins' Huntington Beach home on June 10 for a private viewing of the movie.

The animated movie begins with scenes showing the evolution of a relationship between a husband and wife. After losing his wife in old age, the now grumpy man deals with his loss by attaching thousands of balloons to his house, flying into the sky, and going on an adventure with a little boy.

Colby died about seven hours after seeing the film.

...saw Lauren, Carissa, and Clay for dinner. As in Kelsey's former choir-mate, his former office manager, and Aiken. A dinner of coincidences.
7:46 PM Jun 18th from web

...likes the @jheitzeb rule: if you tweet more than 4x/day, you're at risk of being unfollowed. Yes, this means you. No, not you. Yes, you.
4:49 AM Jun 18th from web

...just 'greened' his Facebook picture. "Where is their vote?" -- that's the rallying cry. May fortune favor the protesters in Iran.
11:03 PM Jun 15th from web

See http://helpiranelection.com.

...is getting his Iran updates from Andrew Sullivan -- highly recommended. As for the mainstream media? Epic fail. http://bit.ly/xj3Q2
6:27 PM Jun 15th from bit.ly

...is just back from a visit to Paradise. The kind on the south slope of Mt Rainier. Far more snow than we expected to see. http://bit.ly/Jbb8c
6:49 PM Jun 14th from bit.ly

...will never, ever tire of listening to the version of "One" by Mary J Blige and U2. She practically defines the term "soaring vocals".
8:41 AM Jun 14th from web

...is actually impressed with someone on Fox News. How exactly does Shepard Smith manage to keep his job there?. http://bit.ly/t1I6
6:24 AM Jun 11th from bit.ly

...doesn't want to think about what he'd do for this house. Funny, funny video, especially for sci-fi fans. Enjoy! http://bit.ly/ZRhSA
7:56 PM Jun 10th from bit.ly

...recently recommended an article by Atul Gawande. Now Obama is recommending the same article, according to the NYT. http://bit.ly/106NT6
7:06 PM Jun 9th from bit.ly

...says the next time someone claims that blogs are inferior to traditional media and journalism, point them to this page. http://bit.ly/WTw4d
2:53 PM Jun 7th from bit.ly

June 07, 2009

This Week's Tweets

I do much more tweeting than blogging these days, which is leaving my blog feeling unloved. I've been wondering how to address the problem. Cross-posting tweets as individual blog entries feels like overkill, even for someone like me who typically tweets once a day (and tries to make it meaningful). What I've come up with is cross-posting my tweets weekly as a single blog entry. I'm going to give a try for a while and see how it goes. To make it more interesting, I'll occasionally add more commentary here than is possible within the confines of 140 characters. Consider this an experiment.

fboosman...

...misses Rob Riggle on The Daily Show. This segment on cloned steak is my favorite of his -- especially the "mutant pit". http://bit.ly/oqnE3
6:41 AM Jun 7th from bit.ly

...will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, fly Ryanair. (With apologies to Winston Churchill.) http://bit.ly/15hbGI
4:03 PM Jun 6th from bit.ly

It may not have been a publicity stunt after all. Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary says the European low-cost giant will indeed start charging customers one pound (about $1.65) to use the toilets on its flights...

O'Leary adds that he's asking Boeing to look into putting credit-card readers on toilet locks for new jets. "We are serious about it," O'Leary is quoted as saying...

O'Leary didn't stop there, taking the toilet idea one step farther. "He's now proposing ripping out two of the three loos on a Boeing 737 to make way for a further six seats, claiming passengers can learn to cross their legs on flights of only an hour or so," writes Alistair Osborne of the London Telegraph. The London Daily Mail quotes O'Leary as saying: "We are flying aircraft on an average flight time of one hour around Europe. What the hell do we need three toilets for?"

...read about a new tomato-derived supplement that eliminates "the oxidation of harmful fats in blood" within eight weeks. http://bit.ly/vl4bQ
7:43 AM Jun 5th from bit.ly

The tomato pill contains an active ingredient from the Mediterranean diet -- lycopene -- that blocks "bad" LDL cholesterol that can clog the arteries.

Ateronon, made by a biotechnology spin-out company of Cambridge University, is being launched as a dietary supplement and will be sold on the high street...

Preliminary trials involving around 150 people with heart disease indicate that Ateronon can reduce the oxidation of harmful fats in the blood to almost zero within eight weeks, a meeting of the British Cardiovascular Society will be told at Ateronon's launch on Monday.

...wonders what happened to the tradition of American elected officials not criticizing the President while he's abroad. http://bit.ly/dfO3X
4:38 AM Jun 5th from bit.ly

...just saw "Up" again, this time with Kelsey. A beautiful film with my beautiful daughter.
7:23 PM Jun 4th from web

...has posted his blog entry on the coming generation of "gestural natives". Remember, you heard it here first. http://bit.ly/12HXD9
12:56 PM Jun 4th from bit.ly

...likes this: "my problems with Obama... fade away when I read the speech. He is absolutely the right man for the job." http://bit.ly/IzjgM
10:07 AM Jun 4th from bit.ly

All my problems with Obama's handling of the financial crisis, the details about Gitmo, footdragging on DADT, etc. or any other details since he took office fade away when I read the speech. He is absolutely the right man for the job.

There is no other candidate that ran for President that could deliver this speech. They couldn't write it, they couldn't deliver it with any sort of credibility, and in all likelihood wouldn't even want to try.

...needs to check his tweets before saying EA did something that was in fact built by Microsoft (Lionhead, to be precise). http://bit.ly/rDV0m
5:02 PM Jun 3rd from bit.ly

...thinks EA's Project Natal looks stunning. But I'd love some one-on-one time with it to understand its limitations. http://bit.ly/rDV0m
2:20 PM Jun 3rd from bit.ly

I actually meant to say "Project Milo" here. Two mistakes in one tweet. A new record.

...would like to know how a list of the "13 best burgers" in Seattle could miss both Lunchbox Laboratory and Quinn's. http://bit.ly/KTUlV
9:46 PM Jun 1st from web

...checked in to find that his SEA-IAD flight was no more. Bird strike. Fan blade damage. Bad weather -> risky connections -> fly tomorrow.
6:32 PM Jun 1st from web

June 04, 2009

Gestural Natives

I've been thinking about the implications of the advances in gestural technology shown at E3 this week: Microsoft's Natal and Sony's 3D input technology. On reflection, I think the most profound implications for gestural technology are going to be in the longer term.

Just as we've been raising a generation of digital natives, the Wiimote and its more advanced successors could be the start of a generation of gestural natives. Remember that Marc Prensky's digital native thesis is that children raised in an environment of interactive technologies are wired differently than their digital immigrant predecessors. They perceive, process, and respond to information differently. (Not better or worse, just differently.)

It seems quite possible to me that children raised in an environment that includes the Wiimote, Natal, Sony's 3D input device, and even (to a lesser degree) multi-touch devices such as the iPhone could be wired differently from their D-pad-using older brothers and sisters. We've raised a generation of kids who are extremely proficient at making what is a fairly abstract connection between mashing buttons and seeing the corresponding results on the screen. (Yes, if you're in or past your early 40s, this is one of the reasons your kids thrash you at video games.) This next generation, the gestural natives, could be equally proficient at using gestural interfaces.

So what are the implications of this? I can think of two.

First, as the children and teenagers of today become the workforce of tomorrow, they're going to expect gestural interfaces and be frustrated and less productive when they don't have them -- just as the digital natives of today are frustrated by linear, non-interactive experiences. We have to be aware of this as we’re designing the information technology tools of tomorrow.

Second, we all know from experience that great artists generally have to grow up with the media in which they practice. Think about the earliest movies that you truly enjoy, not as historical artifacts, but as legitimately good cinema. My guess is that most people would point to Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, or Casablanca, all movies made in the late 1930s and early 1940s -- a good 25-30 years after The Birth of a Nation. I would argue that modern media and Moore's Law are shortening cycle times for familiarity with new technologies, but still, I don't think we're going to see the full potential of gestural input until we have designers who have been immersed in it for many years. So don’t look for the DW Griffith of gestural input -- much less the Victor Fleming, Orson Welles, or Michael Curtiz -- anytime in the immediate future.

April 02, 2009

Interiority, Inner Light, and Living On

In 1993, Douglas Hofstadter, author of the brilliant Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and many other subsequent books, lost his wife Carol quite suddenly while on sabbatical in Italy. From the Carol Ann Brush Hofstadter Memorial Scholarship page:

In 1985, Carol married Doug Hofstadter, who had been an IU professor from 1977 to 1983 but who had recently moved to the University of Michigan. In 1988 Doug was hired back by IU and the young couple returned to Bloomington and started a family -- Danny, born in 1988, and Monica, born in 1991. One of Carol and Doug's fondest dreams was to bring up bilingual children, and so they decided to spend Doug's first sabbatical year (1993-94) in Italy. In August of that year, the family moved to Trento, in the Italian Dolomites, with views of beautiful mountains on every side. In early December, Carol had a series of intense headaches and on December 12, she suddenly fell into a coma. Ten days later, never having regained consciousness, she died of a brain tumor. Though devastated, Doug resolved to finish out the year in Italy in the way Carol would have wanted, and Danny and Monica became truly bilingual, thus realizing Carol's dream.
This is from a January 2007 American Scientist interview with Hofstadter:
In the book you mention losing your wife quite suddenly in 1993, and I was struck by how that affected your thinking and your work. It's a consoling idea that your wife's personality or point of view might persist somehow. Do you still feel that way?

Absolutely. I have to emphasize that the sad truth of the matter is, of course, that whatever persists in me is a very feeble copy of her. Whatever persists of her interiority is not her full self. It's reduced, a sort of low-resolution version, coarse-grained. Otherwise it would be a claim that "it's all fine, she didn't die, she lives on in me just as much as she ever did." And of course I don't believe that. I believe that there is a trace of her "I", her interiority, her inner light, however you want to phrase it, that remains inside me and inside some other people, people who really had internalized her viewpoint, people who really had interacted intimately with her over years, and that trace that remains is a valid trace of her self -- her soul, if you wish. But it's diminished; it's very dilute relative to what existed in her own brain. So there are two sides to the coin. It's consoling on the one hand that there's something left, but of course it doesn't remove the sting of death. It doesn't say, "Oh, well, it didn't matter that she died because she lives on just fine in my brain." Would that it were.

I find this passage quite affecting. Partly it's because it so closely mirrors how I think I would feel in Hofstadter's place. Even more, though, I think it's because it reminds me of the reality of my agnosticism and what I believe the limits are to "living on" after death.

March 26, 2009

Akoha

Akoha looks to me like a brilliant idea:

Akoha is the world’s first social reality game where you can earn points by playing real-world missions with your friends. Missions might include giving someone your favorite book, inviting a friend for drinks, or buying a friend some chocolate.
The essentials as as follows: You buy an inexpensive deck of cards. Each card describes a mission that can be thought of as a deliberate act of kindness. When you perform a mission, you give the card to the recipient of the kindness. He or she enters a unique code on that card on the Akoha website, at which point you receive karma points. The recipient can then use the same card to perform an act of kindness for someone else -- cards can be reused indefinitely. There is a variety of rewards for accumulating karma points.

This is one of those "why didn't I think of that?" ideas, so good that I instantly bought a set of starter decks -- one for myself and four more to pass out to friends.

I'll report back here on how it goes.

March 03, 2009

Everyone Must Listen to This

Last weekend, NPR's This American Life broadcast an episode called "Bad Bank", or, "the collapse of the banking system explained, in just 59 minutes." Actually, the segment that explains the banking collapse, produced by Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson, lasts the first 39 minutes, and that's what you need to hear.

I can't recommend highly enough that everyone listen to this program. I sat in my car, in a parking lot, putting off my workout to be able to finish it -- it was that good. At the beginning of the show, host Ira Glass predicts that after listening to it, one will know enough to have an opinion. I'd add the word informed, since a lack of knowledge rarely stops anyone from having an opinion.

In my case, I do have an opinion now about what needs to be done with the banks. But listen to it and make up your own mind.

"A 25-Year Keg Party"

On the elliptical trainer this morning, watching CNN, I heard a guest on American Morning -- she was in finance and economics, but I didn't catch her name -- say to host John Roberts:

We're paying for a 25-year keg party.

March 02, 2009

Kristof's Bank Idea

Nicholas Kristof has an interesting idea:

[A] broad range of experts believe that some variation of nationalization is the only way to revive the banks quickly without squandering vast amounts of taxpayer dollars. Even the managing director of the International Monetary Fund suggested that Washington think of the Swedish model.

America’s horror of “nationalization” could be defused by handing out shares to all American households. President Bush used to talk about building an “ownership society.” Well, giving shares in big banks to all American households would be a terrific way to do that.

For many Americans, it would be the first time they directly owned stock -- and, finally, something good could come from the banking Bust Bowl of 2009.

The Republicans should be all over this idea. It seems clearer and clearer that dramatic action -- more dramatic that than taken to date -- is going to be needed to save the banks. Either:

  • 1. We buy up hundreds of billions -- if not trillions -- of dollars of their toxic assets above their market value.
    • 1a. We then hold on to these assets long enough to try to realize a profit, or
    • 1b. We then sell the assets immediately and take staggering losses on them.
  • 2. We inject sufficient capital into the banks to set them right, which will result in their effective nationalization.
If I were a Republican, I'd hate 1a (I wouldn't want the government owning what should be the private sector) and 1b (I wouldn't want the government to spend so much on this bailout). That leaves option 2, which sounds right in line with the "ownership society".

Have any Republicans talked about this?

March 01, 2009

"Deranged Penguins"

I find this video on YouTube moving, sad, and ultimately haunting.

Where is that penguin going? And why? Is he sick? Confused? Deranged, as the video suggests? Suicidal?

Or does he know something we don't?

February 28, 2009

Buffett Speaks

Warren Buffett has written his annual letter to shareholders. Money section:

In poker terms, the Treasury and the Fed have gone "all in." Economic medicine that was previously meted out by the cupful has recently been dispensed by the barrel. These once-unthinkable dosages will almost certainly bring on unwelcome aftereffects. Their precise nature is anyone's guess, though one likely consequence is an onslaught of inflation. Moreover, major industries have become dependent on Federal assistance, and they will be followed by cities and states bearing mind-boggling requests. Weaning these entities from the public teat will be a political challenge. They won’t leave willingly. Whatever the downsides may be, strong and immediate action by government was essential last year if the financial system was to avoid a total breakdown. Had that occurred, the consequences for every area of our economy would have been cataclysmic. Like it or not, the inhabitants of Wall Street, Main Street and the various Side Streets of America were all in the same boat.

Amid this bad news, however, never forget that our country has faced far worse travails in the past. In the 20th Century alone, we dealt with two great wars (one of which we initially appeared to be losing); a dozen or so panics and recessions; virulent inflation that led to a 21 1⁄2% prime rate in 1980; and the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment ranged between 15% and 25% for many years. America has had no shortage of challenges.

Without fail, however, we’ve overcome them. In the face of those obstacles -- and many others -- the real standard of living for Americans improved nearly seven-fold during the 1900s, while the Dow Jones Industrials rose from 66 to 11,497. Compare the record of this period with the dozens of centuries during which humans secured only tiny gains, if any, in how they lived. Though the path has not been smooth, our economic system has worked extraordinarily well over time. It has unleashed human potential as no other system has, and it will continue to do so. America’s best days lie ahead.

It's not just that, over the last century, we in the US -- and for that matter, in most of the First World -- have been astonishingly fortunate compared to most people around the world and throughout history. It's that we still are.

It's important we remember that.

February 27, 2009

Rewarding the Old Economy vs the New Economy

Thomas Friedman is advocating that we use recovery / stimulus funding to encourage promising new startups instead of bailing out failing businesses:

G.M. has become a giant wealth-destruction machine -- possibly the biggest in history -- and it is time that it and Chrysler were put into bankruptcy so they can truly start over under new management with new labor agreements and new visions. When it comes to helping companies, precious public money should focus on start-ups, not bailouts.

You want to spend $20 billion of taxpayer money creating jobs? Fine. Call up the top 20 venture capital firms in America, which are short of cash today because their partners -- university endowments and pension funds -- are tapped out, and make them this offer: The U.S. Treasury will give you each up to $1 billion to fund the best venture capital ideas that have come your way. If they go bust, we all lose. If any of them turns out to be the next Microsoft or Intel, taxpayers will give you 20 percent of the investors’ upside and keep 80 percent for themselves.

If we are going to be spending billions of taxpayer dollars, it can’t only be on office-decorating bankers, over-leveraged home speculators and auto executives who year after year spent more energy resisting changes and lobbying Washington than leading change and beating Toyota.

I understand the desire to save the Big Three auto firms (well, two of the three; it looks as if Ford may make it on its own). I can imagine the powerful depressing effect their failure would have on our economy. But what makes them special?

Banks are special because they provide credit, and without credit, the economy stalls. Investment banks and reinsurers are special because their failure could lead to cascading effects in the financial sector. Hence we give these businesses special treatment in that we take extraordinary steps to ensure they don't fail. Whether we're taking the right extraordinary steps is up for debate, but most experts seem to feel we need to do something.

But auto manufacturers? What makes them special? Is it their size? GM is the largest manufacturing firm in the Fortune 500 (number four overall, after Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil, and Chevron), but we're also subsidizing Chrysler, and it has about one-fifth the employees of GM. If we save GM and Chrysler, where do we stop? Would we save General Electric? Hewlett-Packard? IBM? Boeing?

The Big Three are in trouble for the fundamental reason that they've been making bad business decisions for decades -- decisions that have now caught up with them as a result of the current economic crisis. They have vigorously and consistently resisted steps to force them to build cars that are safer, more fuel-efficient, and more environmentally friendly. They have bought labor peace in the short term by committing themselves to providing expensive benefits down the road. They have demonstrated an inability or an unwillingness to build cars that are as reliable as their Japanese counterparts. This leads to an obvious question: what rational basis do we have for believing that if we bail them out now, their behavior will change? No one has yet explained this to me.

Is the right move to force GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy? I don't know. What I do know is that if we are going to bail them out, we need to have extremely clear reasons for doing so -- reasons that don't imply we'll start bailing out other manufacturing firms. And we need to have a clear understanding of why we believe they're going to succeed.

Meanwhile, Friedman is right on in suggesting that if we want to stimulate the economy in a productive way, we should look to entrepreneurs. I'd suggest co-investing as a more workable strategy, but that's a detail. Pumping $20 billion into the venture market is an awe-inspiring thought.

January 24, 2009

25 Years of the Mac

Via many sources (MacRumors, TUAW, AppleInsider, Macworld), today is the 25th anniversary of the Mac.

In January of 1984, I was still in the US Army, stationed in Würzburg, Germany, nominally as a Russian interpreter but rarely having any exposure to Russian. Frustrated by spending my time doing make work, and fascinated with computers, I had talked my way into a programming class and been assigned a job programming Apple II computers.

In those days long before the Internet, I was following computing developments in the US as best I could from afar, which meant via magazines, especially the great, long-lost BYTE. In 1983, BYTE had published a lengthy technical overview of Apple's Lisa computer, and the moment I read the phrase "data-as-object metaphor", I was hooked. At the end of the article, the writer alluded to Apple's plans to make a cheaper version of the Lisa (which cost $10,000 at introduction), and I knew it was something I would want -- just the idea of a reasonably-priced graphical user interface-based computer from Apple was all I needed to know.

Steven Levy wrote a story for Rolling Stone on the Macintosh that appeared around the time of its introduction. I can't find it online, but I recall that he cast the team of people creating the Macintosh as the last, best hope against a tide of soulless IBM-compatible PCs running DOS. For a 21-year-old dreaming of a degree in cognitive science and then a career figuring out how to make computers more intelligent and easier with which to interact, it was profoundly moving stuff.

I got out of the Army in June of 1984 and the first place I stopped was Providence, Rhode Island, to visit with a friend of mine who had gone home before me. I got in late one evening and the first thing I did the next morning was to get dressed and walk to the nearest computer store that carried the Macintosh. I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

I bought my 128K Macintosh from another friend from my unit who had bought one for himself but then realized he was overextended and needed to sell it. It was literally the only thing of value I owned. I didn't have a car, but I had my Macintosh. It could be frustrating at times, as any Macintosh owner back then will tell you. One could copy only a windowful of graphics from MacPaint at a time. Duplicating a 400K disk with 128K of memory was a seemingly endless series of disk swaps. There was hardly any software available, and of those programs that could be bought, many were bad, thanks to developers who failed to fully embrace the Macintosh method of development. But none of this diminished my affection for the Macintosh.

I upgraded my Macintosh to 512K of RAM, and later to 1MB. I added a SCSI interface to it and a hard drive. I used it actively for about seven or eight years. At home, a Macintosh LC finally took its place, and I still remember how excited I was to get my Macintosh IIci at work. I had PCs at home and at work starting in the early 1990s, but it wasn't until 1998 or 1999 that I wasn't using a Macintosh on a regular basis. Apple had gone downhill and I had made the switch to Windows, though I was never truly happy about it. In as many ways as the Macintosh seemed elegant, Windows seemed clumsy, even after 15 years of development.

In 2005, I finally came back to to the Mac, buying an iMac for home use and figuring I'd gradually move my life back over to it. I bought my MacBook Pro two years later and it's one of the best computers I've ever owned -- so much so that when I travel for work and so must carry a PC laptop, I carry both.

This seems like as good a day as any to reflect on the profound impact the Mac has had on our world. Was the idea of a graphical user interface original to Apple? Absolutely not. But the Macintosh team took a brilliant idea that had been a commercial failure (at both Xerox PARC and with the Lisa) and made out of it a computer that literally changed the world of computing forever -- not just by making it less expensive, but more importantly, by giving it a sense of style, a consistency that inspired belief in its metaphors, and by making it fun in a hundred little ways.

Eventually, some sort of graphical interface would have replaced DOS. It was inevitable. But looking back at the contenders -- Windows, GEM, AmigaOS, and others -- we should all be profoundly grateful that it was the most elegant of them all that shaped how we interact with our computers today.

November 16, 2007

Irrelevant Disruptions

This week, I spent an hour and a half at a gate waiting area in Oakland International Airport, waiting for a flight to Seattle. The public address system there plays a series of recorded messages, each one replayed every 15 minutes or so. Here's the text of one:

The Transportation Security Administration has limited the size and quantity of items that may be carried through the security checkpoint. Please contact your air carrier or a TSA representative for further information.
Keep in mind that these messages are loud -- loud enough to disrupt mobile phone conversations. And with multiple messages, the disruptions are frequent. But the worst part is that in this case, the message is absolutely irrelevant, because the passengers hearing it are already beyond the security checkpoint.

I don't mean to pick on Oakland's airport. They're by no means alone. What they're doing is a variant of a growing problem: warning pollution. I'll come back to this later.

November 11, 2007

Cognitive Dissonance as Usual

From a Wired News article:

Seventies rockers and enemies of Jeffrey Lebowski The Eagles announced last month that their latest album, "Long Road Out of Eden," would be exclusively available at Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, and the company's online properties, thanks to a deal that gives the band a higher-than-normal cut of each sale and includes them in a $40 million ad campaign.
And from the lyrics to a song on Long Road out of Eden, "Business as Usual":
Look at the weather, look at the news
Look at all the people in denial
We're running time, leaving grace
Still we worship at the marketplace
While common sense is goin' out of style
I thought that I would be above it all by now
In some country garden in the shade

But it's business as usual
Day after day
Business as usual
Just grinding away
You try to be righteous
You try to do good
But business as usual
Turns your heart into wood

You've just cut an exclusive deal with Wal-Mart that's made your album number one in the country and brought you millions of dollars? Good for you. You want to write songs decrying "worship at the marketplace"? Fine, though that's not my cup of tea. But as someone once wrote, "Some things? Just don't belong together."

June 17, 2007

The Economist on Apple and Innovation

I'm usually right on top of new issues of The Economist, but I managed to miss last week's cover story on Apple. There's a long piece on the history of Apple and Steve Jobs, and then a shorter piece on what other firms can learn from Apple. The lessons boil down to four:

  1. Innovation can come from without as well as within.
  2. The importance of designing new products around the needs of the user, not the demands of the technology.
  3. Smart companies should sometimes ignore what the market says it wants today.
  4. Fail wisely.
I find the third point especially on the mark. The Economist writes:
Listening to customers is generally a good idea, but it is not the whole story. For all the talk of “user-centric innovation” and allowing feedback from customers to dictate new product designs, a third lesson from Apple is that smart companies should sometimes ignore what the market says it wants today. The iPod was ridiculed when it was launched in 2001, but Mr Jobs stuck by his instinct. Nintendo has done something similar with its popular motion-controlled video-game console, the Wii. Rather than designing a machine for existing gamers, it gambled that non-gamers represented an untapped market and devised a machine with far broader appeal.
Generally speaking, breakthrough products -- from the Walkman to the iPod, from the Atari 2600 to the Wii, from Yahoo to Google -- don't come from focus groups and market research. They come because passionate, inventive individuals create visions of how things could be -- from portable music to video games to Internet search -- and then set out to make those visions real. If customers agree with them, so much the better -- but in the end, they're building products for themselves.

June 13, 2007

Clearing My To-Blog List

With few exceptions, I dislike the idea of blog entries that are context-free (or mostly context-free) links to other pages. "Check this out!" just doesn't do much for me. But I have 20 windows of links in Firefox, and it's either a) dump them all or b) clear them out with a single post. So, and in no particular order:

The BoGo Light is a great idea -- a solar-powered flashlight designed for the Third World. Here in the First World, we're so accustomed to having light whenever we want it that it's hard for us to remember just how much more difficult life would be without it. Buy one and they donate one to charity.

The Economist's blog from Europe reports on the use of the familiar tu and the formal vous (tutoiement and vouvoiement, respectively). The French are considering enforcing vouvoiement in schools, even as its use at EU headquarters seems a thing of the past.

News from the world of health: Soy promotes weight loss. Proof of the effectiveness of interval training (and not just for elite athletes) is on the rise.

Via Andrew Sullivan (among others), London chooses a horrible logo for its 2012 Olympic Games. See it and some of the reactions here -- I can't mention my favorite, which involves Lisa Simpson, but I also like the comment that it looks "as if the 80s has thrown up into 2012". The Sun holds an impromptu design competition, and their in-house artist does a fantastic job.

More examples of awful logo design here and here.

The rise in the Canadian dollar versus the American dollar has left Canada hungry for tourists. Hey, I did my part -- I was in Whistler earlier this month.

Yesterday was the 40th Loving Day. It's nearly incomprehensible to me that as recently as the 1960s, some people were arguing against interracial marriage. My hunch is that 40 years from now, the arguments made by today's opponents of gay marriage will sound similar.

This statistic is staggering, or should be: "Texas, where coal barely edges out cleaner natural gas as the top power source, belches almost 1 1/2 trillion pounds of carbon dioxide yearly. That's more than every nation in the world except six: the United States, China, Russia, Japan, India and Germany." So Texas alone is contributing more to global warming than all but six countries.

April 20, 2007

At the Red Carpet Club

Wednesday afternoon, I was in a United Red Carpet Club at Dulles International Airport, waiting for my flight to Heathrow. I had a few minutes before I needed to grab dinner, so I found an unoccupied corner, took a seat, and proceeded to log on and get some work done.

I hadn't been there long when a large group came in and sat down across from me. It consisted of one American male with a group from an Asian country -- a leader of the group (male) and three aides (one female and two male), the entire group in business attire. I kept on working, but couldn't help overhearing that the group was from Indonesia, the leader was the Indonesian Minister of Defence, and the American was an escort from the State Department, assigned to see them to their onward flight (to Rome).

The Indonesians seemed far more knowledgeable about world events than did the American. Their discussion turned to Poland at one point, and one of the aides explained to the American that the Polish Prime Minister and President are identical twins. "Really?" asked the American. The Indonesian repeated it. "Really?" he said once again. I piped in. "Yes, it's true," I said. "They're identical twins." Then, in a jokingly conspiriatorial tone, I half-whispered, "But they're kind of crazy." The Indonesians all started laughing, including the Minister. The American looked nervous and said, "Uh, he's not an official representative of the State Department." I said, "Well, I think the word The Economist used was 'unstable', actually." More laughter. More nervous looks from the State Department functionary.

(Actually, The Economist didn't use the word "unstable". What they called the Kaczyński government was "vengeful, paranoid, addicted to crises, divided and mostly incompetent" (article here). But I was close.)

I had to leave for my flight soon after that -- though not before the Indonesians nearly had to explain to the American what a blog was. Ah, civil service.

April 02, 2007

Postmodernist Technobabble

I was reading Richard Dawkins' review of Intellectual Impostures -- a book that, in Dawkins' words, "disrobes" postmodernism (in the philosophical and literary senses) -- when I came upon a follow-up comment by Dawkins himself pointing to the work of a Fellow at the University of Toronto, Carolyn Guertin. The abstract of her dissertation and her teaching philosophy are both must-reads. From her dissertation:

Within quantum mechanics, the science of the body in motion, the intricacies of the interiorities of mnemonic time -- no longer an arrow -- are being realized in the (traditionally) feminized shape of the body of the matrix. This is the real time realm of cyberspace where the multiple trajectories of the virtual engender a new kind of looking: disorientation as an alternative to linear perspective. Where women have usually been objects to be looked at, hypermedia systems replace the gaze with the empowered look of the embodied browser in motion in archival space. Always in flux, the shape of time's transformation is a Möbius strip unfolding time into the dynamic space of the postmodern text, into the 'unfold.' As quantum interference, the unfold is a gesture that is a sensory interval. In this in-between space, the transformance of the nomadic browser takes place; she performs the embodied knowledge acquired in her navigation of the world of the text. Quantum space in hypertexts is shaped as an irreducible knot, an entangled equation both in and out of space-time, spanning all dimensions as a node in a mnemonic system. Wanderlust is the engine driving the browser on her quest through the intricately knotted interplay of time and space in these electronic ecosystems. What the browser finds there is rapture -- an emergent state of embodied transformation in the experiential realm. What she acquires is not mastery, but agency, and an aesthetic interval of her own.
Can anyone understand this? Seriously? Either Guertin and her postmodernist colleagues are dramatically more intelligent than the rest of the human race, or this is pretentious gobbledygook, meaningless-yet-impressive-sounding nonsense -- the humanities equivalent of Star Trek technobabble ("Treknobabble"), as in 'uncoupling the Heisenberg compensators', or 'interplexing the comm systems to create phased carrier waves'.

As Dawkins writes:

Let us hope this woman is not occupying a position that might otherwise be held by a genuine scholar doing worthwhile research. It is tragic the way humanities departments have been taken over by second-rate fakes.

March 05, 2007

When in Doubt, Generate Random Answers

My son Duncan, who's 19, is looking for a job. He recently applied on the Website of a major grocery firm -- a company that operates a variety of grocery chains around the country. The hiring manager at the local store invited him in for an interview, which was last Friday. Duncan stopped by to see me before the interview for some last-minute practice, and he was well-prepared. I wished him luck and he was on his way.

The next day, he came by the house to spend some with me before I took off for San Francisco (where I am now). I asked him how the interview went. "It was pretty strange," he said.

When Duncan applied on the Website, the only thing the Website asked him to do was to fill out a form with basic résumé-type information, which he did. It turned out there was also a personality test, but the Website didn't offer him the chance to take it. When Duncan indicated that he was done with the form and wanted to submit his information, instead of generating an error, or submitting his information with blank personality test results, apparently the site filled in random answers for the test.

Duncan said the first few minutes of the interview were straightforward, and then the manager told him that the reason he had brought him in were his personality test scores, which were the worst he had ever seen -- in terms of suitability for employment, Duncan had scored something like 8 percent on one scale and 13 percent on another. Apparently the only reason the hiring manager had invited him in for an interview was because he wanted to confirm that the test was representative of Duncan's personality, and if so, to flag him in his company's system so that he would never be hired by any of their chains.

Of course, Duncan explained that he had not, in fact, taken such a test. The hiring manager figured out what happened, asked him to take the test, and when last I heard, it looked promising that he was going to get the job after all.

I give the hiring manager a great deal of credit for actually taking the time to investigate and not simply accepting the ludicrously bad personality results, which many people might have done in his place.

The obvious question is, how many people have been flagged by how many companies for tests they never took, answers that were never theirs? How many hiring managers haven't investigated test anomalies such as Duncan's? How many companies have missed out on great employees because of poor Website design and implementation errors? How much does this sort of thing cost us?

October 31, 2006

No Trick, No Treat, No Thanks

According to a story in The New York Times, Halloween has lately become important in the UK:

Halloween is big business here now. According to The Observer of London, Britons spend an estimated $228 million a year on Halloween-related items, a tenfold increase from five years ago.
But apparently many Britons aren't fond of the holiday:
This withering away of homegrown tradition makes people hate Halloween all the more. What could be more unattractive, they argue, than a bunch of rapacious, acquisitive children traipsing around the streets, demanding candy in exchange for nothing?

"Trick or treat? I don't know about you, but my answer to this question, if I'm honest, would be unprintable in a family newspaper," the critic A. N. Wilson wrote recently in The Daily Mail. "Let's say it's stronger than 'push off.' Yet the little beggars will soon be round, banging and ringing at our doors with this irritating refrain."

No Trick, No Treat, No Thanks

Fifty-eight percent of homeowners in a recent survey by the Norwich Union insurance company said they had hidden in the back of their houses and turned off all the lights on Halloween, pretending that no one was home.

What fun would childhood be without a yearly ritual of rapaciously and acquisitively traipsing around the streets, demanding candy in exchange for nothing? And what's the Halloween equivalent of "Bah, humbug!"?

October 15, 2006

Two Wrongs Make a Right?

I've never been a fan of pickup trucks. They're cramped, noisy, ride poorly, and guzzle gas. If you need to haul things around in them on a regular basis, they're reasonable, but how many privately-owned pickups do you see actually carrying things in their cargo beds? I don't see many.

And I'm not a fan of the Volkswagen Touareg. One of my best friends drives one, and it's nice, to be sure, but the styling has never done much for me. Even by SUV standards, it's heavy, as if Volkswagen lined it with lead to make it feel more substantial.

And then I saw this, a one-off conversion of a Touareg into a pickup truck:

Touareg Pickup Conversion
(From AutoScoops, via Autoblog.)

I don't know how it's possible that someone has taken an SUV I don't particularly like, converted it into a vehicle type I don't like, and yet somehow I find the end result incredibly attractive. It doesn't look very practical, but this is so easily the best-looking pickup truck I've ever seen that I'd happily drive it. Buy it? Probably not. But drive it? In a heartbeat.

September 19, 2006

"Kirk... Embodied an American Idea"

In yesterday's New York Times, Ronald Moore, the creator of the revamped Battlestar Galactica -- to me, the best show on television -- wrote about how Star Trek influenced him from his childhood years on:

[Star Trek] was a morality play, with Capt. James T. Kirk as a futuristic John F. Kennedy piloting a warp-driven PT-109 through the far reaches of the galaxy.

Kirk, for me, embodied an American idea: His mission was to explore the final frontier, not to conquer it. He was moral without moralizing. Week after week, he confronted the specters of intolerance and injustice, and week after week found a way to defeat them without ever becoming them. Jim Kirk may have beat up his share of bad guys, but you could never imagine him torturing them.

June 22, 2006

Pogue on Gates

In his blog today, New York Times technology writer David Pogue gets Bill Gates exactly right:

A few days ago, the richest man in the world, Bill Gates, announced that he’d be stepping down from daily Microsoft activities in order to devote himself to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Through this foundation, Mr. Gates has said that he intends to give away 95 percent of his wealth. The foundation’s primary interests are education, poverty and global health -- saving the lives of the millions who die of preventable diseases, mostly in poor countries.

Now, as faithful readers know, I don’t always find Microsoft’s software-design work very impressive. And, under Mr. Gates’s watch, Microsoft has done a lot of ruthless and sometimes sleazy things over the years...

But until last week’s announcement... I never really allowed myself to confront the apparent contradiction between Bill Gates, the merciless businessman with ambitions for world domination, and Bill Gates, the compassionate scientist whose goal is to save millions of lives...

It’d be one thing if he were retiring to enjoy his fortune, or if he were using it to buy football teams or political candidates. But he’s not. He’s channeling those billions to the places in the world where that money can do the most good. And not just throwing money at the problems, either -- he’s also dedicating the second act of his life to making sure it’s done right...

I know this is going to earn me the vitriol of Microsoft-bashers, but I’ll say it anyway: Bill Gates has the money, the brains and the connections to really, truly make the world a better place. I admire him for the attempt. And I believe that if anyone can succeed, he will.

I, too, have found it hard to reconcile the contradiction between Gates the businessperson (whom my friend Mike Backes was, I believe, the first to call "a wolf in nerd's clothing") and Gates the humanitarian. Given his company's poor track record of innovation (quick, name something Microsoft invented), and its predatory behavior, it would be all too easy at this point to dismiss as posturing (or worse) anything Gates does. But what he's doing can't be dismissed. Everything I've read about his charitable efforts -- every single thing -- suggests that he's doing great works, using his money to address big problems, and involving himself deeply in the process. It's a profound transformation, and if he keeps it up, he will leave a staggering legacy.

June 17, 2006

Starbucks Per Capita

Via Starbucks Gossip, a list of US cities ranked by number of Starbucks locations per capita (inspired by it, a similar list for the UK).

June 15, 2006

Awareness Ribbons

In the category of "things I find myself wondering about when I'm out and about, and tell myself I'll look them up on the Internet later, but then forget" is the subject of awareness ribbons. I see people with them on their cars and wonder how many different ribbons exist. I got around to looking up the subject this evening, and it turns out, according to Wikipedia, there are quite a few. I counted 62 different colors and color combinations, some being used by many, many groups -- 8 in the case of teal, 17 in the case of dark blue, and no less than 22 in the case of green.

Well, now I know that when I see an orange ribbon on someone's car, they're definitely for lupus awareness. Or for awareness of racial tolerance, feral cats, roadway construction worker safety, hunger, cultural diversity, leukemia, motorcyclist safety, multiple scleroris, self-injury, Agent Orange exposure, or the Ukrainian Orange Revolution. Or maybe all of the above.

Fake Apple Phone Commercial

Via The Apple Core, this unabashedly fake commercial for a hypothetical Apple phone is just gorgeous. If Apple's phone is even close to this cool (they do have to deal with real world design practicalities, so I'm prepared to cut them some slack), they'll sell them by the truckload.

June 13, 2006

Czech Country Names

An entry in the New York Times blog on the World Cup led to a page of simplistic goal animations out of the Czech Republic. So far, so good. What I found intriguing was just how idiosyncratic -- and, well, alien -- are the Czech renditions of many country names. Some are conveniently literal, such as Argentina and Angola. Some are straightforward, such as Mexiko and Portugalsko. Some are guessable, such as Anglie (England) and Švédsko (Sweden). But many are incomprehensible to an English speaker, including:

  • Chorvatsko
  • Německo
  • Nizozemsko
  • Pobřeží slonoviny
  • Srbsko a Černá Hora
  • Švýcarsko
Try guessing these, and then select the paragraph below to see the answers.

  • Chorvatsko (Croatia)
  • Německo (Germany)
  • Nizozemsko (Netherlands)
  • Pobřeží slonoviny (Côte d'Ivoire)
  • Srbsko a Černá Hora (Serbia and Montenegro)
  • Švýcarsko (Switzerland)
Now, to be fair, we do the same thing in English. Germany is Deutschland. Finland is Suomi. Japan is Nihon. It's just that I'm used to English.

June 09, 2006

Google vs. Excel

Via Dina Mehta, a useful blog on branding issues, What's Your Brand Mantra? by Jennifer Rice. Her latest entry is on Google Spreadsheets. She quotes two bloggers on how Google's product is missing Excel's more powerful features, such as macros and pivot tables, then writes:

Ok, show of hands... how many of you actually use pivot tables and macros? The 80/20 rule would suggest that 80% of Excel users use 20% of its features... and that's probably being too generous...

Google's strategy is not to create me-too Microsoft products that are loaded with tons of features. As I see it, Google is taking a much longer view, going for unserved and overserved markets that Microsoft apparently doesn't want.

Indeed. I'm a daily Excel user, and the most complex spreadsheet I use on a regular basis has nine worksheets, the largest of which has over 4,000 rows of data. And yet I don't use macros or pivot tables. I should, I know, but I've never had the burning need to learn them.

Jennifer goes on to write:

So going back to Google's "half-assed" version of Excel: if they're following the classic path of industry disruption, they should be pleased when they hear scoffing remarks about their beta products. This allows them room to establish a foothold at the base of the mountain, serving customers that Microsoft (apparently) doesn't want. They can gain experience, add new features, gradually move up-market, and eventually take the high ground.
I'd say it's a good bet that Microsoft takes this threat seriously, even if some observers don't. When I was at Be, we were told that Microsoft's internal philosophy on operating system competition -- and this would apply equally to application software, I think -- was "never allow a single crack in the wall", because cracks, no matter how small to start, grow with time.

June 02, 2006

Seen Yesterday

Seen yesterday, a picture of President Bush, and beneath it, without additional comment, this quote from Abraham Lincoln:

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.
I suppose it could have been posted by a Bush supporter, meant in a good way, but at this point, really, what are the odds?

June 01, 2006

"The Perfect Man"

Via Boing Boing, a science fiction short story, "The Perfect Man", from Lauren McLaughlin (link here, watch the ad to read the story for free). A woman orders an AI "lover", made to her specifications:

As for Mr. Dreamboat's personality, I had two options: I could allow AI4U to mine my Web habits, construct a psychological profile, and design my boyfriend's personality to match. Or I could tell them in one hundred words or less exactly what I wanted. I chose the latter. I'm no privacy freak, but I didn't want someone spying on my subconscious. Plus, when it comes to men, I know what I want. I don't need some faceless software shrink hypothesizing about it.

I began with a firm list of no-nos culled from the rogues' gallery of losers I'd dated over the years. Anyone bossy, intolerant, macho, repetitive, nosy, bookish, vain, foppish, anal, whiny, bipolar, fickle, sexist, nihilistic, or judgmental need not apply.

But I didn't want Mr. Dreamboat to be defined by negatives, so I dredged the muck of my romantic archives for desirable traits. They were scant. There was Peter's reliability. He said eight-fifteen, he meant eight-fifteen. James, despite the love handles and a wife in Greenwich, had initiative up the wazoo. Then there was Billy Sebert, who made me a papier-mâché model of his heart in sixth grade. That was sweet.

So on the plus side I had reliable, initiative-taking, and good with papier-mâché. That felt slim, so I added quick-witted, fun-loving, and emotionally balanced. For good measure I threw in the ability to rhyme at will, a passion for Shakespeare and an inexplicable love of the color orange. Why not, right? When I hit Send, a pop-up told me I'd hear from Mr. Dreamboat in forty-eight hours.

Recommended.

"Microsoft and HP Are Failing Me"

John Ludwig talks about his experience buying a new Windows PC -- he was in a rush, and so bought a retail PC instead of assembling one himself:

Fry's had an HP 7410 -- small form factor, quiet, $529, Windows XP MCE. Seemed like a fine deal.

The ensuing 4 hours getting it running were painful. And it all comes down to the economics of the business that Microsoft has created and that the big PC OEMs promulgate. At these price points, the OEMs aren't making enough money to make it worth their while, so they spend an extraordinary amount of effort trying to get you to part with more money post-purchase, and they work hard to collect bounties from various service and software providers.

As a result, you have to wade thru literally hours of crap to get the pc in a reasonable state...

Basically the pc business model as promulgated by ms and big name oems is corrupt. To make ends meet, the oems resort to all this crap that is the moral equivalent of spam -- I didn't ask for it, it isn't explained at purchase time, I never gave anyone permission to slam it all over my system.

I'd rather pay a honest price up front for a system that respects me and is truly personal. No wonder apple is resurgent.

If I'm looking for the greatest weaknesses of people or organizations, the first place I look is at their greatest strengths, taken to an extreme. Arguably, Microsoft's greatest strength over the years has been its OEM model, which enables Microsoft to remain focused on software and farm out all the expense and risk of hardware sales to others. Learning software product marketing on the job in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I came to take it as axiomatic that making software was vastly preferable to making hardware -- hardware is expensive to develop, expensive to manufacture, expensive if it doesn't sell, and the margins are low. (This probably compares quite nicely to the product marketing types coming up through the ranks of Internet startups this decade, and their perception of how preferable Internet businesses are to hardware or software.)

Unfortunately for Microsoft, the OEM model threatens to become a weakness instead of a strength. By enabling the commoditization of the PC business, Microsoft has created a fundamentally flawed industry. PC OEMs have no research and development to speak of -- they simply take the latest hardware from Taiwan Inc. (now becoming China Inc.), tart it up, and ship it. Their ability to differentiate is limited, and most such efforts end badly anyway, so most of them don't try. Their margins are razor-thin, so any company that comes along with more stuff to install (and make users wade through) is welcomed with open arms, as long as they bring their checkbook.

More on this soon.

May 28, 2006

"[Killing a Polar Bear] Is My Disney World"

My attitude toward sport hunting has always been the same: I don't understand the attraction of it, but I don't begrudge others who feel differently. Reading this New York Times article on efforts to list the polar bear as threatened may have changed my mind once and for all:

Bob Hudson says he has played in the Rose Bowl, jumped out of airplanes, scuba dived off Fiji and stalked bighorn sheep in the Rockies. But for all the excitement of his 67 years, there was one thrill he still craved: hunting polar bear in the high Canadian Arctic.

He sold his beloved Jaguar XKE on eBay for $26,000 to do it. After heavy wind and snow ruined his hunt in April, he took another $14,000 out of his retirement account for a return trip.

"Life is short," Mr. Hudson joked. "The last check you write should be to the undertaker, and it should bounce."

Mr. Hudson, a McDonald's franchise owner from Oxford, Miss., got his trophy: a nine-foot bear bagged with a single shot from 30 yards...

Hunters say few experiences can compare with the sensation of sighting a bear, then watching the Inuit guides release their huskies to surround and confuse the prey long enough for the hunters to shoot it.

"This is my Disney World," said Manuel Camacho, a 60-year-old urologist from Miami, before he set out on his hunt in May...

For Dr. Camacho, a Cuban exile and Vietnam veteran who has hunted all over the world, his thoughts wandered to his former wife and ex-girlfriends, opportunities seized, opportunities lost.

"One moment I am thinking of medical school, then click off and look at the dogs or an iceberg," he said at the end of one day hunting. "And then click again and my mind drifts to experiences I have had in Central America and Africa."

For the hunter and the hunted, it is a race against time. After waiting several years, Dr. Camacho told his outfitter that he did not want "to wait till I am in wheelchair" to hunt a polar bear.

"It's tickling to think I could be the last American hunter who brings in a polar bear trophy," he said. "I might just squeak by." The very next day, he shot one.

How anyone can look at a polar bear -- one of the most magnificent animals on Earth -- and think to himself that it would be a "thrill", be his "Disney World", be "tickling" to kill it with a high-powered rifle while a pack of dogs surrounds and confuses it is absolutely beyond me. I truly don't understand this mindset, and I never will.

May 19, 2006

"The Coasts of America Will Be Lashed by Storms"

Via The Huffington Post, a prediction from Pat Robertson:

The Rev. Pat Robertson says God has told him that storms and possibly a tsunami will hit America's coastline this year.

The founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network has told viewers of "The 700 Club" that the revelations came to him during his annual personal prayer retreat in January.

"If I heard the Lord right about 2006, the coasts of America will be lashed by storms," Robertson said May 8.

He added specifics in Wednesday's show.

"There well may be something as bad as a tsunami in the Pacific Northwest," he said.

According to the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University, the probability of one or more named storms reaching landfall in the US during the coming hurricane season is as follows:

  • Tropical storm: 91 percent
  • Category 1 or 2 hurricane: 88 percent
  • Category 3, 4, or 5 hurricane: 81 percent
  • All hurricanes: 98 percent
  • All named storms: 99 percent
"The coasts of America will be lashed by storms"? That's really going out on a limb there, Pat.

May 18, 2006

From "McBiz" to "McMakeover"

Three years ago, I wrote:

Think about this, which admittedly is purely conjectural:

McDonald's creates a new branding program. They could call it "McRoad," or "McBusiness," or something else, but let's call it "McBiz" for now. McBiz is a sub-brand of McDonald's. There's a McBiz treatment that extends the existing McDonald's logo -- it's subtle, but once you know what to look for, it's easy to spot (though the uninterested might never notice it). When a restaurant switches to the McBiz branding, this indicates a number of things:

  • There's a Wi-Fi access point on premises.
  • There's at least one customer-accessible power outlet per n seats.
  • The coffee served has been upgraded (new brand, new procedures).
  • The restaurant sells the Wall Street Journal (in addition to USA Today).
  • There are at least n monitors playing CNN Headline News (sound off, closed captioned).
  • There's a customer-accessible soda machine.
I'm not much of a McDonald's fan, but if they embarked on such an effort, and made me aware of it, I'd start paying attention to them. Sure, when I'm on the road, I'd rather go to a Starbucks, but if the choice is pull into a McBiz McDonald's now or drive around for 10 minutes looking for a Starbucks, I'll probably choose McDonald's.
Now, three years later, BusinessWeek is out with a story on the new McDonald's store design, "Mickey D's McMakeover":
A comfortable armchair. Cool hanging lights. Funky graphics and photos on the walls. Wi-Fi access. Premium coffee. Isn't Starbucks great? Except... this is McDonald's. McDonald's? That's right. After 30 years without a major design overhaul, the 51-year-old fast-food giant is adopting a hip new look...

What will the new McDonald's look like? "Think iPod: clean lines, simplicity," says [McDonald's vice-president of worldwide architecture, design, and construction, John] Miologos...

The traditional McDonald's yellow and red colors will remain, but the red will be muted to terra cotta and olive and sage green will be added to the mix. To warm up their look, the restaurants will have less plastic and more brick and wood, with modern hanging lights to produce a softer glow. Contemporary art or framed photographs will hang on the walls. Bob Dixon, a private school fund-raiser in Chicago, says of an Oak Brook (Ill.) restaurant that sports the new design: "It's bright, it's lively, it's clean. It stunned me how beautiful it was."

The dining area will be separated into three sections with distinct personalities. The "linger" zone will offer comfortable armchairs, sofas, and Wi-Fi connections. "The focus is on young adults who want to socialize, hang out, and linger," says Dixon. Brand consultant Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a brand consulting firm, says that Starbucks has raised the bar: "A level has been set by Starbucks, which offers the experience of relaxed chairs and a clean environment where people feel comfortable hanging out even if it's just over a cup of coffee."

The "grab and go" zone will feature tall counters with bar stools for customers who eat alone; plasma TVs will offer them news and weather reports. And in the "flexible" zone, families will have booths featuring fabric cushions with colorful patterns and flexible seating. The new design allows different music to be targeted to each zone.

McDonald's McMakeover 1

McDonald's McMakeover 2

They didn't get all of my points, but they're on their way. If they have accessible power outlets -- a subject about which I'm sensitive after traveling through so many outlet-less airports -- I'd say they're off to the races.

April 29, 2006

Is Second Life Building the Metaverse?

By now, I think most of the bloggers on the planet have covered the BusinessWeek cover story on Second Life:

0618covdc

The avatar named Anshe Chung may be a computerized chimera, but the company she represents is far from imaginary. Second Life participants pay "Linden dollars," the game's currency, to rent or buy virtual homesteads from Chung so they have a place to build and show off their creations. But players can convert that play money into U.S. dollars, at about 300 to the real dollar, by using their credit card at online currency exchanges. Chung's firm now has virtual land and currency holdings worth about $250,000 in real U.S. greenbacks.

Oh yes, this is seriously weird. Even Chung sometimes thinks she tumbled down the rabbit hole. But by the time I visited her simulated abode in late February, I already knew that something a lot stranger than fiction was unfolding, some unholy offspring of the movie The Matrix, the social networking site MySpace.com, and the online marketplace eBay. And it was growing like crazy, from 20,000 people a year ago to 170,000 today.

This past week, I decided it was time for me to stop talking about Second Life and actually experience it for myself.

It's hard for me to write about Second Life without sounding like a Luddite. It's not that I don't get it -- I do. I've been turning on people to Snow Crash and its concept of the metaverse ever since it came out. But Second Life has a long way to go. Given the current state of Second Life's world, if I want to chat with someone, I'll chat using Trillian, not go to the trouble of launching an immersive program. If I want to watch a movie, I'll use my HD set, not use my avatar to watch a movie projected on a surface. If I want to play a game, I'll use my Xbox 360. If I want to play a massive multiplayer game, I'll play World of Warcraft.

Again, it's hard to say all this without sounding Luddist, which I'm not. I believe in the power of distributed solutions, and in the superiority of distributed intelligence. But just because Second Life is the first to make a real run at building Snow Crash doesn't mean they're the ones who are actually going to build it and get rich as a result.

It was in 1993 that I saw my first demonstration of the Web -- Mosaic running on a T-1 line that Randy Adams had run out to his garage in Atherton, where he was working on the Internet Shopping Network, which would later become either the first or second company to conduct a secure retail transaction over the Internet. The Web was clearly full of promise, demonstrably growing at an exponential rate, and yet in retrospect, none of the eventual winners had even started at the time. (Randy's competitor for the "first secure retail transaction" crown was NetMarket, which, like Randy's firm, was bought and eventually made irrelevant. Meanwhile, Amazon started in November 1994, Yahoo in January 1995, and Google not until September 1997.)

Second Life hopes and believes it's the Amazon, Yahoo, or Google (pick your metaphorical firm) of the metaverse. Could be. But my hunch is that the Amazon, Yahoo, and Google of the metaverse have yet to get started.

April 23, 2006

"Shame on You, Microsoft"

Via EmBlog, Paul Thurrott (of Paul Thurrott's SuperSite for Windows) reviews the latest build of Windows Vista, and in the process, one of Microsoft's most durable fans has a change of heart:

Windows Vista... has been an utter disaster. And it's not even out yet. What the heck went wrong? ...

Microsoft has made some mind-numbing mistakes... The company itself has turned into that thing it most hated (read: IBM), an endlessly complex hierarchy of semi-autonomous middle managers and vice presidents of various levels and titles, many of whom can't seem to make even the smallest of decisions. The company is too big and too slow to ship updates to its biggest products. It's collapsing under its own weight...

When Bill Gates revealed in mid-2003 that he was returning to his roots, so to speak, and spending half of his time on what was then still called Longhorn, we should have seen the warning signs. Sadly, Gates, too, is part of the Bad Microsoft, a vestige of the past who should have had the class to either formally step down from the company or at least play just an honorary role, not step up his involvement and get his hands dirty with the next Windows version. If blame is to be assessed, we must start with Gates. He has guided -- or, through lack of leadership -- failed to guide the development of Microsoft's most prized asset. He has driven it into the ground...

Shame on you, Microsoft. Shame on you, but not just for not doing better. We expect you to copy Apple, just as Apple (and Linux) in its turn copies you. But we do not and should not expect to be promised the world, only to be given a warmed over copy of Mac OS X Tiger in return. Windows Vista is a disappointment. There is no way to sugarcoat that very real truth.

This is like David Pogue of The New York Times being so disappointed in the next version of Mac OS X that he calls for Steve Jobs' resignation. It's almost unthinkable. And yet here it is.

Near the beginning of the review, Thurott says of Microsoft:

The company is literally filled to the brim with some of the brightest, smartest, most insightful, and friendliest people I've ever met.
It's true. I've never met someone from Microsoft and said to myself, "They just don't get it." People there are bright and smart and insightful (and often, though not always, friendly). But in the Windows division, they're weighed down by the magnitude of the task they face (as I wrote recently), as well as, according to Thurott, some people who really need to go:
[T]he Windows Division retains, as employees of the software giant have told me, the last vestiges of the bad, old Microsoft. This is the Microsoft that ran roughshod over competitors in order to gain market share at any cost. The Microsoft that forgot about customers in its blind zeal to harm competitors. The Microsoft, that frankly, all the Linux and Apple fanatics always imagined was out there, plotting and planning their termination.
So Windows Vista is going to be a failure. It will end up being two years late and missing large chunks of promised functionality. Here's the question for Microsoft: whose heads will roll for this? Because heads need to roll. If they don't, the next version of Windows will be a failture, too, and Windows will become less and less interesting -- and I want Windows to be interesting for all the same reasons I want Mac OS X to be interesting. Microsoft pushes Apple. Apple pushes Microsoft. Everyone wins.

April 18, 2006

Million-Year-Old Ice

From a Reuters story:

A million-year-old ice sample drilled from 3 kilometres under the Antarctic and unveiled in Tokyo on Tuesday could yield vital clues on climate change, Japanese scientists said.

Researchers, showing off the cylindrical samples of what they said was the oldest ice ever to be retrieved, said studying air trapped inside "core" samples taken from various depths under ground could also help predict how the Earth's weather patterns will change in the future.

"The ice core is made up of snow that fell in the distant past," said project leader Hideaki Motoyama of the National Institute of Polar Research, dressed snugly in a parka after unveiling the gleaming ice in a room kept at minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit).

2006_04_18t091519_450x311_us_environment_ice

Am I the only person who's looking at that photo thinking how great it would be to make a cocktail with that ice? And it's not a farfetched idea. After all, the scientists who retrieved the ice are from Japan. Surely a country that hunts whales for their meat while describing the killings as being for "scientific purposes" could, as long as they're drilling three kilometers below the surface of Antarctica, find the time to bring back more ice for our mixology needs?

April 09, 2006

Following Up on Cringely

This is a follow-up to my entry on Robert X. Cringely's column on OS X for Intel, which led to a Slashdot story on the topic, which led to (as of this writing) over 700 comments there and 100 comments here, and a temporary increase in blog traffic to 200 times normal volume.

First, I should point out that I had a pleasant e-mail exchange with Cringely -- thanks, Robert, for taking this in good spirits. He politely declined my offer of a bet, on what I thought were reasonable grounds. I'm still interested in making a public bet on this. I'm thinking of a mechanism somewhat like Long Bets, in that bets are made in the open, the judgement process is transparent, and the amounts wagered are paid in advance. However, Long Bets doesn't allow time periods of less than two years (I'm up for a year-long bet), and winnings must be paid to pre-designated charities (which is okay with me, but might not be so with some people). If anyone has any alternatives, please feel free to let me know about them.

Second, at least one Slashdot commenter asked, in so many words, who am I and why should anyone pay attention to me? I can't answer the latter, but as for the former, I'm currently COO and co-founder of a firm building simulation-based e-learning software for the US military. (I don't often talk about my current job in this blog -- I like preserving my editorial independence as much as possible.) In reverse chronological order, I've served as:

  • VP Product Marketing at QDesign (digital audio software technologies)
  • VP Developer Relations and VP Business Development at Be (alternative operating systems)
  • VP Product Management at Red Storm Entertainment (games)
  • VP and GM at Virtus (3D modeling and visualization)
  • Senior Product Marketing Manager at Adobe Systems (document production and distribution)
At various companies, I was:
  • A co-designer of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six (the first realistic tactical first-person shooter)
  • The original designer of Tom Clancy SSN (the first 3D submarine combat simulation game)
  • The original product manager of Adobe Acrobat (uh, it's Acrobat)
You can find my complete resume here on LinkedIn. Does any of this make me especially qualified to comment on the question at hand? That's up for my readers to decide.

Now to the question itself: will Apple ship a version of OS X for Intel as aftermarket software, installable by customers on their existing Windows PCs? Cringely predicted this, and many Slashdot and pseudorandom readers agreed with him. I wrote that it was unthinkable to me, and many readers agreed with that analysis.

Some commenters have said that while I might be right in the main, the issue I cited of limited driver availability wasn't a real issue. These arguments have run along the lines, "If Linux has broad driver support, OS X could, too," or, "Apple could easily induce third parties to write drivers for them." I don't buy either argument, for the following reasons:

  1. Linux driver support is still far less broad than that of Windows, and what gains it has made have come after years and years of effort by a dedicated open source community. Apple can't imitate Linux: it doesn't have the same open source type of community, and it wouldn't have years to wait for the driver situation to improve.
  2. The same is true of inducing third parties to write drivers -- again, Apple would be in a situation of shipping a product that wouldn't work perfectly on a large range of machines for many years. This would contradict their reputation as the easier-to-install, easier-to-use operating system, and so would undermine a key piece of their corporate positioning at a fundamental level.
Other commenters have said that Apple should emulate Be and offer an operating system to people to try for free. If it doesn't work on someone's system, no harm, no foul. If it does work, force them to upgrade after a certain amount of time, or to gain access to certain features. There are obvious problems with this example.
  1. Our strategy at Be didn't work. Now, to be fair, we shifted our efforts to the "zero billion dollar" Internet appliance market, which in the end turned out to truly be worth zero billion dollars, but I don't think we accumulated powerful evidence that our strategy would have worked given time. Yes, we were signing up software developers, but although BeOS ran rings around Windows, Microsoft was able to devote the effort to Windows to make it better -- not in BeOS' range, but better enough to keep developers and users in the fold.
  2. At Be, we carefully targeted our marketing efforts at customers who had a mission-critical need for what we did. Our greatest successes were in the audio processing market, where we offered low-level performance that was dramatically better than that of Windows (or even of the then-current version of MacOS). These customers tended to be highly technical and willing, in theory, to do some hard lifting to install a second OS. The only reason for Apple to go after Microsoft with aftermarket software would be to gain large market share, which would mean they wouldn't be able to focus their efforts precisely as we could at Be.
  3. At Be, we were offering customers certain things they simply couldn't get with Windows (high performance video processing in software, predictably low latency system I/O). Apple wouldn't be able to offer customers anything they couldn't get (in one form or another) under Windows. They'd just be offering them a somewhat better experience -- and that would only be in theory. The driver issues discussed above would probably make the experience less satisfactory than Windows.
A few commenters have opined that Apple will switch from Mach to Windows as its kernel, or abandon OS X entirely for Windows. On the one hand, for those in the latter camp, they have John Dvorak on their side. On the other hand, as one blogger put it, "John Dvorak is smoking crack." Reading the column in question is like reading a Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist:
The theory explains several odd occurrences, including Apple's freak-out and lawsuits over Macintosh gossip sites that ran stories about a musicians' breakout box that has yet to be shipped...

This may also explain the odd comment at the Macworld Expo by a Microsoft spokesperson that Microsoft Office will continue to be developed for the Mac for "five years." What happens after that?

This switch to Windows may have originally been planned for this year and may partly explain why Adobe and other high-end apps were not ported to the Apple x86 platform when it was announced in January.

If Dvorak is serious, he has gone off the deep end -- truly.

I haven't read anything in the comments that has changed my mind at all about the likelihood of Apple offering OS X as aftermarket software for PC owners. It was unthinkable to me yesterday morning, and it's unthinkable to me now. So what could I imagine Apple doing?

  • Offer Macs with Boot Camp and Windows XP pre-loaded. This isn't a business model change, and to paraphrase, now that Apple has released Boot Camp, we know what they are -- it's just a matter of setting the price. I don't think this is probable, but I don't think it's particularly improbable, either.
  • Offer Macs with some sort of Windows compatibility not reliant on Windows, like WINE. Again, this isn't a business model change. Because it would probably go out with every Mac, it would be a threat to Apple's growing OS X developer community. However, I could see Apple justifying the risk if they felt their Windows compatibility solution was solid -- they could sell OS X + Windows PCs without paying Microsoft a dime, and take $50-100 (that's a guess) out of Microsoft's pocket for each OEM sale lost to a customer who buys an Intel Mac. Again, not improbable, but not necessarily probable.
  • License OS X to PC vendors like Dell. This isn't unthinkable per se, but it's highly unlikely. Jobs shut down a clone market once -- the Mac clone makers -- because they were stealing sales from him without growing the market. In other words, for every Mac clone sold, Apple was missing out on hundreds of dollars in revenue, with nothing to offset it. For Apple to work with a vendor like Dell, they would have to be absolutely convinced that either:
    • Dell would be additive to the existing Mac market -- that every Dell sale would be to someone who would have otherwise bought a Windows PC, or,
    • Dell would grow the Mac market to such an extent as to offset the need for Apple to sell its own hardware -- in other words, by a factor of 5-10.
    It's very difficult for me to imagine Apple leaders convincing themselves of either of these suppositions. What would the evidence be for them?
This has been a fun exercise. Thanks to all the commenters who have participated -- and please feel free to keep the discussion going. And stay tuned for another Apple thought piece soon.

The Washington State Quarter

The State of Washington has posted a poll asking people to vote for one of the finalist designs for their forthcoming state quarter:

WA State Quarter Design 1

Design 1

WA State Quarter Design 2

Design 2

WA State Quarter Design 3

Design 3

When I checked the results a couple of days ago, Design 2 was in the lead. Now Design 3 is ahead by a commanding margin, which is extremely gratifying -- not just because I'm a fan of Native American and First Nations art from the Pacific Northwest, but because it's so unique, so evocative, and so memorable.

Many of the state quarters to date have gone down the same uninspired design path: a symbol (a palmetto tree, a minuteman, a peach, etc.) in front of an outline of the state, as with Design 1 above. Yawn. Design 2 isn't much better: it could be the state quarter of Idaho or Montana, or a window decal from Orvis or Cabela's. Design 3 is simple and unmistakeable. It deserves to win.

The poll runs through 30 April.

April 08, 2006

Cringely on OS X for PCs

Mark Stephens, AKA Robert X. Cringely, is a smart guy who has good ideas and interesting predictions. Every so often, though, he writes something that makes me wonder, "Is he just saying that to see if we're paying attention?" In 2003, he proposed a business called Snapster that would digitize music CDs and share them freely with all its shareholders, claiming he couldn't find a lawyer who could find a "serious flaw" in his logic -- which made me wonder exactly which lawyers he had been talking with.

In his current column (quoted below), and in a similar op-ed piece in The New York Times, he talks about Boot Camp and the future of Mac OS X on Intel hardware:

Microsoft and Apple are happy with each other for the moment, and rather than representing some Apple attack on Microsoft, Boot Camp just represents the state of their happy partnership. But this won't last for long. It never does.

I predict that Apple will settle on 64-bit Intel processors ASAP (with FireWire 800 please), and at that time will announce a product similar to Boot Camp to allow OS X to run on bog-standard 32-bit PC hardware, turning the Boot Camp relationship on its head and trying to sell $99 copies of OS X to 100 million or so Windows owners.

This ignores virtually everything that is fundamental to both how operating systems are developed and how Apple does business today. To call a hypothetical version of OS X compatible with off-the-shelf PCs "a product similar to Boot Camp" is to misunderstand at a profound level how operating systems are developed.

A Mac running OS X is simpler to install, use, and maintain than a PC running Windows because Apple controls both the hardware and the software. Apple only has to design for hardware configurations that it itself has built. Were Apple to ship OS X for "bog-standard 32-bit PC hardware", it would be just as frustrating as Windows. Microsoft has a far more difficult time shipping new versions of their OS not because they're incompetent, but because their task is orders of magnitude larger than Apple's, made so by the unending hardware configurations forced upon them by the commoditized market for PC hardware. In other words, were Apple to ship OS X for any old PC, its ease of use would drop dramatically, while its development and support costs would rise astronomically.

[Could Apple solve this problem by only offering OS X pre-bundled with certain Intel-based PCs? Yes, they could: doing so would limit the scope of the work required. But why would they do this? Users can already buy an Intel-based PC with OS X pre-bundled. It's called a Mac.]

Then there's the issue of margins. I don't know what Apple makes on an iMac, or on a MacBook Pro, but I'm sure it's substantially more than $99 -- hundreds of dollars more. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Apple makes $500 per system on their high-end laptops and desktop computers. If they were to ship OS X for any old PC, customers would say to themselves, "I can have a Mac experience with cheaper PC hardware," and Apple's hardware business would dry up. Apple would then be dependent on a pure-play operating system business. Users would quickly figure out that OS X was just as difficult to use on their PCs as Windows -- maybe even more so, given how far behind Apple would be in driver support. The customer choice would be between Windows (better driver support, far more applications, bundled with virtually every PC made) or OS X (poor driver support, far fewer applications, only available aftermarket). Apple would have effectively killed their hardware business with no offsetting software business waiting for them on the other side.

Let me put it this way: Steve Jobs is famous for being obsessive about even the most seemingly trivial aspects of design. This obsession has paid off by creating loyal customers who -- whether using an iPod or a Mac -- appreciate how Apple gets all the details right in creating an integrated and complete experience. To me, it's laughable to think that Jobs would give up this control and turn OS X into a generic PC operating system. Leaving aside the fatal usability issues, support costs, and margin concerns described above, what Cringely proposes is impossible on aesthetic grounds alone. I think Jobs would rather have dental surgery without benefit of anaesthesia than see his beautiful software running on clunky PC hardware.

It's not going to happen. And I'm willing to make a public bet with Cringely that it won't.

Amazingly, No Fatalities

What I find amazing about these photos of the C-5 that crashed in Dover, DE earlier this week is that of 17 crewmembers aboard, not only were none killed, of those who were hospitalized, none were ever in worse than fair condition.

C-5 Crash 3

C-5 Crash 2

Either those crewmembers were incredibly lucky, the C-5 is a hell of a plane, or both.

April 06, 2006

Boot Camp = Market Share Decline? What?

Much has been written about Boot Camp, Apple's new software to enable dual-booting Intel-based Macs into either OS X or Windows XP. Most of the coverage has been fine. But I'm still trying to make sense of this piece from a Bloomberg News story:

Apple's move will "drastically reduce" the costs of switching to Apple PCs, J.P. Morgan Securities analyst Bill Shope said in a note. Boot Camp allows Macs to run the Microsoft operating system, an improvement from so-called emulation programs that let Mac users run some Windows applications...

Goldman Sachs analyst Rick Sherlund was more skeptical of the impact of the move, saying in a research note that he doesn't expect any meaningful increase in Mac sales in the short term. And while Microsoft will make money selling Windows to Apple users, Sherlund said, that group is still only a small percentage of the market.

Mark Stahlman, a Caris & Co. analyst in New York, also doesn't expect Boot Camp to help boost Apple's market share. Microsoft is readying the next version of Windows, called Vista, and this Apple software only works with the older Windows XP.

"It's actually likely to lead to a decline in market share" because customers will pick Vista when it becomes available, Stahlman said.

One can agree or disagree with the opinions of Mssrs. Shope and Sherlund. They're reasonable, differing points of view. But either Stahlman's remarks were misquoted or misrepresented, or what he's saying is nonsensical. "[Boot Camp] only works with the older Windows XP"? You mean the current version of Windows? The version of Windows for which 218 million people had installed the latest Service Pack as of July 2005? The version of Windows that won't begin to be replaced until January 2007? And "'It's actually likely to lead to a decline in market share' because customers will pick Vista'"? Pardon me?

So let me see if I have this straight:

  1. Apple releases software that enables the current version of Windows to boot on Macs.
  2. Microsoft releases a new version of Windows.
  3. Apple's market share goes down.
Seriously, this doesn't make any sense whatsoever. Does anyone have any insight? If I were a professional blogger, I'd be on the phone right now to Stahlman and to the author of the story asking them to explain themselves.

April 04, 2006

Apology Legislation

From a story in the Seattle Times:

Sorry may soon no longer be so hard to say in British Columbia.

The provincial government on Tuesday became the first in Canada to propose legislation that would allow people and organizations to apologize without risking liability for damages or other penalties. Under the measure, evidence of an apology would not be admissible in legal proceedings...

"The Apology Act is designed to promote the early and mutually beneficial resolution of disputes by allowing parties to express honest regret or remorse," [provincial Attorney General Wallace T.] Oppal said...

"It allows people to do what is natural, which is to say 'sorry' and get on with things," [Vancouver Liberal legislator Lorne] Mayencourt said, adding that similar laws have significantly reduced liability litigation in Australia and California. "You can't solve problems between two people without an apology."

What an excellent idea.

Sorry Works! is an organization promoting apology legislation, but with a focus on medical malpractice. If sorry works for doctors, shouldn't it work for the rest of the society as well? Shouldn't anyone be able to apologize without risking liability? In fact, some organizations already are, even without broad apology legislation:

In 2002 the National Law Journal reported that Toro, the lawnmower manufacturer, had adopted a revolutionary policy. After an accident was reported to the company, a product integrity specialist, not a lawyer, made contact with the injured party, expressed the company's condolences, and initiated an investigation to discover the cause of the accident. An engineer went with the product integrity specialist to look at the equipment that caused the injury, and where appropriate the company took steps to improve the equipment to prevent future injuries. In two-thirds of the cases, the product integrity specialist resolved the matter without legal intervention. Almost all remaining cases resolved in mediation. According to the article, Toro reported that for 1992 to 2000, with more than 900 product liability claims referred to the program, legal costs per claim (attorney fees and litigation expenses) fell 78 percent, from an average of $47,252 to $10,420. The average resolution amount for the period dropped 70 percent, from $68,368 for settlements and verdicts to $20,248.

March 30, 2006

"Bill Gates'... Head Explodes"

The Economist has an article in this week's issue on Microsoft's ability (or lack thereof) to adapt, "Spot the dinosaur":

Microsoft earns more than half its $40 billion or so of annual revenue -- and the vast majority of its profits -- on just two products: the Windows operating-system and Office, a collection of personal-computer (PC) applications including word-processing and spreadsheet programs. Both, however, are coming under threat from new technologies...

The threat to Microsoft comes from online applications, which are changing how people use computers. Rather than relying on an operating system and its associated application software... computer users are increasingly able to call up the software they need over the internet. Just as Amazon, Google, eBay and other firms provide services via the web, software companies are now selling software as a subscription service that can be accessed via a web-browser...

[O]nline applications clearly threaten the way Microsoft makes its money. Its licensing agreements are geared for a world where software is a physical product, purchased on discs, and paid for at once or in regular instalments. But its online competitors charge each user a subscription: some like Google are even supplying software as a free online service, financed by advertisements. Last month Google acquired the firm that created Writely, a popular online word-processing program that is an obvious potential competitor to Microsoft Word.

Online competitors have also mastered quick development and deployment times that Microsoft cannot match. Meanwhile open-source software... is also gaining ground. George Colony, the boss of Forrester, a technology-research firm, believes Microsoft faces the biggest challenge in the firm's history: "Bill Gates knows how to compete with anyone who charges money for products," he says, "but his head explodes whenever he has to go up against anyone who gives away products for free."

How profoundly ironic. Over the years, Microsoft has made mincemeat of one software firm after another simply by developing comparable technology and bundling it with its operating system -- in effect, giving it away. Now Microsoft is under threat from firms who are doing the same thing to it, using the Internet as their distribution medium.

March 25, 2006

Guy Kawasaki on "Sucking Down"

A nice piece by Guy Kawasaki on "the art of sucking down" -- what he calls "the ability to suck up to the folks who don't have big titles but make the world run", like ticket agents, receptionists, administrative assistants, and the like. His nine points are:

  1. Understand the dynamic
  2. Understand their needs
  3. Be important
  4. Make them smile
  5. Don't try to buy your way in
  6. But do express your gratitude on the way out
  7. Never complain
  8. Rack up the karmic points
  9. Accept what cannot be changed
Basically, it all reduces down to practicing the golden rule, no matter how right, angry, harried, or powerful you are. I've never thought about this with Guy's level of detail, but I have always found that being nice to customer service people is much more likely to get results than being angry with them. And if things really go south -- the airline loses my luggage, the restaurant loses my reservation -- they're much more likely to help me if they're feeling sympathy for me, and they're much more likely to feel sympathy for me if I'm being gracious instead of angry.

March 10, 2006

BoingBoing's Greatest Moment

It's true, I'm biased: I think BoingBoing is the best blog going. But they surpassed themselves today.

There's a story that involves Secure Computing and its SmartFilter censorware, BoingBoing, and a Secure Computing employee who has been apparently outed as having a fairly interesting fetish. I don't need to repeat it here -- the blogosphere is covering the issue quite extensively. What I'm concerned with here is BoingBoing's response to this alleged outing:

We believe there's nothing wrong with consenting adults doing what they enjoy with other consenting adults, and writing about it on USENET if they want. If there's any black pot to Foote-Lennox's [Tomo Foote-Lennox, director of filtering data at Secure Computing, makers of SmartFilter] alleged charcoal grey kettle, it's us. We're all about celebrating the weird, about wooing the muse of the odd. About being in touch with your inner outsider.

What is relevant about the alt.sex.diapers and alt.sex.bondage posts attributed to Foote-Lennox is this: If one of us went to observe one of these parties and blogged about the fact that this subculture exists, Smartfilter would block it. No big deal if you're inside a corporate cubicle in the USA, because you can always access blocked sites from home or elsewhere. But netizens in countries that use Secure Computing's censorware to filter traffic nationwide effectively lose their right to access this information, and anything else Secure Computing deems naughty...

To sum up: It's wonderful to live in a country where you have the freedom to do your own freaky thing. It's terrible to live in a country that limits your freedom to be freaky. And it's hypocritical to celebrate your own freakiness to the fullest while helping oppressive governments restrict others from celebrating their own freakiness.

If the USENET archive posts attributed to Foote-Lennox are legit (they could be an elaborate hoax, but so far, no denial has been issued), it would appear that like all of us at BoingBoing, he uses the Internet to connect with and enjoy the odd things in the world that interest him -- but works tirelessly to stop the rest of us from doing the same.

We support the right of consenting adults around the world to enjoy diverse lifestyles, and read all about them on the internet.

Foote-Lennox speaks for a company that makes censorware. When questioned about his company's censorship of BoingBoing, he was dismissive of their complaints. It was then alleged (not by BoingBoing) that he had, in the past, posted information to the Internet that his company's own product would prevent users in many foreign countries from seeing -- not at work, not at home, not anywhere. In this light, the editors of BoingBoing would have been justified in going on the attack. Instead, they chose to point out the hypocrisy of his position without criticizing his alleged behavior. In fact, Xeni, Cory, and their co-editors went out of their way to point out their support for people to pursue their personal interests on the Internet -- not just themselves and their readers, but Foote-Lennox and anyone anywhere in the world who might want to read his alleged posts.

I told Xeni in a message that I thought this was one of BoingBoing's greatest moments. I was wrong. It's BoingBoing's greatest moment, period.

March 07, 2006

If It Sounds Like a Hoax...

...it's not necessarily a hoax? From a BBC story:

Web giant Google is planning a massive online storage facility to encompass all users' files, it is reported.

The plans were allegedly revealed accidentally after a blogger spotted notes in a slideshow presentation wrongly published on Google's site.

The GDrive, previously the subject of chatroom rumour, would offer a mirror of users' hard drives, Reuters said.

Google declined to comment on the reports but said the slide notes had now been deleted.

In the notes, chief executive Eric Schmidt reportedly said Google's aim was to "store 100%" of users' information.

The notes said: "With infinite storage, we can house all user files, including e-mails, web history, pictures, bookmarks, etc; and make it accessible from anywhere (any device, any platform, etc)."

This sounds for all the world like an April Fool's joke... especially the "store 100%" and "infinite storage" bits. If it were any other company, my hoax probability estimate would be well above 50 percent. But given that it's Google... what can't they do, given $8.3 billion in the bank and a demonstrated willingness to push the envelope?

February 27, 2006

"Too Consumed by the Outermost Circle"

BusinessWeek has a story on the late Gene O'Kelly, CEO of KPMG, who, when diagnosed with inoperable late-stage brain cancer, and with only a few months to live, "worked with his wife and writer Andrew Postman to chronicle his attempt with as much brightness, if not hope, as possible". In the short time he had left, he wrote a book, Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life.

I found particularly moving and relevant a sidebar to the story:

One of Eugene O'Kelly's hopes in the last days of his life was to be able, as he would say, "to unwind" relationships of all kinds. He placed his many colleagues, friends, and family in five concentric circles; those closest to him were in the innermost ring. He began to say goodbye through e-mail, phone conversations, walks in Central Park, over a good bottle of wine... Toward the end, he says, he realized that during his previous life as a business leader he might have been "too consumed by the outermost circle." As he puts it: "Perhaps I could have found the time, in the last decade, to have had a weekday lunch with my wife more than...twice?... I realized that being able to count a thousand people in that fifth circle was not something to be proud of. It was something to be wary of."

February 24, 2006

Quote for the Day

From Eleanor Roosevelt:

Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.
I'm slightly embarrassed to say I found this on a plaque in a SkyMall catalog. What can I say? I was temporarily burned out on sudoku, didn't want to watch another episode of Futurama on the iPod, and had hit my 50-pages-at-a-time limit on The Confusion (that's about as much as I can read at a stretch of Neal Stephenson's more recent works -- there are too many ideas to assimilate and process to go much longer).

February 11, 2006

Cirque du Soleil for 2010

After watching what seemed to me a muddled and meandering opening ceremonies at Torino, I have this to say to Canada:

2010 opening and closing ceremonies? Cirque du Soleil.

But my daughter and I did like the disco music played during the parade of athletes. In her words, "'YMCA' just never gets old."

Imagine We Keep the Lyrics in Mind

A lyrics refresher for all those athletes dressed in their national costumes and waving flags as Peter Gabriel sang "Imagine" during the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics:

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
I think the costumes are great, actually. And I have no problem with flags. But I have trouble believing that was what John Lennon had in mind when he wrote "Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do."

February 06, 2006

Congratulations, Pittsburgh

Last night's Super Bowl was a no-lose proposition for me: the winner would be either the team of my adopted hometown (Seattle) or a team that had done much to deserve it, both over the playoffs and the last decade (Pittsburgh). As it was, the Steelers won, and congratulations to them and their fans. To Seahawks fans, I wouldn't worry: they'll be back soon enough.

I know the score was close for most of the game -- as late as five minutes into the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh was only up by four points -- but it seemed a dull affair, not worthy of the big game. Neither offense played spectacularly well, but it wasn't because the defenses were great -- it just appeared that neither team could really get itself together.

Ah, well. Such is how most Super Bowls go. But just often enough, there's a great Super Bowl, a game for the ages -- like New England versus Carolina two years ago -- to keep us all watching. And so we'll all be there again next year.

February 04, 2006

Grandpa Munster

Via Boing Boing comes word that Al Lewis, best known for playing Grandpa on The Munsters, has died at 95.

In the early 1990s, while Adobe Acrobat (then Carousel) was under development, I made numerous trips around the country to brief key accounts. On one of my trips to New York, my fellow employee Wes and his wife Susan took me to Grandpa's restaurant in New York. We were sitting at a table when Grandpa passed by.

Wes: Grandpa! This is my friend Frank. He's visiting here from California.

Grandpa (warmly): Thanks for coming. It's nice to have you here.

Me: Thank you. It's my pleasure to be here.

(Grandpa wanders off.)

Me (to Wes): Oh, so you've been here before and met him?

Wes: No.

As he said, "No," the look on Wes' face was priceless. Why would he have to know someone to introduce me to them? It was a great New York moment.

January 20, 2006

Lasers? To the Moon?

I was talking with friends today about an earlier blog entry I wrote on green lasers, and one of them speculated that at some point someone would use a laser to illuminate the moon. With a laser powerful enough, we could imagine a logo being painted on the surface of, say, the new moon, which would be amazing (the first time) and then annoying (thereafter).

An artist named James Downey thought of having millions of people simultaneously point their lasers at the moon, but that idea has been debunked:

It seems there are not enough people in North America to make Downey's idea work.

"As I suspected, the number required is not millions of people, but more than millions of millions of millions of people," said Donald Umstadter, a laser expert at the Center for Ultrafast Optical Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Okay, so, since I don't have the physics background to estimate the numbers myself, and since more detail wasn't provided, let's make some assumptions:

  • Millions of millions of millions equals quintillions.
  • The typical handheld laser produces 5 milliwatts.
  • 1 quintillion times 5 milliwatts equals 5 * 10^15 watts, or 5 petawatts.
Now, as it turns out, a 5 petawatt laser does exist: the aptly-named Petawatt, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. This is deceiving, however, because the Petawatt fires pulses that last less than half a picosecond. To operate the laser continuously would, in theory, take 1,200 times the entire power generating capacity of the US -- and that was at 1.25 petawatts. Presumably 5 petawatts would consume 4,800 times the US power generation capacity.

So could someone paint logos on the moon with a laser beam? It's theoretically possible, and the laser exists to do it, but there's not enough power to make it practical.

A better idea -- okay, a less crazy idea -- would be to position a mirror in space capable of reflecting the sun's rays into a point on the moon that would be visible from Earth. This would obviate the need for power generation and would dispense with the problem of the laser's power attenuating as it rises through the atmosphere. The question is, how big would that mirror have to be?

January 17, 2006

"I'd Shut It Down..."

In 1997, Michael Dell was asked what could be done to fix Apple. His answer?

What would I do? I'd shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.
Last week, Apple's market capitalization rose to $72.13 billion, surpassing Dell's $71.97 billion. Steve Jobs marked the occasion with an e-mail message to Apple employees:
Team, it turned out that Michael Dell wasn't perfect at predicting the future. Based on today's stock market close, Apple is worth more than Dell. Stocks go up and down, and things may be different tomorrow, but I thought it was worth a moment of reflection today. Steve.

January 12, 2006

The Secret Starbucks Drink

It turns out there's a drink that Starbucks doesn't list on its menu. Well, not a drink, exactly; rather a size -- but the size affects the quality. Slate sussed it out:

The drink in question is the elusive "short cappuccino" -- at 8 ounces, a third smaller than the smallest size on the official menu, the "tall," and dwarfed by what Starbucks calls the "customer-preferred" size, the "Venti," which weighs in at 20 ounces...

The short cappuccino has the same amount of espresso as the 12-ounce tall, meaning a bolder coffee taste, and also a better one... Within reason, the shorter the cappuccino, the better.

The problem with large cappuccinos is that it's impossible to make the fine-bubbled milk froth ("microfoam," in the lingo) in large quantities, no matter how skilled the barista. A 20-ounce cappuccino is an oxymoron. Having sampled the short cappuccino in a number of Starbucks across the world, I can confirm that it is a better drink than the buckets of warm milk -- topped with a veneer of froth -- that the coffee chain advertises on its menus.

This secret cappuccino is cheaper, too -- at my local Starbucks, $2.35 instead of $2.65. But why does this cheaper, better drink—along with its sisters, the short latte and the short coffee -- languish unadvertised? The official line from Starbucks is that there is no room on the menu board, although this doesn't explain why the short cappuccino is also unmentioned on the comprehensive Starbucks Web site, nor why the baristas will serve you in a whisper rather than the usual practice of singing your order to the heavens.

The remainder of the article gives the economic theory explanation for why Starbucks a) offers the short cappuccino but b) keeps it a secret. (Hint: It has something to do with more money for Starbucks.)

January 08, 2006

Wild-Card Weekend

My one serious sports-watching vice is the NFL. I find most sports fairly boring to watch, but there's something about football... I think it's football's unique stop-and-start nature, where the viewer has time to think about and anticipate the next play -- neither free-flowing like soccer (which I love to play but don't usually watch), but not paint-drying-watching-slow like golf or baseball.

Anyway, so this was wild card weekend in the NFL. I suppose this would mean more if I had blogged it here first, but I did pick the Redskins, the Patriots, the Panthers, and the Steelers to win. Having said that, I didn't think the Redskins would perform so atrociously on offense, I didn't think the Patriots would manhandle the Jaguars quite so badly, I didn't think the Panthers would shut out the Giants, and I certainly didn't anticipate the Bengals losing their starting quarterback on his second play.

In any case, the important thing around these parts is that the Panthers won. They're a schizophrenic team -- when the good Panthers show up, they can quite literally beat any team in the league (and have). On the other hand, when the bad Panthers show up, they can be embarrassed by quite literally any team in the league (and have been). Thankfully, the good Panthers showed up today, and the result was the Carolina Panthers 23, the New York Giants 0.

Next week, Carolina plays at Chicago, where they lost earlier this season -- but again, if the good Panthers show up, they could whip the Bears. Meanwhile, the Washington Redskins will play at the Seattle Seahawks, a game the Seahawks will win handily. This could set up an interesting situation for me, because the two teams I think of as my "home" teams are the Panthers (because I've lived here the past few years) and the Seahawks (because of how the Pacific Northwest feels like home for me). If Carolina plays in Seattle for the NFC championship... well, I'd cheer for the Panthers, but it would be close. And I'd seriously consider something I've never done, flying out for a football game. I can only imagine how cool that would be to see in person. But that's two weeks and a couple of games away from now.

So, congratulations to the Panthers, and good luck against the Bears next weekend, and good luck to the Seahawks next weekend as well -- but not the weekend after if the Panthers are still in it.

December 30, 2005

Docks to Doors

As I wrote recently, I did most of my Christmas shopping this year via Amazon. I didn't visit stores to scout out ideas for gifts; I did all of my research and buying online. According to this article in The New York Times, consumer spending online in November and December is up 25-30 percent over the comparable period last year, which is fairly amazing growth given how high online sales are already. It seems I'm one of millions with the same idea: avoid the malls and shop online.

Last year, I blogged an interview on NPR with the author of an article on "wells to wheels" efficiency -- looking at energy efficiency in automobiles from a whole-system approach, including the energy costs of removing oil from the ground, refining it, transporting it to gas stations, and then ultimately using it in cars.

With the "wells to wheels" concept in mind, what is the whole-system efficiency of finding and purchasing something online versus finding and purchasing it at the mall? It's a difficult question to even frame properly due to all the variables involved. If buying online, how many items am I purchasing for the same shipment? How quickly are they being delivered? If buying at the mall, how many items am I buying on the same trip? How far away is the mall? What is the fuel efficiency of my car?

One way to set up the question would be to look at typical answers to these questions and use those answers as the values. In other words, how many items does the typical online purchaser buy for a single shipment, and how are they typically delivered? How many items does a typical mall shopper buy on a single trip, how far away is the typical mall, and what is the typical fuel efficiency of American cars?

With answers to these questions, we could then compare the whole-system energy efficiency of online shopping to mall shopping. In other words, we could ask not about "wheels to wells", which is known, but about "docks to doors", which isn't -- unless this has already been researched. Has it?

December 24, 2005

Hand Baskets vs. Push Carts

Heard in the checkout line yesterday at Harris Teeter. I had walked up with a hand basket full of groceries. The bagger and cashier were both women.

Me (to Bagger): I won't need a cart for those bags.

Bagger: Are you sure?

Me: Yes. I'll be fine. Thanks.

Bagger (to Cashier): He sure did fit a lot in that hand basket, didn't he?

Cashier: He sure did. But men are like that.

Me: What do you mean?

Cashier: It's all about how much they can fit in a hand basket. I've seen men walk out of here with 12 bags of groceries from one hand basket.

Me: I can relate to that.

Cashier: Women are the opposite. Me, I can have one bag of marshmallows, but I want that push cart.

November 01, 2005

Kiva.org

Via Boing Boing comes word of Kiva.org:

Kiva lets you connect with and loan money to unique small businesses in the developing world.

By choosing a business on our website and then lending money online to that enterprise, you can "sponsor a business" and help the world's working poor make great strides towards economic independence. Throughout the course of the loan (usually 6-12 months), you can receive monthly email updates that let you know about the progress being made by the small business you've sponsored. These updates include reports on loan repayment progress, photos of new capital equipment, narratives on business growth and standard of living improvements, and more. As loans are repaid, you will get your original loan money back.

How does the loan process work?
By partnering with existing microfinance organizations and institutions, Kiva finds outstanding entrepreneurs who need loan funding. Our expert in-country staff works with these partner organizations to conduct due diligence on each business, and once approved, post each business' profile on our website. This is where you come in. You can choose loan money online, using your credit card or Paypal, in increments as low as $25 toward the loan needs of a business. With your participation, Kiva gives entrepreneurs access to the capital they need to lift themselves out of poverty.

Looking through Kiva's Website, I thought to myself, "I am so all over this!" Sadly, there's so much interest from would-be lenders that they've temporarily run out of projects to fund. (How ironic is that?) But I'm eagerly awaiting my first chance to loan money to a fishmonger, a medicine vendor, or whatever comes along next. This is going to be a big deal -- like PayPal meets Christian Childrens Fund, minus the guilt.

September 26, 2005

Apple, Microsoft, and Ecosystems

In my personal portfolio, my best investment by far over the last few months has been AAPL, which is now up 48 percent over when I bought it. I was talking about the irrationality of markets with a friend the other day and commented that, as far as I could tell, the market was bidding up AAPL because of excitement over iPod sales, but I was holding AAPL because of the financial implications of the "iPod halo effect" -- that if Apple managed to convert even a fraction of Windows-using iPod purchasers into Mac OS users, it could easily double their market share, which would be momentous.

A couple of days later, I read the following on Paul Thurrott's Internet Nexus. It's an excerpt from an employee Q&A session with Microsoft executives. An employee had asked about competing with Apple. Steve Ballmer deferred to Jim Allchin, who gave his own answer, then turned the floor over to Robbie Bach.

Robbie Bach: There isn't a silver bullet you're going to fire in three months that suddenly is going to make the iPod business a bad business for Apple. But there is an approach we can take on the longer term that I think will bring out the strengths of our ecosystem and will bring partners to bear in a way that will make us significantly more successful and, in particular, will prevent Apple from leveraging their iPod success in a platform success, which is what we really don't want to have happen.
So there are two items of note here:
  1. Microsoft is clearly concerned about the iPod halo effect -- concerned enough that they have created a strategy to attempt to stifle it.
  2. What is this approach that Microsoft will take "on the longer term" that "will bring out the strengths of [its] ecosystem," "will bring partners to bear," and "will prevent Apple from leveraging their iPod success in a platform success"? Now I'm really curious.

September 23, 2005

The Ultimate Force Feedback Device

The morning after JetBlue Flight 292 made its emergency landing at LAX, I was talking with my co-worker Christophe about what had happened.

Me: You know that JetBlue has satellite TV at every seat, right? So the passengers were watching the whole thing as it was happening.

Christophe: No way!

Me: Way! They left the TVs on until about 10 minutes before landing.

Christophe: That's too bad. If they had been watching TV while they were landing, it would have been the ultimate force feedback device. They would watch themselves touch down, and then feel it, and say, "Wow, that felt real!"

September 06, 2005

A Difficult Question

An Australian friend of mine wrote to me from Sydney to ask the following:

I've been following the news of the horrible tragedy of hurricane Katrina...

[T]he thing that is confusing me most about this is the response to the tragedy -- probably best embodied by the headline in the Sydney Morning Herald -- "Shoot to kill, troops told"... and whilst that's the worst of the headlines -- I think each day, the focus has been on the violence that has ensued as a result of the hurricane.

Is the Australian media sensationalising what is happening?

Typically, when there is tragedy -- and the tsunami and 9/11 are two examples that spring to mind -- the focus is on stories of heroism. Why is this so different? It could very well just be the way the media is portraying it here -- but certainly my memory of the stories after the tsunami tragedy were of stories of people helping each other -- not of trying to kill each other.

Is the Australian media sensationalizing what's happening? Not from watching the US news networks.

The real question is, why does the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina seem so much more brutal -- in terms of how affected people have treated one another -- than the aftermath of other similar natural disasters? I spent a couple of days thinking about this, and in the end, wrote back with a list of possible reasons, none utterly convincing, but one that seems to have a possible ring of truth to me.

The Indian Ocean tsunami hit without warning, and across an extremely large region. Since no one was warned, no one evacuated. As a result, the tsunami affected a cross-section of the socioeconomic spectrum, ignoring race, wealth, age, gender, or any other differentiating factors.

In contrast, Hurricane Katrina hit with days of warning. From all accounts, the people left behind in the evacuation were much poorer, on average, than the people who were able to leave. In essence, we took a major American city and cleared out most people above a certain income level. That might have worked out okay had the local, state, and federal governments been prepared and begun restoring order and evacuating people en masse immediately following the hurricane. But as we know all too well, this didn't happen. Without food, without drinking water, without power, without help, feeling abandoned by the rest of the country, and with the population already dramatically altered by the partial, resource-based evacuation, law and order began to break down, at least for some of the people still there. And of course this being America, we had news cameras there in force to record it all.

So I suppose one could call Hurricane Katrina an accidental experiment in socioeconomics. What happens when you remove most of the affluent and middle-class citizens from a city, subject those citizens left behind to a deadly natural disaster with ongoing effects, and then fail to help them, day after day after day? The answer isn't pretty. Should we have expected it would be?

September 03, 2005

The Times-Picayune Knew

Via The Chicago Sun-Times:

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune's five-part series in 2002 about what would happen if a major hurricane struck:

"Amid this maelstrom, the estimated 200,000 or more people left behind in an evacuation will be struggling to survive. Some will be housed at the Superdome, the designated shelter... for people too sick or infirm to leave the city. Others will end up in last-minute emergency refuges that will offer minimal safety. But many will simply be on their own, in homes or looking for high ground.

"Thousands will drown while trapped in homes or cars by rising water. Others will be washed away or crushed by debris. Survivors will end up trapped on roofs, in buildings or on high ground surrounded by water, with no means of escape and little food or fresh water, perhaps for several days."

National Public Radio Knew

From a September 2002 story for NPR, "Hurricane Risk to New Orleans", part of the series Nature's Revenge: Louisiana's Vanishing Wetlands.

Walter Maestri is struggling to help New Orleans prepare. Maestri is the czar of public emergencies in Jefferson Parish (that's the county that sprawls across a third of the metropolitan area). He points to a map of the region on the wall of his command post.

"A couple of days ago," explains Maestri, "We actually had an exercise where we brought a fictitious Category Five Hurricane into the metropolitan area."

The map is covered with arrows and swirls in erasable marker. They show how the fictitious hurricane crossed Key West and then smacked into New Orleans.

When the computer models showed Maestri what would happen next, he wrote big letters on the map, all in capitals.

"KYAGB -- kiss your ass good bye," reads Maestri.

"Because," says Maestri, "anyone who was here when that storm came across was gone -- it was body-bag time. We think 40,000 people could lose their lives in the metropolitan area."

And some scientists say that figure is conservative. People have known for centuries that New Orleans is a risky spot -- the biggest river in North America wraps around it; and most of the land is below sea level. But researchers say they've been learning just how grave the problem is, only in the last few years. And they say the city and the nation aren't prepared to handle it.

September 02, 2005

National Geographic Knew

Via Daily Kos, the opening paragraphs of the article "Gone with the Water," by Joel K. Bourne, Jr., from the October 2004 issue of National Geographic:

It was a broiling August afternoon in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Big Easy, the City That Care Forgot. Those who ventured outside moved as if they were swimming in tupelo honey. Those inside paid silent homage to the man who invented air-conditioning as they watched TV "storm teams" warn of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing surprising there: Hurricanes in August are as much a part of life in this town as hangovers on Ash Wednesday.

But the next day the storm gathered steam and drew a bead on the city. As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however -- the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party.

The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level -- more than eight feet below in places -- so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.

Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

When did this calamity happen? It hasn't -- yet. But the doomsday scenario is not far-fetched. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City. Even the Red Cross no longer opens hurricane shelters in the city, claiming the risk to its workers is too great.

Scientific American Knew

The introduction to the story "Drowning New Orleans" by Mark Fischetti, from the October 2001 issue of Scientific American (full article available for fee):

THE BOXES are stacked eight feet high and line the walls of the large, windowless room. Inside them are new body bags, 10,000 in all. If a big, slow-moving hurricane crossed the Gulf of Mexico on the right track, it would drive a sea surge that would drown New Orleans under 20 feet of water. "As the water recedes," says Walter Maestri, a local emergency management director, "we expect to find a lot of dead bodies."

New Orleans is a disaster waiting to happen. The city lies below sea level, in a bowl bordered by levees that fend off Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the south and west. And because of a damning confluence of factors, the city is sinking further, putting it at increasing flood risk after even minor storms. The low-lying Mississippi Delta, which buffers the city from the gulf, is also rapidly disappearing. A year from now another 25 to 30 square miles of delta marsh -- an area the size of Manhattan -- will have vanished. An acre disappears every 24 minutes. Each loss gives a storm surge a clearer path to wash over the delta and pour into the bowl, trapping one million people inside and another million in surrounding communities. Extensive evacuation would be impossible because the surging water would cut off the few escape routes. Scientists at Louisiana State University (L.S.U.), who have modeled hundreds of possible storm tracks on advanced computers, predict that more than 100,000 people could die. The body bags wouldn't go very far.

August 25, 2005

What's Wrong with This?

Found in Tuesday's print edition of McPaper -- er, I mean USA Today:

Former prisoner of war Jessica Lynch started college with 4,600 other freshmen at West Virginia University in Morgantown. "She's been so out of the news for so long, she's not readily recognizable -- which I think she appreciates," said her publicist, Aly Goodwin Gregg.

August 15, 2005

Permissiveness and Virtuousness

From a column by David Brooks in the New York Times:

To put it in old-fashioned terms, America is becoming more virtuous. Americans today hurt each other less than they did 13 years ago. They are more likely to resist selfish and shortsighted impulses. They are leading more responsible, more organized lives. A result is an improvement in social order across a range of behaviors.

The decline in domestic violence is of a piece with the decline in violent crime over all. Violent crime over all is down by 55 percent since 1993 and violence by teenagers has dropped an astonishing 71 percent, according to the Department of Justice.

The number of drunken driving fatalities has declined by 38 percent since 1982, according to the Department of Transportation, even though the number of vehicle miles traveled is up 81 percent. The total consumption of hard liquor by Americans over that time has declined by over 30 percent.

Teenage pregnancy has declined by 28 percent since its peak in 1990. Teenage births are down significantly and, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the number of abortions performed in the country has also been declining since the early 1990's.

Fewer children are living in poverty, even allowing for an uptick during the last recession. There's even evidence that divorce rates are declining, albeit at a much more gradual pace. People with college degrees are seeing a sharp decline in divorce, especially if they were born after 1955.

I could go on. Teenage suicide is down. Elementary school test scores are rising (a sign than more kids are living in homes conducive to learning). Teenagers are losing their virginity later in life and having fewer sex partners. In short, many of the indicators of social breakdown, which shot upward in the late 1960's and 1970's, and which plateaued at high levels in the 1980's, have been declining since the early 1990's.

What I find so interesting about this is that all these improvements have taken place during a time when right-wing religious leaders have been warning us that our wicked ways as a nation will soon lead to our downfall. Depictions of sex, violence, and drug use are pervasive in video games, television, and feature films. And the Internet? I challenge anyone to imagine anything that isn't available for immediate free viewing on the Internet. The Supreme Court has ruled that the states can't prohibit homosexual acts in the privacy of one's own home. Over 6,000 same-sex couples have married in Massachusetts. Surely the Apocalypse must be nigh.

Let me be clear here: I'm not drawing a causal link between increasing levels of permissiveness and decreasing levels of violence, divorce, teen pregnancies, and other behaviors deemed undesirable by society. But the people on the religious right have foretold a causal link between permissiveness and increasing levels of such behaviors. So it's up to them to explain how, exactly, we find ourselves in our current situation, and why anyone should listen to anything they have to say about the negative effects of permissiveness.

August 08, 2005

The Evolution of Flickr

Adaptive Path has published an interview with Eric Costello, client development lead for Flickr. It's an excellent history of Flickr's evolution and contains many lessons for anyone building Web services:

Jesse James Garrett: So you almost accidentally ended up in this position where you find yourself competing with personal publishing tools like Blogger and LiveJournal. How much of Flickr's evolution do you think was driven by this kind of accidental discovery?

Eric Costello: Accidental is probably not the right term -- I'd call it "fortuitous." There are a lot of bright people on the Flickr team who have great ideas that have influenced our direction. But we also have a very agile development process. We deploy code to the site maybe 10 times a day on a busy day. And we're constantly adding new features, small and large, even though lately it’s been relatively small features, sadly.

But because we're quick to develop and deploy new things, and because we have a talkative bunch of users and a lot of places for them to talk to us, we can quickly assimilate suggestions from the community. We can build a feature and deploy it sometimes within a week of hearing a feature request.

So it's not accidental, but most of Flickr has not undergone a lot of extensive planning. We’re kind of rolling with the punches, which makes it fun. And I think that makes it fun for the users, too.

June 15, 2005

Altruism

I find myself explaining this so often in life that it probably belongs here.

One definition of altruism is:

Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.
And a definition of selflessness is:
Having, exhibiting, or motivated by no concern for oneself; unselfish
I contend that, by the definitions listed above, there are no such things as altruism and selflessness. I believe that every action we take, we take because we believe it to be in our self-interest.

Having said that, different people can have extremely divergent views of what their self-interest is. Some people seek the emotional pleasure they derive from being good to other people. I like them. Some people avoid the emotional pain they would feel if they weren't good to other people. I like them, too, though I think it would be good for them if they could motivate themselves more based on positive rather than negative outcomes. But in either case, I would argue that this is what we perceive as altruism. It's still all based on self-interest.

Then you have people who don't derive pleasure from being good to others, who don't feel pain when they're not good to others, or both. They're no more self-interested than the perceived altruists, but because their emotional pleasure and pain are tied to their own direct experiences rather than the effect their actions have on others, we perceive them as egoists.

May 01, 2005

Fungible Oil

This from an Economist story on oil is so well written and so succinctly put that I have to repeat it here:

Thanks to the spectacular rise of futures trading, oil has become a fungible global commodity. The conventional notion that stakes in oil fields add up to energy security no longer holds up: if there is an oil shock, then the market price of every barrel of oil in the world will shoot up past $100 a barrel. [I]n America... Congress is trying to boost "energy independence". It is now considering an energy bill that would allow oil drilling in pristine parts of Alaska and would dole out billions in subsidies for the oil and gas business. This is mad. America has so little oil, and guzzles so much, that it will never again be energy-independent while relying on oil. America's best hopes for energy security lie in the resilience of global oil markets, in conservation and in alternative energy sources.
Exactly. We can drill in ANWR all we want, but the companies who find oil there will still sell it to the highest bidder. Drilling in ANWR -- or anywhere else in the US, for that matter -- won't make us any more independent when it comes to energy.

April 16, 2005

"Shorthorn" and Innovation

This is pretty funny:

Despite the removal of WinFS from Longhorn, Allchin was adamant that the new OS will contain enough features to be compelling for consumers and PC makers.

"There's no question -- we made some trade-offs here. I couldn't do everything that everybody wanted from the customer perspective, and they were very clear in what trade-off they wanted us to make," he said.

Still, he said, dubbing Longhorn without WinFS as "Shorthorn" is "derogatory," because the operating system "is packed full of capabilities." Some of the features he mentioned were "great roaming support," .Net Framework 2.0, "new browsing capabilities," the "fresh" user interface, improved migrations and deployments, "more resilience to malware" and "a new photo experience."

So Jim Allchin is upset because people are making fun of the scaled-back feature set of Longhorn? Am I supposed to be sympathetic?

Meanwhile, Apple is about to ship Tiger, and from the looks of it, Tiger might have just as many new features -- if not more -- than Longhorn. And since releasing OS X 10.0 four years ago, Apple has been averaging about a year between major operating system releases. In other words, it's entirely possible that they could have another new version out by the time Longhorn ships.

A reasonable question to ask is why Apple is able to innovate so much more quickly. I don't believe the average IQ is any higher in Cupertino than it is in Redmond, nor do I believe Apple has some secret project management sauce that Microsoft lacks. My assumption is that the difference is in the hardware base. Apple writes software only for its own hardware and can be ruthless about not supporting machines that are past their prime. Microsoft writes software for a vast and diverse universe of hardware and assumes people are going to try to install new operating systems on pretty much anything they can plug into a power outlet.

I honestly don't know which is the superior approach. I'm fundamentally attracted to distributed systems, like the PC hardware market. But do distributed systems always win? It depends on how you measure winning. The Wintel platform has overwhelming market share, true. But Apple -- one little company with just over a third of the market capitalization of Dell alone -- somehow seems to consistently create new hardware that runs rings around anything done by Wintel manufacturers. How can that be?

April 14, 2005

Apple's Quarterly Results

Apple announced their Q2 2005 results yesterday (announcement here, conference call coverage here). I was honestly astounded:

For the quarter, the Company posted a net profit of $290 million, or $.34 per diluted share. These results compare to a net profit of $46 million, or $.06 per diluted share, in the year-ago quarter. Revenue for the quarter was $3.24 billion, up 70 percent from the year-ago quarter...

Apple shipped 1,070,000 Macintosh® units and 5,311,000 iPods during the quarter, representing a 43 percent increase in CPU units and a 558 percent increase in iPods over the year-ago quarter.

Just when I was wondering if perhaps the iPod frenzy had cooled down a bit, they sell five million iPods in the quarter -- six and a half times as many as in the same quarter last year? And a 43 percent increase in CPU units? Clearly some of that is due to the Mac mini, but the hypothesized "halo effect" -- iPod purchasers later switching to the Mac -- must be real.

April 07, 2005

Stewart and Caterina in Newsweek

Now the Flickrites are everywhere. From the latest issue of Newsweek, "Hi-Tech's New Day":

050402_SciTechFlickr_vl.vmedium

The new economics of starting a Web business may even be changing the entrepreneur's celebrated goal: striking it rich with an IPO. With the market for new stocks still flat, many entrepreneurs just want to get scooped up by one of the few Internet giants like Yahoo, Google or media mogul Barry Diller's AIC/InterActiveCorp. In this respect and many others, the Vancouver-based Flickr is typical of the dot-com revival. It's yet another photo-sharing site, but with a few nifty innovations: users can tag their photos with keywords, adding them to groups of similar shots from other users, and can append comments to any picture. More than a year after married founders Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake started the company, it has drawn more than a million users -- without promotional expenses, of course.

Earlier this year, the couple was close to raising money from top venture-capital firm Accel, which would have put their company on a traditional track and prepared them, one day, to go public. Instead, this month they sold to Yahoo for a rumored $35 million. Integrated into Yahoo, they won't have to build human-resource, finance or legal teams. "We'll be taken care of and can concentrate on what we like doing best, which is building the product," Butterfield says. And if there's another tech swoon, or if another set of hungry entrepreneurs cook up an even better photo-sharing mousetrap, Flickr will have Yahoo's might to protect itself.

This is a great answer to the "why sell now?" question.

My hope and belief is that, two or three years from now, when we look back on the Flickr acquisition by Yahoo, it will be seen in a new and even more significant light. Yahoo isn't just getting a photo sharing community, or the technology that powers it -- they're getting the people who arguably know more right now than anyone in the world about creating Web-based ecosystems.

April 06, 2005

Webshots vs. Flickr?

My friend and general good-guy Robert Scoble had this to say about CNET acquiring HeyPix:

Congrats to James Park. He's president of Windup Labs. That's the company that did HeyPix and they just sold to CNET.

This might just be a bigger photo deal than Flickr going to Yahoo. Here's why.

It's joining Webshots. Now, don't know about Webshots? I didn't either until recently. But Webshots has 23 million members (Flickr has less than a million). and they get 750,000 uploads a day. More uploads in five days than Flickr has had in all of its existence.

I have to say, this really surprised me. Can Webshots really be that big? I suppose I haven't paid much attention to them because they aren't really talked about all that much in the blog world:

Webshots vs. Flickr (Blog Mentions)

Meanwhile, Flickr has been growing at an exponential rate:

Webshots vs. Flickr (Daily Traffic)
So with all due respect to Robert, this is why the Flickr acquisition is far more important.

As for why Flickr is growing so much faster than any other photo sharing service on the Web, I'm not the most qualified person to answer that... but I'm fairly sure it goes back to something I wrote a couple of weeks ago:

Open API Web services + open data repositories = Web ecosystems
Flickr is an ecosystem. Is Webshots? Is Ofoto? Is Shutterfly?

April 05, 2005

Congratulations to UNC

I just wanted to say congratulations to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill men's basketball team, who won the national championship game last night.

With UNC in the Final Four, I couldn't help but watch their last two games -- but I'm not a basketball fan, which makes me a bit of an odd duck in this part of the world (the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, known as the "Triangle"). Basketball may not have been invented here, but this has to be where the soul of college basketball resides these days. Within a 15-mile radius, we have three teams with great basketball histories -- UNC, Duke, and North Carolina State. In fact, all three made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament this year. When you think that the Triangle has a population of about 1.2 million -- about 0.4 percent of the US as a whole -- that's fairly amazing.

February 19, 2005

I'm in Subaruland

Results of a count of all the cars in two rows of the parking lot in front of the REI store in Boulder, Colorado today:

  • Total cars: 27 (100 percent)
  • Subarus: 10 (37 percent)
  • All others: 17 (63 percent)
Subaru's US market share last year was 1.2 percent, according to this Bloomberg report. Now admittedly, even by Boulder standards, the parking lot of REI is a bit extreme. But still, there are an amazing number of Subarus here, nearly all of them Outbacks. In fact, it's what I'm driving -- the least-expensive rental car option with all-wheel drive. And it's not half-bad.

February 11, 2005

"The Obvious Guess Would Be 'Worse'"

Via Boing Boing, an excellent and wide-ranging interview with author Neal Stephenson. At one point, Stephenson is asked, roughly speaking, about the rise and fall of nations:

The success of the U.S. has not come from one consistent cause, as far as I can make out. Instead the U.S. will find a way to succeed for a few decades based on one thing, then, when that peters out, move on to another. Sometimes there is trouble during the transitions. So, in the early-to-mid-19th century, it was all about expansion westward and a colossal growth in population. After the Civil War, it was about exploitation of the world's richest resource base: iron, steel, coal, the railways, and later oil.

For much of the 20th century it was about science and technology. The heyday was the Second World War, when we had not just the Manhattan Project but also the Radiation Lab at MIT and a large cryptology industry all cooking along at the same time. The war led into the nuclear arms race and the space race, which led in turn to the revolution in electronics, computers, the Internet, etc. If the emblematic figures of earlier eras were the pioneer with his Kentucky rifle, or the Gilded Age plutocrat, then for the era from, say, 1940 to 2000 it was the engineer, the geek, the scientist. It's no coincidence that this era is also when science fiction has flourished, and in which the whole idea of the Future became current. After all, if you're living in a technocratic society, it seems perfectly reasonable to try to predict the future by extrapolating trends in science and engineering.

It is quite obvious to me that the U.S. is turning away from all of this. It has been the case for quite a while that the cultural left distrusted geeks and their works; the depiction of technical sorts in popular culture has been overwhelmingly negative for at least a generation now. More recently, the cultural right has apparently decided that it doesn't care for some of what scientists have to say. So the technical class is caught in a pincer between these two wings of the so-called culture war. Of course the broad mass of people don't belong to one wing or the other. But science is all about diligence, hard sustained work over long stretches of time, sweating the details, and abstract thinking, none of which is really being fostered by mainstream culture.

Since our prosperity and our military security for the last three or four generations have been rooted in science and technology, it would therefore seem that we're coming to the end of one era and about to move into another. Whether it's going to be better or worse is difficult for me to say. The obvious guess would be "worse." If I really wanted to turn this into a jeremiad, I could hold forth on that for a while. But as mentioned before, this country has always found a new way to move forward and be prosperous. So maybe we'll get lucky again.

February 10, 2005

The Economist on the Cell

As is often the case, the most readable coverage of a technical subject can be found in the Economist -- in this case an article on the new Cell microprocessor from IBM, Sony, and Toshiba:

As its name suggests, the Cell chip is designed to be used in large numbers to do things that today's computers, most of which are primitive machines akin to unicellular life-forms, cannot. Each Cell has as its "nucleus" a microprocessor based on IBM's POWER architecture. This is the family of chips found inside Apple's Power Mac G5 computers and IBM's powerful business machines. The Cell's "cytoplasm" consists of eight "synergistic processing elements". These are independent processors that have a deliberately minimalist design in order, paradoxically, to maximise their performance.

A program running on a Cell consists of small chunks, each of which contains both programming instructions and associated data. These chunks can be assigned by the nucleus to particular synergistic processors inside its own Cell or, if it is deemed faster to do so, sent to another Cell instead. Software chunks running on one Cell can talk to chunks running on other Cells, and all have access to a shared main memory. Since chunks of software are able to roam around looking for the best place to be processed, the performance of a Cell-based machine can be increased by adding more Cells, or by connecting several Cell-based machines together.

All of this means that programs designed to run on Cell-based architecture should be able to fly along at blistering speeds—and will run ever faster as more Cells are made available. The prototype Cell being discussed this week runs at 256 gigaflops (a flop -- one "floating-point" operation per second -- is a measure of how fast a processor can perform the individual operations of digital arithmetic that all computing ultimately boils down to). A speed of 256 gigaflops is around ten times the performance of the chips found in the fastest desktop PCs today; the Cell is thus widely referred to as a "supercomputer on a chip", which is an exaggeration, but not much of one. On the top500.org list of the world's fastest computers, the bottom-ranked machine has a performance of 851 gigaflops. A machine based on only four Cell chips would easily outrank this...

Cell's debut will be in Sony's next-generation games console, the PlayStation 3, which is expected to contain four of the beasts.

If the PlayStation 3 does include four Cell processors, and if they run at 256 gigaflops, and if a PlayStation 3 were available today, it would place 387th on the Top 500 list. That's staggering.

After talking with my friend and colleague David Smith, I'm convinced the Cell has the potential -- if it lives up to the promises made for it -- to be an industry-changing event. Ray Kurzweil and many others have long argued that at some point, Moore's Law will continue through the use of highly parallel architectures, as opposed to continually increasing the clock speed and word length of today's microprocessors. Much evidence exists for this. Most recently, Apple's chief financial officer called a hypothetical PowerBook equipped with a G5 processor "the mother of all thermal challenges". The Cell addresses such challenges by providing high levels of performance using large numbers of efficient RISC-based processor cores. Instead of one very fast processor, how about eight that are moderately fast? And that's just on one chip.

I'm thinking through the larger implications of this. I'm sure they're not good for Microsoft. The open question is, for whom are they good?

February 01, 2005

Original DLI Instructor Dies

In August 1980, I arrived at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA, 17 years old, still crew-cut from basic training, ready for a year of Russian language studies. DLI was and hopefully always will be a special place -- a beautiful setting above Monterey Bay with an environment more like a college than a military school. The Monterey Peninsula is an upscale area, not endless streets of fast food shops, paycheck loan outlets, and pawn shops like the typical military base town. 24 years later, I still look back on the year I spent there as one of the best of my life -- the time when I really grew up. (Well, as much as I'm likely to grow up, anyway.) And of my closest friends in life, one I met there in my class and another I met through a classmate some years afterwards.

So, though I didn't know him, it was with a twinge of sadness that I read in my DLI alumni newsletter that the last surviving founding instructor of DLI had just died. From the Monterey County Herald's story:

Shigeya Kihara, the last surviving original instructor of a language school for American soldiers that later became the Defense Language Institute, died at his son's home in Castro Valley on Sunday. He was 90.

Born in Suisun on Sept. 27, 1914, Kihara was raised in West Oakland and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science at University of California at Berkeley.

Kihara was one of the first four instructors at a school that was the first of its kind and had no budget. Soldiers trained there proved to be an invaluable asset during World War II and the school itself led to the establishment of the well-known institution on the Monterey Peninsula.

Classes began in November 1941 in an airplane hangar at the Presidio of San Francisco's Crissy Field. Five weeks later Pearl Harbor was attacked and the language school was moved from the unstable West Coast to a safer location in a small town in Minnesota.

When the war ended, 6,000 linguists had graduated from the original school.

In 1946, Kihara moved with the school to its new location, the Presidio of Monterey.

While Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants around him, including his parents and two siblings, were rounded up and taken to internment camps during the war, Kihara taught American soldiers how to speak Japanese.

"The Nisei helped win the war," Kihara said in 2001.

(Incidentally, I didn't know until reading that story that DLI had temporarily been located in Minnesota. Whoever made the decision to move it to Monterey, wherever you are, thank you.)

So, Kihara-san, from this student who never knew you, thank you for making DLI happen.

January 28, 2005

The USS San Francisco

Via Boing Boing, a pair of photos of the bow of the USS San Francisco, showing what happens when a submarine strikes an underwater mountain at 40 knots (46 miles/hour):

USS San Francisco Damage 1

USS San Francisco Damage 2

Click on the images and then click on Flickr's "All Sizes" button to zoom in for a high-resolution view. The pictures are really quite amazing.

In the movie The Abyss, the fictional submarine USS Montana collides with an undersea wall at flank speed and then floods with water, killing all hands. The San Francisco did it for real, losing only one sailor in the process. I have newfound respect for Newport News Shipbuilding.

January 24, 2005

"The Jewel Box [Is] Out on the Front Lawn"

From an entry on DefenseTech.org:

In Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief, diamond-nabber Bill Mason notes notes a strange security trend: people will spend big bucks to have a whole host ultra-sophisticated locks on their front doors -- but they'll put something flimsy on the back door, or leave the windows unlocked altogether.

That's what came to mind as I read James Fallows' homeland defense story in the current Atlantic Monthly. The Transportation Security Administration is spending $4 billion -- 80 percent of its budget -- on airport screening. Making sure grandma takes off her Mary Janes before she gets on the plane. That leaves, Fallows notes, "well under $1 billion for everything except airlines: roads, bridges, subways, tunnels, railroads, ports, and other facilities through which most of the nation's people and commerce move."

Kinda reminds you of Mason's back door, hunh? Except the analogy doesn't quite hold together. It'd probably be more accurate to say that, while the Bush administration is making sure America's front door is tripled-locked, it has left the jewel box out on the front lawn.

From President Bush to Senator Kerry to just about every homeland security guru in between, all these guys agree that "loose nukes" -- the 30,000 atomic warheads from the former Soviet arsenal -- are the worst threat to our nation imaginable. But, as Fallows notes, the U.S. seems to be "in no apparent hurry" to make sure these weapons are "safely locked away."

I would never have guessed that the TSA is spending 80 percent of its budget on airport screening. No wonder John Kerry kept talking about unscreened cargo containers during the debates.

January 23, 2005

Pardon Me?

From a story in last week's issue of Business Week on how Firefox (my browser of choice, incidentally) is gaining ground on Microsoft's Internet Explorer:

Microsoft's Internet Explorer has slipped 4.9 percentage points over the past six months, to 90.6%, the lowest in three years. "It's an emotional number. When Microsoft drops to 90%, it's big news," says Jeffrey W. Lunsford, WebSideStory's chairman.

Microsoft is hardly on the run. It has an overwhelming lead, and most corporations have adopted its browser for their employees, so it should have staying power. But many of the 16 million consumers who have switched to Firefox view the upstart program as safer from viruses and packed with innovations. Those include a "tabbed browsing" feature that makes it easier to move quickly from one Web site to another, in part by firing up a series of favorite sites all at once.

But Microsoft has been working hard to clamp down on security and vows to make other improvements. "These features, along with Microsoft's world-class customer support, continue to make IE a compelling choice for consumers and enterprise customers," says a spokesman.

"Microsoft's world-class customer support"? Pardon me? What are they talking about? Seriously?

First, I can't remember the last time I called Microsoft for customer support. I think it was perhaps four or five years ago, and I seem to remember I was offered paid support as my only option, which I declined. Ask yourself: when was the last time you called Microsoft for support? Really? Ever?

Second, calling Microsoft for support on Internet Explorer? Do people really do that? And does Microsoft answer when they call? And do they support it for free? I'd like to know.

January 04, 2005

"...I Didn't Have Lunch Today"

From an editorial in today's New York Times:

The foremost challenge now is to ensure that the money pledged in the glow of the media spotlight gets to the people who need it. That is the job of the United Nations, which has a chance to redeem itself after the oil-for-food scandal. It must make sure that the money is not diverted into the hands of corrupt government officials or used as a political weapon by armies waging counterinsurgency campaigns in some of the most stricken areas.

Right now in Indonesia, cartons of food, water and medical supplies are stacking up in airports, not getting to the villages that were hit the hardest. Part of the problem is the Indonesian military. Complaints have already arisen about soldiers siphoning off supplies for their relatives and friends. But Indonesian government officials bear some blame. Take, for example, the remarkably callous dismissal of reports of hungry families in leveled towns made by Alwi Shihab, the country's senior disaster response coordinator: "I can guarantee you there is no starvation, except for me, because I didn't have lunch today."

When Does $350 Million Equal 42 Hours?

According to this story in the Chicago Sun-Times, the war in Iraq has cost $130 billion to date (per the Office of Management and Budget). Given that we invaded Iraq 20 March 2003, that comes to 656 days since the invasion, which in turn equals $198,730,732 per day.

In other words, the total amount committed by the US government to date for tsunami relief -- $350,000,000 -- equals 42.27 hours of the cost of the war in Iraq. Just to put things in perspective.

January 02, 2005

Against All Odds

A couple of days ago, I blogged about a sequence of images which appeared to show a mother running to her children in the face of certain death from the tsunami on a beach in Thailand. Now the story is out. Yes, it was a mother. Yes, she was running to her children. Yes, the tsunami overtook them. But somehow they managed to survive -- not that I can imagine how. From an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (click the picture for the full-size version):

Hat Rai Lay Beach Revisited

A wrenching series of photos showing a mother dashing into the tsunami in a desperate attempt to save her family was sent around the world last week.

But the family's fate remained unknown until the weekend, when the Swedish mother came forward to say they had all survived.

"I was yelling at them to run, but they couldn't hear me," Karin Svaerd told Sweden's Expressen, describing her desperation as her three sons, brother and brother-in-law snorkelled in the water, unaware of the pending danger.

The three pictures showed confused holidaymakers on Ray Leh Beach in Krabi, Thailand, looking at the water receding before the tsunami hit the beach. Another shot showed swimmers running in to shore once they saw the wall of water approaching.

But Ms Svaerd, unlike everyone else, was running towards the wave to reach her family. Her sons Anton, 14, Filip, 11 and Viktor, 10, could not see the wave. Witnesses heard her scream: "Oh my God, not my children." She told the paper: "I yelled, 'Run, run.'" But her voice was drowned out by the roar of the water. "I got 150 meters out before they started to run. By then they'd also seen the wave."

All were caught in the tsunami and tossed around underwater. But one by one they managed to get to their feet and make it to higher ground. An hour after the first wave hit, the family members, including Ms Svaerd's husband and sister, who were sunbathing on the beach, had managed to locate each other.

"We all survived," Ms Svaerd said. "That feeling is hard to describe."

The original article in Expressen can be found here.

December 29, 2004

Donating to Tsunami Relief

If you already have account information with Amazon.com, you can donate money to Red Cross tsunami relief efforts from the Amazon.com home page in less than a minute.

December 27, 2004

No, So Many Didn't Have to Die

In my previous entry, I wondered if many of the deaths from yesterday's tsunami could have been prevented. It turns out that they could have. From a Reuters story via News.com:

U.S. officials who detected a massive earthquake off Asia's coast on Saturday tried frantically to warn the deadly wall of water was coming, the head of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said Sunday.

But there was no official alert system in the region because such catastrophes only happen there about once every 700 years, said Charles McCreery, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's center in Honolulu.

"We tried to do what we could," McCreery said. "We don't have contacts in our address book for anybody in that part of the world."

Within moments of detecting the quake, McCreery and his staff were on the phone to Australia, then to U.S. Naval officials, various U.S. embassies and finally the U.S. State Department.

They were unable to reach the thousands in the countries most severely affected -- including India, Thailand and Sri Lanka -- because none had a tsunami warning mechanism or tidal gauges to alert people, he said...

A warning center such as those used around the Pacific could have saved thousands of lives, Waverly Person of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Earthquake Information Center, told Reuters.

"Most of those people could have been saved if they had had a tsunami warning system in place or tide gauges," he said.

"And I think this will be a lesson to them," he said, referring to the governments of the devastated countries...

Tsunami warning systems and tide gauges exist around the Pacific Ocean, for the Pacific Rim as well as South America. The United States has such warning centers in Hawaii and Alaska operated by the U.S. Geological Survey and NOAA. But none of these monitors the Indian Ocean region, McCreery said...

U.S. officials are now trying to help officials in the region set up some sort of informal warning system and feeling badly that more couldn't have been done, McCreery said.

"It took an hour and a half for the wave to get from the earthquake to Sri Lanka and an hour for it to get... to the west coast of Thailand and Malaysia," he said. "You can walk inland for 15 minutes to get to a safe area."

December 26, 2004

Did So Many Have to Die?

I've been reading about the devastating tsunami that hit countries along the Indian Ocean earlier today. At least "4,440 died in Indonesia, 4,500 in Sri Lanka and 3,200 in India," according to this BBC report.

There's one thing that I don't understand. According to the BBC, "tsunamis generated by earthquakes can travel at up to 500km/h." According to the US Geological Survey, the earthquake was centered at 3.298°N, 95.779°E. From that location, it's more than 1,500 kilometers to Sri Lanka, and more than 1,900 kilometers to India. In other words, the tsunami couldn't have hit Sri Lanka earlier than 3 hours after the earthquake. India was hit no earlier than 3 hours, 48 minutes after the quake.

Isn't three hours enough time to provide warnings to coastal areas? I asked a good friend of mine from Australia about this. She has traveled extensively in that part of the world, and her answer was, basically, there's very little infrastructure there for collecting and disseminating news like that. I thought about that more afterwards. I can see how a country like Indonesia might be so overwhelmed by the tsunami itself that they wouldn't be able to get word out to people. But shouldn't every seismological monitoring station in the world have taken immediate notice of the largest earthquake in 40 years? Shouldn't they have noticed that it took place beneath the ocean? Shouldn't they have forecast the possibility of a sizable tsunami and issued warnings to all coastal nations in the region?

Until someone explains to me why I'm wrong, I can't help but think that any deaths in India and Sri Lanka were senseless and avoidable.

December 25, 2004

Annual Christmas Dialogue

This was in my blog entry last Christmas, and so it is again today. At this rate, it may become a tradition:

At Lucy's "PSYCHIATRIC HELP" booth:

Charlie Brown: [M]y trouble is Christmas. I just don't understand it. Instead of feeling happy, I feel sort of let down.
Lucy: You need involvement. You need to get involved in some real Christmas project. How would you like to be the director of our Christmas play?
Charlie Brown: Me? You want me to be the director of a Christmas play?
Lucy: Sure, Charlie Brown. We need a director. You need involvement. We've got a shepherd, musicians, animals, everyone you need. We've even got a Christmas queen.
Charlie Brown: I don't know anything about directing a Christmas play.
Lucy: Don't worry; I'll be there to help you. I'll meet you at the auditorium. Incidentally, I know how you feel about all this Christmas business, getting depressed and all that. It happens to me every year. I never get what I really want. I always get a lot of stupid toys, or a bicycle, or clothes, or something like that.
Charlie Brown: What is you want?
Lucy: Real estate.

Later, on the way to the auditorium:

Sally: I've been looking for you, big brother. Will you please write a letter to Santa Claus for me?
Charlie Brown: Well, I don't have much time. I'm supposed to get down to the school auditorium and direct a Christmas play.
Sally: You write it and I'll tell you what I want to say.
Charlie Brown: Okay, shoot.
Sally: Dear Santa Claus: How have you been? Did you have a nice summer? How is your wife? I have been extra good this year, so I have a long list of presents that I want.
Charlie Brown: Oh, brother!
Sally: Please note the size and color of each item, and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself: just send money. How about tens and twenties?
Charlie Brown: Tens and twenties? Oh, even my baby sister!
Sally: All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.

Later, at the auditorium:

Charlie Brown: That does it! Now look, if we're ever to get this play off the ground, we've gotta have some cooperation.
Lucy: What's the matter, Charlie Brown? Don't you think it's great?
Charlie Brown: It's all wrong!
Lucy: Look, Charlie, let's face it: we all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It's run by a big Eastern syndicate, you know.

I know in my heart that Christmas is becoming more commercialized, more frantic, more... greedy. In 1965, at least most people gave actual presents. Now the trend is to give gift cards, which seem terribly impersonal to me.

The worst part is that I was a direct participant in the trend this year. With just a couple of exceptions, I put off my holiday shopping until two days before Christmas. All it took was half an hour of motionless parking lot traffic jams and the press of humanity in the stores to be beaten into an "okay, I'll just get everyone gift cards" sort of resignation. Next Christmas, not a single gift card -- that's my resolution.

December 23, 2004

Industry Catches Up, Sort Of

In March 2003, I blogged:

How about a branding program for non-detector triggering clothing and accessories? Some sort of clothing industry council could work on it with the Department of Homeland Security. "FlyReady," maybe, or "WalkOn." There would be a logo associated with it. Clothing and accessories bearing the logo would be certified to have been tested using DHS metal detection equipment and found not to set it off. Shoes could use highly durable plastics as reinforcement.
From Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends a few days ago:
I'm almost certain that some of you experimented some problems at security counters before boarding a plane. You were asked to remove your shoes or your belt -- while your laptop was left unattended on the other side of the counter. How frustrating! But I have some good news for you. In "Functional Fashion Helps Some Through Airport Checkpoints," the Washington Post (free registration) reports these incidents are now so frequent that retailers are offering new products -- such as bras and shoes -- labeled as 'airport friendly.' In fact, a Google search on the 'airport friendly' subject returns more than 22,000 results! Read more on this 'fashion trend'...

Here is a general introduction from the Washington Post.

In this era of tightened airport security, retailers are coming to the aid of the aggravated traveler, offering new products -- such as bras and shoes -- designed to get passengers through the checkpoints without the indignity of a pat-down.

Shoemakers Johnston & Murphy, Florsheim and Rockport sell dozens of styles without metal shanks in the soles and market them to frequent fliers. Florsheim identifies the styles with tags that look like passports labeled "airport friendly" inside the shoebox.

A good start. Now, set up an industry-wide certification, get DHS buy-in, brand it, and you're all set. See? That wasn't so hard.

December 21, 2004

"We Are Totally Running on Fumes"

From an interview (audio only available here) by NPR's Alex Chadwick of Howard Davidowitz, chairman of the retail-consulting and investment-banking firm Davidowitz and Associates, heard on Day to Day this past Monday. Pretty sobering stuff:

Howard Davidowitz: [Consumers] are sitting there with the biggest debt they've ever had in history and the lowest savings they've ever had in history, and I think consumers are pretty worried about that debt. So I don't look for a terrific holiday season.

Chadwick: What is it, credit card debt that people are worried about?

Davidowitz: Personally, as a country, we have the biggest government debt we've ever had, the biggest deficits we've ever had, we're giving away our wealth to foreigners, the American consumer has the highest debt he or she has ever had, and the savings are now under one percent. Let me give you an example: someone who has $30,000 worth of debt on their total credit cards, they're paying $5,000 a year in interest. And the credit card companies are continuing to bombard people with more cards. See, that's what's driving the economy: we're running on air. 75 percent of this economy is consumer-driven, and consumers keep borrowing more and that keeps us going. The problem is, it's not sustainable. And now consumers are starting to think about that debt load...

[The] bottom line is that American consumer is feeling the heat of a non-sustainable economy built on a growing mountain of debt.

Chadwick: All right, you study retail sales, you're also an investment banker. So, long-term, what do you think? I mean, six months, a year, what is going on with the economy and how are we going to get back to better times?

Davidowitz: Things are going to get worse, see, that's our forecast. When you have a free lunch like we've had, you have to buy dinner. Foreigners all over the world, who -- by the way, we are sustained by foreigners, you understand -- this economy only is operational because of the Japanese and Chinese buying our bonds, you understand that?

Chadwick: Yes.

Davidowitz: We are totally running on fumes. So we have mortgaged our future and our economy. We are totally dependent on foreigners buying our bonds. Now when the foreigners see how far in the tank we are -- and by the way, they're looking at it, and talking to me about it -- they are going to demand higher interest rates for buying our bonds and they're going to diversify more into European bonds. That's going to make it more difficult here in America. And President Bush says everything is great, well, wonderful, I just don't see it that way.

Pop vs. Soda vs. Coke

Via Instapundit, a very cool county-by-county map of the terminology people use to refer to soft drinks:

2004-12-21-01.jpg

Blues are "pop", reds are "coke", and yellows are "soda" (with the darker tints signifying higher percentages). The full-size version can be found here.

What I found interesting was the distribution of results in my part of the country (North Carolina) and the surrounding states (Virginia and the northern part of South Carolina):

2004-12-21-02.jpg

The rest of the country tends to be fairly uniform, but for some reason, in the Carolinas and Virginia, name preferences are (literally) all over the map. What's up with that?

September 24, 2004

Malthus Then and Now

This week marked the first anniversary of Vancouver's safe injection site, which I blogged about when it was about to open last year. According to the site's press release:

Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) believes its Supervised Injection Site, Insite, is savings [sic] lives following the release today of the one-year research report from the team responsible for evaluating the site for a three-year clinical trial.

According to the Evaluation of the Supervised Injection Site ? Year One Summary [PDF available here] released today, Insite is achieving high client volumes, referring clients to health services they might not have otherwise accessed, and providing overdose interventions to clients...

"Insite is exceeding expectations in terms of client volume and satisfaction, and referrals to addiction services and other treatment," Ida Goodreau, President and CEO of VCH, said. "Based on what we see in the report, Insite has saved lives and improved lives."

As noted in my previous blog entry, the US government has criticized the idea of safe injection sites, and more recently a UN agency weighed in against it.

I've been reading Robert Hughes' exquisitely written and staggeringly well-researched book on Australia's founding, The Fatal Shore. A passage in the book reminded me of opposition to harm reduction policies, which is typically (though not always) a right-wing view. In the passage, Hughes describes England of the 1830s:

Most rural workers were below the poverty line at a shilling a day or less; some earned only three shillings a week. But the Tory politicians of the day saw the problem in terms of one hypnotic ideology: that of Malthus, who taught that it was futile to spend any money on poor relief, since it would only encourage the poor to breed and thus make the problem worse. If left to survive or starve, the poor would find their "natural" level. And since the out-of-work did not, by definition, generate wealth, their survival was not an issue for the government.
It would be hard to find a harm reduction opponent who would admit it, but if we could look in their hearts -- in some of them, at least -- would we see Malthus at work, two centuries later, telling them to let the junkies kill themselves off?

September 23, 2004

Wasabi != Decongestant?

Listening to the wonderful CBC show As It Happens on my way home tonight, I heard a common belief shot down. From the Reuters story on the same topic:

Many people believe the sushi-seasoner wasabi clears their sinuses, but new research presented this week suggests that the spicy green paste may do the opposite.

U.S. researchers found that eating wasabi appeared to increase congestion in a small group of healthy volunteers, despite the fact that participants said they thought that the spice had cleared their nasal passages.

"Actually, wasabi is a congestant," study author Dr. David S. Cameron told Reuters Health. "It makes the space of your nasal passages smaller, but it makes you feel more open."

Cameron explained that wasabi probably clogs up sinuses by increasing blood flow to the lining of the nose. That extra blood takes up space, he said, which constricts the nasal passageway.

Wasabi may make the nose feel more open, Cameron noted, by causing changes that increase the cooling effect of air breathed through the nose, or by stimulating flaring of the nostrils, which enables air to flow more easily though the nose.

I suppose one learns something new every day. Or something like that.

I have a dear old friend who absolutely loves wasabi, more than anyone else I've ever known. Over a sushi dinner a few months ago, she talked about how she'll sometimes eat a large chunk of wasabi paste just to feel her neck and scalp tingle. "Why not?" I thought to myself, and so we each had a chunk at the same time. She was right. It wasn't so much a burning sensation in my mouth as much as the feeling that my nervous system was being overloaded in a local region. My neck definitely tingled.

I told this story to another Japanese food-loving friend of mine some time later.

Him: That was stupid.

Me: Why do you say that?

Him: You could have overstimulated yourself into a seizure.

Me: I hadn't thought of that.

So could enough of something like wasabi really send someone into a seizure? It seems unlikely, but...

August 21, 2004

"The Least We Could Do..."

From an AP story on the reception given American athletes in Athens:

A handful of athletes, such as NBA star Ray Allen, cited fears of anti-American violence as a reason for skipping the Olympics. High jumper Matt Hemingway, son of a Marine who served overseas, questioned such attitudes.

"Anybody who said they didn't want to come because of security, they just didn't want to come," said Hemingway, of Buena Vista, Colo. "Considering what our soldiers are doing, risking their lives, the least we could do is represent our country at the Olympics."

One could argue that Hemingway's comment is a non-sequitur -- that military service has nothing to do with athletic pursuits -- but I think he makes a good point.

Most athletes in Athens -- American or otherwise -- will come home without medals. Many of them are from sports without huge followings, so we will never know their names. Many of them have little or no support and so have had to endure untold sacrifices to achieve the simple goal of attending an Olympics, of representing their nation at the world's premier sporting event. In that context, the thought of an elite NBA player turning down a chance to do so -- and, with a robust team, to almost certainly win a gold medal -- because of "fears of anti-American violence" or just wanting a summer break, seems incredibly lame.

August 16, 2004

Apathetic Greeks

If I had a friend in Greece, the one question I'd want to ask them right now would be, "aren't you embarrassed over the empty seats at the Olympic events?" From a AP article:

So far, the Olympics are a box-office bust.

"I watched it on TV and when you looked in the background, you were like, 'Wow, it's the Olympics and nobody is there,'" former gymnast Bart Conner said...

At gymnastics, huge sections of seats had no one in them while the women competed, a fact Greek state television duly noted.

"This must be the first time there is an Olympic gymnastics event that didn't have a full arena," a commentator said.

Organizers say it's too early to judge the games by a few empty arenas. They claim to have sold more than 2.9 million tickets out of a total of 5.3 million. The goal is to sell 3.4 million tickets, and Athens 2004 spokesman Michael Zacharatos predicted sales will increase as the games become "more exciting."

In Sydney four years ago, organizers said they sold 92 percent of the 5.7 million tickets...

Basketball drew a big crowd for Argentina against Serbia-Montenegro, and so did a marquee match in water polo between defending Olympic champion Hungry and Serbia-Montenegro.

More common, though, were the scenes at the Cuba-Australia baseball game, where only 1,549 fans made their way to the 8,700-seat stadium. At the Paraguay-Ghana soccer match in Thessaloniki, no one was sitting on the far side or in the end zones.

At the Japan-Italy game in Volos about 200 miles north of Athens, barely 5,000 fans were in the stadium, and there were almost as many Japanese fans as locals...

[A]t the new Nikaia Olympic weightlifting hall there were more volunteers and officials than paying spectators for the early sessions.

A friend of mine pointed out today that Greece is, by Western standards, a relatively poor country. Fair enough. But then why spend a reputed $1,000 per citizen to stage the Games in the first place?

Between the famous problems getting the Greeks just to build the necessary infrastructure, and the apathy among the Greek public now that the Games are underway, I would imagine that some of the members of the IOC are thinking to themselves that they don't want to take on any more marginal host cities or nations for a long while to come.

August 15, 2004

Nasties in Oz

When I blogged a passage from Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country a couple of weeks ago, I wrote that I would "have to fight the urge to blog something from it every day while I'm reading it." Seeing as how I've done so well and haven't blogged anything from it since, here goes with another anecdote.

One of the recurring themes of the book is Australia's preponderance of deadly creatures. Bryson writes this of the box jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri, also known as the marine stinger):

In 1992 a young man in Cairns, ignoring all the warning signs, went swimming in the Pacific waters at a place called Holloways Beach. He swam and dove, taunting his friends on the beach for their prudent cowardice, and then began to scream with an inhuman sound. It is said that there is no pain to compare with it. The young man staggered from the water, covered in livid whiplike stripes wherever the jellyfish's tentacles had brushed across him, and collapsed in quivering shock. Soon afterward emergency crews arrived, inflated him with morphine, and took him away for treatment. And here's the thing. Even unconscious and sedated, he was still screaming.
Unconscious and still screaming? I didn't know that was possible. The mind boggles.

Now, as the friend who gave me the book pointed out, it's pretty easy to avoid being killed by something nasty in Australia:

  • Don't try to kill snakes. Most people are bitten by snakes when trying to kill them.
  • Don't swim off the beaches of northern Australia during the months when jellyfish come onshore. Warning signs let you know when it's not safe to swim.
  • Don't swim or go near waters in northern Australia where saltwater crocodiles are found. Warning signs let you know where it's not safe.
  • If you get bitten by a spider, seek treatment. No deaths have been recorded from redback or funnel web spider bites since the introduction of antivenom.
As it happens, the most dangerous hazard in Australia isn't an animal, but rather the riptide. (See the previous entry on Harold Holt.) Again, warning signs will let you know when and where it's not safe to swim.

Something Bryson doesn't mention, but that an Australian might point out to an American, is that whereas deaths from poisonous creatures there are rare...

  • In the last 27 years, there have been 14 deaths due to saltwater crocodiles -- a rate of 1.9 0.52 deaths/year. (Thanks, Paul!)
  • The death rate from poisonous snakebite in Australia is estimated at 3.2 deaths/year.
  • Since 1884, there have been 63 known fatalities from box jellyfish -- a rate of 0.6 deaths/year.
  • In the last 50 years, there have been 58 deaths in Australia due to shark attack, a rate of 1.2 deaths/year.
...the US is really a far more dangerous place. After all, our murder rate was 5.6 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2002, whereas Australia's rate was 1.6.

Extrapolating from Australia's population of 20.1 million, an Australian visiting the US is 164 times more likely to be murdered than an American visiting Australia is likely to die from snakebite, jellyfish sting, crocodile attack, or shark attack.

August 14, 2004

The Worst and the Best of America

I don't watch much broadcast television, so it was unusual for me to have CNBC on tonight -- I had been watching the Olympics on that channel when they switched to a few hours of news programming. Tim Russert had Paul Krugman and Bill O'Reilly as his guests. I've watched perhaps five minutes total of Bill O'Reilly in my entire life -- and that was five minutes too much. Facing off against Krugman, O'Reilly managed to give simultaneous clinics in how to be unaccountably rude on national television and how to violate every rule of civilized debate. I half expected Krugman to get up and walk out, and he would have been well within his rights to do so. It was so bad that I found myself thinking I was almost ashamed to live in a country where a person like O'Reilly can have a large popular following.

A little over an hour later, I watched Michael Phelps win his first gold medal in the Olympics, in the 400 meter individual medley. His win seemed assured after the first 50 meters -- the real race was for silver, between fellow US swimmer Erik Vendt and Laszlo Cseh of Hungary. Vendt touched second and swam across two lanes to congratulate Phelps with a hug, who then raised Vendt's arm in the air. Then they both swam over to congratulate Cseh, Vendt doing so with a hug.

Who more fairly represents America? The insufferable, insulting, incoherent O'Reilly, or the respectful, sportsmanlike Vendt and Phelps? I choose to believe in the latter. I choose to believe that O'Reilly and his type are freakish products of our media-mad culture, asymbolic aberrations in a country of generally good folks. I choose to believe that Vendt and Phelps represent the people most of us want to be in our hearts, even if we aren't always as neighborly or as generous as we'd care to be. I choose to believe -- as so many of my foreign friends have told me, in more or less the same words -- that Americans are generally "lovely people," even if America itself isn't so loved around the world these days.

August 11, 2004

The League of Human Dignity?

My friend David Smith pointed me to a CNN article on a Sioux Falls, SD man, Patrick Deuel, who weighed 1,072 pounds when he checked into a hospital for a medically-supervised diet. The article is worth a look, if for no other reason than to ensure you won't miss a session at the gym for a while. What struck me, though, was this paragraph:

A group known as the League of Human Dignity helped arrange for Deuel to be driven to a local livestock scale, where he could be weighed.
Pardon me? The League of Human Dignity took him to a livestock scale? Am I missing something here?

August 03, 2004

Lance Armstrong's Coach on Carbs

When Lance Armstrong's coach speaks out on nutrition and fitness, it's probably worth listening to. From the August issue of Outside:

In Chris Carmichael's new book on nutrition, Food for Fitness, due out in late July, Lance Armstrong's coach puts the smack down on the high-protein, low-carb diet frenzy. According to Carmichael, the barbarian diet is disastrous for active types -- much better to get back on the pasta-and-potato train... After numerous clients came to him on low-carb diets that left them running on fumes, he decided to set the record straight.

"To think carbs make you fat is wrong. You're fat because you're not exercising. There are some nine million people in this country swimming, running, biking, regularly going to the gym, or doing whatever, and no one's been talking to them about their diet. Low-carb diets are exactly what you should not do if you're active. Carbs are the fuel that drives your life; suddenly everyone's forgotten this. If you're working out five days a week, you need a minimum 60 percent [daily caloric intake] of carbs a day. You need protein to help you recover after you work out, and you need fat to help you digest those carbs. You can't just cut carbs -- or cut protein or fat, for that matter -- like every trendy diet has for the last 20 years. That's dysfunctional. You need them all. To simply blame a food type for us being fat is bullshit."

August 01, 2004

Harold Holt

A friend of mine gave me Bill Bryson's Australia travelogue In a Sunburned Country, and from the moment I started reading it, I knew it was a special book about a special place. I know I'm going to have to fight the urge to blog something from it every day while I'm reading it. For now, here's an amazing anecdote from the opening:

On my first visit, some years ago, I passed the time on the long flight reading a history of Australian politics in the twentieth century, wherein I encountered the startling fact that in 1967 the prime minister, Harold Holt, was strolling along a beach in Victoria when he plunged into the surf and vanished. No trace of the poor man was ever seen again. This seemed doubly astounding to me -- first that Australia could just lose a prime minister (I mean, come on) and second that news of this had never reached me.
A prime minister lost off a beach and never seen again? And I didn't know this?

The Wikipedia entry for Harold Holt can be found here. According to Wikipedia:

On 17 December 1967, Holt went swimming at Cheviot Beach on Point Nepean near the holiday resort of Portsea, south of Melbourne. Apparently seeking to impress his friends, Holt, who was 59 and had had a recent shoulder injury, plunged into the surf. He disappeared from view and was never seen again. Despite an extensive search, his remains were never found. He was officially presumed dead on 19 December.

July 06, 2004

Tofu Pumpkin Pie

This recipe from the Cooper Aerobics Center is one of my favorite dessert recipes. It tastes reasonably similar to a crustless but otherwise traditional pumpkin pie, but is missing the heavy cream, eggs, and the like.

10 ounces soft silken tofu, blended in a blender until smooth
1 16 ounce can of pumpkin
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Spray pie pan with no-stick butter flavored spray. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Cream together the pumpkin and sugar. Add the salt, spices and blended tofu, mixing until thoroughly blended together. Pour into pie pan. Bake at 425 for 15 minutes. Lower the heat to 325 and bake for an additional 40 minutes.

It turns out to be important to process only the tofu in a blender and to do the rest of the mixing by hand -- otherwise, the consistency of the final pie isn't quite right.

I'm thinking of substituting maple syrup for the sugar the next time I make this. 3/4 cup of granulated sugar = 581 calories = just over 2/3 cup maple syrup.

This shines with a bit of whipped topping. You could do it the right way, chilling a bowl in the freezer and then using it to whip some very cold skim milk with a bit of sugar... or you could just cheat like me and use Cool Whip. I don't know what that stuff is made of, but it tastes good, so...

June 09, 2004

Self-Replicating Machines in a Decade?

100 years from now, this may well be viewed as the most significant news story of the week:

A useful self-replicating machine could be less complex than a Pentium IV chip, according to a new study (PDF, 1.73 MB) performed by General Dynamics for NASA.

General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems recently concluded a six-month study for NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts that examined the design of "kinematic cellular automata," a reconfigurable system of many identical modules. Through simulations, the researchers demonstrated the feasibility of this kind of self-replication, which could in a decade or more lead to the mass manufacture of molecularly precise robots, display monitors and integrated circuits that can be programmed in the field, the study said.

Via KurzweilAI.net.

June 07, 2004

"Life Isn't About Finding Yourself..."

This is a wonderful quote from George Bernard Shaw about personal growth and how we should look at it:

Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.
Via Daily Celebrations.

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 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.

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.

April 27, 2004

Electronic Table Games

Okay, this is a product my kids and I would like to have. The idea came from the fact that for many years, we've played games while waiting for our food at restaurant tables -- usually connect the dots if we have a paper tablecloth and crayons, or tic-tac-toe if we have a tiled table, using blue packets of sweetener and white packets of sugar for the two colors.

Combine E-Ink with some form of extremely durable touchscreen layer above to create touch-sensitive, black-and-white, high-contrast display tiles -- figure about three to four inches on a side. The tiles would have simple, durable connectors that make them fit together. Tiles could be combined to form displays of arbitrary sizes.

Using this technology, build smart touchscreens into tables at restaurants. Power is needed at each table, but not an Ethernet drop -- use 802.11 instead. Along the edge of the table is a slot for a very small controller module -- if anything goes wrong, replace the whole module. There's also a slit for a smart card. When the waiter comes by, he swipes a special card that gives you five minutes for free. Want more? Just ask him for a 5-, 10-, 30-, or 60-minute card. He swipes the appropriate card and adds it to your bill. No credit cards, no coin drops, no bill readers.

What can you play? Simple bar games to start: chess, checkers, connect the dots, backgammon, reversi, tic-tac-toe, hangman, trivia, and so on. Alone? Play against the table. Together? Play each other. No geeky joysticks or buttons -- just a touch screen. Bathroom break? Hit a pause button to stop using minutes. Want to play, say, five-person trivia? Each person taps in front of them and the display adapts appropriately.

At first, the maker could offer to install them for free and share the revenue somehow. Later, the maker could charge for them as popularity increases. Restauranteur fraud? That's why they're smart cards. Provide a central terminal to recharge them. Each time a waiter uses a smart card, it deducts the amount appropriately. Waiters have special try-out smart cards that give five minutes of play time, but there should be a way to ensure this doesn't lead to fraud... maybe track each card per waiter (via the central terminal) with periodic audits.

My kids and I decided that if our favorite restaurants had this, they'd tap us for at least five extra bucks each visit.

April 23, 2004

Buddhism and Science on Choice

Compare this excerpt from Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen:

Our problem comes from what the Buddha described as "inclination of mind." The mind tends to lean in one direction or another because, out of ignorance, it sees something "out there" which it then craves. "I want that back," "I want that now," or "I don't want that anymore. Push it away, get rid of it." Either way, we define what we want or don't want as something separate from us.

In the enlightened mind, the mind of a buddha, there's no such inclination, no such leaning. On the other hand, our ordinary mind -- our conceptual mind -- does lean. It's full of picking and choosing, of wanting and craving. Seng-ts'an, one of the founders of Zen Buddhism in China, wrote in "Trusting the Heartmind" that picking and choosing is the mind's worst disease. The Germans have an expression, "Whoever has choice, has torment." It's true. Wherever choice appears, the mind is immediately put ill at ease.

Duhkha -- suffering, pain -- is associated with choice. The more we fail to understand this, the more we'll be caught up in duhkha. And the more we'll not *see* the subtlety of it.

We live in a culture where we're taught to see freedom as the maximization of choice. But this is not true freedom at all. In fact, it's a form of bondage. True freedom doesn't lie in the maximization of choice, but, ironically, is most easily found in a life where there is little choice.

...with this excerpt from "The Tyranny of Choice", an article by Barry Schwartz in the April 2004 issue of Scientific American:

Americans today choose among more options in more parts of life than has ever been possible before. To an extent, the opportunity to choose enhances our lives. It is only logical to think that if some choice is good, more is better; people who care about having infinite options will benefit from them, and those who do not can always just ignore the 273 versions of cereal they have never tried. Yet recent research strongly suggests that, psychologically, this assumption is wrong. Although some choice is undoubtedly better than none, more is not always better than less.

This evidence is consistent with large-scale social trends. Assessments of well-being by various social scientists -- among them, David G. Myers of Hope College and Robert E. Lane of Yale University -- reveal that increased choice and increased affluence have, in fact, been accompanied by decreased well-being in the U.S. and most other affluent societies. As the gross domestic product more than doubled in the past 30 years, the proportion of the population describing itself as "very happy" declined by about 5 percent, or by some 14 million people. In addition, more of us than ever are clinically depressed. Of course, no one believes that a single factor explains decreased well-being, but a number of findings indicate that the explosion of choice plays an important role.

April 13, 2004

Riding the Meme

Via Caterina Fake:

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 23.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.
Okay...
In seeing you will realize that you must live consciously, not for your sake or for someone else's sake or for the sake of some goal or belief or idea, but for the sake of being fully engaged in the moment.
Context...
The buddha-dharma's fourth truth contains eight aspects, which is why it's also called the eightfold path.

Just what is this path? It is, first of all, to see what our problem is, and then resolve to deal with it. In seeing you will realize that you must live consciously, not for your sake or for someone else's sake or for the sake of some goal or belief or idea, but for the sake of being fully engaged in the moment. Once you see, you will speak, act, and maintain your life in a conscious way. Wise speech, action, and livelihood then follow naturally. These provide the foundation for a morality that actually works.

From Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen (which I've just begun reading and have found to be absolutely wonderful).

April 09, 2004

"That's Easy!"

A year ago, US troops rolled into Baghdad nearly unopposed. Now we're facing widespread violence and terror across Iraq. I realized today what it is that I'm reminded of by the Bush Administration's attitude towards Iraq over the past 12 months:

GALAHAD: There it is!
ARTHUR: The Bridge of Death!
ROBIN: Oh, great.
ARTHUR: Look! There's the old man from scene twenty-four!
BEDEVERE: What is he doing here?
ARTHUR: He is the keeper of the Bridge of Death. He asks each traveller five questions--
GALAHAD: Three questions.
ARTHUR: Three questions. He who answers the five questions--
GALAHAD: Three questions.
ARTHUR: Three questions may cross in safety.
ROBIN: What if you get a question wrong?
ARTHUR: Then you are cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril.
ROBIN: Oh, I won't go.
GALAHAD: Who's going to answer the questions?
ARTHUR: Sir Robin!
ROBIN: Yes?
ARTHUR: Brave Sir Robin, you go.
ROBIN: Hey! I've got a great idea. Why doesn't Launcelot go?
LAUNCELOT: Yes. Let me go, my liege. I will take him single-handed. I shall make a feint to the north-east that s--
ARTHUR: No, no. No. Hang on! Hang on! Hang on! Just answer the five questions--
GALAHAD: Three questions.
ARTHUR: Three questions as best you can, and we shall watch... and pray.
LAUNCELOT: I understand, my liege.
ARTHUR: Good luck, brave Sir Launcelot. God be with you.
BRIDGEKEEPER: Stop! Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.
LAUNCELOT: Ask me the questions, bridgekeeper. I am not afraid.
BRIDGEKEEPER: What... is your name?
LAUNCELOT: My name is 'Sir Launcelot of Camelot'.
BRIDGEKEEPER: What... is your quest?
LAUNCELOT: To seek the Holy Grail.
BRIDGEKEEPER: What... is your favourite colour?
LAUNCELOT: Blue.
BRIDGEKEEPER: Right. Off you go.
LAUNCELOT: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.
ROBIN: That's easy!
BRIDGEKEEPER: Stop! Who approacheth the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.
ROBIN: Ask me the questions, bridgekeeper. I'm not afraid.
BRIDGEKEEPER: What... is your name?
ROBIN: 'Sir Robin of Camelot'.
BRIDGEKEEPER: What... is your quest?
ROBIN: To seek the Holy Grail.
BRIDGEKEEPER: What... is the capital of Assyria? [pause]
ROBIN: I don't know that! Auuuuuuuugh!
Or as Joshua Micah Marshall put it last April:
Ending Saddam Hussein's regime and replacing it with something stable and democratic was always going to be a difficult task, even with the most able leadership and the broadest coalition. But doing it as the Bush administration now intends is something like going outside and giving a few good whacks to a hornets' nest because you want to get them out in the open and have it out with them once and for all.

February 24, 2004

Elmore Leonard's Rules for Writers

Via boing boing, Elmore Leonard's 10 rules for writers, condensed here:

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' . . .
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
  6. Never use the words ''suddenly'' or ''all hell broke loose.''
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

February 23, 2004

Anonymous Flowers

From Wired News, a round-up of news on grassroots efforts to send flowers to gay and lesbian couples wedding in San Francisco:

As just about everyone knows by now, same-sex couples have been streaming into San Francisco by the hundreds from all across the United States to get married. To talk to anyone who's been there is to hear stories of unprecedented joy, astonishment and wonder at being at the center of a movement that could change the politics of sexual orientation forever.

And now, thanks to the Internet, there's also been beauty, in the form of hundreds of bouquets of flowers that have been delivered to couples waiting in line for their marriage licenses. And these flowers have been ordered and paid for by total strangers, people from all over the world wanting to share in the good feeling happening in San Francisco and wanting to show that they believe marriage is a civil right that should be available to any two people, not just to a man and a woman.

Would someone explain to me again the justification for a Constitutional amendment that would preemptively take away the right of same-sex couples to wed? An amendment that would for the first time remove rights from a class of citizens, rather than granting them rights?

These are adults choosing whom they wish to love, and to whom they wish to commit their lives. It's true that a majority of Americans are against gay marraige. As John Stuart Mill wrote, though:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

February 15, 2004

Dawkins' and Kelly's Laws

Better late than never, I got around to reading The Edge's question for the year, "What's your law?" Of all the submissions, two stood out for me. First, Richard Dawkins:

Dawkins's Law of Divine Invulnerability

God cannot lose.

          Lemma 1

          When comprehension expands, gods contract -- but then redefine themselves to restore the status quo.

          Lemma 2

          When things go right, God will be thanked. When things go wrong, he will be thanked that they are not worse.

          Lemma 3

          Belief in the afterlife can only be proved right, never wrong.

          Lemma 4

          The fury with which untenable beliefs are defended is inversely proportional to their defensibility.

And Kevin Kelly:

Kellys' [sic] First Law

Power, understanding, control. Pick any two.

This is reminiscent of an engineering saying that, over the years, I've found to be consistently true: "Good, soon, cheap: pick any two."

February 10, 2004

Extremist Pilots

This story appeared the other day...

An American Airlines pilot asked Christians on his flight to identify themselves and suggested the non-Christians discuss the faith with them, the airline said...

American's Flight 34 was headed from Los Angeles to New York's John F. Kennedy Airport on Friday when the pilot asked Christians on board to raise their hands...

The pilot, whose name was not released, told the airline that he then suggested the other passengers use the flight time to talk to the Christians about their faith...

Passenger Amanda Nelligan told WCBS-TV of New York that the pilot called non-Christians "crazy" and that his comments "felt like a threat." She said she and several others aboard were so worried they tried to call relatives on their cell phones before flight attendants assured them they were safe and that people on the ground had been notified about the pilot's comments.

I heard about this from my friend and colleague David Smith, who commented:

Last time an American flight was piloted by religious extremists, we lost the World Trade Center.
Well, let's say the last time we knew that an American Airlines flight was piloted by religious extremists...

February 08, 2004

"Angalia Nyoka Kubwa!"

I've been meaning to read Roald Dahl's autobiography Going Solo ever since reading an excerpt from it in an in-flight magazine years ago, and finally got around to it this past week.

The excerpt below is the one I read in the magainze, and is one of two stories in the book about encounters with mambas Dahl had in East Africa during the years 1938-39. It's a wonderful piece of writing:

The really bad snake in Tanganyika is the black mamba. It is the only one that has no fear of man and will deliberately attack him on sight. If it bites you, you are a gonner.

One morning I was shaving myself in the bathroom of our Dar es Salaam house, and as I lathered my face I was absent-mindedly gazing into the garden. I was watching Salimu, our shamba-boy [gardener], as he slowly and methodically raked the gravel on the front drive. Then I saw the snake. It was six feet long and thick as my arm and quite black. It was a mamba all right and there was no doubt that it had seen Salimu and was gliding fast over the gravel straight towards him.

I flung myself toward the open winow and yelled in Swahili, 'Salimu! Salimu! Angalia nyoka kubwa! Nyuma wewe! Upesi upesi!', in other words, 'Salimu! Salimu! Beware huge snake! Behind you! Quickly quickly!'

The mamba was moving over the gravel at the speed of a running man and when Salimu turned and saw it, it could not have been more than fifteen paces away from him. There was nothing more I could do. There was not much Salimu could do either. He knew it was useless to run because a mamba at full speed could travel as fast as a galloping horse. And he certainly knew it was a mamba. Every native in Tanganyika knew what a mamba looked like and what to expect from it. It would reach him in another five seconds. I leant out of the window and held my breath. Salimu swung round and faced the snake. I saw him go into a crouch. He crouched very low with one leg behind the other like a runner about to start a hundred yard sprint, and he was holding the long rake out in front of him. He raised it, but no higher than his shoulder, and he stood there for those long four or five seconds absolutely motionless, watching the great black deadly snake as it glided so quickly over the gravel towards him. Its small triangular snake's head was raised up in the air, and I could hear the soft rustling of the gravel as the body slid over the loose stones. I have the whole nightmarish picture of that scene still before my eyes -- the morning sunshine on the garden, the massive baobab tree in the background Salimu in his old khaki shorts and shirt and bare feet standing brave and absolutely still with the upraised rake in his hands, and to one side the long black snake gliding over the gravel straight towards him with its small poisonous head held high and ready to strike.

Salimu waited. He never moved or made a sound during the time it took the snake to reach him. He waited until the very last moment when the mamba was not more than five feet away and then wham! Salimu struck first. He brought the metal prongs of the rake down hard right onto the middle of the mamba's back and he held the rake there with all his weight, leaning forward now and jumping up and down to put more weight on the fork in an effort to pin the snake to the ground. I saw the blood spurt where the prongs had gone right into the snake's body and then I rushed downstairs absolutely naked, grabbing a golf club as I went through the hall, and outside on the drive Salimu was still there pressing with both hands on the rake and the great snake was writhing and twisting and throwing itself about, and I shouted to Salimu in Swahili, 'What shall I do?'

'It is all right now, bwana!' he shouted back. 'I have broken its back and it cannot travel forward any more! Stand away, bwana! Stand well away and leave it to me!'

Salimu lifted the rake and jumped away and the snake went on writhing and twisting but it was quite unable to travel in any direction. The boy went forward and hit it accurately and very hard on the head with the metal end of the rake and suddenly the snake stopped moving. Salimu let out a great sigh and passed a hand over his forehead. Then he looked at me and smiled.

'Asanti, bwana,' he said, 'asanti sana,' which simply means, "Thank you, bwana. Thank you very much.'

It isn't often one gets the chance to save a person's life. It gave me a good feeling for the rest of the day, and from then on, every time I saw Salimu, the good feeling would come back to me.

February 03, 2004

"Odd, That"

From a story in this week's Economist on a possible new antitrust case against Microsoft, this time in Europe:

Microsoft's exploitation of its monopoly will continue as long as the monopoly itself does. A likely candidate as its next victim is Google, the company that dominates the internet-search business. Another possibility is Apple, current top-dog in the small but rapidly growing market for legal music downloads with its iTunes software. This week Microsoft launched a Google-like search "toolbar", and has stated its plans to build internet-search features into Windows. Similarly, Microsoft plans to launch its own online-music store later this year, tied to its now-dominant media player. Expect the market share of iTunes, currently at 70%, to plummet.

Isn't this simply a matter of Microsoft competing vigorously? The strange thing is that its products invariably succeed in PC-based markets where the dominance of Windows provides an advantage: office productivity, web-browsing, media playback and servers. Yet in other markets that have nothing to do with PCs, such as mobile phones, set-top boxes and games consoles, the company is far less successful. Odd, that.

February 02, 2004

Close, But No Cigar

So much for Prediction #2. When the Panthers went ahead 22-21 with 7:12 to play, I thought, "This is exactly the position we wanted to be in: a close game in the fourth quarter." When the Patriots went ahead 29-22 with 2:58 to play, I thought, "No problem. Tying games late and taking them into overtime is what the Panthers do, and the Panthers always win overtime games." But when the Panthers tied it at 29 with 1:16 to play, I thought, "We scored too quickly," and I could see the Patriots doing to the Panthers what they did to the Rams two years ago: a final drive to put themselves in field goal position. And that's exactly what they did.

Congratulations to the Patriots and to their fans. That's a great team you have there.

It will take somewhat longer -- until 29 July, to be exact -- to find out how I did on Prediction #1.

January 31, 2004

Prediction #2

Super Bowl XXXVIII: Carolina Panthers 20, New England Patriots 19.

New England is a great team that doesn't generally blow out its opponents. Carolina is a great team that has been better at winning close games this season than perhaps any team in history. If it's a close game in the fourth quarter, my money is on Carolina to come through and do what they've done all season: find a way to win.

January 21, 2004

Philosophy Question

Is it better to take an action that is [right | proper | harmless | honest | etc.] yet results in a bad outcome, or to take an action that is [wrong | improper | harmful | dishonest | etc.] yet results in a good outcome?

(To answer the obvious question, no, this entry is not reflective of any moral dilemma I face at the moment.)

January 18, 2004

Wow!

My home team, the Carolina Panthers, are in Super Bowl XXXVIII, having defeated the Philadelphia Eagles tonight. Whatever happens in the Super Bowl, they've had an amazing season, and watching them progress has been a real privilege.

One thing that impressed me about the Panthers-Eagles game tonight was the sportsmanship on both sides of the ball. I saw players helping opposing players up, players patting opposing players on the back, players laughing with opposing players... it was a great display.

Now come the New England Patriots, a devastatingly efficient team. Panthers coach John Fox has come up with great game plans to win three playoff games, two of them on the road. He'll need his best game plan yet to stay competitive with the Patriots.

The opening line on the Super Bowl has the Panthers as 6.5 point underdogs. If I was the type of person to bet on sports games, I'd take the Panthers and the points. Will the Panthers win? It will be a real challenge for them. But will they keep it close? I have to believe that they will.

To the players and coaches of the Carolina Panthers, congratulations on your accomplishments to date, and good luck in the big game two weeks from today. And to the residents of the 48 states other than North and South Carolina, yes, the Panthers are for real.

January 10, 2004

Heard This Week

A snippet of a conversation with my friend and colleague David Smith, while driving to a meeting in Maryland:

David: We [the US] are the Borg of cultures. We assimilate other cultures into our own and they cease to exist as separate identities. That's why so many Muslims feel they're fighting for their very survival -- because they are. They see what we're doing to the rest of the world and don't want it to happen to them. But it's a lost cause.

Me: I'm not sure how happy I am about the prospect of living in a world of homogenized cultures.

David: It doesn't matter what we think. It doesn't matter whether our Borg culture is a good thing or bad thing. It's inevitable.

Me: See the world now.

January 03, 2004

Cringely's Predictions for 2004

Via Slashdot comes word of Robert X. Cringely's predictions for 2004 (my comments in italics):

1) It will happen late in the year, but Microsoft will make a bold run for video game leadership. Sony and Nintendo have both chosen IBM's Cell Processor for their next-generation game consoles. This is a processor that does not yet exist and for which nobody can fathom how to write games. While the two Japanese companies scratch their heads, Microsoft will be trying to make inroads with game developers and introduce its own next-generation machine. In the long run, though, Microsoft won't succeed in taking the gaming lead. The original Xbox was perhaps the best 1.0 product in Microsoft's history. They studied Sony and Nintendo and avoided their mistakes. Instead of memory cartridges, the Xbox comes with a built-in hard drive (which, once one gets used to, is hard to live without). Instead of making networking an add-on product, the Xbox builds it in. Instead of an alien API, the Xbox uses a variant of the same DirectX APIs that Windows developers already know. The only thing Microsoft got wrong with the Xbox was shipping it too late. By the time it came out, Sony was already well in front with the PlayStation 2. Microsoft won't repeat that mistake with the Xbox 2 versus the PlayStation 3. Whatever else one might say about Microsoft, it is a smart and relentless company. To bet against it in this space is a leap of faith.

2) We still won't see a big example of cyber-terrorism simply because nobody has figured out how to actually kill people that way. When it comes to terrorism, all that matters are body counts. We will, however, see dramatic growth in cyber-extortion and plain old theft. This seems like a gimme prediction. Sure.

3) Despite new anti-spam laws, we'll still be plagued with unsolicited commercial messages, especially using Internet Messaging protocols. Look for new and unenforceable laws in this area, too. As for old fashioned spam, it will continue to cram our inboxes, making a good business for third-party anti-spam products and services while making e-mail pretty much useless for reliable communication. Microsoft will see opportunity here and propose new protocols to replace SMTP and POP3. They may even offer those protocols as Open Source, but there will be a catch. With Microsoft there always is. I think Cringely's on target with this prediction, but doesn't get to the interesting part. Yes, Microsoft will propose new protocols to fight spam. But so will other vendors, and some of them will begin to be adopted. By the end of 2005, SMTP and POP3 could be breathing their last breaths. If solid, truly open protocols are proposed, and a few major ISPs adopt them, it could create a cascading effect.

4) Continuing the security theme, look for lots of software companies to abandon support for old products and platforms. From their perspective, they already have your money, so continuing support is just a cost center for them. And if they stop support, you just may replace that old computer or application with something new, generating additional software sales opportunities. This means Microsoft giving up support for old OS variants and hardware, but it also means the same from security companies like Network Associates and Symantec. More and more old machines will become vulnerable, and there may appear a new kind of attack using just antiquated personal computers. Never underestimate the power of a Pentium-90 with a grudge to settle. The sun rose yesterday and today. I think it's probably going to rise tomorrow, too.

5) The SCO debacle has created a crisis within the Linux community. They pretend that it hasn't, but it has. This will come to a head in 2004 with either the development of a new organizational structure for Linux or the start of its demise. Linux has to grow or die, and the direction it takes will be determined in 2004. I don't see the evidence of this "crisis." Indeed, what I see is the Linux community forming new ad hoc structures and response patterns to deal with such a malevolent threat.

6) As for SCO, they'll continue to make noise until the middle of the year, at which point the legal case will implode and the company will give up. By that time, the company executives, insiders, and major investors will have all sold their positions at a handsome profit. This was never more than a stock scam, pushing the price of SCO shares up by more than 15 times. The clever part is how they used a legal case to make public claims that would have caused serious regulatory problems in any other context. We'll see more of this ploy in the future. Absolutely right on target. I'll go further: I think some SCO people may be doing jail time by 2005.

7) 2004 will be a crucial year for streaming media. First, there is the Burst.com case against Microsoft. Burst will win unless Microsoft settles first, which I think will happen. If Microsoft buys Burst or takes an exclusive Burst license, it could mean the end for Real and Apple, both of which also are infringing Burst patents. Someone is going to come out of this a big winner. I just don't know who it is. I agree that the Burst case will be significant. I've heard conflicting reports on whether the judge in the case has been truly outraged by Microsoft's pre-trial behavior (as Cringely has alleged in the past) or not. Either way, something has to give here.

8) In the U.S., 2004 will see the start of the very digital convergence predicted by Al Gore back in 1996. Old Al was only eight years too early. What will drive this convergence is consolidation within industry segments and increased competition between industry segments. Comcast will continue to suck-up other companies, as will SBC and Verizon. Every cable TV company will move toward offering telephone service, and telephone companies will try to respond by offering greater broadband content, whatever that means. Clearly, the advantage here lies with the cable companies, but that is just for now. And don't forget the electric utilities, which will slowly start to roll out their own data offerings late in the year. This is really a 2005 story, but it will start in 2004. Cringely fails to mention that one of the key drivers for this is Voice Over IP (VOIP). I've just subscribed to Vonage myself, and though the service isn't up to traditional Baby Bell/AT&T standards, I can't imagine going back to paying for long-distance minutes on my landline. Now I want to figure out how to hook my cell phone into everything so that I never pay incrementally for another long-distance call again. It's true that cable operators have the advantage here: there's not much logic in using DSL for VOIP. As for electric utilities, watch ham radio operators and other spectrum users to fight them based on what appears to be very real evidence of interference from delivering IP over power lines.

9) The U.S. IT industry will see some real growth except for Hewlett-Packard and Sun, which will continue their declines. Dell will start to compete in new market segments and those might drive some of their low end products (MP3 players, especially, but also possibly TVs) into the retail channel. Dell service and support will suffer, but the company will still do well. I'm probably going to regret saying this, but it's hard to imagine Dell going into the retail channel and doing well. Their price advantage will evaporate and their legendary customer relations (which I, as a Dell user, don't think are all that great) will suffer horribly.

10) Cisco will not only maintain its leadership in networking, they'll make big inroads into managed storage against companies like EMC. Not my domain. If Cringely says so, sure.

11) WiFi will be bigger than ever, of course, but progress and service will both be spotty. What's needed is a new business model for WiFi aggregation. I will offer that model in this space next week. Some smart company might just take it up and kick butt. I agree that something needs to happen in the Wi-Fi aggregration business. As for Cringely's new model, I wonder if this will be like his wacky model for online music?

12) Wal-Mart's entry into the music download business changes everything, and will undoubtedly take the leadership away from Apple. This wouldn't bother Apple if Wal-Mart would support its file standards so Wal-Mart music can play on iPods, but that won't happen. In order to compete for what really counts (iPod sales, not music downloads), Apple MIGHT start to support other file formats. No guarantee on that. What IS guaranteed is that Apple will introduce a cheaper iPod using flash memory instead of a hard drive. Oh, and for next Christmas expect a video iPod, which is essentially a hard drive with a dedicated DV encoder/decoder and a FireWire interface. You'll be able to record video direct to the hard drive then edit from that same drive, completely eliminating tape. The logical follow-on from Apple would be a complete QuickTime video camera, but I don't see that until 2005. I don't buy the Wal-Mart argument at all, not one bit. First, we know that Apple only breaks even on its iTunes Music Store business, using it as a loss leader to drive iPod sales, which is where the money is. How will Wal-Mart make money on this? Second, who thinks that twentysomethings (who are driving online music sales) want to buy their music from Wal-Mart? Music is about attitude, about appearance, about being hip. No one with a shred of hipness buys anything from Wal-Mart that could ever be traced back to it. Apple has done an incredible job with the iTunes Music Store, and they're establishing iTunes and iPod as the branding for digital music. Meanwhile, Microsoft is attempting to pull a typically Microsoft maneuver, establishing a framework for delivering secure music and then presuming a mass of third-parties will outmuscle its one big competitor. Again, I don't buy it. Apple has the branding and the simplicity. The Microsoft-based online music stores are fragmented and confusing to consumers. Apple is winning. As for a video iPod, I'd love to see this, and I think Apple could take just as much leadership in this area as they have for audio.

13) No Apple G6 in 2004, and the company won't sell nearly as many G5s as it hopes. Why would they need a G6? They've already announced their G5s will be running at 3.0 GHz by this summer.

14) IT outsourcing, as covered ad nauseum in this column, will become a political issue in the 2004 U.S. Presidential campaign. Whichever candidate comes out in opposition to outsourcing will have the advantage. And they'll be correct, though the extent of real damage to the U.S. economy and IT industry won't be apparent to those bozos for several more years. As for the touchscreen voting scandal, nothing will be resolved or improved. Don't get me started. This is presuming that the average American cares far more than Cringely believes about what happens in high-tech. This issue is going to be way, way, way down the list.

15) Microsoft will open its wallet here and in Europe, settling a ton of lawsuits, paying billions of dollars, but though the money will flow, no lessons will be learned on any side. Nor will Bill Gates achieve this year his dream of winning a Nobel Peace Prize. I am not making this up.With regard to settling lawsuits, again, that sun just keeps rising. What's up with that, anyway? As for Bill Gates winning the Nobel Peace Price, if he keeps doing such good work in the Third World, he might just deserve it at some point. Did I say that with my outside voice?

December 16, 2003

Question for the Day

I've always assumed that spicy foods are most often found in cultures centered in hot areas because that's where the ingredients are most easily found. (As far as I know, chile peppers don't grow in Scandinavia.)

But could there be another reason? Eating spicy food makes one perspire. Perspiration lowers the body's temperature. Could it be that spicy cuisine was developed as a response to heat? Has anyone investigated this?

December 04, 2003

Found Poetry

The North Carolina Museum of History has an excellent exhibit on the history of medicine in the state. One section discusses transplant technology. The humanity of it is brought home with the story of two teenage girls -- one severely injured and near death from an automobile accident, the other dying and in need of a replacement heart. The mother of the injured girl is quoted talking about the moment when she and her husband decided to allow their daughter to be taken off life support:

"It was twelve, one o'clock in the morning,
          when Ricky, my husband, and I were in her room.
I remember looking at her, and Ricky telling me,
          "I haven't given up, but I'm feeling as if--"
And I looked at him and I said,
          'I know what you're going to say.
          It's almost as if she's telling us good-bye, isn't it?
          I feel like she's telling me,
          "Mama, let go. I'm tired now.'"
And he hugged me, and we rocked and rocked
     and rocked.
And he said, 'I'm so glad that you heard her, too.'"
Whoever created the display saw the mother's words for the beautiful poetry they were and set the text appropriately. What a treasure.

November 30, 2003

Shopping Bag Poetry Update

Yesterday I wrote about REI's poetry on shopping bags. After having posted my entry, I wrote to REI customer service to ask them about it. Here was the reply:

Hello Frank,

Thank you for your inquiry about the poetry written on our shopping bags.

The author is actually an REI employee that submitted his work as part of a fun company contest.

Best wishes for great outdoor adventures.

Kelly Z
REI Online Customer Service

I've written back, asked that my message be forwarded to the employee in question, and hope that he'll come here to receive credit and -- with luck -- share other poetry he has written.

By the way, REI's customer service department responded to my message in less than three hours. Ask yourself whether that would be true of the large businesses that you patronize, and then you'll know part of the reason that REI is such a wonderful success story.

November 29, 2003

REI's Shopping Bag Poetry

REI has been placing outdoor-related poetry on its shopping bags. Here's an example (line breaks guessed at):

The mountains and glaciers are a soft red,
while the moon rises over the south shoulder
like a long slow look back at someone you love.

As the sun sets, the red rises, revealing
the greens, grays, blacks and whites
that are reality.

The top is surrounded by one last brilliant blaze of light;
I am transported to the summit, and I see the sun,
going down over a series of hills far into the distance.

Going, going, gone, the red melts into dusk's purple hues.

Tonight I sleep outside, next to mountain blueberry,
with the Milky Way and this oh so full moon.

Paradise.

What I wouldn't give to be able to toss off lines like, "the moon rises over the south shoulder like a long slow look back at someone you love."

Strangely, there is no attribution on the packaging, nor is there mention of the poetry on REI's Website. A couple of tries with Google turned up nothing. Is this copy written by an advertising agency?

Whoever wrote this, I'd like to read more of your work.

November 15, 2003

"Do You Know What I Do for a Living?"

From a New York Times story this week on how kids' competitive sports leagues are becoming more and more demanding:

Nancy Lazenby Blaser was a newcomer in the town of Morgan Hill, Calif., just south of San Jose, when she took her 5-year-old daughter, Alexandra, to the local playground. By happenstance, Alexandra became involved in an informal game of softball with a group of other kindergartners.

"One of the other mothers was watching Alexandra and said: 'Hey, she's pretty good. What team does she play on?' " Lazenby Blaser said. "And I said: 'She doesn't play on any team. She's 5 years old.' And the other mother looked at me with this serious expression and said, 'If she doesn't start to play organized ball now, she won't be able to play in high school.'

"And I laughed and said, 'Do you know what I do for a living?' "

Lazenby Blaser is the commissioner of athletics for the central-coast section of the California Interscholastic Federation.

If this anecdote doesn't tell us that something is seriously out of whack, I don't know what will. When we're concerned that a five-year-old isn't playing competitively, I think at least some part of society has gone off the deep end.

My kids have all played in recreational sports leagues while growing up, so both they and I have skipped the intense demands of elite leagues. But I know parents who spend most weekends traveling with their kids's teams -- soccer, volleyball, you name it -- to tournaments in distant places. And as the Times article points out, many sports, especially soccer, are now year-round. When do parents get a break? When do kids get to be kids?

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 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?

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 Microsofts 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, Microsofts 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.

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 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.

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."

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?

July 27, 2003

Animals, Limbs, and Memory

When a reasonably intelligent animal -- say, a dog or a cat -- loses a leg in an accident, does it forget it ever had it, or does it always remember that it once had four legs? If it forgets, what about if it has a dream in which it has four legs? Does it wake up believing it has four legs and then have to readjust to reality? Would that trigger a memory, even temporarily?

June 29, 2003

Is Google God?

From Thomas Friedman's latest column, "Is Google God?":

Says Alan Cohen, a V.P. of Airespace, a new Wi-Fi provider: "If I can operate Google, I can find anything. And with wireless, it means I will be able to find anything, anywhere, anytime. Which is why I say that Google, combined with Wi-Fi, is a little bit like God. God is wireless, God is everywhere and God sees and knows everything. Throughout history, people connected to God without wires. Now, for many questions in the world, you ask Google, and increasingly, you can do it without wires, too."
A god that actually answers questions? That's a fairly amazing thought.

The next step is a god that doesn't just answer questions, but answers request for action. Of course, we've seen that before -- it was called Forbidden Planet. I suggest we not go there.

May 26, 2003

"Service Animals"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 23, 2003

DIY Cruise Missile

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

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

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

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

May 15, 2003

The Death of "Mrs."

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

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

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

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

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

March 26, 2003

"Guerillas and Militias with Hotmail?"

From the current issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine:

In January, while on assignment for Adventure, Contributing Editor Robert Young Pelton and two hiking companions were kidnapped by right-wing Colombian paramilitaries in the Darién Gap -- a lawless jungle along the Panama-Colombia border. After ten nervous days, the trio was released unharmed. We spoke with the author of Come Back Alive after he'd done just that...

What kind of precautions did you take?
Before I left home I sent e-mails to the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, left-wing guerrillas] and the AUC [United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, right-wing paramilitaries] to tell them that I was going to be walking through the area, that I'd like to meet them, and that I'd like to know whether it was safe. Neither group responded.

Guerrillas and militias with Hotmail?
They've got Web sites, e-mail, sat phones. FARC told me they have an 800 number.

Found here.

March 21, 2003

"The Rest of Us Are Irrelevant"

From a story in USA Today:

[A]s the gadget-buying population of the USA grays and the rush to miniaturization accelerates, the disconnect sometimes seems to be widening between what designers believe we want and what we find we can comfortably use.

Take the Palm PDA, which later this year will appear on the screen of a Fossil watch. The $199 time tool will push the limits of the human eye. People who may have strained to check appointments, addresses and directions on a standard 2 1/4-inch square Palm display will face a 1-inch screen.

The concept "shows total contempt for the majority of consumers," says usability guru Jakob Nielsen of the consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group. "They have these young, hotshot engineers and designers; they don't have vision problems and don't believe anyone does. To them, all that matters is cool teenagers, and the rest of us are irrelevant."

Nielsen says people believe that the vision problem lies with them. "The fact is, everybody, like clockwork, when they reach 40, gets this way. We have to demand that technology adapt to human biology, not the other way around."

Having just turned 40, I definitely find myself struggling with this. When I'm wearing my contact lenses, very small type becomes difficult to resolve. It's hard even to use my regular-size Palm PDA, because much of the text is small and can't be easily changed. In poor lighting, phone numbers displayed within the Palm Contacts application can sometimes be difficult to see properly. It's frustrating, and as the article notes, the trend seems to be towards more type that is smaller and smaller.

Via Roland Piquepaille.

March 18, 2003

Back to the Future

Via KurzweilAI.net, an article in the Observer on the "search for the next big thing," which ends up sounding like we're going back to the future:

Analysts predict that one of the big growth software sectors in the future will be content management or 'data mining'. 'Silicon Valley VCs are getting very excited about so called integrated or 'artificial' intelligence...' says Tim Jennings, research director with the Butler Group...

Another area which investors believe is ripe for stellar growth is the gaming and entertainment technology sector. Mobile technology has opened up new possibilities which stretch people's leisure over time and space...

But those wanting to know where canny investors believe the sector with the biggest potential growth lies need to follow the money. Tracking which sorts of start-ups are attracting backing from new investors is a key sign. Figures from Ernst & Young/Venture One show that last year 64 per cent of funds being ploughed into the biopharmaceuticals sector came from new investors, compared with just 27 per cent for IT companies.

Analysts at JP Morgan predict sales in the US biotechnology sector will increase from 25 to 28 per cent this year. In contrast, they predict the US pharmaceuticals industry will grow by only 6 per cent. A favourable regulatory environment coupled with a desire by investors to inject new capital is driving the industry forward.

John Mackie, chief executive of the British Venture Capital Association, says three things have conspired over the last couple of years to heighten interest in biotech. 'The mapping of the human genome has thrown up hundreds of opportunities. Increasing demands on healthcare have created more of a focus for investment in the sector. And thirdly there is now better technology transfer from universities.'

As with dotcom mania many investments will turn sour, but for now the biotechnology sector is the closest we have to a new thing.

This is all well and good, but since when have venture capital investment trends served as a reliable predictor of future markets?

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to use my pen computer to order dog food over the Internet...

March 16, 2003

"You Don't Mess with Gaston Glock"

A Forbes profile of Gaston Glock, the Austrian founder of Glock GmbH, maker of handguns recommended by nine of out ten police officers and rappers alike, begins with this amazing account of an attempt on Glock's life:

He is the man behind the gun. You don't mess with Gaston Glock.

His most trusted associate allegedly tried. Lured into a dimly lit garage in Luxembourg by his colleague Charles Ewert, the Austrian Glock stopped to look at a sports car at Ewert's suggestion. Suddenly, a massive masked man leaped from behind and smashed a rubber mallet into Glock's skull. Ewert fled to the stairwell. "I am a coward," he later told Forbes. With Glock off balance, the attacker landed another crushing blow. "I was fighting for my life," recalls Glock, 73, during a rare interview with the press.

Springing up on legs toned by miles of daily swimming, Glock thrust his enormous fist into his assailant's eye socket. As the would-be assassin staggered, Glock pounded again, knocking out a few of the man's teeth. The bloodied attacker staggered, then collapsed on top of Glock "with his arms outstretched like Jesus Christ," according to John Paul Frising, Luxembourg's deputy attorney general, who brought attempted murder charges against the attacker, the French-born Jacques (Spartacus) Pêcheur, 67.

So despite that Glock was 73 years old and his attacker had the first shot -- two rubber mallet strikes to his skull -- he fought back. Holy crap! This guy doesn't need one of his guns to be a badass!

March 01, 2003

REI is Kicking Butt

From the Seattle Times comes a story on my favorite chain of stores, REI:

The gloomy economy hasn't turned Recreational Equipment Inc. members into a bunch of frugal couch potatoes.

Sales at REI's 63 stores kept growing last year as the Kent-based consumer cooperative turned a record $16 million profit, more than doubling 2001's bottom line, the company reported yesterday. Sales at stores open at least a year climbed 1 percent, while direct sales -- REI's online, phone and catalog division -- were up 2.5 percent...

While some national retailers are scaling back and closing stores, REI added four stores last year, including those in Tukwila and Tacoma. This year, the co-op plans to add seven stores in cities including Atlanta, Boston and San Francisco...

After dot-com expenses and failed Japanese expansion led REI to post its first-ever loss in 2000, the co-op decided to tighten its focus on its U.S. business in 2001. For the past year, REI's strategy has focused on three main points: opening new U.S. stores, building Internet sales, and putting more emphasis on designing and selling its own branded gear and outerwear.

REI made progress on all three fronts last year, [CEO Dennis] Madsen said: Each of the four new stores surpassed expectations; REI.com sales were up in the double digits; and REI-branded gear such as its half-dome tent and high-performance jackets were well-received...

REI members receive a 10 percent annual refund on purchases of full-priced merchandise. The co-op said it has set aside $38.7 million for member refunds and will give $1.8 million to such community efforts as environmental and youth programs.

One of my favorite stores of any type, anywhere, is the REI flagship store in Seattle. If you're visiting, I recommend it. There's a waterfall and a bicycling trail (to try out bikes) outside, and inside is a 65-foot climbing pinnacle with views of Puget Sound. Hot tip: the World Wrapps on the second floor has good wraps and bowls at cheap prices with panoramic views of downtown and the Sound. It's a great bargain. Oh, and they have an excellent parking structure. (It's an inside joke.)

I Tried

This is an exchange between Richard Bennett and me in the comments for an entry on Jeff Jarvis' site:

Richard, it's hard for me to comprehend that, after all that has been written, you either don't understand or refuse to acknowledge the problem that people on Joi's blog have with you.

You state that "Emergent Democracy advocates aren't willing to tolerate" scrutiny. Without offering an opinion on emergent democracy myself, its core idea of direct democracy through decentralized, collaborative, Internet-based structures itself gives the lie to this statement. What its advocates cannot tolerate -- and unfortunately, to which they eventually responded in kind in some cases -- is argumentation based on red herrings and personal attacks.

As I pointed out in my own entry on this topic, your first words to Joi were, "I was impressed by your total lack of any awareness of how legislative bodies function, about how governments function, or about political theory generally." What sort of reaction did you expect? No rational person genuinely interested in the intelligent exchange of ideas begins a debate by personally insulting his or her opponent.

To my mind, had you been interested in such an exchange of ideas, you could have written, "Based on what I've read of it, I disagree with fundamental aspects of your thesis on emergent democracy. I'd like to understand your ideas better and engage you in a discussion about them." But that's not what you did.

Did you -- do you generally -- take argumentative positions on issues while insulting people out of choice, or do you do so out of habit? Either way, I respectfully suggest it to be a counterproductive strategy, unless your overriding goal is simply to be known. Certainly there is no shortage of depressing examples of people following this strategy becoming famous... but is that what you want your life to stand for?

You don't know Joi personally. I do. He's not a coward -- far from it. He's intimately familiar with political processes, at least in Japan. Your criticisms and insults of him are inappropriate and uncalled-for.

I don't think it's too late for you to salvage this situation. Although I don't seriously believe you would be willing to follow this course of action, I offer it anyway:

Make a statement, either on your blog or on Joi's, in which you stand by your critique of the emergent democracy document, but in which you withdraw any insults or personal attacks you may have made in writing and defending your critique, and in which you apologize for anything you may have said that was inappropriate. Let Joi and the other people on his blog know that you genuinely wish to exchange ideas with them. I'm sure the reaction would be that Joi and others would apologize in turn. Who knows? You might actually learn something from them, and they from you. But as things stand, there's no chance of that. And if -- if -- your goal is fame through controversy, then certainly you won't want to follow my advice. Better, in such case, to be known as the guy who called Joi Ito a coward. For whatever that's worth.
Posted by Frank Boosman at February 28, 2003 08:19 PM

Frank, are you seriously suggesting that I owe an apology to Ito's man, Adam Greenfield, after he threatend to "break my jaw" if he ever saw me in person?

It is apparent to me that the document reflects a lack of awareness of the legislative processes that I'm familiar with; if Ito is indeed an insider in Japanese politics, I can only conclude that he left his knowledge at the door, or that the Japanese system is very different from the American one, and I say this as one who really does have insider experience in our system.

Joi Ito banned me from leaving comments and trackbacks on his blog, and then continued to criticize me; that's the act of an intellectual coward, and it precudes me from apologizing to Ito's followers for making them threaten me, not that I'm inclined to do so. For the record, I haven't banned him from my blog.

What are you smoking, dude?
Posted by Richard Bennett at February 28, 2003 08:39 PM

It is apparent to me that the document reflects a lack of awareness of the legislative processes that I'm familiar with...

In your opinion. But does that mean you should kick off a discussion of the topic by saying that your would-be opponent has a "total lack of any awareness of how legislative bodies function, about how governments function, or about political theory generally?" You could have allowed that Joi's experience is very different from yours. You could have given him the benefit of the doubt. You could have started the debate without insulting him.

Are you seriously suggesting that I owe an apology to Ito's man, Adam Greenfield, after he threatend to "break my jaw" if he ever saw me in person?

I'm suggesting that many people owe apologies to many people. Does it matter who apologizes first? If it does, then I offer that not only did you start the debate by insulting Joi's knowledge and experience, you then threw the first red herring into the fracas, linking advocacy of emergent democracy with support of Saddam Hussein. I'm sure you know as well as any of us the grade your collegiate forensics teacher would have given you for trying that in a class debate. It's not only wrong, but irrelevant. So, while I believe far too many people spend far too much time worrying about who should apologize to whom first, if this is a concern for you, I offer not only the reasons already put forward here, but an even better one: to be the first to rise above the fray, the first to attempt a return to civil discourse.

Joi Ito banned me from leaving comments and trackbacks on his blog, and then continued to criticize me; that's the act of an intellectual coward, and it precudes me from apologizing to Ito's followers for making them threaten me, not that I'm inclined to do so.

Joi has only threatened to ban you from his blog, at least when last I checked -- and if you read the item, you'll see that he is engaged in public soul-searching about whether or not to do so.

As for whether this makes Joi an intellectual coward, I submit that it does not. I can assure you that he is not afraid of your ideas, but rather frustrated with how you choose to express them, especially when you choose to do so in his blog.

When Joi refuted your assertions about his lack of knowledge of political systems by listing his involvement in Japanese politics over the last 10 years, instead of acknowledging this, you ignored it. Joi remained engaged and attempted to ask you serious questions; your response was to claim that "he believes that electronic communication over the web or some successor to it will someday advance the human race to a state of hyperconsciousness, where our god-like wisdom will make all problems trivial," a purely conjectural (and insulting in its implications) statement supported by neither Joi nor no one who knows him. Joi still didn't take the bait, responding by saying, "I apologize if you find our nerdy utopian view offensive, but I would suggest you come back and attack us after we've assmiliated the constructive feedback and integrated it into our thoughts. My paper is still weak in many ways and we have a long way to go to build a rigorous position."

At no point in the original string of comments did Joi insult you personally. The most insulting thing I could find was in his post on a potential IP ban, in which he said you were "a good example of 'noise' when we talk about the 'signal to noise ratio.'" Given everything you had said about him to that point, that seems a pretty tame response... and your response was to label him a "coward," an epithet which you surely know to be an extremely serious one.

What are you smoking, dude?

I'm not smoking anything. I'm simply trying to help people to find common ground and engage in productive, intelligent discourse.

Note, by the way, that I have tried scrupulously to avoid insulting you in any way, both in my original post on my blog and in my comments here. Yet you respond by implying that I am impaired in some way. Again, I ask you: is this what you want your life to stand for -- for insulting people? It would be a shame to see you go down such a path.
Posted by Frank Boosman at February 28, 2003 09:52 PM

Well, Frank, you're right about one thing - Emperor Ito hasn't banned me from leaving comments yet, as I just confirmed by testing. I had assumed he had since his blog rejects my trackbacks, but that could be some administrative screwup.

I'm not going to get involved in a lengthy discussion of who was mean to whom first because Jeff's already covered that; your standards for rudeness are clearly not aligned with mine, and we aren't going to agree. I see nothing wrong with making observations about Ito's general level of political knowledge, while you see that as a vicious personal attack. People actually engaged in politics don't go around bowing and scraping unctuous platitudes such as your proposed: "Based on what I've read of it, I disagree with fundamental aspects of your thesis on emergent democracy. I'd like to understand your ideas better and engage you in a discussion about them." There aren't enough hours in the day for that kind of crap - watch C-Span sometime, or better yet, Prime Minister's Questions from the UK. Politics is Rough and Tumble, not a rarefied exercise in sissyhood. You believe passionately in your position, and you advocate for it, you don't appease and you don't conciliate.

Your pal Ito and his followers are actually in favor of leaving Saddam Hussein in power, and I'm not making that up; they have lots of reasons for supporting that status quo having to do with pacifism and unilateralism, but the end result is to leave him in power. This seriously undermines their commitment to democracy, in my book, and that's the only one I'm writing.

So no, I'm not apologizing to anybody about anything, and I stand by my position, my phrasing, and my commitment to real democracies for real people. If you think I'm wrong, then make an argument on substance, because your stylistic attack is boring me to death.
Posted by Richard Bennett at February 28, 2003 10:25 PM

I was going to post a response to this, but it's clearly hopeless. I'm done here.
Posted by Frank Boosman at February 28, 2003 10:55 PM

And I am done with this.

February 28, 2003

Bennett Attacks Ito, or How Not to Win Friends and Influence People

Joi Ito recently posted a paper on emergent democracy, as well as writing an op-ed on the subject for the South China Morning Post. ("Emergent democracy" refers to the concept that decentralized, collaborative Internet-based structures, blogs being an example, can potentially lead to more direct forms of democracy.) All was well until, in the comments for an emergent democracy item on Joi's site, Richard Bennett made the following comment:

Reading your paper "Emergent Democracy" I was impressed by your total lack of any awareness of how legislative bodies function, about how governments function, or about political theory generally. Even if we have tools to make direct democracy possible, in certain limited contexts, it simply doesn't follow that it would be a superior form of government to representative democracy.

You're welcome to read what I've written about your paper on my blog. While I tried to be nice, it's hard to take any of this seriously.

I don't know Bennett personally. I do know Joi, and I know he is intimately familiar with how Japanese legislative bodies and the Japanese government function, and with political theory generally. Bennett is entitled to his opinion, but not only do I believe him to be wrong, I believe this is most certainly not an example of civil discourse.

Bennett's comment ignited a firestorm of comments on Joi's site, with Joi's friends coming to his defense. (I was unaware this debate was raging, and am only now chiming in.) Over the next four days, Bennett's comment led to over 40 responses and counter-responses. Bennett threw a red herring into the debate with the following:

Lovers of emergent systems... expect us to take as an article of faith the notion that direct democracy "couldn't possibly be worse" than representative democracy. Yet we know that many systems of government are much worse than representative democracy: the genocidal dictatorships of Iraq and Zimbabwe, for example. Given that many of the advocates of "emergent" systems are also supporters of Saddam Hussein's government, I suppose this claim shouldn't be surprising.
Reading this led me to Bennett's blog to try to understand him better. Presuming our blogs reflect who we are, or would like to be, his blog says much about him. For example, here's what he had to say about the death of Fred Rogers yesterday:
Our long national nightmare is over
At long last:
Feb. 27, 2003 -- Fred Rogers, who for more than 30 years touched the lives of children and parents as host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, died of stomach cancer Thursday at age 74.
Thank God. Now we can raise a generation of children who don't believe each and every one is "special" even if they never do anything special. Fred Rogers' legacy is narcissism, nothing more and nothing less. His special effects really sucked, too.
I include this because I think it's especially illustrative of the style of discourse that Bennett prefers.

After 18 comments by Bennett alone on this one topic on his site, Joi posted the following:

Mr. Bennett has a very dismissive and insulting way of engaging and is a good example of "noise" when we talk about the "signal to noise ratio"... My Bennett filter is now officially on so I won't link to his site or engage directly with the fellow any more... IP ban warning has been served.
Not having been in Joi's position -- I don't have comments on my blog, purely for technical reasons -- I don't know what I would do in the situation in which he finds himself. I am fundamentally opposed to censorship, but asking someone to please take their protest off one's own front lawn isn't restricting free speech -- it's requesting common courtesy. I don't know how I would feel about hosting personal attacks on my friends and myself on my very own blog, but I suspect I'd be none too happy.

Bennett responded with the following:

Political theorist throws in the towel
Cowardly Joi Ito as much as admits that his ideas about the so-called "emergent democracy" are incoherent and indefensible, and concedes defeat by banning me from leaving comments on his blog (right after I said by-bye). Read the whole thing, it's a hilarious example of the kind of reasoning that's very stylish in France these days.

Apparently the boy can't control his lust for power after all.

Is Joi frustrated with Bennett's debating technique? Yes, as I would be -- I find it not only counterproductive, but offensive. Is Joi within his rights to ask Bennett to go somewhere else, and to threaten to enforce this request with an IP ban? Yes. Is Joi a coward? Speaking as someone who has known him personally for years, I can attest to the fact that he is anything but. Has Joi admitted "that his ideas about the so-called 'emergent democracy' are incoherent and indefensible?" Absolutely not. Has he conceded defeat? In no way, shape, or form -- he has simply decided that he doesn't want to spend any more of his time debating with someone who seems uninterested in genuinely understanding the point of view of others, and who debates through the use of red herrings and personal attacks.

Now Jeff Jarvis has weighed in:

Bennett vs. the world
: And I'm siding with Bennett.

Joi Ito gets surprisingly pissy about Bennett just because he doesn't happen to think that Ito's Emergent Democracy essay is brilliant. A [former] denizen of the Well defends Ito against Bennett. And Ito "turns on the Bennett filter."

Hey, opinions are exactly what make democracy great. Opinions are precisely what emerge from a democracy...

If you're afraid of opinions -- or worse, afraid of jokes -- then you're afraid of people; you're truly afraid of democracy.

Calling Joi a "coward" isn't a joke. Linking emergent democracy advocates to supporters of Saddam Hussein isn't a joke. Are they opinions? Yes, but not all opinions contribute in a positive way toward civilized debate and shared understanding. To put this in terms to which someone of Bennett's political persuasion could more easily relate, what does it accomplish when anti-war protesters compare Bush to Hitler? It accomplishes nothing -- at least nothing useful to their cause. It's an ad hominem attack that, to reasonable ears, merely casts doubt on the attackers themselves.

Bennett could have said to Joi, "Based on what I've read of it, I disagree with fundamental aspects of your thesis on emergent democracy. I'd like to understand your ideas better and engage you in a discussion about them." Instead, his very first words on the topic that he posted in Joi's blog were, "I was impressed by your total lack of any awareness of how legislative bodies function, about how governments function, or about political theory generally," and the debate degenerated from there. What Jarvis and anyone else who supports Bennett need to ask themselves is this: when someone starts a debate like that, are they truly seeking an intelligent exchange of ideas, possibly leading to mutual enlightenment, or are they simply trying to draw attention to themselves by seeding discord?

Put simply, I'm siding with Joi -- not because he's my friend, which he is, but because he's right.

February 26, 2003

"Compared to My Vision, [Google's] Pathetic"

From a story on Longhorn in today's Seattle Times:

The biggest change is to the file system that stores documents in the computer. Longhorn's system will be based on a new database the company is developing that is designed to make it easier to find, sort and retrieve each document...

[Bill Gates] has always dreamed of making it easier to find files on computers. His mandate was that the technology make it easier to find data on different machines. That would make it easier to learn to use a PC because users would have to learn only one way to search for things.

"This is one where very much I'm the most committed to making sure we get it exactly right," he said.

The search tool sounds similar to the popular Google search engine, but turned inward into the computer rather than out onto the World Wide Web.

But [the group vice president in charge of the Windows division, Jim] Allchin bristled at the comparison. "Google's a very nice system, but compared to my vision, it's pathetic," he said.

Allchin said his goal is to have computers learn about the user, helping set the context for searches.

"Whether it's Google or any of the other search engines, the amount of random stuff you get back is pretty overwhelming," he said. "But if you knew a little bit about me -- for example, I love music -- so when I'm searching for 'strings,' you know they should know this guy's probably thinking about guitars."

The hubris of this is staggering. I can search the entire Web using Google two orders of magnitude faster than I can search my own hard drive using Windows -- and this after Microsoft has had 20 years to work on its operating system.

February 11, 2003

"This Place is Not a Place of Honor"

An interesting story from yesterday's Wall Street Journal on the difficulties of designing a symbol system to last 10,000 years:

Last summer, Congress approved Yucca Mountain as America's first permanent repository for high-level radioactive waste. But before the nation's spent nuclear fuel can be hauled for burial under the 5,000-foot ridge, regulators have ordered the U.S. Department of Energy to design a system of markers and monuments meant to ward off intruders from the site through the year 12,000...

[T]o satisfy the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's licensing requirements, Yucca Mountain officials are supposed to devise warnings and safety barriers that will long outlast today's most ancient relics of civilization...

Yucca Mountain planners say they're drawing from a wealth of research on the markers problem, generated by various federal panels of scientists, artists and anthropologists over the past 20 years. Repository officials have also reviewed a slew of unsolicited suggestions, ranging from the phantasmagoric -- genetically altering Yucca Mountain's vegetation to grow back in an ominous shade of cobalt blue -- to the whimsical: embedding a giant red turkey timer in the ridge to pop up in exactly 10,000 years...

Planners are looking at multiple types of information to build into Yucca Mountain's marking system -- from stick figures of sick people on perimeter walls to elaborate scientific descriptions in sealed "information centers" underground. They're borrowing heavily from the markings system developed in the 1990s for the Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M. -- known as the WIPP -- a repository for midlevel radioactive waste...

The WIPP panelists disagreed among themselves about what markings and messages might endure. One group wanted to erect symbolic archetypes of pain at the site -- such as tall, sharp spikes -- to arouse a sense of fear. Other panelists favored less-menacing symbols to lure visitors to learn more. Most agreed that to convey danger without honor, all monuments must be hewn from common materials and shouldn't be beautiful...

Other suggested markings for Yucca Mountain are on display this month at the Stillwater Hall Gallery in Fallon, Nev., near Reno. Dr. [Abe] Van Luik ["a senior policy adviser, and resident scholar-philosopher at the Energy Department's Yucca Mountain Office in Las Vegas"].says the private exhibit includes several useful ideas, such as an entry called "Plague of Sand," which proposes smothering Yucca Mountain in silicon chips etched with various warnings. But most entries "had no merit," the scientist says, including "Blue Yucca Ridge," the one calling for genetic color modification; "Poppin' Fresh," which deploys the turkey timer, and "The Big Stink," which would bury Yucca Mountain in the world's feces.

Excerpts from the WIPP panel's report on markers can be found here. From the report:

The design of the whole site itself is to be a major source of meaning, acting as a framework for other levels of communication, reinforcing and being reinforced by those other levels in a system of communication. The message that we believe can be communication non-linguistically (through the design of the whole site), using physical form as a "natural language," encompasses Level I ["something man-made is here"] and portions (faces showing horror and sickness) of Level II ["something man-made is here and it is dangerous"]. Put into words, it would communicate something like the following...

This place is not a place of honor.
No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.
Nothing valued is here.
This place is a message and part of a system of messages.
Pay attention to it!
Sending this message was important to us.
We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
In preparing this entry, I read through the report excerpts more than once. At first, my reaction was one of curiousity and dispassion. With each subsequent reading, though, my reaction became more emotional. There's something distinctly unsettling about reading a message of warning for the future -- not the hopefulness of the Pioneer plaque and Voyager record, not the optimism of the Clock of the Long Now, but a message of danger, of something deadly and long-lived.

February 07, 2003

Pizza Sluts

When my teenage kids -- I call them "pizza sluts," because they'll go to town with pretty much anything round, doughy, and with cheese on top -- tell you a pizza is just "okay," you know it can't be good. Until tonight, I had never heard them use the word "nasty" to describe a pizza. I tasted it, too, and... well... words fail me. This review wisely advises, "Run and hide from this pizza."

Jaclyn's Not Even 1 Gram of Fat Pizza. You have been warned.

January 30, 2003

Greetings from Sunny Pyongyang

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

Japan urged to behave itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, to sum up:

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

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

January 27, 2003

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

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

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

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

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

January 26, 2003

The Golden Rule and Pedestrians

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

"They Could Have Checked My Records"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 25, 2003

Life Imitates Blogs

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

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

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

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

January 24, 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 23, 2003

The Economist on Copyright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The City of Brotherly Love

From a pre-Super Bowl article by Peter King:

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

January 22, 2003

Blogging Into Thin Air

Following up on my previous blog entry...

The typical non-fiction adventure book is written either:

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

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

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

What does all this have to do with blogging?

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

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

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

RTP Bloggers Lunch

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

Here's a good chunk of the group:

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

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

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

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

January 21, 2003

"More Go"

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

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

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

Enjoy.

January 20, 2003

Roll-Overs and SUVs

From a story in the Economist this week:

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

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

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

January 19, 2003

The Eric Eldred Act

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

Larry's blog entry on the topic.

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

A FAQ on the "Eric Eldred Act".

January 18, 2003

Coherence in Personal Choice

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

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

January 17, 2003

"An Indifference to Life"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Cofer's arm had to be amputated.

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

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

January 16, 2003

Blogs = Inconsistency Detection Tools

Dave Winer on Larry Lessig five months ago:

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

The Black Armband is Gone...

...but not forgotten.

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

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

The Onion Nails It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 15, 2003

This Blog is in Mourning

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

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

Damn

Via Slashdot, Disney wins in Eldred v. Ashcroft.

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

The Chameleonic Mac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 14, 2003

"Both Entrees Taste Exactly the Same"

From Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback column yesterday:

Aggravating/Enjoyable Travel Note of the Week

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

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

Oh, man, have I been there.

January 13, 2003

Answering Scot Hacker on Violence in Games

Scot Hacker asks the following question in his blog today:

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

What's worse: Rape or murder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memo to Microsoft R&D

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

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

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

Thanks,

Bill

Heh heh...

January 12, 2003

US and Canadian Budgets: Doing the Math

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 11, 2003

"TiVo is God's Machine"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TiVo at CES

TiVo had a slew of announcements at CES:

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

January 10, 2003

Was Hitchcock Right?

From an article in National Geographic News:

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

January 09, 2003

Mafia the Parlor Game

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

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

January 08, 2003

Maneki Neko Pooh

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

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

From an article on the topic:

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

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

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

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

January 07, 2003

The Department of "Homeland Arithmetic"

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

Marvin Minsky's letter is the shortest:

Mr. President:

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

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

Yours truly,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

January 06, 2003

Maybe Coffee Needs a Dear John Letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Love Letter to Coffee

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

Dear Coffee,

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

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

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

The opposing viewpoint to follow in my next entry.

January 05, 2003

"They Have a Different Mentality"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 04, 2003

Good News and Bad News on HDTV?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far, so good, right? Keep reading:

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

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

January 03, 2003

RSS Feed Now Available

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Finnish Prison System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The story includes an amazing statistical graph:

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

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

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

January 02, 2003

Pragmatic Libertarian? Free-Market Socialist? Progressive Constitutionalist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 01, 2003

New Year's Resolutions (Kinda Sorta)

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

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

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

December 31, 2002

Happy New Year

We're still four hours and thirty-three minutes away from the new year here on the East Coast of the US, but given that it's already past midnight for my friends in Japan and Europe, Happy New Year to all. May the coming year bring you happiness in whatever form you seek it.

See you in 2003.

December 30, 2002

Peanuts Tarot

Via boing boing, the classic Rider-Waite tarot deck recreated using Peanuts characters. Brilliant!

From the creator's essay, "Why a Peanuts tarot?" (emphasis mine):

Who is Snoopy? Why, in a world of neurotic children, can he effortlessly become a beloved pet, a canine writer and art collector, baseball player, "Joe Cool", WWI flying ace, lover, dancer, vulture, legionnaire? What purpose does it serve, other than to make his owner, Charlie Brown, seem that much less of a winner by comparison with his own dog?

One answer: Snoopy, in the world of the Peanuts characters, fills the role that is a familiar one in other mythologies: the trixter, the fool, the joker. Only he is given the magic to step into new worlds at will; he is introduced as the lowliest of society's creatures, yet he seems to wield any power he might imagine. If Peanuts shares any of the structure of other world mythologies, then Snoopy is the trixter god...unpredictable, always in disguise, seemingly harmless yet secretly bearing the power that created all the universe. In the case of the Peanuts, of course, imagination is that very power.

"Snoopy is the trixter god... seemingly harmless yet secretly bearing the power that created the universe." I love this!

It would be great to have a real set of these. Of course, given the state of copyright these days, we'll be lucky just to see this site stay up a week.

December 29, 2002

Five Types of Blogs I'd Like to See

Back in July, I wrote about five people whom I'd like to see blogging. This entry is different. I'm writing now about types of blogs I'd like to see. I think the world needs more blogs by people who don't write about blogging but rather write about what they do every day -- online journals by people not so entranced with the process and future of blogging that they write about that (as so many of us do, including me at this moment).

Perhaps these blogs exist but I have yet to find them. If so, I'd like to know about them.

  • Aid worker. What is it like to be an aid worker in a difficult place? What is daily life like in an aid facility in, say, Afghanistan? What are the daily challenges and daily triumphs of workers in such places? I can't be the only person who would like to read about this.
  • Doctor. This would be especially interesting if it was from a trauma physician -- think E. R.-the-blog. If I read one regularly, perhaps I'd finally understand the meaning of the term "pulsox."
  • Police officer. I've always respected police officers for how they perform a tough job dealing mostly with people who want to have nothing to do with them. It must be difficult to do a job in which so few of the people you encounter don't appreciate you.
  • Political aide. I thought about writing politician here, but the chances of a politician being both truthful and interesting in a blog -- even anonymously -- seem so remote that I chose political aide instead. I've always followed the maxim that laws are like sausage -- you don't want to see how they're made -- but my curiousity has the best of me.
  • Teacher. Having dated in the past a high school teacher from an inner-city school, I have some idea of how challenging it is to teach in such schools and how interesting it can be to do so. Teaching can be infuriating, rewarding, depressing, uplifting, collegial, and political, all in the same day. A teacher blog could make for a great read.
It would be fine if these blogs were anonymous -- in fact, if anonymity would make them more honest, then so much the better.

December 28, 2002

"Blair for President"

In a recent column titled "Blair for President", the insightful Thomas Friedman enumerates "a few basic rules that Democrats have forgotten in recent years"...

  • Rule #1: People listen through their stomachs...
  • Rule #2: Never put yourself in a position where you succeed only if your country fails...
  • Rule #3: Get a candidate people like...
  • Rule #4: Get a candidate who can give a fireside chat.
...then nominates an interesting choice:
Right now there is only one Democrat who could live up to all these rules: the British prime minister, Tony Blair. Maybe the Democrats should give him a green card. He's tough on national security, he has an alternative global vision, people like him and he is a beautiful, reassuring speaker. He's Bill Clinton without baggage. I'd say he's a natural.
I think Friedman has a great idea. I should, because I said something similar myself back in early September:
British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a press conference the other day to talk about his government's position on taking action against Iraq. I watched... part of it... on BBC World News, and can confidently report that [his talk] was delivered looking neither at a TelePrompter nor at notes...

Our last President was Bill Clinton, who was as articulate as Blair but generally a spineless poll-watcher, so it went to waste. Bush seems to have a spine, but is unable to express himself clearly except in the most controlled contexts. To have a President with convictions and the ability to articulate them? It's hard to imagine.

Now if only it wasn't for that unfortunate "natural born citizen" bit...

December 27, 2002

"Is Steven Spielberg Right to Fear Technological Change in the Movie Business?"

The Economist speculates on the future of digital cinema distribution:

"I am a Luddite!" declared Steven Spielberg after a recent preview screening of his film, "Catch Me If You Can", which opens on December 25th. Digital cinema, he insisted, was not the revolution around the corner that its apostles proclaim: that world was still as much as 20 years away. In ten years, he conceded, digital projectors might sit alongside mechanical ones in cinemas -- but there would still be old-fashioned infrastructure to satisfy directors like himself who love the look of 35mm film.

Few directors make hits ("ET", "Jaws", "Saving Private Ryan" and so on) as consistently as Mr Spielberg. As a Hollywood mogul, he also embodies one of two competing visions about how movies will be watched in future. Mr Spielberg shudders at the notion of atomised viewers calling up a film on their laptops at the touch of a button, home and alone. A romantic, as his pet cinematic themes of fantasy, escapism, discovery and redemption show, Mr Spielberg prefers the idea of strangers huddled together in the dark, watching a flickering image on the screen.

The alternative vision belongs most famously to George Lucas, a champion of digital cinema, who helped to inspire Mr Spielberg's film-making craft in the 1960s. His voice is powerful, too: when he urged cinemas to show "Star Wars: Episode Two -- Attack of the Clones" on digital screens, the industry jumped. The big studios agreed to set up a consortium to look into digital quality-standards. Digital, say its advocates, does not squelch artistry, but creates new visual options (think of "The Blair Witch Project"), and, because the recording equipment is cheaper, does so for a wider movie-making population.

But what is it that Mr Spielberg really objects to? The advent of digital distribution does not, in itself, threaten his power in Hollywood. For artists, it is not a disruptive technology, as sound was in the late 1920s, when an entire generation of movie-stars suddenly found themselves jobless. His objection, rather, is truly Luddite: it is to the idea that this technology represents progress at all. The digital moving image, unblemished by scratches, hairs, burn holes or splice marks, may mesmerise techies, but purists such as Mr Spielberg believe that it robs movie-making of its artistry. He makes lavish use of computer-generated special effects, but he still passionately prefers the look and feel of celluloid film. Indeed, his most recent films, such as "AI" and "Minority Report", betray a profoundly ambiguous, if not sceptical, attitude to all technological change...

History suggests that Luddites eventually lose. In the 19th century, publishers resisted the phonograph, claiming that it would destroy sales of sheet music, just as the phonographic industry later feared radio. Neither proved any more correct than Hollywood's worry a century later that home video would kill cinema-going. Rock stars grumbled about the shift from vinyl to CD, but got over it. Film-makers may be addicted to celluloid -- which Mr Spielberg once dubbed a more "expensive habit" than heroin -- but the day will come when there are no flickering screens, no hairs, no dustmarks. Indeed, no more film.

Two quick points:

  1. I recently saw Attack of the Clones in an Imax theater. Having been filmed on 24 frame-per-second progressive-scan high definition television cameras, I have to say that even blown up to a 40 foot-high image, it looked spectacular. I was incredibly impressed with how good high-definition television could look in the right hands -- and say what we will about George Lucas' screenwriting abilities, the man knows motion picture technology.
  2. On the other hand, my local stadium seating theater can't even get the sound right on their largest screens. I've complained; they've acknowledged the problem; and nothing happens. If they can't fix something as basic as this, what are the chances they're going to successfully manage a transition to digital distribution technology anytime soon?
Long-term economics and picture quality notwithstanding, I think it may be a while before we see widespread use of digital distribution. We'll get there, but not soon.

December 26, 2002

Eating Shakespeare

While in Canada, I bought a book called Eating Shakespeare, by Betty and Sonia Zyvatkauskas. As the back cover says, it "brings to life the delights and dramas of Elizabethan cookery by mixing original period recipes with their delicious modern equivalents."

It's a book of recipes drawn from books contemporary to Shakespeare, adapted to modern ingredients and techniques. Having meant to use it for over a year now, I finally decided to use it as the basis for my Christmas dinner.

I tried to choose recipes that I thought my kids (who are finicky eaters) would be more likely to enjoy. Out with the fish pies; in with the sweets. My menu looked like this:

  • Chicken salad with apples
  • Fennel pure
  • Spiced roast chicken with apples and currants
  • Apple pure
  • Orange rice
  • Cinnamon pudding
Many of the dishes -- both those I selected and in the book as a whole -- are pured or at least very soft. The authors note that, due to tooth decay, many people of the time were partly or mostly toothless, and so soft foods were an important part of cooking. (I'm reminded to think more kindly of modern dentistry.)

Here are the dishes, ready to go on Christmas Day:

Along the left from top to bottom are the fennel pure, apple pure, and orange rice. To the upper right is the chicken salad with apples, to the lower right the cinnamon pudding, and in the center the spiced roast chicken with apples and currants. Here's a close-up of it:

So how did it all turn out? As with Thanksgiving, I graded myself, but this time I went a step farther and solicited grades from my guests. My ex-wife was easiest on me, giving me an overall grade of 3.22 -- almost a B+. I gave myself a 2.61 -- almost a B-, and virtually identical to my overall score at Thanksgiving. The kids were a bit harsher, averaging 1.79 between the three of them -- between a C and a C-. Ouch! As I might have expected, the cinnamon pudding scored highest, but I didn't expect the chicken salad with apples to score the worst, which it did.

Okay, so maybe I'm going to give the soliciting-grades-from-dinner-guests thing a rest.

In any case, the cookbook is wonderful, and any flaws in the dishes were mine and mine alone. I recommend it, though as a Canadian book, it can't be found on Amazon. The publisher's Web page for it can be found here, and it can be ordered through the chapters.indigo.ca site here.

December 25, 2002

Merry Christmas to All...

...and to all a good night.

More tomorrow, including a complete report on a very traditional Christmas dinner.

December 24, 2002

From Bad to Worse on the Korean Peninsula

From a New York Times article on North Korea's announcement that it had removed international controls from its nuclear reactors and from a large supply of weapons-grade fuel:

By taking possession of 8,000 spent fuel rods, the country could conceivably begin producing plutonium-based bombs in as little as six months, experts say. But as serious as this sounds, many analysts see another threat in the country's brash actions, and it could materialize even sooner: a weakening of the half-century-old alliance between South Korea and the United States.

A new and diplomatically inexperienced South Korean president is to take office here in February, and he seeks to pursue closer relations with his neighbor. Behind Pyongyang's latest actions, analysts detect a desire to take advantage of the new South Korean eagerness at the expense of the United States, just as America is enduring a period of intense unpopularity among South Koreans...

North Korea's behavior clearly aims to deepen the cracks that have already made [South Korea's] relationship with Washington unusually fragile, and analysts who agree on little else say Pyongyang's timing could not have been more astute.

Wait, it gets worse:

Remarkably, after more than two years of high-profile efforts to engage with Pyongyang, public opinion surveys here show that South Koreans are as skeptical of their longtime ally, the United States, as they are of heavily armed North Korea.

The president-elect, Roh Moo Hyun, who emerged victorious last week in part on the strength of these sentiments, is an ardent advocate of engagement with North Korea, and has vowed to be assertive in dealing with the United States, which he has openly called heavy-handed.

Mr. Roh... has never been abroad...

So, to sum everything up:

A paranoid, totalitarian regime which has in the past engaged in state-sponsored terrorism, and which recently demonstrated the ability to reach the capital of the world's second-largest economy with ballistic missiles, has reneged on its agreement to halt nuclear weapons development and now has the capability to produce such weapons within six months. Its democratic neighbor to the south, which it attempted to conquer in the past, and which has pursued a policy of engagement to attempt to improve relations, has just elected a new leader who has never traveled outside the country and who believes that more engagement will solve the current crisis. A superpower is committed to the defense of the democracy, but the people so protected are as skeptical of the superpower as of the totalitarian regime. In any case, the superpower is distracted with the pursuit of war against a paranoid, totalitarian regime elsewhere in the world.

Do people appreciate just how serious this situation is?

Googlism

Googlism uses the Google engine to search for phrases written about people. Being just as self-centered as the next person, I first tried my own name. Interestingly, though searching on "Frank Boosman" in Google turned up 13 pages of hits, Googlism turned up nothing on me. Hmmm. The obvious next step was to search on a friend likely to turn up. Joi Ito came to mind; entering his name returned the following:

Googlism for: joi ito

joi ito is a poster child for the it revolution in japan
joi ito is on the weblog bandwagon
joi ito is right when he says
joi ito is on the weblog bandwagon with a new site
joi ito is addicted to blogging

Leaving aside the one incomplete item, the rest are accurate. I presume Googlism is doing something like searching for the phrase "Joi Ito is", but it doesn't seem quite that simple; doing that search myself on Google turns up more phrases than are listed here.

December 23, 2002

Audio Compression: Hazardous to Your Health?

Found on boing boing, a story linking to a paper describing potential hazardous effects of listening to compressed audio:

From the view of neuronomy it is therefore to classify, although not as acutely dangerous, at least as very precarious that a wider and wider spreading audio transmission technology for data reduction just systematically removes those spectral sound portions at the auditory threshold, on those normally the hearing processor fields of our brain decide whether they shall be perceived or filtered out, because so the signal for their self calibration is missing, whereby at longer term a maladjustment of the hearing processor fields can threaten. Possible consequences of intensive consumption of datareduced audio material could therefore include ear noises (tinitus), a general degradation of the perception of quiet sounds, as well as a worsened timbre perception (a so-called "tin ear"), which would make the human of the cyberage even more insensitive than he already yet has become by the continuous mass media infotrash bombardment he is exposed to. Actually it is still unclear whether the consequences of such maladjustments are only temporary (similarly like seeing the world in green/ red discoloured after taking off red/ green 3D glasses) or if the continuous consumption of neuroacoustically datareduced sounds can lead to long lasting or even permanent damage.
The paper is marred by a significant flaw: the author fails to produce any evidence whatsoever for the theory. This is all speculation at this point.

Having said that, this is a question I asked of colleagues when I worked at QDesign, a company that had developed its own proprietary audio codec, QDX. The digital audio industry should fund research into this right away. If no evidence is found to support theories of hearing damage, then all is well. If, however, evidence is found, then best to get in front of the issue rather than react to it.

This brings up an obvious question: could long-term viewing of compressed video damage our vision? Anyone who currently watches television via digital cable or mini-satellite dish, or who watches HDTV or another digitally encoded standard, is watching compressed video. That translates into tens of hours per week for tens or even hundreds of millions of people around the world. Are we sure it won't have a long-term effect on how we see?

December 22, 2002

Ticking Time Bombs

From my friend Jon Blossom on my entry a couple of days ago on ticking time bombs:

Actually, I think we simply stand around and wait for someone else to do something.
Of course Jon is right.

It can be tempting at times to think, "Someone else will take care of it." Speaking personally, there's nothing like life in a startup to disabuse one of that notion. If you don't do it, it won't get done. If you don't take care of a problem, it won't go away on its own. If you don't fix something, it will stay broken.

December 21, 2002

GPS Palm Device from Garmin?

According to this story in infoSync, GPS device manufacturer Garmin is going to launch a GPS-equpped, high-resolution, color Palm OS 5 device at CES next month:

GPS and mapping company Garmin has been a Palm OS licensee for a long time, but to date has not actually released a Palm OS-based handheld. All that will change at the 2003 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in early January, when Garmin will officially unveil the Garmin iQue 3600, widely expected to be Palm OS-based.

Garmin's new GPS handheld is expected to be a Palm OS 5 unit...

It includes a virtual handwriting area, although whether it uses the HandEra virtual Graffiti, Sony virtual Graffiti, or some proprietary virtual Graffiti system is unknown. Unconfirmed reports also suggest that it is 320x480 screen using the new PalmSource High-Density screen API...

The iQue includes a retractable GPS antenna, as well as several auxiliary buttons on the left side. It also has a jog wheel. The front application buttons are based on a Palm OS design, with a GPS icon replacing the Memo Pad icon. It also has a two-way rocker on the front, common for Palm OS devices.

Pictures of the iQue 3600 can be found along with the story.

December 20, 2002

Thought for the Day

When one comes upon a ticking bomb, one has three options:

  1. Run away.
  2. Defuse the bomb.
  3. Stand around and do nothing.
Why is it that, in life, so many seem to so often simply stand around and do nothing? It's the one course of action guaranteed to have an undesirable outcome.

December 19, 2002

Spinsanity

Spinsanity, "countering rhetoric with reason:"

Spinsanity is the nation's leading watchdog of manipulative political rhetoric. We work to counter the increasing dominance of techniques of deception and irrationality in American politics by identifying and dissecting outrageous and important examples of this rhetoric in daily posts and weekly columns.
The way I see it, anyone calling bull on people as diverse as Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, Ann Coulter, and Ted Rall can't be all bad.

December 18, 2002

"The Hollandaise Sauce of Cookies"

This past weekend, using recipes from The Best Recipe and Cook's Illustrated magazine, I made cookies to give out as presents to my co-workers. The peanut butter cookies turned out well, as did the chocolate chip cookies -- but the sugar cookies were a disaster. Even before we cooked a batch, my daughter tasted the dough and said it wasn't right. When they came out of the oven, they looked awful -- so bad, in fact, that I tossed the cookies and dough and simply made more chocolate chip cookies.

Later, I spoke with a friend with more baking experience than me about what had happened. "Don't worry about it," she said. "Sugar cookies may look simple, but they're not. It's easy to get them wrong. They're the Hollandaise sauce of cookies."

December 17, 2002

Satire or Reality?

In Tuesday's issue of The Onion can be found a nice bit of satire, "Bill Of Rights Pared Down To A Manageable Six." When winter sets in, and there's not much to do in Madison except to stay warm indoors while writing satire for the Web, The Onion can be funny:

Flanked by key members of Congress and his administration, President Bush approved Monday a streamlined version of the Bill of Rights that pares its 10 original amendments down to a "tight, no-nonsense" six...

The Fourth Amendment, which long protected citizens' homes against unreasonable search and seizure, was among the eliminated amendments. Also stricken was the Ninth Amendment, which stated that the enumeration of certain Constitutional rights does not result in the abrogation of rights not mentioned.

"Quite honestly, I could never get my head around what the Ninth Amendment meant anyway," said outgoing House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX), one of the leading advocates of the revised Bill of Rights. "So goodbye to that one."

The part that struck me about the story was a "quote" from Attorney General John Ashcroft:

Ashcroft responded sharply to critics who charge that the Bill of Rights no longer safeguards certain basic, inalienable rights.

"We're not taking away personal rights; we're increasing personal security," Ashcroft said. "By allowing for greater government control over the particulars of individual liberties, the Bill of Rights will now offer expanded personal freedoms whenever they are deemed appropriate and unobtrusive to the activities necessary to effective operation of the federal government."

Is it me, or does that sound exactly like something Ashcroft would say? Not in a satirical context, but in real life? It's spooky.

Privacy Ring Reactions

I've had more reaction to my blog entry on privacy rings than anything else I've written to date.

Doc Searls:

I never liked the "It's the ______ (economy, war, oil, user, rules, latency, research, sex, games, runtime, comedy), stupid" line. But it's a good working cliché, so let's add one more log to its fire: writing.

This morning I came to the conclusion, after reading Frank Boosman's pseudorandom blog, that blogging is about nothing more than writing -- and that more of us will be writing to more people, with more effect, because of it.

Every new blogging tool is one more step in the evolution of the Web as, literally, the ultimate writing medium: one that lets anybody write for everybody.

I don't know what it was about my blog entry that led Doc to this conclusion. I've written him but have yet to hear back. Doc, if you're reading this, I'd like to understand the connection.

As for Doc's thesis itself, as much as I respect Doc, I disagree with what he's saying here. To me, it's akin to someone in 1993 saying that the Internet was all about Usenet newsgroups. Like many other early Internet users, I posted regularly to newsgroups back then, but as new types of Web-based services became available, not only did many new Internet users not seek out newsgroups, even some existing newsgroup users like me gravitated away from them.

It's true that, today, blogging is about writing. The 500,000 (or so) people currently blogging are, for a variety of reasons, heavily biased towards expressing themselves through words. But I don't believe this will remain true for long. Though there will always be a core of bloggers who are passionate about writing (including me), I believe that most of the growth in blogging -- which I expect to be two or three orders of magnitude within five years -- will come through people who blog from mobile devices and who do so mostly through rich media such as pictures, video, and the like.

Scott Loftesness:

Frank Boosman has a great idea about adding some selective private placement with conditional access to certain portions of a weblog.

The tool that I use for this weblog, Radio UserLand, allows me to configure something like that capability -- but it's reasonably hard to do (involves changing selected configuration files, etc). A more general and open solution to this requirement would, I think, be well received and expand the usage of weblogs into new territories.

I need to learn more about Radio UserLand and what it enables. I fully admit to a fairly Blogger-centric view of the world. In any case, Scott's on the right track when he talks about a "more general and open solution."

Mark Paschal:

Also, privacy rings (also via Scott) through categories could be a nice Radio tool -- though LiveJournal already has them, and not with. Plus of a centralized authentication system, I guess. Maybe encrypt items to particular ring keys, that you give to everyone in a ring? I seem to remember from Applied Cryptography there are better systems, ones that would let you give individual keys to each user and encrypt posts to, but I’d have to look (now that I have a copy!).
Reading this, I realized that privacy rings could be misleading as a term, given that the word ring is used in two contexts, Web Rings and key rings, that are related to the concept. I'm using the term ring vaguely in the Web Ring context -- a ring of people.

Bill Humphries:

[via Scott Loftesness ] Frank Booseman [sic] would like blog tools to support walled garden posting. He's inspired when a friend would love to post photos from a party, but not to the whole world. Live Journal, which I've been playing with lately, supports this. It can, because it's a monolitic (on the server-side) application. I created a LJ account, and friends who were already there added me to their 'friends' list, and added them to mine. They post a private entry, and their friends see it, but not others. As one longtime friend from Fandom pointed out, this means you have have online exchanges which are more like the APA's we were in during the 1980's and 1990's.

Using FOaF, authentication, and some modules bolted onto RSS, that would be a start.

I'll write more about this soon, but what I have in mind is less of a proprietary system and more of a standard for exchanging information between systems.

John Ludwig:

Privacy Rings and Selective Privacy. Dead on -- pseudorandom -- a crying need.
Thanks, John, and to everyone who took the time to comment on my ideas.

I'll write more on privacy rings soon. Stay tuned.

December 16, 2002

The Blog of Anne Frank

From a discussion on Joi Ito's blog:

A comic strip about "What is a blog?" [ Blogging about Blogging ] by Joichi Ito at November 18, 2002 08:01 PM

We've been debating in Japanese about what a blog is and whether it is any different from diary sites or other web pages. I've had quite a difficult time defending the position that blogs are really anything special. Here is a funny comic strip of a discussion between a grumpy girl and a questioning ant on that topic.

Seen first on for the sake of clarity.

[...]

Comment from jun makihara on November 21, 2002 09:33 PM
I guess if blogger had gotten its act together 60 years earlier, you could have had "The Blog of Anne Frank". Doesn't have the same feeling does it?

[...]

Comment from Frank Boosman on December 14, 2002 10:38 PM
Jun, you're right that The Blog of Anne Frank doesn't have the same feeling as The Diary of Anne Frank. But on the other hand, if Anne Frank had been posting to a blog instead of to a diary, perhaps it would have put pressure on the Allies to end the war faster, or put pressure on the Nazis to avoid mistreating the Jews -- or maybe just to avoid mistreating Anne.

We haven't yet begun to appreciate the ways in which blogging will change the world. As publishing-as-event falls, publishing-as-process rises. What will we lose in this change? What will we gain?

December 15, 2002

"'Reefer Madness'-Madness"

Canada's National Post ran this story on the US reaction to Canadian discussion of marijuana decriminalization a few days ago:

U.S. drug czar John Walters warned yesterday that Canadians could face problems at the border if Ottawa proceeds with the decriminalization of marijuana.

Mr. Walters travelled to the Canada-U.S. border at Buffalo to deliver his message on the same day a Commons committee called for the possession and cultivation of less than 30 grams of marijuana to be decriminalized.

Mr. Walters, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said RCMP officials recently told him that 95% of all marijuana grown in Vancouver is sent to the United States.

"The RCMP informed me that many of the organizations, some of them ethnically based, Vietnamese organizations and others, that are doing the grows in British Columbia are now moving groups across Canada to Ontario and Quebec to begin to supply larger parts of the United States," he said.

"It's bad for people in Canada and the consumption and dependence problems it creates, but also, their estimates are the bulk of that marijuana is headed for the United States and it's large quantity, high-potency and it builds on the threat that we now believe we have underestimated and we're trying to address.

"It makes security at the border tougher because this is a dangerous threat to our young people given what we see and it makes the problem of controlling the border more difficult," he said.

Mr. Walters dismissed claims marijuana is not addictive or a serious drug, saying the level of psychoactive THC is much higher than it used to be. "That's archaic views of what marijuana was, left over from the Cheech and Chong years of the '70s," he said, cautioning against "reefer-madness madness."

Not only is this offensive in the sense that the US is throwing its weight around, trying to tell other countries how to handle their drug problems (as if we should be giving anyone advice on drug policy), but it doesn't make sense. The Canadians are talking about decriminalizing possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana by individuals. What does this have to do with "Vietnamese organizations and others" sending "95% of all marijuana grown in Vancouver... to the United States?"

First we had the "War on Drugs" -- a war against an individual behavioral choice. Now we have the "War on Terror" -- a war against a strategy. That makes two unwinnable wars in which we're engaged. Any nominations for more?

December 14, 2002

Weblogs in Meatspace

Dave Winer wants to start a conference for bloggers:

A weblog conference, for bloggers, about weblogs, itself a weblog, for learning, exploring, promoting and developing ideas about technology for the humanities...

Weblogs in Meatspace...

Everyone who attends or speaks must have a weblog. No exceptions. So if Jimmy Carter wants to come and tell us what it's like to win the Nobel Peace Prize, he must first tell us on the Web. Same for George W Bush, Steve Jobs or Jack Valenti. But the conference has "normal" sessions, howtos for bloggers, panels for big issues, keynotes from megabloggers, and A-teamers. Awards. A technology track for developers. Perhaps even a session for people with products they want to promote through our blogs (a chance to pick up some cool new toys for free).

The conference would be cheap. Bloggers don't have much money. No sponsorship, at least not in year one. Sponsorship always influences what's said and done. In general, the goal is to mirror the Web in meatspace. The vast majority of weblogs are unsponsored. People disagree about this, but I'm a hardass. No sponsorship means no subsidies. So it's gotta be a no frills show, and that's okay, because it's the ideas and energy I want. I don't care if you have a lot of money.

Anyway, I would love to go to this conference. Lots more ideas. I'm going to talk some more with Scoble. Maybe start a mail list. Let's see what happens.

Doc Searls picks up on the idea here. I hope this happens. I'd love to attend.

When blogging has become a pervasive part of our culture, attending a conference on blogging may hold about as much appeal as attending a conference on typewriters -- but right now it's one of the most invigorating conferences I can imagine. When 500 million people are blogging five years from now, attending a conference on blogging may seem about as much fun as spending a weekend in Las Vegas without a hotel room -- but right now some of the most interesting people in the world are blogging.

December 13, 2002

Privacy Rings

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that two of the essential aspects of the future of blogging will be selective privacy and privacy rings -- respectively, the desire and the ability to easily and precisely control access by others to one's data.

The trigger for writing this was a chat I had yesterday with the delightful Xeni Jardin. We missed each other when I was in California last week -- I was at Joi Ito's party in San Francisco while she was holding a housewarming party in Los Angeles. I asked if she was going to post a blog entry of her party complete with pictures, and it turned out she wasn't -- she didn't feel comfortable posting photographs of her private living space on the Web.

To me, this was a perfect illustration of selective privacy. Xeni is a respected blogger, has her own site, and is visibly and frequently active in a variety of public spaces. Yet for her, to post pictures taken inside her house would be to share more of her personal life than she cares to. These boundaries are aspects of Xeni's selective privacy -- how, when, where, and with whom she chooses to share the record of her life.

Each of us has a unique vision of selective privacy. Some bloggers post intimate details of their lives, while others are careful never to discuss their personal issues. Some bloggers proclaim their identity loudly, while others remain in the shadows of anonymity. This is as it should be; we are individuals with our own preferences.

To implement our personal versions of selective privacy, we need the ability to create and modify privacy rings -- sets of people and the access we grant to them. Using off-the-shelf blogging tools, it's difficult to set up a blog so that the level of detail presented varies with the reader's identity. One person I know deals with this by running two completely separate Movable Type-based blogs: one public where he alone posts, and another completely private where anyone in his discussion group can post. Not only is this a time-intensive solution for the owner of the blogs, it means his discussion group must now track two URLs instead of one. What happens if he wants additional levels of privacy? Must he create yet more blogs? That's what current tools allow, but there must be a better way.

This problem is difficult enough today when the vast majority of the content created for blogs is created by bloggers themselves. It will grow exponentially worse when we carry devices capable of posting continuous streams of updated data to our blogs (if we call them that). Imagine your cell phone after next uploading GPS coordinates, the names of nearby detected devices, call records, pictures, audio and video clips, and so on. How will we control access to such information? Some pictures we may want to keep only for ourselves (Ring 0), while others we may want to publish to the world. Some people might want their immediate family (Ring 1) to know their location at all times, while others might find that idea unacceptable.

Without tools to control our data through selective privacy, and without tools to manage groups of viewers and the access we give them through privacy rings, blogging -- especially mobile blogging -- won't take off the way it should.

December 12, 2002

IBM -> Microsoft -> Nokia?

This is a couple of weeks old, but interesting nonetheless. The Economist ran a editorial on the "collision of the computing and mobile-phone industries:"

"A computer on every desk and in every home." This was Microsoft's mission statement for many years, and it once sounded visionary and daring. But today it seems lacking in ambition. What about a computer in every pocket? Sure enough, Microsoft has recently amended its statement: its goal is now to "empower people through great software, anytime, any place on any device". Being chained to your desktop is out: mobility is in. The titan of the computer industry has set its sights on an entirely new market...

In short, the once-separate worlds of computing and mobile telephony are now colliding, and the giants of each industry -- Microsoft and Nokia, respectively -- are squaring up for a fight for pre-eminence. Both camps are betting that some kind of pocket communicator, or "smartphone", will be the next big thing after the PC, which has dominated the technology industry ever since it overthrew the mainframe 20 years ago...

If this is the next stage in the evolution of computing, one obvious question arises: which firm will dominate it, as IBM dominated the mainframe age, and Microsoft the PC era? The answer is that there is unlikely to be a single winner this time around. IBM ruled in mainframes because it owned the dominant hardware and software standards. In the PC era, hardware became an open standard (in the form of the IBM-compatible PC), and Microsoft held sway by virtue of its ownership of Windows, the dominant software standard. But the direction of both computing and communications, on the Internet and in mobile telecoms, is towards open standards: communication devices are less useful if they cannot all talk to each other. Makers of pocket communicators, smartphones and whatever else emerges will thus have to compete on design and branding, logistics, and their ability to innovate around such open standards.

At the moment, these considerations seem to favour Nokia more than any other company. But Nokia faces a direct challenge as Microsoft leads the computer industry on to its turf; its continued dominance of the mobile-phone industry is by no means assured, since it is not based on the ownership of proprietary standards. Microsoft, for its part, will try to exploit its dominance of the PC industry to help force its way into the new market. But it may well fail. Either way, there will be no need this time round for any repeat of the long-drawn-out antitrust cases, against first IBM and then Microsoft.

I think we can look at the experience in the Japanese cellular industry for examples here. For the past few years, NTT DoCoMo had by far the most popular cellular service in Japan with i-mode. Then they distracted themselves with building expensive, mostly useless 3G videophones. Meanwhile, their competitors began shipping 3G phones with cameras, GPS receivers, and location-based services, and rapidly ate into their market share. For the last eight months, the most popular phones in Japan have been KDDI's au models, as illustrated in this story from Reuters earlier this week:

KDDI Corp, Japan's second-largest wireless operator, said on Monday the number of users for its high-speed, third-generation (3G) mobile phone service had topped four million, keeping a wide lead over larger rival NTT DoCoMo Inc.

The figure indicates the operator is on track to winning seven million 3G subscribers by the end of the current business year on March 31 -- a KDDI target reiterated by President Tadashi Onodera last week.

KDDI began its 3G service based on the CDMA2000 standard in April, while DoCoMo, whose 3G operation is based on the competing WCDMA format, has only won about 150,000 users despite a six-month head start...

DoCoMo's 3G service has met with tepid demand due mainly to limited geographic coverage and short battery life.

Now DoCoMo is coming back -- last week, Joi Ito showed me his new DoCoMo phone with dual zero-lux cameras built in. Apparently it's the hottest thing in Japanese cell phones at the moment, and very difficult to find in stock. This is the kind of back-and-forth competition that has been sorely lacking in the market for operating systems, but which we can hope for -- and should do all we can to encourage -- in the wireless market.

December 11, 2002

Top Searches of 2002

Ask Jeeves has released its lists of the top searches of 2002. Three of the categories are listed below:

  • News
    1. West Nile wirus
    2. September 11th memorial
    3. Enron scandal
    4. Osama bin Laden
    5. Saddam Hussein
  • Music artists
    1. Eminem
    2. Avril Levigne
    3. Britney Spears
    4. Nelly
    5. Jennifer Lopez
  • Products
    1. Harry Potter books
    2. TiVo
    3. Dragon Ball Z
    4. PlayStation 2
    5. DVD players
The vast majority of Ask Jeeves' users must be in the US, because the list is heavily biased in that direction. With that said...

The news items seem fine. The music artists make me feel old-fashioned -- I have this desire to listen to musicians who write their own songs. As for the products, it's exciting to see TiVo listed as number two -- they must be doing jumping jacks at TiVo headquarters today. Incidentally, Xbox held the number eight position on the product list, and GameCube didn't register at all. To my mind, that's probably a reasonable indicator of the future prospects of the three game consoles.

December 10, 2002

Isn't It Ironic?

OpinionJournal has the following note in today's edition of Best of the Web Today:

A Poor Choice of Words--III In Oslo to accept his Nobel Peace Prize, Jimmy Carter seemed to blame Israel for all the Middle East's problems. "One of the key factors that . . . arouses intense feelings of animosity in the world is the festering problem in the Holy Land, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the inability of Israel to live in peace with its neighbors," Reuters quotes him as saying.

Now, this could have been an actual poor choice of words. After all, strictly speaking it's true that Israel is unable to live in peace with most of its neighbors--but only because those neighbors refuse to make peace with Israel. In his acceptance speech, however, Carter seemed to take another dig at the Jewish state: "Today there are at least eight nuclear powers on earth, and three of them are threatening to their neighbours in areas of great international tension."

It seems likely that India and Pakistan are two of the countries that "are threatening to their neighbors." Here's a list of the remaining six nucelar powers: America, Russia, China, Britain, France and Israel. Guess which one of them Carter had in mind?

Is it also possible that former President Carter was referring to North Korea, a state that is certainly "threatening to [its] neighbors," and a state that -- if it has nuclear weapons -- has them thanks in part to an appeasement agreement he himself negotiated? Now that would be ironic.

"The Napster of the Future?"

Slashdot has a story on how the cable industry views PVRs -- personal video recorders, like the TiVo or ReplayTV:

sbombay writes "I just came back from Broadband Plus (formerly the Western Cable Show) and was disappointed to find that cable companies despise PVRs. In his keynote speech, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said that the PVR amounts to 'the Napster of the future.' Cable World has a story about the speech and quotes from other cable execs bashing the PVR. The cable industrys opposition to the PVR boils down to two things -- PVRs help satellite companies (Dish and DirecTV) provide services like Video On Demand (VOD) and a PVR in a cable home cuts into VOD revenue. Any of the sessions at the show that touched the topic of PVRs were an opportunity for the cable industry to slam the PVR. The strongest attack came from Gary Lauder, a venture capitalist who has funded many cable related companies. During his 15-minute presentation, Lauder slammed his Replay box, 'its too hot,' 'my wife doesnt know how to use it,' and he even tried to fry an egg on his PVR. He also openly called on the cable companies and Hollywood to sue the PVR companies for copyright infringement. If you love your PVR, the cable industry is not your friend."
The Supernova Website has an entry on a talk by TiVo's president yesterday:
Morgan Guenther, TiVo. Focused on marketing and financial execution; will be cash flow positive this quarter. Moving to licensing and productization of technology. Continually innovating on the apps that live above basic DVR functionality. Moving into new advertising, content distribution. Evolving to a home network of TiVos.
The contrast is striking. TiVo is about to make money and has incredibly satisfied users -- this is from David Pogue of the New York Times:
My name is David, and I'm a TiVo addict. Oh, sure, I love my cable modem, I take my laptop everywhere, and they'll have to tear the Palm V out of my cold, dead hands. But if I were cast away on a desert island with only a single power outlet, I'd want my TiVo.
Meanwhile, the cable industry views PVRs as evil and wants to shut them down. This is despite the fact that TiVo in particular has reached out to form partnerships with content providers. Don't they get it? PVRs make people watch more television, not less. Instead of thinking about legislation and litigation, they should be thinking about how to take advantage of their popularity and the new viewing models they create. Speaking of David Pogue, he wrote about this earlier, and I blogged about it here.

December 09, 2002

Joi Ito in Silicon Valley

Joi Ito is meeting all sorts of interesting people in Silicon Valley this week and writing about it in his blog -- it's definitely worth a look.

He has blogged me twice (here and here) for my party coverage and the meetings I arranged for him with Jean-Louis Gasse and Reid Hoffman. Now I'm blogging him. This is descending into some sort of cross-referential netherworld. Goodness knows how tangled things will get when he meets Alex Osadzinski.

December 08, 2002

Heard Last Night II

A conversation between my friend joe holt and me:

joe: What's that flavor you're having?

Me: Macapuno.

joe: What is that again?

Me: "Baby coconut."

joe: Ah, the veal of coconut.

At Marianne's Ice Cream, Santa Cruz, CA.

December 07, 2002

Joi Ito's Party

Joi Ito hosted a party in San Francisco last night and was kind enough to invite me. It was a chance to meet some people for the first time, to meet others face-to-face for the first time, and to catch up with some people I hadn't seen in a long while.

Above are Tom Rielly and Joi. Tom and I knew each other in the late 1980s, when I worked at Silicon Beach Software and he was a key player in the Macintosh community. I don't know anyone who has a single bad word to say about Tom.

Above are Joi and Marc Canter. Marc and I had never met before tonight, but shared many mutual acquaintances. Marc recently wrote a very nice blog entry on tools for mobile blogging. Recommended.

Above are Reid Hoffman (who isn't linked because I don't think he wants to be found, at least not at the moment) and Barak Berkowitz. I met Barak through Joi a few months back -- a very sharp, very nice guy. As for Reid, he's one of the co-founders of PayPal, a great friend, and working on very cool stuff.

Above are Cory Doctorow and Howard Rheingold. Cory describes himself as a "30 year-old renaissance geek." I've wanted to meet him since admiring his work on boing boing, and he was as every bit as clever as I had expected. As for Howard, this was our first face-to-face meeting, though we know each other through Brainstorms, his private online community. He's quite wonderful and was kind enough to sign a couple of copies of Smart Mobs for me.

Snippets of conversation heard throughout the evening:

This chip is an HDTV display?

Q: Are you on Wife 1.0 or Wife 2.0?
A: I'm in beta with 2.0.

After they made us get out of the chairs, we sat down on the floor. They made us get up because it was a "security risk."

Q: Did you do the Atkins thing?
A: No, I did it the old-fashioned way -- diet and exercise. I hate the old-fashioned way.

Watch the 15 year-olds. They're already doing it.

I was so busy talking with such interesting people that I didn't make it around to talk to many others -- damn! Anyway, thanks to Joi for putting on such a great party.

Oh, and to Mike Backes: I'm sorry; there seemed to be some sort of networking problem, and the remote possession of me you promised never seemed to take hold. I mean, I didn't ask Joi to tango with me, at least not that I remember. It's too bad, because I'm sure everyone was looking forward to it. We'll have to work on it for the next party.

December 06, 2002

Another Thing to Do Right Now

Digital Consumer is soliciting input for the proposed "broadcast flag" rule:

Hollywood is pushing the Federal Communications Commission to forcibly implant copy-protection technology in digital television receivers. The FCC is weighing a plan to mandate this "broadcast flag" which will govern what you are allowed to do with the digital television you receive and will likely take away many of the fair-use rights you have today. Click here to learn more.
It's just a couple of minutes to fill out a form and have your thoughts sent to the FCC. You can find the form here.

December 05, 2002

Jean-Louis Gassée

I'm traveling in California this week -- my flight left just as the snow and ice storm began in North Carolina yesterday. Today I had the pleasure of catching up with some former colleagues from Be, including the most quotable CEO in the history of high-tech, Jean-Louis Gassée:

Heard from JLG at one point, prefacing a comment:

I don't know how not to use a sexual metaphor.
Of course, he didn't disappoint. Heard later in the conversation, in a discussion of whether there's such a thing as bad press:
Me: At one of Guy Kawasaki's conferences, I heard a Merc reporter claim that there are only two kinds of press so bad that you can't recover from them: child molestation and cannabalism.

JLG: Molestation, no, that's bad. But cannabalism? Hmm... it depends on who you eat.

Definitely one of the fringe benefits of working at Be. Ah, the good old days!

December 04, 2002

"A Person Paper on Purity in Language"

Yesterday I promised cognitive dissonance. Here it is.

In 1985, the brilliant Douglas Hofstadter, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gdel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, wrote a column for Scientific American titled "A Person Paper on Purity in Language." If you haven't read it, do so now. Without giving it away, what Hofstadter does is to express his feelings about sexist language through an ingenious and rich analogy. It is arguably the single best essay by one of the most talented essayists of our time (if only he was still writing a monthly column -- what a joy that was).

How is it that I can extol the virtues of a blog entry on "girl power" while at the same time holding up Hofstadter's essay as one of the best I have ever read? It must be cognitive dissonance. Reading what Halley Suitt wrote, I don't see it as derogatory or demeaning to her gender -- quite the opposite. Yet Hofstadter argues convincingly against the very word "girl" (without mentioning it directly). I'm trying to sort out the contradiction for myself. If you have any theories, e-mail me.

Hofstadter's paper and his other columns are collected in the wonderful Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern. Highly recommended.

December 03, 2002

"What Ever Happened to Feminism?"

Via Dave Winer, a great piece by Halley Suitt, "What Ever Happened to Feminism?"

I'm having lunch with four really bright guys at work and one says, apropos of the Victoria's Secret Lingerie Show on CBS the night before, "What Ever Happened To Feminism?" And I say, "It's over," and then I say, "and you guys are in big big trouble."

This brings the appetizer munching to a slow halt. I start to explain. We entered the work force in the 70's in those ridiculous women's suits with bowties. We wanted a level playing field. We wanted to play fair. We wanted the same opportunities and privileges men got. We won a few of those, but mostly we lost and we weren't taken seriously. We cried "foul" with sexual harrassment in the 80's and 90's and then the game changed completely. We went back to basics. We found our old power -- girl power -- and we added that to what we'd learned from men. So now we knew how to be professional but we also remembered how to be subversive, subversively female, subversively feminine.

"There is no more feminism," I explain. Game Over. But it took me a day or two to name the new game. It's "girlism" -- women want to be sexy girls and use all the tricks girls use. Crying, flirting, begging, winking, stomping their feet when they don't get their way, general trotting around showing off their long legs and whatever else they decide to show off thereby distracting and derailing men.

It's about power -- girl power we've always had but forgot about combined with all the stuff we've learned in the workplace. Needless to say, if you're a man and you call us on it, we deny it. The new double double standard. We learned how to stop playing fair.

Just wait until you see my post tomorrow. Viewed alongside this post, it's going to be an exercise in cognitive dissonance.

December 02, 2002

The Silliest Movie of 2002?

I saw the new James Bond film, Die Another Day, last week. I've been amazed since to see some positive reviews of what I thought was the most incoherent and uncompelling Bond movie since the Roger Moore days. I'm not up to writing a true review, but I do feel like bitching about it. Please note that I give away most of the movie, so if you want to be surprised when you see it, you've been warned.

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT

  • In the opening sequence, Bond forces the Korean villain over a waterfall. 14 months later, the villain has not only resurfaced with a new Caucasian face and English identity, but has launched a diamond company, built and launched a death ray satellite, and is about to be knighted. These villains are efficient! Maybe we should let them run things for us. Also, while I'm at it, may I suggest that the UK government make a bit more effort to check out the backgrounds of candidates for knighthood?
  • I'm all for Bond as the world's coolest customer, but after 14 months of torture, he walks out with nothing more than a long beard, ready to go back to his old ways? No post-traumatic stress disorder? No anguish? Nothing?
  • I truly disliked what the screenwriters did to M in this movie. Over the past three films, and relying in large part on Dame Judi Dench's considerable acting skills, they've built her up into a far more real, far more complex, far more likable character than any of her predecessors. Now she's ready to discard Bond like a used tissue, and then pick him right back up again when she feels like it -- and it doesn't seem to bother him all that much. Is Bond truly that loyal to Her Majesty's government? Bond, I have to tell you: it's time to leave the civil service. Besides, I've heard the money's better out in the real world.
  • The villain's scheme is of the sort that only worked as a story device before Dr. Evil came along. A satellite that reflects and focuses the sun's rays to use as a weapon? Are they kidding? I half-expected Frau Farbissina to yell, "Arm the satellite!" Now that I think about it, that might have improved the movie.
  • Hot tip for would-be supervillains: if your weapon is a sunlight-focusing satellite, it's probably best not to build your headquarters in Iceland.
  • For no apparent reason, the villain's Icelandic headquarters building is a giant greenhouse (filmed at the Eden Project). Naturally, it's built on the surface of a frozen lake, because isn't that really the best place for greenhouses? Anyway, Bond decides to break in by cutting a hole in the ice and swimming underneath it to the greenhouse, where he pops up in a pool of hot water. Excuse me?
  • When Bond takes off in his car and the villain's top henchman gives chase, we see that the henchman's car is a Jaguar. A convertible Jaguar. In Iceland. Smart.
  • Speaking of cars, when Bond gets his invisible Aston Martin, I could only think back to the immortal words from Mystery Science Theater 3000: "I'm starting not to believe this ninja stuff." Well, I'm starting not to believe this spy stuff. A Slashdot reader suggested yesterday that when the invisible car was introduced, the Bond franchise jumped the shark. Could be.
I know Bond movies are inherently silly. My favorite, You Only Live Twice, features a six foot two inch Scotsman as a spy in Japan. But I expect them -- like any other movie -- to at least be internally consistent, if not consistent with the real world. Die Another Day is just ridiculous.

December 01, 2002

One Month to Go

As of today, it's exactly one month until my fortieth birthday. How do I feel about that? I find myself neither depressed ("I'm getting old") nor joyous ("I made it this far"). It's another milestone.

Does this make me middle-aged? I don't know. I don't feel middle-aged. I'm not even sure what the term means. I pretty much feel like I did when I was 30, except a bit wiser (I hope).

I have some significant personal goals that I want to achieve next year, but I don't think they have anything to do with turning 40 -- they're just the goals that I feel ready to take on at this particular point in my life.

Anyway, I've already had my "mid-life crisis," so that's taken care of.

November 30, 2002

"The Exclusive Right to Invention [is]... for the Benefit of Society"

Today's quote is from Thomas Jefferson, from a letter to Isaac McPherson written in 1813:

It would be singular to admit a natural and even an hereditary right to inventors... It would be curious... if an idea, the fugitive fermentation of an individual brain, could, of natural right, be claimed in exclusive and stable property. If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody... The exclusive right to invention [is] given not of natural right, but for the benefit of society.
In these days of business process patents and endless copyright extensions, it would be useful for politicians to keep this in mind -- the last sentence above all.

November 29, 2002

The Shadows Social Phenomena Cast Across the Internet

From a story on Google in the New York Times:

The logs team came to work one morning to find that "carol brady maiden name" had surged to the top of the charts.

Curious, they mapped the searches by time of day and found that they were neatly grouped in five spikes: biggest, small, small, big and finally, after a long wait, another small blip. Each spike started at 48 minutes after the hour.

As the logs were passed through the office, employees were perplexed. Why would there be a surge in interest in a character from the 1970's sitcom "The Brady Bunch"? But the data could only reflect patterns, not explain them.

That is a paradox of a Google log: it does not capture social phenomena per se, but merely the shadows they cast across the Internet.

"The most interesting part is why," said Amit Patel, who has been a member of the logs team. "You can't interpret it unless you know what else is going on in the world."

So what had gone on on April 22, 2001?

That night the million-dollar question on the game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" had been, "What was Carol Brady's maiden name?" Seconds after the show's host, Regis Philbin, posed the question, thousands flocked to Google to search for the answer (Tyler), producing four spikes as the show was broadcast successively in each time zone.

And that last little blip?

"Hawaii," Mr. Patel said.

Via Howard Rheingold.

Thanksgiving Grades

After writing earlier about my Thanksgiving dinner plans, I thought I should provide some self-assessment grades and comments:

  • Turkey: A-. Using the V-rack and following the timetable (for temperature changes and turning) from The Best Recipe gave an excellent result. The turkey browned nicely without resorting to foil, paper bags, or other enclosures, and the meat tasted just right. I graded myself down because there was a patch of skin on the breast that was over-browned. Other than that, I was quite happy with the results.
  • Stuffing: B+. The onions, apples, and bacon gave a great variety of flavors and textures to the stuffing. Still, though, there was something missing -- I can't put my finger on what. It was good, but not up there with the best stuffing I've ever had.
  • Mashed potatoes: C-. I over-mashed the potatoes and ended up with a dish that tasted good but had an almost doughy consistency. All my fault.
  • Gravy: B. I didn't think to buy a fat skimmer and didn't realize how necessary it would be to this recipe -- the book didn't mention buying a utensil for this purpose, nor did it provide (as far as I could see) any clever fat-skimming techniques. With the fat mostly gone, though, the gravy was very good. It was also a lot of work -- three distinct steps over the previous night and Thanksgiving morning.
  • Carrots: C. Not bad, but the brown sugar sauce ended up too watery and didn't stick to the carrots -- instead, it collected at the bottom of the serving bowl and had to be re-spooned over the course of the meal. One of two dishes not drawn from The Best Recipe.
  • Cranberry sauce: A. Adding orange rind and Grand Marnier to the recipe gave the cranberries just the right edge. This would have been an A+ if I had added nuts of some kind.
  • Dinner rolls: D-. Dough made using my bread machine, with the recipe drawn from that book. All my fault. Forgot to glaze the rolls before cooking them and then left them in the oven too long. The only reason I'm not flunking myself on this one is that my son Cameron ate two of them.
  • Pumpkin pie: C+. Tasted good, but leaving the pies in the oven long enough to cook the filling caused the crust to burn somewhat. I should have made my own pie crust instead of buying pre-made, and I should have used glass pie plates instead of disposable pie tins.
An overall grade point average of 2.59 -- between a B- and a C+. I'd like to get up to a 3.0 next year. Thanks to my family for serving as guinea pigs!

November 28, 2002

Being Thankful

As I mentioned in an entry yesterday, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It has been so for as long as I can remember. To me, Thanksgiving isn't just about the family, the friends, the food, and the football... it truly is about giving thanks. So what am I thankful for this year?

  • I'm thankful for my children and the opportunity to be with them so much of the time. We spent over a year and a half living apart, and it was one of the most difficult periods of my life. Now we live a couple of miles apart as the crow flies, and they're with me every other week. As I write this, my older son Duncan and my daughter Kelsey are playing cards while I write, all of us at the kitchen table. Being in their presence is a simple pleasure, but one that I appreciate now.

  • I'm thankful for my co-founders. While it's true that being a co-owner of a startup certainly motivates me to do whatever is necessary to make it succeed, it's the chance to work with people whom I've counted as friends for 10 years or more that excites me to come into the office every day. Richard, David S., David E. Greg, Scott, and Tim, it's an honor to work alongside each and every one of you.

  • I'm thankful for my friends. Better late than never, I've come to understand that lifelong friends are rare; friends on whom one can absolutely rely are rarer still; and friends who provide unconditional love and support are the rarest of all. I am fortunate to have friends of this sort and determined to do all that I can to give them even a fraction of what they have given me. To call out two, but with the wish to slight none: Eve, you're the least judgmental person I've ever known -- thank you for your constancy over the years. And Tina, you were loyal to me when others might have turned away -- thank you for your acceptance and your support.
Looking over the list I've just written, I find it interesting that I am most thankful for people above all else and not things. When I was younger, I thought things were important. The older I get, the less vital they seem -- especially in comparison to friends. Does this mean I'm growing up?

Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

November 27, 2002

It's About Time [Islam] Grew Up

The deputy governor of an Islamic state in Nigeria has issued a fatwa against a journalist there for her story on the Miss World pageant:

"Just like the blasphemous Indian writer Salman Rushdie, the blood of Isioma Daniel can be shed," Zamfara Deputy Governor Mahamoud Shinkafi told a gathering of Muslim groups in the state capital, Gusau, on Monday.
The fashionable thing seems to be to blame the writer instead of the violent rioters who killed 200 people:
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo... told CNN that "irresponsible journalism" in Nigeria was responsible for the violence.

"What happened in Nigeria obviously could have happened at any time that such sensitive and irresponsible remarks are made, at a time like this -- particularly at a time like this, in Nigeria," he said...

[The] chairman of the Miss World competition vigorously denied the beauty pageant had caused the riots.

Julia Morley said the contest had been used as a "political football" and blamed the Nigerian journalist, who wrote the Muhammad article, for inflaming the situation...

At a news conference, Morley said: "It was not a mistake to hold it in Nigeria. What was a mistake was a journalist making a remark he shouldn't have made.

So what was it that Daniel said that supposedly led the Nigerians to the rioting and, finally, the fatwa?

The demonstrations came in apparent response to a Nov. 16 ThisDay article about the Miss World contest, which began earlier this month and was to conclude on Dec. 7 in Abuja, Nigeria's capital. The article, written by Isioma Daniel, a style reporter who has since resigned, questioned the sincerity of Muslim groups who had attacked the pageant as indecent.

"The Muslims thought it was immoral to bring 92 women to Nigeria and ask them to revel in vanity," the piece said. "What would Muhammad think? In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from one of them."

That's it. That Muhammad "probably would have chosen a wife" from among the Miss World contestants. I'm not a particular fan of beauty pageants, but my impression is that the contestants are often intelligent, well-educated, talented, and, yes, beautiful. I can't see what is so inflammatory about the statement. Further, even if the statement is inflammatory, what gives any individual the right to impose a death sentence on the person who wrote it?

As a reader on Plastic wrote:

Islam is one of the world's largest religions, it's about time it grew up and stopped trying to kill people who disagree with it.
Well said.

Thanksgiving and Cook's Illustrated

I'm fairly excited about Thanksgiving Day tomorrow -- not just because it's my favorite holiday, but because for the first time, I'm doing all the cooking myself. In the past, I've often cooked the turkey, but never the side dishes. This year I'm doing it all.

I'm relying heavily on the people at Cook's Illustrated magazine. (They also put on the television show America's Test Kitchen.) My sister-in-law Karin (yes, for the observant, I have both an ex-wife and a sister-in-law named Karin), who is an outstanding chef, turned me onto Cook's Illustrated. If you're at all scientifically minded, it's definitely the way to go. The writers experiment extensively -- by controlling certain variables and varying others -- to find the best recipes for basic dishes. In the current issue, for example, they cook over 35 rib roasts to find the best recipe for roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and they cook 50 batches to find the best recipe for sugar cookies.

The Cook's Illustrated people have published a number of books, including The Best Recipe. It's what I'm using to plan and cook Thanksgiving dinner. Note also that they operate a Thanksgiving cooking advice site, Turkey Help.

I'm flying solo tomorrow, with just The Best Recipe to help. I'll report back here on how it goes.

November 26, 2002

Owning a Word

As of today, searching for the word "pseudorandom" on Google turns up my blog as the first result. Cool!

419 Gets Personal

My ex-wife, whose maiden name is of Czech origin, received this message the other day and forwarded it onto me:

Date: Wed, 20 Nov 2002 21:35:38 +0100 (CET) From: tony_williams@post.cz Subject: GET BACK TO ME name To: tony_williams@post.cz

Dear name

I am Barrister TONY WILLIAMS, a solicitor at law. I am the personal attorney to Mr.Tom name, a national of your country, who used to work with shell Development Company in Nigeria. Here in after shall be referred to as my client. On the 21st of April 1999, my client, his wife and their three Children were involved in a car accident along Sagbama express-road. All occupants of the vehicle unfortunately lost their lives.

Since then I have made several enquiries to your embassy to locate any of my clients extended relatives this has also proved unsuccessful.After these several unsuccessful attempts, I decided to track his last name over the Internet, to locate any member of his family hence I contacted you. I have contacted you to assist in repatriating the money and property left behind by my client before they get confiscated or declared unserviceable by the bank where these huge deposits were lodged. Particularly, the Eco Bank International where the deceased had an account valued at about Seven million United States Dollars (US$7,000,000:00) has issued me a notice to provide the next of kin or have the account confiscated within the next ten official working days.

Since I have been unsuccessful in locating the relatives for over 2 years now I seek your consent to present you as the next of kin of the deceased since you have the same last name so that the proceeds of this account valued at $7,000,000:00 can be paid to you and then you and me can share the money. 60% to me and 40% to you I have all necessary legal documents that can be used to back up any claim we may make.

All I require is your honest co-operation to enable us seeing this deal through. I guarantee that this will be executed under a legitimate arrangement that will protect you from any breach of the law.

Do send your reply to my email:tony_will@go.com

Best regards,
TONY WILLIAMS Esq

This is obviously a 419 scam letter, but it looks like a new twist on the 419 scam (though I'm certainly not an expert on the subject). Now the story involves a deceased person with the same surname as the recipient -- a surname that is easily traceable to a particular country. The scammers get free e-mail accounts from the country in question to make themselves look slightly more legitimate. Clever!

Thanks to Karin for giving me permission to post this.

November 25, 2002

The "Finer-Grained Sensibilities" of Women

Today's quote is from Tom Robbins, in an interview with High Times magazine:

I cherish women and have always preferred their company, reveling in their perfumes, their contours, their finer-grained sensibilities, lunar intuitions, nurturing instincts and relatively unfettered emotions -- although I'm certainly not unaware that there are plenty of neurotic, uptight, stupid women in the world.
Via life's little intricacies.

November 24, 2002

No Sonic Cruiser After All

From the Economist, news that Boeing's Sonic Cruiser may not come to pass after all:

Officially no decision has been taken, and Boeing is still showing airlines pictures of three versions of its high-speed "sonic cruiser", the futuristic aircraft it unveiled in March 2001. But the sonic cruiser is not going to take off. Boeing may make the formal announcement before the end of the year. By March, it will unveil plans for a more conventional 250-seater jet, to take the place in the middle of the market of both the ageing Boeing 757 and the wide-bodied 767, two workhorses of the world's airlines. Out goes the sonic cruiser. In comes the decidedly less-catchy "super efficient" aircraft, a sort of cut-down Boeing 777...

An executive of the oneworld alliance, which includes American Airlines, British Airways and Cathay Pacific, this week described the number of sonic cruisers these airlines would buy as "a very round number", meaning zero. Lately Boeing has taken instead to showing airlines its early plans for its new conventional 250-seater.

The same technology of new composite materials and advanced computer-aided design that would have created the sonic cruiser will now be employed to produce efficiency rather than speed. The choice comes down to 20% more speed, at the same fuel-burn rate and operating cost; or the same performance, with 20% less fuel and a lower operating cost. Although a few airlines are still dazzled by the possibilities of the fast sonic cruiser, there are not enough of them to persuade Boeing to launch it. Most airlines are now keener to save money and repair their profits.

What a shame. You'd think that given the intensely cyclical nature of the airline business, they would remember that what goes down comes back up, and companies that invest for the future during bad times prosper during good. Watch as the economy recovers and airlines sign up for the Sonic Cruiser II, just in time to take delivery during the next worldwide slowdown.

Thankfully, hope exists yet for radical new airliner designs.

November 23, 2002

The S-Word? The B-Word?

Via Plastic, a story in the Guardian on the de-vulgarization of the f-word. In the story, the BBC's chief advisory on editorial policy mentions that over 50 percent of people surveyed believe that words that should never be broadcast include (among others) the c-word, the n-word, and the mf-word -- but the f-word apparently isn't bad enough to make the list. Interestingly to this American, one of the words on the "never broadcast" list is "spastic." How did that get there?

Of course, they missed the very worst word of all:

In today's modern galaxy there is of course very little still held to be unspeakable. Many words and expressions which only a matter of decades ago were considered so distastefully explicit that were they to be merely breathed in public, the perpetrator would be shunned, barred from polite society, and in extreme case shot through the lungs, are now thought to be very healthy and proper, and their use in everyday speech is seen as evidence of a well-adjusted, relaxed, and totally un(bleep)ed up personality.

So for instance, when in a recent national speech the Financial Minister of the Royal World Estate of Quarlvista actually dared to say that due to one thing and another and the fact that no one had made any food for a while and the King seemed to have died and that most of the population had been on holiday now for over three years, the economy was now in what he called "one whole joojooflop situation," everyone was so pleased he felt able to come out and say it they quite failed to notice that their five thousand year-old civilization had just collapsed overnight.

But though even words like joojooflop, swut, and turlingdrome are now perfectly acceptable in common usage there is one word that is still beyond the pale. The concept it embodies is so revolting that the publication or broadcast of the word is utterly forbidden in all parts of the galaxy except one where they don't know what it means. That word is 'belgium' and it is only ever used by loose-tongued people like Zaphod Beeblebrox in situations of dire provocation.

My guess is that the word in question was so offensive that the people surveyed by the BBC couldn't even bring themselves to utter it.

(Thanks to the late, great, and much-missed Douglas Adams.)

November 22, 2002

Xbox Live Selling Out

Via PlanetXbox:

Xbox Live is popular; it appears to be the understatement of the century today as Microsoft has officially announced that over 150,000 Xbox Live Starter Kits have sold during its first week of availability. The service, which is the first broadband service to surpass 100,000 subscribers, has serviced over 200,000 gamers due to its multiple players on one account feature since release...

Due to the strong sales of the Starter Kits, Microsoft continued to announce that all retail outlets have sold out, but that new shipments are on the way and will continue to ship throughout the holiday season. Moreover, Microsoft stated that Xbox Live-enabled game sales shot up 120 percent during the week, with Xbox hardware sales jumping 18 percent week-over-week.

I've felt for some time now that Xbox Live would do well. Broadband multiplayer gaming is one thing; broadband multiplayer gaming on a $200 console with real-time voice chat and no game installation hassles is quite another.

Is Microsoft actually creating a 1.0 version of a product that's worth using?

Digital Camera Proliferation

Earlier this week, I attended an offsite meeting with partners of ours at a lake house kindly loaned to us by a friend. Eight people arrived the night before the meeting. Of the eight, five of us had brought digital cameras:

The S100 and S300 are part of the same series of small, all-metal body, retracting lens cameras. Pure coincidence, or is the PowerShot S series truly that popular?

It was interesting that more people are picking up the document-your-life-with-your-digital-camera meme. All of us who brought digital cameras were taking photos throughout the meeting -- as if we were photojournalists recording the event for a future chronicle.

November 21, 2002

From the Country with the Longest Coastline in the World...

From November 2000 to March of this year, I worked for a company based in Vancouver, British Columbia. For the first ten months, I lived in Seattle and commuted back and forth each week, but then spent the last five months living in Vancouver full time. My then-girlfriend was Canadian, and between working for a Canadian company, spending most or all of my time in Canada, and dating a native, I was fairly immersed in Canadian culture. I can name all the provinces and territories, know what the Canadian Shield is, and have an ongoing love of Canadian snack foods.

With time, though, I find I'm not keeping up with news from Canada as I once did. It's a wonderful country, I like the people, and Vancouver is surely one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but I have enough else on my plate as it is. I try to check in every so often on Vancouver's bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics (which, if there is any justice in the world, they should win), but other than that, it's once every week or two that I make the effort to check out Canadian news sites. When I did so recently, I found this story from the Ottawa Citizen:

A warning that the cash-strapped Canadian Coast Guard could get caught with its pants down is coming closer to the literal truth following an internal directive issued last month to personnel on the West Coast.

Members have been bluntly told that any requests for new uniforms to replace worn or torn official clothing will be rejected pending an internal review of the Pacific region's financial status for the current fiscal year, which ends on March 31.

"Your patience, understanding and co-operation to this matter would be greatly appreciated," wrote Greg Locke, supervisor of logistics, in an e-mail directive issued on Oct. 28.

Canadian Alliance MP John Cummins, who was leaked the e-mail, said the inability to adequately supply the coast guard with uniforms makes a mockery of the position taken recently by Fisheries Minister Robert Thibault...

George Horel, the coast guard's director of operations for the Pacific region, said management is taking steps to deal with a financial squeeze.

"Our budget is tight."

And this from the country with the longest coastline in the world.

There's an old saying, "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber." I don't know that Canadian schools get all the money they need, but it seems like -- at least in the case of their Coast Guard -- they may need to start asking people to bring in cookies...

November 20, 2002

IDC on the Wireless Gaming Market

IDC has a new forecast for the wireless gaming market in the US:

The U.S. wireless gaming market is emerging as a viable long-term opportunity for game developers and publishers, wireless carriers, and wireless handset providers. According to a new study from IDC, Are We Having Fun Yet?: U.S. Wireless Gaming Forecast, 2002-2007, the number of total U.S. unique wireless gamers will climb from nearly 7.0 million in 2002 to 71.2 million in 2007.

The development of the U.S. wireless gaming market requires the successful triangulation of mutually dependent players, including handset providers, wireless carriers, and game developers and publishers. Wireless gaming represents tremendous opportunity, but in order to reach its full potential, there must be cooperation among the three benefactors to work out key issues such as business models, the handset, and designating the appropriate content for the target demographics, says IDCs Schelley Olhava, program manager, Interactive Gaming.

Currently, domestic wireless carriers are pursuing 2.5G and 3G network upgrades to deploy next-generation wireless services that include wireless data applications. Wireless games are a perfect example of the type of content that carriers are looking to offer, says IDCs Dana Thorat, senior research analyst, Wireless and Mobile Communication. Gaming is ready to transition beyond the confines of the home to a truly mobile platform, and the emergence of next-generation networks and improved handsets make wireless gaming a reality.

Let's hope they're right. I for one am ready for high-quality, mobile, multiplayer gaming. Why? Because I want to reduce my personal-time productivity to absolute zero. :-)

November 19, 2002

"It Is Not the Critic Who Counts..."

Today's quote is from Theodore Roosevelt. It was part of a speech, "Citzenship in a Republic," that he delivered at the Sorbonne 23 April 1910:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
Thanks to Richard Boyd for passing this along.

November 18, 2002

Haven't We Heard This Before II

Via KurzweilAI.net, a story in Computerworld on DARPA's call for cognitive systems for the military:

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is accepting research proposals to create the first system that actually knows what it's doing.

The "cognitive system" DARPA envisions would reason in a variety of ways, learn from experience and adapt to surprises. It would be aware of its behavior and explain itself. It would be able to anticipate different scenarios and predict and plan for novel futures.

"It's all moving toward this grand vision of not putting people in harm's way," says Raymond Kurzweil, an artificial intelligence guru and CEO of Kurzweil Technologies Inc. in Wellesley Hills, Mass. "If you want autonomous weapons, it's helpful for them to be intelligent."

Haven't we heard this before?

                TERMINATOR         In three years Cyberdyne will become the largest         supplier of military computer systems. All         stealth bombers are upgraded with Cyberdyne         computers, becoming fully unmanned, Afterward,         they fly with a perfect operational record.

                SARAH
        (getting behind John)
        Uh huh, great. Then those fat f***s in
        Washington figure, what the hell, let a computer
        run the whole show, right?

                TERMINATOR
        Basically.
        (starting the engine, backing
        out)
        The Skynet funding bill is passed. The system
        goes on-line August 4th, 1997. Human decisions
        are removed from strategic defense. Skynet
        begins to learn, at a geometric rate. It becomes
        self-aware at 2:14 a.m. eastern time, August 29.
        In a panic, they try to pull the plug.

                SARAH
        And Skynet fights back.

I have a bad feeling about this...

November 17, 2002

Smart Mobs Website

Concurrent with the launch of his book of the same name, Howard Rheingold now has his Smart Mobs Website up and running.

As one would expect from Howard, the site has great information on the latest developments in mob-like developments, both technological and sociological. Recommended.

November 16, 2002

Delta's New Information Displays

Via Dave Winer, a great entry by Jon Udell on Delta's cool new gate information displays for passengers. Not only do these displays show the usual information -- flight number, destination, departure time -- they go on to show seats checked, reserved, and unclaimed by class; standby passengers; standby passengers cleared to board; status of requested upgrades; and estimated boarding times by row of the cabin. Wow. American Airlines needs to get on this now.

November 15, 2002

"Total Information Awareness"

From William Safire's latest column in the New York Times:

If the Homeland Security Act is not amended before passage, here is what will happen to you:

Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every Web site you visit and e-mail you send or receive, every academic grade you receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book and every event you attend all these transactions and communications will go into what the Defense Department describes as "a virtual, centralized grand database."

To this computerized dossier on your private life from commercial sources, add every piece of information that government has about you passport application, driver's license and bridge toll records, judicial and divorce records, complaints from nosy neighbors to the F.B.I., your lifetime paper trail plus the latest hidden camera surveillance and you have the supersnoop's dream: a "Total Information Awareness" about every U.S. citizen.

This is not some far-out Orwellian scenario. It is what will happen to your personal freedom in the next few weeks if John Poindexter gets the unprecedented power he seeks.

In the words of Howard Rheingold, William Safire is "not exactly your radical commie pinko alarmist."

This needs to be stopped. "Total Information Awareness" makes Operation TIPS look almost innocent by comparison.

November 14, 2002

Take Two Minutes and Do This Now

Via Slashdot:

DarkSparks writes "The EFF is urging everyone to contact their Representatives and ask them to co-sponsor Representative Rick Boucher and John Doolittle's recently introduced Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act (DMCRA, H.R. 5544), which would introduce labelling requirements for usage-impaired "copy-protected" compact discs, as well as make several key amendments to the DMCA, including affirming the right of scientific research into technology protection measures and affirming the right of citizens to circumvent technology measures to gain access to copyrighted works they've purchased."
I just did this -- it's literally two minutes to read through the letter, fill out your name and address, and click to either e-mail or fax it to your Representative.

November 13, 2002

Legitimizing Our "Overwhelming Might"

A typically good column by Thomas Friedman in yesterday's New York Times:

When all 15 members of the U.N. Security Council, including Syria, raised their hands in favor of a U.N. demand that Iraq submit to unrestricted inspections of its weapons arsenal or else face "serious consequences," it was the first hopeful moment I've felt since 9/11...

How did it happen? Well, the short answer is that we learned something surprising this past week -- that in the world of a single, dominant superpower, the U.N. Security Council becomes even more important, not less. France, Russia and China discovered that the most effective way to balance America's overwhelming might was not by defying that power outright, but by channeling it through the U.N. And the Bush team discovered that the best way to legitimize its overwhelming might -- in a war of choice -- was not by simply imposing it, but by channeling it through the U.N.

When Congress debated authorizing the use of force to disarm Iraq, I thought long and hard about it. I ended up deciding that Saddam Hussein is the type of person who only responds to believable threats of force, and that for such a threat to be believable, we would have to be fully prepared to follow through on it. Having said that, I'm glad that Colin Powell won the day and convinced President Bush to give him the time to pursue a Security Council resolution. I hope it doesn't come to war, but if it does, we have created a far more defensible position for ourselves.

Now, everyone who thinks the Security Council would have passed this resolution -- or that Iraq would have accepted it -- without the credible threat of attack from the US, raise your hands.

November 12, 2002

Our "Schizoid" Relationship with Animals

There's an extensive article on animal rights in the latest issue of the New York Times Magazine, "An Animal's Place." Near the beginning, the author makes this observation:

There's a schizoid quality to our relationship with animals, in which sentiment and brutality exist side by side. Half the dogs in America will receive Christmas presents this year, yet few of us pause to consider the miserable life of the pig -- an animal easily as intelligent as a dog -- that becomes the Christmas ham.

We tolerate this disconnect because the life of the pig has moved out of view. When's the last time you saw a pig? (Babe doesn't count.) Except for our pets, real animals -- animals living and dying -- no longer figure in our everyday lives. Meat comes from the grocery store, where it is cut and packaged to look as little like parts of animals as possible. The disappearance of animals from our lives has opened a space in which there's no reality check, either on the sentiment or the brutality.

I asked my kids what they thought of this. Duncan had the strongest opinion:

Well, it's a nice thought, but we're only raising the pigs to be killed. They really don't know any better. There's nothing more to them than that. That's their place in life. The author talks about savagery, but we could just go out with knives and kill wild pigs that do have freedom instead.
I spent a few years as a partial vegetarian, eating fish but no other animals. I took up eating poultry about a year ago -- it can be hard to eat healthy at times without having chicken as a choice. Lately I've taken to eating the occasional steak or other beef -- perhaps once every couple of weeks or so -- and even the rare serving of bacon. Sometimes I wish I was still mostly vegetarian, but I do enjoy the range of options available to me now. I wish, though, that I could easily find meat that has been raised and slaughtered humanely.

November 11, 2002

Welcome to North Carolina

From Peter King's latest edition of his wonderful Monday Morning Quarterback column:

Driving to Ericsson Stadium yesterday morning around 9:30, I turned the AM radio on and pressed scan. Nineteen of the 26 audible radio stations aired religious programming.
Tell me about it. I drove back to Raleigh-Durham from Charleston yesterday myself. Where NPR stations should exist at the low end of the FM dial are religious stations -- lots and lots of them -- except for a very small sweet spot in South Carolina where three NPR stations can be heard simultaneously.

November 10, 2002

An Early Winter Wonderland

Last Sunday, I flew to New Mexico for meetings in Los Alamos. I was planning on flying out Tuesday morning, and hoping to perhaps fly out as soon as Monday afternoon, but ended up having to stay through Thursday morning, because we woke up to the following scene on Monday:

(Photograph courtesy of Dave Pickering.)

Los Alamos is at 7,200 feet, so surprise early-season snowfalls aren't uncommon, I suppose. Six inches of snow shut down most of the town for the morning, leading to delays that cascaded through the week. But it was certainly beautiful there...

November 09, 2002

In Charleston

I'm spending the weekend in Charleston with two of the coolest people in the world, Eve and Jon Blossom:

After brunch with friends, Eve and I spent the afternoon talking over coffee and cheesecake. If you had been at the cafe while we were ordering, this is what you would have heard:

Frank: I need caffeine and sugar. Did I mention that I need sugar?

Eve: Okay, coffee, and what should we have for dessert? I don't know what's good here.

Frank: How about the cheesecake?

Eve: Right. How can it be bad? It's cheesecake.

Afterwards, Eve and I walked a few blocks to watch Jon taking a class on stone carving sponsored by SoBA, the School of Building Arts, where Eve is VP of Development:

First interactive toys, then computer-controlled tiki music boxes, and now stone carving... I'm now suffering from a case of making-tangible-things envy after being around Jon. There has to be something I can make...

November 08, 2002

Pardon Me?

Another story from yesterday's USA Today sports section (I was on an airplane and unexpectedly out of battery power). Unavailable on the Website, this is about Dusty Baker stepping down as manager of the San Francisco Giants.

Baker's contract expired Wednesday without progress in negotiations, at which point general manager Brian Sabean ended talks with the three-time National League manager of the year.

"It became apparent for whatever reason that Dusty was interesting in exploring other opportunities," Sabean said.

So far, so good. But then...

"We couldn't seem to surround the situation, and in some cases Dusty was reluctant to embrace it."
Pardon me? I realize that last sentence was grammatically correct, but for the life of me I can't understand what it means. Why do some people talk like that? When they do, why do some reporters print it without commentary or explanation?

November 07, 2002

McPaper States the McObvious

Just when I was beginning to think a bit better of USA Today, along comes an article today on how NFL teams who switch between quarterbacks win fewer games than those that don't:

NFL teams that struggle with their quarterbacks usually struggle in the standings, too...

The 15 teams that have started two or more QBs either because of injuries or poor performance, are winning at a .431 clip using 34 different QBs. Only three of the 15 have winning records.

In other words, the teams who lose games and switch quarterbacks as a result tend to lose games.

In other news, USA Today reports that the sun will be rising tomorrow. Stay tuned for details on this fast-breaking story.

November 06, 2002

"Professional Management"

From a couple of weeks ago, a wonderful column by Robert X. Cringely, "The Case Against Professionalism."

It is easy to forget that professionalism is the enemy of the high-tech startup. If these companies were operated by professionals, they would never have been founded. Nor would a professional tolerate the conditions necessary for startup survival. Michael Eisner never emptied a wastebasket at work, but I'll bet Walt Disney did.

Here is a scene that happens at some point in almost every young company. The founder/CEO/technical visionary meets with his board and finds him or herself out of a job. How could this happen? Well, the company has grown to the point where the board feels that "professional management" is required, so they are bringing in a new management team. The new team is composed of old friends and classmates of the board, and the new team costs five to 10 times as much, but that's okay because the company is "hiring for growth." This new team cuts staff, cuts costs and outsources everything that can be outsourced, with the result that earnings are improved and the stock goes up or the company makes itself look better for an Initial Public Offering. The professional managers get big bonuses, they exercise mountains of stock options, sell those option shares, then go on to some other, even bigger, job having "saved" the company, which then stagnates, goes into a slow decline, and is eventually acquired by a competitor.

In the PC industry, this is the path followed by almost every company. On the software side look at Borland, Broderbund, Personal Software, Lotus, WordPerfect and hundreds of others. The similarly afflicted hardware companies are so many that the names become a blur. All these companies, even though some of their names may remain, are effectively dead. Certainly, they bear no resemblance at all to what they once were. And every one of these companies had something else in common: At the time their management was displaced, they were profitable and had money in the bank.

This is reminiscent of conversations my co-founders and I had when starting up AirEight. We had all been exposed to the unspeakable evil that is "professional management," and we were all resolved not to experience it again. When I go into work every day, I'm going to work with people whom I've liked, trusted, and respected (with apologies to Alex Osadzinski) for 10 years or more. I'll take that over "professional management" any day.

November 05, 2002

Heard Last Night

A conversation between the cashier at the Quizno's Subs in Los Alamos, New Mexico and me as I was paying for my sandwich last night:

Cashier: You probably get this all the time, but you look just like a celebrity.

Me: Really? Which one?

Cashier: He's an actor. He always plays villains. Tim something. Tim Murray?

Me: I don't know him.

Cashier: Have you seen Muppet Treasure Island?

Me: Oh, Tim Curry.

Cashier: Right. But you must have heard that a hundred times.

Me: No, never before.

Cashier: Really?

Me: No, but a friend of mine used to say that I looked like the love child of Richard Branson and Eric Clapton.

Cashier: I don't think I want to know how that could happen.

Me: Sure, but you have to admit, if it did, it would be big news.

Tim Curry? That's the nicest thing anyone said to me all day.

November 04, 2002

Epinions + Match.com Redux

David Easter visited my office the other day, after I posted my previous entry on combining Epinions and Match.com.

So, Epinions plus Match.com? With Epinions, when you try something and like it, you want to share what you've found with others...
Point taken -- the tendency could be toward negative reviews, whether legitimate in origin or not. However, it seems to me that if one meets someone online and is in the midst of some sort of relationship with them -- whether purely online or in the physical world as well -- then they would be motivated to write well of the person. Returning later to write a negative review would seem suspicious to readers.

I suspect that checks and balances -- as with eBay's rating systems -- could be devised to help deal with the situation and make the idea viable.

November 03, 2002

Too Good -- or Bad -- to Be True

An amazing bit of information from last Wednesday's episode of the public radio show Marketplace:

So, there's a publication called CFO Magazine. Every year, it gives out Excellence Awards to truly exemplary CFOs. Listen to who got the CFO Magazine Excellence Awards in 1998, 1999 and 2000: the WorldCom guy, the Enron guy, followed by the Tyco guy. And, what name was among the winners in 2001? Kenneth Lonchar, the former Veritas Software CFO without a Stanford MBA. But wait, there's more: CFO's Excellence Awards in 2001 were sponsored by accountants Arthur Andersen.

Figuring we had a leading indicator on our hands, we looked into the 2002 winners, but could find no record. A call to CFO Magazine confirmed its awards competition is on hiatus and may need to be retooled.

Was there anyone who didn't buy into the bubble?

November 02, 2002

Dissembling, But Not Necessarily in a Bad Way

I was thinking the other day about how people use certain phrases to signal --wittingly or otherwise -- that they mean the exact opposite. For example, when a particular friend of mine says, "That's all I have to say about that," in fact he means the exact opposite but awaits questioning to draw out the details. For me, it's when I say, "It's not my place to say," which in fact means I secretly believe it is my place to say, but am biting my tongue in the interest of harmony.

I'd like to compile a list of these sorts of phrases. What is it that you say when you mean the exact opposite? Let me know, and I'll post the results in a future entry.

November 01, 2002

More on Seahawks Stadium

A few weeks ago, I posted a picture of Seahawks Stadium in an entry in my extended family blog from my trip to Seattle. A friend of mine from Seattle, Kathryn Baker -- actually, she's a hero of mine, though she won't know that until she reads this, and I'm sure she'll be terribly embarrassed by it -- wrote to me to say this:

I was at Seahawks Stadium on Opening Day -- saw the game (very, very sad) and the awesome fireworks. The stadium can't hold a candle to Safeco Field in terms of a great all-around stadium, but it is fairly nice. One very bad thing -- if you get the cheaper seats (by that I mean the $30.00 ones) you end up in the last rows waaaay up at the top of the stands and under the roof. This is fine if it's raining, but truly sucks as far as sound goes. That roof creates a huge echo chamber and the sound of the fans increases by about 100 and drowns out any commentary that comes out over the loudspeakers. Plus you are very far from the field so the view isn't that great.

The best seats are the cheapest ones, which are the bleachers at the end zone. But that leaves you uncovered in the event of bad weather. If you're going to go, spring for the good seats closer to the field so you can actually see the game.

Another beef I have with that stadium -- they boasted about all the monitors all over the stadium so that you never miss a play. There are monitors at all the bars and food stands, but they have commercials and menus on them -- at least they did on Opening Day. Maybe that's changed or they got the linkup so that the game is broadcast on them now, but when I was there, all I got to see were some terrible commercials and the overpriced menu displayed over and over again.

Plus, they messed up my order at the food stand...

Thanks, Kathryn!

October 31, 2002

Happy Halloween!

Or a Happy All Hallows' Eve, if you prefer.

Sadly, after bringing bags of Coffee Crisp miniatures back with me from my last trip to Canada just for this occasion, I have to travel today and tomorrow, and so won't be around to pass them out. And here I thought I'd be giving away the coolest candy in the state. There's always next year.

T-Mobile and Airport Lounges

In the Wall Street Journal, an article on T-Mobile expanding its Wi-Fi coverage to the airport lounges of the three largest US airlines:

T-Mobile USA Inc., formerly VoiceStream Wireless, is partnering with American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines to let people get high-speed wireless Internet connections in nearly all of the airlines' domestic clubs over the coming year...

The move is also a big step forward for Wi-Fi. T-Mobile's service is already in about 1,800 Starbucks outlets and 25 lounges of AMR Corp.'s American Airlines. But the company's latest plans provide new options to a critical audience: the business traveler.

While analysts are skeptical that many people at an urban coffee shop will pay for Wi-Fi, airport lounges, hotels and convention centers are popular destinations for people who will. Every year, Delta's Crown Room Clubs, for example, gets seven million passenger visits. That could provide T-Mobile, the sixth-largest carrier in the U.S., with a new revenue stream at a time when the industry is ailing. It could also give the company an edge over competitors who haven't yet rolled out Wi-Fi, and are still relying on high-speed wireless networks that can actually be painfully slow...

In addition to the airport expansion, T-Mobile will add the service to another 200 Starbucks and 400 Borders book stores over the next eight months. But it isn't the only player in that game. A company called Wayport Inc. now offers wireless in nine airports (soon to be 10), as well as hundreds of hotels around the U.S., including the Four Seasons and the Marriott. Another firm, Boingo Wireless, has pooled together Wi-Fi networks in hundreds of airports, the lobbies of hotels like the Sheraton, and mom-and-pop cafes across the country.

I've used the T-Mobile Hotspot service (formerly MobileStar at Admirals Clubs many times, and it's well done. I have a pay-as-you-go plan, so I only pay while I'm actually using time, and login typically takes less than 20 seconds from start to finish. It's a great way to catch up on mail between flights. I can recommend it.

October 30, 2002

Idea for the Day I

Combine Epinions and Match.com to create a dating service with user reviews.

Think about how much more useful than today's dating services this would be. For the honest personal ad poster, it would be a boon, because while writing a personal ad about oneself that sounds neither too boastful nor too modest can be difficult, it's easy to say great things about someone else. For the personal ad reader, it would be even more of a boon, because one could compare the ad and the corresponding "reviews" in an instant. Of course, reviews wouldn't be good for the dishonest ad posters, so then they would migrate to other online dating services, quickly giving the review-based service the reputation as the place where honest people go for online dating.

I predict that Match.com, lavalife, or a similar major dating service will offer this as a feature within six months.

October 29, 2002

Do Computers Improve Learning?

Poor school districts often complain that they're unable to buy as many computers as their richer counterparts. Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise. From an article in the current issue of the Economist:

In the current Economic Journal, Joshua Angrist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Victor Lavy of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem look at a scheme which put computers into many of Israel's primary and middle schools in the mid-1990s. Dr Angrist and Dr Lavy compare the test scores for maths and Hebrew achieved by children in the fourth and eighth grades (ie, aged about nine and 13) in schools with and without computers. They also asked the classes' teachers how they used various teaching materials, such as Xeroxed worksheets and, of course, computer programs.

The researchers found that the Israeli scheme had much less effect on teaching methods in middle schools than in elementary schools. It also found no evidence that the use of computers improved children's test scores. In fact, it found the reverse. In the case of the maths scores of fourth-graders, there was a consistently negative relationship between computer use and test scores.

Having helped out with computers at my childrens' elementary school some years ago, I find this believable. Computers in schools are too often used as high-cost substitutes for other learning methods. Instead of practicing typing on a $100 typewriter, use a $1,500 computer and call it keyboarding. Instead of using the card catalog, use Google.

When computers are used for things that only computers can do -- high-quality educational programs, such as the legendary Rocky's Boots -- then I think they can be useful in schools. But I'm willing to bet it's a rare school computer that is consistently used for such tasks.

October 28, 2002

"Douglas Adams Was Right"

From KurzweilAI.net, an article by Seth Lloyd on the computational universe:

The amount of information you could process if you were to use all the energy and matter of the universe is 10^90 bits and the number of elementary operations that it can have performed since the Big Bang is about 10^120 ops. Perhaps the universe is itself a computer and what it's doing is performing a computation. If so, that's why the universe is so complex and these numbers say how big that computation is. Also, that means Douglas Adams was right (the answer is "42").
Technically speaking, Adams proposed that it was the Earth that is a computer calculating the question to the answer "42," and not the entire universe, but it's nice to see that he was on the right track.

An interesting bit is when Lloyd computes the final end to Moore's Law:

if you want to know when Moore's Law, this fantastic exponential doubling of the power of computers every couple of years, must end, it would have to be before every single piece of energy and matter in the universe is used to perform a computation. Actually, just to telegraph the answer, Moore's Law has to end in about 600 years, without doubt. Sadly, by that time the whole universe will be running Windows 2540, or something like that. 99.99% of the energy of the universe will have been listed by Microsoft by that point, and they'll want more! They really will have to start writing efficient software, by gum. They can't rely on Moore's Law to save their butts any longer.
If other civilizations exist in the universe, and if they're more than 600 years beyond us in computing technology, how have they solved this problem?

October 27, 2002

A Modest Proposal

What if we just send the Raider Nation into Iraq? In the words of USA Today:

By the way, what took so long for Romo to become a Raider? Fighting, biting, spitting, indictments -- hey, dude, welcome to Raider Nation!
Imagine being an Iraqi and seeing these guys show up looking like Gwar. You'd surrender immediately! (On that subject, we should probably send Gwar in with them. They could do the modern metal version of the helicopter assualt scene from Apocalypse Now.)

October 26, 2002

The Orange SPV

From infoSync, a review by Editor-in-chief Jørgen Sundgot of the first phone based on Microsoft's Smartphone 2002 (time's running out, gang) platform, the Orange SPV:

When Microsoft first announced its Smartphone 2002 platform -- back then codenamed Stinger, I must admit that although I was not among the people that giggled by the mere thought of Windows on phones, visions of crashing phones was the first thing to pop up in my head (I power-use Pocket PCs and know how often I must reset them). Thankfully, after spending a week with the SPV from UK based carrier Orange, I've found that Microsoft has done a good job of adapting to the world of mobile phones: not an excellent one, but a good one.
The review concludes with the following:
The Orange SPV is a device that relies on raw power to perform its tasks, and it's very feature-rich. Its interoperability with Windows, Outlook and Exchange is unparalleled, and Microsoft has done a good job of adapting the user interface to one-handed use. Despite its positive aspects, however, the result seems unpolished as a number of glitches -- some minor, some major -- are evident even after a relatively short period of testing. We'd recommend buying the Orange SPV -- if you want a versatile phone, and don't mind the occasional glitch.
  • What's positive: Easy to navigate, great display, raw power, feature-rich
  • What's negative: Performance drops, poor voice quality, unreliable GPRS connectivity, disconnect on standby
Interestingly, in a separate editorial, Jørgen says that while his "gut feeling" is that "smartphones will be big," he himself isn't planning on using one anytime soon:
My question numero uno, though, is whether I see myself using a smartphone, a connected handheld or a combination of a mobile phone and a non-connected handheld comunicating by means of Blueooth or another wireless standard to keep me connected when I'm out and about. I'm struggling to choose, since each solution has its advantages, and since I'd like to have just one primary device to carry with me all the time. Believe me, keeping one device in sync is hard enough, two is frickin' difficult and three is close to impossible. For the time being, I've decided that a smartphone just isn't for me. I need to be able to process data and not just access it while I'm out of the office, and even though the Nokia 7650 and Orange SPV have all the capabilities I need their input solutions hampers them too much to be of any real use.
I think I've come to the same conclusion: that what I want is not necessarily a smartphone, but rather a good solid phone with GPRS or CDMA 1xRTT and Bluetooth. This will save me the pain of synchronizing yet another device, and will allow me to choose the PDA that best meets my needs.

October 25, 2002

Portable Replay

I somehow missed this news from the Intel Developer Forum last month:

SONICblue Incorporated (Nasdaq: SBLU) and Intel Corporation today announced that they are working together to develop the ReplayTV Portable Video Player (PVP), a new product that will allow people to enjoy digital entertainment on the go.

The product, currently in development, combines the performance and low power consumption of Intel XScale technology-based processors with SONICblue's Emmy award-winning ReplayTV platform. The pocket-sized device will allows users to watch time-shifted television programs transferred from their SONICblue ReplayTV, as well as play video, audio and photos transferred from a PC...

SONICblue's PVP will house a large capacity hard drive and support multiple audio and video formats, including native ReplayTV files, so recorded television content can be transferred directly from ReplayTV set-top boxes for portable enjoyment. The SONICblue ReplayTV PVP will also connect to a PC so that users can transfer and play personal, MP3 and other commercially available multimedia content from their PC. The high-performance and low power consumption of the Intel XScale technology-based processors will enable users to enjoy high-quality video for several hours without recharging the battery.

Thanks to Richard Boyd for the tip.

October 24, 2002

"Do You Risk Growing Young Alone?"

Via an article on KurzweilAI.net, a story in the Washington Post on life extension efforts at the edge of current science and beyond:

For ["visions of godlike immortality"] you want the revolution described by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce in a July report. It points to the four rapidly evolving and intertwining "GRIN" technologies -- genomics, robotics, information and nano-engineering. Together they hold the potential of "a tremendous improvement in human abilities, societal outcomes and quality of life," the report says.

"The human body will be more durable, healthy, energetic, easier to repair, and resistant to many kinds of stress, biological threat, and [the] aging process," the report states.

That's why the inventor and author Ray Kurzweil, 54, is personally eating very few carbohydrates and fats, taking more than a hundred supplements and trying not to be too big of a nag to others his age. But he almost can't help himself.

"If I look at my kids -- kids in their teens, twenties or even thirties -- unless they have unusual problems, a decade or two from now they will be young and the revolutions will be in full force. They don't have to do a lot to benefit from really radical life extensions," Kurzweil says. "The oblivious generation is my own. The vast majority are going to get sick and die in the old-fashioned way. They don't have to do that. They're right on the cusp."...

But to get there, you've got to take care of yourself now, he insists.

The story concludes by asking useful questions:

Will the new young people who are only in their twenties ever be able to compete with the old young? Especially if the old young have seen their compound-interest money grow startlingly?

In ancient lore, Gilgamesh built the walls around the city of Uruk as a monument that would make him immortal. If we did not fear death, would we lose our will to achieve? Would you put all of life forever before you? "What's the rush? I'll get to that when I'm 100." If you did not have to seek your immortality in children, would you have them?

If life stretches out for a very long time, do you avoid risks? Or do you court them? Is there a growth market in recreational life-risking? Will more people emulate George Bush, the elder, by parachuting out of airplanes at the age of 72?

If immortality is at hand, do we need religion?

If death is never imminent, is love as intense? Do Romeo and Juliet inhabit the world only of the very biologically young?

What happens if you seek youth and your partner does not?

Do you risk growing young alone?

Are we, as Kurzweil says, truly on the cusp of a revolution in which people no longer need routinely die from disease and old age? The death of death would be the most fundamental sociological revolution imaginable. Everything would change -- everything. It's easy to imagine a scenario in which a wealthy few are immortal while elsewhere, people continue to starve. That would be a mean world in which to live. Having said that, when useful anti-aging therapies become available, I want them as much as the next person.

We have to start thinking about the implications of this line of research and prepare accordingly.

October 23, 2002

"Until One is Committed..."

Today's quote is from The Scottish Himalayan Expedition, by William H. Murray:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:
"Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."
The Scottish Himalayan Expedition doesn't appear on Amazon, but can be purchased from a handful of rare book dealers on Abebooks.

October 22, 2002

Doonesbury on Blogs

Garry Trudeau is writing about blogs in Doonesbury this week. Worth a look. Thanks to Karin for the heads up!

More on the Bomb

My friend Paul Gustafson responded to my blog entry yesterday, in which I wondered whether a demonstration of the atomic bomb would have sufficed with the Japanese, or if not, whether we could have found purely military targets:

I once saw a tape of a retired Harry Truman being asked these questions. As I recall, the reasoning went something like this (the following memory is probably also laced with the opinions of my father, who, having survived Normandy, was on a boat headed for the Pacific when the bomb dropped):
  1. Allied (read American) lives were Truman's first priority -- and the casualty projections for a land assault on Japan were staggering. Drained from the victory in Europe, the Americans needed a victory in the Pacific -- fast.

  2. The bomb was new. No one was absolutely positive it would work in production. To waste it on a demonstration was not a credible option (see #1 above).

  3. They only had two (or three) bombs ready. The next few were weeks, if not months, away. If one or two didn't stop the war... a land invasion was going to be necessary (see #1 above).
I share your admiration of Japan -- but you and I only know the post-WWII Japan -- the one rebuilt by the US. Japan, prior to the bomb, was a very different place.

Given the circumstance, I'd have to say the terrible decision Truman made was the right one.

Thanks for the insight, Paul.

On reflection, I think I understand why Truman made the decision he did, and I don't hold it against him. Having said that, I think other options existed. If another bomb was a month away (I don't know the actual figure), was it worth a month's more war to try to save so many lives? The Hiroshima blast alone is estimated to have killed 200,000 people over time.

I worry that I'm projecting current sensibilities onto past times. The targeting of civilians seems to have been common practice by all major powers during World War II. The Japanese killed between 200,000 to 370,000 people in and around Nanking in a four-month period. The Germans killed nearly 40,000 people in the UK during the first year of the Blitz. The British and Americans killed an estimated 25,000 people in Dresden in a three-day period near the end of the war. In this context, is it right of us of me to second-guess the decision to use atomic weapons to end the war in Japan?

October 21, 2002

In the Land of Trinity

I spent two days in Los Alamos, New Mexico last week. It was my second trip there in the last couple of months. Los Alamos is presently home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, but of course is best known as the development site for the world's first atomic weapons during World War II. (A page of historical links can be found here.)

Here are a couple of photos of Fuller Lodge, which housed Manhattan Project scientists during 1945-1947:

My emotional reaction to being in Los Alamos is a mixed one. On the one hand, given the knowledge at the time, I'm glad the United States decided to build the bomb, and proud, in a sense, that we finished it. If the Third Reich had made more progress, and if we hadn't, we could have found ourselves in a situation in which Hitler had atomic weapons and we didn't. It's a horrifying scenario. On the other hand, I'm sorry that we used it against the Japanese. I often wonder if a demonstration would have done the trick instead of actually using it. And given the decision to use it, why target cities filled with civilians? Why not a purely military target?

October 19, 2002

Where's the Outrage?

After much thought, and having the opportunity to listen to much of the Congressional debate during some long car trips, I ended up coming to the conclusion that I supported the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. I felt -- and continue to feel -- that Saddam Hussein is the kind of person who will only respond to force or to believable threats of force. Therefore, if we were to disarm him, the only way to do so was to make it clear that we would go to war over it -- and we would absolutely have to be willing to do so if he continued to flaunt the world's wishes. It was a harder decision than I would have anticipated, but I'm glad I took the time to think through my position.

Now the North Koreans have come along and made a mess of everything. From an article in the Wall Street Journal:

President Bush was notably silent on the subject of North Korea -- even as he denounced Iraq -- and the White House is painfully aware of the complications. U.S. officials said that the administration has known since early July that North Korea had acquired key equipment for enriching uranium, but the White House was hesitant to go public with the evidence as it was gearing up for a confrontation with Baghdad.

"There was a lot of thought about how to deal with the new information. No one wanted to distract from Iraq," said one U.S. official, adding, "the timing of this thing is terrible."

If I were a member of Congress, I would be furious with the Bush administration right now. At the time that the administration was making the final push for the authorization of force to prevent an "axis of evil" nation from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, they knew from the North Koreans' own admission that another member of the axis either already had nuclear weapons or was close to having them. What's more, the North Koreans have a delivery system capable of delivering such weapons throughout Japan. The next generation of this delivery system will be able to reach Alaska.

If this isn't material information in the war on terror, I don't know what is. Yet the administration chose to keep it from Congress while they were debating whether to authorize war against a rogue nation. I find that unacceptable, and I'm deeply surprised to see no discussion of this fact to date. Where's the outrage?

October 15, 2002

Il Returno de Wallace i Gromit

Wallace and Gromit have returned! From a story on BBC News:

Oscar-winning animated duo Wallace and Gromit have returned after a six-year absence in a series of short films -- and BBC News Online has exclusive footage.

Maker Aardman Animations has produced 10 one-minute movies featuring Wallace and his canny pet dog Gromit, entitled Cracking Contraptions.

The films are launching on Tuesday with the world exclusive premire of the first short, Soccamatic, on BBC News Online. The film is downloadable and free to view.

The story contains links to both streaming and downloadable versions of the first of the 10 shorts. There's more good news as well:

The pair's creator, Nick Park, is currently working on a script for the first full length Wallace and Gromit feature film with Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks studio, to be be released in two years.

"We wanted to get Wallace and Gromit out there again because we missed them really," he said.

"The short films were partly to train people up for doing the feature film.

"I was nervous at first because no-one has animated them for a long time. But it's worked a treat. I've been very impressed."

Apparently we'll be able to pay $9.95 to see all 10 shorts beginning next week. According to Atom Films:

AtomFilms today announced the premiere of Wallace & Gromit's Cracking Contraptions, a new series of ten short films from Aardman featuring two of the world's best-loved animated characters. The first episode, titled Soccamatic, will debut for free at noon PST on October 15 at http://wallace.atomfilms.com. One week later, AtomFilms will present the world premiere of the entire Cracking Contraptions series exclusively to online subscribers...

Like the earlier Wallace & Gromit films, Cracking Contraptions was produced by master animator Nick Park. This time, Park asked past collaborators Chris Sadler and Loyd Price to direct the project. "Wallace and Gromit are like family to me," said Park. "I couldn't be prouder of Cracking Contraptions, which provides new insights into the unique relationship of my characters. And considering their love of advanced technology, the Internet is the perfect place for these guys."

AtomFilms has made it very easy for novices and techies alike to own Cracking Contraptions. After paying a one-time fee of $9.95, subscribers will gain instant access to all ten episodes and a special "making of" feature. The episodes can be downloaded to a subscriber's computer for unlimited high-quality playback, or streamed for online viewing. The series will be delivered exclusively in the Windows Media video format, with digital-rights-management services provided by SyncCast.

That last bit is worrisome -- what sorts of "digital rights management" will be imposed on us? -- but it is a small blemish on what has to be considered wonderful news. 10 minutes of Wallace and Gromit now, with a feature film to follow within a couple of years. This was just the sort of news I needed to brighten my day.

October 11, 2002

Satellite Radio versus Terrestrial Digital

From an article by Wired News on the approval of terrestrial digital radio, developed by the firm iBiquity Digital:

"The only advantage of satellite radio was that they could say they were digital, and now that argument goes by the wayside," said Dennis Wharton, the National Association of Broadcasters senior vice president of communications. "And we are free and local. If you can get what you want and it's free, there really is no argument for satellite radio."
This is as specious an argument as I've read in a while. It assumes that radio today is actually reasonably good, and that people enjoy listening to it. Personally, the only radio I can tolerate these days is NPR.

October 06, 2002

Glad We Cleared That Up II

Said by my brother Eric over dinner last night:

"It's not that I'm uninterested. It's just that I don't care."
In the words of Dennis Miller, "Jimmy crack corn and I don't care? Jimmy crack corn and I don't care? What the hell kind of attitude is that?"

October 03, 2002

The World's Funniest Joke?

From the Globe and Mail, a story on LaughLab, an attempt to determine the funniest joke across cultures:

Drum roll, please an on-line search for the world's funniest joke has produced a winner.

In a year-long experiment called LaughLab, a British psychology professor asked thousands of people round the world to rate the humour value of a list of jokes; they could also add their own favorites.

In December, Dr. Richard Wiseman and his associates announced the front-runner, an old gag involving fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, his sidekick, Dr. Watson, and a tent. In the final tally of some two million votes for 40,000 jokes that was announced Thursday, however, a new joke emerged as a round-the-world rib-tickler:

A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head.

The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: "My friend is dead! What can I do?"

The operator, in a calm, soothing voice, says: "Just take it easy. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead."

There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy's voice comes back on the line. He says: "OK, now what?"

Of course, as we all know, the joke that is truly the world's funniest was destroyed after being used by the UK against Germany in World War II.

October 01, 2002

This Needs to Stop

At a time when the economy doesn't need it, we have an expensive labor lockout at West Coast ports:

The Bush administration said it was monitoring the shutdown, which some economists say will cost the economy $1 billion a day for the first five days, with the cost rising exponentially if it lasts several weeks.
What's the problem? Why are labor and management arguing?
Dividing the parties is the issue of technology on the docks. The port employers want to install electronic gear to automatically clear trucks in and out of terminals and track cargo within the terminals. Currently, much of that work is done manually by ILWU marine clerks.

But the ILWU is concerned that such technology threatens the union's jurisdiction on the waterfront and many union jobs. Annual salaries for ILWU members, who load and unload cargo, average about $106,000 for those working 40 hours or more a week. Marine clerks, who type in data and keep track of cargo, earn about $128,000 a year, on average if they work a similar number of hours. Foremen, working full time, have an average annual salary of $166,000.

Let me see if I have this straight: people who make up to $166,000 per year as cargo handlers, data entry clerks, and supervisors are resisting the introduction of technology that would make the ports more efficient.

Okay, this needs to stop right now.

September 23, 2002

Rewarding Failure

On September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers made their way through airport security with weapons, successfully hijacked four aircraft, and ended up killing 3,000 innocent people.

With this in mind, how should we deal with the Secretary of Transportation in office at that particular time? Firing? Forced resignation? Public upbraiding? No, wait -- I've got it! Let's name an airport after him!

I think I had heard about this earlier, but there's nothing quite like checking for a flight at "Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport" to bring the irony home.

September 20, 2002

You Keep Using That Word

Saddam Hussein offered to allow weapons inspectors back into Iraq "without conditions," but now appears to be backing away from that commitment:

At the UN, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri delivered a message from President Saddam Hussein, accusing Washington of lying about Iraq's weapons.

Saddam Hussein insisted that Baghdad does not possess chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

His letter also appeared to qualify Baghdad's surprise announcement on Monday that the UN could resume unfettered weapons inspections.

He said any inspectors must respect arrangements on Baghdad's "sovereignty and security", raising fears that Iraq might prevent access to so-called presidential sites and other sensitive areas.

First it's "without conditions," but now, well, there are conditions. This reminds me of a line from The Princess Bride:

                VIZZINI         He didn't fall? Inconceivable!

                INIGO
        (whirling on VIZZINI)
        You keep using that word -- I do not think it means what you think it means.

Where is the Man in Black when we need him?

September 19, 2002

As a Courtesy to the Next Passenger, Would You Not Break the Table?

Richard Branson has made no secret of not minding people joining the Mile High Club on his airline. According to this story, it would seem they're going at with some gusto:

Virgin Atlantic Airways is to replace tables in its newest planes because passengers have broken them during illicit trysts, the Sun newspaper said on Monday.

The $200 million Airbus A340-600, which was introduced several weeks ago, has a "mother and baby room" with a plastic table meant for changing diapers. But passengers have destroyed them by using them for love making.

"Those determined to join the Mile High Club will do so despite the lack of comforts," a Virgin spokeswoman was quoted as saying.

"We don't mind couples having a good time, but this is not something that we would encourage because of air regulations."

The obvious question missed by the reporter: is the airline replacing the tables with the same model, or are they planning on something more durable? Given that it's Richard Branson, my money's on the latter.