Programming And Politics

I've recently gotten interested in Wiimote programming for the PC. One of the things that has definitely piqued my interest is Johnny Chung Lee's amazing work with homebrew Wiimote applications (Lee is a graduate student at CMU).

I recently decided to play with the relatively simple GlovePIE software, written by Carl Kenner (no linkie for a reason). I opened up the ReadMe to learn how to get started. So my jaw dropped when I saw this:
You may not export this software to Israel, or use it in Israel (including the occupied territories), until Israel has ended its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and anywhere else it may occupy. If you try to run it in Israel it will give you an error.
On his actual website: You may not use this software on military bases, or for military purposes, or in Israel (which amounts to the same thing). Violation of the license agreement will be prosecuted.


I believe that the author has the right to put whatever conditions and restrictions he wants on his software, however uninformed and misguided. And I doubt any court of law would prosecute an Israeli for using his software. But it goes without saying that I'm not going to use this thing. And that I'm seriously disappointed about that.

At least, by wearing his nutty politics on his sleeve, I know not to support his work in any way (not even linking to it on my blog). I'm sure there are plenty of other projects that I do like and I do support authored by someone who reads The Protocols of the Elders of Zion every night as a bedtime story. Maybe I'd just rather not know...


P.S. This is not news - GlovePIE has had such language in its license for years. But it's news to me :-) And as the Wiimote is becoming more popular, GlovePIE is becoming more visible.


New Favorite Word

That would be disfluency: it's the formal linguistic word for the um's and uh's that we have in our day to day speech. "You know" and "like" are other common American disfluencies (different cultures have different disfluencies). There's actually a recent Saturday Night Live skit which was basically a guy who could only speak in disfluencies. Funnier than it sounds :-)

Via Powerset, which was via Wired.


p.s. Also, ummmm... never mind, whatever.


DNA Testing and Healthcare

Wired Magazine has an article about "decoding your DNA". The company 23AndMe will, for a grand, "take a sample of your DNA, scan it, and tell you about your genetic future, as well as your ancestral past".

There's obviously a long-term concern about a Gattaca-like scenario (gene discrimination). But in the short term, is it possible that health insurance companies will make gene testing mandatory to apply for coverage? They already exclude pre-existing conditions in many cases. Now they can deny you coverage for a disease you never had, but are slightly more predisposed to (assuming you get coverage in the first place)!

So this technology has the potential to significantly reduce coverage at a time when America is already suffering from too little coverage. The system has to change drastically before this technology becomes prevalent.


p.s. I didn't even address privacy concerns. Legally speaking, if you are covered through your employer, the plan's administrator is not allowed to discuss your health records with the employment decision makers (AFAIK, IANAL). But as someone pointed out to me, people talk off the record all the time...

p.p.s. If you haven't seen Michael Moore's Sicko, you really should, even if, like me, you don't like the guy. I prefer to debate based on the merits of an argument, not the person making them.


E-Commerce Solutions Roundup

I've been playing around with basic e-commerce packages lately, trying to set up an online store. My requirements are basically a reasonably core set of features, like catalog management, a shopping cart, and order management. I also require it to be a CSS-driven layout, to make design changes easier. I would also like bulk import/export of products as a "nice-to-have". I am not affiliated with any of the solutions being described here, although I have worked with some of them.

The landscape of different solutions out there for setting up an online store is daunting, to put it mildly. There are services where you sign up for a complete package, including hosting (Like Shopify, MonsterCommerce, and Yahoo Small Business), free software to be downloaded and installed on your own server, (like Zen Cart and osCommerce), and various commercial software (like Miva Merchant).

I'm leaving off heavier stuff like Microsoft Commerce Server, which is more of a set of libraries for developers to build their own e-commerce site. It's definitely not an "out of the box" package, and is comparable to almost building a site from scratch (at least version 2000 was, maybe 2007 is more suited for my needs). For semi-completeness, there's also The Apache Foundation's ofbiz ("Open For Business"), which is a complete enterprise business solution, which never met an acronym it didn't like:
The Apache Open For Business Project is an open source enterprise automation software project licensed under the Apache License Version 2.0. By open source enterprise automation we mean: Open Source ERP, Open Source CRM, Open Source E-Business / E-Commerce, Open Source SCM, Open Source MRP, Open Source CMMS/EAM, and so on.

I know some of those TLA's, sort of, but yeesh... English, please!

I'm also leaving out ecommerce modules that sit on top of Content Management Systems like Joomla. Mainly because there's a double learning curve - Joomla, which brings with it a hefty amount of overhead, on top of the module itself. If I already had a serious Joomla site going, I would consider adding a module like that to enable ecommerce functionality for the existing site, but doing it from scratch with a CMS just seems like overkill. The complexity and time factor basically disqualifies this approach from the get-go.

I'm sure I'm missing about 99% of the solutions out there, but these are the ones I've actually heard of and have checked out (if briefly, to be honest).

What's interesting about many of these offerings is the "tiered" approach to selling the products. For example, MonsterCommerce lets you set up a website for $50/month, but if you want to change what your website looks like in any significant way, you need to upgrade to $100/month. Yikes. Miva seems to be one version for everyone ($1000 one time payment for a "domain license", but you can find lots of hosts who offer it for $15/month or so). ZenCart is free but support isn't. There are no "getting started" links. You need to buy the book for that...

Staying with ZenCart for a moment - I liked their feature list, and their marketing copy:
Some "solutions" seem to be complicated programming exercises instead of responding to users' needs, Zen Cart™ puts the merchants and shoppers requirements first.

Sounds good to me. A little too good. And in fact, the out-of-the-box installation I did looks like this:

Ack! I'm not sure what that's supposed to be, but it doesn't look like a respectable store. I could tell immediately that I would have to spend my time just cleaning out the banner ads, polls, latest news, and all the other stuff I just don't need (telling customers their IP address in the footer is not something I want as part of my store). I didn't find the admin tool to be intuitive enough to figure out how to do all these things quickly and painlessly, and so far I'm not inclined to buy the book to learn this.

My next stop is Shopify. So far this is my favorite overall solution, at least for my purposes. It's the easiest interface I've seen by far, although they seem fixated on the T-shirt business model. I'm not being facetious - T-shirts have specific properties that don't apply to my site, like sizes. Every t-shirt is typically available in a variety of sizes (S, M, L, etc). Since it doesn't make sense to have a separate product for each size, the standard practice is to use "variants". But, again, since variants don't really apply to my site, it mostly just gets in the way for what I'm doing (Shopify requires a variant for every product, and it takes some hacking to get around that).

One of the cooler aspects of Shopify is the "collections" feature - it works largely like a playlist. You can have regular collections (just add products to the collection one by one) and "smart" collections (give the collection a bunch of rules, like between $500 and $1000). Then you can use the collections throughout the site.

It's also the easiest that I've seen to customize as far as layout goes. It comes with a bunch of pre-designed layouts that "just work", and look good. The template system is based on Ruby, which is a great choice. It's definitely the fastest and easiest way to get a small site up and running, like a boutique shop with a small inventory. It gets a little pricey as they charge both for transaction fees (up to 3%! And not even including 3rd party checkout transaction fees for credit card processing) and hosting fees, however. And it's hosted, which could be a dealbreaker for some (I personally prefer using my own hosting solutions).

This article is getting a bit long-winded, so I'll just wrap up with Miva and MonsterCommerce. I have extensive experience with Miva (version 4 - they're now up to 5), most of it negative. Miva has a large feature set, but I've had baaad experiences with them. Miva 4's out-of-the-box store was the opposite of ZenCart's - instead of a huge mess, it was practically empty (and the colors and fonts that were there were downright ugly). The only default navigation is a clumsy category tree on the left. The layout was table based, and very hard to customize. The only way to really work with Miva 4 was to buy 3rd party modules, each with their own quirks and problems. Also, Miva uses DBF files for data storage, as opposed to to a SQL solution, like MySQL. It makes it easier to install, but it also means that it's really really hard to work with the underlying data directly (if you're writing custom software, which I have). Which means the path of least resistance is to use MivaScript, Miva's hideous custom scripting language. I'm not getting started on that. But Miva is actually very easy to get started with, since many hosts offer Miva as an option with plans as low as $15/month. So it does have some appeal. But it's definitely off the menu for me.

To be fair, Miva 5 might address many of these issues. I spent about 5 minutes with the Miva 5 admin interface (also ugly, clunky, and confusing), and I saw very little that seemed different than 4. And while I'm forgiving, I would really have needed Miva to be rewritten from the ground up for me to even consider it at this point.

Finally, MonsterCommerce. I haven't really played with it yet, mainly because it's a bit hard to. There's no real demo (just a single annotated screenshot that you inexplicably get when you click on "demo"), and no trial to sign up and play with it. My main attraction to Monster is that the live sites they link to who are using MonsterCommerce look really good, and pretty close to what I want. But since the lowest price of admission is $100 ($50 "setup fee" + $50/month), which is a bit of a commitment, I'm not biting without a lot more information (preferably hands-on).

So there you have it. There may be the perfect e-commerce package (for me) out there, just waiting to be discovered, but I'm a bit skeptical at this point. There's always going to be considerable tradeoffs.

Hopefully this has been helpful for you, if, like me, you're evaluating e-commerce solutions.

UPDATE: T was nice enough to offer some suggestions in the comments: Magento, which is free open source software you install yourself, and Volusion, a hosted solution. A rep from Volusion also left a comment. Magento is still in beta, and under heavy development, but looks very promising. Volusion looks great but is pricey. See the comments for more info.


p.s. I didn't get to osCommerce and Yahoo. Yahoo is really expensive ($50 setup fee + $40/month), but seems featureful. No demo sites to log into and play with, though. Plentiful screenshots, but screenshots are not enough if I'm plunking down hundreds of dollars... osCommerce has serious marketing problems. Their screenshots are tiny even when you click on them. Even so, I've played with it a while ago - maybe it's time I gave it another shot...


What? It's Only Been Three Months...

I'm definitely glad there's something called Blog Action Day. It reminded me I had a blog!

BAD participants were supposed to post yesterday about the environment, so I'm not technically a participant, since I missed it :-/ But I do have what to say about the environment, and BAD raised me from my bloggy slumber.

You may not know this, but I was the president of the environment club* at my high school. I didn't know jack about the environment, or the political/socio-economic factors that contribute to it, which was probably for the best. I was a pretty lousy president, mainly because Al Gore was the vice president (of the US, not the club), and there wasn't much for me to do besides organize an annual T-shirt sale.

I did know, even then, that we have a culture of mass consumption that simply isn't sustainable. Unfortunately, sustainability is often expensive. No chemical plant wants to buy filters to put on their smoke stacks if they don't have to. Which is why regulations are usually necessary to force companies to do this sort of thing. But the habits of individuals are as critical, if not more so, than those of industry. And it's much harder to regulate people. Unless we start making laws telling people how much toilet paper they can buy in a year (not a good idea**), change is going to have to come from a sense of personal responsibility. In other words, it's the 1970's all over again.

The energy crises of the 1970's in particular forced Americans to realize how energy is a vital resource, and also how energy is a limited resource (scarcity does that). We're in a comparable position today - mostly rising oil prices over the past five years have created a new "green" market. Consumption is once again costly. Greener cars, houses, and food are hugely popular.

Bu that's the cynical way of looking at things - perhaps people are buying green because they genuinely want to help the environment? Unfortunately, I'm going to take the cynical view. Environmentalism waned for years when there was plenty. Now that scarcity has been put back into the equation (thanks, W!), environmentalism has made a staggering comeback (if I have time, I'll try to find some numbers, like donations to major environmental organizations). In other words, people behave when it's cost-effective for them to behave.

So there you have it - environmentalism shedding light on human nature***. That's why I find it so interesting!


* It was called S.A.V.E.: Students Against Violating the Environment. Not my choice - back off.
** Although note consumer habits during WW2...
*** I think one of the reasons that the environment has this relationship with human nature is that it's so abstract. Using a Styrofoam cup harms the environment, but that harm is so small relatively that we can't see its impact. If I throw garbage on the floor in my apartment (a micro-environment - emphasis on micro :-/ ), however, the impact is immediate and obvious. So most people clean up their homes. So apparently they wouldn't if the impact wasn't visible!



I was told recently of a pretty disturbing new trend - Facebook Spam (or FaceSpam). One version is that bots can go through the Facebook database and request to be friends with somebody, using the optional message feature, where the spammer would put their shpiel. This is one loophole for people to send messages to someone they're not friends with (and really, who would befriend a spammer).

A much worse one (IMHO) is that a spammer could "poke" a user. If the user is dumb enough to poke the spammer back (as I was), the spammer will be able to see the user's information for a week (one of the side effects of Facebook's "poke" feature) - ample time for the spammer to grab all of the victim's information (to be honest, I'm not sure I was poked by a spammer - it may have just been a friendly stranger). Definitely something for you Facebook users to look out for, though.


p.s. Yes! One more thing to worry about! I'm going to have to blog something positive and fast!



I should have known better... after all, I've blogged about the evils of DRM before, although not HDCP in particular (here's a nice intro). HDCP is basically DRM that "works" (as we'll see in a minute, I'm hesitant to say it works at all) over a digital hi-definition connection. All that BluRay/HD-DVD jazz works mainly with HDCP, supposedly to prevent unauthorized copying.

If you're trying to watch HDCP content, every component on the way has to support HDCP. A simple example would be a BluRay player hooked up to an HDTV. If the HDTV doesn't support HDCP, the BluRay player will refuse to play the disc (or it may reduce quality). For computers, it's much more complicated. In order to play an HD-DVD on your computer, your player software, operating system*, HD-DVD drive*, video card, and monitor must all support HDCP. Any one of those are not up to par, and your HD-DVD will again either not play, or play at relatively poor quality (* I'm not sure about these components). Certainly not the Hi Def you paid for.

And of course, my friends, this exact situation happened to me. I purchased a very fancy-shmancy LCD monitor with HDCP support advertised. Then, to take advantage of my purchase, I bought an upconverting DVD player. Soon I would be watching my old DVD's in high definition!

Well, no. My dvd player would simply not allow me to select a resolution higher than the minimum 480p, even though my monitor supports the much higher 1080p! Why not? Who can say? But I strongly suspect that one of the components is screwing up when it comes to the HDCP "handshake".

Here comes the kicker - neither company is particularly enthused about helping me out with this problem. The monitor people don't even seem to have a clue what HDCP is, even though it's a selling point of the monitor! I'm going to call the DVD people, but guess who they're going to blame.

My only recourse at this point, short of returning the DVD player, is to see if there are any 3rd party firmwares that disable HDCP on the DVD player.

Anyway, it's an ugly, anti-consumer situation. Caveat Emptor...


Where Family Guy Gets Its Ideas

I'm a big Family Guy fan, but I've been a Simpsons fan for longer, and I caught many of the, um, homages to the Simpsons present in Family Guy. The video below should give you a good idea of what's what:



The End Of The World As We Know It

I try to be an optimist, but it's hard when watching this interview of E. O. Wilson on the Bill Moyers Journal (Wilson being one of the most accomplished and honored American scientists and authors alive today). Some choice quotes from the interview:

BILL MOYERS: Why... should we care if the woodpecker goes? I mean, we've lost---how many species have we lost? We don't know how many species we've lost in the millennium.

E.O. WILSON: No. But-- how many species going extinct or becoming very rare do you think it takes before you see something happening? ... And more than that-- we lose the services of these species.

BILL MOYERS: The services of these species.

E.O. WILSON: Yes services of these species to us. Like pollination and water purification…

BILL MOYERS: That we get free from nature.

E.O. WILSON Yeah. Here's an easy way to remember it. We get from nature scot-free, so long as we don't screw it up and destroy it-- approximately the same amount of services as far as you can measure them in dollars as we ourselves produce each year. It was about $30 trillion a year. T. Trillion.


E.O. WILSON: If we do not abate the various changes we're causing-- climate, habitat destruction-- the-- continuing pollution of major-- river system-- systems and so on we will, by the end of the century, lose or have right at the brink of extinction-- about half the species of plants and animals-- in the world, certainly on the land.


BILL MOYERS: I'm sitting here trying to believe-- is this distinguished man, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, author of 25 books, telling me that he conceives of the obliteration of nature?



BILL MOYERS: The end of nature. The end of-- what do you mean by--

E.O. WILSON I mean the end of-- a large part of the rest of life on-- the planet.

Well, there you have it. We're all going to die. Thanks, Dr. Wilson!



Don't Call Me Null

I got this as the subject line in a spam message yesterday:
Null, Shamanism can help you get what you want.
Who're you calling Null?



"A Fox, A Wolf And A Whole Lot of Bull"

In case you had any faith left in the media, particularly Fox News, watch this amazing video dissecting how Fox and CNN twisted Ron Paul's words in an apparent attempt to marginalize him. In case you don't have time to watch the video, the short version is that Ron Paul said, citing the 9/11 Commission Report and CIA reports, that American interventionalism overseas helped create a climate of hate (of us) over the years. Giuliani immediately jumped on the opportunity to twist this into an implication that America brought 9/11 upon herself, which is clearly not what Paul said. Fox News took this even further, asserting that Paul is a conspiracy nut and a member of the 9/11 "truth" movement*. In other words, they make it seem like Paul said that Bush was involved with the attacks. They of course take a few potshots at Democrats as well, while they're at it.

Anyway, it's quite clear from the video that the GOP does not want Paul to run. He's not towing the line, and they want him out. Although I've criticized some of his positions in the past, I sincerely hope I did it honestly and accurately, disagreeing with what he actually said and believes, not what others want him to say or believe.

The saddest (and in a way, most encouraging) part of this video is watching Paul calmly weather the storm during interviews, knowing full well that the attempt is being made to destroy him.


p.s. Here's the Simpson's take on the Liberal Media :-) Get it while you can...

* Michelle Malkin (I'm 99% sure it's her) makes a loathsome grandstanding appearance here. The most amazing part of this interview is when Malkin criticizes the mainstream media (except for Fox, of course) for not spending more time debunking internet myths, when one of her major causes is the internet's (i.e. bloggers) debunking falsehoods perpetrated by mainstream media (or MSM, as she puts it)! Puh-lease.


Pick A Galaxy, Any Galaxy

Via Slashdot, a really cool idea - Galaxy Zoo:

Welcome to GalaxyZoo, the project which harnesses the power of the internet - and your brain - to classify a million galaxies. By taking part, you'll not only be contributing to scientific research, but you'll view parts of the Universe that literally no-one has ever seen before and get a sense of the glorious diversity of galaxies that pepper the sky.

Why do we need you?
The simple answer is that the human brain is much better at recognising patterns than a computer can ever be. Any computer program we write to sort our galaxies into categories would do a reasonable job, but it would also inevitably throw out the unusual, the weird and the wonderful. To rescue these interesting systems which have a story to tell, we need you.

I was never a space-head, but maybe this site will change that... and it's more interactive than SETI@Home or Folding@Home. Richard Feynman always said that he felt like his work was really play, and by turning identifying galaxies into a game, Galaxy Zoo is cleverly capitalizing on that.



Blame Facebook

Returning to blogging is like returning to anything else - the longer you've been away, the harder it is to get back into it. One of the reasons my blog output has been so paltry is that I've been spending way too much time:

  • Working.

  • Playing GTA 3.

  • On Facebook.

None of which are particularly good excuses not to blog of course ;-)

Facebook is a lot of fun, and a bit overwhelming (it seems to be populated primarily by my ex-girlfriends - yikes). It's also an unbelievable privacy risk - who I am, who I know, how I know them... it's all there. The reason I joined FB is to check out their slick new API, but since these third party applications all have their own privacy policies, and I can't seem to find said privacy policies, I've been avoiding them (even the indispensable ones).

Regarding Grand Theft Auto (the game), am I a bad person for playing it? Probably. It's a great game, though - I wish all games had that level of polish. I've actually become more conservative when it comes to real crime because of this game. Liberty City is a terrifying place to live, and highlights how good New Yorkers have it these days. Another interesting thing I've noticed is when you can steal a car, any car, no matter how nice, at will, you don't really value it or take care of it. Everything (and everyone) in the game is completely disposable, and you have no attachments whatsoever (particularly in GTA 3). This is in stark contrast to games like World of Warcraft, where the best gear takes hours, or even days, of intense play to acquire. So there's actually some interesting philosophical and psychological observations you can make playing this series of games. That's my excuse, anyway...


p.s. I'll try to blog a bit more often. I know there's nothing more boring than a blogger who writes about his own blog, so I'll leave it at that :-)


Trends, Means, And Goals

Hans Rosling gave a talk over at TED about "the myth of developing countries". It's worth watching the presentation just to see how creatively data can be presented. For example, the United States' wealth per capita increased much faster than its health per capita did. Meanwhile, India (among other countries) has shown the opposite trend: it became healthier faster than it became wealthier. He also points out that the goals of development are not necessarily the same as the means of development. For example, development relies to a large degree on a stable government, but government is certainly not the goal of development. And while human rights is an extremely important goal of development, Rosling points out that it's not really crucial to modernization.

Anyway, it's a delightful talk - interesting and funny - and well worth the fifteen minutes. And I almost forgot - he does a magic trick at the end, to prove that "the seemingly impossible is possible."



Now I've Seen Everything

I was wondering what it would take to get me to say that, but the Avatar Machine definitely fits the bill. It's a fairly complicated rig that lets a person see themselves in third person, as if they're in a game. From the site:
Avatar Machine is a system which replicates the aesthetics and visuals of third person gaming, allowing the user to view themselves as a virtual character in real space via a head mounted interface.

I probably have seen weird things, but I can't think of any off the top of my head...



GWT versus Rails

I recently got into a debate with a friend of mine about which is better for developing web applications - Google's Web Toolkit (GWT) or Ruby on Rails. He argued for GWT, I for Rails. Neither one of us convinced the other, although we both got each other to watch the frameworks' respective screencasts (GWT, Rails).

Disclaimer: I've done quite a bit of Rails, but not any GWT, and I'm rusty with Java. So I may be totally off base with some of my analysis, but that's what the comments are for (besides, what else is new?).

Anyway, without further ado:

Advantages of GWT over Rails

  • It's FAST. GWT is designed to be lightning fast, and as far as I can tell, it's pretty much as fast as it's going to get for an HTTP application.

  • It scales extremely well. Because GWT relies quite heavily on the browser, there are fewer HTTP requests to the server, and the requests themselves are smaller. The ImageBundle widget is a great example of this.

  • GWT gives you a toolbox of graphical user interface widgets to build your application with out of the box.

  • There's compiling. That catches quite a few errors before deployment.

  • Java is a much more mature language than Ruby.

Advantages of Rails over GWT

  • Database support. It is very easy to work with almost any database in Rails with almost no configuration. Rails also gives you RDBMS-agnostic migrations so you can update your database without writing any SQL. In fact, you don't even have to manually create any tables in your database - Rails will create migrations for you to do that when you create your models. GWT has none of this as far as I can see.

  • Multiple Environments. Rails supports as many environment types as you can think of. Out of the box they give you basic code for a development environment, a testing environment (more on this later), and a production environment. This includes different database connection strings for each. Simply change RAILS_ENV to whatever environment you're in.

  • Ruby is a much easier language to learn and work with. It's also much lighter-weight as far as the amount of code you have to write.

This post may get updated as I think of more pros and cons for each. Stay tuned!



PSA: Toxic Counterfeit Toothpaste

Colgate is warning (PDF) that someone is manufacturing toxic counterfeit toothpaste. It has been spotted in Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

And society seems a little bit more screwed up today.



Theodore Roosevelt: My Favorite President

Theodore Roosevelt is one of the four presidents on Mount Rushmore. The other three are famous for something: George Washington was the first president, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. But Teddy Roosevelt is up there because he simply kicked *** as the president.

There are so many things I love about Roosevelt. He was an outdoorsman and conservationist to his last days (and was one of the earliest advocates of conservation in America):
During his tenure in the White House from 1901 to 1909, he designated 150 National Forests, the first 51 Federal Bird Reservations, 5 National Parks, the first 18 National Monuments, the first 4 National Game Preserves, and the first 21 Reclamation Projects.
He was a champion of consumers' rights, workers' rights, children's rights, and civil rights. Regarding that last, Roosevelt was actually the first president to invite a black man (Booker T. Washington) to the White House for dinner, which was actually scandalous at the time.

Finally, he was a diplomat, winning a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a truce between Russia and Japan.

There's obviously much more to the man, and I'm just scratching the surface here. I just wanted to give a tip of the hat (for no particular reason) to my favorite president.



The Libertarian Fallacy

Ron Paul seems to be picking up steam as a populist candidate - the candidate who speaks for the people. Part of his popularity stems from the fact that he is was always against the Iraq war, which appeals to the left, and his heavily libertarian positions, which appeal to the right. Republicans, by contrast, tend to be conservative, not libertarian, when it comes to individual rights (like drugs, media censorship, wiretapping, etc etc etc). Paul was also against the Patriot Act from day one - along with pretty much anything that would increase the power of government.

And that's the problem. He has one simple rule for every single problem: less government. Unfortunately, reality doesn't follow simple rules. The market, far from being a magical benign force that solves all of society's ills, has proven again and again to bring out the worst in many people. There are too many examples to go into here, but one good resource that indicts the market and the negative effects that it has had on our lives is Is The American Dream Killing You?, by Paul Stiles (it's on my reading list on the right of this page, which I haven't updated in a quite a while).

The general motto for Libertarians is something like this: "Can we really trust the government with [insert issue here]?" Of course, the question they don't ask is "Can we really trust corporations with [same issue]?" At least government agencies have to answer to voters, to some degree.

FEMA was put under the magnifying glass after their shockingly inept performance in New Orleans. Why do we expect that a private agency would do better? The people of New Orleans were not exactly profitable victims. What's in it for the private sector? For all its faults, FEMA's mission is "to reduce the loss of life and property and protect the Nation from all hazards, including natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other man-made disasters..." The mission of any private agency would be profit. The fact that the competent and experienced FEMA workers were replaced with political cronies doesn't reflect as badly on FEMA as it does the corrupt administration that ruined it.

Privatization may fix many problems in this country, but it's not a panacea - not by a long shot. Ron Paul's approach may be able to undo much of the damage Bush has done to this country (particularly in the realm of civil liberties), but there's also a real possibility that he'll make things much, much worse. I hope his presence will force certain issues to the forefront that more mainstream politicians would prefer to ignore.



Please Let Me Save

Dear Video Game Developers:

I would like to save my game now. I am done playing. I have to go to sleep. Yet, if I were to turn off my game now, I would lose about a half hour (the amount of time that has passed since my last opportunity to save) of progress. And playing the same half hour again is boring, especially in your game. Also, I already watched that cutscene - I don't need to watch it again.

Thank you for your time (as I'm sure you're thanking me for mine),



Silly Bank

I recently started a new job, and it's going well, but one annoyance is that there are no ATM's for my bank nearby, and there aren't any where I live, either. Since both the ATM machine and my bank charge a fee for adulterous ATM withdrawals (phrase borrowed from Laura Penny), I am charged $3 to $4 dollars every time I take out money. That's 5-7% of a $60 withdrawal! Since I don't feel like giving up 5-7% of my money in fees, I'm going to have to switch banks. And that's the kicker. My bank, by insisting piling on this pointless fee (in addition to the various other fees they get me with), is going to lose my business. I generally like this bank, but they're essentially punishing me for not having a local branch available to me. Dumb move...



Star Wars Mashups

Two Star Wars posts in a row? Sure! Lucasfilm just introduced Star Wars mashups - basically they're licensing clips from the movie to fans who want to mess around with them (with major restrictions). In an era where fair use is under attack, this is a healthy breath of fresh air. Lucasfilm has been quite progressive about this for a while, when they introduced a fan film hosting service (although infamously zealous about their copyrights).

Here are some more stories on the topic:
  • WSJ
  • Ars Technica

    For a much more negative view on the Lucasfilm decision, read the Madisonian (don't know much about the site, but it looks interesting). They argue that by authorizing, but also limiting, what can be used in the parody clips, Lucasfilm is actually undermining fair use, since legally one can use any clip for parody purposes. There's definitely some truth to this, but with the many copyright holders behaving as if fair use doesn't even exist, Lucasfilm's is a welcome move.

  • 2007-05-28

    Happy (Belated) Birthday, Star Wars!

    Sometimes it's hard to blog not when you don't have anything to write about, but when there's so much going on that it's impossible to pick something. Also, when you have no time or energy to blog in the first place.

    That said, I would be remiss in not mentioning that Friday was the 30th anniversary of the original Star Wars movie. Here's to 30 more! I'm not sure what that means either.


    p.s. I'm starting a new job tomorrow - wish me luck!


    Lawsuits, Lawsuits, Lawsuits - Part 2

    Here's an interesting comment in Slashdot about frivolous lawsuits (comment author). I think it makes a lot of sense, and at the very least, food for thought:
    I think it's high time we had lawsuit reform.

    Reform #1: If lawsuit is deemed frivolous, plaintiff pays for defendant's legal fees, court costs, and some penalty to be divvied between the court and the defendant(s).

    Reform #2: Neither party is allowed to spend more on legal fees and/or time spent, in the case of pro bono.

    Reform #3: If a plaintiff has had 3 lawsuits deemed frivolous, they are barred from suing for one year. A fourth is 5 years. A fifth is 10 years.

    Reform #4: A lawyer who's had 3 or more lawsuits dismissed for frivolity is suspended for one year. A fourth is grounds for disbarment. A fifth is automatic disbarment.


    Lawsuits, Lawsuits, Lawsuits

    Seems like everyone's suing somebody these days...
  • KFC is threatening a tiny little pub in England over their use of the phrase "Family Feast".
  • Microsoft wants to sue various Open Source projects over patent infringement.
  • Some idiot is suing his dry cleaners for $67 million over lost pants.
    And the biggest lawsuit of all time:
  • Bank of America threatened to sue LaSalle Bank's parent company for $220 billion dollars if it didn't let BoA buy them. BoA is on an acquisition spree, and I guess this is the sort of tantrum they throw if they don't get their way. BoA is a horrible bank - avoid them like the plague.

  • 2007-05-08

    (Un)Happy Harassment

    I heard something quite weird today. A friend of mine recently celebrated a happy occasion (a Simcha, in Hebrew) in his family. Unlike many Orthodox Jews, however, he and his wife refrained from posting the news on OnlySimchas.com*. In his words, "We don't want our lives up on OnlySimchas". But in my friend's case, someone decided to post the news for them, despite their wishes. Apparently this person (or persons) keeps posting the news, even bumping up the date to make sure it stays on the front page. It could be someone well-meaning who wants to share the news, and doesn't know about my friend's feelings on the matter, or a creepy jerk who has it in for my friend. It could be the same person persistently putting it up, or different people who hear the news, and don't understand why it's not already on the site. Or maybe it was just a technical glitch?

    I've heard of OnlySimchas jokes ("Wedding of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie!") and OnlySimchas spam ("Birth of Low Prices at FooMart!"), but this is the first I've heard of OnlySimchas harassment. My friend seems to think it's common, but it seems to be a pretty weird way to harass someone. Although I could see how someone might want to mess with their ex by posting a fake "engagement" with pictures of the once happy couple. Hmmm - this could be a dangerous avenue of contemplation... I think I'll stop there.



    Yitzi On Entropy

    It looks like I got Yitzi thinking - that's always dangerous... And he just had a kid! How does he have time to think? (Seriously speaking, I'd like to publicly wish Yitz a huge mazel tov on the birth of his first son :-D). Here's a taste:
    People like to think of entropy as a force in nature that is slowly ripping everything apart. Entropy is the force that works towards spreading energy evenly throughout the whole universe. Since we, as created beings, are pockets of a relatively large amount of energy packed into a relatively small space, it would seem that Entropy has it in for us.


    Entropy, rather than being seen as a destructive force, can be seen as an overly benevolent force: It is trying to evenly distribute God's blessing throughout the cosmos with complete impartiality. Entropy is actually the extreme expression of God's Kindness. Really, why should any space in the universe be devoid of God's light? Why should any space in the universe get preferential treatment over any other? Such is the logic behind the unbending Kindness inherent in Entropy.
    (emphasis his)

    Usual heads up for Yitzi's blog - it's fairly heavy Jewish mysticism, so you may find his post challenging if you're not up to speed on the terminology.


    p.s. I still think "Entropy has it in for us", but Yitzi does make a convincing argument otherwise.

    It's Going To Take How Long?

    I recently got this in an e-mail from Verizon:
    Dear Customer,

    Thank you. We have received your enrollment form for the Recurring Credit Card Payment option.

    Your credit card billing should begin within 60 days of this date.
    Ummm are they using internet over carrier pigeons?


    p.s. I always wanted to link that...


    School Is Hell

    It was only last week when a student was arrested for writing an essay, and a few weeks ago when another innocent kid was thrown into jail because of a Daylight Savings Time bug.

    now a student has been arrested for making a video game map of his school, something that is apparently quite common for people learning to make video game maps. Now granted, I can see how fuddy-duddy grown-ups with no understanding of video games might be freaked out by a kid (look out, he's Asian!) playing what appears to be a simulation of himself running around shooting inside his school. But any sane school administrator will simply talk to the kid and see if anything's up, as opposed to searching the kid's house and arresting him when they find a hammer, which he apparently needed to fix his bed.

    My high school wasn't much better. When I was a junior, several kids got caught with marijuana. In addition to getting the DEA involved, the administration told some of the kids that if they ratted out their friends, they would get suspended and not expelled. They ratted and got expelled anyway. This was not lost on the rest of us kids, nor our younger siblings, nor their friends... the administrators completely alienated their students as well as future students by betraying their trust. I don't see this getting better any time soon.


    p.s. As a bonus, here's an excellent essay by Paul Graham: Why Nerds Are Unpopular: "If life seems awful to kids, it's neither because hormones are turning you all into monsters (as your parents believe), nor because life actually is awful (as you believe). It's because the adults, who no longer have any economic use for you, have abandoned you to spend years cooped up together with nothing real to do. Any society of that type is awful to live in. You don't have to look any further to explain why teenage kids are unhappy."

    War Is A Racket

    Yes it is.


    Ruby Tip - Cleaner Object Inspection

    Here's a cute tip I picked up in Ruby a little while back. Ruby has some nice built-in inspection methods that let you discover some things about an object. The public_methods method will list all the public methods for a particular object:

    irb(main):001:0> ''.methods
    => ["methods", "instance_eval", "%", "rindex", "map", "<<", "split", "any?", "du
    p", "sort", "strip", "size", "instance_variables", "downcase", "min", "gsub!", "
    count", "include?", "succ!", "instance_of?", "extend", "downcase!", "intern", "s
    queeze!", "eql?", "*", "next", "find_all", "each", "rstrip!", "each_line", "+",
    "id", "sub", "slice!", "hash", "singleton_methods", "tr", "replace", "inject", "
    reverse", "taint", "sort_by", "lstrip", "frozen?", "instance_variable_get", "cap
    italize", "max", "chop!", "kind_of?", "capitalize!", "scan", "select", "to_a", "
    each_byte", "type", "casecmp", "gsub", "protected_methods", "empty?", "to_str",
    "partition", "tr_s", "tr!", "match", "grep", "rstrip", "to_sym", "instance_varia
    ble_set", "next!", "swapcase", "chomp!", "is_a?", "swapcase!", "ljust", "respond
    _to?", "between?", "reject", "to_s", "upto", "hex", "sum", "class", "method", "r
    everse!", "chop", "<=>", "insert", "<", "tainted?", "private_methods", "==", "de
    lete", "dump", "===", "__id__", "member?", "tr_s!", "unpack", ">", "concat", "re
    quire_gem", "nil?", "untaint", "succ", "find", "strip!", "each_with_index", ">="
    , "to_i", "rjust", "<=", "send", "display", "index", "collect", "inspect", "slic
    e", "oct", "all?", "gem", "clone", "length", "entries", "chomp", "=~", "public_m
    ethods", "upcase", "sub!", "squeeze", "__send__", "upcase!", "crypt", "delete!",
    "equal?", "freeze", "object_id", "detect", "require", "zip", "[]", "lstrip!", "
    center", "[]=", "to_f"]

    Above is an array of every method available for a String object. It's useful, but if you're trying to track down the name of a particular method, it's going to be hard to find. So the first step is to use sort on the resulting array:

    irb(main):003:0> ''.public_methods.sort
    (Picture the same output as above, but sorted ;-)

    Better, but we still have a lot of inherited methods that aren't specific to Strings, like object_id, clone, and inspect (not to mention public_methods itself). How do we filter those out? With the reject method:

    irb(main):014:0> ''.public_methods.reject {|m| Object.methods.index(m)}.sort
    => ["%", "*", "+", "<<", "[]", "[]=", "all?", "any?", "between?", "capitalize",
    "capitalize!", "casecmp", "center", "chomp", "chomp!", "chop", "chop!", "collect
    ", "concat", "count", "crypt", "delete", "delete!", "detect", "downcase", "downc
    ase!", "dump", "each", "each_byte", "each_line", "each_with_index", "empty?", "e
    ntries", "find", "find_all", "grep", "gsub", "gsub!", "hex", "index", "inject",
    "insert", "intern", "length", "ljust", "lstrip", "lstrip!", "map", "match", "max
    ", "member?", "min", "next", "next!", "oct", "partition", "reject", "replace", "
    reverse", "reverse!", "rindex", "rjust", "rstrip", "rstrip!", "scan", "select",
    "size", "slice", "slice!", "sort", "sort_by", "split", "squeeze", "squeeze!", "s
    trip", "strip!", "sub", "sub!", "succ", "succ!", "sum", "swapcase", "swapcase!",
    "to_f", "to_i", "to_str", "to_sym", "tr", "tr!", "tr_s", "tr_s!", "unpack", "up
    case", "upcase!", "upto", "zip"]

    The result are String-only public methods. Notice the list is much shorter (49 fewer methods, to be exact).

    One more step: if you want to filter out any inherited methods (not just Object's), use superclass:

    irb(main)> class A; def a; end; end;
    irb(main)> class B < A; def b; end; end
    irb(main> B.instance_methods.reject {|m| Object.methods.index(m)}
    => ["b", "a"]
    irb(main)> B.instance_methods.reject {|m| B.superclass.instance_methods.index(m)}
    => ["b"]

    In this contrived example, A is a class with one method (a), and B is a class inherited from A with its own method (b). If you filter out Object's methods from B's, it shows a and b. If you filter out A's methods from B's, it only shows b.

    I should just point out that I used instance_methods, not methods or public_methods, since a and b are both instance methods, and would not show up in B.methods. If I made an instance of B (using B.new), then it would show up for that.

    Whew! Hope this helped somebody...



    Vista Breaks Everything

    Here's a whole writeup on just how bad Vista is, due its built-in DRM systems. In a nutshell problems crop up on multiple levels (software, hardware, performance, reliability), and the costs associated with those problems are all passed on to the consumer. Monitors and soundcards stop working, for example, because Vista is going out of its way to make them stop working. Stay away...



    If At First You Don't Succeed...

    Consumerist had some problems deciding on a headline Wednesday. In chronological order:
    • VIDEO: Tie Slipknots On Produce Bags For Drawstring Access

    • VIDEO: Tie Slipped Half-Hitches On Produce Bags For Drawstring Access

    • VIDEO: Tie This Easy Knot On Produce Bags For Drawstring Access

    Personally, I would have gone with "Tie This Easy Knot On Easy Produce Bags For Easy Access"...


    p.s. I can just picture the debate at Consumerist as to whether it's technically a slipknot or a "slipped half-hitch". Never hire a boy/girl scout.

    Assault, Yes. Drugs, No.

    When I first saw on the FAFSA that students are ineligible for financial student aid if they have been "if you have been convicted for the possession or sale of illegal drugs" while being supplied with student aid, I misread it as referring to crime in general. Anyone have an idea why drugs are singled out? As opposed to, say, assault? I'd rather have a drug user on campus than a dangerous sociopath, and so, I would guess, would the vast majority of Americans.


    Some Animals Just Want To Be Eaten

    Via Consumerist: Suicide Foods - various advertisements depicting cartoon animals who are just waiting for you to sink your teeth into them...



    In Search Of 99 Year Old Women

    If you're female, one side effect of (non-dating-related) social networking sites like MySpace and StumbleUpon is the crush of men who are searching for you whether you want it or not. I've noticed that a lot of women list their age as 99 years old so they don't come up in search results. So if you're a horny, desperate man looking for someone who doesn't want to be bothered, there's no such thing as too old!



    Adscape: Outdoor Ads By Neighborhood

    Via Stay Free Daily - Alexis Lloyd's Adscape research project:
    Advertising data was recorded from three neighborhoods in New York City: East Harlem, a historically poor, primarily Latino neighborhood; SoHo, a downtown shopping district; and the Upper East Side, a wealthy residential area.

    Some interesting numbers emerge:

    Alcohol & Tobacco

    East Harlem: 12 ads
    SoHo: 0 ads
    Upper East Side: 0 ads

    Books & Periodicals

    East Harlem: 0 ads
    SoHo: 30 ads
    Upper East Side: 11 ads


    East Harlem: 0 ads
    SoHo: 7 ads
    Upper East Side: 3 ads

    Food & Beverage

    East Harlem: 33 ads
    SoHo: 13 ads
    Upper East Side: 7 ads

    Music & Movies

    East Harlem: 15 ads
    SoHo: 8 ads
    Upper East Side: 0 ads

    One of the Stay Free commenters (Charles Star) is suspicious of the numbers, particularly the drugs & alcohol ones - SoHo, the commenter argues, does indeed have ads for booze (it's definitely there in my neighborhood). However, said commenter has not read about the methodology:
    In each neighborhood, ads were recorded in a five-block section that consisted of two avenue blocks and three adjacent street blocks.

    Anyway, the one that strikes me as the most offensive is the lack of ads for books and education in East Harlem (although the alcohol and drugs ads targeting poor people is pretty bad too).

    Also, note that the numbers include things like storefronts, not just billboards.

    In any case, an interesting and provocative look at the ad biz in New York.



    Practical Joking With Ruby

    It's a little late for April Fool's, but if you're a Ruby programmer, here's a fun trick you can play on your peers:

    class Fixnum
    def +(other); (self.to_f + other.to_f + 1.0).to_i; end

    1 + 1
    => 3

    2 + 2
    => 5
    2 + 2 = 5? Big Brother would be proud :-)


    p.s. Any Ruby people have a better way to redefine plus? My way is kind of a hack...

    A Thousand Little Pieces

    One of the reasons I love Unix/Linux is that it comes with dozens of little programs that work amazingly well together, and is designed to let them from the ground up. For example, there's the handy "find" command that will show you all files, subdirectories, sub-subdirectories, etc. in a directory (by default your current directory if you don't specify one). So "find /" in Linux will show every single file and directory on the whole system. If you want to find any file containing the word "foo", you could type:
    find | grep foo
    This is the first example of two programs working together - "find" lists the files, and "grep" does the search. "|" is the magical glue that makes them work together: it takes the output from "find" and pipes it into "grep".

    Here's another example: "wc" shows a character, word, and line count for whatever is given to it. "wc -l" just counts the lines. So in the previous example, if you wanted to count how many files have the word "foo" in it, you could type:
    find | grep foo | wc -l
    If you want to sort the results instead:
    find | grep foo | sort
    Note: I'm not sure if find already does sorting, but I wouldn't assume so.

    Anyway, these little tools are all really useful on their own, but when you chain them together, you expand their value tremendously. And Linux makes it almost trivial to write your own tool that would fit in with the others (this system is also much more effective than any "supertool" that may have been designed - no all-in-one solution would have been nearly as flexible or powerful in the long term).

    The point of all this, besides the geeky *nix love, is that it shows how very simple, specialized pieces can work together to make something much greater than the sum of their parts. It happens on a much grander scale in biology with cells - billions of cells work together to make an organ, and all the organs work together for a working body. Each cell does its thing, but because the way the system is set up, something called an organism emerges.

    The same thing also happens in the market - billions of individuals make decisions, and incredibly complex economic trends emerge. It's much messier because the "|" (i.e. the written and unwritten laws that govern financial relationships) is much messier.

    So a belated kudos to the original developers of Unix for understanding this concept - I think it's a major reason for its staying power as an operating system.



    Political Vacation

    Part of the reason I haven't been blogging much recently is that (other than the fact that I've been crazy busy and have had a lot going on in my life) is that I've been taking (or trying to) a vacation from politics. This is something I recommend to most people not actually involved with politics - reading the news and various commentary and so on can really increase your stress, and if you're like me there's not much you can do anyway ("call your senator" - suuuuure) so why submit yourself to that? It's of course important to stay involved and aware in general, but every once in a while it's important to just take a break. The key is to actually re-engage, eventually - a democracy needs an involved populace. But by all means, take a break from all the craziness every once in a while. The various scandals and outrages will be there when you get back. I promise.




    Via MindHacks: The Augmented Cognition website. The AugCog group includes DARPA (of course), Boeing, DaimlerChrysler, and Microsoft, among many others. From the site:
    A main goal of the field of Augmented Cognition (AugCog) is to research and develop technologies capable of extending, by an order of magnitude or more, the information management capacity of individuals working with 21st Century computing technologies.... A computational interaction employing such novel system concepts monitors the state of the user, through behavioral, psychophysiological and/or neurophyiological data acquired from the user in real time, and then adapts or augments the computational interface to significantly improve their performance on the task at hand.
    It looks like a combination of biofeedback and advanced UI. It's sort of like if your heartrate affected your Windows machine...

    When I first read about this, I thought it was more like brain enhancement, but now I'm pretty sure it's only interface enhancement. Whew. One question, though: what happens if you fall asleep at your console? Does it sense that and wake you up?

    For more thorough analysis and lots of details, check out Neurophilosopy.

    Anyway, welcome to fifteen years from now.



    Piracy and DRM

    A few weeks ago Slashdot linked to an article about how DRM causes piracy. Consumerist has a similar story posted today. I commented several times over there, so instead of repeating myself over here, I'd like to direct you there to see what I and many others have to say about the issue. It's a great thread, and covers quite a bit of ground. But it would seem that piracy offers consumers a better and more valuable experience than buying legally, even ignoring the money. The pirates simply have better service.

    What I think DRM is really all about is ownership. When you buy a music CD, are you buying the music, or a license to listen to the music? What does it mean to own the CD? Software has had the licensing model for ages - you don't buy software, you buy a license to use the software. That's because computer people understood much earlier that making a copy of software has virtually no cost. The cost is not zero, since information is always a physical thing, but it's so low that a business model based on production and distribution (that is, the medium) will fail. So the model has to be based on the content, which means the rights to the content have to be controlled - i.e. licensed. "On Demand" is the ultimate realization of this idea - you pay for permission to look at or listen to something and then it fades away forever (unless you pay again).

    One consequence of this is that the idea of a music collection will vanish. No one wants to collect media licenses. If you don't own your CD's, then collecting them is completely pointless. The other consequence is that if buying music is truly a licensing agreement, then the RIAA is free to set the terms. They could theoretically say that when you buy a CD, you're only allowed to listen to it four times. Anything more than that is a violation of the license. Or that you can only listen on weekdays from 9 to 5. They're holding all the cards - all you can do is choose whether to pay or not.

    As an aside, one American pioneer got it long ago: Consumerist commenter Troy F. says that he has a vintage Edison phonograph with the following message:
    No license whatever is granted to anyone to use this patented Phonograph with any reproducer or recorder or blank or parts not manufactured by or for us nor with any other records than Edison records and original records made by recording upon Edison blanks, nor in any altered or changed condition, nor if this label or said name plate or serial number or trademark be removed or defaced or changed in whole or in part.
    That's right - Thomas Edison was saying you were not permitted to play non-Edison records on your Edison phonograph. Edison lost the format war of his time to Victor, by the way. He lost the AC/DC war, too (he was on the DC side). Huh.

    One final point - one unintended benefit of DRM is that it may drive consumers to look elsewhere for music. The independent music scene is already benefiting from technology like myspace. Independent bands that offer DRM-free downloads and CD's will have an advantage that bigger bands don't. Which is good for music.


    p.s. Richard Stallman recently wrote a letter to the Boston Globe on the topic.


    Artificial Acting

    The Times of London ran an article a few weeks ago about how movie studios are digitally enhancing actors' performances after the fact. Even tears are now added in post-production using computers now. Jennifer Connelly in Blood Diamond is given as an example.

    What do you think? Good? Bad? Irrelevant?


    Something To Slip Ahmadinejad

    A little oxytocin might mellow out the man, apparently.


    p.s. Apparently "Oxytocin is the window to the soul"...


    "Sorry It Took So Long..."

    These are some actual quotes from e-mails that I've received on JDate. Is it me?

    • "I'm sorry I dropped off the face of jdate and am only getting back to you now. If you'll forgive my tardiness I'd love to resume the conversation."

    • "I've been horrible! Sorry for taking so long to write."

    • "After an extended hiatus from J-date, I found this very old e-mail from you buried in my inbox."

    • "I completely lost track of our last correspondence."*

    * This one came a month after the previous e-mail I had sent her.

    More to the point, should I bother continuing these conversations? (To be fair, full membership on JDate, which gives you access to e-mail, is pretty expensive at $35/month, and at least one of them appears to be a simple cost-saving measure: she wasn't a full member when I e-mailed her. And JDate doesn't tell you if any given person is a full member who can your read your messages. The others though...)


    p.s. If anyone strongly feels that this post is inappropriate, in the sense of my posting an e-mail intended only for me, I will take it down.

    p.p.s. Yes I'm guilty of what I'm complaining about here ;-)

    p.p.p.s. Totally off-topic - why does JDate have special rates for longer-term memberships? If they're giving me a discount if I order six months of JDate in advance, that doesn't exactly vouch for their efficacy. It's like "Yeah, you're going to be here for the long haul - you might as well pay up now." I thought the whole point ("mission", if you will) of JDate would seem to be to get off of JDate as soon as possible!


    The Ranking Economy

    America is no longer a manufacturing economy, or even a service economy -– it’s a ranking economy. We rank things. You need something ranked, you come to us. If the editors of “Cat Fancy” magazine haven’t yet published their special “Top 100 Cats of All Time” issue, don’t worry – they will.
    So said Bill Maher back in September 2003. Unfortunately, I can't find the original quote (he took his old blog down) - just expired 3rd party links.

    He's right - a major sector in our economy is buying and selling "top 5/10/20/50/100" lists. The New York Times (via Slashdot) reports on a group that made a list of "The Ten Most Important Games". Why?
    "Creating this list is an assertion that digital games have a cultural significance and a historical significance," Mr. Lowood said in an interview. And if that is acknowledged, he said, "maybe we should do something about preserving them."
    Or maybe you just wanted to make a list so people could fight about it (the list seems designed to antagonize) and get you lots of publicity. The fact is that no one needs to "preserve" Warcraft 3 or any of the Super Mario Bros. games - they're doing fine, thank you (and none of the games are out of copyright - they're very much preserved in that sense).

    What we need is for people to do real work and make real things (even real games), not sit around and discuss what the most important games of all time are. That's just a cynical attempt to monetize a frivolous discussion, like almost every ranking scheme out there. Listing other people's stuff off is a great way to fall behind.



    1984 And Zero-Information Society

    Let's say you receive a "message" (this is a highly abstract example) - the letter A. Then you receive another "A" from the same source. Then another, and another, and so on. It's easy to describe the complete message as "continuous A's". Each new "A" does not add any additional information - it's still "continuous A's". If you got a "B" after, say, three hundred and twelve A's, and then got A's again, you would have to say the message consists of "312 A's, 1 B, and then continuous A's". In other words, it takes more information to describe the message, because the message itself contains more information (in the Shannon information theory sense).

    I just finished reading George Orwell's 1984 (finally!), and I realized that one of the goals of Big Brother (the totalitarian government in the book) is to maintain a zero information level. In the book, Big Brother has complete control over every human being - there is even "Thought Police" and "crimethink". Big Brother's Ministry of Truth is in charge of maintaining this zero-information level by literally rewriting the past to suit Big Brother's needs in the present. For example, if Big Brother makes a prediction that turns out to be false, all references to that incorrect prediction are collected and altered. Nothing that contradicts Big Brother is allowed to exist, ever. Citizens who fail to alter their own internal records (their memory) to comply with Big Brother's are "vanished".

    In terms of the previous example, Big Brother, upon receiving a "B" message, either destroys it or changes all the previous A's into B's, so that the message does not add any information. That way, no new message could increase information within the society. Orwell understood intuitively that changing old information can be equivalent to destroying new information.

    And now I'm off to watch some prolefeed.


    p.s. Fine - I'll make a political point: when the administration lies about lying about WMD's in Iraq, they are attempting, in a very Orwellian manner, to destroy the potency of new information (no WMD's in Iraq after all) by rewriting the past ("we never said that/we've always said that"). Much of 1984 hits far too close to home these days.


    Do You Suffer From Childhood Syndrome?

    There are tens of millions of Americans suffering from Childhood Syndrome, a serious psychological and physiological condition whose symptoms include (but are not limited to):

    • Dwarfism

    • Emotional Instability

    • Irrational Fears

    • Knowledge Deficits

    • Chronic Unemployment

    • Inappropriate Social Behavior

    • Tooth Loss

    • Higher Rates of Accidents

    Luckily, most individuals diagnosed with childhood disorder are able to overcome it after many years, with remission virtually unknown.

    (Via MindHacks)



    Been Sick...

    Sorry for not writing anything these past few days.. Haven't been feeling well :-( Not that I don't have what to write about, but it does take some time and energy to get a post out that meets at least some level of quality. Anyway, bear with me, and I hope to have something for you soon.



    Roses Are Red, You're Sick In The Head

    Via Mind Hacks: Hallmark has just released a line of greeting cards for "special" situations like mental illness. There's also cards for chemotherapy, drug rehab, getting shot in the face by the Vice President, and surviving Acme product malfunctions. It's a niche:
    "We're aware (Journeys) won't be as successful dollarwise as (humor-related line) Shoebox because they're more specific," Steffens said. "We're prepared for that. We believe it hits a completely different market."
    (ABC News)



    "We Take Our Bull---- Seriously"

    From Center for Citizen Media's blog:
    Try this: Plug “we take” and “very seriously” into a Google News or Yahoo News search. You’ll get hundreds of hits, albeit some repeats, where some big institution - corporate, educational, government, whatever - makes a giant blunder and then issues a “we take (insert the violated policy) very seriously” statement.
    I've definitely heard a lot of that lately. It comes from the "Your Call Is Important To Us" family (as one of the commenters on CCM's Blog points out). It's just another line that companies say to make us peons feel better. It's sort of like a pat on the head. "There, there - you matter. You really do." Awwww...

    As CCM points out:
    Almost invariably, however, when I read or hear someone taking such things seriously, I think: They care mainly about getting caught, not screwing up. Otherwise, these things would happen far less often.

    No doubt, this language is at least partly lawyer-driven. You can take something seriously - sort of, kind of acknowledging the mistake - while avoiding a hint of actual guilt.
    I guess when enough people catch on to the whole "seriously" line, you can expect a new verbal pat on the head. Can't wait!


    Prescribing For Profit

    Mind Hacks writes:
    A new psychiatric journal called Clinical Schizophrenia is launching in April that will have a novel distribution policy.
    If you're in the top 70% of antipsychotic drug prescribers in America, you'll get your copy free.
    Since I'm lazy, I'll just copy my comment from over there:
    This is sleazy as hell - doctors should NEVER have financial incentives to prescribe something. Their only consideration should be what the patient needs for optimum health. Anything else would be a violation of the Hippocratic Oath.
    The only real thing I care about in any sort of oath or commitment is that doctors always, always make their patients' best interests their primary concern when making any decision. Everything else will follow from that. Yes, there are other thorny ethics issues that need to be sorted out, but as far as a professional/ethical commitment, that's all I'm looking for.

  • Medical Ethics (Wikipedia)

  • U.S. Patients' Bill of Rights (Wikipedia)

  • PBS Nova Discussion of The Hippocratic Oath

  • --YY


    Astroturf Revisited

    I spent hours researching my article on how the supplements industry is trying, at the grassroots level, to create a panic ("billions will die!") about a pretty innocuous set of regulations proposed by the UN/WHO whatever. Ironically, I forgot to research my own damn self! Almost exactly a year before, I wrote about pill pusher Nature's Plus's campaign (under the auspices of industry trade group 'Nutritional Health Alliance') against Dick Durbin, who had the chutzpah to suggest that, in light of all the dangerous crap Americans were being sold over the counter, perhaps warning labels were in order. At the time, I (and The Consumerist) took Nature's Plus to task for their racist slogan "GET A TURBAN FOR DURBIN! KEEP CONGRESSIONAL TERRORISTS AT BAY".

    The reason I'm bringing all this up again is that the same Nutritional Health Alliance's current campaign on their hideous website is "A Health Freedom Call To Arms! ... Only swift and decisive action can now save our health freedom, and preserve our God-given legacy of safe, natural supplements for future generations." Riiiight... clearly time to cut down on your mentally debilitating products. Not surprisingly, DSHEA, which you'll recall is the industry-friendly bill (wherein supplements are virtually unregulated) they're fighting so hard to keep is prominently featured.

    So there you have it - if there was any doubt that the multi-billion dollar supplement industry was up to no good, it should be gone now. The same racists behind "GET A TURBAN FOR DURBIN" are trying to scare people into supporting legislation that has long proven to be dangerous.


    The Movie Review Biz

    Back when I was in college, I used to write movie reviews for the school paper. It was a lot of fun - I used to go watch a movie, gather my thoughts, write what I thought about it, then go to a frat party and drink several kegs of beer. Well maybe not that last... Anyway, I sort of assumed that that's more or less how most movie reviewers did their thing - watch and write. Apparently not. The Consumerist has an interesting article about how critic Pete Hammond of Maxim changed a quote in his review of Hannibal Rising at the producers' request.

    I learned something here about incentives: it's obvious why a movie studio would want to quote a good review in their ads, but it's less obvious (to me, anyway) why a reviewer would be keen on being quoted (The Consumerist makes heavy use of the term "quote whore" - Word Spy, are you listening?). But for the critic (and the magazine), being quoted is free advertising! Particularly for a lower budget publication, being able to piggy-back on a Super Bowl ad for a movie is a fantastic deal. So there's actually tremendous incentive for a magazine like Maxim to put out good (or at least quotable) reviews of high profile movies. "Watch and Write" - how naive I was...


    Vodafone Welcomes You To The Matrix

    According to Vodafone, Wil Wright is your daddy:
    A customer is defined as a SIM.
    Good to know...


    p.s. The line is towards the bottom - footnote 1.


    Welcome To The Plutonomy

    From Word Spy:
    plutonomy n. An economy that is driven by or that disproportionately benefits wealthy people, or one where the creation of wealth is the principal goal. [Blend of pluto- (wealth) and economy.]

    Viacom Wants Your Videos Destroyed

    You probably already heard that Viacom demanded that YouTube take down thousands of videos that they claim is their intellectual property (Daily Show and Colbert Report clips, for example). Apparently they have also been demanding that many videos that have nothing to do with them be taken down as well.

    Slashdot reports that the makers of the open source game engine Irrlicht have been told that one of their demonstration videos belongs to Viacom (it doesn't, by any stretch of the imagination). It is a homemade video of the capabilities of the software that they wrote. Slashdot commenter ack154 points out that Jim Moore of Harvard Law School had a home video of his taken down as well (Harvard blog story here). Yeah, messing with people at Harvard Law is just brilliant. "Extra credit, anyone?"

    Anyway, as /. commenter Karzz1 points out:
    So this means that the media companies can falsely claim copyright to *any* material and the publisher is provided an email by youtube. However, in order to counter, you (the publisher) have to send a snailmail to them and wait how long before something is done about it? Are you even guarenteed a response?

    This is complete and utter bullsh-t. As we have seen in other articles [slashdot.org] this only provides the media companies with the means to takedown *anything* posted on youtube or any other similar site for that matter for any reason whatsoever. Talk about Freedom of Speech and anti-trust* issues.

    * -- If I don't like something that is said about my product online... I can simply have it taken down with the DMCA.
    Seems like it.

    You can read an aggregation of Viacom vs. YouTube stories here.


    p.s. Yes, I'm citing Slashdot commenters now. What a pain in the...
    p.p.s. It looks like the Harvard case, at least, has been resolved.


    Circle Layout Madness

    A friend of mine asked me if a circular layout was possible. After some Googling, I found this old article. After an hour or so of dusting and tweaking (and cursing), I came up with a working, interactive circular layout page. I think it's standards-compliant and all that.... It relies on trigonometry, so precise placement of the elements is not possible using this system. Right after I post this I'll be playing with it again (offline) so check periodically (in the short term) for updates...



    Big Prison

    Free market advocates argue that privatization is always a good thing. I definitely agree that it is often a good thing, or even mostly a good thing. But there are some things that should not ever be for profit. Prison is one of them. Unfortunately, private prisons are very much a reality. The biggest prison company, Corrections Corp ("dozens of facilities in 20 states"), has a "myths" page:
    MYTH: Private prison companies are in the immoral business of profiting from prisons.
    REALITY: No one would argue that people providing these dangerous, difficult and meaningful services should be denied compensation for their efforts. The fact that they work for a company or for a government agency in no way diminishes the significance or importance of the services they provide. However, if a company can partner with government to provide the same or better level of service at a cost savings then those saved tax dollars can in theory be appropriated to other meaningful services like education, healthcare for the poor, or other social justice initiatives.
    Let's wade through this stream of BS. First of all, they're not answering the challenge (that it's immoral for them to even exist). They talk about how the prison staff should be well-compensated, which is completely irrelevant (since the people doing the dirty work aren't making any more than they would in a government-run prison*), and how a private prison could "in theory" (their words) be helpful for the government "partnering" with the company, which is also irrelevant. Whether or not the government saves some tax money doesn't have anything to do with the morality of profiting from incarceration.

    Moral arguments, of course, have little sway in a free market environment. When the primary incentive is to make money, all of the company's actions are going to be to that end. The general free market argument goes something like this: Companies that provide superior products and services will do more business. Therefore market competition ensures quality. Or, as the prison biz spinners say:
    MYTH: Private prison companies are beholden to their shareholders’ interests above the interests and well-being of their government customers and the inmates in their care.
    REALITY: All companies are contractually required to deliver a certain level of service. Failure to do so results in lost contracts and ultimately going out of business.
    The problem with this line of argument is that it is simply not true. Lower quality might result in lost sales/contracts/etc., but if the company is good enough at spinning, burying, and misdirecting (i.e. marketing), it can make massive amounts of money despite serious quality problems.

    But even this is missing the point - quality is not any sort of incentive here. The "customers" are government officials who don't have much at stake as far as quality goes. No politician is going to lose sleep because the private prison is not up to snuff. Not when lobby money is such a powerful sedative**. The customers want to lock people up and not think about it any more - it's easy, and for the most part voters are fine with that. A more sophisticated politician might be concerned about rehabilitation programs that will help reduce crime overall (less recidivism), but again, slick marketing can be much more cost-effective for both the politician and the prison company.

    But don't government-run prisons have many of the same quality issues? The answer is yes, but the key word to remember here is Incentive. The government-run prison's incentive, as a whole, is to maintain security and take steps that will help reduce future crime. The private prison's incentive is to make money. There will certainly be much overlap - the private prison needs to maintain security and take steps that will help reduce future crime in order to make money, but if it can get away with not doing those things, it will, because they are no longer ends - they are simply means.

    That's my main problem with the free market in general: almost everything we would consider important (health, quality, security, art) becomes a means to the one end of making money. And those means are out the window as soon as a cheaper replacement can be found (and sold/buried/glossed over). When it comes to prison, that is an unacceptable risk to take.


    * Regarding prison workers' salaries: "REALITY: CCA offers competitive salaries to attract and retain qualified employees." Competitive, but not more than they would get as employees of a government-run prison.

    ** CCA's website claims that they do not lobby for stricter sentencing, but you can bet that they lobby quite heavily for privatizing prisons.


    T Sends Me The Best Stuff

    My co-worker T sends me the best links. Two from the past few days:
  • Andy Griffith vs. Patriot Act

  • Boing Boing's anti-EULA

  • They both put a big smile on my face. Thanks, T!



    Mowing The Astroturf

    This is a story of how I was almost suckered in by an astroturf campaign put on by a multi-billion dollar corporation. I almost wrote my Senator and almost helped "spread the word". I'm going to spread a very different word, but my main point here is ALWAYS DO YOUR RESEARCH - I'm definitely glad I did, in this case.

    It all started with this video (called Nutricide), that I found via StumbleUpon. In it, a certain Rima E. Laibow, M.D. discusses the "threat" of Codex. She takes her time getting around to what Codex actually is (a set of internation regulations sponsored by the World Health Organization and the UN), since that would probably bore most of her audience to death (instead of her goal, which is to scare them to death).

    To save you the forty minutes of bulls--t, I will sum up for you:

    • Codex was started by a Nazi.

    • Codex is being pushed by Big Pharma and Big Chemical.

    • Codex will kill 3 billion people.

    • Codex will kill you and your family.

    • Codex is about to be ratified by the US Government.

    Wow. Scary stuff. Time to call your Congressperson and stop this madness! Right?

    Well... This is why you do research. Since I was definitely concerned, I headed over to the site behind this video: Health Freedom USA.

    Strike One: Never trust a grassroots group with "Freedom" in the name. It almost always means "freedom from regulations", and it's almost always funded by an industry trade group that is lobbying against some law that will put restrictions on it.

    Strike Two: The site has a store on the front page ("Buy the purest wellness products available and support health freedom!"). And they're selling the exact products that would be regulated by Codex! What a coincidence!

    Foul Tip: The site is run by the "Natural Solutions Foundation", which really really sounds like a trade group name. Not quite enough, though, so I delved further and found:

    Strike Three: After some Googling, I found an even crazier group ranting about how the "Natural Solutions Foundation" is a "controlled opposition group" run by Big Pharma. According to these new guys, the goal is to get the public to act in an inefficient manner, fighting the wrong fights and spending their energies in the wrong place. That way, Codex gets passed because the concerned public is not reaching the people who are actually making the decisions. Or something.

    Maybe "strikes" are the wrong metaphor, because there's:

    Strike Four: The obsession with DSHEA (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994). You can read it here. Here's the key line in the bill: "[T]he Federal Government should not take any actions to impose unreasonable regulatory barriers limiting or slowing the flow of safe products and accurate information to consumers." It's an industry-friendly bill - much friendlier than Codex. Health Freedom USA says that "we must unite to protect DSHEA, our best legal defense against Codex". I'll bet.

    DSHEA wasn't so great for consumers, however, when supplement manufacturers were allowed to sell Ephedra, a diet pill that turned out to cause heart attacks. Oops.

    At this point I headed over to SourceWatch to see what was really behind all this, and lo and behold, they have a page on "Health Freedom". The pharmaceutical industry is in fact in favor of heavier regulation of the supplement business, since, after all, it's a competitor, and you can't patent Vitamin C or garlic. The supplement industry, is no slouch, of course. According to DSHEA, the supplement industry was $4 billion in 1994 - presumably MUCH bigger now. Definitely enough scratch to build some astroturf. In fact, Nature's Way brags about being the "[f]irst to spend more than a million dollars on legislative efforts to protect health freedoms". Gee, thanks.

    So what this is really all about is one huge mega trade group duking it out with another huge mega trade group, and trying to sucker the public into getting involved politically. So you end up with fear-mongering tripe that tries to scare the public into action that's really about lining someone else's pockets.

    I pretty much lost interest at this point (as I imagine you might have as well). But I found this extremely instructive in terms of making sure you always investigate claims such as these. There are a lot of naive people who probably don't realize that they're being played by a billion dollar trade association (especially ones that decry the dangers of other trade associations). In any case, below are some links that you may find informative. And with that, my tale of deceit and naivety comes to an end.

  • Natural Products Association (the official trade group that is actually trying to get Codex modified to be more DSHEA-like!)

  • Official Codex Page

  • FDA Codex Information center
  • 2007-01-20

    Ruby on Rails 1.2 Released

    The latest and greatest version of Ruby on Rails is finally out - read all about it! It's a pretty hefty release, with lots of really cool stuff added.