Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Letter to My Congressman about the PRO IP Act

UPDATE: Ray Beckerman informs me that this comes too late.

I'm trying to compose a letter about the PRO IP Act, passed by the Senate and
quickly facing almost certain unanimous approval in the House. Any suggestions here would be greatly appreciated, maybe there are places that could be trimmed, as it stands it is very long. Oh, urgency seems to be an issue.

You can write something similar to your Congressman using this form.

Dear Dennis Moore:

I am writing to thank you for your service to our District. I would also like to urge you to oppose the PRO IP Act, but it will take more time.

The President and co-founder of Public Knowledge recently wrote of the PRO IP bill that recently passed the senate, "The bill only adds more imbalance to a copyright law that favors large media companies. At a time when the entire digital world is going to less restrictive distribution models, and when the courts are aghast at the outlandish damages being inflicted on consumers in copyright cases, this bill goes entirely in the wrong direction."

Currently, if someone steals a physical CD from a store, they faces a maximum of $5000 in penalties. If someone downloads a CD from the internet, this bill leaves them responsible for $1.5 million in damages.

I know that we want to encourage robust protections for intellectual property, but it seems like there are three reasons reasonable people might be aghast at this bill.

1) The appropriate punishment.
District Judge Michael J. Davis lambasted the current state of damage awards in a recent case (Capitol vs. Thomas), which resulted in a $222,000 award. In his decision, Judge Davis implored Congress to take action to stop the "unprecedented and oppressive" nature of statutory damage awards. I do not believe the PRO IP Act is the direction Davis had in mind.

When someone steals anything, it's hard for anyone to rise to their defense. But in America, we believe not only in punishment for crimes and redistribution for wrongs, but we believe these responses should be *just*.

We do not suggest that a man who steals should have his hands cut off. This is not for some modern or American love of the thief, but out of a love for a well ordered society, a truly democratic society where someone's wrongs dictate the severity of the response.

Proponents of the bill will insist that a loss of $1.5 million is nowhere near corporal punishment. While that may be so, no one can deny it is the sort of punishment that would deeply effect one's life.

2) Representation in Government
Obama is running an inspiring campaign on the promise of hope, not hope for big business, but hope for the average citizen. McCain meanwhile is running a campaign on promises of ending favors for special interests, that government might be more responsive to its people. The appeal of both these positions has made this one of the most exciting campaigns of our time.

I'm well aware that there are many noble reasons to protect American creations here and abroad. But this bill looks in every respect like a bad bargain for the American people. It looks to the voter more like a handout to big business. We are taking a few citizens who've made some common mistakes and throwing them under the bus of profits for Disney and Sony.

The bill seems to fight against all the positions that make the two candidates for President so attractive.

3) Chilling Effects
My biggest fear is not that someone who intentionally stole music gets harshly punished. My biggest fear is for the innocents that we will inevitably sweep up in the tide. The RIAA and MPAA don't have the greatest track record on only targeting only the most certain of violators.

Ray Beckerman has kept a record of the RIAA's attempts to violate civil procedure, then hop jurisdictions when a judge objects. If you don't know about the other abuses of our courts, google for the story of disabled single mother Tanya Andersen, or for the story of grandmother Sarah Seabury Ward (who never even owned the hardware necessary to engage in the acts she was accused of).

Those stories provide a record of those who stand up to the RIAA. No one is taking a tally of the number of citizens that are accused falsely of piracy, but quickly settle because they feel they have no other option.

There's a way to stem such abuse. If the content industry wants more significant penalties than the criminal justice system, then maybe it's time for them to submit their cases to grand juries, or up their standard of proof to "beyond a reasonable doubt." Maybe we need to simultaneously raise the penalties for those who engage in a tactic of litigious intimidation.

Such moves might reassure us that the legislature is interested in justice for all, not just justice for a few rich industries.

I am thankful the content industry works hard to defend the American artist. Their heart may be in the right place. But for now, I'm going to turn off the radio and listen to a little more Woody Guthrie, who once wrote:
"'This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin' it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ours, cause we don't give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do.'"

Thanks again for your service,
Thomas Brownback

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Baby's First Verb: Yet Another Url Shortener for Ubiquity

I threw together a command (or "verb") for Ubiquity this evening. The url shorteners seem to be the "hello world" of Ubiquity, so I made one for url shortening service is.gd. (Is.gd tends to produce really short urls, and has a dead simple API.)

Previous coverage of Ubiquity here, or just check out Aza Raskin's inspiring concept/tutorial video.

The devs pioneering Ubiquity are clearly trying to push extensionability far further than even add-ons went in Firefox.

I am not a professional programmer by a long shot, yet this was no real sweat to throw together. The biggest hitch I had was sharing the code, but GitHub has already made that part easy.

If I can do this, I'd expect a flood of useful Ubiquity commands in short order. (Yup, there are dozens already, also check out the requests being filled.)

After playing around with this script, I'm now completely sold on the Ubiquity paradigm. I'm ready for the day when we stop loading websites and instead just shout natural language requests at our personal homepages (which will incorporate data from around the internet, constantly restructuring themselves on the fly to please their human masters meet the user's needs). I wonder how advertisers will feel about that model.

My script is hosted by GitHub. If you have Ubiquity installed, which is admittedly very beta, FF will auto detect the script so you can install it and try it out.

UPDATE: changed almost everything now that the script is up. I had a rant here about textarea and pre tags that no longer makes much sense, but html is the devil. I asked EP for the keys to the CSS, hence his comment.

The Problem with Pork

In the debates, McCain attacked animal research as part of the pork problem that he would continue to fight if elected. Obama retorted that while reducing pork is important, it accounts for a mere $18 Billion of Federal spending (essentially accusing McCain of being penny wise and pound foolish).

Why don't either of them get it?

When someone from Topeka hears about ending pork, they think about how angry they get when the government throws $7.5 Billion at bad management in Detroit.

When someone from Detroit hears about ending pork, they think about how angry they get when the government throws $307 billion to keep failing farmers in business.

I just found $314 Billion in "pork." McCain could have my vote if he stopped picking on science and started promising to dismantle our addiction to regional corporate welfare.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Candidates on Deficits and Debt by the Numbers

Watching the debates, we talked most about the economic differences between policy proposals among the two candidates. (Mostly we got bored and discussed other things, since this was about as fun as watching two senators debate on the floor.)

Here are some numbers I Googled to determine the effects of each candidate's policies on the deficit. The numbers are depressingly murky and similar, despite budget balancing being a rather popular issue for the mainstream.

Tax Policies on the DebtIncreases national debt by $3.5 trillion / $2.9 trillion.Increases national debt by $5 trillion / $4.2 trillion.Brookings Institution Urban Institute Tax Policy Center / Tax Policy Institute
Tax cut policy effect on revenueIncrease revenue by $800 Billion over 10 yearsReduce federal revenues by $600 Billion / $700 Billion over next 5 years.Tax Policy Center / Congressional Budget Office
Earmarks policy on revenue"pay as you go policy," unknownSave $18 Billion per year.Obama during debate / NY Daily News, maybe citing Tax Policy Institute
Iraq PolicyWithdraw after 16 months, save $12 Billion per monthWin after an unspecified number of months, then save $12 Billion per monthSeattle Post Intelligencer
AfghanistanIncrease commitment, unknown cost or extentIncrease commitment, unknown cost or extent(admitted in debates)
Other PromisesPay as you go for new spendingEliminate deficit by 2013
Health Care$1.6 trillion over 10 years to insure 18 million new people in year one. ($90,000 per insured person per year).$1.3 billion (per year?) / $1.3 trillion (over ten years?) to insure 1 million new people. (I'm going with 130,000 per insured person per year, but that's with some assumptions to help the journalists along).NY Daily News / CNN Money
Energy$15 billion per year in subsidies to develop clean energy technologies, completely offset by a cap and trade system for polluters$2 billion per year to spur clean coal and domestic oil/natural gas production, also offset by a cap and trade systemNY Daily News
misc$18 billion for early childhood education$9 billion summer gas tax holiday
$10 billion to help homeowners stave off foreclosure$300 million prize for a better car battery
$6 billion per year to repair bridges and roads$300 million per year to retrain workers

I was going to try to have a summary column at the bottom, to see how it all balances out, but none of those numbers make any damn sense. Some are contradictory (It's not obvious how Obama's tax restructuring can increase revenues yet also be blamed for increasing the debt.) And others are just too vague or unreliable (McCain's health care program costs are different in two different sources by perhaps a factor of 100.)

I was hoping a quick Google would give a simple answer to all these questions, but no luck so far. Maybe everyone's plans are necessarily vague right now, because they don't know the specifics of their administration in terms of the Congress they'll be working with, or the economic situation on day one. It'd be a good time to remember that the President doesn't actually write our laws. Maybe that's why Ben Harris of the Tax Policy Center considers these fiscal projections to a guessing game.
(Wait a minute, the guy who runs the Think Tank everyone's citing just admitted he's just making all this up? Screw this, I give up.)

As a parting jab, please check out Steve Greenberg's cartoon on fiscal conservatism. Also, if you think you can get a handle on the budget, you might try to play Marketplace's Budget Hero.

Friday, September 26, 2008

LiveBlogging the Debate

Every 15 or 30 minutes, fivethirtyeight posts their latest coverage of the debate.

And every 15 minutes, they get one hundred new comments.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Watching The Presidential Address on the Current Financial Crisis

Bush just noted that the crisis was perpetuated because Congress's charter of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac made people believe they were backed by the U.S. government, and let each borrow more money than usual.

Someone more libertarian than I might wonder, if the crisis was caused because of the market distortion of government intervention, is more government intervention really what we're looking for?

The opinion that intervention now will cost us all less in the long run is so pervasive, maybe this is a silly thing to wonder about.

Smarter folks than I have weighed in. Here's a short reading list to get up on the issues:

Let me know what you're reading in the comments, I'll try to work them into this so we can keep a list of good sources on the topic.

538 > Intrade

"...if I were one of those Beltway pundits who thinks I can be hip by referring to Intrade, I would take a look at the gross inefficiencies in these markets and think better of it."

Point, FiveThirtyEight.com

The Mentalist... Or, Everything Fringe Was Supposed to Be

Aaron Barnhart has a good write-up on my favorite TV premiere (so far) this season. We've noted before on this blog that Fringe was so much less than we expected.

Specifically, there were aspects of the show Fringe which The Mentalist utilized more effectively, or in some cases utilized, period.

#1 - Law enforcement acts professionally. Fancy that! No pro-rape (thanks for that term Thomas) stances by the officers in charge was a start, followed up by the fact that Simon Baker's character chastises a lab tech who loves his job too much.

#2 - Dialogue for a drama written with minimal comedy. Snappy lines written once every 10 minutes for The Mentalist versus every 10 seconds on Fringe. (To be fair, there was one line on The Mentalist which caused me to cringe due to its unprofessionalism/inappropriateness, and it was meant to draw a guffaw).

#3 - Not overacted. Anna Torv may be a good actress. Maybe. In Fringe, I couldn't help but feel like she was physically constipated. Literally. Her character was constantly screwing up her face like she was thinking really hard while simultaneously choking on something sour. It was difficult to watch. At least viewers had the benefit of her being an emotional wreck. Constantly. That's someone I want in charge at the FBI! Simon Baker's character on the other hand hardly has to act at all. His character observes, so he only needs to keep from looking bored most of the time.

The Mentalist does have its issues, as the premiere ended with me agreeing with the captured villian (something to the effect of "That's total bullshit!"), but the development of the characters, as well as a long-term story arc, made up for single episode plotline being mostly bunk.

Monday, September 22, 2008


Google releases an operating system tomorrow. No, not those rumors about a Google PC, but an operating system for phones.

The goal of Google (really the whole Open Handset Alliance, including a diverse group of folks from intel and nvidia to Qualcomm and T-Mobile), is to make it possible for us to configure our mobiles in the same way we configure our computers. Sure, Apple has an app store so you can customize your iPhone, but it's locked down. So when somebody writes an alternative mail client to the one Apple developed, with useful features like those in gmail, Apple can shut it down for an arbitrary reason to keep people using their products. (True story.)

The Android isn't just an iPhone killer, though. The OHI could be eyeing the turf over at Research in Motion. The war between the iPhone and the Blackberry has been pretty hot, but they've each hung on to different segments of the market because they're geared towards different sorts of users. Android's openness and presence on a variety of devices might be the bridge between the artist and the boardroom, and stand a chance of doing for handhelds exactly what the PC did for, well, PCs.

Sam Harris on Sarah Palin

Sam Harris, 'Provocateur'In a crass shot at most controversial post ever, I present atheist Sam Harris on politics, religion and elitism (but mostly attacking Palin).

I know we're skyrocketing past our Palin quota for all our lifetimes, but Sam Harris got in late in the game, and he's really fun. No other writer quite drowns their arguments in a such bath of vitriol. For example, he skewered Palin's interview with Gibson, wondering if she would have the same "unblinking" response to questions of her credentials for other positions requiring expertise:

"Governor Palin, are you ready at this moment to perform surgery on this child's brain?"

"Of course, Charlie. I have several boys of my own, and I'm an avid hunter."

He uses that swipe to draw you into his argumentative rope-a-dope:

Ask yourself: how has "elitism" become a bad word in American politics? There is simply no other walk of life in which extraordinary talent and rigorous training are denigrated. We want elite pilots to fly our planes, elite troops to undertake our most critical missions, elite athletes to represent us in competition and elite scientists to devote the most productive years of their lives to curing our diseases. And yet, when it comes time to vest people with even greater responsibilities, we consider it a virtue to shun any and all standards of excellence.

Also note how Newsweek tried to defang the piece by labeling it with the joke "When Atheists Attack" and by calling Harris a provocateur, as if they want to publish the piece, while simultaneously distancing themselves from it. They should've just included it in their new column, "Isn't Sam Harris as cute as a button?"

I promise a chaser post devoid of politics and religion.

Updated the quote about neurosurgery for clarity.

McCain would kill Rovean Republicanism; Obama Gets Good Advice

Two links from the FP Morning Brief on domestic news really stood out to me this morning, one seems a plus for each candidate:

1) McCain would banish the White House Political Office and appoint a Democrat to run the SEC.

Speaking of the SEC...

2) Obama seems more reflective on the current financial crisis, and seeks better financial advice, by the reckoning of the IHT.

Obama was the one candidate that didn't openly distance himself from economists, would he bring in a bunch of economic professors to his administration, to make the Kennedy comparisons* that much more profound?

*(gated Harper's article makes me sad)

UPDATE: EP's comments point out that Obama's consultants have a more complicated track record than the IHT suggests. Volcker's contributions have been controversial, and Fannie Mae's Jim Johnson resigned from Obama's team in June after receiving $7 million in preferential loans (though Johnson's role was vetting VPs, not economic advice).

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Latest "Feature" from Adobe: Software Cannot be Uninstalled Without Adobe's Help

I was just looking to fix an installation of Adobe Flash, and stumbled across this little "tip" from the Adobe site:

Due to recent enhancements to the Adobe Flash Player installers, you can now remove the player only by using the Adobe Flash Player uninstaller.

So when Adobe goes out of business one day, or maybe just decides to screw us all, we will all have software on our computers that can never be removed? When and how did we let this happen?

It might be time to give a little donation to Gnash.

(And before anyone says Adobe will never go under, just remember that Jim Collins pegged Fannie Mae and Circuit City as companies "built to last" in "Good to Great," one of the best selling business books of all time.)

UPDATE: An Adobe blogger promised that the uninstaller will not be required once Flash 10 is released. Why is there no indication that this is a beta uninstaller on that Adobe website? And isn't that just a promise that someday they will remove their ability to mess with our machines? How much is that really worth, doesn't it dodge the issue?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Our Pending Financial Ruin

Today, BoingBoing had a post titled "America's financial system was shaken to its core on Sunday".

When entertainment blogs (no matter how wonderful) are discussing a current financial catastrophe, you know things have gotten abnormally rough. How rough precisely?

Greenspan today characterized this as a "once-in-a-century" crisis.

One of BB's commenters recommends another unlikely source for hard, gloomy news:This American Life: #355: The Giant Pool of Money. Claims it's the best reporting on anything, let alone the subject at hand.

Why we should be pessimistic:
Greenspan's comment is pretty dire, and it comes from an expert on avoiding unnecessary fear.

His talk of a once in a century event reminds me of the way they rate flood walls. They rate flood walls as "50 year" or "100 year" or "500 years." The idea is not that there is, necessarily, one 500 year flood every 500 years, but that flooding occurs across a normal distribution.

The difficulty is that the extreme events on the tails of normal distributions are pretty abnormal. The extreme events are messy and random. Usain Bolt's records were years ahead of "wise" expectations. And when we talk of an extreme flood, or perhaps an extreme financial crisis, we might be talking about something that runs deeper than any possible projection. Some unlucky decade gets the real storm of the century, and some unlucky century gets the storm of the millennium.

Why we should be optimistic:
We have a cultural bias towards doomsaying, or "Chicken Little" wouldn't be a reference you immediately recognize. That alone should help us to take these predictions with a grain of salt.

We have very robust financial systems in place these days. Even if a thousand banks collapse tomorrow, we have a number of tools to make banking profitable today that would have been inconceivable a century ago. (Computers generally make professions with heavy accounting appear suddenly trivial, and computers have been advancing somewhat over the last century). Our increased understanding of these events arms against future long term catastrophe. But teeming educated populations insulate us from long term financial downturns in a way that perhaps has never been fully witnessed. More intelligent and educated people want to make enough to care for themselves or their families than ever before in history.

Maybe after 9/11 we saw some of that strength. One of the largest financial centers, a symbol of U.S. commerce, was destroyed. The markets became nervous. But it was business as usual in a month and a half. It was a blip.

Just imagine if U.S. society a little under a century ago was armed for a recovery from the Great Depression the way we are: with only 300 million intelligent and willing workers ready to pitch in, factories in every state that can produce millions of anything per minute, economists who have the benefit hindsight (actual data on economic downturns!)

Sure, the machinery might be winding down, as it does from time to time, but never before have so many hands been waiting to spin it back up.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Matt Damon on Sarah Palin

Damon thinks he's too big for our comment thread, he wanted his own post. Ever since Bourne Identity, Damon gets what he wants.

I thought his book banning issue was dismissed by Factcheck and Politifact. On the other hand, Bill Adair of Politifact now suggests there IS some truth to the book banning claims. The intro of the following "On the Media" segment from NPR says that the "Palin's Books to Ban List" email circulating is pure smear. However, at 5:02 in the piece, they revisit the issue, and find that she did attempt to remove books dealing with homosexuality from her local library, with the caveat that they are hoping to get more information:

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Penultimate Palin Post

I have put this post off long enough. I have talked with many people since the selection of Sarah Palin for VP by John McCain, and I have heard many opinions. Now it is time for this forum to open up and discuss Sarah Palin. Conversation points should focus on people's opinions of Sarah Palin and any facts you have to support that opinion (though straight opinion is fine too). Hopefully no one gets flamed into submission, as it seems people have very different and very strong opinions about the Republican VP nominee.

First off, some bunk assertions, refuted by the Bloc's trusted source of FactCheck.org. No one using these statements will be believed. If you have something against FactCheck.org then feel free to note this in the comments (and you still won't be believed).

Possible second bunk assertion: Sarah Palin supports abstinence-only education. This is refuted by Glenn Beck (Bloc note: yes I know he is to the right of Lou Dobbs, try and read the piece on its merits, and if you still disagree, so be it). A piece from MSNBC seemingly notes the opposite, but the questionnaire used to prove the point utilized the following loaded question:

Will you support funding for abstinence-until-marriage education instead of for explicit sex-education programs, school-based clinics, and the distribution of contraceptives in schools?

These competing pieces will either show a more nuanced position for those in support of Palin, or denial of a change in position by her detractors (very possible).

Issue one: no experience. You'll note in the Glenn Beck article(commentary bias?) that Obama has 100 more days of experience as a U.S. Senator (D-IL) than Palin does as governor of Alaska. I leave it to the panel for commenting on the relevance of this.

Issue two: strong arming executive (like George W. Bush). It was noted on multiple outlets (sorry, no citation) that she alienated many as mayor and governor. This article would be entered into evidence under that heading. There is also the issue with the state trooper.
I personally find the librarian argument to be a bit of a stretch, but the issue with the state trooper, while a sign of 'being tough' or 'protecting her family' to some voters, is less attractive to me, and potentially points to a trend.

Issue three: Collection of a per diem. I'm not sure exactly how this is supposed to paint the potential VP. Corrupt? Money hungry? Its the last snippet from this Kansas City Star article. It doesn't appear to me that she did anything illegal, and I am unaware as to how this might be unethical.

I may have left some issues out here ('She's a Republican!'), but overall, I can't see why she is such a lightning rod for the left (Obama's camp was apparently rolling in money, just one day after her convention speech). Of the three issues, I can understand issue one (but I think this argument is weak when matched up against Obama, as it becomes an argument of degrees); issue two makes me wary (since she has less experience we cannot ascertain whether she is trending towards instituting a devious new matriarchy or not); and issue three was placed solely for arguments sake (someone explain it to me, please). Again, we should focus on Palin pros/cons, and put the lies/mischaracterizations of the McCain camp in another post altogether.

I will fire the first volley: I like Sarah Palin.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Hating Fringe

I was completely underwhelmed by J. J. Abrams's latest show, Fringe. There were some nice camera shots. I like Lance Reddick, and Joshua Jackson's the way to go, if you're into mining talent from Dawson's Creek.

I just couldn't get into it, I kept thinking about other shows. During the first scene, on the plane, I wondered when Lost would be back. The father/son geniuses-turned-investigators feels ripped from Numb3rs, and seemed like a signal that this show will be mostly episodic (read: disposable). Then there was the main thrust: heroine who is tortured by the loss of her love early in the show, driven to work within an oppressive conspiratorial bureaucracy to uncover more information, because that very bureaucracy may or may not have been responsible for these events, depending on what season it is. Let's just call this "the Alias riff." Then there's the obvious draw for most of us: Fringe is supposed to feed our nostalgia about X-Files. It was like watching Abrams's greatest hits album, except he didn't have enough hits, so he slipped in a couple of covers.

Pulling from other shows isn't bad, especially if it means X-Files is somehow reincarnated on mainstream TV. But here's where I'm most worried. It looks like there will be a big gap between X-Files and Fringe, to Fringe's detriment.

X-Files got its stories from our urban legends. Fringe, from an intro that mentions "mini black holes," gets its stories by lying about science. Fringe isn't inspired by conspiracy theory, but instead preys upon the common public's ignorance of new scientific discoveries. It probably seems odd to say that the X-Files's world of trash monsters is more plausible than the Fringe world where mini black holes transport kids into the future and around the globe. But no one left an episode of X-Files thinking, "Hmm, maybe swamp thing is real!" Meanwhile, Fringe seems to be begging for folks to start asking, "Why are we firing up the LHC when it might turn us all into slugs?"

And maybe X-Files had the occasional moment of junk science, but you saw those episodes in the context of a show about vampires and chupacabras. In contrast, Fringe is giving everyone a weekly subscription to Modern Jackass.

Maybe I was just turned off in the show because I find it incredibly irritating when smart protagonists act like complete tools, then get rewarded for it.* If you need to catch a criminal, here's a tip: don't do LSD in an attempt to synchronize your brain waves with a man in a coma. I'm filing everyone who liked the show under "people who think this course of action is reasonable, in certain extreme circumstances," which is remarkably similar to the file I use for "people I recommend be institutionalized for the safety of others."

Soon enough I'll have the complete irrationality of the characters on Heroes to whine about, at which point I can probably forget all about this show. Can't hardly wait.

*Unless you do it right, like in The Tale of the Shifty Lad.

UPDATE: Apparently this post is like beating a heavily drugged horse. Apparently most people don't care to filter through good and bad storytelling, they just want to watch people play games.

Our War With Pakistan

Dexter Filkins takes a long look at the role of Pakistan in our ongoing struggles in Afghanistan and against Islamic extremism. Filkins traveled to the heart of areas with large "No Foreigners Allowed" signs in the Khyber region in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He interviewed warlords and tribal leaders, trying to figure out why Pakistani and U.S. forces, supposed allies, have exchanged fire in that region.

While Pakistan was advertising a new offensive on the region, Filkins spoke with Haji Namdar, leader of the brutal enforcers of Sharia in Khyber, Vice and Virtue Ministry:

What’s going on? I asked the warlord. Why aren’t they coming for you?

“I cannot lie to you,” Namdar said, smiling at last. “The army comes in, and they fire at empty buildings. It is a drama — it is just to entertain.”

Entertain whom? I asked.

“America,” he said.

This conversation took place just a few weeks before Namdar was assassinated.

Filkins proceeds to lay out how we are completely losing by any definition in that area of the world. The chain ends up something like 1) We give enormous sums of money to Pakistan to fight terrorism. 2) Pakistan films empty displays of force but funnels much of the money to Islamic extremists in the Khyber pass. In exchange, 3) the extremists focus their attacks on neighboring Afghanistan to keep it destablized, which 4) makes our presence there appear more aggressive, so 5) recruitment in Pakistan for martyrs goes up, while 6) we have a rising need to contribute more money to Pakistan, thinking they will rout the training camps on their side of the Khyber pass.

UPDATE: Given the fact this war is apparently centered in the Pakistan side of the Khyber pass, is it any wonder that Pres. Bush ordered troops to conduct missions in that area?

I'll stop here for a hat tip to FP, though their post mostly focuses on the Washington Post story of an intelligence report being prepared for the next President on the role of U.S. power in the coming years. The Post article contains this gem:
The report... concludes that the one key area of continued U.S. superiority -- military power -- will "be the least significant" asset in the increasingly competitive world of the future, because "nobody is going to attack us with massive conventional force."

The DIME model suggests state power is captured by diplomacy, intelligence, military and economic capabilities. Basically, it's time to look away from our giant M towards some of those other little letters. Maybe stop grossly underfunding the diplomatic corps, stop sabotaging the careers of potential human intelligence recruits, and start trying to put a little more economic thought in our policy.

Monday, September 08, 2008

65 mpg Ford Fiesta ECOnetic: Not Sold in Stores

Ford has made a 65 mpg Fiesta ECOnetic. You won't find it in the US though.

The ECOnetic runs on diesel, which we tax significantly higher than other fuels. Despite higher efficiency, diesel has traditionally been reserved for more commercial drivers, due to its generally higher noise and odors. Taxes on diesel were originally designed on the assumption that we could target businesses with a road tax while giving consumers a break.

Unintended consequences in everything.

As advancements have made diesel cleaner and more appropriate for consumers*, the taxes now prevent the U.S. drivers from making the cleaner, more efficient, and lower emission choice.

*Industry shill page, read with caution. I link because I found the overview of technologies illustrative.

David Simon on Urban Society

In addition to writing and producing The Wire, Simon has been a newspaperman for 13 years. But you don't really need a byline reading his recent piece in the Guadian, the piece speaks for his journalistic acumen. Simon asks, "with an acquittal rate 60% higher than surrounding areas, why has inner-city Baltimore lost her ability to convict criminal defendants?" His analysis is compelling on its own, but then he uses the question as a case study for an underlying social problem, our abandonment of urban society.

It's refreshing to see actual journalism, I miss it.

Hat tip, rc3.org.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Ubiquity and the Future of UI

* Mozilla Labs is working on Ubiquity in an attempt to improve the way we interact with the internet. The video is worth watching (though next time I'd go with someone like Clooney or Freeman for the voice over):

Ubiquity for Firefox from Aza Raskin on Vimeo.

* Here's a more thorough explanation of the importance of this concept for the future of the internet.

* Don Norman says the future of UI will be in text interfaces. Operating a computer through typed commands has, up until now, been really scary for a huge percentage of the population. I think DOS might have ruined the party for everyone. I'm not sure whether technical obstacles or a simple failure to understand human users predominated in making all text interactions with computers really scary, but something is changing. It was probably inevitable, since we type faster than we point. Those of us who've gotten addicted to Launchy or Quicksilver over the last few years already see this differently than people who haven't. All you need to do is make commands that feel a little more like natural language and you're there. Humanized text interfaces do not have to be scary, but they are inevitably faster.

* Aza Raskin (the guy pushing Ubiquity) has a post on his blog referencing Scott McCloud's comic introduction to Google Chrome. Both projects approached "Opening a New Tab" in the same way, and Aza notes the confluence of design with excitement. Scott McCloud's comic intro captures the design philosophy, and a lot of the benefits of Chrome that might be easily overlooked. (It strikes me there are a lot of stability and integration features going on under the hood that weren't captured by the first glance tests at Lifehacker I mentioned a few posts back). I'd explain it all, but why compete with Scott McCloud?

* And since I'm talking about UI, one more for fun: UI Guru Jakob Nielsen's Site is Unreadable. You can go gawk at Nielsen's site, but while you're there, you might read one or two of his articles, which are still really insightful, despite their sin-ugly home.

Scribd: Great Document Sharing Site (that breaks with OpenOffice Calc files)

Scribd is an AJAX-y site that has been around for a while. Scribd's bailiwick is document sharing. Whatever document you upload, it converts it to pdf, txt, and Scribd's own format, iPaper (like pdf optimized for viewing in browsers).

There are some other pdf sharing sites, like Issuu (maybe Google Docs counts too, though that's more focused on document creation, something Scribd has no tools for). but Scribd has some strong pluses: iPaper lets you stream longer PDFs, social searching features help you find similar documents and connect with similar publishers, and Scribd supports a wide variety of formats, helping out MS and OpenOffice.org users. One of my favorite features is the ability to quickly and easily slap a creative commons license on your files.

While a lot of media hosting services are playing the game of rights grabbing* (claiming they own anything you post using their service now and forever, and don't owe you a dime if they sell it to the highest bidder over your protests), it's refreshing to see a site so committed to the communal content model that really drives the web.

So far, I've only had one major problem with Scribd, which was immediately eclipsed by their nonexistent customer support. When I uploaded an .ods file (an OpenOffice spreadsheet, one of the many "supported" formats), the internal document system labeled it in one place as a Microsoft Word document and refused to make it available for download in its original format. As far as I can tell, no one has been able to upload a spreadsheet from OpenOffice that others can download. This strikes me as a bit odd, since we're not talking about any conversion going on, just the ability to download the same files others uploaded.

This is a bit of an odd thing to post on Theory Bloc, but I couldn't find any other information online about this, so I felt obligated to say something somewhere. I asked Scribd if this was a known issue a few days ago, but haven't received a response. I'm probably spoiled on the instant feedback I get from so many other free webapps, but it just feels creepy when I don't get that automated "We've received your question and will respond shortly" email from customer service.

*Google was going to get an honorable mention as a rights grabber up there, but they fixed Chrome's rights grabbing EULA in a matter of hours. Oh, btw, Google has a new browser. It's called Chrome. Lifehacker says it's not faster than firefox, and just duplicates the features from a bunch of firefox extensions, but it still has a captivating aesthetic. It might deserve it's own post...

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Obscure Sports Heroes, Part Two: Jacob Schaefer, Sr.

I'm not sure if you've ever seen carom billiards before, my first exposure to it was watching "The Hustler." Though uncommon today, carom billiards is the original cue sport.

Though its origin is obscure, it became popular in pubs around the world a couple centuries back, presumably coming out of France. Carom is played on a large pocketless table with three balls. If you can strike your cue ball so that it hits both of the other balls, you get a point and get to continue shooting. Whenever you shoot and fail to touch one ball or the other, your turn ends. You play for a time limit or to a set number of points. Done.

Maybe the simplicity helped it spread, maybe the game was really interesting to watch at one point. Whatever the explanation, its popularity dwindled after Jacob Schaefer's appearance in the 1890 Championship.

Jacob Schaefer could do amazing things with a cue, he was called "The Wizard" because for his impressive shots. He used none of those skills in the 1890 World Championship.

Schaefer simply used his first few shots to push the two target balls together against a rail. He then lightly glanced the balls stroke after stroke. (This tactic is now called "nursing.") He made 3,000 nearly identical shots, winning the game, but completely losing the audience in what might be considered the most boring sporting championship of all time. (He previously had a 690 run in 1879, they had subsequently changed the rules to make it harder on him.).

Hardcore billiards players invented balkline billiards and 3-cushion billiards to compensate for Schaefer's tactics and skill. Both of these games require you to hit both balls and do something crazy (like send a ball past a line, or hit 3 cushions with the cue). Schaefer continued to dominate tournaments in these games for the next few decades. The billiards community breathed a sigh of relief when he retired, until Schaefer's son, Jacob Jr., joined the sport. (Jacob Jr. did some damage to the balkline variant, winning his sixth game in the 1925 World Championship 400-0. After an hour of shots his German opponent was begging for Jacob not to miss, to save him the embarrassment of having to stand up and follow the run.)

These days in the states, we mostly play pocket billiards. A heavily modified carom is still popular in parts of Europe, but classic carom is reserved everywhere as a novelty.

Hats off to people who think to themselves, "This game is stupid, I will now rape it." Hats off to Jacob Schaeffer, Sr.

UPDATE: It wasn't 690 shots in 1890, that was in the second World Championship, in 1879. The tournament organizers began to change the rules to prevent Schaefer's tactics in that match. He used the new rules in 1890 to make 3,000 nearly identical shots in a row. I've already updated the post to reflect this.