May 2000

1 May 2000[link to here]

I wish interviewers would press their questions harder. It bugs me when someone completely avoids a question and the interviewer just lets it go. Here's a recent example from Salon's interview of Hilary Rosen (RIAA CEO):

Q: As you battle MP3.com in court, is it your hope that this company will be put out of business by this lawsuit? The monetary damages for copyright violations [up to $150,000 per song] could easily bankrupt the company.

A: The business models that MP3.com have put forward are interesting business models. The issue with MP3.com is simply of them not seeking licenses prior to the launching of their system.

Was the interview done over email? Had I been conducting the interview, my response to that answer would have been, "But do you want them put out of business?". This is one thing that British journalism has going for it. I've seen the British Prime Minister grilled on national TV, flopping around like a bludgeoned fish, and wish that US politicians were subjected to the same accountability.

There's a slashdot thread running about whether an increasing population is bad. Most of it revolves around the odd view that if only we had fewer people, those people would lead more comfortable lives. That's a pretty wacky delusion, but I'm in the mood to talk about scarce resources, and people generally misunderstand that too. There are things, such as land, that are scarce. Sharing them among more people will make them more scarce.

But most people seem to worry more about the increasing scarcity of natural resources like fuel and building materials. The only problem is, those things tend to become less scarce over time, not more. That seems counterintuitive. The confusion comes from people thinking that a fixed amount of some raw material has a fixed value. The reasons they don't are that we get better at extracting them, and we need less to accomplish something.

Oil is a good example. Yes, we will eventually run out of oil. Or, more accurately, extracting oil will eventually cost more than we're willing to pay. (It's unlikely that we'll reach that point due to a complete lack of unextracted oil.) But there is not one price where we all decide it's not worth it. It's already too expensive for some uses, and inexepensive enough for others.

But the most important point is that we don't need oil, we need energy. Oil is simply the cheapest way to get energy at the moment. Eventually it won't be, and that will be because we don't demand as much energy, or (more likely) we have a cheaper alternative, whether because something else got cheaper, oil got more expensive, or both. The point isn't that diminishing supplies is not a problem. It is. But it's a problem we can solve by finding alternatives. Free markets give incentive to develop alternatives according to how much we think we need an alternative, and historically we do tend to work these things out.

Julian Simon explains and substantiates this (unfortunately radical) viewpoint in his book The Ultimate Resource 2, and does it more clearly and compellingly than I can here. A draft version is available free online.

3 May 2000[link to here]

I love the icons on the Software Carpentry site. They're all beautiful, and the collection is a great example of utter design failure, because I don't understand most of them. Some are complete mysteries: pliers for "Home" and a saw for "Track". Some I can plausibly explain: a screwdriver for "FAQ", maybe because screwdrivers are a frequently used tool, a C clamp for "Configure" because "Configure" starts with a C. Pretty weak. The tape measure for "Rules" makes sense, but only because of multiple meanings of "rules". I'd have prefered the C clamp for this one.

Only two make perfect sense. One is a toolbox for "Resources". The other one made me laugh out loud, and made forgive all the problems. The icon for "Test" is a hammer.

Of the 2359296 dots on my laptop screen, one of them, a red one, is always on and always has been. It's hard to make a sheet of 2359296 perfect transistors, so manufacturers typically consider a screen good enough if there are fewer than five bad pixels. That doesn't mean consumers find it acceptable, but it does mean that exchanging it for a new one probably won't help. My red pixel bugged me at first, but I eventually got used to it.

I've been using my laptop for eleven months (and have owned it for three more), and another transistor has failed. A green pixel has joined the constellation. I wasn't expecting that. They should put the defective ones near the edge where they won't be so distracting.

They should also orient the screen polarization so polarized sunglasses don't dim the screen at all. Then I could dim the entire world except for my laptop screen. That would be great for using it outside on a sunny day. Sunglasses have to be oriented a certain way to block glare off horizontal surfaces, but I don't know of any other constraint on screen orientation.

4 May 2000[link to here]

Epinions followed their policy and told me that they changed their user agreement. Part of the new agreement is a bit disturbing.

You may not establish more than one account, [..] provide incomplete or inaccurate registration information, [.. or] fail to update your registration information if it changes

I can understand them wanting people to have only one account, and there are some reasonable rules regarding not misleading people about who you really are, but the other parts I quoted mean that I have to tell them anything they ask about me. That currently includes my real name, my gender, my home city, state, and zip code, my occupation, my interests, and my favorite links. Why is it important for them to link my account to the rest of my persona? There's also a sad but amusing clause trying to prevent redistribution:

You may not use any automated means to access the site or collect any information from the site

So web browsers are out then. Or are they ok because someone pressed a button shortly before the program accessed the site? What about an offline browsing proxy that queues requests and fetches them when it can? What about predictive caches? What's the difference between a caching proxy and a personal indexing spider?

7 May 2000[link to here]

Still curious, I bought a jar of pickle. According to the label, it contains:

Vegetables in variable proportion: (Carrots, Cauliflower, Gherkins, Marrows, Onions, Rutabaga, Tomatoes), Sugar, Vinegar, Dates, Salt, Apple, Modified Starch, Lemon Juice, Colour (Caramel), Spices, Garlic Extract.

Apparently, "marrow" can mean "any of various squash plants grown for their elongated fruit with smooth dark green skin and whitish flesh". My dictionary is a reticent and uncooperative sprite, answering only questions I think to ask.

The label also claims "Tangy Taste", "Chunky Crunch", "Ideal for Sandwiches". I'm not sure about that last one, but I'll vouch for the first two. It looks and tastes a bit like chunky BBQ or hoisin sauce.

According to a NYT article [via slashdot], no one has found much use for mining personal data.

DoubleClick, in fact, decided that its information on users' surfing habits was so meaningless, at least for now, that it does not even offer it to advertisers.

I wonder if the real gold mine will be the competitive advantage of providing better service through personalization. Some sites actually provide a service, rather than just advertising one. Some of those sites could actually work better if they adapted to the user. To some extent, all sites provide the service of information and could be enhanced somehow. Even simple things could be useful.

8 May 2000[link to here]

Last night I discovered Gnocatan, a networked computer version of the board game Settlers of Catan. I played a game against myself (that's how good the game is) and then I made new graphics for it, which are easier to play with.

10 May 2000[link to here]

rc3.org points to a supposed security flaw inherent in HTTP. The basic problem is that malicious web servers can redirect you to arbitrary URLs, possibly causing you to take unwanted actions! Oh no! But that's only a danger on systems that violate the HTTP specification. That doesn't help users who are inconvenienced, but it's wrong to say that it's "a security difficulty with the web as a whole"; it's a security difficulty of broken systems.

RFC 1945, the HTTP 1.0 spec (May 1996) states:

12.2 Safe Methods

In particular, the convention has been established that the GET and HEAD methods should never have the significance of taking an action other than retrieval. These methods should be considered "safe." This allows user agents to represent other methods, such as POST, in a special way, so that the user is made aware of the fact that a possibly unsafe action is being requested.

Naturally, it is not possible to ensure that the server does not generate side-effects as a result of performing a GET request; in fact, some dynamic resources consider that a feature. The important distinction here is that the user did not request the side-effects, so therefore cannot be held accountable for them.

The HTTP 1.1 spec (RFC 2616, and the earlier RFC 2068) says the same thing in section 9.1.1.

There's also the potential for malicious Javascript to make your browser submit a POST request. It's old news that turning on Javascript is equivalent to handing control of your browser to the people who run the sites you visit (and the sites they embed images from, and the people who hack into those sites, etc). Don't do that unless you mean it.

13 May 2000[link to here]

I'm off to the US for a week, for the first time since I arrived in Scotland seven months ago. Going back is weird.

In their complementary magazine, KLM advises travelers: "Eat light and avoid red meat and fat. You'll sleep better and fresher when you arrive.". For breakfast today, they served a comically stereotypical Scottish breakfast of bacon and greasy sausage wrapped in fried egg.

I hadn't been to Schiphol (Amsterdam airport) in seven years, and I'd forgotten just how much fun Dutch is to read. Unfortunately, there were more signs in English than in Dutch. An unfortunate drawback of world domination.

Also interesting was the bathroom I field tested. It seemed to be specifically designed to minimize both privacy and throughput. It looked nice though, and it had the standard airport men's bathroom feature of not requiring me to touch anything but myself. The IR triggers on the sink were placed wrong though, so turning it on was more of a puzzle than it should have been.

Schiphol also includes a much more international crowd than any US airport, which makes people watching far more intreresting. It didn't, however, include security guards with automatic weapons, in contrast to my last visit, but did include a Magnum (ice cream bar) vending machine, which I couldn't exploit since I didn't have any local currency.

The Financial Times was handing out complementary copies. Brilliant idea. If you ever want someone to read something, hand it to them right before they get on a plane. I read the whole thing.

One article talked about language processing, and mentioned the experiment that shows that 2-3 week old human infants can distinguish between different languages. It also mentioned a different experiment, that I hadn't heard of before, that showed that Tamarind monkeys can do the same thing.

Two hours after landing in the US, I had my first new dollar coins, courtesy of the NYC Metro Card vending machine. NY subways don't use tokens anymore. The cards provide more pricing options, but I'll miss subway tokens. I still have one really cool NYC transit token I saved from 20-25 years ago. It has "NYC" in the center, and the "Y" is cut out.

Right after getting the dollar coins, I boarded a subway and saw an ad for them. It showed George Washington standing in the rain in a sports stadium, and it proclaimed the value of waterproof money. Kind of ironic in the context of switching from tokens to cards. Kind of dumb too, since US notes are waterproof. Oddly, many European notes (incuding UK and Irish) would not survive a trip through the laundry. Modern Australian money is plastic and has little windows in it. I think we should make our money out of Tyvek. (That's the rip-proof stuff FedEx envelopes are made of. It's used in house construction too.)

The new dollar coins are nice. I still can't believe Sacajawea is on a coin. I think it's great, but I didn't think this country was that hip.

I got some nice earbud headphones for the trip. I wanted to have music available, and didn't want to cart around my nice (huge) headphones. I haven't liked earbuds before, because they always hurt. I figured they must be better now, because I see people wearing them all the time. But no, these hurt after an hour. Everyone else must have mutant ears designed by Sony. I can wear my good headphones for ten hours and the only side effect is sweaty ears. Sigh. Next time I'll bring the good headphones and leave behind something less important like clothes.

For those who haven't caught on yet: this page is a log, not a blog. It's where I comment on things whether or not they're online.

14 May 2000[link to here]

A few weeks ago I bought a digital camera (Casio QV-3000EX) and had it sent somewhere convenient in the US (where such things are cheap). Last night I finally picked it up. As expected, it takes wonderful pictures and is much too big (three times the size of my tiny film camera). I usually take my camera everywhere, so I don't know how well I'll cope with that.

15 May 2000[link to here]

Sometime during the past ten years, my attention wandered briefly and frisbee golf went from throwing normal frisbees at arbitrary yonder trees to a sport with a standards-setting organization, an array of specialized driver & putter discs, and formal, permanent, and carefully-designed courses with special and ingenious chain & basket targets that I should have taken a picture of.

16 May 2000[link to here]

I'm on an Amtrak train. This rules. I have more room than I get on planes, and I have AC power for my computer. (It's also nice not to need a big clumsy plug adapter.) I'm catching up on email, and I keep using "here" to mean "in the UK", even though I'm currently passing through New Jersey. I think the state motto is "New Jersey is for passing through.". But Great Adventure (an excellent Six Flags amusement park) is here, and that keeps the net worth of the state just above the let-it-be-sucked-into-an-experimental-hyperspatial-rift threshold. Oops. Now I'm in Philadelphia. The relevance of logs is so fleeting.

18 May 2000[link to here]

My fortune cookie last night was unusually appropriate: "Verbal precision can be a source of power.". The tricky part is not paying too high a price in clarity. Must... strike... balance!

One of my favorite undergrad courses was Technical Writing. Our textbook was quite good too. I recommend it to anyone who wants to communicate.

I need to catalog my library. It's only a few dozen books, but I should know what they are. Alas, they're in two places, each of which is more than 2500 miles away at the moment. Books are wonderfully convenient except for when they're horribly inconvenient. I have one in my pocket right now, but it's not always the one I want, and it only works well when I read it in order. Book trivia (via the TV show Connections): pocket-sized books were invented in Italy, and a new typeface was designed to allow smaller books. Today we call it "Italics".

shoplink.com has a good ad (and a few less interesting ones) at train stations in the northeast US.

Knock knock. Who's there?
Your groceries.

I just love the feeling evoked by an elegant frame shift. It keeps with the rigid, familiar, and nostalgic form of a knock knock joke, until it ends too soon too be a joke. It reminds me of the knock knock joke where you ask the other person to start, but this ad impresses me more because it doesn't just play with the form, but also makes a point and advertises a service.

More travel notes: NYC subway tokens do still exist, and some (perhaps all) pay phones get confused when you put 20 quarters in them.

21 May 2000[link to here]

Today I experienced yet another device straight from Hell's design department: an alarm clock that let me change the time by pressing one button. This balances out yesterday's find, a cardboard box of Mentos Cool Chews with an ingenious locking mechanism. It's worth buying a pack just to see it.

24 May 2000[link to here]

I'm weeding through the 200 pictures I took last week. I need to start thinking about aperture settings when I take pictures. It's a lot of work to shrink the depth of field afterwards. (trace, separate, blur, paste, sigh.)

I'm also back in Scotland, struggling to regain motivation after a wonderful week away. But I actually got work done today, so all is well.

25 May 2000[link to here]

The aspect ratio of my new camera is different than 35mm film. It's 4:3 (like computer screens), and film is 3:2. It didn't occur to me to think about it; I only noticed when I put a new thumbnail into my photos page. It's going to change my pictures significantly, and I probably won't notice or care. I feel like I should care, or at least care about my apathy, but I can't seem to muster anything.

29 May 2000[link to here]

I've been working a lot. I now have a program that can summarize an audio file in 25 numbers. The next phase will be to see whether those 25 numbers characterize music in any useful way. :)

Tonight I saw Gladiator on a big screen that happened to be framed by a classical Roman proscenium arch. That was a nice touch. All the blood and gore in the film was a nice touch too. I really should see more movies; I do love them so.

30 May 2000[link to here]

Today I passed by a sign listing movie times, and rather than dig out paper and pen and jot them down, I just took a picture.

31 May 2000[link to here]

Sunset here tonight is at 9:21pm. It'll get another 16 minutes later over the next four weeks before it starts creeping earlier again. I wanted to wait until it peaked before mentioning it here, but it's just been too weird. Afternoons are stretched out to outrageous proportions and I have no evenings. It's fun, but quite odd. It's also a little inconvenient since I tend to get most of my work done when it's dark out, but I'll manage somehow.