Sunday, October 31, 2010

A NYT job interview and capitalism 2010

Emily told me of a lightweight NYT piece on job searching describing the clever and industrious things a young man did to land a job in a competitive marketplace. She was appalled by the implications -- the job market for bright young men is lousy.

Emily missed the darker subtext though.

The job is in search engine optimization (SEO).

Few non-geeks know what SEO is. SEO is about fighting a war with Google. Google wants to give us answers to our questions, SEO wants us to read marketing material. SEO geeks make their living exploiting flaws in Google's search algorithms.

SEO is about making my life worse. It's not unique. A vast amount of American intellect, from Wall Street to SEO, is not delivering value. It is engaged in making all of our lives worse.

We are pouring our water into the sand.

Apple's share price, market movers, and the latest market bubble

Two fragments that I like to consider together. One is an anonymous comment on an Irish Economy blog called out by Paul Krugman ...
What markets want ...
... The markets want money for cocaine and prostitutes. I am deadly serious.
Most people don’t realize that “the markets” are in reality 22-27 year old business school graduates, furiously concocting chaotic trading strategies on excel sheets and reporting to bosses perhaps 5 years senior to them. In addition, they generally possess the mentality and probably intelligence of junior cycle secondary school students. Without knowledge of these basic facts, nothing about the markets makes any sense—and with knowledge, everything does.
What the markets, bond and speculators, etc, want right now is for Ireland to give them a feel good feeling, nothing more. A single sharp, sweeping budget would do that; a four year budget plan will not. Remember that most of these guys won’t actually still be trading in four years. They’ll either have retired or will have been promoted to a position where they don’t care about Ireland anymore. Anyone that does will be a major speculator looking to short the country for massive profit.
In lieu of a proper budget, what the country can do—and what will work—is bribe senior ratings agencies owners and officials to give the country a better rating. Even a few millions spent on bumping up Ireland’s rating would save millions and possibly save the country.
Bread and circuses for the masses; cocaine and prostitutes for the markets. This can be looked on a unethical obviously, but since the entire system is unethical, unprincipled and chaotic anyway, why not just exploit that fact to do some good for the nation instead of bankrupting it in an effort to buy new BMWs for unmarried 25 year olds...
The second fragment comes from an analyst ...
asymco | Apple trading even with the S&P 500
if you had invested $100 in the S&P 500 in September 2005, you would have $103 now. If you invested $100 in Apple in September 2005, you would have $529 now....
... Although Apple received a premium valuation to the S&P prior to October 2008, it has traded at a discount or in-line with the S&P since then...
Another way of putting it is that the P/E ratio for large companies has returned to pre-recession levels. The P/E ratio for Apple has not...
However, in terms of reward for earnings ... For much of 2009 and early 2010, Apple was considered to have a far less promising future than the average large American company...
Asymco makes a persuasive case. Apple is valued as though it were a quite mediocre company.

Now consider this.

No publicly traded company in history is as studied and dissected as Apple. It is analyzed from a thousand directions. The "market", in the case of Apple, is not made up of "junior cycle secondary school students".

On the other hand, the share price of most companies, as best I can see, bear little resemblance to value delivered. I can believe those prices are largely determined by the hormones of young traders.

So perhaps it is misleading to say that Apple is undervalued compared to the average publicly traded company. It may be more enlightening to say that the average publicly traded company is now grossly overvalued. Apple is fairly priced.


Greg Bear: City at the End of Time - A review

I gave Greg Bear's City at the End of Time three stars; five for ambition, two for execution... John Faughnan "John G...'s review of City at the End of Time

Bear aimed high with this one. Very high.

It's something between science fiction, magical realism, and hard fantasy. I think it's primarily science fiction; an abstract description of a reality and technology vastly beyond human compression.

It's dark, like much of modern science fiction it shows the influence of horror and zombie. It's densely written, with eloquent phrases and language that sometimes works and other times struggles.

I was never captivated by any of the characters. It was a relatively easy book to put down, but I pushed through to the end out of admiration for Bear's ambition. If you want to stretch a bit, and need a dense book you can put down when its time for sleep, this one has a heart.

I do respect the ambition. Death, creation, murderous struggle, the root of all evil and the wellspring of young love and the nature of reality transposed to a human perspective -- that's extreme ambition! The execution could have done with fewer zombies.

It's not just Bear. There are far too many zombies in the science fiction of the past five years. Give it up guys, it's time to move on.

Words we need to add to English

In a list of novel words from around the world, I found six we should add to English, and three in bold I have added to a list of words I practice ...

Language Log » Translating the untranslatable

  • tartle (Scots): hestitate while introducing someone because you forgot their name
  • Torschlusspanik (German): gate-closing panic as age begins to close off opportunities
  • wabi-sabi (Japanese): way of living that peacefully accepts the natural cycle of growth and decay
  • d├ępaysement (French): the feeling of not being in one's own country
  • tingo (Pascuense): obtain desired objects from a friend by borrowing them one by one
  • l'appel du vide (French): that "call of the void" that makes you feel you want to jump when you look down from somewhere up high

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Is Quebec why Minnesotans drive on the right side of the road?

It finally occurred to me to wonder why Americans, and especially Canadians, drive on the Continental (right) side of the road instead of the UK/Commonwealth standard. I believe the UK practice was well established in the 18th century, so the US should have followed that convention. Canada was an English possession until 1867, so the Canadian deviance is even more puzzling. (When Newfoundland left the UK for Canada in 1945 they had to change driving habits.)

This article came up early, but is a bit vague .. Driving on the wrong side

Today, most of the countries that adhere to left side driving are those that came under the influence of British rule during the 19th Century. It would seem likely then that the USA, having been once a British colony, would have retained the driving on the left rule. However, in his book The Rule of the Road: An International Guide to History and Practice (now out of print), author Peter Kincaid states that he could find no evidence that left side driving was ever widespread in the USA. He attributes this to the influence of European settlers used to driving on the right, and also the fact that vehicles such as carts and the postillion-controlled Conestoga Wagons were popular in the colony and favored right-side driving. However, there may have been some parts of the country that did adhere to left side rules for a time.

In Canada, the evidence is that Ontario and Quebec, which started out under French influence, always had right side driving. Other areas such as British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces, remained staunchly English in their influence and drove on the left. They switched to the right in the 1920s to conform with the rest of Canada and the USA."

There's a bit more here ...

Why do some countries drive on the right and others on the left ?

... In addition, the French Revolution of 1789 gave a huge impetus to right-hand travel in Europe. The fact is, before the Revolution, the aristocracy travelled on the left of the road, forcing the peasantry over to the right, but after the storming of the Bastille and the subsequent events, aristocrats preferred to keep a low profile and joined the peasants on the right. An official keep-right rule was introduced in Paris in 1794, more or less parallel to Denmark, where driving on the right had been made compulsory in 1793.

Later, Napoleon's conquests spread the new rightism to the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), Switzerland, Germany, Poland, Russia and many parts of Spain and Italy. The states that had resisted Napoleon kept left – Britain, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Portugal. ...

... In the early years of English colonisation of North America, English driving customs were followed and the colonies drove on the left. After gaining independence from England, however, they were anxious to cast off all remaining links with their British colonial past and gradually changed to right-hand driving. (Incidentally, the influence of other European countries’ nationals should not be underestimated.) The first law requiring drivers to keep right was passed in Pennsylvania in 1792, and similar laws were passed in New York in 1804 and New Jersey in 1813.

Despite the developments in the US, some parts of Canada continued to drive on the left until shortly after the Second World War. The territory controlled by the French (from Quebec to Louisiana) drove on the right, but the territory occupied by the English (British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland) kept left. British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces switched to the right in the 1920s in order to conform with the rest of Canada and the USA. Newfoundland drove on the left until 1947, and joined Canada in 1949.

I wonder if this understates the influence of Quebec and Louisiana on the adaptation of right hand driving in North America. Quebec was very dominant along the river routes of (future) American and the northeast region through the 17th and early 18th centuries, and Louisiana would have had a similar influence from the south.

Any Quebecois historians out there?

Lessons from the Cloud: Nobody loves your data like you do

There's a lesson here worth sharing  in this personal story (revised from original post to correct and clarify) ...
I now have about 5000 posts without paragraphs - Blogger Help
... I have about 8,000 posts in 2-3 "blogger" managed blogs going back to 2001.
As of today thousands of them no longer have paragraphs. Google did something that changed the way their software recognizes paragraphs. Perhaps it was a side-effect of using one of Google's newer templates. (For example.)
These posts are rather difficult to read. There are far too many for me to repair.
This is the most impressive episode of content destruction I have ever encountered. I've lost many hard drives over the years, but I was always able to restore from backup.
I can't fix this...
Coincidentally, Apple did something similar to their loyal customers this week. An update to iPhoto destroyed many customers entire photo libraries.

Although Apple's sin is even greater than Google's, there's an important difference that we all need to remember.

I can manage Apple. I don't use their software until months after a release; Apple uses early adopters as beta testers. I also use a very robust (but still imperfect) backup strategy. If Apple trashes my data I can restore it.

I can't manage Google. I don't have control over my Cloud data.

Sure, there's probably somebody at the increasingly troubled land of Google who feels badly about trashing my posts. I can guarantee though, that they don't feel as badly about as I do.

That's the problem with Cloud data, and it was a problem with the "ASP" market too (application service provider, which is what we used to call "Cloud services" before that market went pear shaped).

Nobody cares about my data as much as I do.

The problem with the Cloud isn't a technical problem, it's a social problem. If Google had to pay a billion dollars every time they mangled data, they'd really care. As it is now, they only sort of care.

My blogs are the my only serious investment in the "Cloud" data -- and that investment has gone sour.

Don't trust your data to people who don't care for it the way you do.

Rally for Sanity - and The Enemy Within

The Rally to Restore Sanity was today. It went well. Emily and I would love to have attended, but most sane people our age are pretty rooted. It's no accident many of the "6 billion" attendees were around retirement age.

The theme of the Rally reminded me of one of Shatner/Kirk's better Star Trek moments -- as the divided Kirk of The Enemy Within in the fifth episode of the first(!) season. The ever unreliable transporter splits the Captain into a sane Kirk, and a sociopath Kirk.

The sane Kirk is clearly the better half, but he's not an effective leader. Like any modern CEO, he needs his inner sociopathy. When the two Kirks are reunited the Captain returns.

America needs all of its components, including some version of the GOP.

Friday, October 29, 2010

My life with Amazon

Amazon's Improve Your Recommendations list is a chronological record of purchases. The oldest item on my list of about 560 items is a book on Java and Corba (!) published in 1997 [1].

Amazon went only in 1995 and I believe I bought some books from them in 1995 or early 1996 -- so the list isn't complete. It's close though.

When I started the list we had 1 dog and no children; I worked in the early days of a startup company ( - the domain has lapsed). Today we have 3 children, 1 (different) dog, and a fish. I work in a large publicly traded company.

Browsing the list is a strange window into the past 13 years. There were some surprises -- I bought too many (non-fiction) books I never read. I'm better about that now.

What's your list like?

[1] Oddly, there are three prior items listed that I'm reasonably sure we didn't order. You can skip the end of your list by editing the URL.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Can Apple be sued for false advertising?

On the Aperture site Apple claims that the move from iPhoto to Aperture is "designed to be seamless".

That's certainly untrue. Aperture has nowhere to store Album or Event comments for example.

So can Apple be sued for false advertising? Any desperate lawyers out there? (Note since I've not been injured I can't be a litigant, but I'm sure one could be found.)

Lessons in Software: Aperture 3 and iPhoto 11

The state of OS X photo management is mixed.

It’s not so bad for customers who aren’t invested in iPhoto. Much of Adobe’s OS X software is lousy, but Adobe Lightroom is a singular exception. It still, for example, uses Apple’s installer instead of Adobe’s malware installer. It’s a professional level product with a learning curve, and it shares Adobe’s uncertain future, but it’s the best choice for a new user.

Apple’s professional product, Aperture, used to compete with Lightroom, but it lost that battle. Aperture has been unreliable, slow, and buggy – which professionals and prosumers can’t tolerate. Aperture’s only future is to be an upgrade path for iPhoto. That’s where things start to get grim. Apple claims there’s a smooth migration path from iPhoto to Aperture, but Apple lies (yes, they do). Aperture has nowhere to store much of iPhoto’s event and album annotations

So what about iPhoto? Ahh, that’s where the really bad news starts. The latest release, iPhoto 11, has a “bug” – it can delete images. Tens of thousands of images. This would be bad even if everyone had backups – but backup is an unsolved technical and social problem. It’s likely that iPhoto 11 also deletes images in a less obvious fashion, which, if you think about it, is worse than deleting all images all at once.

Image deletion is a bit of a nasty bug, but it doesn’t affect me personally. I know Apple. I never use their software until the beta testers early adopters are done. I am, however, impacted by Apple’s product direction. They are making iPhoto more of a true consumer product, removing functionality and foreclosing features I want (like detached library management).

iPhoto power users are on a sinking ship, and the Aperture life raft comes with mandatory limb removal. We’re left in the sad situation of hoping Adobe will bail us out with a Lightroom migration path, but I suspect they no longer have the resources to build one.

Yech. This sort of thing happens much too often these days. I’m in a similar situation with my Google hosted blogs. So, what can I (we?) learn from this? Here are my take home lessons:

  1. It’s very hard to live between markets. This is true across many domains, from power tools to software. There’s a stable market for costly professional products, and a market for lowest denominator consumers. The in-between “prosumer” market is unstable.
  2. The “consumer” market isn’t a good place to be. Consumers have short memories – they upgrade to Apple’s new products despite a long history of major data destroying bugs. Consumers, by and large, don’t care enough about their data.
  3. Apple doesn’t have a culture of quality because their customers don’t demand quality. They do have a culture of design. If you’re like me, and you love both design and quality, you’re in trouble. There’s no easy answer, but don’t forget the tradeoff.
  4. There’s no fundamental reason Aperture couldn’t be changed to support more of iPhoto’s metadata…

The last one, to me, is the most interesting question.

Why doesn’t Aperture support more iPhoto metadata? It’s in Apple’s business interest to migrate iPhoto users to Aperture, why not make that work properly?

I don’t know, but I think this is one aspect of a general problem with software. There are a million good paths to take in software development, but you can really only take one. If you take ‘em all, you get a symphony composed by committee. Software development requires a tyrant, but it takes a long time to do good software. It takes about 5-10 years.

Ten years is a career. It’s too long a tenure for modern business structures; it doesn’t match career or business models. Tyrants can’t last in large businesses – unless the tyrant owns the show (Jobs). It costs too much to devote very talented tyrants to maintaining and building something like Aperture when iOS development returns far more value.

I’m hopeful we’ll eventually figure out a solution for problem 4. I’m hopeful that the OS X App Store and its FairPlay DRM will make small company software more viable. If that happens Apple could sell Aperture to a company that could make a good profit migrating iPhoto customers – and Apple would still earn 1/3 of the revenue from App Store sales. That could be a win-win for everyone.

In the meantime, OS X iPhoto users need to stay with iPhoto 9 and wait for a solution.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Google's computational thinking curricula for grades 6 and up

A new way to torture your grade 6-12 child ...
Google: Exploring Computational Thinking
... Use a CT approach to develop an algorithm for calculating percentages using mental math. This example is based on released questions from the California Standards Test, 6th Grade...
I looked over the examples, but they they felt strained. The curriculum is based on teaching Python in 6th grade.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Why we can't raise the retirement age to 70

We live longer, work is less physical, and so we can raise the retirement age. That's the usual argument.

Then there's this. Gassee is quoting from a May 2007 USA Today story ...
“Fatality rates for drivers begin to climb after age 65, according to a recent study by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, based on data from 1999-2004. From ages 75 to 84, the rate of about three deaths per 100 million miles driven is equal to the death rate of teenage drivers. For drivers 85 and older, the fatality rate skyrockets to nearly four times higher than that for teens.”
Driving a car is cognitively demanding. Performance drops off for most people at age 65 -- traditional retirement age.

We're not going to be able to extend the knowledge worker's employment life until we can slow the decline of the human brain.

Of course this is before we factor in the effects of epidemic Diabetes.

Lessons from Allais Paradox - making right choices

DeLong refers us to a summary of the Allais paradox and its relationship to the 2002 Economics Nobel.

The bottom line is that humans fear losses more than they love gains. This leads to consistently illogical personal and business decisions. The 'rational economic animal' is an illusion.

Among other things, this explains we dislike recognizing sunk costs (see resolution 242). To recognize a sunk cost is to recognize loss.

How should we use this knowledge about the way our minds work?

First of all we should formally express the potential losses and gains of significant decisions, and recognize that our emotions will lead to consistently inferior economic choices.

Secondly we can also use this knowledge to bias decisions others make. For example:
... When asked whether they would choose surgery in a hypothetical medical emergency, twice as many people opted to go under the knife when the chance of survival was given as 80 percent than when the chance of death was given as 20 percent...
If you want a certain decision made, give the probability of the gain, not the probability of the loss.

Surprisingly, however, we may still want to make the "wrong" choice. We are not, after all, creatures of pure reason. If our goal is happiness, we will be happier if we experience fewer losses at the cost of smaller gains -- because that's the way we are built. The "right" choice depends on whether the goal of the decision is our personal happiness or economic success or maximal lifespan.


The kids like FM pop radio.

I don't mind the music, but I have to listen to the ads. That hurts, because half the ads are for goods and services that are largely fraudulent.

In Ayn Rand's world the libertarian elite were (warped) nobles, in the real world they're predators feeding on the weak.

Incidentally, nobody advertises anything Emily or I want - anywhere.  That's a market failure. We do spend money. Why don't I see ads for family nordic ski resorts?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The rational basis for climate change denialism

I consider this a respectable and rational basis for denying that the earth's climate is being significantly altered by human greenhouse gas emissions ...
Global Warning Skepticism in Tea Party -
...A rain of boos showered Mr. Hill, including a hearty growl from Norman Dennison, a 50-year-old electrician and founder of the Corydon Tea Party.
“It’s a flat-out lie,” Mr. Dennison said in an interview after the debate, adding that he had based his view on the preaching of Rush Limbaugh and the teaching of Scripture. “I read my Bible,” Mr. Dennison said. “He made this earth for us to utilize.”...
I like this response. It's much less painful than reading right wing pseudo-science.

Mr. Dennison holds a set of religious beliefs. That belief set includes the understanding that God gave Man a planet to use as Man wishes, and He designed the planet so Man could not damage it. Therefore the scientific consensus on climate change is a fraud.

His reasoning is absolutely internally consistent. His conclusions follow directly from his premises. There is no response save to criticize his religious beliefs -- which is a rather sensitive topic.

I wish more Denialists were as honest as Mr. Dennison. I'm not being sarcastic. I think, at the core, this is what most Denialists believe but refuse to say.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Good news for Obama -- the GOP will take the House and Senate

Gwynne Dyer makes the case -- it's all sunshine for Barack.

Contrarian? Certainly. Persuasive? Pretty much.

The disruptive telecom play - the 3G iPod touch

Telecom CEOs can be ... tiresome. Yes, they are evil, but it's a dull, brutish, boring sort of evil. Sometimes they forget their place, and ask Jobs to do something he doesn't care to do.

That's when he pulls out his toy. It looks like an iPod Touch, only a bit fatter. Jobs strokes it. The Telecom CEO's shut up.

This iPod Touch, they know, is special. It has a prototype TMobile 3G CDMA chip, a $15/month 10GB data plan, and FaceTime. There's no voice capability, it's a pure data phone. The voice stream is VOIP.

TMobile has nothing to lose. They'll play this game.

This is a disruptive device. It's a computer with a net connection. It works with an external keyboard. One day it might drive an external monitor.

It's coming one day. If not from Apple, then from someone else. (Not from HP though. They're as dead as Dell). When it comes, the Telecom market blows up.

Whether it comes in 4 years or in 1 year is entirely up to those Telecom CEOs. They just have to keep Jobs happy ...

US 2003 and China 2010 – Nations on meth

The NYT is reporting that China is limiting the export of “rare earth” minerals to the US and Europe (and Canada too I’d assume). China did the same thing to Japan a few weeks ago. This is alleged to be a response to threats of tariffs on imported goods made in China.

This is a parenting moment. This is the time when the 16 yo steals the keys, goes for a ride, and puts a nice dent in the front fender. Time to count to ten, and repeat ten times. Then remember what is a stake, and what the long game is.

If you were a reasonably mature and sane nation in 2003, such as Norway, you’d look at 2003 America and draw some conclusions. You’d decide that America was in much worse emotional shape than you’d thought in the Clinton years. You might guess that America had an unsuspected substance problem. The best response would be calm engagement, while also making wise preparations for American derailment.

That’s what we should be thinking about China. China is a critical component of world civilization, and, if this story is accurate, she’s in much worse emotional shape than we thought. We thought she was a smart but rowdy striver, but now we learn she’s snorting meth. This is a problem for China, and for the family of nations. We’re all in this together.

In the meanwhile there are obvious things to do. We have a strategic petroleum reserve. We will tax all rare earth import and production (not just China’s) to build a rare earth strategic reserve. All nations will do the same thing. That will give time for nations like Canada, Australia and throughout Africa to increase production.

More importantly, we need to think differently about China, just as all nations had to think differently about the US after 2003. The world needs a healthy, stable, rational China. We’re going to have to do a lot of counting to 10, even as China works through her own issues, and even as we prepare for the worst.

Maybe the US and China can join a rehab program together.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tools of the NYT

I liked this NYT reference on favored home tools, especially their product endorsements ...

  • DeWalt 1/2-inch, 18-volt Cordless Compact Hammerdrill kit (hammer, not just drill)
  • BOSCH 5-AMP JIGSAW (rather than rotary, sigh)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Oddly silent dogs: The digital TV conversion

Canada still hasn't converted, but the US went to all digital TV on June 12, 2009.

We were supposed to convert in Feb 2009, but the switchover was delayed to allow more consumers to buy D/A converters or digital TVs. My family stayed with rabbit ears; they work better with our subsidized D/A boxes than with old school analog broadcasts. It is true, however, that nobody here watches TV on a TV any more. (The kids see their cartoons streamed to the laptop during their earned computer time, we also stream Netflix to iMac or Wii or we try to watch Netflix's frequently defective DVDs).

Which brings me to something noteworthy. The dog didn't bark. I expected some screaming by on June 13th -- didn't happen. Nothing happened. Cheapskates like us bought subsidized converters, others bought new TVs, cable subscribers weren't affected anyway. As best as I can tell, everyone who wanted a subsidized converter got one.

Most of the analog frequencies were sold off for vast sums (dwarfing the A/D converter subsidies), but a critical component has been made a public good with potentially enormous implications.

This was a huge change in American life, and it was created and executed by government. The six month switchover delay and extra converter subsidies happened under the Obama administration, but this was a long transition that started in Clinton years and went through Bush II.

A longterm, bipartisan, massive technological transition entirely driven and controlled by the Federal government -- that worked.

Nobody talks about it.

Isn't that a bit weird?

Friday, October 15, 2010

iPod interface wrong for instructional video

I’ve been listening to a few instructional videos (lectures) on my iPhone lately. That’s how I came to realize that the iPod/iPhone/iTunes interface for lectures and other instructional video is backwards. We need a Podcast interface with video, but we get a video interface instead.

There are two problems. The first is we get the wrong control set. Instead of the ‘back 30 seconds’ and rewind/fast forward of the podcast UI, we get the very simple controls of the video UI. Even with the variable speed slider it’s tough to replay the last minute of material – particularly while driving. (No, I’m too old to be watching while driving, I’m just listening.)

The other problem is the interrupt behavior. Podcasts and music continue to play if you change to another app (map, GPS), but instructional video pauses. That makes sense for a movie, but it’s wrong for instructional video.

I don’t have any music videos, but I wonder if they get the iPod/iOS instructional video interface we need. If so, is there a way to convert a .mp4 based instructional video into a “music video”?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Friendly fire - how Dem spam killed my donations

I'm a good commie. Each cycle we  give some money to help Dems.

Not this election though. Partly, that's because my team's spam has gone astronomical. The spam flow is legal though, because "political speech" isn't covered by the CAN-SPAM act of 2003.

Campaign spam comes with 'unsubscribe' links, but they don't seem to be connected to anything. Even if they were, however, I'd probably be re-enrolled with the next list update. I doubt the campaigns spend much on mailing list hygiene.

At least the email headers aren't faked, so I have about thirty Gmail filters that send all email from all identified campaign-related domains to the trash. I'm probably not the only one doing this though, because lately the domain names are proliferating. The speech spammers are trying to get around my filters.

This is a job for the DFL. Yes, it's a bit of a reach for them -- but we're talking money. Money talk gets politician's attention. Here's what the DFL can do:
  1. Get serious about a state wide unsubscribe service. Tell campaigns that if they don't follow the rules, they don't get funding or DFL support.
  2. Forget about reaching me by email. There's nothing a politician can put in a mass email that will interest me (the vast majority of political speech is aimed at the undecideds). Instead set up narrowcast feeds aimed at literate geeks whose vote is not in doubt.
  3. Enjoy the money Emily and I will send after the spam stops.

And now, back to our regular programming

Yikes! This morning I saw a post that was supposed to go our family blog, not Gordon’s Notes.

Sorry. I doubt there is much global reader interest in our Canadian Thanksgiving pictures.

It’s gone now.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The state of WiFi is mixed

Due to circumstances beyond my control I had to pay $50 for a D-Link DIR-615 Wireless N Router today.

I won't bother with a technical review. This thing has a 3 star Amazon rating; there are presumably better alternatives at the same price point. Most middle income users would do better to buy the $180 Apple AirPort Extreme. Cheap junk has a high cost of ownership.

The purchase gives me the excuse, however, so pass on a few observations on the state of WiFi today ...
  • 802.11G is a sweet spot technology. It's good enough and reliable enough if you can find decent equipment.
  • 802.11N 2.4GHz is good but overhyped, and 802.11N 5GHz is junk.
  • WiFi equipment breaks. I assume it's something to do with the physics of radio. These things fail like hard drives. I'd love to know why they're so fragile.
  • Apple tech doesn't handle microwave interference well. Devices lose their signal and fail to reacquire - including iPads [1]. I don't know if Windows devices do any better. Disappointing.
  • Modern microwave ovens are insanely leaky. Doesn't the FCC regulate this industry at all? We need way better regulation of microwave emissions.
  • The "wizard" setup on the D-link DIR-615 assigns an insane wireless device password, and the manual setup is crazy-geeky. There's stuff in there even I don't recognize. It didn't used to be this bad; why can't anyone but Apple do device software any more?
  • WiFi is not reliable enough.
I'll expand on the last bit. Over the past six months I've gone completely cable free at home and at my parent's home, using only Apple equipment. Even with the best available residential gear, it's nowhere near as reliable as cabled setups.

At my home I have to power cycle our gear every two to four months. At my mother's home, however, with a 3 yo AirPort Express (pre-N), they ran into problems every two weeks or so. I've switched her main machine back to a wired connection.

I suspect a hardware problem at my mother's home, but I think my own home record is reasonably typical for healthy hardware. Between the limited reliability of healthy hardware, high hardware failure rates, and (except Apple) remarkably bad setup software, the state of the wireless market is not happy.

We need more studies of why markets fail. What's wrong with capitalism? Were market failures always this common?

[1] I bought my mother an iPad. I've used it a fair bit. I knew it would be big, but I thought the need for a classic computer (iTunes sync) would limit iPad 1 adoption. I thought iPad 2 with MobileMe sync would be the big one. So I'm surprised iPad 1 is so big. It's not for me though.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Cricket’s $149 Android and the future $4000 Dell desktop

We are way past the tipping point if the no contract $149 Android phone is real [1]. The replacement for the $150 ChromeOS Netbook has come before the netbook, and Google’s $80 ultra-portable (with FM radio a cell phone too!) is a year ahead of schedule – though Microsoft’s lawsuits will slow things down.

After the lawsuits settle down the contract free low end iPhone will go for $250 in 2012 and Android will hit a billion users by 2013 (including China’s forked Android phone). By then RIM, Windows Mobile and so on will be history. Nokia and Motorola will make Android phones. Microsoft will be an IP parasite, a shadow of its former self.

So what about Dell?

Here’s where it gets funny. I’m used to thinking Dell will go away. After all, even today’s phones can have external monitors and keyboards. Who needs a Dell after 2012?

Well, verticals will. Software development. Servers.

Thing is, vertical gear doesn’t sell for $800 a pop. Remember what Sun workstations cost when Sun was profitable? Desktop prices are going to start going up, and up. By 2013 I expect Dell will sell far fewer machines – but they’ll be much more expensive. One day we will see the $4000 desktop, even as much of Africa carries a supercompter in their pocket.

[1] But what will it cost after the patent suits?

Why you should vote for the Tea Party’s coven in the century of the fruitbat

Christine O’Donnell. Linda McMahon. Sharron Angle.

Names to conjure with! The Tea Party’s fruitbat coven strikes fear into the hearts of rationalists. Together with Minnesota’s Michelle Bachman and President Sarah Palin they …

Oh, excuse me. I’ve got to shut the window. Susan’s grave spinning can be kind of distracting.

Ok, where was I? Got it. Looks grim. Doomed we are. True, Minnesota survived Ventura [1], and this group can’t be as bad as Cheney/Bush, but America is in a grim place. Shouldn’t rationalists be buying gardens in the countryside?

Well, yes, we probably should. But I will make a case for why rationalists should vote fruitbat, even though I lack the convictional courage to do it myself.

Let’s consider just five of the wee challenges that face America in the next thirty years, and think about how Vulcans (my people – Team Obama) would do compared to fruitbats.

First, there’s the relative decline of America as a world power and the growth of American poverty. Obviously the fruitbats will speed this along. But relative decline is going to happen anyway. There’s nothing magical about America. Our post-WW II preeminence was largely a matter of circumstance. Since then we’ve done some things right, and, especially in the Cheney/Bush era, many, many things wrong. We Vulcans managed to avert, for now, Great Depression II, but we couldn’t finish the game. Advantage Vulcan, but only by degree.

Secondly, global climate change. Two words – Nixon. China. We tried, we failed. The fruitbats can’t do worse, and only they can talk to the denialists. Advantage fruitbat.

Thirdly, the end of participatory democracy – China and America converge. Enlightenment thinkers couldn’t anticipate the positive feeback loops that make American law and regulation ever more favorable to large corporate entities (and billionaires, though they are less predictable). We Vulcans have failed on this front. Advantage fruitbat.

Fourth – the reason-resistant bomb. Iran is only the best current example. Mutual Assured Destruction worked [2] because the enemies feared death. Russia, China and the EU are all secular states, and American leadership religion is mostly skin deep (until Bush II [4]). If true believers have control of nuclear delivery systems, and if they believe their deity will either protect them or give them paradise, then we’re in a new world of hurt. It’s hard to see how Vulcans can help here. Maybe fruitbats can talk to them. Maybe religious logicians [3] will stop worrying about a fruitbat led declining America. Advantage fruitbat, albeit a small one.

Lastly, there’s the Big One. AI, better described as AS (artificial sentience). Skynet – the smarter than you think [3] machines. We don’t survive this one. Vulcan leadership, by sustaining American science, will move this day forward. Fruitbats, by accelerating the decline of America, may slow it down by five to ten years. That might move the end time out of my lifespan, though, alas, probably not out of my children’s lifespan. Advantage fruitbat.

If we add it all up, Vulcans only clearly win on one of the five big challenges. Yes, the fruitbats do accelerate the decline of America – but that might also slow AS work.

I can’t force myself to vote fruitbat. I’m not that rational; I’ll continue to campaign for Vulcan rule. In the near term it is clearly the better choice. If the fruitbats win, however, there is some (slightly) longer term consolation.

- footnotes

[1] Yes, Minnesota is whackier than California. We don’t get the credit we deserve.

[2] To my amazement. The long post-fusion survival of civilization is a strong argument for divine (or other) intervention.

[3] I’m impressed and disturbed that the NYT put this series together, even though it’s annoying that the last article managed to miss the historic Cyc and active Wolfram Alpha AI projects.

[3] They’re not whackos. Given his stated beliefs and values Ahmadinejad is more rational (for a certain definition of rational), and thus more scary but less annoying, than the fruitbats.

[4] Carter was very religious, but in a peculiarly rational way. He’s a true anomaly.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Krugman takes on Rupert Murdoch

Took longer than I’d hoped, but at last Krugman has Rupert Murdoch in the crosshairs.

This won’t be his last Murdoch editorial. We all need to stop saying “Fox” when we mean Murdoch (emphases mine) …

Paul Krugman - Fear and Favor -

… As Politicorecently pointed out, every major contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination who isn’t currently holding office and isn’t named Mitt Romney is now a paid contributor to Fox News. Now, media moguls have often promoted the careers and campaigns of politicians they believe will serve their interests. But directly cutting checks to political favorites takes it to a whole new level of blatancy.

Arguably, this shouldn’t be surprising. Modern American conservatism is, in large part, a movement shaped by billionaires and their bank accounts, and assured paychecks for the ideologically loyal are an important part of the system. Scientists willing to deny the existence of man-made climate change, economists willing to declare that tax cuts for the rich are essential to growth, strategic thinkers willing to provide rationales for wars of choice, lawyers willing to provide defenses of torture, all can count on support from a network of organizations that may seem independent on the surface but are largely financed by a handful of ultrawealthy families.

And these organizations have long provided havens for conservative political figures not currently in office. Thus when Senator Rick Santorum was defeated in 2006, he got a new job as head of the America’s Enemies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank that has received funding from the usual sources: the Koch brothers, the Coors family, and so on.

Now Mr. Santorum is one of those paid Fox contributors contemplating a presidential run. What’s the difference?

Well, for one thing, Fox News seems to have decided that it no longer needs to maintain even the pretense of being nonpartisan.

Nobody who was paying attention has ever doubted that Fox is, in reality, a part of the Republican political machine; but the network — with its Orwellian slogan, “fair and balanced” — has always denied the obvious. Officially, it still does. But by hiring those G.O.P. candidates, while at the same time making million-dollar contributions to the Republican Governors Association and the rabidly anti-Obama United States Chamber of Commerce, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which owns Fox, is signaling that it no longer feels the need to make any effort to keep up appearances.

Something else has changed, too: increasingly, Fox News has gone from merely supporting Republican candidates to anointing them. Christine O’Donnell, the upset winner of the G.O.P. Senate primary in Delaware, is often described as the Tea Party candidate, but given the publicity the network gave her, she could equally well be described as the Fox News candidate. Anyway, there’s not much difference: the Tea Party movement owes much of its rise to enthusiastic Fox coverage.

As the Republican political analyst David Frum put it, “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox” — literally, in the case of all those non-Mitt-Romney presidential hopefuls. It was days later, by the way, that Mr. Frum was fired by the American Enterprise Institute. Conservatives criticize Fox at their peril.

So the Ministry of Propaganda has, in effect, seized control of the Politburo. What are the implications?

Perhaps the most important thing to realize is that when billionaires put their might behind “grass roots” right-wing action, it’s not just about ideology: it’s also about business. What the Koch brothers have bought with their huge political outlays is, above all, freedom to pollute. What Mr. Murdoch is acquiring with his expanded political role is the kind of influence that lets his media empire make its own rules…

We need to name Murdoch, we need to name the billionaires who wish to rule America. They are succeeding.

We need to remember what Berlusconi did to Italy.

We need to subscribe to the NYT.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Verizon scam: Emergent fraud earns a fine

This is an old and universal cell phone scam, but somehow Verizon got caught ...
Verizon Wireless to Pay Refunds for Data Charges -
... Verizon Wireless will pay up to $90 million to 15 million cellphone customers who were wrongly charged, one of the largest-ever refunds by a telecommunications company...
I wonder if David Pogue's Nov 2009 NYT column played  a role in the settlement. Maybe AT&T will refund me the $5/month I pay to block my son from inadvertent data access.

I'm sure Verizon will still money on the deal, especially after they write off the cost of the refund. (There's no wrongdoing, it's all an accident, so they can write it off).  I'm reasonably sure they never explicitly planned this fraud, it was simply a happy accident.

See also:

Transparent society: automated monitoring of employees

I own Minority Report. I need to watch it before it's entirely passe.

For example, Social Intelligence is marketing employee behavior data mining to corporations. Forget spotting terrorists with Total Information Awareness (oh, you've already forgotten?), it's much more profitable to spot employees with a substance problem. Plus, it doesn't freak out the Tea Party if corporations do it.

If corporations don't buy, SI argues, they'll be sued the next time an employee goes postal. They should have known, lawyers will argue (and they will).

SI is also opening a subsidiary that will use bots to generate optimal online identities; burying the signal in noise. This service will be sold to employees. (I'm pretty sure Stross covered this in Accelerando, but there's lots of prior art here.)

I was joking about the employee service. SI might as well do it though. If they don't, someone else will.

There are several business opportunities here. I'm particularly looking forward to the related hire-a-hacker fund. Ten thousand people will anonymously donate a dollar for an SI related initiative.

(via Schneier).

PS. The Schneier comment thread includes some examples of name collisions and identity errors. I have one of those. My true name is somewhat unusual, and one time I flew in to give a talk only to be met by two police officers. They were looking for me as a material witness in an arson investigation. I was dressed for the presentation, so their expressions were funny to watch. Evidently I didn't look like the guy they expected ...

Google's ad platform is a gaping hole in iOS parental controls

I know Apple's OS X parental controls are broken. I thought things were better with iOS. Then I discovered a wide range of apps, from PublicRadio to WolframAlpha, provided WebKit based embedded browsers that bypass parental Safari lockouts.

Today our residential parental controls tester discovered that Google's AdMob ads give him full access to YouTube from

iOS parental controls are just as broken as OS X parental controls. Since YouTube and Safari are essentially NC17 ("explict") apps, every AdMob or that provides access is arguably NC17 too.

What a mess.

Culturally, I'm surprised how little interest this gets. The iPad platform in particular is going to be big in all schools. Have parents given up, are they in denial, or do they just not know?

See also:

Sunday, October 03, 2010

The key to happiness

This is disturbingly close to what I think ...

I would say "editing" rather than "self-delusion", but, really, that's quibbling.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Why do corporations (firms) exist?

Economists used to wonder, from a theoretical perspective, why "firms" including companies, and especially large corporations, exist (aka theory of the firm). In 1937 Coase thought that while corporations didn't allocate labor and capitol as well as the market, this was offset by lower transaction costs.

Of course transactions costs in the net era are far less than in Coase's time, so this doesn't explain why corporations remain so entrenched.

This still seems like a valid question. Does knowledge work, in particular, scale all that well? Movies seem to be put together by loose coalitions of small to medium sized companies, why aren't more things done like that?

I suspect most people familiar with large corporations would agree that often the company seems much less than the sum of its parts. In particular, the absence of internal markets can make intra-company collaboration less efficient than market based collaboration. Corporations, on the inside, operate like the command economies of the Soviet Empire (or, for that matter, like today's China -- which is doing well for the moment).

I'm trying to put together a list of things that large corporations can do uniquely well. I wasn't at all impressed with the conventional "theory of the firm" list. Here's mine ...

  1. Act without the restraints of antitrust law. A large corporation can do many things that would require collusion to be done by smaller entities.
  2. Change laws, particularly accounting standards and tax laws, to favor large corporations and lower their cost of capitol. This creates a positive feedback loop where tax laws and accounting rules favor large corporations, which in turn influence laws and rules that favor large corporations and so on.
  3. Corporations can buy senators and lesser politicians, again without collusion.
  4. Corporations can engage in financial warfare, cutting off suppliers to smaller competitors, blocking access to capitol, and so on.
  5. Corporations can capture regulators.
  6. Corporations may be able to create and institute processes that allow them to do knowledge work with "average" knowledge workers instead of temperamental and expensive "stars". (I don't think this actually works, but a lot of effort is spent on this.)
  7. Corporations can buy A and above ratings from (corrupt) rating agencies.
  8. Once a corporation exists, it has an unusual ability to sustain itself even when its mission ends (like the inquisition)

Taking these items as a whole, it's apparent that once corporations are established, they are large and powerful enough to change their ecosystem to suit them. Rather like some primates.

I'll update my list as I get more ideas. Any suggestions?

See also:

My stuff

Other people's

Update 2/25/11: In a Krugman article I learn that Williamson won the Nobel in 2009 for work in the 70s on the theory of the firm. So Williamson extended Coase ...

Williamson argues that the firm is best regarded as a "governance structure," a means of organizing a set of contractual relations among individual agents. The firm, then, consists of an entrepreneur-owner, the tangible assets he owns, and a set of employment relationships ...

Personally I wasn't that impressed with the descriptions I read of Williamson's work, but Krugman likes it (emphases mine)...

Oliver Williamson shared the 2009 Nobel mainly because of his work on a question that may seem obvious, but is much less so once you think about it: why are there so many big companies? Why not just rely on markets to coordinate activity among individuals or small firms? Why, in effect, do we have a lot of fairly large command-and-control economies embedded in our market system?

Williamson answered this in terms of the difficulties of writing complete contracts; when the tasks that need to be done are complex, so that you can’t fully specify what people should do in advance, there can be a lot of slippage and strategic behavior if you rely on market incentives; in such cases it can be better to do these things in-house, so that you can simply tell people to do something a particular way or to change their behavior.

... there are times when it’s better to rely on central planning than to leave things up to the market...

Krugman's "Central planning" comment sent the usual suspects frothing mad. They've obviously never lived in a large corporation. I have. Krugman is spot on.


Friday, October 01, 2010

Will this work with your printer?

When I exhausted the (fake) almost empty cartridge that came with my $70 printer I stuck masking tape over the sensor openings to turn off the toner light and ordered a $44 Brother TN360 Toner Cartridge.

Yes, the replacement (real) cartridge is more than half the cost of the printer. Shades of ink jet hell, but only faint shades.

That's not the interesting bit.

The interesting bit is that Amazon told me it would work with the printer I bought my mother and the printer I have now, but not another two bought from Amazon about five years ago.

Convenient, yes. Unnerving? No, I've gotten used to this.

Guatemalan STD in 1946, American torture in 2006

The American physicians who tested the use of penicillin to prevent syphilis in the Guatemalan schizophrenics they infected knew they were doing evil in the 1940s. They feared exposure of their experiments.

Cutler went on to run the Tuskagee experiments. I suppose he had a successful career. The medical school that graduated him should create a monument to this alumnus.

We're no better now. Cheney and Bush authorized war crimes. Physicians, medics and especially psychologists participated in some of those crimes. A substantial percentage of Americans, generally close to a majority, support the use of governmentally sanctioned torture. The GOP effectively runs on a pro-torture platform.

It may be another 60 years before the American people come to terms with our crimes.

Sometimes I regret the absence of hell. Cheney and Cutler could spend some quality time together, but then I suppose a large percentage of Americans would need to join them.