Archive for April, 2005

I Heart Richard

Saturday, April 30th, 2005

Great interview with Richard Dawkins, on Salon:

How would we be better off without religion?

We’d all be freed to concentrate on the only life we are ever going to have. We’d be free to exult in the privilege — the remarkable good fortune — that each one of us enjoys through having been being born. An astronomically overwhelming majority of the people who could be born never will be. You are one of the tiny minority whose number came up. Be thankful that you have a life, and forsake your vain and presumptuous desire for a second one. The world would be a better place if we all had this positive attitude to life. It would also be a better place if morality was all about doing good to others and refraining from hurting them, rather than religion’s morbid obsession with private sin and the evils of sexual enjoyment.

Highly recommended.

A Food-like Substance

Thursday, April 28th, 2005

Alright, so imagine you’ve got a hankering for a little fried chicken. (It happens.) You walk into the area’s most famously authentic chicken joint, you sidle up to the counter, and you scan the mounted menu to see what’s on offer.

Being as you’re the thorough sort, your scan also takes in the various paraphernalia posted on the walls, and your eye alights upon a photocopied certificate declaring the establishment “in substantial compliance” with the state Health Code.

You pause.

You wonder: does that make me feel better (“compliance”) or worse (“substantial”)?

Drivers of Quality

Wednesday, April 27th, 2005

Let us all now praise the Buffalo AirStation G54. It’s a USB-based wireless adapter, which isn’t so special. What has caught my eye, however, is that this little gem will automatically install its own driver, right from the unit itself. In other words, when you take the device to a friend’s laptop, you don’t have to bring a CD or anything else; just plug the sucker in and the necessary supporting software automatically installs.

All products should be like this. Flash memory, the sort that makes up USB key drives and low-cost MP3 players, has become very cheap, while broadband penetration has risen. Why don’t manufacturers wise up and capitalize on both trends? Simply add a few megabytes of flash memory to a device, and put the driver on that. Since Windows, Mac OS, and Linux can recognize a generic USB drive type, any peripheral would be automatically recognized first as a generic disk drive, then the driver could auto-install.

To take the concept to the next level, as part of the automatic driver installation your computer could automatically check for a newer version, using a standardized method such as:{MODEL}/

No CDs, no menus, no need to check for an updated version. Now that would be plug-and-play.

Oh, You’re More Than Nutty

Monday, April 25th, 2005

No longer content with merely ejecting citizens from public events, the Bush administration now wants a political litmus test for things as seemingly innocous as, well, international telecommunications standards:

At least four of the two dozen or so U.S. delegates selected for the [Inter-American Telecommunication Commission] meeting, sources tell TIME, have been bumped by the White House because they supported John Kerry’s 2004 campaign. …

The White House admits as much: “We wanted people who would represent the Administration positively, and–call us nutty–it seemed like those who wanted to kick this Administration out of town last November would have some difficulty doing that,” says White House spokesman Trent Duffy.

Representing the Administration? Here I thought it was to represent American users and their businesses, who are best served by selecting the most skilled engineers we can find, regardless of their partisan leanings.

Only the Bushies, who have a breathtaking contempt for dissent (and by extension, democratic process) would seriously require those in the science and engineering professions to first signal their loyalty to Our Great Leader before being permitted to join technical working groups.

And we’re all the worse off for it.

Emergency Broadcast Network

Sunday, April 24th, 2005

Today, the alarm sounded. During the summer months, the city briefly tests the tornado warning horn at noon on Saturday — probably one of those peculiarly Midwestern things. Anyway, the horn sounded today, and it jolted me out of sleep. My brain groggily tried to assess the situation: Is it noon already? But it’s not Saturday, is it? Does that mean this is a tornado? I don’t hear any wind… Then I just squinted at the clock, discerned that it was 12:03, and promptly returned to sleep.

Later on, I found some video of “a news desk practicing for an all out terror attack on the US.” As I watched the first few minutes of the ‘VNN’ faux broadcast, I remembered the horn, and I thought: can’t we do better than this?

The horn does a great job of cutting through whatever you’re doing, but it provides no detail. Similarly, the broadcast outlets have to strike a balance between providing detailed information and repeating themselves often enough that those who join midstream can get potentially life-saving information.

Perhaps this is my bias, but is this not a perfect place to use the Internet? Imagine an emergency information site that you could browse using a GPS-enabled device (perhaps that PowerBook) that would give you relevant information: how far away the storm is, which exit routes were clear, how much time you had to react, nearest shelter/police station, etc.

Providing emergency information in this manner would capitalize on two big advantages of the on-demand Internet: no waiting for an anchor to recap, and the easy ability to delve as deeply as you need to find relevant information.

There are also two flaws with this approach: one, obviously not everyone has a computer and/or broadband, and two, the huge surge in traffic that a bona fide crisis would generate might cause the servers to crash or become slow. I think both challenges could be addressed using a system that takes advantage of HDTV’s ability to carry data. By delivering the data over television networks, those without computers could receive information on their sets, while others could get the basics without having to visit any specific site.

Of course, how long do you think it will be before the “Emergency Broadcast System” broadcasts are augmented by text messages sent to the phones of people in harm’s way? Unless the carriers find a way to make you subscribe for it, of course…

Foreign Object, Indeed

Saturday, April 23rd, 2005

When a woman claimed to find a finger in a bowl of Wendy’s chili, the company went into full-on crisis mode, hiring investigators, examining staff and suppliers, and offering a $100,000 reward.

Now it seems that the woman who reported the find has a history of trying to extort money. Following her arrest, Wendy’s was quite eager to, ahem, point the finger — but preferably without using the word “finger” at all. From their press release titled simply “Update on San Jose“:

In response to the announcement today by the San Jose Police Department that the criminal charges have been filed in the case involving a foreign object in a bowl of chili on March 22, 2005…

“Foreign object” sounds almost clinical, doesn’t it? It’s always interesting to see how language can be used to shape perceptions of a thing. Sometimes it’s dramatic, as when the Repubs use the phrase “death tax”, or the Dems mention the “nuclear option.” Other times, as here, it’s an effort to drain emotion, to neuter, as when I read that the Pentagon has edged away from the use of “body bags” in favor of the far more innocuous “transfer tubes.”

I hear George Carlin covers euphemisms like these in his latest book, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? I wonder if it’s any good…

Things Weber Doesn’t Need to Know

Friday, April 22nd, 2005

My family recently added a new Weber grill to our stable of cooking instruments. I found the manual lying on the counter the other day, and was surprised to discover its back cover taken up by a mammoth “product registration” card.

“This card registers your product and helps us get to know our customers,” it read. “However, failure to complete and return this card does not diminish your warranty rights.” Good, because though the first 10 questions entail whether I’d owned a grill before, if I enjoy grilling, if I’d like to receive Grill Out® Times, etc., (that would be no, no, and no) the ways Weber wants to “get to know” me turn swiftly more intrusive, including:

  • My gender
  • My marital status
  • Date of my birth
  • Including myself, how many people live in my household
  • Date of birth of children in my household 18 years of age and younger
  • Whether I own or rent
  • My highest level of educational attainment
  • My household income, as it falls in 16 ranges from “Under $15,000” to “$300,000+”
  • What I/we buy through the mail, over the Internet, or from television among 15 groups from “Books/Magazines” to “Other”
  • Which credit cards I/we have
  • Which of 40 activities, from “Astrology” to “Worship/Bible”, at least one person in my home enjoys

So, after buying something to make hot dogs, the company would like one to specify what you’ve studied, what you make, what you buy, what you enjoy, and whether you’ve married. They’ll then respond by sharing this information with anyone they can get to pay for it, while your compensation is the continuation of warranty rights you’d have even if you don’t send in the card.

All of which leads me to ask: does anybody ever fill these out? Why?

Maurice, We Hardly Knew Ye

Thursday, April 21st, 2005

My father brought a photocopy to dinner. He glanced at it, then said “Who was Maurice Hilleman?” I didn’t know, nor did my mother. “It’s a shame,” he said. “When you think of all the famous names you know, and the silly reasons they’re famous.” Then he showed the photocopy. It was Time‘s “Milestones” page, and read:

DIED. MAURICE HILLEMAN, 85, low-profile microbiologist credited with developing some 40 vaccines–a record–and saving more lives than any other 20th century scientist; in Philadelphia. Persuaded to go to college by his brother, who thought he should aim higher than his job as a clerk at a local J.C. Penney, the Montana farm boy eventually took what turned out to be a three-decade-long job at pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. He developed eight of the 14 vaccines currently recommend to protect children against measles, mumps, hepatitis A and B, and chickenpox.

Isn’t it time to celebrate smart people again?

On Geocoding

Wednesday, April 20th, 2005

The other day, as part of making a point about punctuation, I sent B-don an image that featured the latitude and longitude of his house. Well, I should say it approximated those coordinates, because I sort of “guesstimated” using Google Map’s satellite map navigation, and then lopped off a few figures for good measure.

I needn’t have bothered, because yesterday I discovered a new service: Using TIGER line data from the U.S. Census, you can specify an address and get the coordinates. Pop those coordinates into GeoURL, and things start to get interesting: you’ll find a list of sites that concern points nearest those coordinates.

Most of them are blogs and weather, and the GeoURL db is quite sparse as far as locations near my neck of the woods is concerned, but think for a moment of the possibilities if this sort of thing was widespread: You could “geocode” your blogged complaints about Best Buy with the location of the store. You could tag your Web photos with the coordinates of where they were taken. You could hide something, record its coordinates, and make a “You’re getting warmer…” page…

It may become easier than you think. Last year Microsoft gave a hiker a camera with the ability to record GPS coordinates with each snap, an ability that I expect might show up in cell phones before long. Apple, if one alleged insider is to be believed, has even more ambitious plans. Imagine a PowerBook with built-in GPS:

What’s next? We’re going to find new ways of attaching automatic metadata. Here’s one we’ve been talking about a lot: Your laptop has a GPS receiver in it. Tiny thing, about the size of a pencil eraser. At all times, your laptop knows where it is on the face of the Earth, accurate to about thirty feet.

Every file you create is tagged with three new, additional pieces of metadata: latitude, longitude and altitude. That’s on top of the date and time data we already attach to every file.

Say you go on a business trip to Seattle. A year later, you can search your laptop for that e-mail you sent to your coworker Tom while you were in Seattle.

I think the ability to go to a spot and say “Internet, what can you tell me about this place?” and to have photos, musings, reviews, work you created when you were last there and more be pulled from all sorts of online content would just rock. Of course, organizing all that would be a whole different challenge…

Credit Card RSS

Tuesday, April 19th, 2005

Here’s a small idea that I think would make a big difference: RSS feeds of your credit card purchases. (For those not familiar with RSS [example], it’s a standardized way for sites to provide headlines and articles. Using a feedreader such as NetNewsWire allows you to get updates from all your favorite sites in one go without visiting a bunch of bookmarks.)

With ccRSS, each time you updated to find what’s new, your feedreader would also query your credit card company. So you’d get a list of stories, as per usual, along with an item such as this:
19 Apr 3:22a - Approved: UNITED AIRLINES, $319.12

That’s useful all by itself, but where it really gets interesting is if the issuer could include a link to allow you to deny the charge. Say you see this:
19 Apr 3:32a - Approved:, $500.00 [report this transaction]

Suddenly, with no extra effort, you’re able to stay on top of your own credit card charges. Rather than rely solely on your issuer’s fraud department and computer models, and rather than wait the weeks it would take to get a statement (or, if you a little more savvy, until the next time you check it online), you would be able to shut down fradulent transactions in a matter of minutes.

Well, that “minutes” figure assumes you’re on the Internet with anywhere near the insane frequency that I am…

Take Off the Rubber

Monday, April 18th, 2005

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to acknowledge it: the rubber wristband trend has jumped the shark.

A bit of background for my international readers: Lance Armstong’s foundation, in concert with Nike, recently introduced a yellow rubber wristband inscribed “LIVESTRONG.” All the proceeds from the $1 wristband went to providing “information and support to young cancer survivors and their families.”

More than 40 million have been sold, and not coincidentally several others worked to latch onto the trend, diluting both the message (a company called AwarenessDepot sells more than 100 varieties, for causes ranging from Irritable Bowel Syndrome to GERD) and the value (7-Eleven sells $3 camouflage bands, and donates just $1.)

From a simple idea that spread quickly and effectively, it’s now possible to be utterly confused by seeing someone wearing 4 different bands and have no idea what they were all supposed to mean. There’s surely an interesting essay about diffusion of innovation in here somewhere. (This is not that essay, but Timothy Noah takes a stab at it, with some Tragedy of the Commons framing.)

I don’t need that level of analysis. I’ve seen the end in a far more reliable source: commercials. You see, what started as a bracelet to help cancer survivors has now, finally, trickled down to become something much less noble: a cheap promotional tool for CD compiliations. Yes, if you buy “NOW 18,” they’ll throw in a complimentary wristband.

Where the yellow band marks you as a cancer survivor supporter, the green “Now That’s What I Call Music!” band shows your daring ability to twist a good idea to become just another corporate shill.

Aww, well. It was nice while it lasted.

May I Have Your Shopper Serial Number?

Saturday, April 16th, 2005

I’m sorry, but when did the process of buying an item turn into a question and answer session? Within the last week, as I’ve purchased things, it’s been:

  • Borders: “What’s your ZIP Code?”
  • Godiva: “May I have your phone number?”
  • Radio Shack: “Can I have your ZIP Code?

And let’s not forget the blue-shirted brigands at Best Buy, who not only ask you your phone number, they then use that information to drill down amongst the members of the household to find your name — all whilst three of them tag-team you, trying to convince you to buy the stupid extended warranty at a full 16% of the purchase price! (Oh, how I loathe Best Buy. Stay far away from them. Use Amazon. Use Froogle. Use… anything else.)

I realize this isn’t a particularly original gripe, just as I realize that the questions will probably fade away as we all start using plastic and become eminently more traceable. I just wish that the shopping experience could start to suck a little less — or, better, that I’d learn I probably don’t need to buy it in the first place.

What, Was The Grudge Not Available?

Friday, April 15th, 2005

Thursday’s StudioBriefing includes this nugget:

In one of numerous lawsuits filed on Wednesday, the MPAA referred to the Georgia Tech students only as “John Does,” but, the [Atlanta Journal-Constitution] said, another lawsuit charged that John Struna, of Sugar Hill, GA had downloaded three movies: Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid; Exorcist: The Beginning; and Alien Vs. Predator.

‘Twould be a total bummer for the vipers at the MPAA to file a lawsuit against you. Only makes matters worse when a major newspaper publishes evidence that you have truly shitty taste in movies…

Mr. Struna, my friend, I feel for you on both counts. Good luck.


Sunday, April 10th, 2005

Well, I had a variety of scenarios in my head as to how the meeting would go, and it turned out to match none of them.

I’ll update this post when I have definitive word (in about 6 hours). For now, I’m off to the Apple Store to look at shiny things.

Update [7:22p EDT]: Just heard. They passed. Chief concern: liquidity. They said they think I’m smart and the idea could make money, but they don’t think they could flip the company and get a bidding war started. Fair enough. I’m actually relieved, for reasons I may cover later. For now, I’m hungry.

Currently in Cambridge

Friday, April 8th, 2005

The Wi-Fi here is free. That’s good. All hotels should have free broadband. Those who don’t should be mocked and ostracized, like those who would charge for cable.

Oh, and they should put hot chocolate in the rooms. Not everybody drinks tea and coffee.

That’s all for now. Wish me luck.