On the Soapbox

30 Years of [Freedom from] Apple

Friday, March 31, 2006
Keywords: Technology

In honor of Apple Computer's 30th birthday, I would like to present myself as a target for flaming and write about why I am glad that Microsoft won the great PC war. And in case you are wondering if this is an early April Fool's joke, I assure you, I am dead serious.

To Apple's credit, their products are very well designed--even sexy--and that OS X's marriage of UNIX geekiness with slick interface is far better than any attempt made by the Linux people. But that is the extent of my love for the company. Yet, most geeks, Slashdot readers, and computer scientists all love Apple, so why not me?

Hail the Apple Monopoly

Let us consider an alternate universe where Apple triumphed over Microsoft. What would such a universe really look like? First, Apple will be a monopoly just as Microsoft is now. Microsoft's Windows monopoly is like a natural monopoly because most of the world's software was designed for Windows. If Apple's platform triumphed over Microsoft's, then these same forces would necessitate an Apple platform monopoly. Of course, that does not necessarily translate into a monopoly with market forces: Linux is an open platform and as a result, many companies produce different flavors of Linux and all Linux applications are compatible with all of these flavors--at least theoretically (it gets messy in practice). Would Apple support such an open platform? No. By all accounts, Apple is just as tight-fisted as Microsoft when it comes to such things. Don't believe me? Look at the emerging iTunes monopoly for online music sales. Apple has resisted all calls to open up the iTunes/iPod standard (much to the detriment of Linux users, who for some reason, still root for Apple), claiming that this is their prerogative. Gee, doesn't that sound an awful lot like Microsoft? But what about Darwin (the OS X core), you ask? While Apple's Darwin is nominally open-source (probably because Apple adapted it from FreeBSD), it is almost entirely internal to Apple and with the recent move to Intel chips, Apple is planning to close it off. As long as Apple ran on its own architecture, it could control the hardware and so it does not need to worry so much about the software, but as soon as Apple lost control of the hardware architecture by moving to Intel, it showed its true colors and clamped down. What about bundling? Let us not forget that Apple bundles just as many (if not more) toys in its operating system, from a web browser to a media player to calendaring software, etc. In the end, this alternate universe would still be dominated by a large monopolist with the same tight, closed grip, except that instead of people comparing Bill Gates to Darth Vader or the Borg, Steve Jobs will be the target of such mockery.

Emperor Jobs vs. Darth Gates

Unfortunately, Jobs would probably be less tolerant of such comparisons than Gates. When iCon, a biography of Jobs that he did not like, was written, Steve stirred controversy by personally banned the sale of all books by that publisher in Apple stores. Despite the large number of books written about Gates, he has not been known go ballistic like that (on the other hand, if it was Steve Ballmer...). It comes as no surprise that most biographies describe Gates as a relatively quiet thoughtful person who is fairly easy to get along with while most biographies describe Jobs as an overbearing control freak who alienated many of the people who have worked with him (I mean, how many people get ousted from their own company?). And while many people dismiss it as just an expensive marketing campaign, it's hard to ignore the fact that Gates is by far the most philanthropic person. It may be worth noting that, long before the anti-trust case, Gates had promised to donate almost everything.

So who would you rather have as the overlord of personal computing, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates? If the decision is between Steve the megalomaniac or Bill the guy who pulled all-nighters playing bridge, I'd pick the latter.

Trigger-Happy Lawyers

Apple is also very trigger-happy when it comes to lawsuits, much more so than Microsoft. Are you a Mac enthusiast who posts about the latest rumored Apple product? We'll see you in court! Are you trying to get OS X to run on a regular Intel PC? Oh look, a pretty cease-and-desist letter. In contrast, Microsoft does not oppose Wine and makes no effort to silence people who talk about the myriad of ways to bypass Windows XP's anti-piracy features. Perhaps most telling of all is the long Apple-Microsoft lawsuit of the 90's in which Apple unsuccessfully tried to sue Microsoft for stealing the look and feel of the Macintosh. Fortunately, Microsoft won the case; if they had lost, the legal precedent that would have been set would be far worse than that of today's innovation-stifling software patents. It is ironic that the geek community's love affair with Apple seems to turn a blind eye to this long-forgotten case. Perhaps the greatest--and most chilling--irony, however, is that the Macintosh was itself not entirely original and that it was more or less "copied" from work done by Xerox PARC much in the same way Windows was "copied" from the Mac.

Pricing

Microsoft's platform dominance certainly plays a role in maintaining its monopoly, but Apple's pricing helps a lot, too. While many complain about Microsoft's monopoly pricing, few pay attention to the fact that Apple's software prices are comparable to that of Microsoft's, and if you figure in the sorts of small incremental changes to the OS that Apple sells as an upgrade versus what Microsoft offers as a free service pack for XP, Apple could even be considered to be more expensive. Most notably, of course, is the fact that Apple computers themselves have always been more expensive than comparable PCs.

Hardware, Innovation, and Competition

Until the recent move to Intel, Apple's tight control over everything extended to its hardware; even commodity components like DVD drives were subject to the long dictatorial arm of Apple (I know this from experience tinkering with firmwares for such drives for Apple machines). The pace of innovation in computer hardware has far outpaced that of software, resulting in both low prices and very impressive computer hardware. Would PC CPU technology be where it is today without the competition between AMD and Intel? Would graphics card technology be where it is today without the duel between ATi and nVidia? This was all a byproduct of IBM's fateful decision to use proprietary technology for only one chip that was relatively easy to reverse engineer. The PC hardware platform may be dominant much in the same way that Windows is dominant, but unlike Windows or OS X, it is an open and free platform, and the wonders of that are numerous. I hesitate to imagine what the world of computing would be like if the IBM-Microsoft wagon got bumped off the road by the Macintosh. In such a scenario, by tightly controlling the hardware instead of allow the sort of free-for-all that became the PC industry (essentially extended the closedness of the OS platform down to the hardware), Apple dominance would have almost certainly stunted hardware competition and innovation.

Open-Source Lip Service

Just a quick little aside here: As I mentioned above, Apple's commitment to open-source is mostly superficial, at least in the case of Darwin (look at Google if you want to find a company that really supports open-source). This is even true in the case of the Safari web browser (whose rendering engine was built from the Linux KHTML project), when relations with the KHTML people soured after the latter complained that Apple was not very good about sharing the work that they did. The open-source-loving Slashdot crowd loves Apple, yet, what exactly has Apple done for the open-source community beyond the ceremonial nod?

But Microsoft is still Microsoft...

Of course, this is not to say that Microsoft is good. Microsoft has committed many sins of its own and it is by no means saintly. But I am not talking about absolutes, either: I am not comparing Microsoft to an idealized perfect tech company; I am comparing it to Apple. I have shown and argued that in many ways, Apple is just as bad, if not worse, than Microsoft. If anything, Steve Jobs is a much more tight-fisted and scary person than Bill Gates could ever hope to be. As such, to the extent that Microsoft's dominance has saved the world from the spectre of Apple's dominance, I am happy for it, though ideally, a Google-like company would have been preferable. Why, then, does the tech community fawn over Apple so much? Well, as I noted, Apple has a finesse and flair for style coupled with good marketing. Second, Apple is the underdog, and our society loves rooting for the underdog. Finally, most people do not realize that Apple's practices are strikingly similar to that of Microsoft's mostly because, as the underdog, these aspects of Apple do not draw much attention (it's a bit like security through obscurity).

So while the tech community celebrates Apple's 30th birthday, I will quietly thank Microsoft for putting Apple where it is today, take pride in being one of the few remaining iPod holdouts, and cling onto the hope that one day Google will take over the world and free us from Microsoft. :)

This entry was edited on 2006/03/31 at 11:00:12 GMT -0500.

Ehud Olmert on Frontline/World

Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Tonight, PBS's Frontline featured a report about Ehud Olmert and his family, and of all the Frontline features that I have watched, this was one of the most delightful. It was interesting to hear his wife and children speak about the political differences in the Olmert family. Olmert was once upon a time one of the most extreme right politicians in Israel, but his entire family is very left-wing. Despite that, they have managed to hold together because, as Ehud jokes, his family has been tolerant of him. The interviews were both charming and frank: his family admitted that they usually did not vote for him, and he even joked at one point that his family had every right to be wrong.

Of course, things are different now, as Olmert in 2003 was the first major right-wing politician to move towards the left and to advocate Israel's unilateral pullout from Gaza. For those of you who don't follow the news, acting prime minister Olmert is currently the leader of the fledgling centrist Kadima party founded by Sharon when the former prime minister abandoned right-wing. Preliminary results show Kadmina in the lead in the recent general election.

Why can't American politics be like this, where people can get along even if they share radically different beliefs? And why can't we have political leaders who have the humility to embrace the other side when the evidence shows that the path that they are traveling is wrong? I know almost nothing about Israeli politics, but if this Frontline feature is any indication, then I think that Olmert will make a fine prime minister.

The "Jane Galt" Healthcare Plan

Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics

A couple nights ago (I meant to post this earlier, but I kept forgetting :P), libertarian Megan McArdle of The Economist, writing under the "Jane Galt" pseudonym, proposed this interesting healthcare reform plan that is seductively simple and that tries to strike a balance between the moral argument for government payment and the need for market forces.

Have the government pay for all health care expenditures above 15% of adjusted gross income, and cover 100% of health care expenditures by people living under 200% of the poverty line.

The justification and reasoning for this plan is laid out in a series of four blog posts (1, 2, 3, 4), though if you do not feel like reading all four, the last of the four might work as an executive summary. It's not perfect, and the author admits it. For starters, there is an incentive disconnect at the 200% of poverty line, but that is a minor technical problem that can be easily fixed by either using a sliding scale instead of a flat 0% that steps up to a 15% or by exempting any income below that point from this cap calculation. There is the potential problem of freewheeling spending after the 15% cap is reached, but people generally do not visit hospitals for fun and there can always do some basic rationing (no botox injections on the coverage). There is also the problem of how one defines and tracks income, but for better or for worse, we already have that infrastructure in place, thanks to the IRS. (I went into a wee bit more detail on these points in some comments on her fourth post) There are other problems too, but not nearly as many as HSAs or single-payer. Overall, I think it's a pretty nice idea: a nice balance between free market and government, don't you think?

Alternatives and Relativism

Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics

Consider this simple quiz problem:

You won a free ticket to see an Eric Clapton concert (which has no resale value). Bob Dylan is performing on the same night and is your next-best alternative. Tickets to see Dylan cost $40. On any given day, you would be willing to pay up to $50 to see Dylan. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either performer. Based on this information, what is the opportunity cost of seeing Eric Clapton?

(a) $0
(b) $10
(c) $40
(d) $50

Concerned with the de-emphasis of basic economic reasoning in economics, two researchers asked some Ph.D. economists this question. Surprisingly, only 21.6% answered correctly, which is lower than the 25% that would be expected if everyone simply made a random guess. The question is fairly straightforward and explicit in laying out exactly what the next-best alternative was and any necessary assumptions; this was a problem that one might expect to find in the textbook of an introductory economics course. In case you are not sure, the correct answer is (b).

If people who believe themselves to be economists could not correctly and fully grasp the concept of the opportunity cost, what does this mean for public discourse?

Example: Scientology

What prompted me to recall this particular study was the recent South Park vs. Scientology controversy. I became curious, and a bit of Googling lead me to this text by an ex-Scientologist: (Source)

[A]lmost everything that occurs in Scientology that a Scientologist experiences and believes in comes about as the self-suggested result of a kind of auto-hypnosis. Everything that seems to work or be positive is attributed to Scientology, and everything negative is assigned to personal failure or lack of understanding of Scientology.

One might say that this is applicable to many belief systems in general, whether or not they are religious. A friend once told me that he believes that when good things happen and when inspirations come, it is the result of God. To which I responded, what about the bad things that happen and all the many moments of the day when no inspirations flash by? In a non-religious context, one might apply this to optimism or pessimism. Just as the true cost of an action must also figure in the opportunity cost of not executing the alternative action, it is necessary to consider and account for this alternate point of view in order to make unbiased assessments.

Example: Evolution

This principle of considering alternates can be said in defense of evolution. Those who tout intelligent design are quick to point out how seemingly well-suited everything is. But by doing so, they are turning a blind eye to the alternate perspective of how poorly suited many things are. Why do we have a useless colon? Why are our ears so prone to damage from a wide dynamic range? Why is our environment so fragile? For every wonderful thing in this world that "clicks" perfectly, I am sure that people can think of something that does not "click" together so well. (aside: of course, the best argument against ID is still the anthropic principle, which deals with the huge logical fallacy made by ID-proponents of confusing conditional probability with joint probability)

Example: Google in China

The controversy over Google's entry to the Chinese market is another fine example of this sort of principle at play. Those who opposed the entry were highly critical of the Chinese government and of the notion of an otherwise saintly American company cooperating with Beijing. Through public stunts such as the "breakup with Google" on Valentine's Day, they demonstrated their failure the assess and evaluate the alternate course of action. They failed to grasp that not entering the market would do nothing to change the political infrastructure (by giving more market share to local companies, not competing there would actually strengthen Beijing). The protestors either ignored this critical "what-if" question or fell prey to the delusion that the alternate choice was some sort of liberation when it was really a potentially worse version of the status quo.

Conclusion: Using Relativism

In decision making, the value that is used is not the absolute value of something, but its relative value. If you are sitting in a prison cell and for some odd reason the prison is showing a free opera, you would likely attend. If, however, you were free and the alternative was lounging in your backyard instead of languishing in a cell, then it becomes less likely that you would attend (assuming for the sake of this example that your preferences towards opera are similar to that of the majority of the population). And of course, a good economist would talk about this using opportunity costs. In debate, it is never enough to show that the status quo is flawed (an absolute evaluation); one must also show that a change would be better than the status quo (a relative evaluation).

Unfortunately, not everyone fully considers relative values in every circumstance. If given free opera tickets (or baseball tickets or whatever) that cannot be resold, could you imagine that there would be some people who would go anyway simply because they do not wish to "waste" the ticket and end up being bored out of their minds? People who dogmatically disagree with Google's decision in China often cite the absolute evil of such cooperation, and those who expound arguments for intelligent design fail to evaluate how their evidence weighs relative to the counter-evidence.

Relativism is a very broad term, ranging from cultural relativism to moral relativism to epistemological relativism, etc. The "relativism" that I am advocating here is nothing more than rationality: the evaluation of things not based on their absolute value, but how they stack against alternatives. Unfortunately, this is not something that people always do, and as such, it may be the case that in some circumstances, the best way to argue a point is to get the other side to see beyond an absolute value.

This entry was edited on 2006/03/31 at 11:41:40 GMT -0500.

Fun with Security Through Obscurity

Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Keywords: none

Yea, I know this is just a form of security through obscurity, but who cares? Can you honestly say that you wouldn't want to have some "creative home engineering" in your next home? :)

Found on the "Schneier on Security" blog

This entry was edited on 2006/03/28 at 07:31:46 GMT -0500.

What Democracy Means

Sunday, March 26, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Libertarianism

I was listening to the BBC in the car today, and there was a segment about the release of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan who was charged with conversion away from Islam. What was striking about this particular news segment was the report on the Afghan reaction. This is not a matter of a small number of fundamentalists calling for his death; in fact, the vast majority of the country believe that he should be executed per Sharia law. One man who was interviewed was quite passionate in his defense of the Afghan constitution, which holds this Islamic law as the basic law of the land. Like many Afghans, he was displeased with what is seen as Western meddling in their government, their own affairs, their constitution, and the sovereignty of the will of their majority.

At first, I was conflicted when those sentiments streamed through the radio. After all, I support popular democracy and the rule of law, and it is clear that in this particular case, intervention on his behalf and making an exception for him was in violation of all that. But I also know that the very notion that this man was being charged with what essentially amounted to a thoughtcrime is perverse and fundamentally wrong.

That state of internal conflict lasted for only a few seconds, as this entire controversy brought into perfectly clear relief the problems of majoritarianism, or as Alexis de Tocqueville famously put it, tyranny of the majority. There are a number of historical examples of this, the most famous being the (brainwashed) majority in Germany during the Nazi era. In American history, the South's treatment of blacks and the treatment of Native Americans are all fine examples of policies that were supported by the popular majority that we know today to be wrong. This particular incident is noteworthy because it is one of the few cases of very clear-cut majoritarian abuse outside the confines of history books.

This distrust of the goodness of democracy's majority rule is also one of the reasons why I am a libertarian: the less power the majority can wield, the less damage a misguided majority can inflict. So what exactly is the purpose of a democracy, then? Last month, The Economist ran an op-ed arguing that although the Bush Administration has blundered just about every aspect of Iraq, its promotion of democracy is one thing that it does deserve praise for (even if it is the result of an Administration war justification "flip-flop"). I believe that democracy is not an end; it is only a means to an end. But is it a necessary means? I think so, but I am not entirely sure, and I certainly do not wish to dogmatically answer yes. Thus, to the extent that I think that democracy is a necessary means, I agree with the editors of The Economist. But what exactly are these ends that we are trying to accomplish with democracy? Beyond sweeping generalities such as stability, rule of law, justice, freedom, etc., I do not have a specific answer, nor do I think that anyone does. What is certain, however, is that despite the introduction of democracy, movement towards these ends--whatever they may be--is slow, if not stagnant. Democracy is not perfect and it is not a silver bullet, and our foreign policy's naïveté about this nature of democracy is a cause for concern.

This entry was edited on 2006/03/27 at 09:32:19 GMT -0500.

Security Through Obscurity

Sunday, March 26, 2006
Keywords: Technology

A recent report shows that snails that are left-"handed" have an advantage in encounters with right-"handed" crabs, whose claws are not as adept at opening the shells of left-"handed" snails (because of the orientation of the spiral). This reminds me of fencing, where fencing against lefties is more difficult because while lefties have plenty of experience fencing against opposite-handed opponents, righties do not face many opposite-handed opponents and thus do not have that sort of experience to draw from. Indeed, one of the tougher opponents in the class I took was a leftie. Anyway, one might describe this as an example of security through obscurity in the real world.

On that note, people who post comments on my blog will find that there is no spam protection. No e-mail address verification, no Turing tests to prove that you are human, no logins, and heck, I did not even bother to implement any simple heuristics under the hood (e.g., no looking for HTTP/1.0 requests, bad user agent strings, etc.). Despite this, I have yet to see a single piece of comment spam, even though, according to server logs, I have indeed been visited by bots and numerous attempts have been made. So why have all these spambots failed to infest my blog with comment spam despite my neglect to implement any sort of security? Apparently, these automated spambots are designed to target the common blogging platforms, and when they encountered my blog, they seemed to have a hard time with supplying valid entry IDs (even though they are hard-coded in a hidden field in the form). So by writing my own home-grown blogging platform, I have been spared comment spam through obscurity, which was very unexpected: I never realized until now that these spambots were so poorly programmed (which is good: we like spammers to remain incompetant).

Of course, this is similar to the Mac/Linux/UNIX security situation. While there are some architectural features that make these operating systems a little better than Windows XP SP2 in respect to security (and from the looks of it, most of these technical advantages will disappear with Vista), I strongly believe, for a number of reasons*, that the biggest contributing factor is the obscurity, which results in fewer attempts at breaches, fewer people searching for ways to breach security, and the creation of far fewer viruses/worms/trojans/etc. As such, I have always found it amusing that these communities try to convert users with the security carrot.

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* Despite the bad rap on Windows, the NT architecture is actually a fairly robust one--just look at how NTFS compares with other file systems. The security model is also very good on NT systems. The problems lie with the implementation: bugs and having many users run as the superuser. Having administered Linux servers in the past, I am also fully aware of the many vulnerabilities that other systems suffer. I could go into more depth, but I that is a story for another post.

This entry was edited on 2006/03/26 at 13:31:24 GMT -0500.

A Falcon in the Dive

Saturday, March 25, 2006
Keywords: Space

I'm not a very good libertarian because I snickered a bit when Falcon 1, the world's first privately-funded satellite rocket was lost shortly after takeoff.

In principle, I believe that it is healthy that we develop private space enterprises so that we could take a step closer to the images of science fiction. In principle. But I do not feel that way at all, and it puzzles me a bit. I'm not quite sure why that is, but I'm guessing that it is because of what these private enterprises are associated with in my mind.

There is a lot of NASA-bashing, from politicians who want to cut their budget, to the ESA who made fun of their rovers (at least, until their own lander crashed), to the people who criticize its safety record (I'd like to see those critics try to do better). And perhaps this is just a misconception, but it seems that a lot of the people who root for these private space enterprises are highly critical of NASA. The problem is, I'm a consequential libertarian who believes in pragmatism, and as such, I do not have much beef with NASA because I think that with something like space, we are still at the stage where government involvement is absolutely necessary and where profit-driven forces are either insufficient and incompatible (explain to me again how the market will spur interest in research-oriented projects). There is also a bit of narcissism at play. I remember how online communities cheered the winner of the X Prize, but what good did that accomplish? It was a dinky little craft that barely went into "space" and really won more or less on a technicality. Explain to me again how much of that stunt represented real progress and real R&D towards viable commercial projects; I'd like to see someone try to scale that design into something useful for more than just marketing. And then there was this highly-touted rocket. Of course, NASA doesn't build every single component that it uses in-house, either. Much of the work is outsourced to private enterprises. Some would argue that these big aerospace companies are not much better than NASA, but the real question is, are these small space enterprises really any safer, more economical, and better than the establishment? Given the nature of space and our current technology levels, my answer would be biased towards no.

I certainly do not fancy a future where space is dominated by government, so deep down inside, if I think about it rationally, I should be rooting for these guys. But the mental association--whether or not it is really accurate--of these quixotic enterprises with NASA-bashing turns me emotionally away from their cause.

Maybe it's just not time yet...

This entry was edited on 2006/03/25 at 11:10:14 GMT -0500.

Protectionism, Round 2

Friday, March 24, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics, China

Earlier this year, there was the controversy where misleading claims about security serving to veil a mix of protectionism and xenophobia sunk the transfer of operations of six American ports to a company owned by the Dubai government.

Today, the New York Times and C|Net published an article about the criticisms that the State Department is facing over the purchase of 15,000 computers manufactured by the Chinese company Lenovo.

  1. Lenovo is the new owner of IBM's PC division. Its product lines have not changed (they often even include the IBM logo). If the State Department has used IBM computers in the past, it makes sense from a logistical standpoint to continue to use the same product lines and to use the same products that they are already familiar with.
  2. Security is a red herring. In fact, IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad laptops are one of the very few that feature fingerprint scanners for use in security authentication. Putting this irony aside, the real core of the issue is that security comes from how people use the computers, how well the network is administered, and how secure the software is, in roughly that order. Hardware's role in security is all but non-existent.
  3. Dependency on foreign companies is yet another red herring. The vast majority of the components used by all PCs are not manufactured in the United States. For example, every single CD/DVD computer drive manufacturer has its factories located in Asia. Almost all memory chips are manufactured in Asia. Even for the few component manufacturers headquartered in the US (notably Intel/AMD for microprocessors and nVidia/ATi for graphics processors), most of their manufacturing capacity is overseas. All that Lenovo does is buy components from the commodity market and assemble them into a computer, which is really not that glamorous of a task. Whether your PC comes from Texas-based Dell or China-based Lenovo, pretty much every single part of that computer was manufactured overseas.
  4. As the article points out, even though Lenovo is supplying the machines, IBM is providing the support. But even if IBM was not providing support, because PCs are mostly made from standard commodity components, just about any IT professional can provide support.
  5. Finally, protectionism here will not accomplish much. Since most of the components are purchased from the market, assembly constitutes most of Lenovo's business, and like most other computers sold in the United States, these computers are assembled in the United States using American labor. Okay, but what about money at the top: the corporate profits that are going to a foreign company? This business of acquiring components, assembling them, and selling the finished products is not very profitable, and the margins are very slim; why else was IBM so interested in shrugging off its PC division?

Hopefully, people will be sensible enough to make sure that, unlike the ports deal, this does not become overblown and overhyped.

This entry was edited on 2006/03/24 at 11:53:40 GMT -0500.

Side Effects of Islamic Terrorism

Thursday, March 23, 2006
Keywords: Politics

First it was the IRA. Now it's Spain's Basque separatists who are giving up the use of force to attain political ends now that popularity costs of such acts are much higher in the west. So there's a bit of a silver lining, I suppose.

Checking Power

Monday, March 20, 2006
Keywords: Politics

"It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings." That was the retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor during a recent speech about the balance of power. It is a pity that someone like Alito is now sitting in her seat.

In other news, this Patriot Act Game looks like fun...

Pranking the BBC and Jabbing Falun Gong

Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Keywords: Politics, China

Last Wednesday, I read an article about two prominent Chinese blogs that were apparently shut down, only to re-appear a day later. The article raised the possibility that this was a prank, and today, Slashdot and the Wall Street Journal confirmed that this was indeed a prank that attempted to highlight Western overreaction and misunderstanding of Chinese politics. The WSJ:

Within hours, English-language bloggers and Western news media spread the word that the Chinese government had closed the sites. [...] French free-press group Reporters Without Borders issued a statement condemning the closure of the blogs. [...]

[The blogger] calls the Western press "irresponsible" and says that the hoax was designed "to give foreign media a lesson that Chinese affairs are not always the way you think."

"They are not just supposed to report based on their own perceptions, without understanding the circumstances in China," he says, noting that the BBC's report was exactly what he expected. [...]

"There is a knee-jerk reaction amongst journalists -- including myself -- to stories that seem to show the Chinese cracking down on freedom of expression on the Internet," [the BBC reporter] wrote in an email.

As I have noted before, there is a complexity to the Chinese political landscape that most Westerners fail to grasp, and this was certainly evident in the sort of absolutist black-and-white good-vs-evil overreaction that was seen with the Google-in-China controversy. I applaud this stunt.

One final note: As I skimmed through the comments about this posted on Slashdot, I came across this little gem: "Falun Gong is a rung away from Scientology on the crazy ladder to spiritual enlightenment." That got a laugh out of me. The West seems to keep forgetting that Falun Gong really is an eccentric quasi-religion that advocates things that are often associated with religious irrationality (e.g., refusing medical technology) and that the Chinese government's labeling of Falun Gong as a "cult" is fairly accurate. Of course, that does not mean that suppressing it is right, but many Westerners have used this wrongful suppression to validate Falun Gong's otherwise unpalatable tenets; whenever I see people sitting on the grass on a college campus promoting and practicing Falun Gong, I shake my head. If it were not for the government's suppression, Falun Gong would have remained in its place in the Hall of Crazy Ideas. I am reminded of The Economist's take on Holocaust denial: "Denying the Holocaust should certainly not be outlawed: far better to let those who deny well-documented facts expose themselves to ridicule than pose as martyrs." In hindsight, the Chinese government would have been better off had they followed such advice.

This entry was edited on 2006/03/14 at 13:49:59 GMT -0500.

Looking Forward, not Backwards

Monday, March 13, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Religion

Slashdot reported on a government-endorsed exhibit in the UK titled 1001 Inventions, which spotlights the contributions of "Muslim Heritage" to the world.

History serves two purposes: cultural heritage and lessons. While giving a nod to cultural heritage is important to personal identity, it does not solve problems and it does not help society advance. On the other hand, learning what we did right and what we did wrong does help society advance. I have no doubt that this exhibit was created for the purpose of soothing tensions with Muslim culture, but if such is the goal, then harping on the importance of cultural heritage will not accomplish that goal. Mending the gap and the tensions ultimately requires a fundamental social reform of Muslim society, which is by no means an easy task and which will require confronting the deeply-embedded fundamentalist threads of Islam. This is not the sort of problem that can be solved by putting lipstick on a pig. Fawning over one's past glory is no substitute for forward-looking reform and progress, and what Muslim cultures should be extracting from their past is the lesson that the relatively liberal and enlightened rule that they enjoyed a millennium ago was the source of their past greatness. The recent rise of China came from market and political reforms*, not from obsessing over its past glory or cultural inclusiveness.

In addition, there are a few other peripheral problems with this:

  • If you read some of the "inventions", you will find that a number of them originated in other parts of the world, but they were popularized by Muslims or introduced to the West by them.
  • If anything, this exhibit shows the stagnation of the Muslim world. What good are contributions from antiquity if they have sat still for the past several centuries?

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* Although much more political reform can and should be done, China is nevertheless much more politically open than it was two decades ago.

Abstinence-Based Virus Security

Monday, March 13, 2006
Keywords: Technology

As reported by C|Net and Slashdot, a recent goof in the virus definitions for McAfee anti-virus resulted in a massive number of false positives and the quarantine or deletion of critical files used by software such as Microsoft Excel, Java, GTK-based applications, Sendmail, et al.

This gaffe neatly illustrates one of the problems with anti-virus software and one of the reasons why, for the past decade, I have not used one (and except for the one time when I accidentally executed a virus that I was examining, I have remained infection-free while using Windows). Ultimately, the key to computer security is user education and continuing to update software as security holes are patched up--and yes, Linux/UNIX need security patches too. These solutions are neither easy nor perfect, and as such, it makes perfect sense to have a safety-net solution in the form of anti-virus software.

While this safety-net concept makes sense and is a good idea on paper, it suffers in execution. First, there are many who eschew user education in favor of relying on anti-virus, which is certainly understandable given the difficulty of educating the average computer user. Of course, this would not be such a problem if anti-virus is effective, but it often is not. Anti-virus is ultimately a reactionary tool. New viruses and worms are initially unhampered by anti-virus tools because anti-viral definitions are updated to cope with the new virus only after the virus has been discovered and examined. While this works for most people, for those who are hit by a virus before their software viral definitions are updated (and before they download and install the new definitions), this would be akin to building flood levees after the flood had already hit. Furthermore, well-written viruses and malware can often disable anti-virus software, and viral mutations require that anti-virus software receive frequent updates (which not all users do). Finally, anti-virus software often carry undesirable side-effects. While events of the magnitude of the recent goof with McAfee are rare, stability and software compatibility issues are quite common (although this applies to anti-virus in general, it is especially true with Norton AntiVirus); ever wondered why some software require that anti-virus be disabled during installation? In addition, there is also a noticeable crimp on system performance as anti-virus software scans files as they are loaded into memory and as anti-virus software do their routine drive scans. The ironic end result of these side effects is that anti-virus software can sometimes cause more problems than they solve.

The Case for BBP

Saturday, March 11, 2006
Keywords: Technology, BBP

Background / Introduction

Many years ago, I had my first encounter with online communities when I was the resident Perl guru at Hypermart's community support newsgroup, teaching newcomers how to use Perl for CGI. It was a lot of fun, but Hypermart soon went through a string of purchases--as the company being purchased--and everyone left.

Fast-forward some number of years, and I found myself once again engaged in yet another online community, where I would disassemble and modify firmwares and produce software to automate this process. But instead of a newsgroup that I would read in Outlook Express, I was on the staff of two web-based forums running vBulletin and phpBB (I have since retired from the firmware community).

How times have changed. In the early days of the Internet, online communities meant NNTP (i.e., newsgroups). To clarify, many people (including me) so strongly associate NNTP with Usenet that private NNTP is forgotten. Hypermart's newsgroups were an example of private NNTP: their newsgroup server hosted only their newsgroups and had no Usenet content. In this respect, private NNTP was probably the closest precursor to modern web-based forums: when you visit a web forums site, you only get those forums attached to the corresponding site and not every forum in the world (in contrast to Usenet). Today, private NNTP is all but extinct and web forums dominate.

The problems of NNTP and web forums

Whether or not this de facto death of private NNTP is good is debatable. Let's look at why NNTP failed:

  1. Spam: This problem has two dimensions; the first is the difficulty of controlling spam posts because of the limits of the moderation system and the second is the exposing of everyone's e-mail addresses to harvesters.
  2. The lack of a web interface: Aside from the obvious convenience, not everyone has newsgroup reading software at their disposal, and at public terminals, it is usually not feasible or wise to configure the software. Web interfaces do exist, such as nntp.perl.org, but they are not very robust or useful. In a perfect world where browsers have easy-to-use integrated NNTP clients that can store server and user information on a temporary basis (very much like how FTP is handled by web browsers), such web interfaces would not be necessary, but we do not live in a perfect world.
  3. No server virtualization (i.e., hosting multiple hostnames on a single IP, like Apache's indispensable VirtualHosts)
  4. Lack of features: Granting users privileges, read-first stickies, fancy formatting (mostly because it would allow hyperlinking), editing posts ex post facto, etc.
  5. Relative difficulty of setup: Setting up a web forum is easy: Apache, PHP, and MySQL are included in most Linux distros (and are very easy to find, download, and install for Windows). Setting up phpBB is fairly quick and simple. Most importantly, it's possible to get a high-quality setup without paying a single red cent for the software.

Of course, web forums are not perfect either, and most of these problems are manifested in the interface:

  1. Marking new posts: It's relatively easy in a newsgroup reader to see what posts/threads you have not read. It's easy to manually mark posts are read or unread. Most importantly, newsgroup readers do not suffer from the granuarity problems that web forums suffer of automatically marking threads in a forum read once you've loaded the latest thread listing or every post in a thread as read once you loaded that thread.
  2. Faster and more sensible browsing. Ever get tired of clicking "next page" in a web forum to browse through both lists of threads and the posts in each thread?
  3. Web forums lack the more robust sorting and organization that is possible with proper NNTP clients.
  4. Processor-intensive tasks such as sorting and searching are now handled by the server, which severely crimps scalability.
  5. Threading: Although most web forums are capable of threading the display of threads, most opt for a linear display of threads. Why? It's hard to pick out which are the new posts in a threaded display. With newsgroup software, this is not a problem.
  6. Inconsistent interface across different forums (though with newsgroup readers, the inconsistency lies across different reader software, but in this case, it's the user who ultimately chooses the interface).
  7. Inconsistent data representation (which makes the jobs of search engines nice and fun).
  8. Crossposting can be done only by making separate posts (though enough people frown on crossposting that this is more or less moot).

It would seem that while NNTP had its shortcomings, its replacement by web-based forums has wrought problems of its own. However, the problems associated with web forums are more or less unavoidable, and with the problems that come with having to use a separate client, web forums are necessary.

The best of both worlds

It is my belief that the best solution to these sorts of problems is a new protocol that would allow the use of client software alongside a web-based interface. For example, while people can use Gmail's web interface, they could also access e-mail through Gmail's secure POP3/SMTP interface. While people can read blogs and write blog entries via web interfaces, Atom allows them to read and write blog entries using a client, and the growing popularity of syndication aggregators is indicative of the success of this idea. This is a best-of-both-worlds approach that caters to both the technically savvy and to those who prefer the efficiency robustness of client software while maintaining accessibility for people on the go and for the "Hotmail generation" (i.e., the number of people who have never experienced e-mail outside the webmail context and who are not aware of an Internet outside the web browser).

BBP, the Bulletin Board Protocol

For lack of a better name, I hereby propose the Bulletin Board Protocol. It should do roughly the same things as NNTP while addressing the issues with NNTP that can be addressed. It should also be a protocol that could work well with existing web forum formats (much like how RSS or Atom can easily fit the typical blog model).

The most important element, and the element that would differentiate BBP from the proposals of IETF's nntpext working group would be the two versions of BBP. There should be a "BBP/XML" format that rides atop HTTP. In this respect, BBP/XML would be very similar to Atom or RSS. There are several benefits of doing this:

  1. Application protocols that piggyback on HTTP are unaffected by the increased number network setups that firewall ports left and right as an over-reaction to security concerns.
  2. Secure access could be handled trivially by using HTTPS instead of HTTP.
  3. Building the "server" software would be made easier and installing such software would be made easier because it will just be another application that works alongside Apache or another web server.
  4. Using XML would allow utilization of the large array of XML and SOAP resources out there, which would be nice for the development of client software or anything else that makes use of BBP/XML.

Of course, it is usually the case that there is a tradeoff between performance and ease of development, implementation, and deployment. As such, BBP could also be implemented as a true Internet protocol, which would eliminate the performance overhead of piggybacking on HTTP and allow for optimizations like persistent and stateful connections. A "true" Internet protocol would also qualify BBP for a URL (e.g., bbp://user:pass@example.com/forum/thread/post). Finally, for Internet purists like me, it simply feels good to have a true protocol instead of yet another protocol shoehorned into HTTP. But in this day of 3PR (i.e., Perl, Python, PHP, Ruby), .NET, Java, etc., it seems that people are willing to make this ease-performance tradeoff, and as such, I would expect for BBP/XML to dominate, and "true" BBP support should thus be optional.

Implementation

Since this is a new idea that crossed my mind just last night, I have not ironed out the specifics of this protocol (I'll do that at a later date), but I do have a general idea of how such a protocol may be adopted if this idea ever gains traction. Writing a library of PHP functions would help existing web bulletin software adopt the XML version of this protocol; the goal would be for BBP/XML to be tacked on to existing web bulletin software with the same sort of ease that RSS and Atom were tacked on to blogging software. I suppose a proof-of-concept clients could be implemented by modifying the NNTP portion of Thunderbird or another open-source newsreader. Hopefully, once content is available in this format, there would be a rush of people developing real clients, as was the case with Atom or RSS.

To this end, BBP should be as compatible as possible with the current form and paradigm of web-based forums so that it could be implemented not so much as something new, but rather just a newly appended feature.

Credits

I must credit Mr. Milat for the inspiration from his lament over the the demise of NNTP.

Potpourri: Fun Things from the Web

Friday, March 10, 2006
Keywords: Potpourri

To start things off, this is funny in a dark way: The Road to Serfdom, an illustrated guide. (link found on Marginal Revolution)

Scientists are forecasting that a huge solar storm will be coming in half a decade. Putting aside the havoc that something like this would wreak, I think it would be pretty cool. Apparently, the last time there was such a large storm in the 1950's (when there were not so many electronics to worry about), the northern lights could be seen as far south as Mexico. Wow.

According to the TSA, you have the right to fly without an ID. (link found on Schneier on Security)

According to Ask Yahoo!, Tweety Bird is male. So what about all those women who bought Tweety shirts with text like "girl power" and the such?

According to studies, blacks who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God overwhelming vote for Democrats, and whites who believe that the Bible is just a collection of fables still favor Republicans (though not nearly as much as evangelical whites). So I guess politics haven't completely split on religious lines... (yet?)

Finally, CNN recently had an article about "hippie chimps", which is the sort of phrase that makes people scratch their heads and wonder. Anyway, a bit of Googling on the topic turned up this 1995 article from the Scientific American. It's a very interesting article about a species of primates very closely related to us that engages in sexual activity as a very common and integral component of social interaction instead of for reproduction. It's interesting in the sense that it provides a curious contrast to human interactions.

This entry was edited on 2006/03/10 at 21:13:36 GMT -0500.

Search in Windows Live

Wednesday, March 8, 2006
Keywords: Technology

Microsoft has been making noise about defeating Google at its own game, and today, they unveiled a new search on their Windows Live service. It's not a new search engine. I compared the results with MSN search, and they're identical. It's simply MSN search wrapped in a sexier interface. I suppose they think that a new jazzed-up interface built using AJAX will help them unseat Google. Well, will it work?

  • It does not work with Microsoft's IE 7b2. I thought that it'd be fair to get my first impression of this new toy using Microsoft's latest version of IE, but that didn't seem to be such a hot idea. Every search, whether it was done from the www.live.com or search.live.com kicked me back to the www.live.com home page.
  • It does not work with Opera. But few people use Opera anyway.
  • In Firefox, middle-clicking does not seem to work, so I can't open search links in new tabs unless I laboriously right-click to get a context menu and select from the menu. For someone who is now addicted to search result parallelism where I open up a bunch of search relevant search results in tabs so that they can load while I'm reading and so that I don't have to keep hitting the back button, this is a pain.
  • Working with search results in the traditional form involves clicking on a result, and then hitting the back button to return to the results so that you can visit more results. This does not work in Firefox. Hitting back takes me back to the main page, where I have to do the search all over again. Wow, talk about totally wrecking the search interface!
  • In IE6, hitting the back button is not as destructive. You do not have to do the search again, but there is a noticeable and annoying lag as the search results are re-loaded into the AJAX pane. What's worse is that you are taken back to the top of the search results. While this may not have been a problem with traditional search results where at least you'll be on the same page of results, when all the results are on one page and the only way to navigate through the results is by scrolling (somewhat slowly as the data is being loaded into the AJAX pane), this is a nightmare.
  • Did I mention that scrolling was slow? Unless the user somehow thinks to use the page up and page down buttons, scrolling by the weird scrollbar widget (that took some use getting to) or by the mouse wheel is relatively slow (and not that much better even with the keyboard). In traditional paged views with traditional scrollbars, you can instantly jump to an absolute position; not true here.
  • Have you see the Windows Live homepage on a resolution less than 1024x768 (or in a browser window at that resolution but that was not fully maximized), even in IE? Nothing like text running into each other to give off a nice professional first impression.

I think that the users on Slashdot summarized this well: this is a textbook example of how not to use AJAX to build a user interface. I wonder if this was what Microsoft had in mind when they talk about a Google killer.

Also, since this is not a new search engine, I wonder if Microsoft is doing this simply for the publicity. They launched the new MSN search with much fanfare, but it was poorly received. Perhaps they think that by re-launching the search in a new interface, they might get a fresh round of publicity? If so, I'm not sure if this blunder is the publicity that they want.

This entry was edited on 2006/03/08 at 18:13:24 GMT -0500.

2006 Oscar Thoughts

Monday, March 6, 2006
Keywords: none

I think this is the first time I've watched an entire Oscars from start to end. There were a lot of funny moments, like the opening sequence with the guys in the tent, Steve Martin's children, and the host in bed with Clooney. And there was the Cheney joke. And shooting Tom Hanks with a tranquilizer after attacking him with a violin. And the montage where they showed scenes out of context from old Westerns so that they looked very gay. Etc.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see Crash win, although it's not because I have seen the movie (I haven't; though two people have personally recommended it before tonight, so it's definitely near the top of my to-watch list). It was simply nice to be surprised for the sake of surprise. That and the fact that there has been so much talk about Brokeback Mountain in the mainstream media that it was just nice to hear about something else for a change.

My only disappointment was that Good Night, and Good Luck didn't win anything in any of the categories. I personally thought that this movie was one of the best displays of political principles and values, and I was also rooting for David Strathairn, who often works with and who owes his film debut to John Sayles (I'm a fan of Sayles).

And then there were the not-so-well veiled attempts to get people back to the theatres, which included a couple of attacks against DVDs that were carried out with nary an ounce of finesse and a shameless plug for the theatre experience by the Academy president. Right. Most of the montages were not very entertaining (esp. since they omitted Doohan and Piller but included a number of technical support type people in the memorial montage; yea, I know, I'm a Trekkie, but it has nevertheless done its share in terms of cultural influence), and the time given to speeches seemed inconsistent. Reese Witherspoon rambled for a very long time, while a number of other speeches (including the surprise Best Picture speech) had the microphone abruptly cut off when the time was up, which was a bit annoying.

Best moment: when commenting on movie piracy, Jon Stewart points to the audience and says something to the effect that pirates are the reason why the female stars can't afford to buy dresses that have enough material to fully cover them up.

This entry was edited on 2006/03/06 at 03:42:35 GMT -0500.

Potpourri: When Philosophy Meets Science

Sunday, March 5, 2006
Keywords: Potpourri

First, I heard this on the radio this morning; it is about a study that scientists conducted on sensory input: (full story from NPR)

Nitschke was able to ultimately conclude that the brain acts differently when it anticipates a sensation as compared to when it experiences a sensation unexpectedly. Sensory input could be largely based on perceptions of, say, fear or joy, rather than on reality.

I wonder what the philosophers would have to say about this in relation to epistemology.

In other news, earlier this week, it was reported that a study that demonstrated what would appear to be altruistic behavior by infants (18 months old) and by chimpanzees in the form of assisting others. The article contains more details. Because the subjects are not likely to have received moral and social education, this seems to imply that there may be a degree of inherent altruism. So much for Hobbes' view of the state of nature.

And people wonder why AOL is dying...

Thursday, March 2, 2006
Keywords: Technology, Ranting

You'd think that with a brand name with such wide recognition, AOL could use it to attract new broadband users to their broadband service. Verizon, Earthlink, and others have all managed to successfully convert their previously dialup-heavy services into broadband. Well, there has always been the overpricing issue, but I think that the problem may lie with their technology.

Take for example, their most popular service: AIM. I haven't been using the official AIM client in eons; I have long since converted to the Windows version of Gaim. Up to right before the latest version of AIM Triton, AIM has always had a less-than-spectacular interface. You'd think that in this day in age, a company as big as AOL could make a better interface that doesn't look like it was hastily ported from Windows 3.1. Well, they did make a new interface, which they officially rolled out of beta last December as Triton, and for the first time today, I tried out AIM Triton. Admittedly, it looks a bit better, but that's not saying much, and that is about as far as my praise will go. The installation size is much bigger, and BTW, thanks for the littering of my system with "Try AOL" icons, the attempts to make AOL Explorer the default browser, and the attempts to set AOL as my default homepage. And why on Earth do I now have AOL Explorer on my computer? It's just Internet Explorer wrapped in an AOL interface, except the interface is sluggish and the entire browser is, mysteriously, excruciatingly slow, unresponsive, and CPU-hungry, which is made worse by the fact that it auto-starts when I sign into AIM. Oh, and I apparently can't uninstall it without uninstalling AIM. And then there's the buddy list, more colorful and flashy than ever, with distracting animated ads that can sometimes eat up quite a few CPU cycles. Did I mention the AOL anti-spyware software (which I had no idea was even included) that suddenly popped up a window asking me if I wanted to scan my system when I was in the middle of something else?

In the end, I think that this Washington Post review of Triton sums up the problems surprisingly well. Another example that might be worth looking at is Netscape 8, which is based on Firefox. It successfully turned a clean, friendly browser into a bloated, flashy, and distracting monstrosity complete with unwanted plugs for AOL. If Triton, Netscape 6/7/8, and even AOL's old IM software is to be any indicator of AOL's software quality in general, I am not surprised why they are sinking. They should learn from Google and the early incarnations of Yahoo! (before they too started down dark path of clutterness) and recognize that there is merit in the cliché of the customer always being right. Google Talk, for example, is fast, responsive, small in size, free of distracting animated ads, free of useless and distracting clutter, and in a word, clean. Even Gaim, whose performance suffers somewhat on Windows because its native environment is Linux, is faster, lighter, and more responsive than Triton. Google's homepage is refreshingly spartan while AOL's is visually noisy, contains Flash, and slow to load. Finally, when you install a Google product, it doesn't try to take over your machine and dump a dozen icons pointing you to other Google products. In the end, we all know which one is considered more lovable and which one has been more successful. It's time for AOL to recognize that marketing is not always the best way to do long-term brand investment, especially when this results in marketing doing the software engineering; brand investment comes first and foremost from product quality.

I'll stick with Gaim and Google Talk (only because Gaim has yet to implement voice chat). Oh, and thank goodness for virtualization, which allows me to try software like Triton without polluting my real systems. :)

This entry was edited on 2006/03/03 at 11:40:28 GMT -0500.