On the Soapbox

Isn't that a cute penguin?

Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Keywords: none

From the November 2006 issue of the National Geographic Magazine:

A gentoo penguin being ripped apart

I think that a poster of this photo is probably on Steve Ballmer's holiday wish list. Now wouldn't this have made a nice scene in March of the Penguins? ;) (yea, yea, I know, the picture is of a gentoo and the movie is about emperors)

The Dow vs. the Economy

Sunday, October 29, 2006
Keywords: Economics

For much of this week, when the NBC Nightly News would talk about the economy, it would say something about how the Dow has hit "yet another record high" or something else along those lines, which is a bit annoying because...

  1. The stock market is not necessarily a good indicator of overall economic health. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it is not. As the saying goes, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Another statistic (which is not necessarily any better), the GDP growth rate, has fallen down to 1.6%, which is the lowest since 2003.
  2. Even if the stock market is a good indicator (I am not saying that it is not, but that people should be aware that it is can be an imperfect proxy), the Dow, with only 30 companies (and they are price-weighted, not capitalization-weighted, which is highly illogical) is not nearly as representative as, say, the S&P 500. But this Dow-vs-S&P thing is really a long-standing pet peeve of mine and is nothing new. By the way, the S&P 500 is still below its historic high.
  3. Of course, point #2 is not that important because historically, the Dow and the S&P have had similar trendlines and are roughly correlated, and that trend, I suppose, is more important than the nominal value of the index. Speaking of nominal values, economists know to not take stock in nominal values of anything; in this case, the nominal value of the Dow does not account for inflation.

I do not have anything against the stock market and its role as one of the economic statistics, but for the mainstream media to hype up its role without providing any sort of meaningful context is irresponsible.

Is George W. Bush incredibly smart?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Keywords: Politics

I'm beginning to think that "Dubya" might actually be a heck of a lot smarter than we think he is.

It all started when I read that a former White House staffer, David Kuo, recently published a book alleging that the White House was not really serious about the religious right. According to the book, the administration would cater to the religious right in order to win their support, but privately, Christian conservatives were described as "goofy" and "nuts". My first reaction was one of disbelief. How could a President who claimed that his favorite philosopher is Jesus Christ and who the media has reported as getting down on his knees every day and praying in the Oval Office be so indifferent to the religious right? It quickly occurred to me that all the reports and stories of Bush's religiosity have been based on his public displays: his speeches, his campaign statements, and his public actions. Even reports of what the President does in "private" come from members of his staff, who could very well have been told to tell such stories to the media (or perhaps what Bush does in "private" in the view of his liable-to-talk-to-the-media staff is different than what he does in private when consulting his trusted circle). This leaves open the possibility that Bush's much-publicized religiosity was really an elaborate façade and that he is saying things and pushing Congress to legislate things for the purpose of gaining the support of a certain large and powerful voting bloc. If this was the case, this certainly won't be the first time in human history that someone has exploited religion for political gain.

A couple of days after reading about Kuo's book controversy, I came across a comment on the Internet saying that Bush was not a poor speaker prior to the 2000 elections. This prompted me to search for old videos of Bush. I found two videos, and both of them seem to confirm this comment. The first video was from the 1994 gubernatorial race in Texas between Bush and Ann Richards. It was striking how natural he sounded in 1994: he spoke rapidly, without stumbling, and without grammatical gaffes. Although the person who compiled the video thinks that the change between 1994 and 2000 was due to a medical condition, I have a different theory. The second video, which appears to be a candid video from 1992, also featured a lucid Bush.

Could it be that Bush, who majored in history at Yale, has a much better understanding of American history than we give him credit for? Perhaps he was inspired by Andrew Jackson, whose presented himself as a more down-to-earth person, contrasting against the more bookish John Quincy Adams. The people who would criticize Bush for his grammatical gaffes are those who are well-educated and who are more likely to vote Democratic anyway. His folksy manners has appeal in a country with a long history of distrust of the educated élite. I suspect that he may have purposefully changed his speaking style and peppered his language with errors so that he would appeal to the average American and so that he could present himself as one of them instead of someone perched atop an ivory tower. Indeed, during the 2004 debates and recently during an interview, Bush acknowledged that his English was poor, but he phrased that acknowledgment in a way that had struck me personally as carrying a tone of "look at how these people talk; they do not represent your interests."

I realize that this is all speculation and that it's all a stretch, but if it is true, then it would seem that appearances are indeed deceiving. It would be diabolically brilliant to so completely and fully paint oneself as a religious everyman because that is the image that resonates with American's plebeian voter base.

New York Times on Security

Monday, October 23, 2006
Keywords: Technology

This NYT article was linked to on Slashdot. It's a good article, definitely worth a read for non-technical people simply because the average person knows so little about computer security. But as a technical person, I have some bones to pick with this article.

  1. Shopping is probably one of the safest things that you can do when surfing from a public hotspot using your own computer. That's because almost all e-commerce websites require SSL for logins and credit card input, so the sensitive traffic is encrypted. There are some sites that don't use encryption during transactions (in which case, using your credit card on such a site in public would be very stupid), but people should not patronize such places even if they are not in public because the failure of an e-commerce site to provide (and require) SSL is a signal that they are probably not too careful with data security in other ways as well. With IE7 and Firefox both coloring the address bar for secure sites, instructing people on detecting SSL should be easy.
  2. All the major services like Google, Yahoo!, and Windows Live require SSL for logins so that passwords can't be stolen. In addition, Google is pretty good about providing optional whole-session SSL for a number of their services including Gmail and Reader so that all traffic--not just your login information--is encrypted.
  3. E-mail passwords for SMTP/POP3/IMAP are still generally insecure, but a lot of people are using webmail these days (which generally have secure logins), and the use of the proper e-mail protocols over SSL is increasing (e.g., Gmail requiring SSL for POP3/SMTP).
  4. The best form of security is still better password control, which the article does not evangelize. People shouldn't use the same password everywhere. I use a weak easy-to-type password for unimportant accounts or accounts without encrypted logins (like my IMDb account). A much stronger password with mixed case, numbers, and non-alphanumeric characters is used for accounts with encrypted logins and sensitive personal information (financial sites, shopping sites with stored credit cards, Gmail, etc.). Finally, there is password for accounts with sensitive info but no secure logins (I try to avoid having such accounts whenever possible, and I wouldn't access such accounts from a public place). (I also have a fourth password administrative things like logging into my computer or SSHing into my home network from the outside, but there is really no reason why I couldn't use my other strong encrypted password for this.) This is a much more effective way to limit the scope of security lapses for the average user than instructing him or her on the use of VPN or SSH tunnels, and three different passwords shouldn't be that hard for people to remember. And it is easy to create secure non-alphanumeric passwords that are easy to remember, either; e.g., x*6=42=>x=7 or pass(42%)!=T are memorable, secure passwords with letters, numbers, and symbols.
  5. The article broadly advocates VPNs without discussing the other ways to ensure security. VPNs are rather specialized in their purpose are generally not necessary. Oh well, what did you expect from the mainstream media?

I guess in a nutshell, the article is good because it highlights the security problems that most people are not aware of, but it then goes into a typical mainstream media overhype and proposed overcorrection. This problem is not new, and a nice solution--SSL--has existed for eons.

This entry was edited on 2006/10/23 at 21:37:30 GMT -0400.

Why are Libertarians disenfranchised?

Sunday, October 22, 2006
Keywords: Libertarianism, Politics

Excerpts from The Economist:

That is easily enough libertarians to tip an election. And their votes are up for grabs. In 2000 George Bush won 72% of the libertarian vote, to Al Gore's 20%, by repeating the mantra "My opponent trusts government. I trust you." But in 2004, after Mr Bush increased the size of government and curtailed some civil liberties as part of the war on terror, his margin dropped to 59%-38%.

[...]

Mr Boaz and Mr Kirby argue that wooing the libertarian vote could propel either party to electoral success. Yet with an election only weeks away, neither shows much sign of trying. Republicans are rallying their religious base with jeremiads about stem-cell research and gay marriage. Democrats, on the other hand, would put up taxes, block school choice and lead a witch-hunt against Wal-Mart.

Libertarians are ignored partly because they are hard to find, not least because they just want to be left alone. (There is a Libertarian Party, but it gets hardly any votes.) [emphasis mine] Politicians can reach social conservatives through churches or union members through their unions, but where do libertarians gather? Parties will always court the votes that are cheapest to court because, for once, they are spending their own money.

Well, The Economist is right about the cost part of the cost-benefit analysis, but I am not so sure about the benefit part. Sure, it is easier and less costly to fire up the religious right or the labor unions, but those are people who already support you, and there is a significant problem of diminishing returns with getting your base to turn out on election day.

But it is also worth asking why libertarians are a disenfranchised group in American politics. As the article rightfully points out, "[F]ew Americans are familiar with the term 'libertarian'." Well, why is that? The word itself should not be a problem; people are probably more familiar with the root word "liberty" than they are with "republic". Libertarians do tend to be more educated and academic, but there is really nothing inherent to preclude someone who is poorly-educated from saying, "Government should mind their own business." I think that the education bias may be a result of self-selection in the sense that, when an ideology is so obscure in the mainstream political landscape, those who are not well-educated will be less likely to be exposed to it. But this brings us back to the original question, why are libertarians so obscure in the first place? And for that answer, I direct the reader to the emphasis that I added to the Economist excerpt above: the Libertarian Party of America, I think, is the primary reason for this political obscurity and for the subsequent disenfranchisement.

The problem is that there is a large number of libertarians who believe in a very black-and-white view of libertarianism. But taken to such a polar extreme, there is really little difference between libertarians and anarchists. What makes a libertarian a libertarian and not an anarchist is that a libertarian recognizes that there is indeed a need for government, and that the goal is to meet those needs efficiently with as few unwanted side effects as possible. An unconditional desire to reduce government without any regard to the need for a government is the hallmark of an anarchist. However, the failure to recognize this distinction is not the fault of people, but instead, it is a fault of the history and perhaps even nature of libertarian belief. This distinction regarding the role of government is easy to see and to recognize in the realm of personal freedoms, as the role of government can be fairly easily defined, which is, in rough layman's terms, "let people do whatever they want as long as they don't hurt others, and government should exist to ensure to make sure people aren't hurting (killing, stealing, etc.) each other." This is, in a nutshell, what Locke and Jefferson believed in, but they also formulated their beliefs before Adam Smith and modern economics.

The world of Locke and Jefferson was one of autarky. Yes, there was trade, but there was, relatively speaking, very little of it, and most of that trade was local in nature. It is because of this that there was never much thought given to the role of economics in the political discourse. There was the protection of property and a general desire to limit the amount of taxation, but that was about it. This changed, of course, with the Industrial Revolution. People were no longer islands isolated from the world. As economic specialization grew (and as populations grew), people became more dependent on each other and with this greatly increased interpersonal interaction, the general condition of "not hurting others" became much more complicated to define in the economic context. What used to be a simple "don't steal other people's property" now included issues like factory working conditions, monopoly pricing, pollution, etc. There is, of course, much controversy, even to this day, of whether or not these sorts of things constitute the sort of malevolent action that, like murder or robbery, government should try to control: the traditional way of looking at government's proper role does not make provisions for the new conditions that arose out of the Industrial Revolution. Because of the tangled web of unclear rights and wrongs that emerged out of this (how does one weigh an employer's "right" to pay whatever wage s/he feels is appropriate with an employee's "right" to a minimum standard of living?) and because it is difficult for government to address these issues efficiently and in a way that does not cause more problems than is solved, libertarians have traditionally stuck with a traditional Jeffersonian view of the role of government: prevent obvious crimes like murder, robbery, etc. and leave everything else alone.

While this traditional form of libertarianism is seductively simple and free of the controversial and sticky gray areas, this comes at a cost of turning a blind eye to reality, as reality is never this tidy. Fortunately, the field of economics--especially the work that has taken place over the past five decades--offer a sort of clarity that had previously been unavailable. Not only has the study of economics offered a more systematic and comprehensive way to precisely identify and describe the sorts of problems that need government solving, it also offers solutions that are efficient and that also minimize undesirable side effects. (I will not go into more detail here, as I have already written about some of these things, and it is impossible to go into detail in a meaningful way in the limited space here, but I do promise to write more about these things in more detail later on.)

Unfortunately, many libertarians are still living in a Jeffersonian fantasy world. They recognize the need for government in the traditional contexts, but they fail to recognize it in the modern contexts. The principles are still the same: government does have a role to play, but it should pursue that role as efficiently and unobtrusively as possible. The difference is that moderate libertarians (a number of whom are economists) hold a more realistic view of the role of government and recognize that government does need to address, in additional to murder, robbery, etc., issues such as monopolies, externalities, and the need for wealth redistribution, but in ways that are efficient and consistent with free market economics (e.g., see my essay on the merits of pricing/taxation instead of regulation as a way to address environmental issues). (Aside: there is a huge difference between some of the solutions that a moderate libertarian would support and what a leftist would support; as I like to say, Republicans and traditional libertarians try to brush away the problem, Democrats valiantly try to fix the problem, but in the wrong way because they have been blinded by socialism, and moderate libertarians try to fix the problem the right way.)

There are invariably objections from traditional libertarians. Some will claim that government intervention flies in the face of free market economics. This is a common myth held by many who do not fully understand the nuances of economics. This flies in the face is laissez-faire economics, but not free-market economics, and the two are not the same. Asymmetric information, externalities, natural monopolies, etc. are features of real-life laissez-faire economics and are things that preclude an efficient free market. An efficient free market thus requires that these problems be addressed (but also addressed in such a way that does not destroy other aspects of free markets, which is why the moderate libertarian approach of pricing rectification is better, less intrusive, and more efficient than the socialist approach of regulation; the poorly-engineered regulations of the left are sometimes just as bad as the traditional libertarian approach of ignoring the problem). Another common objection is that doing this is increasing the role of government. I do not dispute that this is true, but I do dispute that this is a problem, considering that the goal of libertarianism (as opposed to that of anarchism) is not to blindly whittle down government, but instead to accomplish what needs accomplishing in a way that is efficient and unobtrusive, thus constraining the whittling down of government only to cases where it makes sense and is appropriate.

And this brings us back to the question that I was asking: why are libertarians out in the political wilderness? The Libertarian Party is a party of traditional libertarians who inhabit a Jeffersonian illusion and who are in denial of the realities of the world. This detachment has made the Libertarian Party a radical fringe party that many libertarians (such as myself) would not support. Yet, they are the closest thing libertarians in this country have to a banner under which to rally. Needless to say, there is very little in the way of libertarian leadership, and without this leadership, there is no infrastructure to organize like-minded libertarians, to educate voters about the party, and to get the libertarian name out into the public spotlight. Even the Green and Reform parties have more effective leaderships, which is quite remarkable for a country whose founding was so profoundly rooted in libertarian philosophy. As the age-old cliché goes, "Every journey begins with a step." The first step that libertarians must take if they wish to emerge from obscurity is to acknowledge that the traditional Jeffersonian flavor of libertarianism is an outdated relic from another era and that, with the help of economists, effective, efficient, libertarian-style solutions are possible. Once this first step is taken, the libertarians can finally begin to provide the rational political middle ground than this country has been in desperate need of for so long.

This entry was edited on 2006/10/22 at 16:28:11 GMT -0400.

Firefox 2

Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Keywords: Technology

I have been using Firefox 2 as the default browser on my regular machines (vs. running it on a VPC test box) for nearly a month now, ever since the first candidate for RC1 was spun (yes, that's a release candidate of a release candidate), and now that it looks like that RC3 is in all likelihood going to be the final version, I thought that I might comment on Firefox 2.

  1. It has a much better memory footprint. It also seems faster and snappier, too.
  2. Session saving and undo close tabs are now built-in features. This is great because I used to get these features from an extension. Unfortunately, the only extension to reliably provide these features was a horrible memory leaker and was somewhat processor-inefficient. Being able to dump this extension alone was worth the upgrade, and probably contributed to #1 above.
  3. New tab management. I often have lots of tabs open, and I often overrun the tab bar, so the overflow scrolling and the drop-down list is extremely useful. The close button on each tab is annoying (since I close tabs by middle-clicking) and the wider minimum tab width is wasteful, but both of those settings can be changed in about:config.
  4. Speaking of about:config, there is a new hidden setting that lets you disable compatibility checking for extensions. There are many Firefox 1.5 extensions that will not install in Firefox 2.0 because the author had set the maxVersion in the extension to 1.5 even though the extension really is compatible with 2.0. This configuration setting will allow me to install these extensions without using the NTT or manually editing the maxVersion code in each extension.
  5. There is a handy button to restart Firefox after installing an add-on. The new session saving will also automatically kick in during such a restart to restore all of your tabs and even what you have filled into forms after the restart. Makes installing stuff much less painful.
  6. Built-in spell check. No more copying-and-pasting into Word to check for typos.
  7. Much better RSS handling; live bookmarks was lame.
  8. Various minor bug fixes, such as the improved password auto-fill handling.
  9. I personally love the look of the new theme and the little visual tweaks that were made here and there. The old tabs looked rather ugly on Windows Classic, and this is the first Firefox where I did not have to manually re-skin the tabs in the default theme to make them look decent in Windows Classic. Now combined with ClassicFox, Firefox looks quite stunning on Windows Classic. But of course, that is a matter of personal taste.
  10. Personally, I do not care much for some of the other major features added in Firefox 2. Phishing protection is useful for Joe Sixpack, but not for me (I have it disabled). I liked the old-fashioned auto-complete instead of search suggestions in the search box (which I have also disabled), and microsummaries (live titles) just seems like a novelty.

I think this is the first time since the Firebird days that I was actually excited for a new release (well, okay, I'm not really excited about it because I have already been running it for a while, but you get the idea).

Firefox in Windows Classic

Monday, October 16, 2006
Keywords: Technology

Firefox drop markers in Windows Classic; before and after:
ClassicFox Screenshot #1

Firefox menus in Windows Classic; before and after:
ClassicFox Screenshot #2

ClassicFox extension for Firefox 1.5 and 2.0. For those people who use [the proper and far superior] "classic" Windows instead of XP's Play-Doh Luna theme.

Score one for Jabber!

Sunday, October 15, 2006
Keywords: Technology

It looks like LiveJournal launched a new IM service a few days ago, based on Jabber/XMPP. Hooray! (If you're asking, "Why should I care about Jabber?", read this post.)

The Electric Car, Part II

Sunday, October 15, 2006
Keywords: Technology, Politics

This is a follow-up to a post that I made back in July.

As I wrote in July and as I will write now, I am not a fan of conspiracy theories. As a result, I approached the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? with a fair amount of skepticism, but since I had not seen the film when I first wrote about it in July, I held back on passing judgment. Well, I finally got a chance to watch it last night...

  1. This film takes a surprisingly balanced view in that, in addition to presenting its side of the story, it takes the time to explore and address a number of the counter-arguments as well.
  2. The film seems to be more documentary in nature than some of the other politically-motivated "documentaries" in the sense that I did not get the feeling that it was frothing at the mouth with anger. It was fairly rational, and does not try to take the conspiracy too far (unlike Loose Change, which made a number of claims that bordered on the ridiculous).
  3. Lingering objection: If electric cars were really that great, why did they not take off in environmentally-friendly countries? The film indicated that Toyota made electric vehicles, but they are not an American company. Why did they not introduce such vehicles in Japan? Japan's consumer base is more rational and adoring of new technology. They do not have a powerful oil industry, and their government, in certain respects, is less corrupt than ours. The same could be asked about Europe.
  4. Lingering question: Is the film representative of EV1 drivers? Were most EV1 drivers really as satisfied as those portrayed or did these people represent a minority of those who tried out the EV1? I have no reason to suspect that the latter is the case, but I would be interested in knowing the answer to this.
  5. Lingering objection: This still does not address the problem that our electrical infrastructure is in no way suited to handle the sort of strain that electrical vehicles would produce on a large scale. Granted, a hydrogen infrastructure would be even more costly, and the cost of upgrading the electrical infrastructure could easily be pushed off to the utilities who would stand to profit in the long run from this.

Overall, I think that the film is surprisingly good and presents the case without exhibiting much of a tin-foil-hat syndrome. Go watch it.

How do you stop North Korea?

Saturday, October 14, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Something tells me that imposing sanctions on a country that has been in autarky for all these decades isn't going to do much good. Yes, this is the fault of the regimes in Russia and China being annoyingly uncooperative as usual, but one does have to wonder if there was a way to make them more cooperative. We have no choice; we need stronger international consensus in order to deal with North Korea and Iran, and while alienating the international community with our post-9/11 arrogance and the sacrifice the our foreign policy moral high ground in Iraq may not necessarily be the cause of this fragmentation of international politics, it certainly does not help us gather together the allies and cooperation that we need.

This entry was edited on 2006/10/14 at 21:55:57 GMT -0400.

Of Spam, Malware, and Kernels

Saturday, October 14, 2006
Keywords: Technology

Part I: Fun with Malware

According to my server logs, it would appear that one of the images from my gallery has become the background image of a number of different MySpace profiles (these are total strangers who probably found the image through an image search). So I thought that I might as well amuse myself by looking at these log entries. For example, while there is a significant number of people who visit my blog using alternative browsers (though they are still a minority), virtually all of the people who access the MySpace profiles that embed my file as a background are still using Internet Explorer.*

This glimpse into browsing habits of the "normal" world is not particularly interesting, except for a few entries that caught my eye. These entries had a user-agent string of Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.1; SV1; .NET CLR 1.1.4322; SpamBlockerUtility 4.8.0). How odd, I thought, that that someone would have a spam blocker add-on installed for a web browser. As I expected, Google search results indicate that this "SpamBlockerUtility" add-on that this particular person had is indeed malware. I then went to SBU's website for the heck of it and quickly discovered that this is the Mark Foley** of software in terms of hypocrisy. It describes spam as "harmful and irritating" (it is funny to see a malware company say that) and that by blocking spam, it can save bandwidth (right, because client-side spam software can now magically block spam on the server side; and what about the adware bandwidth?). But the fun doesn't stop there! They also bundle such useful and relevant things like a thousand different emoticons to make your e-mails "cool" (no doubt a bundling agreement with one of the malware companies that specializes in those emoticon toolbars). Their website even has a section on helping users with installation problems: it instructs people on how to log in as an administrator. Anyway, I had a great laugh looking through their website. Unfortunately, as evidenced by these log entries (and by the even larger number of IE systems that have "FunWebProducts" installed), there really are people who fall for these things.

Part II: Kernels, Anti-Virus, and the European Union

As reported by Slashdot, Microsoft, under pressure from European antitrust officials, is opening kernel-level access for third-party anti-virus packages, like McAfee and Norton. The Washington Post article frames this as an issue of anti-trust, which is incorrect (and the officials in Europe are equally confused about this matter). The heart of the matter is that Microsoft locked down kernel access in Vista, and now the makers of Norton and McAfee are complaining that this is an attempt to lock them out of providing anti-virus for Windows.

  1. There are other (better) third-party anti-virus makers who have made their products Vista-compatible without needing to get through the kernel lockdown. Most importantly, even Microsoft's own anti-virus package does not require or get kernel-level access. So how exactly is this an antitrust issue?
  2. The whole point of the kernel lockdown was to make the system more secure by limiting the amount of system access that any piece of software could have. This is the digital equivalent of allowing law enforcement officers to freely break the law.
  3. Norton AntiVirus does not exactly have a great track record and can sometimes cause more problems than it solves. Kernel access? Bad idea.
  4. Real computer security does not come from anti-virus. It never has, and it never will. Real computer security is accomplished through educating the user. Anti-virus is snake oil: at best, it is a band-aid; at worst, it is poison.

________________
* And people wonder why most geeks have so little respect for MySpace...

  1. One should not use a photo as a background image on a site, at least not without first editing it to soften the contrast; these MySpace users appear to lack a basic sense of aesthetics.
  2. These MySpace users seem to be unaware of etiquette regarding things such as hotlinking.
  3. Not only is hotlinking poor etiquette, but embedded hotlinking allows the host server (in this case, me) to log and spy on the visits to their site. For example, I could tell how frequently a particular visitor (uniquely identified by IP and UA) reloads/revisits the profile; how is that for creepy? Well, this is, after all, how graphical counters work.
  4. Internet Explorer?
  5. Installing a spam blocker for a web browser. Riiiight.

** Sorry, I couldn't resist; it's the fad these days, and I guess I am sometimes a slave to fashion.

Google + YouTube = Disaster

Monday, October 9, 2006
Keywords: Technology

It all started out as a rumor. Which the Wall Street Journal then picked up. Eventually, everyone was talking about it. I, however, did not believe in this rumor because it made absolutely no sense:

  1. Google is buying a pile of liability. YouTube is flooded with illegal material that infringe copyright. YouTube has not been sued yet because they are a small independent operation with no money. If Google owns YouTube, then there is suddenly a lot of money that could be won through infringement suits. This alone makes Google's buyout of YouTube incredibly stupid.
  2. Google will eventually be forced to clamp down on copyright infringement on YouTube, thus sanitizing it to something similar to Google Video. Illegal videos are extremely common and popular (popular enough to draw even Bill Gates into piracy crime). Any clampdown will effectively destroy the attractiveness of YouTube and decimate its user base.
  3. Google already has a decent video service of its own. Once the YouTube user base is destroyed, Google would just have a shell of a company that is no better than its own video service.
  4. There is no way that an unprofitable YouTube could be worth over $1.6 billion USD.

As it turns out, Google really did bite. Well, my criticisms still stand, and I am dismayed at this decision. This also reinforces my belief that Google really does not have much in the way of a grand scheme. If Google really did have a plan, there would not be the recent decree to their employees telling them to stop launching products and to instead focus doing things like integrating existing ones into some sort of coherent strategy. Google is a company built on accidental success (Google's CEO: "We throw it against the wall and see what sticks.") and driven by only a vague silhouette of a strategy, and this YouTube deal (which is so reminiscent of the sort of reckless drunk-on-success deals of the dot-com bubble) certainly fits that characterization.

This entry was edited on 2006/10/09 at 20:21:36 GMT -0400.

More Bush Signing Statements

Friday, October 6, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Despite the firestorm of controversy over his excessive use of signing statements to overrule Congress and to undermine the separations of powers, Bush continues to make ample use of them, this time to defy Congress over provisions of the Homeland Security bill signed into law on Wednesday.

The final three paragraphs of the Associated Press article are worth noting, however.

Bush's signing statement Wednesday challenges several other provisions in the Homeland Security spending bill.

Bush, for example, said he'd disregard a requirement that the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency must have at least five years experience and "demonstrated ability in and knowledge of emergency management and homeland security."

His rationale was that it "rules out a large portion of those persons best qualified by experience and knowledge to fill the office."

The portion of the signing statement from which the above was derived:

Section 503(c) of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, as amended by section 611 of the Act, provides for the appointment and certain duties of the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Section 503(c)(2) vests in the President authority to appoint the Administrator, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, but purports to limit the qualifications of the pool of persons from whom the President may select the appointee in a manner that rules out a large portion of those persons best qualified by experience and knowledge to fill the office. The executive branch shall construe section 503(c)(2) in a manner consistent with the Appointments Clause of the Constitution.

So Bush is essentially insisting that the new requirement that the FEMA director be experienced and knowledgeable will somehow rule out people who are "best qualified by experience and knowledge."* Bush's predecessor was certainly not a perfect president, but at least Clinton appointed people based on qualifications, even if that meant appointing Republicans to prominent administration positions such as the Secretary of Defense. Has Bush learned absolutely nothing from the case of FEMA director Michael Brown or about the consequences of appointing people to office based simply on their passing his litmus test of loyalty?

________________
* Of course, this is not the first time that his astounding command of logic has been on display.

This entry was edited on 2006/10/06 at 20:21:28 GMT -0400.

Digg and the Fallacy of Web 2.0

Friday, October 6, 2006
Keywords: Technology

I rarely visit Digg, but I do glance at it every now and then. One of the items on the front page last night when I decided to visit on a whim was about cars running on water. It had over 300 diggs by then, and as of this morning, the count was over 700. It's quite a high number of diggs for something that is pure quackery that should never have even made it to the front page! In contrast, when AOL offered free (well, sorta free) domain names through their My eAddress service, that got only 17 diggs and did not make it to the front page.

There is a lot of confusion over what exactly this new "Web 2.0" buzzword is all about, and the most widely accepted notion of Web 2.0 is that there is a new paradigm of user-generated content*, like blogs, "democratic" news (Digg), inane YouTube videos, etc. But there is a problem with this, as Digg has illustrated: the quality of the content of Web 2.0 is only as good as the quality of the collective, and unfortunately, this world is brimming with idiots. Of course, even places with editorial oversight like Slashdot is far from perfect, if people can remember the time when they reported on a compression scheme that could compress arbitrary random data (which, by the way, is patently ridiculous and simply impossible and can be easily proved so mathematically), but those who criticize the failure of Slashdot's editorial board will likely have a heart attack when they see what sort of things make it to Digg's front page each and every day.

Needless to say, I have little confidence in the wonders of Web 2.0. And as distasteful and politically incorrect as this may sound (esp. coming out of a libertarian like myself) there is little wonder why our Founding Fathers did not advocate the direct election of Presidents (more...).

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* Ironically, this what the web was about at the beginning, at least, before the dot-com gold rush; so we're actually going from Web 1.1 back to Web 1.0, but apparently, nobody likes the sound of that.

Dell, Gateway, and RAID-0

Friday, October 6, 2006
Keywords: Technology

I recently noticed that both Dell and Gateway are offering RAID-0 hard drive setups. What was interesting about this was that there were only three types of hard drive options that Dell and Gateway offered: single drive, RAID-0, and RAID-1. There was no option to have a second drive without RAID.

While it is good to see companies offering RAID-1 to mainstream customers, it is surprising to see them offer RAID-0. First, nobody should ever be running hard drives in a RAID-0 setup. Well, okay, there are some situations where RAID-0 makes sense, but they are rather special and they certainly do not apply to Joe Sixpack buying from Dell or Gateway. These are people who would be unable to make much use of (or even notice) the performance boost from RAID-0, and these are also people who tend to be very lax about data backup. In other words, the average computer users that these companies are selling RAID-0 to represent a group that is probably the least likely to benefit from RAID-0 and is also probably the most vulnerable to the greatly increased risk of catastrophic data loss posed by RAID-0.

And it is not the offering of RAID-0 that is troubling, but rather how they are offering it. First, both companies label RAID-0 as "performance", and in the case of Dell, they even have a page touting the performance advantages of RAID-0. Okay, there is nothing wrong with that since RAID-0 is faster. Second, they do not post any information whatsoever about the risks of RAID-0. So not only are there no warnings presented when a user chooses RAID-0, if a user actually takes the unusual step of reading what RAID-0 is all about on the Dell website, they will not find a single word talking about the downsides of RAID-0. If a consumer chooses RAID-0 with the knowledge of the huge risk that is being taken, that is fine: it is their choice. But that is not the case if a consumer chooses RAID-0 because s/he has been told incomplete information (and before free-market advocates can criticize that sentence, I would like to remind everyone that one of the conditions necessary for free markets is symmetric information, and this is a violation of that). Third, RAID-0 is also the best possible price point. A single 500GB hard drive costs more than two 250GB drives, so the user is presented with the option to get 500GB worth of total capacity for less money and for improved performance. Who could resist? Of course, that two lower-density drives could cost less than a single high-density drive is nothing new, but in the past, people who took the two-drive option were just given two hard drives, without getting them chained together into a reckless RAID-0 setup. Furthermore, that non-RAID option no longer exists at either Dell or Gateway: if you want to take advantage of the lower cost of two hard drives, you are now being forced to take the RAID-0 option. Finally, this setup is rather prominently marketed and is being presented as a mainstream option instead of a "for people who know what they are doing" option. In the past, Dell would offer people a choice over the number of hard drives and then as a separate advanced option, they offered the user a chance to chain them together in RAID. Not any more: the RAID is built straight into the main hard drive selection. In fact, it is so mainstream that there is one Gateway offer where there was a free upgrade to the 500GB RAID-0 setup.

So why would they do this? I have a theory: over the years, Joe Sixpack has gotten drilled into his dull little mind that "C:" is the hard drive and that "D:" is the cupholder CD/DVD drive. Imagine the confusion when Joe Sixpack now has a computer where "D:" is a second hard drive and that the CD/DVD drive is now "E:". Furthermore, would Joe Sixpack really know how to use a second hard drive? In all likelihood, he will install programs to their default locations (on C) and he will save his files in "My Documents" or on the Desktop, which is also on C. And eventually, the C drive may fill up while D remains empty (preemptive note to Mac/Unix people: NTFS is perfectly capable of Unix-style drive-in-a-folder mounting; in fact, I use it extensively, but even mounting cannot completely solve this problem because inevitably, Joe Sixpack will be wondering why one of his folders is full and why the others are not or vice-versa). Now that the new Intel chipsets make it possible to do RAID without installing extra hardware, companies have realized that they can wipe away the confusion that two hard drives will cause average computer users while even touting a bit of a performance boost. Of course, the cost of this blissful ignorance is data insecurity, especially since studies show that members of the Sixpack family rarely back up the digital assets that they value the most: photos, personal documents, etc.

Fun with JavaScript

Wednesday, October 4, 2006
Keywords: Technology

I wrote a Firefox extension yesterday. It is not anything earth-shatteringly great. Just a simple function that I had wanted and that I had wanted to be implemented with an extension that was very simple, small, and lightweight. There were only a few dozen lines of code, and it was more of a two-hour learning exercise.

Now what was interesting about this experience was that I got to work with something that I hadn't touched since 1998: JavaScript, and this post is mostly about that experience. But before I begin, I should do a quick backgrounder. A large number of people do not know that most Mozilla products are kinda like elaborate webpages. At the core is the Gecko rendering engine, written in C and natively compiled. This handles all the grunt work and handles things that are specific to the operating system, like dealing with graphics (GDI+, OpenGL, etc.), the file system, etc. In the case of Firefox (or Thunderbird, Sunbird, Songbird, Seamonkey/Mozilla, etc., but not Camino), the browser itself, however, is written in a markup language called XUL. Like XHTML, it is a XML-based markup language, and it works an awful lot like HTML but with different tags. And Firefox is just one really big and elaborate collection of XUL, so Firefox is in a way akin to a big collection of HTML webpages. And just like HTML, the style and layout in XUL is controlled by CSS. This, by the way, is what makes up Firefox skins: they're just a collection of CSS files and graphics, and it's the CSS files that specify where things should be placed, how much spacing there is between various items, what colors to use, what images to use, etc. The brilliant thing about this setup is that it's cross-platform. Just as a webpage will look the same in Windows as it does in Linux, the XUL user interface is equally cross-platform. And since they already have Gecko to render webpages, why not save themselves the trouble have Gecko render the user interface too? It is also brilliant in that it provides for a fairly clean separation of the front-end user interface from the back-end, and XUL+CSS makes changing the UI and custom skinning much easier than most other skinning systems because a lot of people are already familiar with HTML+CSS.

While XUL+CSS is, in my opinion, ingenious, the Mozilla way of doing things does have one soft spot. A webpage isn't just about layout and design. Function is what matters, and something's gotta happen when a user clicks on a button or selects an option or else all you've got is a pretty picture. This is where the JavaScript comes in. Yes, the Firefox user interface is powered by JavaScript. Click "OK" in the options dialog, and you're calling up a JavaScript function that saves the options that you selected. From a practical perspective, I can see why Mozilla went with using JavaScript. It fits this "webpage" style of software, it means that they can just reuse the JavaScript interpreter already in Gecko instead of scratching out a new language, it--along with XUL and CSS--makes working on Firefox and Firefox extensions relatively easy (at least compared to say, working on an IE extension; you just need a Notepad and WinZip; no compilers needed!), and it means that they can rely on the great pool of existing JavaScript programmers. But hold on a minute... JavaScript programmers?

As the name would suggest, JavaScript is a scripting language that borrows some of the style of Java (though the two are unrelated). With the rise of Firefox and with the rise of AJAX, people are starting to take JavaScript a bit more seriously instead of snickering at the very concept of a "JavaScript programmer", but that doesn't change the fact that the language is, fundamentally, a tacky curiosity. Putting JavaScript's following of Java's moronic dogma towards the OO style, the fact that JavaScript was originally conceived as a lightweight language scripting language designed for trivial frills is evident. This is a language where, even today, changing the third byte of a string requires blowing up the string and manually piecing it back together. Ugh.

Needless to say, my experience with coding up the extension didn't go quite as smoothly as I had hoped. I hadn't coded JavaScript since 1998, and I needed to check the language reference, but that's okay. Every programmer needs to consult a language reference. The frustration was just dealing with the quirks and limitations of the language itself. For example, the ability to access a character in a string using [ ] but not being able to modify it that way is a rather annoying limitation of the language, and a very counter-intuitive one at that. While there have been efforts made over the years to mend JavaScript's shortcomings, the need to maintain backwards compatibility means that JavaScript can never be truly and fully reformed. JavaScript is, IMHO, a bastard language that should have been aborted at birth, but unfortunately, it has survived. Fortunately for me, my extension was simple and short, so I only had to deal with JavaScript for a couple of hours, and since I do not intend on becoming a "JavaScript programmer", I don't think I will have many more run-ins with this language. I do, however, have some newfound respect for the poor souls who do have to do major amounts of coding in JavaScript. At least people working on the Firefox interface using XUL+CSS+JS are lucky: they don't have to deal with the fact that IE, Opera, Safari, and Mozilla all handle JavaScript differently. It's a wonder how people who do AJAX haven't jumped off a cliff yet.

This is why I no longer watch CBS

Monday, October 2, 2006
Keywords: none

Ever since CBS changed the format of the CBS Evening News, I have stopped watching it, ending a tradition that has lasted for as long as I could remember. Granted, television news in general is not particularly useful as I get most of my news from print and from the Internet, but it does make evening meals less boring.

My newfound dislike of CBS is not so much that they replaced the stately Bob Schieffer with an overly casual Katie Couric (call be old-fashioned, but "Hi, everyone!" is not an appropriate way to start the an evening news broadcast) (I suspect that her casual style may be, at least in part, the result of marching orders from network executives). The producers at CBS have watered the show down, off-loaded in-depth coverage to their website, reduced the amount of time spent on hard news, and increased the amount of time on trivial fluff stories. The final straw that drove me away came when the other two networks gave generous airtime to a government report saying that the war in Iraq has made us less safe while CBS brushed it aside.

Anyway, a friend described to me over instant messaging the contents of tonight's CBS "Free Speech" segment. Apparently, because of today's school shootings, they changed the segment to one prepared in the last minute and featuring a Columbine dad who accused abortion and moral decay for school shootings. Before I go any further, I should note that I am a staunch believer in free speech, and I have no problem with CBS giving airtime to people like the guest that they had on today or even Rush Limbaugh. What I do have a problem with is the format of the CBS "Free Speech" segment. Free speech is not something that exists in vacuum and its value derives from being a part of the marketplace of ideas. While censoring or shutting someone up is totally unacceptable no matter how offensive their speech is, it is equally unacceptable to hand someone a megaphone and let them speak about a controversial topic without giving anyone else a chance to present a rebuttal, which is what the CBS Evening News does. It gives Rush Limbaugh a soapbox (as if the one he already has isn't big enough), which is fine, but they have nobody to rebut him, to cross-examine him, or to challenge him. And in fairness, it is equally unacceptable when CBS gives a free megaphone to an leftist without a counterbalance (though I don't think that any of the guests that they have had have been as far from center--in either direction--as Rush).

In any case, what was frustrating about tonight's show is that it would appear that the speaker is ignorant of the circumstances surrounding today's shooting. This was done in Amish country by a local man (although he himself was not Amish, this is nevertheless a very traditional and conservative region); this was not some godless urban public school. So FOX News Junior CBS executives, in their desire to continue their "Free Speech" segment and to also offer something that corresponds with today's "tragedy theme", hurriedly picked out some guy who ends up spouting a lot of nonsense colored by personal anger and, contrary to what free speech is really about, they do this without offering any sort of additional speech to counterbalance his. And the tragedy of all this is what this man articulated on national TV an indictment against godlessness while today's incident was, if anything, an indictment against the very sort of stifling and social conservatism that he was advocating. Yep, CBS has jumped the shark.

This entry was edited on 2006/10/02 at 21:09:23 GMT -0400.