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Stardate 20010721.1745 (On Screen): "Everyone over the age of 45 in my lab was born in the United States. No one under the age of 45 in my lab is from the United States." What an unbelievably parochial and ethnocentric pronouncement. What's that got to do with anything? Since when did we start worrying about someone's nationality in engineering? (Isn't that against the law?) If there is a problem of not enough creative American students going into engineering, then one ought perhaps to examine the question of why it is that the cost of a college education has been rising much faster than inflation for the last forty years. If fewer kids are going to college then it's because college is pricing itself out of the market, and that's where you start. In 1975 I managed to leave college without any debt which was extremely unusual even then, but that was only possible because I went to a state (subsidized) school and because things were cheaper in the 1970's, and also because I dropped out of school when my money ran out in my senior year. (And because of that I do not have a degree, not that it matters at this point.) Too many students leave school now owing as much as three years gross salary; they spend fifteen years digging out from under. It's not surprising that potential students view this prospect with distaste.

I think a per-head bounty is preposterous, if for no other reason than because it wouldn't result in lower tuition, but also because it's much too easy to abuse. Images of illiterate college graduates fill the head; if you're a bit unscrupulous or desperate and are paid for each graduate then you can get a lot more graduates by lowering graduation standards. A better answer would be to establish scholarship funds. (And I mean grants, not loans. GIVE them money; don't LOAN them money.)

But if you're trying to solve the problem on the cheap, how about a different approach: if you're concerned about all those Indian and Chinese engineers taking their knowledge back home, then how about making it easier for them to get green cards? If you don't want them to go home, then don't kick them out. (discuss)

Stardate 20010721.1237 (Crew, this is the Captain): Weekends are always slow, and today I'm amusing myself with a small site redesign (as you will notice). It has some advantages in that it means that all pages will now use the same header and sidebar, whereas there used to be two of each. It also lets me use a bigger font size in the header, and also makes the header less cluttered. I'm running up against my limit of ignorance, though. In the name of making things look better, some of the entries on the sidebar are now quite brief, and I'd like to have popup alt-tags appear on a mouse hover (for instance, to explain why I'm offering fonts), but I can't figure out how it's done. "alt=" works for pictures but not for text. I've seen it happen but I can't find the page where it was done in order to copy it. Anyone care to clue in the Clueless Captain? (discuss)

Update: Scott writes to tell me that what I was looking for is "title=". No wonder "alt=" didn't work.

Stardate 20010720.1823 (On Screen): The chance that if someone decided to kill Chandra Levy that they'd leave her body in Washington DC itself are nil. Attempts by the DC police to search DC's parks and vacant buildings are a foolish waste of time and money, clearly being done to relieve political pressure and not to actually accomplish anything useful. Someone trying to get rid of her would probably have dumped her body in Chesapeake Bay. If she has been murdered (as I think likely at this point) then the only way this is going to be discovered and proved is by a fluke, such as someone who is involved deciding to confess. (discuss)

Stardate 20010720.1736 (On Screen): Yet again, it seems as if everyone in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is looking to the United States for an answer. In a statement later repudiated by Sharon, his defense minister said that international monitors to enforce the non-existent "cease fire" would be acceptable, but only if they're exclusively from the US.

This is not our problem. And it's not obvious why the US would be willing to make a commitment of that level, especially considering the complete failure of similar missions in Lebanon and Somalia.

Actually, there's a reason both the Palestinians and Israelis are looking to the US. First, each is hoping that the US will flex its muscles and force the other side to make concessions. You keep seeing that in the news releases, where Arafat "calls on" the US to bully the Israeli Government, and Sharon "calls on" the US to bully the Palestinian Authority. But deep down, they both know that won't happen. Ultimately the solution to this is going to have to come from them, and they're both going to have to give up a lot. That means that each is going to have to go back and face the political heat afterwards for "giving in" to the other side.

And that's what shows the difference between a statesman and a politician. Neither of them is willing to sacrifice his career for the greater good of his nation. So if they go into negotiations and make the concessions they know they'll have to, they get voted out. But if they go into negotiations with the US as a third party, then the US can be the bad guy, and Sharon and Arafat can go back to their people and say "I tried, but the US forced me to do this even though I didn't want to! It isn't my fault!"

A plague on both their houses. I want no part of this. And I damned well don't want the 10th Mountain Division patrolling an area with a higher per capita civilian ownership of assault rifles than anywhere else in the world. This isn't our problem. (discuss)

Stardate 20010720.1539 (On Screen): I find "Afrocentrism" to be intellectually ludicrous. Africa has given us much, but to try to claim (as some do) that everything important that the Romans and Greeks came up with was stolen from Egypt is preposterous. I have this fantasy of having a discussion with an Afrocentrist and gently rebutting point after point with historical evidence, then we'd get to this:

"And besides, the most beautiful woman in history was Egyptian."
Helen was a Greek from Sparta. You know, "the face that launched a thousand ships" and all that?
"No, no, no. I mean Cleopatra. Helen is a creature of legend, but we know that Cleopatra existed."
Cleopatra was Greek, too.
"What are you talking about? Cleopatra was Egyptian!"
Cleoptra ruled Egypt, but she was descended from Greek invaders.

So let's go way back, to Philip of Macedon. Actually, at that time Macedonia wasn't considered part of "Greece", because it was instead part of "Thrace". But they spoke the same language and had the same culture, and they're generally considered Greek now, especially after Philip conquered all of Greece and brought it under his own rule. During those wars, his son Alexander showed great courage and skill as a leader. Philip died, and Alexander ascended to the throne. There was a revolt, which he put down, and then he decided to conquer the world. (He wasn't the first, and he wasn't the last.) So he set off with his army to the east, fighting and conquering as he went. After each conquest, he'd put a governor in place, leave some of his men behind as a garrison, recruit from the locals to replenish his army, and then move on. The kingdoms of Turkey fell, and he moved down through the nations of modern Lebanon and Israel, and eventually he conquered Egypt. He left behind a governor named Ptolemeus, after establishing the city of Alexandria. Since there wasn't anything west of Egypt worth owning, he marched back up to modern Israel and headed east, conquering the areas of modern Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and eventually reaching the westernmost reaches of modern India. At which point, his men politely (sort of) asked him when all this was going to end, and convinced him to turn around. On the trip back, Alexander caught some unidentified disease and died from it. Legend has it that his men carried his body back to Alexandria and interred it in the catacombs beneath the city, but no-one knows for sure. The catacombs are much too dangerous to enter and are closed off, and they have not been explored in modern times.

After Alexander's death, the governors he left behind set themselves up as local kings and established their provinces as kingdoms. Ptolemeus began to rule Egypt and established a dynasty that lasted 300 years, ending when Egypt was conquered by the Romans during the reign of Cleopatra.

The Rosetta Stone dates from between the time of Alexander and the time of Cleopatra. It was the key to interpreting the hieroglyphics because it contained the same inscription in three forms of writing: Hieroglyphic, Demotic (a more advanced and less stylized Egyptian writing form), and Greek, because Greek was one of the official languages of the realm. The Royals did not cross-breed with the locals, and Cleopatra's genes were almost certainly pure Macedonian. Genetically speaking, she was about as Egyptian as I am American (my ancestry being European, with no trace of Indian blood of which I'm aware). Even her name was Greek; Alexander had a sister named Cleopatra.

So if you claim Cleopatra as Egypt's contribution as the most beautiful woman of all time, then you also have to acknowledge her as a Greek import, which isn't exactly what the Afrocentrists want to hear. (Besides which, the Egyptians themselves and nearly all the other Africans living north of the Sahara were Caucasian, which shows how silly it is to even talk about this kind of retroactive cultural imperialism.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010720.1407 (On Screen): Paging Steve Austin... I used to know a man who suffered from Retinitis Pigmentosa, and he could just barely tell when he entered a room whether the light was on. When he was a kid his vision was normal, but starting about age 12 it began to go away and by the time he was twenty he had essentially no vision at all. (He inherited it from his mom, who also was blind.) He uses both a dog and a cane at various times, and he works with computers and uses a program in his PC which reads the screen to him at machine-gun speed. It was strange to talk to him on the phone when he was using his computer. But my best memory of him is when we went to a medieval faire and he ended up at the axe-throwing booth and threw three axes at a target, and hit it all three times. The guy working the booth was fantastic; he never missed a beat (or dropped out of character) and spent the time with Joe that was required, which backed up the line a bit. I get the impression it wasn't the first time it had happened. I didn't notice anyone in the line being impatient since it was a fun thing to watch. Joe coped, but there was never question that he suffered from a severe handicap.

Retinitis Pigmentosa is one of those terrible genetic diseases which terribly harms a small number of people and leaves nearly everyone alone. But it's still worth working on, and now we've entered the realm of science fiction. The future is now. They've developed an artificial retina out of silicon and they're actually implanting it in the eyes of people to test it. The device is powered by the light which strikes it so it doesn't need batteries or any other power source. I think this is fantastic, and I hope it works. It would completely change the lives of people like Joe. He wouldn't be able to drive if he had one of these, but he might be able to walk and to read, and to actually see his wife Cindy for the first time. (discuss)

Update: Speaking of the blind, they're one group who are really hampered by pop-up and pop-behind advertising, because it means a new window and focus change which they may not be expecting. It's hard to figure out which window you're supposed to be in when you can't see them.

Stardate 20010720.1349 (On Screen): I'm not a lawyer, and I don't know the details of contract law, but I do know that the general principle is that if you actually do what you say you'll do then you're OK. So if AOL has a page that people visited and promises them a chance to win $10,000 if they answer a question and then permit a random number to tossed in the air, and if they participate then the two have entered into a contract. If it comes back and tells the contestant that they did win, it seems to me that refusal to pay would be a violation of that contract and thus be actionable. It may be true that AOL screwed up their program so that a lot more people won than should have, but that's their problem and doesn't change the situation. Having a human confirm on the phone that money had been won only makes it worse. If Coca Cola doesn't want to pay, then it's AOL's nickel (or ten million dollars) for screwing up. But you do not welch on a bet. (What you do is to test your software before releasing it.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010720.1249 (On Screen): Breathlessly this article describes how we will in future keep all our data on central servers and we will be able to access it from anywhere, and we will etc. No sign of the words "might" and "maybe", which is surprising because there's very little chance of this becoming omnipresent. As usual, the reporter is intepreting the fact that there's a great deal of interest in this by companies as a sign that it will become inevitable. Like, say, "thin clients" were. Remember those? By now the desktop PC was going to be dead, replaced by small terminals connected to big iron. Yup! Gee whiz!

Like so many things, there's no congruence between what's good for companies and what's good for consumers. Companies want to hold our data for us and charge us to access it. Companies promise to hold the data securely. Companies promise to be there forever. Companies can stick it where the sun don't shine.

Every time there's a high profile announcement that yet another retailer has had its computer broken into and thousands of data records stolen (including customer names, addresses, phone numbers, and credit card numbers) the chance of this actually happening becomes even more remote, let alone the fact that I can carry all my data with me on my laptop (and I do) so I have it everywhere I go anyway without their help. With PDAs becoming cheaper and more powerful and carrying more and more data, why does anyone need a server for anything?

The article does acknowledge the problem, but it refers to it as "changing everyone's mindset". It estimates that it won't become common until 2030. By 2030 your PDA will have 100 gigabytes of flashROM (or some equivalent) on board. If you can carry the data equivalent of 30 feature length movies in your jacket pocket, why would you need their services? (discuss)

Stardate 20010720.1234 (On Screen): It bothers me a bit to see so much coverage which exaggerates economic trends. (Too many reporters with idle hands, I guess, trying to sensationalize stories to get them printed.) High tech sales, including desk top computers, are down a bit from a year ago. This is indeed a problem. But any quarter in which over 30 million units are sold isn't exactly a "stall", as this article describes the situation. An overall world year-over-year decline of 2% is not exactly a catastrophe (except in an industry which had grown used to consistent 20% per year rises). It could be better but we could have had a real decline of 50% or so. That would be "stalling". (discuss)

Stardate 20010720.1223 (On Screen): The so-called "G8" is meeting in Genoa. They are supposedly the largest industrialized nations on earth: The US, Canada, Japan, the UK, Germany, France, Italy, and Russia. (singing) One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong. (cease singing)

The first seven listed nations really are the seven top nations in the world. But Russia is not #8. Russia is an economic basket case and its GDP isn't even in the top 10. According to the CIA World Fact Book, in the year 1999, Russia had a estimated GDP of $620.3 billion. This compares unfavorably to Spain, at $677.5 billion, or Brazil at $1.057 trillion, or India at $1.805 trillion, or China at $4.8 trillion. (If you wanted to add #8 based on GDP, China should have been it based since its GDP is exceeded only by the US.)

Of course, China's GDP is huge because of the "Chinese hordes", and India and Brazil are similar. A better way of measuring the wealth of a nation is GDP per capita. The G7 clusters nicely at about $22,000 except for the US at $33,900, and by this measure they are seven of the top ten nations on earth. When you calculate Russia that way it really looks pitiful at an estimated $4,200. This is greatly exceeded again by Spain ($17,300), Portugal ($15,300), Switzerland ($27,100) and in fact by nearly every Western European nation, as well as Singapore ($27,800), Taiwan ($16,100), South Korea ($13,300) and the surprisingly prosperous Chile ($12,400) and Argentina ($10,000).

In fact, at $4,200 the Russian per capita GDP is consistent with what we think of as industrialized Third World nations such as Brazil ($6,150), South Africa ($6,900), and Morocco ($3,600), and it's lower than Peru ($4,400). As an oil-producing nation, Russia is exceeded by Columbia ($6,200), Venezuala ($8,000) and Mexico ($8,500). In fact, by any possible economic measurement, Russia doesn't belong in the G8. So why is it there?

It's a sop to the Russian ego. It's a memory of past glory. But it's mostly an attempt to try to lend prestige to the elected government of Russia to try to add stability to the political system there. That's why no-one important (which excludes me) stands up to embarrass the government of Russia with the truth. They're afraid it might lead to a Russian revolution. It's happened before, but last time they didn't have nuclear weapons. No-one wants to find out what happens during a revolution in a nuclear-armed state. (discuss)

Update: Well, at least this story is honest about it. It describes the G8 meeting as one which "brings together the world's wealthiest industrialized nations and Russia."

Stardate 20010719.2307 (On Screen): Now it's really hit the fan in Israel, because there now seems to be a Jewish terrorist movement making attacks against Palestinians. Sharon has criticized Arafat for not doing enough to find and control Palestinian terrorists, and now we get to see (or not) his commitment to finding terrorists on his own side.

When both sides in a conflict spawn terrorist movements, you have what amounts to violent anarchy, with the groups trading tit-for-tat attacks that never seem to end. This is the situation which existed in Northern Ireland for more than 30 years, and it only ends when the violence burns itself out. Negotiation isn't possible because no compromise will satisfy both sides. During the early stages of the terrorist-versus-terrorist conflict, each attack brings reprisals from the other side, and each attack suffered by a side's people brings new support and recruits. But later on, the futility of it sets in, and this ceases to happen; all the people on both side begin to hate all the terrorists equally. That's when it ends, but that can take decades because it requires near unanimity of the people on both sides to reject the conflict. Sometimes it never ends, if the feelings run sufficiently deep and if religion is involved (as is the case in both Northern Ireland and in Israel) because there will always remain a core group of committed people on both sides to keep the conflict going. If there was scant hope of peace in Israel before, the chances now are dismal indeed. (discuss)

Update 20010720: Well, Prime Minister Sharon says he's going to hunt down the Israeli terrorists. Good for him. Of course, with one of the dead being a 6 month old baby, he had little choice.

Stardate 20010719.2251 (On Screen): This article describes Microsoft as being the "Tonya Harding" of technology, and as a reason Harding's commissioning of a assailant to whack a competitor on the knee and take her out of competition. I agree with the description, but not for that reason. When I read the headline, an entirely different similarity between them occurred to me.

It's long been observed that there is a certain conceptual corruption about women's figure skating, especially in the Olympics. There's no other athletic event where the performers have to dress up pretty and put on makeup like movie actresses (or hookers); what have those things got to do with athletic competition? In principle the judges should be observing how the woman skates not how she looks or what she seems to be. But it goes even deeper, because another essential element seems to be that all championship Olympic Women's skaters have to be virgins or at least pretend to be. No skater ever has a boy friend, let alone a husband, until after she stops skating. It's almost like there's a clinical test before skating to make sure of her qualifications. Every skater, that is, except one: Tonya Harding. She was not necessarily the best skater in the world, but she was definitely competitive and she earned her place on the Olympic team, and she had a chance of winning. But she was married! Presumably that meant she'd actually (whisper it) done it with her husband! And that inspired comment, especially by comparison to the fresh-faced virginal Nancy Kerrigan (the victim of the attack) who was the favorite to win. Harding herself complained about this ridiculous standard at the time in interviews, and quite frankly she was right. It shouldn't have anything whatever to do with the competition. But it did, and it still does. And these days they guarantee the virginity of their championship skaters by making them compete when they're 14. Just to make sure.

The analogy to Microsoft is that certain people also want their high-tech companies to be virgins. It's not enough to win or to produce successful products which solve problems, you have to do so without any trace of sin. It's the old "with the apparent effortlessness of Gods" complaint. Apparently there is a right way to win, and Microsoft hasn't done it that way. Microsoft is the married company (who "does it") in a field of apparent virginal competitors. (Ha!) But unlike Harding, Microsoft not only has "done it" (without shame) but also won quite conclusively over and over and seems undefeatable. They won't retire, and they won't stop sleeping around. That's just not right. We want our champion to be a virgin, dammit! (discuss)

Stardate 20010719.1540 (On Screen): There exists a genetic marker which has been found in certain women, and those who have it appear to have a better than even chance of developing breast cancer during their lifetime. A study has shown that if those women have both breasts removed before cancer is found, that they appear to have no better chance than the general population of developing cancer. At least for three years, which is all the longer this study has run. That isn't adequate. I'm also a bit horrified that this study was even done.

I'm not sure I think this result is useful. There's more to life than survival; there's also quality of life. Some women with the marker will remain healthy, and some of those who get cancer will do so when very old, and many who get it will survive through treatment. But it is widely known that a double mastectomy is emotionally devastating to many women (and well it might be) and it's not clear that it is reasonable to seriously mutilate a young woman because she might get a horrible disease later, which might not even kill her. She might then go through the rest of her life mourning her lost breasts, and perhaps thinking of herself as less than a woman, and wondering if it had really been necessary. (I'm not saying that I think that a woman having a mastectomy is less than a woman, I'm saying that they often do, which is an established clinical fact. Counselling is often necessary after this operation.)

Obviously, this is not my decision (as a man) to make; it's something any given woman who was found to have that genetic marker would have to make for herself (perhaps in consultation with her partner and family). Still, I hope (and expect) that this doesn't interfere with other research about this marker which aims to determine how it increases the risk of cancer, because that may lead to a better (i.e. less mutilating) approach to dealing not just with this kind of cancer but perhaps with all breast cancers. It's also way premature to apply the results of this study to clinical practice; it should run at least ten years before it will be valid.

I sometimes wonder whether the popularity of radical mastectomies is due mostly to the fact that it's something that surgeons know how to do. Studies have shown that in most cases removing just the lump results in the same life expectancy, and yet there are still thousands of (apparently unnecessary) radical mastectomies every year. Now the surgeons have what appears to be justification for removing healthy breasts. Good going, guys (and they all seem to be guys; I've never heard of a top-bracket woman surgeon). Perhaps we need a law that a surgeon can't remove a breast unless he's had a testicle removed. (discuss)

Stardate 20010719.1358 (On Screen): This article makes what I think is a valid point: Representative Condit should resign, not because he has been cheating on his wife but because he lied to the police about it. (She uses the more polite term "dissemble", but I'm not going to wuss out here. He's a bloody liar.) She discusses the fact that the Framers (especially Madison) knew that government would be by weak and imperfect men, so they built in checks and balances to keep them under control -- and by and large that's worked pretty well. She speculates that he won't actually resign (though he should), and I think she's probably right.

She does not, however, go the next step and see the Framer's wisdom. We have defenses in depth, and in the long run it won't matter. Next year, Representative Condit will stand for reelection and this is sure to be an issue brought up by his opponent, whoever that might be. I think that unless that opponent is a blithering incompetent, the chance of Representative Condit being reelected is nil. (discuss)

Stardate 20010719.1335 (On Screen): Be wary of nutrition fads. Most of my life I've been getting told that saturated fats were evil, and that polyunsaturated fats were better for me. Recent studies have cast doubts on the "good cholesterol/bad cholesterol" theory, and now it seems that polyunsaturated fats may be implicated in the puzzling rise in the incidence of asthma, especially among children. The one unambiguous nutritional fact I believe is that breastfeeding is good for babies during the first six months of life. Aside from that, nearly everything you eat has both good and bad consequences. While it's true that some diets will kill us faster, we're all dying from what we eat, slowly, and eventually we'll all be dead because of it (if something else doesn't kill us first). (discuss)

Stardate 20010719.1305 (On Screen): Brain drain is a real phenomenon, and it is true that trained and talented people are moving from Third World nations to First World nations (especially the US). It's a competitive world, and you bid for the best people. The US not only offers the highest standard of living in the world but a lot of other benefits as well, and a lot of people would like to live here. Given a choice between making low salary in India and high salary in the US, it's not at all surprising that engineers will make the traumatic decision to leave home. And of course, for a person stuck in a low caste, coming to the US is is going to be an intensely liberating experience.

Ultimately, the only way to prevent this is going to be to compete. If you want to keep your engineers, you're going to have to provide them a standard of living comparable to what they'd get in the US, and comparable living conditions. Eliminate corruption, decrease crime, generally raise the standard of living, and they'll stay home.

Unfortunately, there's a boot-strap problem here, because those countries need those engineers in order to make those changes, but until they make those changes the engineers will leave. Fortunately, not all of them will, and some will come back after a few years overseas, and that's what India and countries like it will have to use to solve this problem. What isn't going to work is ridicule and guilt-trips. The best and brightest will stay home because they want to, not because you shame them into it. (discuss)

Stardate 20010719.1256 (On Screen): Jobs' keynote address (that used to say "keynot address" as a typo, and I damned near left it that way) at MacWorld New York is now history, and apparently the reason that USS Clueless's subspace crystal ball was able to work was that the Reality Distortion Field was on the fritz. The crowd was definitely not wowed this time; and words like "underwhelmed" are being used. Some examples:

"Yesterday it was all we could do to broadcast our raw notes on the event before collapsing into a fetal position and whimpering the word 'mommy' for two hours straight while twitching." -- As the Apple Turns
"This was hardly worth the wait." -- MacNet
"The crowd looked on in nonplussed silence as the dynamic executive proudly announced new, completely uncompelling desktop computer models to replace the aging iMac and Power Macintosh G4 lines." --
"I'm still watching the keynote as I write this, and Steve is still bitching about the huge megahertz myth. True, it's a myth, but myth's only go so far. Just because a couple of Mac optimized apps beat a Pentium 4 doesn't mean they'll do too well against an AMD. AMD 1.4 ghz chips have been shown to soundly beat a 1.8 ghz Pentium 4." -- MacMonkey (Indeed! -- The Captain)
"The very modestly evolutionary "new" iMac and Power Macintosh G4 systems seem very underwhelming to me." -- a comment at MacCentral
"The rest of the keynote saw a master showman struggling to hold his audience." -- Mac Edition

And that's what Mac fans are saying, let alone heretics like me -- or the stock market, where AAPL has dropped 17% as I write this from close Monday (before the financials and the keynote) to now.

The point of this post? No amount of muttering "Megahertz Myth" is going to change the fundamental fact that Apple can't compete on the basis of price and speed, because of economy of scale. (Shooting the Macloners may have given Apple a short term boost in sales, but it also convinced Moto that it wasn't worth investing in high speed PPCs. The legendary G4 speed-stall was a direct result of Jobs' decision to kill the cloner licenses.) And how about, just once, a really comprehensive speed comparison, done by an independent testing group, who reveals the configuration details of the systems and provides information about the tests which are done, and makes it so that the tests are not slanted to specifically play to the strengths of one system and the weaknesses of another, and which includes an optimally configured 1.4 GHz Athlon? Let alone a dualie 1.4? (It won't happen; Apple would lose.) (discuss)

Update: Wired refers to it as a "miserable keynote".

Stardate 20010719.0105 (On Screen): I am always interested in hearing about big engineering. When I heard that the Japanese built the world's largest suspension bridge, I was rapt. I've been following the development of the VLT in Chile by the ESO for years, because when complete it will be the world's largest and most powerful optical telescope. On the other hand, some big engineering fills me with skepticism. While the "Chunnel" was an impressive technical achievement, it was economically misguided and probably will never break even. I've never thought that "national pride" was a good reason to toss a few billion dollars (or the equivalent in local currency) down the toilet. So I look with distaste at a utopian project to build a floating city of one hundred thousand souls, and I ask why? What, exactly, will be accomplished by this that couldn't be accomplished by building a marina in the Florida Keys and giving each occupant a boat? This sucker would be fantastically expensive to build, far more than a equivalent occupancy on dry-land, since they also have to build the land the city floats on (the ship's hull) and they're going to be building it out of high grade steel, which isn't cheap. A couple of years ago, Carnival built a 100,000 ton ocean liner capable of carrying 4500 people and it cost $400 million. And that's a rowboat compared to this mother. That's about 21 tons of displacement per person. No-one has ever built a ship weighing 2.1 million tons before. (The largest ship in existence, an oil supertanker, displaces about a tenth of that.)

The theory is that the purpose of building it on a hull is that it could sail around ("As it circumnavigates the world..."); it is certainly a poetic image to think of a city voting on whether to sail to the Mediterranean or the Caribbean next, or maybe we ought to visit Fiji -- but it's a crock. The reason is that a hundred thousand people and a ship carrying them will consume massive amounts of supplies, and that's going to have to be delivered to this thing somehow. "Daily purchases by the ship from farm co-ops, packers, and distributors will provide a constant supply of fresh meat, fish, dairy, and produce." In the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Not too damned many farm co-ops two thousand miles south-east of Honolulu.

If it's not tied up at a dock, it will have to be met every day or so by cargo ships just to unload all the bulk cargo needed to keep everyone on board alive, let alone happy. Move too far from your source of supply and everyone on board will starve. The further you are from your base, the longer it takes for a cargo ship to reach you and the more cargo ships you'll need. The number of support ships available will put distinct upper limits on how far this thing can go from its home port; they'll stretch like a chain between it and home base. It isn't practical to use the nearest port because there's no way to arrange all the commercial cargo needed on a catch-as-catch-can basis. There's no possible way of supplying it primarily by air, since the largest plane which will be able to land on it is a 2-engine turboprop capable of carrying 40 people. You're talking maybe 3 tons of cargo in a plane that size; for a hundred thousand people that's enough to last about a minute and a half, and a plane like that only has a range of about a five hundred miles (since it has to carry its own fuel for the return trip). Counting fuel and ship's consumables and spare parts and consumer goods and food, you can figure at least twenty pounds of supplies per person per day for normal operation. In other words, you need at least thousand tons of cargo per day. You're also going to have to carry away perhaps a quarter of that in the form of garbage and other refuse. (The rest floats away as smoke out the ship's stack or is dumped as effluent into the ocean.)

Consider some of the canard's in this things descriptions. For instance: "The modest cost of onboard labor and utilities will be one reason, but total freedom from local taxes will be the biggest contributor. The community will levy no taxes, direct or indirect." Well, somebody is going to have to pay to operate this mother, and whether you call it a tax or something else, everyone on board is going to have to contribute a lot of money to the cost of operation. You've got police and street cleaners and engineers and crew, and people working in the water and sewage plants, and a lot of people working to load and unload cargo to keep everyone fed, and cops and firemen and doctors and nurses and medics, and accountants and other bureaucrats; there's going to be substantial amounts of staff working for the ship proper (I figure on the order of 10% of that hundred thousand people) and they've all got to be paid. And in fact, they call it a "monthly maintenance fee", and it's going to be damned stiff. For a 1200 square foot home, it's going to cost you a million bucks, and $2000 per month in non-tax. It looks as if the monthly non-tax per person runs $300-$500 (based on their occupancy, which looks damned cramped to me; two people in 600 square feet?), and I don't see how that's enough money.

Of course, this thing isn't going to happen. The whole concept is preposterous. And it's interesting that they actually have an entire page on their site for "common misperceptions", and that one of them denies that this is a scam. (Never trust anyone who says "I'm not cheating you; I've never cheated anyone.") I won't say it's a scam, but I will say that the people who have already ponied up money for it won't ever actually see it launch. Better to have spent that money buying oil drilling rights on the Moon.

What is the real motivation behind this? Like all utopian visions, there really is a driving idea behind this one, and it's "law and order". The giveaway is at the bottom of this page, where they describe the security of living on this monster. They're going to have 2,000 security personnel (i.e. policemen) for a population of a hundred thousand, one of every fifty (and an additional 2,000 reserves who can serve in emergencies). No city on earth has that level of police protection; none even comes close to that. What we're seeing is people who are damned sick of the way things are run now, who want to create their own perfect city, but who can't do it under the laws of any nation now in existence. And since every speck of land is part of a nation, then the only way they can build a city such as they want is to make it float so that it operates in international waters. For all their pious claims of being bound by laws of the nation whose flag they fly, in fact they'll only be subject to their own laws in the form of some sort of community charter. And this chilling statement: "The ship's demographics, pre-screening of property owners and tenants, and strict security procedures will all contribute to an uncommonly secure environment." I'm not sure I want to know what the criteria will be on that "pre-screening", but the use of the word "demographics" suggests a clue: could it be, perhaps, racial? (No, of course not! Perish the thought!)

The most chilling statement in all this is at the top of this page, in its first paragraph. It states the following: "Freedom Ship is only a ship, not a political entity. ... In addition, its residents will be subject to the ships Rules and Regulations." Well, if it's not a political entity then it means that its residents don't get to vote for anything. On the other hand, there's going to have to be quite a body of "ship's rules and regulations", so where are they going to come from? Necessarily from some unelected elite (the founders of this utopia). Combine that with a ratio of one security person per fifty residents, and you're talking about a police state. (discuss)

Stardate 20010718.1839 (On Screen): President Wahid of Indonesia is trying to bargain, but he has no chips. He wants a compromise because it would permit him to hold onto at least some of the power and influence that he supposedly has. But there's nothing to bargain about, because what his opponents want his political head on a platter and seem to have the wherewithal to get it. For President Wahid I have a name: President Richard Nixon. The lesson of Nixon is that it is better to walk out of a place that you're not wanted than to be tossed out on your ear. You cannot retain office, but you might be able to retain some dignity. (discuss)

Update 20010720: The Indonesian Parliament has stolen a march on President Wahid and will begin impeachment hearings tomorrow.

Stardate 20010718.1823 (On Screen): Non-Americans may not realize how varied the US states are, and may not realize why it is that most of the US holds the states of Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi in such contempt. Perhaps this story will help. In most of the US, you can get a divorce simply by saying you want one; you don't have to justify it, you merely have to file with a court. The main reason a court will get involved is to make sure that division of property is equitable, that there will be payment of alimony if appropriate, and in particular to make sure that any children of the marriage are cared for properly. The court does not usually question the decision to terminate the marriage. But not in Mississippi; there you have to show significant grounds for dissolution of a marriage. It's just one of many reasons why the "Deep South" is the armpit of the US. (discuss)

Stardate 20010718.1804 (On Screen): What anti-abortion activists hate most about RU-486 (mifepristone) is that it is invisible and distributed. There's no concentrated target to picket and harass (and shoot at and set on fire). No clinic is needed; any doctor can prescribe it and any pharmacy can distribute it. As time goes on, more and more doctors will do so. A woman who uses the drug does so before she's become visibly pregnant, and her neighbors will never know. Termination of pregnancy takes place in the privacy of a woman's home. Of course, privacy in decisions like this is anathema; you want it to be traumatic and horrible and painful and public, right? (discuss)

Stardate 20010718.1307 (On Screen): Many people are waxing lyrical about Microsoft's decision to not include their Java virtual machine (not officially called that) in the release version of WinXP, but there's really less to this story than meets the eye. Java will become the same as Flash or PDF: the first time you encounter it, you'll be asked if you want to download a plugin, you'll say "yes", it will be installed, and then you'll never have a problem again. In any case, I don't recall the last site I saw which actually used Java for anything important. Java never found a home as a means of running substantive apps on client machines; its home now is on the server and that won't be affected by this in any important way. It's true that this is a brilliant move by Microsoft, for they have caused an enormous whirl-wind of anti-Java fear by changing their JVM from being available to being available. (discuss)

Update: Just to clarify, they've changed it from being available on the install CD to being available by download from Microsoft's update server.

Stardate 20010718.1242 (On Screen): Yet another dot-com discovers that its business model is unsustainable. This one wanted to sell photographs online. The problem is that they're trying to work as a hooker in a town full of horny co-eds. Why would anyone want to buy photographs when there are so many online available for free? (discuss)

Stardate 20010718.1221 (On Screen): It would be nice to see Larry Ellison make his own mistakes once in a while, instead of slavishly copying everyone else's. This time he's decided to copy Borland's mistake by also offering online storage to businesses. (discuss)

Stardate 20010718.1218 (On Screen): A cocktail waitress in Las Vegas was terminated for refusing to wear make-up, after working at that casino for 18 years. She's suing. In this news report, she asks rhetorically "I was good enough to do my job for 18 years. Suddenly, I wasn't good enough to do my job because I refused to look like a clown."

Here's what the casino isn't going to say in court, though it's the real reason. She was terminated because she'd gotten old. They might have been willing to transfer her to other duties but she probably wouldn't have accepted, because cocktail waitresses on the casino floor make more than anyone else in the casino. They can easily pull in $50 per hour in tips. But the cocktail waitresses are invariably reasonably young, attractive, and (sigh) possessors of average size or larger breasts, which are emphasized by the uniforms they wear. (Especially at the Rio and Mandalay Bay.) Cleavage rules.

There's a good reason why, and it has to do with the fact that the majority of medium and high stakes gamblers are men. Casinos work very hard to create a fantasy environment in their casino. For instance, they want you to bet with chips instead of with cash, because chips don't feel as much like money. You're surrounded with fancy decor, and marvelous carpets, and sitting on a comfortable chair (if you're playing cards), and you're served free drinks where you sit, and all of this is a level of luxury that most of us otherwise only see in the movies. All of this makes things seem a bit unreal, like you're acting in a movie instead of actually living your life. All of us have seen James Bond in casinos and we know our part: to bet a lot of money.

AND you are served by beautiful women wearing revealing clothing showing ample cleavage -- but only on the casino floor. Go almost anywhere else in the resort and the woman may be good looking, but what they wear won't be as revealing and they won't be built like that. I suspect that this doesn't affect women gamblers much one way or the other, but it has the effect on a man of making him extravagant, of pushing the hormones up a notch and making him aggressive, which means he'll make larger bets and take bigger chances. It is instinctive in a man to show off a little in the presence of a beautiful woman and most men don't even realize that they're doing it. If you were to try a controlled study, I suspect you'd find that the same casino on different days where the only change was that the drinks were served by beautiful women in skimpy costumes or by men in suits, that there would be fewer gamblers and lower bets with the men.

Certainly the casinos know this. While they'll hire nearly anyone (there's been a labor shortage in Las Vegas for a long time) they also filter them for jobs. You don't see fat women or 50-year-old women serving drinks on the casino floor; rather, they get to work in the restaurants, or behind the front desk, or as dealers, or somewhere (anywhere!) else. This is not accidental. It's also not something they can admit in court, which is why this case is going to be a big lie by both sides. (I think she knows the truth, too. It's hard to see how she could not know.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010718.1154 (On Screen): I have noticed many times before a substantial difference in the commitment and discipline of the anti-abortion movement and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's that they think they're imitating. The Civil Rights movement made many physical sacrifices, permitting themselves to be beaten by cops and to march in beastly conditions of sunlight or cold. In one high profile case they boycotted the bus system in a major city and walked everywhere they needed to go, to protest "sit in the back" policies.

One of the best tactics of the Civil Rights movement was "Civil Disobedience". This means to deliberately violate a contested law, to then permit yourself to be arrested and tried, and to not contest the arrest in court and to go to jail. By doing this you win the following: you get priceless publicity, you make your movement look virtuous and the law and those who passed it and enforce it look venal, and by so doing you rally people to your cause and diminish support for your opponents. The one critical thing is to go to jail, to not contest the charges. It is by serving time that you make your point.

The anti-abortion movement apparently doesn't march on sunny days because it's too hot. There was a case a few years ago where anti-abortion activists committed civil disobedience and were arrested, but when they came to trial they tried to claim that they should be let off because of the morality of their motivation for breaking the law. All this does is to make them look like lightweight cowards, unwilling to really put it on the line. Pfeh. (discuss)

Stardate 20010718.1135 (On Screen): How to shoot yourself in the foot in one easy lesson. You have a convention attended by or closely followed by the world's greatest collection of hackers, crackers and computer thieves, many of which are ingenious and unprincipled. One of the speakers at that convention is from outside the country, and has finally come within reach, though he can only be charged under a blatantly unconstitutional law which has never really been tested in court before. So you, Adobe, have a talk with the FBI and get them to arrest said feature speaker at said hacker convention, to hold him without bail for felony trial under the DMCA. Nice work.

Adobe is toast. They've bearded the lion in its den. Their web servers will be DOSed, their software will be cracked and distributed widely, and you can forget about the security of their eBooks from now on. Their name is mud with a group of people that no software company wants to really anger. Having Sklyarov arrested won't undo the software he wrote, and it sure as hell won't deter any future attacks. All that Adobe has really done here is to "waken a sleeping giant and fill it with a terrible resolve." The now obsolete "Free Kevin!" will be replaced with "Fuck Adobe!" as the new motto of the movement. Let us sit back and watch the carnage, and wonder at the foolishness of it all. (discuss)

Update 20010719: (big booming voice) It has begun!
Update 20010720: Adobe sez: "This is not an issue of Adobe vs. a software hacker, but is an issue of copyright protection". I beg to differ; this is definitely going to be an issue of hackers against Adobe.

Stardate 20010718.1123 (On Screen): I was born in 1953 and I grew up during the Cold War. I lived my life under the nuclear threat. When I was in first grade, we not only practiced fire drills, where we went out onto the playing field, but we also practiced air raid drills, where we went to the deepest part of the school and "ducked and covered". I just missed being involved in Viet Nam (I was one year too young). NATO was originally formed "to keep America in, Russia out, and Germany down." Russia formed its own alliance in response, the Warsaw Pact, and armies of the two alliances bristled at each other across the Iron Curtain my whole life. It was a very real barrier, too, and many people in Germany and elsewhere died trying to cross it. West Berlin was under siege for more than 40 years, defended by French and British and American soldiers, but even more by the threat of a nuclear exchange. And we all lived with the knowledge that we could be turned to vapor at any instant.

The Cold War was a fact of life as long as I had been alive, right up until I was 36, when the Iron Curtain fell, and USSR dissolved itself. Now Russia wants membership in NATO. Will wonders never cease? (discuss)

Stardate 20010718.1111 (Crew, this is the Captain): I HATE it when I read "The data are..." It makes me cringe. I'm aware that the word data comes from Latin and that it is the plural of datum but we aren't speaking Latin, and in English the word data is a collective singular name for a quantity, linguistically comparable to the words money, fire and evidence. You don't say "how many water are there?" or "How many evidence are there?" do you? You say "How much water is there? How much evidence is there?" Data is a muchness, not a manyness, and muchnesses are singular. Aaargh!!

{This has been a test of the emergency rant system. Had this been an actual rant, your monitor would have melted.} (discuss)

Stardate 20010717.1450 (On Screen): There are web designers who have something of a control fetish, often to the point of believing that they should be able to control what is seen to the level of a pixel. I've even seen web pages which use special commands to control the size of the browser window and to prevent it from being resized by the user. And as we've recently seen, there is a much larger body of control freaks who are willing to grant some semblance of local control but still want to keep most of it (so they'll graciously permit you to resize your window but not to choose the font size or which actual font gets used, let along anything more important).

One of the earliest gargoyles to haunt these people was the ill-fated "Third Voice", which went OOB last year (being one of many, many ill-conceived .COMs with a cool concept but no business plan). While it operated, the screams went up of "They're EDITING my page and CHANGING it." No, not exactly. What Third Voice did was permit you to install a plugin in your browser, and if you did so, then whenever you loaded a page your browser would then consult Third Voice's server to see if anyone had added any stickies to that page. If so then your browser also loaded those stickies and permitted you to see them. And you could add your own stickies. And since none of this had anything whatever to do with your initial connection to the original server, there was nothing that could be done about it by the control freaks (which is why they were so incensed about it). But Third Voice is dead, and the control freaks heaved a sigh of relief.

Not so fast, bucko! W3C has now implemented the Third Voice as a distributed system, with all code being open source. No mere ill-conceived-business-model can slay it; from now on it will be progressively more widespread. And if I understand this properly, then the way it will be implemented is on a subscription model. Instead of getting all or nothing, you'll choose specific sources that you think are worth listening to, and then you'll see their additions without being inundated with irrelevant advertising or inarticulate profanity.

Which means that soon, perhaps within a year, you might be able to subscribe to the Winerlog RDF stream (presumably hosted on a non-Userland server) and see commentary on top of Scripting News. (discuss)

Stardate 20010717.1040 (On Screen): My friend Chris has written yet another of his amusing Tuesday screeds, and while I wish the solution he offers to the salesmen problem, that being government regulation amounting to substantial censorship, were practical there is one little bump in the road: the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Like it not, coporations have a right of free expression and this includes advertising, and they have a right for their salesmen to attempt to visit potential clients. It is true that the government has banned burnable tobacco (but not smokeless tobacco) and hard liquor ads from television, but television is not the same for reasons too complicated to go into here. In newspapers and in person, advertisers have the same right to push their message as we all have to push our messages, no matter what they are. (And for all our hopes for anti-spam laws, they suffer from the same problem.) Too bad; I wouldn't mind the imposition of a minimum one year sentence for the crime of telemarketing. (discuss)

Stardate 20010717.0959 (On Screen): This article tries to contend that Microsoft's "standard" isn't really a standard because real standards come out of industry bodies and are created by consensus. His problem is that he's confusing means and ends.

The purpose of a standard is interoperability. It's true that many interoperable standards are created by standards bodies, but a lot of standards are created by single corporations. Sometimes those standards get published by standards bodies, but sometimes they're simply published by those companies. (And sometimes they're not published at all.) Back when the Bell System still existed, a lot of industry standards were actually created by Bell. For instance, the one-time blazingly fast 1200 baud modem (don't laugh, I loved mine when it was new) was based on Bell 212, a standard issued by Bell Labs. If there was any industry feedback into the development of Bell 212, I never heard of it.

He says "True standards are approved by standards organizations like the IEEE, W3C, and ISO." No. True standards are widely used in a consistent fashion. That's all that's important. It doesn't matter where the standard comes from. (It also doesn't matter if it's only used by products from one company, if those products are very widely used.) There are a lot of standards which have come out of IEEE or ANSI or ISO which are completely useless because they've never been widelyused, whereas there are a lot of broadly-used standards which came directly from companies. Like it or not, a Windows .DOC file is a standard. (discuss)

Stardate 20010717.0842 (On Screen): Borland wants to provide a development collaboration environment which runs on Borland's servers and will be used by other companies over the Internet, for a monthly fee. Gartner, as usual, waxes enthusiastic about it. (Gartner never met a new business proposition they didn't like [for a fee]. Missing here is the usual prediction of it becoming a billion dollar per year business within five years. Probably the author of the piece just left it out.)

They may get a few customers but this isn't really going to be broadly successful. It isn't going to fly for a couple of reasons. No company is going to keep proprietary data central to their business on a server they don't own and can't control and don't even know that much about, where it could be stolen or changed. I'm also not sure that any sane company will build its development environment around an essential service from another company whose financial situation is precarious. That isn't prudent. (discuss)

Stardate 20010717.0804 (On Screen): It's interesting how you can slant a story by how you describe something. The headline on this article reads "Adhesive tubes containing poisonous, flammable ingredient recalled by..." and the ingredient they're describing turns out to be toluene. (The "adhesive tubes" they're describing is more-or-less model airplane glue.) Now toluene is indeed flammable and also poisonous, but these are not particularly unusual characteristics. There are a lot of things which fit that description which we use every day, such as isopropyl alcohol, or acetone (in fingernail polish remover). It's a matter of degree. Toluene isn't explosive, and it isn't "one whiff and you're dead" poisonous, any more than isopropanol is. As long as you're reasonably careful with flame sources and also don't drink the stuff, then you're safe -- which is why it's legal to use toluene in products like this. So what this story is about is that toluene, a legal ingredient, was used but the product didn't include it on the label, which violates regulations. The problem isn't toluene, the problem is labeling. Fair enough. But why the slant?

Toluene could just as easily have been described as "a common solvent", or as "a chemical derived from petroleum". Or if you really wanted to terrify people and raise the rabble, it could have been described as "a compound used to make high explosives" (trinitrotoluene, otherwise known as TNT). All of those descriptions (as well as the one which was used) are true, but in a sense every one of them is misleading. Why couldn't this headline have read "Model airplane glue containing toluene recalled by..."? Someone's trying to make a story where there ain't really one. (discuss)

Stardate 20010717.0753 (On Screen): I've never believed "phone over internet" and I still don't. The only reason for it to exist is as a way of evading long distance charges, but in every other regard it makes no sense at all. The internet is a poor medium in its current form for real-time streaming connections such as video or voice, because those things require short and constant latency, and as many real-time gamers can tell you the internet doesn't offer either of those things.

In the 1960's a satellite was put into geosynchronous orbit over the Atlantic for purposes of carrying voice calls. The first demonstration call made over it was (I believe) televised, in fact. But the problem with it was that the time delay was too great. A bidirectional call had to travel up to the satellite and back down again twice, and this resulted in a half-second delay in the round-trip time. And surprisingly, this makes conversation difficult. A two-tenths second delay is tolerable but half a second is not. So while geosynchronous satellites are big business and carry huge amounts of data, none of it is voice calls. Trans-Atlantic voice calls are carried on undersea cables, which have much less latency. Those same cables (and others like them buried all over the place on dry land) also carry the Internet, but the mechanisms of the internet impose substantial delays, and sometimes it can take a packet a couple of seconds to fly (or crawl) from one place to another. And nothing in WinXP (or any other operating system) is capable of changing that. (discuss)

Stardate 20010717.0746 (On Screen): RIAA's "We love Professor Felten!" act is becoming tiresome. Professor Felten lead a team which last year cracked nearly all of the protection schemes proposed by the now-moribund SDMI, and wanted to publish a paper describing how it was done. Someone at RIAA then sent him a letter threatening him with civil suit and criminal prosecution. Using one of the most fabulous jiu-jitsu moves in recent memory, Professor Felten arrived at the convention where he had planned to deliver his paper and instead stood up and said "We had a good paper we wanted to deliver, but if we do so then RIAA is going to put us in jail and it's not worth the risk." At which point it all hit the fan.

RIAA backtracked immediately and has ever since been trying to claim that their letter wasn't a threat, it was a friendly warning. RIAA actually likes Professor Felten and didn't want him to get into trouble, and was simply offering unsolicited legal advice, just as a friendly gesture. Yeah, right. (Read it yourself and see what you think.) As public damage control that was pretty feeble, but as a reason to dismiss a lawsuit it's preposterous. The threat in the letter is blatant. Court pleadings are not sworn testimony and are not subject to perjury prosecutions, but they can be rejected by the judge, and this one should be. (discuss)

Stardate 20010717.0731 (On Screen): "It's not a bug, it's a feature!" I think someone at Philip Morris must be demented. They are actually touting the lethality of cigarettes as a desirable aspect of the product? After all, by causing premature deaths by the thousands they actually save money. (People who die young of cancer don't require old-age benefit.) Marvelous. Of course, this argument can be applied to any dangerous product: "Of course guns kill people; that's what they're designed to do! And every one which gets knocked off saves you tax dollars. Support gun ownership today!" "Our cars are dangerous and easily flip over, killing their passengers. This is a good thing." "Our children's toys are easily swallowed and make babies choke to death. This is a good thing." And so on. (discuss)

Stardate 20010716.1633 (On Screen): Among bogus internet patents, this one has to take the cake. I can't believe that this is still hanging on, and it sounds like the defendants are using the wrong basis to fight it. It appears they tried to win in the Markman hearing by getting a narrow interpretation of the terms of the patent so that it did not apply to them, followed by a motion for dismissal. That may not now stand with this appeals court decision, but it seems to me that this patent can be challenged both on the basis of prior art and on the basis of obviousness. People were distributing executable programs through Usenet in the 1970's before the Internet as such existed (and long before this patent was filed) and in any case a program is just data, and the Internet was always about the ability to move data of various kinds from one place to another easily. (That was true even in the days of the Arpanet, when the first killer app was FTP.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010716.1518 (On Screen): TV has always had a taste for the unscripted. This goes back to its earliest days. Certainly TV sports was a way of watching something which could not be predicted even by the producers of the shows, but I'm thinking of the quiz shows which became so popular in the 1950's. There was no ability to tape-delay in those days; the only way to create something ahead of time was to film it and it was easy to tell when this was done, so when "The $64,000 question" ran on TV, people knew that it was live. Of course, the fact that it was live didn't mean it wasn't rehearsed. It was possible for a quiz show to be non-fun to watch. No-one wants to see someone miss all the questions, so producers started feeding the answers to the contestants ahead of time. It all blew wide open with a scandal about a show called Twenty-one with two contestants called Herb Stempel and Charles Van Doren. The reason was simple: an exciting show meant high ratings, which meant better advertising revenue. QED

So I can't say I'm surprised that word is beginning to leak out that the "cage" shows (e.g. Survivor, Real World) are somewhat less than totally spontaneous. They're among the highest rated shows on TV today, during a time when the big TV networks are gut-fighting against each other for larger shares of the declining overall ratings for big-network TV. The 1950's quiz show scandals actually lead to congressional investigations; maybe that's needed now? I think it is precisely the purported spontaneity which attracts the voyeur instinct here (but I'm guessing because I've never watched any of them). A good high-profile rigging scandal would take the wind out of the ratings of these shows. If someone wants scripted conflict, they'd do better with "All My Children". At least the actors would have more talent and the camera angles would be better. (discuss)

Stardate 20010716.1343 (On Screen): Back in the stone age of 1980, before the Internet existed, it was possible for a company to make a big mistake and get away with it. While a major gaff might get publicized by TV news or some major news magazine, most of the time if you "kicked a puppy" it wouldn't get broad publicity.

No longer. Any signficant company which makes any kind of foolish mistake with a customer or business partner or nearly anyone else is going to have to deal with the fact that news of it will be all over the world in hours and may result in a deafening protest from tens of thousands of real or potential customers. This means that companies are going to have to watch their step from now on. (discuss)

Stardate 20010716.1212 (On Screen): Jack's in New York, waiting feverishly for Wednesday's presentation by The Steve at MacWorld New York. I've been enjoying immensely the speculation aired on As the Apple Turns for a long time now (recommended even for non-Mac users), and I thought I'd turn to bridge station number three, and power up the sub-space crystal ball. So, into the breach, my friends:

  • Apple will report only a slight profit, or perhaps a loss
  • Gross sales will be down year-over-year
  • There will be no 1 GHz Mac available soon. It's possible that one will be announced for long term delivery but it won't become generally available before October (because Motorola won't be able to deliver in quantity).
  • There will be no LCD iMac. There will be a new iMac, which will have a larger CRT and a faster G3.
  • Every "SteveNote" has to have at least one semblance of a knock 'em dead announcement, and this time it will be about stores, not about products.
  • OSX is not yet ready for primetime and units will continue to ship with both OSX and OS9 on them.
  • Sensors indicate a 50% chance of another rigged demo to reassure the faithful that they have the fastest retail desktop computer, even though they don't.

And in a couple of days we'll see how well Federation sensor technology can penetrate a Reality Distortion Field™. (Let's hope the Cardassians don't get hold of it.) (discuss)

Update 20010718: Looks like subspace technology works pretty well after all.

Stardate 20010716.1151 (On Screen): Microsoft is not composed of angels. I am severely critical of their upcoming attempt to switch from one-time sale of their software to a yearly fee for use, for instance. But sometimes they're in a situation where no matter what they do they're going to get criticized. Consider the issue of support for MP3 and DVD in WinXP. They originally announced that they would have no support for MP3 in XP (though you could add it with a third party plugin) and people complained. Then they were going to put in 64Kbit encoding, and people complained that it was lousy quality. Now they've decided to provide that capability with high quality. But if they had done so as part of the base price, they would have been criticized for "bundling and shutting out competitors". So they've decided to charge a fairly high fee ($30 for MP3 and DVD capability) and people are complaining that it is too expensive. Just what, exactly, could Microsoft have done here which would not inspire criticism (besides, perhaps, liquidate its assets and go out of business)? Maybe we should all save our criticism for the cases which deserve it (like "software as a service"). (discuss)

Stardate 20010716.1049 (On Screen): The American Civil War was a revolutionary war in more than one way. Not only was it a political revolution of part of the United States, but it was a technological revolution in warmaking. It features a number of firsts: first broad use of breech-loading repeating rifles by combatants (Union cavalry), first use of the machine gun (Gatling Gun by the Union), first war controlled by modern telecommunications (telegraph), and the first major war supplied by modern cargo transport (railroad). (In fact, Union engineers actually laid railroad track behind Union lines at the siege of Fredericksburg.) It also completely revolutionized naval warfare, for it featured the first modern battleship.

In January 1862 the world's navies were modern and powerful. By July 1862 every warship in the world was obsolete except one: USS Monitor. Not only did she have a steel hull and no sails at all, but she was the first warship in history to have a turret for her main guns. As a result, the tiller no longer aimed the weaponry. Monitor could shoot any direction, irrespective of the ship's heading. Monitor saw her first action against CSS Virginia (sometimes incorrectly referred to in books as "Merrimac"). Virginia had sortied the day before against a Union blockade squadron and sank USS Cumberland and USS Congress and chased USS Minnesota onto shoal water where she grounded, while all the Union ships fired at Virginia and watched in horror as their shot bounced off her sloping armor. The next day, Virginia sortied again to finish off Minnesota. Monitor was ordered to protect Minnesota. The first time a ball from Virginia's guns hit Monitor's turret, the frightened gun crew reported "We've been hit!" The captain asked what had happened, and they reported that it made a dent. The captain responded "That's what's supposed happen!" and then the gun crew, immensely relieved, returned to work.

Virginia mounted far more guns than Monitor, but Monitor's two guns were far larger. Still, neither ship could hurt the other, and no-one on either ship was seriously harmed in the battle. Virginia did not manage to sink Minnesota and ultimately withdrew from the battle, which is generally judged by history to be a draw. Virginia could claim two sinkings before Monitor showed up, and Monitor could claim to have protected Minnesota.

Monitor was radical but it did have drawbacks. In December 1862 she foundered in heavy seas, was abandoned, and sank. She has been found and for the last two years there has been a considerable effort expended to try to retrieve parts of her from the deep. Last year they brought up her propeller and now they've retrieved her steam engine. It is good that these things be done; we should remember USS Monitor as being the most radical innovation in surface warship design since the invention of the sail, and honor the volunteer crew that risked their lives in her to serve their nation. (discuss)

Stardate 20010716.0847 (On Screen): After a disastrous crash in Paris, all the Concordes were grounded. Since they they've undergone massive testing and now BA is about to make a test flight with a Concorde, preparatory to beginning commercial flights again.

I don't know why they're bothering. The Concorde's problem was a combination of low passenger capacity and very high operating expense, which meant that to break even it would need to charge a very high price per seat. While it's true that it can cross the Atlantic in half the time of a 747, the 747 can charge a quarter the ticket price, and its 10 hour flight is not really onerous. As a result, BA and the other airlines which have operated the Concorde have routinely lost money on every flight, even when full. Why are they straining to bring a proven money loser back online? (discuss)

Update 20010722: I stand corrected. It seems that they were charging $9000 (!!) for a round trip ticket, and at that exorbitant price it would indeed have been able to operate it profitably.