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Stardate 20010811.1731 (On Screen): A guy in Pennsylvania has been terminated for having Confederate Flag stickers on his truck and lunchbox and for refusing to remove them. If that is the reason he was terminated, then it's probably wrong, since it violates his right of free speech. But though he's going to court over it, that's not the grounds he's using, and I have to wonder about the sanity of his lawyer.

He's claiming that he's being discriminated against because of his national origin, to wit "Confederate Southern American." He's entitled to try that in court but it's not going to fly, I'm afraid. The US government never legally recognized the Confederate States of America, and I don't think a court now will recognize that as an official ethnic group. His loonie theory suggest to me the possibility that he was really terminated for something else. (discuss)

Stardate 20010811.0728 (On Screen): RAMBUS corporation's situation just took yet another step downward. Having staked its future heavily on a portfolio of patents it claimed covered SDRAM (used in most computers sold today) it lost a major lawsuit about those patents against Infineon and still faces a huge number of other lawsuits around the world. Expenses are rising, and income is falling -- and its stock has tanked. Now a class-action shareholder lawsuit has been filed based on the fact that Rambus was found to have committed fraud in getting the patents it claimed covered SDRAM, patents that its corporate officers have been pumping in their reports to stockholders. (heh-heh-heh...) (discuss)

Update: They've also been ordered to pay Infineon's $7.1 million in legal fees for a "baseless, unjustified and frivolous" lawsuit. (In their most recent quarter for which they've filed a report, they had a net income of $8 million.)

Stardate 20010811.0613 (On Screen): Girls today want to wear clothes which scandalize their parents. Well, of course they do! When, in the 20th century, was that not the case? Today they want to imitate Britney Spears. At other times it's been other icons. Right now it's short skirts and bare tummies; at other times it's been makeup, or pointy bras, or spike heels, or hair styles, or nylon stockings and garter belts, or body-piercing and tattoos. It's always something. But this is simply one part of a larger struggle: kids insist on growing up; girls want to be women, boys want to be men, and that prospect fills their parents with abject terror.

The odd thing about this is that "adolescence" (as the last stage of childhood) is a 20th century invention. For most of history, in most places in the world, effective adulthood began about age 14, if not even younger. I believe that Bar Mitzvah happens at age 12 for girls, doesn't it? Adolescence is a recent creation. "Traditional family values" would have most of those girls married by age 14 (and pregnant by 16). Depending, of course, on just how far back the traditions in your family really run. (discuss)

Stardate 20010811.0524 (On Screen): The one irreducible fact about the situation in Israel of which I'm absolutely certain is that there can be no peace as long as there are Isreali "settlements" in the West Bank and Gaza. (discuss)

Stardate 20010811.0513 (On Screen): It's interesting how the state-of-the-art can create a technology niche that thrives, and then annihilate it in less than 30 years. The old Wang corporation became a giant creating customized (and expensive) word processing units, but got eaten from below by the PC. And in fact microprocessors have been slowly eating all other aspects of computing from below for a long time. There was a time when the "micro" in "microprocessor" referred to relative performance. Now all it refers to is physical size, power consumption and price (where low is good). The fastest computer that IBM makes is based on a microprocessor. So the heyday of the traditional "super-computer" is over. These days, the most powerful computers are large arrays of standard off-the-shelf PC processors. While "Cray" used to be a name to conjure with, these days their computers are passť. The largest "computer" in existence now is the distributed SETI@HOME system, which easily dwarfs anything else in existence. The Cray SV1, lauded in this article, is 4.8 GFLOPS, but SETI@HOME right now is 22,000 GFLOPS. And though the first Cray's were sold to places like Los Alamos for nuclear weapons research, these days when those places need huge amounts of number crunching they build big arrays of microprocessors (and run Linux on them). (discuss)

Stardate 20010811.0448 (On Screen): I understand the emotional need people have for children of their own, but in some cases it is taking us into ethical places where I think we should not go. It's no longer just that they want children, but that they want them on their own terms. That raises the question of motivation: are you having kids for your own sake or for the sake of the kids themselves? Having kids is a sacrifice; if it's not for their benefit then you shouldn't be doing it. You don't have kids because they'll look good in the backseat of the BMW. When we get to the point of Baby King ("Have it your way!") then we've gone too far.

So it's even worse that we've reached the point of ordering a child from the baby store and then rejecting it upon delivery, as is going to happen in this case. "We'll take one, but not two." Sorry. That doesn't fly. The ethical decision to deliberately start the extraordinary process of in-vitro fertilization and use of a host-mother includes the ethical responsibility to accept the babies that result and live with them. If you've gone that far out of your way to create children, then you better have really examined your motives ahead of time and be ready to accept the results of what you've done. (discuss)

Update: Here's local coverage from San Diego, where the lawsuit was filed.

Update 20010814: Faced with publicity and a legal threat, the couple have found someone who is willing to take the babies.

Stardate 20010810.1703 (Crew, this is the Captain): I just saw an ad on TV for a candy bar which has been vitamin fortified. The key scene was of a beautiful healthy (thin) woman taking a bite out of the candy bar and then smiling blissfully as captions swirled around the screen, being the names of various vitamins which she was consuming in this vitamin-fortified lump of sucrose. It was pretty pathetic, actually. The holy grail for candy manufacturers is to somehow convince the public that their candy is good for you. It's commonly known that in excess candy will make you fat, and in the US (where this ad ran) being fat is generally considered to be undesirable. One way to help prevent that is to not eat candy very often, but that's just what the candy companies don't want. If they can somehow make it "part of this complete breakfast" then sales will rise. So occasionally one or another of them will make yet another attempt to make their confection seem to be healthy. So far it hasn't worked.

One time when I was in a shopping mall in Massachusetts I got accosted by a very cute young lady who invited me into a storefront to participate in a product test. Turned out it was for what eventually was marketed as the "Whatchamacallit" bar from Hershey, and they weren't testing the candy. They were trying out an advertising campaign. They did give me candy, but mostly what they wanted me to do was to look at a print advertisement which emphasized all the healthy ingredients which were included it it. Then I had to fill out a long questionnaire, which was an interesting experience. Someone really slaved over that questionaire, but it could have been summarized as the following two questions and answers: Does the ad say that this candy is healthy and good for you? Yes. I understand that that's what you want me to think. Do you believe it? Not even slightly. I never saw any attempt to advertise this particular kind of candy that way. Apparently I wasn't the only one who wasn't convinced. (discuss)

Stardate 20010810.1619 (On Screen): Apparently the Blogdex crawler is less than sophisticated, since it ain't crawling. I registered my site with it earlier this week, and it seems to have visited me on the 7th. I had an explicit link to Keith's site on the front page, but not to Lia or Sean or Chris or Cat or Brian and Bill. Rather, I had links to their result pages at Blogdex, and since then I've been watching a couple of them to see when or if I would show up. Finally it occurred to me: unlike some people I don't keep my list of links on the front page. Rather, I have a separate page for that. Well, Blogdex isn't following any subsidiary links, evidently; it only found things directly linked from the front page. So I showed up on Keith's list but not on Lia's. Rather unimpressive, actually, but what do you expect from academic resources? So this log entry is, to some extent, an excuse to actually really link to those people's pages, but since I only keep a 3-day history on my front page (as wordy as I am) it may be futile if I don't get visited again soon. We'll see how it goes. But this means that the Blogdex listing is even more distorted; it not only favors only those people who run in circles who would be likely to register their sites, but also generally those people whose friends load down their front pages with huge lists of links. Pfeh. What, exactly, is this project really trying to learn or prove? (discuss)

Update 20010811: What do you know? They found the change this morning.

Stardate 20010810.1503 (On Screen): In the Academy-award winning cartoon "Duck Amuck", Daffy Duck is locked in combat with the animator who is creating the film in which Daffy appears. At one point after the backdrop has changed from a farm to a snowfield to a tropical island, Daffy looks straight out at the camera (presumably at the animator) and says "Is it too much to ask that we make up our minds? Hmm?"

Sun has taken out full-page ads asking customers to put pressure on Microsoft to include a Java virtual machine in Win XP. Didn't they go to court not too long ago precisely to get a court order forbidding exactly that? (discuss)

Stardate 20010810.1007 (On Screen): I'm a big fan of baseball. Baseball has been played for 130 years, and at this point the baseball rulebook is huge and reads like something written by Congress. A couple of nights ago in a game I watched, a player hit a grounder which skimmed just fair past first base, then rolled foul (and thus was a fair ball) and into the corner of the stadium. There it encountered a large beer cup some fan had dropped over the edge of the grandstand and rolled into it and got stuck. The fielder ran over to it but rather than trying to wrestle it clear and play it, he stood there and pointed at it. The first base umpire ran over and looked at it. (Meanwhile, the batter had rounded the bases and gone home.) Then the four umpires huddled over it for quite a while, and then ruled that the play was a double because of "interference". The announcers read the relevant portion of the rulebook which described how if a ball became entangled in ivy then it was a double, and said that this was clearly the same thing.

But of all the rules in baseball, the two most important are these:

  1. The umpire is always right.
  2. When the umpire is wrong, please consult rule #1.

The last election is over, folks. The wrong man won, but the umpire has made his decision and it's time to get on with playing the game. The voting system is flawed and needs to be upgraded, but we already knew that and that's going to happen. Rehashing the details of the last election at this point is useless.

Sometimes on a close call the umpire has to make what amounts to a random decision. A pitch on the edge of the zone might be in or out; but it has to be called a ball or a strike. A throw may arrive at the same time as a runner; but he's either out or safe. The umpire (Supreme Court) makes a decision and the game goes on. In the long run the calls even out. (discuss)

Update: Perhaps one of the reasons I'm not as upset about this as some people is that I know that it is inevitable. In 1954, Kenneth Arrow proved mathematically that it is impossible to create a truly fair voting system. Setting out a list of six axioms about fairness, he proved that no system existed which satisfied all six. This was such a startling and pernicious result that a lot of people scrutinized his proof looking for errors, and no-one has found one. In 1972, Arrow won the Nobel Prize in Economics for this work. In other words, it was never a question of whether our system would malfunction, only a question of when.

Stardate 20010810.0822 (On Screen): What will a PDA be like in future? Let's dust off the sub-space crystal ball and take a look. I think the future is convergence. What you see on the market now is a lot of devices intended for pocket or belt which include a lot of electronics but which perform different duties. The future of the PDA is integration of these devices into a single device. So in ten years, the modal PDA will not only be a pocket computer, but will also contain a cell phone and a camera (and the abilities of a pager via its cell phone). It be able to access the Internet. It will include a GPS receiver. It will have voice-memo capability. It will be able to store and play high quality digital music through headphones. And, perhaps most surprisingly of all, I think it will include a small flashlight for emergency use. (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20010810.0801 (On Screen): So Fearless Leader finally made his decision about stem cells, one which has been pending for a long time. (Here's prior coverage in these pages: ) It was a no-win situation for him. His core conservative supporters wanted an outright ban, whereas the scientific and humanitarian case for research was damned near overwhelming. It certainly didn't make the case any easier when Nancy Reagan, not exactly a bleeding heart liberal, came out in favor of stem cell research because of its potential use in treating Alzheimer's disease. There's no way that it will yield a treatment in time to help President Reagan, but it was still symbolic of the fact that this is not a pure liberal-versus-conservative argument. I would venture to say that liberal voices spoke nearly unanimously on this in favor of research, but the conservative side of the equation was distinctly fractured. Arch-liberal (heh) Senator Orrin Hatch came out in favor, for instance.

Still, the compromise decision really satisfied no-one. (Some say that's the hallmark of a good decision.) But on balance, it's a lot better for the pro-research side than for the anti-research side. I've been cruising my usual straight-news haunts today and was initially surprised by how negative the reaction was from the right on this, given that from my point of view this is more conservative than compassionate. For instance, the Washington Post refers to it as a "break with conservatives." The hierarchy of the Catholic Church didn't like it.

Comments from the compassionate side, on the other hand, are surprisingly muted. Actually, the largest clamor has been over Bush's claim that there already existed 60 lines of stem cells, which he considered adequate for research. Consensus seems to be that the number of ones which haven't become corrupted one way or another is actually nearer 30 and may be more like 15, and that this is not enough to provide enough genetic diversity for clinical practice. For instance, here's coverage in the SF Chronicle and Nando Times. And inevitably this decision affected the price of certain corporate stocks.

On balance, though this decision didn't give advocates of research everything they wanted, this is a limited victory. It's really no wonder that opponents are upset about it. Research until now has been severely limited by funding. Now funding should rise tenfold beginning next year sometime (the process of issuing grants is slow) and in fairly short order positive results will begin to emerge; this will in turn make it progressively more difficult in future for the opponents to argue against it, and will increasingly marginalize their point of view.

This is a decision for now, not a decision forever. We're going to keep visiting it. But this is actually very good for advocates of this research. The biggest worry is the limited number of useful cell lines already in existence, but I don't think that's a problem. There's a difference between the process of researching things and the process of reducing it to clinical practice. The number of cell lines in existence may well be enough to allow research. There's no question that it's not enough for clinical practice, but on that front there's hope. First, the Japanese are going to be continuing to create new cell lines. Second, once this reaches the point of clinical practice, researchers should be able to abandon federal funding and find private funding which doesn't restrict creation of new cell lines. Third, if they reach the point of clinical practice and can demonstrate unambiguously that there isn't enough genetic diversity among the cells being used, that will put tremendous pressure on the US government to relax the restrictions and permit new cell lines to be created from discarded fetuses at fertility clinics.

So it's a win for the good guys. Not the win we wanted, but a lot better than it could have been. My most speculative analysis about this relates to why Fearless Leader decided to reveal his decision now, instead of a month ago or a month from now. I think the reason is that he wanted to do it during the Congressional recess. Had he done it while Congress was in session, there would have been speeches and bills introduced and basic grandstanding by everyone on every side. As it is, they won't be returning to Washington for at least three more weeks, and by then the issue won't be quite as much on the front burner. Congress will still have to deal with this (they have to provide the funds, after all) but perhaps, just perhaps, they'll think a bit more and posture a bit less. It was worth a try, anyway. (discuss)

Update: The Brits also are going to be permitting creation of new lines of stem cells. But the EC is opposed to this and wants all members to stop. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Stardate 20010809.1731 (On Screen): Anyone want to place a wager on how much longer it will be before Salon packs it in and shuts down? The new clever plan is to start charging for use of their previously-free online discussion system. I seriously doubt that's going to bring in much revenue, though it may cut down on traffic (and thus bandwidth expense) by driving people away. And since they started selling subscriptions, they've managed to get less than 12,000 people to pay, which is pretty miserable. In the last year they lost $2.9 million, but they just found someone-or-other to plow another $2.5 million into the company. I think the only thing which could save Salon now would be a rebound in advertising rates, which seems extremely unlikely (to say the least). I give 'em a year, then they'll either shutter or get acquired by AOL (to counter MSN's Slate). (discuss)

Stardate 20010809.1716 (On Screen): The problem with the upcoming international conference on racism is that most of the attendees want to be selected ahead of time as officially designated victims, worthy of sympathy (read "payments") for past racism. Of course, there's only so much room on center stage for victims, so anyone else trying to get that role isn't welcome. And of course, no-one wants the role of officially designated oppressor (read "deep-pocket"). This isn't going to be a conference, it's going to be a morality play (and a melodrama at that). (discuss)

Update 20010810: The US is being accused of "ducking the slavery issue" by a prominent African-American. Not at all. What the US is trying to duck is a shakedown.

Stardate 20010809.1436 (On Screen via long range sensors): The Captain will admit that there are some genetic experiments which really do go too far. I don't want to see beefsteak tomatoes which actually run around and graze, for instance. And I definitely draw the line at this monstrosity. It's amazing it wasn't stillborn, quite frankly, and it's a face not even a mother can love. That strange birthmark on the side has got to go. (shudder) (discuss)

Stardate 20010809.1409 (On Screen): After the death of pope Gregory XI in 1378, the college of Cardinals met to select a successor, as was their custom. However, the Vatican was surrounded by an unruly crowd who demanded that an Italian be selected and wouldn't accept otherwise. They broke into the palace and made their demands, and then remained there drinking and and chanting. The Cardinals, frightened by this and fearing for life and limb, were forced into a quick selection and chose Bartolomeo Prignano to serve as Urban VI. But he was not a wise choice and proceeded to alienate many governments and high church leaders. Later the cardinals, travelling away from Rome, met again and selected Robert of Geneva as pope to serve under the name Clement VII. Urban VI held power in Rome while Clement VII established himself in Avignon. Europe divide about evenly in support between them. Thus began the "Western Schism". Robert comes down to us as the "antipope". The result was war. Many thought that it presaged the end of the world as described in the biblical book of Revelations.

The succession of the Dalai Lama is in doubt. According to tradition, each time the Dalai Lama dies, he is reincarnated and reselected for the office. The remaining lamas then find the child in which he was reborn and that child becomes the next Dalai Lama. It is, of course, not revealed how they determine this fact. The current Dalai Lama is 66 and fled from Tibet in 1959 and has lived in exile in India ever since. He's still healthy and vigorous but he won't live forever. He has been a thorn in the side of China ever since going into exile, and China says that when he dies the Chinese will identify his successor. He has predicted that the successor will not be found amongst people living in Tibet, and will instead be found by the lamas living with him in India. I believe we're going to see a repeat of history, with two simultaneous Dalai Lamas. I hope it isn't as bloody as the last time. (discuss)

Stardate 20010809.1336 (On Screen): Well, our beloved President is finally going to announce his decision on federal funding of stem cell research this evening, so it's time to make book on what he'll say. Given this administration's predilection for "My way and to hell with the rest of you's" I predict he's going to go hardcore conservative on us and ban it. He'll go full conservative, no compassion, on the "compassionate conservative" scale. (And then Congress will try to override him.)

The EC just announced that it intended to try to enforce a ban on stem cell research in all member countries. Fortunately, the Japanese have announced their intention to pursue research. (discuss)

Update: Well, it could have been worse. He ended up going with the compromise which got floated so long ago: destroy no new fetuses but continue working with existing stem cell lines already harvested.

Stardate 20010809.1202 (On Screen): This article discusses a lawsuit which happened in Texas. DuPont had a plant there and had a permit from the EPA to inject hazardous wastes deep into the ground. The rules involved in getting permission to do that include making sure that the wastes won't get into ground water or anywhere else that humans go for at least 10,000 years, and DuPont satisfied EPA that this would be the case. (More on this in a moment.) But a neighbor, a member of a well established and famous family (who literally had roots extending back to the revolution against Mexico) sued claiming that a leak had rendered their property less valuable, and asked for $173 million.

When you read the way that the case is originally described, it's easy to see why the plaintiff's attorneys thought they could shake down DuPont this way. But DuPont decided "millions for defense, but not one dime for tribute" and fought in court. One of critical points in the court case was that the wastes were being pumped into a salt-water aquifer some 4000 feet down, and that water was not only salty but also contaminated with arsenic. The wastes which DuPont was putting into it were much less hazardous than what was already naturally down there. So it was clear that this water wasn't getting into normal well water or the soil, because if it did the naturally-occurring arsenic in it would kill everything. DuPont fought not because they thought that this settlement would be a problem but because they feared that a settlement in this case would open them up to dozens of other similar lawsuits elsewhere. And DuPont won, even though all the cards were stacked against them. (discuss)

Stardate 20010809.1139 (On Screen): Here's a riddle: What's the difference between a stripper and a cheerleader for the Philadelphia Eagles? Hmmm... give me a moment... that's a toughie... (think, think, think) (discuss)

Update: I know! A stripper makes more money!

Stardate 20010809.0936 (On Screen): In the discussion about genetic engineering of food crops, some of the opponents are really beginning to reach in order to find doomsday scenarios they can use aganst it. This group claims that there's a danger of genetically-engineered traits moving out of food crops into closely related weed species. But that danger has been with us as long as we've been genetically manipulating crops (i.e. thousands of years). The key phrase here is "closely related". In actual practice, the weeds which grow in a given area are unlikely to be sufficiently closely related that this would actually happen. The example given was domesticated and wild radishes, Obviously those are sufficiently closely related to be able to crossbreed if insects (or humans) carry pollen back and forth. But a wild radish won't do anything interesting with pollen from GM corn or rice or cotton or potatoes. And even in cases where domesticated crops are grown near wild relatives (i.e. canola and rapeseed, corn and teosinte) it's not clear that movement of genes into the wild stock would really be an issue. It's not, after all, as if we use a domesticated version of kudzu yet. This is yet another smoke-screen, another opportunity for hysteria. Look out! There's a 40 foot tall dandelion and it's trying to eat my dog! (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20010809.0501 (On Screen): As if to demonstrate yet again the futility of trying to filter the Web to protect children, Mickey Kaus recently was informed that AOL's parental filtering had put him on the blackest of blacklists, so that his site couldn't even be accessed at the setting of "Mature Teens". (My Goodness!) To this day he has never figured out exactly what it was that set off their spider, but it was an automated response to something or other that he wrote. The web is just too large and changing too fast for human evaluation of every site. The alternative is a permission-based system instead of a block-based system, where you can only see sites if they've been approved. Apple tried this and it rendered the web useless for its users because nearly everything was off-limits. As a result, it was hardly used at all and recently Apple announced they were ending the program.

Of course, if USS Clueless had somehow managed to land on one or another of the parental block lists I doubt I'd know. My regular readers (all five of you) are not generally the kind of people who'd be using that kind of software.

Perhaps the most interesting revelation is that Kaus found out that AOL only evaluates most sites once every 90 days. Do you have any idea how many porn sites spring up every 90 days? Thousands, baby, thousands -- to judge from my email. My friends Ashley, Heather and Desiree have been telling me all about them. (Nice ladies! I wish I could remember where I met them, though.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010808.2332 (On Screen): How about that? "Fuck you!" is protected speech under the First Amendment, according to the 9th Circuit Court. (Somehow I always thought it was, really.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010808.2325 (On Screen): This article attempts to make a case that the Eighth Amendment ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" critically depends on the definition of "unusual", and that it may include international practice as well as practice in the US. Thus the European disdain for the death penalty might actually have legal and Constitutional force in the US. This argument is weakly made by analogy.

It is a legal fact that "unusual" within the US includes practice of all the states, so if a given form of punishment goes out of favor in most of the states, then its use by the remaining few might then violate the Eighth Amendment. Then it asks "If American judges may properly canvass the evolving principles and practices of democratic states on this side of the North Atlantic, why shouldn't they also consider the evolving norms of other advanced democracies?" The answer is that the states on the far side of the Atlantic (i.e. Europe) aren't governed by the US Constitution. (Nor, for that matter, are all the democratic states on this side of the Atlantic such as, say, Ontario.) The political decisions made in Europe aren't necessarily trustworthy; they may not represent the will of their people and they certainly don't represent the will of the people of the US. Their courts are not controlled by US constitutional guarantees. Thus their practice, whether more harsh or more benign, are (or should be) legally uninteresting. The practices of the states of Oregon or Maine are important to practice in Alabama because all of them play by the same rules. But France doesn't, for example. (In the French legal system there is no presumption of innocence.) Nor does Britain. (In Britain, hereditary [i.e. unelected] aristocracy has a say in the practice of their government all out of proportion to their numbers simply as voters.) If those nations were governed according to the rules of the US Constitution, it's not obvious that their laws and legal practice would be the same as they are now. (On the contrary, it's obvious that they'd be different. This law, if passed in the US, would be blatantly unconstitutional.)

The reason that the practice of some states is relevant to the practice of others is not because of the Eighth Amendment's use of the word "unusual", but because of the explicit requirement by the Fourteenth Amendment that the states not deny equal protection under the law. Clearly that has nothing to do with Europe. (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20010808.2151 (On Screen via long range sensors): This is a very interesting article, since it utters heresies. It discusses myths associated with environmentalism, such as predictions from the 1970's of world-wide famine by now (which didn't happen). I think the most interesting point it makes is that environmental organizations have a vested interest in exaggerating the seriousness of the situation, since the worse things sound, the more donations the environmental organizations will take in. Announcing that the polar icecaps will melt in five years will result in a lot more money than announcing that they'll melt in five hundred years. Announcing the imminent extinction of 50% of the world's species will raise more funds than an announcement of 1%. So when (to be charitable) the evidence is ambiguous and permits many different extrapolations, the environmentalist organizations will tend to interpret it in the worst possible light.

Another interesting point made is that even if the US had ratified and complied with the Kyoto protocol, the result would have been a negligible change in the global warming scenario. As the article puts it, the expected state of affairs in 2094 would have been postponed to 2100, at colossal expense. Hardly seems worth it, does it? (discuss)

Update 20010809: Here's more coverage about the same guy.

Stardate 20010808.1704 (On Screen): Sometimes I think that Marvel Comics hasn't had an original idea since Stan Lee retired. DC decided to kill off Superman, so Marvel decided that Reed Richards would die. (They both got better.) Now, it seems, the bodies are piling up high at both publishers. I suppose one reason why is that they just are getting too cluttered; new heroes are being created constantly and the comic book universes are getting crowded. It seems as if you can't throw a rock in Gotham City any longer without hitting someone in a colored costume. Still, it also suggests serious desperation on the part of the publishers, because the market has collapsed. Time was when a big issue of a popular title might sell 5 million copies. Now they think 200,000 is good. But who wants to read about the derring do of fancy heroes when you can be one yourself with a computer or game console? Especially when that game can be had for the price of 12 comic books? (discuss)

Stardate 20010808.1638 (On Screen): In defense of his faith-based circumvention of the First Amendment, our beloved President has said "There's great debate in Washington about the process, the legalities of the initiative. What my administration talks about is the results of the initiative." He can't be serious. There are lots of good things which could be accomplished if we were just willing to rip up the Bill of Rights. Get rid of that pesky Fourth Amendment requirement for search warrants and we could probably eliminate illicit drugs. Ignore the Second Amendment and start seizing every gun in private hands and we could significantly decrease violent crime. And if we could just forget about the Fifth Amendment and legally force confessions in court, we could really up the conviction rate, don't you think? And if they get off, well, just try 'em again, and keep at it until you get a conviction. (discuss)

Update: Speaking of ignoring civil liberties in the name of crime suppression... Ye Gods!

Stardate 20010808.1620 (On Screen): Among the uninitiated, Intel's P4 sounds as if it should be a more powerful computer than the AMD Athlon because it runs at a higher clock rate. However, there are a number of technical reasons why it isn't really, although that varies by application. But generally speaking, a 1.4 GHz Athlon Thunderbird is approximately as powerful (in practical terms of getting things done) as a 1.8 GHz P4. Not to put too fine a point on it, Intel has pretty badly botched the P4 design and it's probably going to take it a couple of upgrade cycles to fix the glaring problems with it; and in the mean time its actual performance is not commensurate with its purported clock rate. Intel made at least four major errors in the design.

AMD is trying to increase its marketshare, which necessarily will happen at the expense of Intel. So far AMD has done a superb job of it, carving a full ten points off Intel's share in the last couple of years. Last time they announced figures they had 21%; they're hoping for 30% by the end of calendar 2001 and though they admit that it's an aggressive goal (especially during an industry slump) they may pull it off. It's certain that their marketshare will continue to rise. (Intel has announced plans to take marketshare back, but they have almost no chance of that.) AMD comes into this struggle with considerable assets. AMD's chips are cheaper to manufacture, so they can win any price war. The quality of their designs is well known among fans of the bleeding edge, the so-called "early adopters", the computer hobbyists and hard core gamers and computer geeks. These people are generally recognized as having influence all out of proportion to their numbers, because when more mainstream users want a computer they'll often seek out their nearest hobbyist and ask for an opinion, and these days overwhelmingly said hobbyist will say "Go with AMD". AMD's biggest problems so far have been weaknesses in certain sectors, particularly in laptops and in workstations, but with introduction of new products this year (chipsets and processors) they have made that good and now are capable of competing in all segments, instead of only competing in the desktop segment as they did last year.

But their biggest asset in convincing the public that their ostensibly-slower chips really are as powerful is that this is actually true and has been proved many times by independent tests (and those with Thunderbird, not even the new and faster-per-clock-cycle Palomino, alias the Athlon 4). This is in stark contrast to a certain other company who is grousing about the "megahertz myth". Note to Steve: test with something other than carefully selected Photoshop filters and test against the Athlon, if you've got the cojones. (discuss)

Stardate 20010808.1542 (On Screen): The CEO of Palm has conceded that Palm hasn't been aggressive enough. But he's wrong about what mistake they've made. He thinks they should have been more aggressive in selling to large corporations. Actually, they should have been more aggressive in product design. In a market which thrives on novelty and gee-whiz, Palm has sat nearly still in terms of product features for two years -- and is now wondering why it is that Compaq is eating their lunch. Palm only released a model with a color display this year, and they're only now beginning the slow process of switching to the ARM, which can provide much more compute power than the DragonBall processor they're currently using.

Palm has unquestionably suffered a failure in marketing. But it isn't a failure in targeted sales; it's a failure in overall market assessment and planning. Palm has lost the Red Queen's race. (discuss)

Update: The situation now is that Compaq holds the high ground, because it's iPaq is more expensive but also far more powerful. Palm is defending from below; it's only advantage is price. But Compaq can use a number of well-understood processes to bring their price down (not least of which is economy of scale as volume picks up), whereas Palm has a tough job to catch up in features. And it's not like Palm had no warning that this was coming, since Microsoft has been gunning for them with various versions of WinCE for three years.

Update: Of course, the last thing that Palm needs is absurd lawsuits.

Stardate 20010808.1250 (On Screen): This article describes the impending sale of an Agatha Christie book in digital format which will erase itself after ten hours. That's described as being "more than enough time" to read it -- but most people don't read a book cover to cover in a single sitting. One of the joys of a book is that you can read it whenever and whereever you want, a little at a time. Perhaps, rather, they mean ten hours of viewing time rather than ten hours of wallclock time.

I'm completely dubious about their claims. For one thing, I don't believe that it will actually disappear. Rather, I think that its reader will refuse to read it. They're using an Adobe format which is probably the one that was cracked by Dmitry Sklyarov's company. But even if they're not, what's to keep you from setting your clock ahead (say, to 2005) then downloading the book and installing it, and then setting your time back to normal, if they're using a fixed timeout? Or of archiving a copy of the file onto a CD while it's live and reloading it to disk as needed, if they're using a count-down?

Or if you really want to be creative, why not do a screen capture of each page, stored as graphics files, during that 10 hours? Then you feed those through a character recognition package and render them back as formatted text, no longer copy protected? With proper scripting tools, the entire conversion process could be automated, and should take much less than ten hours.

I'm actually expecting moderately good sales for this: not to people who want to read the book, but to people who will be challenged by the puzzle of cracking the copy protection. (discuss)

Stardate 20010808.1229 (On Screen): This article discusses satellite as an alternative to DSL and Cable modems for consumer broadband access. It notes that it hasn't been very successful commercially. There are several good reasons why that is. One, as noted in the article, is the steep cost associated with it. Another, not mentioned, is that satellite broadband is only one-way. It's not a bidirectional medium. Data goes from the satellite ground station up to the satellite and then is bounced down to all its subscribers. The subscribers have to use a modem with a phone line for their uplink, and it's limited to phone-line speeds, 40 kilobits or less, and it ties up the phone line while in use. Cable and DSL both generally provide much more downlink bandwidth than uplink bandwidth, but both generally provide at least 256 kilobit uplink. The third problem with satellite is latency. The downlink has to bounce up to a geosynchronous satellite and back down again. That turns out to require more than a quarter of a second just for light speed delay, let alone any other latency in the system. The combination of the modem uplink and a long latency downlink makes a satellite link useless for a lot of what people want broadband for, to wit playing games such as CounterStrike. As a result, it is primarily interesting only to people who want a lot of downlink bandwidth, don't mind long latency, and live places where DSL and cable are not available. Small wonder they have about 2% of the customer base that cable modem has. (discuss)

Stardate 20010808.1210 (On Screen): With the discovery that the PDF file format can carry viruses, the question is raised as to whether it's possible for any common file format to really be secure when it is first introduced. It's not clear that this is something which can be proved unless it's very circumscribed in capability. That's why I'm extremely skeptical about things like Microsoft's Passport (or the competing system that AOL wants to create). I don't really want to trust such a thing with anything vital, and what they want to store on it, for me, is my credit card number so that I can use my Passport number online to make purchases. Anyone cracking their system has a direct line to my checking account. No, thanks. (discuss)

Update: Or another example of a vulnerability.

Stardate 20010808.0657 (On Screen): James Lileks' house is haunted. A tortured spirit, yearning to be released to go to its just reward, lives there and has channeled a mylar balloon innocuously labeled with a picture of a duck. It stalks around the house seeking places to hide, and keeps terrifying him. James' baby daughter knows the truth and has been trying to tell him; she points to it and says "Dut" which is clearly taken from the old Gaelic word daucht, which means "poltergeist". Out of the mouths of babes, James... (Next, the TV.) (discuss)

Stardate 20010807.1939 (On Screen): Whenever an engineer designs something, one of the decisions he faces over and over is "Build or buy?" Sometimes that decision is made on the basis of technology, but usually it's driven by money. The reason why is that a "build" decision involves adding engineering time and expense, but a "buy" decision usually adds cost per unit, for royalties or for purchased assemblies. Generally speaking, the more of something you produce, the more likely you are to build. With smaller numbers, "buy" is usually more attractive.

Of course, that depends on the licensing scheme for the buy. They usually involve a royalty, but if you can buy for a flat rate then it may make sense even for a high volume product. But usually they don't. When I designed an internal test tool which was expected to have a lifetime build of 12 units, I bought as much of it as I possibly could in order to finish it in less than two months with a minimal staff. But it is actually worthwhile for General Motors to spend five million dollars in order to reduce the manufacturng cost of a car by fifty cents.

The Internet is the ultimate high-volume business. Reproduction of the product is essentially free and it's not always possible to figure out ahead of time how big the production run will be (i.e. the number of copies of your web page will be downloaded). A conservative design will err toward "build" over "buy" for that reason, because per-unit royalties can eat you alive. What's bad about that is that it can't be budgeted. Something which is predictably expensive is better than something which is probably cheap but might be grossly expensive. Uncertainty is evil. Which is why the licensing agreement being proposed for the CURL language is preposterous and condemns the language to failure.

It's possible for a proprietary format to become a web standard. Much as I despise FLASH, Macromedia has done it right. First, the player is free. Second, the tools for creating Flash animations cost a fixed amount. Third, and most important, there's no royalty. Once you buy the tool, you can make and post as many Flash animations as you want without giving Macromedia anymore money. As a result, it's become the tool-of-choice for smart web pages. Adobe's PDF is the same way: the viewer is free and the producer cost is onetime fixed, with no use royalty. If the CURL language were licensed that way, it could revolutionize the web. But that's not what they're asking for. Rather, they're going to let private individuals use it for free, but charge corporate users a royalty per download. What they're hoping is that private users will make it a standard which will force corporate users to adopt it. That's naive. Even if private users flock to it, corporate users will continue to build their sites using existing tools, so that they can control costs. As in most cases like this, the build/buy decision will be driven by money, not by technical merit. (discuss)

Stardate 20010807.1916 (On Screen): It is now possible to test people for genetic predispositions for a large number of diseases, which may cost a major amount of money to treat later. Since insurance companies don't like paying money, the temptation is there to test people for these diseases and to reject them early, even though they're perfectly healthy, because they might become terribly sick later. In some cases it's inevitable. If you carry the gene for Huntington's disease, you are going to eventually die from it. There is no escape. But there are other cases where it is not as straightforward. A gene has been found, for instance, which substantially raises the possibility that a woman will develop breast cancer. But it isn't certain, and some women carrying that gene will be fine.

Nearly all of us carry a handful of negative genes, but that's not the point. The point is that people should not be discriminated against for what they are if they can't change it. But for the insurance companies it's a dilemma. Insurance, by its nature, involves taking money from a lot of people and giving most of it to the few people who end up really needing it. But if you can prevent that payment then you can set your rates lower and this makes you more attractive to customers (corporations looking for group plans) who are primarily interested in how much it's going to cost. So if you, the insurer, can finger and exclude ahead of time the people who are going to really cost, then you can beat your opponents. As long as any insurance company does this, they all have to. And that's what they're beginning to do. The only way to prevent that is with a law, and it looks like we're going to get one. Whew!

I suspect that the insurance companies won't really oppose the idea, as long as the law applies to them all. What they really want is a level playing field. Everyone doing it or no-one doing it are equally good cases. (discuss)

Stardate 20010807.0952 (On Screen): Quick! Someone get me a wooden stake! The "new economy" won't die! This site pushes a book which was clearly written before the dot-com collapse, and it's almost farcical to read now. I was just looking through their "12 points" and got to "Hiring the Children" and wondered what the heck it meant. Well, it means to hire and exploit young workers because they'll work longer hours and cost less. Great. But they give two examples of companies who have used this strategy successfully, and the second one was Rocket Science Games who were described as having "been able to gather a talented, young (mostly under 40 years of age) workforce that has produced some of the most popular games on the market." I can't really judge their claims for the success of these twelve points with other companies, but I did recognize this one, because it's been out of business for years. And as to "most popular games" they never really made much of a dent. In fact, they only produced three games and none of them were big. By 1997 they were already in massive trouble. Their home page URL has lapsed and is available for registration. I'm not completely certain, but I think some of their other good examples are also out of business: Firefly, Starwave, and Peapod is probably not long for this world.

A lot of these recommendations don't ring true. But then, we have the "expert paradox" again: if someone really knew how to run a successful business, why would he write a book about it? Wouldn't he be out doing it, instead? (discussion in progress)

Stardate 20010807.0824 (On Screen): The violent Israeli crackdown is having exactly the effect that the Palestinian terrorists hoped it would have. First, it is causing Israel's allies to criticize it. Second, it is increasing support for the terrorists among the Palestinian people. This is completely consistent with the theory of a terrorist campaign, and Israel is playing right into the terrorists' hands. (discuss)

Stardate 20010807.0718 (On Screen): Covad, the last large independent DSL provider in California, is filing bankrupcy and trying to restructure its debt. This is, of course, just a holding action and they're likely to be dead soon like so many dot-coms before them. Telecom deregulation was a bust here; DSL provided by independent companies never really made sense economically. The capital expense was too high and the revenue growth curve was never right for a company who didn't have another reliable income stream. Consumer broadband can only really be introduced by established companies who already are profitable, because they're the ones who will already have most of the capital equipment in place and who will be willing and able to sustain years of losses to build the business slowly. Which is why consumer broadband will come from one of three places: cable companies, the big phone companies themselves, or the electric power companies. They're the ones who have the wiring already in place to deliver broadband to our homes.

The dark horse is the electric power companies. So far they're not competing, but that technology is being developed and if it can be made to work then it would be the most convenient form of broadband of all. The local broadband tranceiver could be plugged into any wall outlet anywhere in the house and would be able to tap into the signal without any local rewiring. Customers could go to a store to get the tranceiver. This would give them a convenience advantage over cable (which could only be used where there was a cable outlet) or DSL (which usually requires a visit from the phone company to rewire). And unlike DSL, there should be no range i

Captured by MemoWeb from on 9/16/2004