Archive for July, 2009

Distrusting the Kindle

July 30, 2009 Comments off

We all heard that recently, Amazon discovered they had a licensing problem with some titles they’d sold on their electronic Kindle reader.  Instead of paying off the copyright holder, they simply deleted the books remotely from everyone’s Kindle, and refunded their purchase price.  At least one person was writing a paper on the book (ironically, it was 1984 by George Orwell), and all his notes disappeared with the book.

What Amazon has done has let quite a few cats out of the bag.  Now we know what we suspected before: there’s nothing to say that in the morning, your book won’t be gone.  Or worse, that an edited copy of the book won’t be in its place – one which states historical facts differently, or is less critical of the government, etc.  In fact, there’s nothing to keep Amazon’s system, and by extension the government, from even knowing what chapters we’ve read and what notes we made.

Don’t tell me it’s paranoid and unlikely; it’s possible.  It always has been, with DRM technology.

Needless to say, Kindle owners were not too happy; this would be the rough equivalent of Amazon sneaking into your house, swiping a book you just bought, and leaving a few bucks on the table.  CEO Jeff Bezos has issued a Kindle apology and wants to know; “What can Kindle do to make this right?”

Well you probably can’t do anything to make it right, Jeff, because it’s wrong.  You’re selling books that aren’t securely the property of the purchaser, and people like to think of a book as their property.  Predictably, media apologists are saying we shouldn’t expect to keep a book forever.

If we can’t keep it forever, can we sell it? I just bought a used paperback copy of The Web Style Guide, 3d edition. on Amazon, for ten bucks, with four bucks shipping.


  • BoingBoing picks up a humorous video on the comparative experience: Book vs. The Kindle

  • That high school student who lost his notes when the book was deleted is suing.
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Monday Morning Music: “Only a fool would say that”

July 27, 2009 Comments off

Seems like we’re due for some Dan.  First a little low-key fun…

Aw hell, that’s too laid-back for a sleepy Monday Morning.  Let’s get REVV’d UP!!!  It’s fun to imagine how any human fingers could play the crescendo at the end:

Everybody awake now?


  • Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker: “…Steely Dan’s original records are creepy and astonishing—they are models of surprise, intricacy, and slick surfaces…”  Click through and check out her one-sentence description of the Dan’s lyrics.
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A brief history of Fail

July 24, 2009 Comments off

“Mistakes are as big as the results they cause.” - Dr. Gregory House, fictional TV doc

One of my lifelong passions is the study of failure.  If it broke, or flopped, or caught fire, or outright killed a bunch of people through the sheer ineptitude of its promoters, I like to read about it.  But this passion has an unfortunate side-effect: I am sometimes the skunk at the party. I really believe, on a deep, intuitive level, that as humans we are capable of screwing things up on a gigantic scale.  But I also believe the situation isn’t hopeless.  We can learn strategies for avoiding Fail.

The picture above (Click to embiggen.) is a selection of books from my “Fail shelf”, somewhat randomized by the large number of missing titles, which consequently do not appear in the picture.  Did I mention that I’ve failed to keep a neat house? But if you rummaged around in the stacks and piles, you’d find many more books about what went wrong, where, why, and how.

And sometimes, books on how people un-wronged it, as in the heroics of bringing the crew of Apollo 13 back alive. Fail is often alloyed with Awesome or Win.  For instance, if you took off for the Moon, but just wound up circling and coming back, you have a Fail story with quite a lot of Awesome in it.  If the dam at your country club breaks, releasing 18 million cubic meters of water and killing more than two thousand people, that’s some serious Fail.  But many lives were saved by heroic rescues, and the event gave a big boost to the new “Red Cross” that has saved many more people since then, which is Awesome.

The mixing of that alloy usually goes like this: an institution adds the Fail, and individuals like Clara Barton bring the Awesome (sometimes creating new institutions in the process).

But a lot of Fail is personal.  It can be as simple as forgetting how to use a hat, which tells us that mindfulness is not actually all that easy.  Most of the personal Fail we encounter in life is the result of sometimes more non-trivial disconnection from the moment, like driving while talking on a cell phone.  Let’s call it; “Un-mindfulness driven Fail”.

Other Fail is more deliberate, like leaving your wife and kids over father’s day, and running off to Argentina to see your mistress, not even telling your gubernatorial staff where you are, and giving new meaning to “hiking on the Appalachian trail”.  This is rationalization-driven Fail, and I have plenty of experience with it.  Like the way I used to rationalize not wearing a helmet on my bike, until I had a nasty concussion from an accident that should have been far less serious.  It could easily have resulted in my wife and kids not having me around for all subsequent father’s days.

It’s quite possible, even common to combine different kinds of Fail.  For instance, you might be engaging in un-mindfulness-driven Fail, and then someone challenges you on it, add rationalization-driven Fail.  As my Abnormal Psych professor used to say, most people go through their lives only minimally conscious.  If you draw their attention to it, they wake up long enough to deny it and go back to sleep.

To achieve the really spectacular, gigantic-scale Fail I mentioned earlier, however, requires an institution.  The well-known difference between private and corporate morality extends to a similar chasm between individual and collective Fail.  It’s really difficult to imbue an institution with awareness and powers of contextual analysis.  The corporation or institution has a purpose – usually money or a charter but always continued existence, whose gravitational field distorts the path of any higher purpose. Let’s call it; “Institutional Myopia Fail”.  Here’s a typical example:

Suppose it’s 1889 and you’re Elias Unger, the president of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club upstream on the Little Conemaugh river in Johnstown, Pa.  The club is full of wealthy industrialists – names that are still recognized more than a century later, like Andrew Carnegie and DC Phillips.  You don’t bother guys like that with piddling little details.  And they did have a problem.

Lake Conemaugh had been created by an old railrad dam, and it wasn’t big enough, and it didn’t have enough fish in it.  So the club hired workmen to raise the earthen dam, which raised the lake.  And they put screens across the spillway, so that fish couldn’t escape.  As historian David McCullough observed, “no engineer was consulted on the project.”  And in the last week of May in 1881, it began to rain, and rain, and rain.

The Little Conemaugh river was already at flood stage, as the rain continued.  And that’s the problem; the screen over the spillway was clogged with debris, so the lake kept rising to the top of the dam.  Earthen dams are perfectly safe, just as long as the water doesn’t run over the top. Unger sent (brave) workmen out to clear the screen, but they were unsuccessful.  And still the water rose.

The riverbanks themselves were confined in steep hills.  The mayor of Johnstown, 14 miles downstream, knew this and knew the lake was filling up.  He sent a message, inquiring about the dam.  And Unger’s reply, in its entirety, is worth memorizing:

“You and your people are in no danger from our enterprise.”

The staggering arrogance and dismissive quality in those eleven words is a template for nearly every institutional disaster before or since.  It’s the very soul of tobacco companies, oil companies, insurance companies, Enron, and the Bush administration, elegantly sculpted from a few bits of simple English.  It’s the Ford Pinto, designed as a rolling crematorium because it would cost less to pay off lawsuits from burn victims.

And in fact, good people in institutions make up the headless monster of the institution itself.  There’s no rule that says you can’t combine un-mindful Fail, Rationalization Fail, Institutional myopia Fail… and pure evil.

And that’s what happened on the night of 31 May, 1889, when the dam failed, and a wall of water rushed down the Little Conemaugh.  It utterly obliterated several smaller communities, grinding them down to bedrock.  When it hit Johnstown, a modern industrial city of the times, it smashed the city center flat and killed 2,200 people.

As I said earlier, it isn’t hopeless.  First, corporations and institutions including government, need watching and regulating.  Any time any of them holds the cards close to their chest, they should be viewed with suspicion.

Second, the real cost of doing business for any institution should include costs that are currently externalized.  In other words, assess the real cost of doing business much as business has gotten accustomed to assessing TCO, or Total Cost of Ownership.  Because we all have to own the results of large-scale activities.

Third, new concepts in radical transparency (and its software equivalent, Open-Source) offer a blast of disinfecting sunshine to the tendencies of almost every component of Institutional Fail.  While painful, transparency undermines rationalization, draws attention to un-mindfulness, and forces accounting of externalities.  It even rips the cover off of hiding places for plain old evil.

Will transparency being an end to Institutional Fail?  Not a chance.  But it’s an improvement. And with practice, we might even get to like it. Think of it as a spillway that lets the Fail run out before it builds up and overtops the dam.


  • Except remember it’s, not .com, because they failed to register the .com extension for their super-popular site and some domain squatter nabbed it.  Fail!
  • As Calvin observed to Hobbes; “Verbing weirds language”.  It took the Interwebs to true the same of nouning, the practice of making a verb or adjective into a noun.  Thanks to blogs we can play with rigid categories of speech.  For example we are now free to say that something is “made of Awesome” or “full of Fail”.  There’s even a dedicated “Fail Blog” which is full of Win.
  • Both Les Jenkins and ***Dave had the hat picture in their Google shared items today.  This must be like showing up at a party and the other guys are wearing the same dress as me, or something.
  • I really feel for the guy in the hat picture, by the way.  He’s really gotten popular from that moment of Fail, where I was fortunate enough not to be on-camera in my less-aware moments.  Such as: sitting at the stop sign, waiting for it to turn green.
  • Transparency in software development, particularly as Open Source, benefits from what I call “the underwear effect”.  Which is: if everyone had to go around in their underwear all the time, almost none of us would be overweight.  Seems to work for software, anyway.
  • UCLA has a Mindfulness Research center.  Woot!
  • This month’s Carnival Of The Elitist Bastards is hosted by the ever-Awesome Coffee Stained Writer, under the flag of Storm The Beaches!
  • Next Month’s COTEB post is entitled; “A brief History of Awesome”.
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Until Friday, open thread

July 20, 2009 Comments off

No posts this week; I’m “hiking in the Appalachian mountains”.*  Be back late Friday.  Until then, did anyone watch the premiere of the new FOX series, Lie To Me?  I thought it was pretty good, as superhero forensic genius shows go.

*(No, not really.  I’ve never even met anyone from Argentina, probably.)

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Monday Morning environmental heresy

July 20, 2009 Comments off

Years ago I read E.F. Shumacher’s Small Is Beautiful and something about it didn’t quite strike me right.  It seemed as thought it might be the right strategy if we could count on the Earth’s population to fall to about two billion in a benevolent flowering of environmental consciousness.  It was a nice idea, with some localized applications to be sure, but also a gigantic application of small-scale wishful thinking.

As the population bomb continues to explode, our environmental news isn’t likely to get better anytime soon.  And here from the environmental-hippie editor of The Whole Earth Catalogue are some great strategies:  bigger cities, genetically engineered crops, nuclear power and geoengineering. 

Waddya think?


Categories: Uncategorized

Winning the War On Fish

July 17, 2009 Comments off

That’s right, Senator Coburn, it’s all about you and your personal consumer “freedom”:

Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn: “What if you want to drive a gas hog? You don’t have the right any longer in this country to spend your money to drive a gas hog?”

This is why I get exasperated by denialists, who seem to think that if it inconveniences them at all to think about the environment, then they shouldn’t ever have to ever think about the environment.  Their answer to everything is pretty much, “This Can’t Be Happening.”  But not only can it be happening, there’s no rule in life that says you get just one crisis at a time.  Here’s one – overfishing:

When I was a child, TV specials on the ocean suggested no limit to the number of people who could be fed from the ocean’s bounty.  The concepts of major factory-style fishing lay in the future, but today we are, as the video says, “winning the war on fish”. I can almost hear the voice of Mister Burns, exulting that his industry “Sweeps the sea clean!”

And here’s another -  Ocean Acidification.  Just to be certain of victory, we’re undermining the oceanic food chain from its foundation:

“…Ocean Acidification is primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels. When carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ends up in the ocean it changes the pH, making the sea acidic and less hospitable to life. Over time, C02 reduces calcium carbonate, which prevents creatures from forming shells and building reefs. In fact, existing shells will start to dissolve. Oysters and mussels will not be able to build shells. Crabs and lobsters? Your great-grandchildren may wonder what they tasted like…”

And oh yeah, there’s that global warming thing too. 

We can’t, like Senator Coburn, just pretend that our home can take unlimited abuse.  For starters, this would be a very good time to get out of the habit of eating fish.  Support energy conservation and renewable energy.  Support women’s rights and education worldwide. (Surest path to reducing the global birthrate).  Move closer to work, and ride a bike.  Don’t throw aluminum in the trash.  Buy a car every ten years instead of every three.  The crises (plural) are brought to us by the culture of consumption, and by world population.  It won’t kill us to pay attention to those things, but we’re already way past the point where it would be OK to ignore them.

We can’t keep expecting to live off the interest when we’re spending the biological capital;  nature isn’t listening to our arguments and she doesn’t make political compromises. 


  • (h/t Guilty Planet for video)

  • At SEED publishing online – Six experts discuss the global fisheries crisis; the economic, political, and social pressures that contributed to it; and what it will take to make fish stocks bounce back.
  • Though I’m writing this mainly to share some interesting links, or just to get it off my chest at four in the morning when arthritis is winning the War On Sleep, I have no idea how to get these concepts on the table for conservatives.  Any suggestions?
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The Sacred and the profane at ScienceBlogs

July 16, 2009 Comments off is a venture of SEED publishing, where science-related bloggers collect to write about their work and their lives.  It’s pretty cool watching the various personalities bump into each other; it humanizes scientists and generally makes science more accessible.  It exemplifies SEED’s motto; “Science Is Culture”.

Predictably, some SciBloggers are more popular than others, and there are resentments.  PZ Myers, a biology professor from Minnesota, writes Pharyngula, and is personally responsible for about one-third of ScienceBlogs’ web traffic, among about 130 SciBloggers. He’s snarky and profane and merciless toward religion, and his commenters tend to be more so, and there’s a long-running debate over whether he’s “civil” enough.

In fact several Scibloggers recently left the collective to form their own independent blogs or to go over to Discover blogs.  One pair of bloggers, Chris Mooney and Sheryl Kershenbaum, even identified PZ Myers as “the main reason we left Scienceblogs”. 

Chris Mooney is the author of The Republican War On Science, a book with a pretty self-explanatory title.  Recently Mooney & Kershenbaum published a new book, Unscientific America: how scientific illiteracy threatens our future.”  In it, M&K apparently take Myers to task as representative of big ol’ atheist meanie-heads who drive people away from science, by not being not deferential enough to religion, and even (gasp!) using profanity! Even the F-Bomb!

God, the humanity…

I’d try to provide links but these internicene debates sprawl across dozens of URL’s.  Here’s a general discussion on Myers’ blog that will give you a flavor of the whole thing.

I’m not clear how leaving SciBlogs gave M&K any more breathing room: even though it’s a big Internet, every site is right next to every other site.  It’s not like you can run away and be safer someplace.  Maybe they don’t like all the attention that Myers gets at SciBlogs’ conventions, or they chafe at the fact that he hangs out with Richard Dawkins.  I suppose it’s tough to watch a superstar in action, if you are a bit player.

M&K’s major complaint about Myers seems to be that he isn’t nice enough to religion.  It’s true that he’s confrontational.  Myers once published a picture of a consecrated communion wafer, nailed to a copy of The God Delusion through a page from the Koran.  His point was that no ideas are sacred; all should receive equal challenge and the best ideas take the lead.  He got thousands of outraged emails from Catholics, some including death threats.  No death threats from other scientists, or from any Muslims, though.

It’s remarkable to me that M&K think Myers has anything to do with science illiteracy; despite his popularity in the small sphere of scienceblogging, most Americans have never heard of him.

How does a mild-mannered (and by all reports, he is just that in person) scientist become a bar room brawler on the Interwebs?  The answer might be in this quote from MIT Technology Review, from a mathematician who exercises confrontational humor in his talks:

“2: Ridicule bogus claims related to your topic, particularly claims that received wide currency in the popular press.  (To be honest, I do this not so much because it gets laughs—though it does—but as a small service to humanity.  If I can make one budding crackpot think twice before hitting “Submit” on a disproof of Bell’s Theorem, I will not have lived in vain.  Of course, the ridicule should always focus more on ideas than people; and even then, a few in the audience will frown on it, considering it unscientific or unprofessional.  Forty or fifty crackpots ago, I agreed with them.  It’s only experience that hardened me into a vigilante.)”
– Shtetl-Optimized by Scott Aaronson: Essentials of complexity-theoretic stand-up comedy (emphasis mine)

Perhaps when he first started, “PZ” was a more patient man. When I first started blogging, I thought it was possible to engage creationists, climate deniers, and right-wingers (but I’m repeating myself) in a rational exchange of ideas.  It might still be possible, but it takes a better man than I to do it; idiocy deserves mockery.  It doesn’t matter how nice you are, how deferential, how carefully you avoid giving offense in style; just stating that you don’t believe in god, or saying that we humans need to change our behavior to keep from screwing up the environment, is enough to get you branded “militant”.  In fact, I think the so-called “New Atheists” are just plain old atheists who have finally said “Enough!” and stopped trying to godlycoddle the believers.  Faith and science are only as compatible as an individual’s ability to compartmentalize them in the same skull without explosive fracture.

My blog is one of the few corners of the blagosphere where you will still find a profanity filter. At one time, I had fond hopes of letting this blog slip unnoticed through keyword-based censorship in high schools and workplaces.  Watching hand-wringers and pearl-clutchers whinge about “profanity” in these debates, though, makes me want to turn that filter off.  They’re uptight about the “F-bomb”?  Really?  Well frack them, and the adorable little pony they rode in on. The world is burning, and it’s pretty much religion dragging its feet every step of the way towards the fire-extinguisher.

Will Rogers said “The world is divided into two groups: those who divide the world into two groups, and those who don’t.”  It may be that there are two separate nations of cussers and non-cussers.  I’m a cusser, and so were my dad and gran’pa. I embrace it, and it could be that there are neurological differences between the two groups.  In fact, a recent study found that the use of profanity actually increased tolerance to pain.

Perhaps even the pain of arguing with creationists, which would explain a lot.


  • (h/t to commenter “truthspeaker” at the Pharyngula thread linked above for the “snugglenet” image)

  • ***Dave highlights Mooney & Kershenbaum speaking out from their new digs at Discover Blogs
  • MrsDoF has some memories and thoughts on profanity in Morning of reminisce
  • The Friendly Atheist has a good post on The debate over Unscientific America, in which he proposes exactly when it would be worth taking M&K seriously.
  • Joel at Your Religion Is False has some insights on Why accommodationism is false.  Not a reveiw of M&K’s new book, per se, but of the concept that science and religion are, as Francis Collins says, all groovy together.
  • Fred Clark at Slacktivist writes about a very, very early offensive cartoon in On Offendedness
  • Jason Rosenhouse at Evolution Blog has a three-part review of the book.  Part Two discusses the specific chapter on Crackergate, and finds it wanting.  Part Three, in which he discusses the Pluto section, and the strange and curious attitude towards Alan Sokal and other science demonstrators.  Conclusion?  A flawed book that skirts the issues while playing the victim.
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Hey, why don’t we build the site in Flash!  It’ll be realy cool!

July 15, 2009 Comments off

In any web development process, someone always wants to use Flash.  That’s understandable – you can make stuff move and dance around on the screen – but remember that Flash is also the basis of the most annoying ads on the Intertubes.  So lots of people use “Flashblock” with the result on the right.  Many other, portable devices, simply don’t handle Flash very well, again with the result on the right.

This screenshot is from an HP link about their little netbook.  Notice the complete lack of content?  It’s just a big, black square.  I bet they wish I were reading about their netbook instead of writing about how crappy their website is.

Doing entire pages in Flash may seem fun, kids.  Until somebody’s ad is poked out…

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Why elections matter, part n^6

July 14, 2009 Comments off

You’re at the doctor’s office – again – with your child.  Last week she had a little bug bite, and she scratched it with dirty fingernails, and it got infected.  The doctor gave her antibiotics and you thought that would take care of it.  It didn’t and this week the doctor says; “Take her to the emergency room, I’ll call ahead so they’ll expect you.”

Your daughter is frightened as you wait in the noisy, chaotic ER.  She’s examined, different antibiotics are tried.  Days later she lies in a steel-framed bed, drifting in and out of consciousness and receiving last-resort drugs through an IV tube.  But she’s also receiving narcotic pain killers because this infection has gone systemic and it hurts.  She wakes up and asks when she can go home.  For the first and perhaps last time in her short life, you lie to her about something really, really important.

This is why elections matter:

New York Times: “The Obama administration announced Monday that it would seek to ban many routine uses of antibiotics in farm animals in hopes of reducing the spread of dangerous bacteria in humans.

In written testimony to the House Rules Committee, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner of food and drugs, said feeding antibiotics to healthy chickens, pigs and cattle—done to encourage rapid growth—should cease. And Dr. Sharfstein said farmers should no longer be able to use antibiotics in animals without the supervision of a veterinarian…”
- Obsidian Wings The wrong way to use antibiotics

We just finished eight years of inaction while the antibiotic situation got worse and worse, and the Bush administration deferred to the livestock industry instead of doing the right thing for public health.  It isn’t an abstract or even debatable point: routine antibiotic administration to livestock is a horrible idea.  It needs to stop, period.

Hilzoy from Obsidian Wings again: “This is really important. Antibiotics make diseases that used to be fatal into minor annoyances. But resistance to antibiotics is rising, and we are not developing new antibiotics to replace the ones bacteria are becoming resistant to. This is in part because spending money to develop new antibiotics doesn’t make sense for pharmaceutical companies…”

I don’t agree with everything our president does, and there are some things I don’t even understand well enough to disagree with.  But then he goes and does something like this, and I want to vote for him all over again just to say I really meant it.  Recently I had an experience with a life-threatening infection.  They were able to save me but they had to use extreme drugs and in a handful of years, even those may not work anymore.  And new classes of antibiotics are not exactly pouring out of the gate.  We need to use the ones we’ve got more prudently, not just for agribusiness profits.  Thank you, Mister President.


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A major disagreement with F-Spot

July 11, 2009 Comments off

Sometimes I’m a little (or a lot) slow-witted but there’s something I just don’t get: Why the hell can’t I rename photos in F-Spot? 

Could anyone explain it to me?  Is there some reason why I shouldn’t want to rename photos in F-Spot?  It’s the best-known photo management software for Linux, and yet it lacks what seems to me an extremely basic function.

I seem to remember a similar disagreement with Picasa. 

Categories: Geeky, Software