Friday, December 31, 2010

Seattle running!

When I left for my run today Wunderground said it was 51° downtown and 31° in Wallingford. I figured it was an error. But then I ran down to Interbay, and it was at least 10-15° warmer there than up here. Running through the hills in Queen Anne the temperature seemed to vary 10° block to block just based on which side of a hill I was on.

Also, ships are to Seattle as trains are to Chicago.

D I A L O G S Nr.30

d: What? Where am I? Have I been... sleeping?
a: No, I think we've been traveling.
a+c: Traveling... through...
a+b+c: TIME!
a: Hi, I'm Jim, from The Office (US)!
b: Hi, I'm Tim, from The Office (UK)!
c: Hi, I'm Sabine, who is imaginary.
d: Which one am I?
Tim: You're Nathan, from Al's crappy novel.
Nathan: Damn it, I wanted to be someone good.
Sabine: Well you're not going to get that by changing your clothes.

Monday, December 13, 2010

My New Favorite Website

This is so awesome it actually makes me miss California a little. I love how the author notices things — that's how I want to explore and document the places I inhabit, and I usually fall short.

I remember a lot of the areas mentioned there, especially the parts around Alviso and Drawbridge. I used to run on the New Chicago Marsh occasionally, but I didn't know there was direct access to its trails, so I did the whole 14-mile loop including the whole Alviso Marina loop. The New Chicago Marsh is near the New Chicago area of Alviso, which has streets named after Chicago streets (including Grand Blvd., which in Chicago has been renamed after Martin Luther King). New Chicago was something of a real-estate swindle, thanks to which we have one of the few parts of the San Francisco Bay left mostly undeveloped. Good to know the old Chicago ways can do some good every now and then.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Seattle and the Nexus of the Universe.

When my dad was here for Thanksgiving he commented on once getting lost near my brother's apartment in West Seattle because he thought that California Ave SW would intersect the numbered avenues, not being itself a numbered avenue. I had to point out to him that in Seattle there are both numbered streets running east-west and numbered avenues running north-south, like in Manhattan (technically this is true in Chicago as well, but usually it can be ignored), and that generally there are both named and numbered streets running every which way. Unlike Manhattan, there are eight “quadrants” to Seattle's address and street grid (maybe nine, more on that later, although only six of them are distinct as far as addressing is concerned, and two of them overlap). Another difference with Manhattan: Manhattan has a Nexus of the Universe at First and First, and Seattle would never be so presumptuous as to claim one of those, right?

I wondered about that while out running today. As Seattle has many quadrants, it could potentially be a Universe with several nexi. That would suit Seattle just fine. As I was out running I had no map and plenty of time on my hands. The following is how I reasoned about this.

The central quadrant has numbered avenues but no numbered streets; or if it does, they're not close to 1st avenue.

I don't think the North, East, or West grids have any numbered streets either, but I'm not totally sure about that. I called those doubtful.

The Northeast and Northwest quadrants share an origin with the East and West quadrants respectively, so though they have both numbered streets and avenues, neither extends far enough south to have a 1st Street.

I'm not all that familiar with the South quadrant; I think it has both numbered streets and avenues, and it certainly has a 1st Avenue, but I don't think it has a 1st Street, at least as far west as 1st Avenue. I called the South quadrant possible but unlikely.

The Southwest quadrant has no land far enough north to have a 1st Street.

Then there's Southeast. I thought there was no Southeast quadrant, but my brother's girlfriend's uncle Fred says there is one, and he would know better than I would. My guess is that it exists nowhere within the city limits of Seattle, perhaps only on the Eastside, and shares an origin with the South quadrant, and thus doesn't extend far enough west to have a 1st Avenue.

I checked a map after getting back, and found a few interesting things. Indeed, there are no numbered streets in the Central, North, East, or West quadrants. There is, oddly enough, an E Fir St right where you'd expect E First St to be (I did a double-take there), but the East quadrant doesn't go far enough west to have a 1st Ave, and Fir St, by virtue of its location and the twistiness of the grid in that area, never appears in the Central quadrant. The South quadrant, as far as I can see, has no numbered streets until you get quite far south.

There is a SE quadrant on the Eastside, and the Eastside also dispenses with the silliness of the E quadrant entirely, so both the NE and SE quadrants have a 1st Street over there. Neither have anything near a 1st Avenue, of course. Bellevue takes the additional rationalizing step of having a “zero street”, called Main Street. It also takes the irrationalizing step of having NE 1st St run diagonally, so it eventually intersects NE 10th St. Some towns on the Eastside have their own grids. Kirkland is an example, and it appears to have Central, West, and South quadrants. Each comes tantalizingly close to a First and First that never materializes. EDIT: Kirkland, unlike the rest of the region, has numbered streets running north-south and avenues east-west, except in the diagonal west part of the grid. Another example is Renton, which has east-west numbered streets but not numbered avenues.

As for other counties, Snohomish has a nice grid system, but its “nexus” would fall in the middle of the water. Pierce County's grid looks to be based on Tacoma, which is possibly even weirder than Seattle, and as far as I can tell doesn't have a “nexus” either.

So... I could be wrong, but I don't think there's a Nexus of the Universe anywhere near Seattle.

ADDENDUM: As for Chicago, I think the lowest numbered street is 8th, and the lowest numbered avenue on the main grid is somewhere in the 40th. There's a 1st Ave on a different grid system that runs through parts of the west suburbs, but no numbered streets on it. So there's definitely no “nexus” in or around Chicago. And Seattle, Chicago, and Manhattan notwithstanding, the real Nexus of the Universe is at Main St and Center Ave in the middle of North Dakota. Some day I want to bike there for some reason (I don't know if the roads are paved... details, details...). Also, the statewide North Dakota grid has three of the four possible 1st-and-1st intersections intact, which is cool.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

I Agree with Jessica

1. Guitar (and, to a lesser extent, bass) have monopolized my music practicing time. I don't think guitar is my best instrument, or even the instrument I'm best suited to, but I don't have a lot of time to play music at the moment and I'm spending almost all of it on guitar and bass.

2. Number of times someone offered to sell me drugs in Chicagoland (in all the years I lived there): 0. Number of times someone has offered to sell me drugs in Seattle in less than half a year: 3. Twice weed and once acid. Twice on the Ave, once at the bus stop outside my apartment. People at the bus stop have offered to sell Jess weed also.

3. Also, there aren't nearly as many smokers in Seattle, but they have this annoying habit of lighting up right next to me while I'm waiting for a bus when I'm in a bus shelter with posted No Smoking signs. In one instance I was at 6th and Olive, where there are 6 benches right in a row, and all of them were free but the one I was sitting at. Some woman set her coffee down on the bench next to me, lit up a cig, and started smoking right in my face. srsly wtf ppl omg srsly. w. t. f.

4. I needed a new notebook a couple days ago, and Jess needed one too, so we went down to the U-Dub bookstore to do some serious shopping. One of the notebooks there said, “Hell is other people,” on the cover, which prompted Jess to recall that when she was in library school a bunch of people started wearing shirts that said, “I agree with Paul,” on the front and then some crazy bullshit by the Apostle Paul on the back. And she said she wanted to make a shirt that said, “I agree with Jean Paul” on the front, and, “Hell is other people,” on the back. We did get married for a reason (awww).

EDIT: 5. Oh yeah, one other thing. I wonder if, as smoking has declined, caffeine has picked up in popularity as our “safe” addiction of choice. I have no evidence for or against this, just something rumbling in my head.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The horrible first chapter of my horrible novel

“Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii’m a programmer, programmer is my career, I’m a programmer ‘til I die!” Nathan's full, warm bass in song cut through the noise of the 7th floor, the “basement” of Infinite World Marketing of Spokane. Nathan stepped out of the elevator and toward his work area, four small tables pushed together with a set of black roller drawers underneath.

“Or, alternately, until the Chinese eat our lunch and all of our programmers' pie?” Jim responded not in song, but in wry, rapidfire speech. In rhyme, but not nearly in rhythm. “Oh, speaking of, djaget th'email?” There his Chicago dialect came through, like the representative of some crime family (or the Governor's office) asking the mayor, Djaget the papers, boss?

“No, I haven’t checked my email, I just walked in.” Nathan sat down and powered up his computer.

“Big Chinese client has a meeting upstairs today, so, um, don’t display any Tibetan flags.”

Nathan laughed his quiet, thoughtful laugh. Every time an important client visited they had to hide any competitors’ products or logos. This had nearly come to blows last year when one of the data-entry guys had refused to cover a Budweiser t-shirt for a visit from the local Miller distributer. Anyway, there probably wasn’t a big Chinese client. The company, like its home city, had been growing, but ultimately wasn’t of more than regional significance. A spark came across Nathan’s bright blue eyes, behind the metal rims of his glasses. He slid his hand into the top drawer of his desk (bending his knees, always lift with the legs) and pulled out a stack of Post-It notes. He stuck one over the front panel of Jim’s computer. The CD drive popped out.

“'Ey, wut was that about?”

“Nvidia sticker.”

Jim pushed the CD drive back until it got the hint and receded back into the tower. “So?”

“Incorporated in Taiwan, tax purposes. I guess it’s the Delaware of the Pacific Rim.” Infinite World wasn't big enough to be a Delaware corporation, but Jim had read Cryptonomicon, so it landed. “Also, mostly fabbed in Taiwan, board-makers in Taiwan. But, to be fair, they do good business in China, too. A little nationalistic saber-rattling won't get in the way of that.”

An Outlook window popped up on Nathan's screen, then three pop-ups for meetings and tasks coming due. Nathan felt a surge of rage well up from his gut, though his neck, out through his ears. He stetched his arms out and down, extended his fingers (and toes) into wide fans. The stress flows out through your fingers and toes, he’d heard that 25 years ago in high school, and if that was the case, best to shape them like a heat-sink, maximize the surface-area to volume ratio. “I wonder who it was that coded up these alerts. I could drive my ass over to Redmond and...” Nathan's voice lightened. “I wonder if he knows he's the most hated man in the world.” A pause. “Well, the white-collar bougie world with nothing real to complain about.” A laugh. “Seriously, though, Redmond eats its own dogfood, it’s probably one of its own biggest clients, if anyone hates this shit as much as me it's probably someone at the big campus there”

“Microsoft doesn't know shit, can't do shit,” Jim snapped back. “They hire the smartest people outta school and teach 'em ta suck. Forget fucking Outlook dialogs. I got two words for ya. Two-hundred-sixty character path limit. Four words. Twohundredsixty. Character. Path. Limit.”

“Depends how you count them,” added Joe, sitting at the next clump of desks over.

“Every fucking project I run into it. Imagine the poor fucks coding real software. Like at, uh, Microsoft, fer example. Tell me they don't get sick of it. There’s gotta be thirty-thousand individual people at Microsoft that could fix that shit in a day, and working together they can't fix it in twenty fucking years of Windows. A fucking joke.” Jim normally spit out his words in a quick monotone, but when he said, "fucking," he said it deliberately, with a rise and fall, giving his fucking sentences an additional climax. A fuck-ing joke.

Nathan, who had been listening with his eyes closed and breathing deeply, put in softly, “Did you ever read Raymond Chen’s blog, The Old New Thing? That’s the sort of thing he’d write about. There’s probably some —”

“Raymond Chen!?! Fuckin'oly fucking fuck, dude, Raymond fucking Chen. Raymond Chen is smarter than you and me put together, and add in, what, another fucking pod of us code monkeys?” Fuckin', on the other hand, was mashed into the beginning of a word, like a prefix.

“If we’re in pods, aren’t we code whales?” Joe put in.

“All that power in 'is fuckinbrain, workin ferwat should be th'most importan'n' capable software company onthe planet, and whaddoes 'e do? 'E writes a fuckinapologetics blog for their fuckups!”

“I’m not sure I’d call him an apologist exactly. Perhaps an historian.”

“Plumbing the depths of bullshit code from the eighties, like it's less important that it’s bullshit, 'ere today, in two-thousandeight, than why it stinks. You know, pissin' in the street is a longstanding tradition. And, damn, wouldn’t it smell better if we used toilets? But this way his fuckingrandpa doesn’t have to learn how to piss all over again.”

Joe, by this point swiveled around and facing Nathan and Jim, said, “Heh, that sounds like more of an excuse than an apology.”

Nathan turned his chair away from his monitor, through a 270-degree arc, past Joe to face Jim. He paused for a few seconds, smiled serenely, and said softly, “Shut the fuck up, Donny. That’s V.I. Lenin. Vladimir Ilyich Ulianov.”

Math follow-up

I ended up finishing this mathy stuff a bit ago. I realized I had no idea how to integrate secant, but I knew the answer had natural-log-of-tangent in it, so I derived natural-log-of-tangent and used the solution to that to connect everything. I guess I could probably use the derivative to natural-log-of-tangent to figure out the proper way to integrate secant. That might be interesting. I probably could have done all this easily back in college.

Also, at one point Jess was really considering doing NaNoWriMo, and I had some ideas that I wanted to work into a story, so I thought about trying to do it also. Then after about one and a half days I realized that I didn't enjoy writing enough to spend the four hours a day I'd need to spend to accomplish it. Still, I wrote a short chapter of stuff that was pretty OK. I realized as I was going that my three main characters were sort of like the three protagonists in The Big Lebowski, so I ended the chapter with a reference to that... and I'll put that in the next post.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Math of the Moment

Every now and then I get the need to do some math... and it reminds me of all the math I used to know and have forgotten. So I try to figure out math problems without cheating and looking at Wikipedia.

Most recently, I was working with some “Mercator” map coordinates. Basically they express a position on the earth in terms of its location on a Mercator projection of the earth. I dug out a formula from our code at work, and it seemed to work, but I wasn't satisfied that the function for the Y coordinate in terms of Longitude was odd (that f(x) = -f(-x)). So I proved that, which was fun. It got me a taste for more calculus.

So then I decided I had to derive the Mercator projection. The Mercator projection is basically defined such that, if the Earth were spherical, at any point on the map the horizontal scale (relating distance along a constant-latitude circle to horizontal distance on the map) is equal to the vertical scale (relating distance along a constant-longitude circle to vertical distance on the map). That wouldn't be too hard, I guess, except that I needed to integrate a secant, and I didn't remember how to integrate a secant, or how to integrate nested functions (because then I could define secant in terms of cosine, which is easy to integrate).

So I had to figure out how to integrate nested functions... which I remembered was related to the product rule for derivatives... which I also didn't remember. I think I've managed to derive that from the definition of a derivative. And that's where I am right now. I hope I'm not down a blind alley, but deriving the product rule was fun either way.

Speaking of which, I wish software folk could use short variable names like mathematicians and physicists. ε. δ. What's so hard about that? Set out the meaning of variables in comments and write code that's readable as code instead of vainly trying to make it read like language? If a modern software engineer invented calculus it would have been independentVariableDifferentialNumeric and dependentVariableDifferentialNumeric. *puke*.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Tootsie Rolls

Since moving to Seattle Jess and I have noticed that lots of cool famous Internet personalities are Seattleites. For example, the Penny Arcade guys, and the authors of Unshelved. I hear all these people are from Seattle and I wonder where they are in Seattle and what they think of the place, because they don't tend to incorporate much local flavor in their work. Anyway, I don't remember that being the case in Chicago, regularly realizing, “Hey, that guy's from my town!”

What's from Chicago? Both of my guitars, for one thing, as they were both made by Harmony. My dad's old guitar is like this one and my “new” guitar is this one. And someone brought in some extra Halloween candy to work today and I noticed that Tootsie Rolls come from Chicago.

My first thought was that maybe they were made at that big candy operation south of O'Hare. But I punched the ZIP-code from the package into Google Maps and found that they're actually made just south of Midway Airport (not far from the huge rail yard), where there used to be an old car factory (according to Wikipedia).

Tootsie Roll ingredients? Why, they're simple! Sugar, corn syrup, partially-hydrogenated soybean oil, condensed skim milk, cocoa, whey, soya lecithin, “artificial and natural flavors”. So, primarily, sugar, more sugar, and some really bad fat. A true taste of Chicago, if you ask me!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Thank you, GNU/Linux...

... for not being Jolicloud, which is to say, yourself under a layer of silly hype (I only have heard of it because it was mentioned in an Audacity bug report... I had to go to its website to confirm that it was indeed just a re-packaging of some Free Unix running an X Server and wxGTK)...

... Also, for not being Windows, which accused me of pirating it when I booted to test some stuff today. It corrected itself when I clicked through some stuff, but it would have been polite, on the “ZOMG UR A PIRATE” screen to have at least had a “WTF I IZ NOT A PIRATE” button. Given the activation tool's spotty accuracy record, it seems natural that there should be some humility baked into the user-facing messages, but not really.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

JUST MARRIED *cans dragging behind bike*

Jess and I got married last week. Don't feel offended that you didn't get an announcement or invitation, it was just the two of us, my brother and his girlfriend (who served as witnesses), and the judge. Because both of our families are centered around Chicago we're planning to have a get-together in Chicago next time we're in town. She's taking my name; we talked quite a bit about this and decided we wanted our family to have a single name, and we seriously considered changing our surname to Duck, and then decided against that. So we're the Dimond family. I think there was a time when we couldn't have envisioned Jessica taking my last name in marriage — I guess we're getting communitarian in our old age.

The night after the wedding I had a dream that I cheated on Jess. And when I realized what I'd done (in the dream) I felt really awful and told her the next time I saw her. And she looked at me (still in the dream) with a sardonic look on her face and said, “So you had to wait until the day after we were married to screw around on me.” I told her about this dream a few days later and she said that's exactly how she thinks she'd react to that news. Let it never be said we don't know each other a little bit.

The day after we were married (which was 10/10/10) we saw Hitchcock's The Birds at the Grand Illusion theater, on 50th just east of the Ave. It's a hell of a film. A lot of (crappy) horror movies imply or outright state that their horrors come from Hell, and that the victims are being punished for their own morality, or the decline of society. One of the many things I loved about The Birds is that while that's one of the possible explanations for the onslaught of birds upon Bodega Bay, CA, it's only one. It's clear that this possibility gets under the skin of the protagonist, to the point that she even strikes out physically at a townsperson that suggests it. You can draw a psychological parallel to any of the trials we face in our lives, or even a philosophical parallel to the existential angst that some find endemic to the human condition. In particular, the protagonist has to live with the idea that she's brought a terrible plague onto a town of people that are, as far as we know, as innocent as anyone else, because she's conspicuous as an outsider in town and because she's conspicuous to herself simply by virtue of being herself. There are many possible explanations in her personal story that could account for the onslaught of birds (just as there are many explanations put forward by townspeople in the cafe) but none is satisfactory. The cause is unknown; perhaps it's unknowable. I haven't really read anything about The Birds, and I'm hardly breaking any ground by calling it a masterpiece or something... but it's a film I hadn't seen until then, and if you haven't seen it you should. There's a lot there.

Today we took care of some vehicular business. It turns out you can't initiate a title transfer by selling your car to someone for $5 in Washington, you have to either sell it for something resembling its market value, or give it as a gift. I think it has to do with taxation. I mention this just in case it's relevant to anyone reading this, because we didn't find that out until we were at the licensing office (meaning that Jess still doesn't own her car in the eyes of the state). The basic libertarian impulse is to ask why the state doesn't recognize any selling price agreed upon by two adults of sound mind, but I'm guessing that there are possibilities for tax fraud that create a significant state interest in enforcing this rule.


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Book Post

Jess and I love to go to the Seattle Public Library's book spiral and browse her favorite parts of the Dewey spectrum. We've found some weird books (a book on gay reincarnation, a leadership manual based on the principles of our first President with an MBA). We've paged through big books with lots of big pictures (a chronicle of couples, a polemic against public-land ranching and cattle subsidies in the West). We've even checked out a few. Here are some things I've been reading and skimming:

Beyond Red and Blue by Peter S. Wenz. It covers 12 political philosophies that contribute to major American political debates. It's a survey and thus doesn't go too deeply into any of the philosophies and glosses over some things. And he makes some assumptions about what “everyone” believes that I find to be begging the question. But his way of explaining how people come to their political positions make more sense than the explanation of, say, the Political Compass, which I've thought about a bit. The compass is just a spectrum in two dimensions. People can fall in the middle of political spectra without consciously moderating their views, and explaining people's positions as the result of impulses rather than as positions on spectra makes a lot more sense. This book has given me some ideas about future reading, both on philosophies I sympathize with and those I don't, and that's certainly an important function of any survey.

War and Peace, Tolstoy. I just finished this last week. Tolstoy certainly has lots of opinions. His big interest in War and Peace is the telling of history, and its tendency to ascribe greatness to leaders. In particular he lampoons the idea of Napoleon's genius, portraying the rise and fall of the French Empire and especially the invasion of Russia, as being the product of... well, I won't spoil it. He spins a nice set of stories around all these ideas, too — through almost 1400 pages I never felt like giving it up. Nationalism and sexism abound, and he seems to find great glory in the scorched-earth warfare performed by the Russians. Of course, Tolstoy himself argued against judging historical events by the standards of later ideas. Sort of a temporal relativism.

The Transition Handbook, Rob Hopkins. I haven't got far into this one, but I've caught bits of it. Maybe the most important idea is that if we are going to have a positive future we have to make it positive.

Exogamy and dating ideals

This, on the Islamic scarf controversy in France. In the US we have more libertarian impulses than they do in France, including the impulse to give people the liberty to follow their minority communitarian values. So, from the American perspective, a European sense of shared, national community values winds up working against the community values of Muslims. But that's a bit of a tangent.

Jess and I were talking about mainstream dating culture last night and we made the connection to exogamy. There's an ideal of finding people to date outside our social circles, of finding a woman, nabbing a man, fitting this person into our picture of our future lives. As we no longer live in the time of the crusades, we find people out on the town. Whenever we're out alone it's like a performance — You never know when you'll meet the man you'll marry.

We both find mainstream dating ideals pretty weird, and our story doesn't follow them at all. We met in the Allen Hall cafeteria through mutual friends and built a close friendship for almost a year before considering ourselves an “item”. As we grew closer our friends giggled behind our backs (and sometimes in front of our faces), gave us advice we ignored. When we broke up we didn't hate eachother, didn't lose our friends. Our story is more in the endogamous mold than the standard ideal, although it sprung from a circle of friends we built while out at college, a place we'd all necessarily leave.

Not everyone is like us, to be sure. But how much of who we are is the result of how we've shaped each other? How the circumstances of our lives, the communities we've been in, the people we've known, have made us who we are? The self is not so unitary. There's no shame in changing your self around your friends, and less so around lovers, and the idea that there is seems so ingrained in our dating ideals.

So I guess this post is in support of the endogamous model. To whatever degree possible in our conquistador world.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I trust...

When I get an idea for a blog post at work I email my personal address from my work address so I can remember it for later and stay focused on work instead of thinking about it more just then. I hope (or, I guess, I trust) that nobody's reading those emails. Sometimes they're kind of weird. Anyway, I sent a few today. How about this...

1. I wonder whether (or, perhaps, I trust that) somehow we programmers can make something better than MS Outlook's meeting reminders. Every time I get one I'm thrown into a fit of frankly terrifying rage. I wonder how much of it is the crummy implementation (for the record, my office is still using Office 2003 and I don't know if they've improved since then) and how much of it is inherent in being reminded that one has to go to a meeting.

2 (and finally to the point I guess). We (as people) really tend to trust people, especially those in apparent positions of power or authority. I was trying to think of a way to generalize something I was thinking about earlier, about how most people don't really do the work to verify that their employers, landlords, businesses we frequent, etc., aren't out to scam/kill them, and I guess it comes down to something that we all know already. But would we all be better off if we trusted no one? Is our trust in people with some power/authority related to the fact that our society generally does an OK job of rewarding people that deal fairly (in "deal fairly" I'm not counting externalities — basically we do a good job of rewarding people that enter into exchanges beneficial to all their parties)? Is it different in places where that's not the case (Russia, with its large base of educated people and limited opportunities for them in “legitimate” enterprise, and thus its mythical abundance of computer hackers, might be an example)?

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Accelerated Web?

Knowing that graphics drivers and libraries are complicated programs written in “unsafe” languages, and in light of the fact that the Web is dead, it seems to me that the main effect of adding hardware graphics acceleration to web browsers will be more security problems. It also seems likely that, in my typical use cases, I'm more likely to see meaningful performance degradation than enhancement from the addition of graphics acceleration (in the form of slower loading times, rendering bugs, etc).

(The Wired article, of course, is typical Wired bluster. The web isn't dead to anyone that doesn't equate life with world domination.)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

LEDs update

The color-cycling LEDs have stopped. The blue ones are still going strong. I'm impressed. Though I'm not sure where my calculations went so wrong. Maybe the current rating for the LEDs specifies how much current you can put through before they're likely to explode, not how much they draw from a cell.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

But wait...

I heard a couple things lately that made me think, "But wait!" And it occurred to me a few days ago that they were related, and that I should blog them, and am finally getting around to that now. Ahem.

While I was back in Wyoming for a couple days Jess and I talked with Laura and she said that “lifestyle politics” were fruitless (paraphrased a lot), that only systemic change would ultimately work. Being the self-absorbed lifestyle politician that I am, my first thought was to vegetarianism. But wait! Surely us vegetarians make a difference (the conversation wasn't about vegetarianism but that was the first thing that came to my mind)! I didn't say anything at the time; I was thinking through my thoughts and by the time I had anything worth saying the conversation had moved on.

Then I was reading Penny Arcade and saw Gabe and Tycho talk about used-game sales. Day 1, Day 2, and comic. I think the really critical statement is Tycho's from day 2: “What I have said is that the end result of that purchase from a developer perspective must be indistinguishable. Isn't it? That is the question I couldn't answer. I still can't answer it. And because I couldn't, I had to change the way I invested my leisure dollar.” But wait! Surely Tycho's stand against used game purchases can't possibly be effective against the power of free exchange, can't possibly change the market dynamics.

Well, I know a little bit about the power of consumers to change markets. Literally, a little bit, not a lot. I used to work for a market research firm that, unrelated to my own work for them, studied restaurant menus. One thing I heard about the office is that most restaurants have at least two vegetarian entrees on their menus. In my experience, this sounds about right, and I'll add that many of them point out their vegetarian items specifically. That's mostly on the shoulder of us lifestyle politicians, but what does it mean? Not much. Honestly, most restaurant chefs seem to be trained in an anti-vegetarian culture. Their token vegetarian entrees, on the whole, aren't all that appetizing and certainly aren't very nourishing. And, more to the point, conditions for animals to be eaten still suck, and we aren't eating less meat than ever as a society.

A stance to eat vegetarian, or a stance to not buy used games (not considering the merits of the causes), can only matter to a very limited degree. It's an appeal to people to act against their self interests. So Laura is right on this, and Tycho is wrong. It's systemic change that matters. Specifically regarding conditions of production for foreign-made goods, ensuring baseline labor standards as a prerequisite for trade could make a difference; boycotts can't do much. Regarding meat (I've said this before), holding the agriculture industry accountable for environmental damage, banning inhumane practices, and removing grazers from Federal lands in the West (there's a very large book in the SPL book spiral about this, it's around the 300s, can't miss it) would cause a far greater reduction in meat consumption than vegetarianism and veganism among consumers. Regarding video games (and software generally) the industry's move away from physical distribution has a far bigger effect on the used market than any action of consumers against their self-interest could.

As for the merits of the causes, I happen to think there's a clear difference. I happen to think Tycho is mistaken in his thinking about the value of the used game market. Markets for used durable goods are great for people without much money to spend. And, as the value of the right to sell or lend is typically encoded in the value of a new good, producers ultimately are compensated somewhat for the existence of a used market. Think: most people wouldn't be willing to pay as much for a new car if they had to junk it instead of trading it in when they were done with it, and most people would buy new ones less often as well. If game producers want to sell something that can't be resold effectively that's their business. They're surely aware that consumers will value it less, but not by much. The existence of a used market in most commodities, including games, benefits consumers greatly (especially low-income consumers) and hurts producers a little bit. It's probably a net benefit overall. But ultimately there's no ethical dilemma here, just a balance of power between producers and consumers, each of whom have plenty of good options in the marketplace.

Tycho has sympathy for developers and creative people in the games industry, and sees the difficult conditions they face whether working for large or small companies. For those working at large companies, they have to work against the large supply of people willing to do their jobs and their own refusal (as a group) to unionize (unionization would likely improve conditions for programmers with jobs at the expense of those without and their employers); without these conditions changing they'll always face tough conditions. And market conditions are tough for small software companies, especially those that want to innovate, but tilting the balance of power generally toward industry by eliminating the used game market doesn't really help them much — the big studios will always find ways to leverage their advantages of scale. So for the one part of the whole ecosystem that Tycho chooses to focus on, used games can't really change the situation much. It seems that at best, a refusal to buy used games might have a neutral effect overall.

Meanwhile the plight of animals and the environment in the agriculture industry is a question of externalization. The major losers are never involved in the transaction, cannot be players in the market. I don't think there's much question of the total direction of the industry. A refusal to participate in it, and publicizing the cause of its boycott, thus clearly is a positive thing, though small compared to the potential of systemic change. It's also a small step that's practical for almost anyone (especially because using animal products isn't all that much in most people's self-interest these days, if at all).

But the merits of the causes are really peripheral to the point. I just felt like arguing on the Internet there. With myself (I respond to Gabe and Tycho's ideas because I respect them, but they're rather unlikely to read and respond to me).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

S-to-S Word Association

The Spokane to Sandpoint Relay's website isn't quite as brilliant as that of the Headwaters Relay' or the Meeteetse-Absaroka Challenge (note the page title, sporting the name of a different race), but it gets the job done nonetheless.

Sally in Spokane. I think she said her name was Sally, but I don't remember; I'm not very good with names. She talked to a lot of us in the lobby of our hotel in Spokane Valley. She got around in a motorized wheelchair, loved talking to strangers, and had stayed up all night for fear of missing her 7:30 AM wakeup call to catch a ride to a doctor's appointment. In some pretty obvious ways she wasn't quite “normal”. It's easy to notice and dwell on that. She used to ride her motorcycle from Spokane to Sandpoint and knew there were some beautiful corridors along the way. She participates in Spokane's annual Bloomsday race every year. And she works in some capacity to facilitate the creation and availability of stylish clothing and accessories for wheelchair-bound people, so they don't have to look like hospital patients all the time. The personality traits that cause her to stay up all night to catch a ride and talk to everyone she sees in the lobby might be some of the same ones that help her overcome the many difficulties she faces and do work that improves people's lives. She does things that are hard and sometimes awkward, because that's what she has to do to get out of her home, to contribute to and live in her community. Go Sally (if that's indeed your name)!

While Spokane Valley is loosely based on Big Island from Mario 3, Spokane Airport is surrounded by the actual set of the empty castle in World 7.

Some of Joe's LEDs and batteries wound up in my car. Per Wikipedia and Wikipedia I'm guessing the multi-color ones are low-current LEDs that draw about 2mA and will discharge the batteries in about 110 hours, which will be some time Wednesday morning.

On the way back to Seattle we hit some nasty traffic delays as a result of the Meat Loaf concert at Snoqualmie. Specifically, the back-ups were all in back of Snoqualmie, and thus probably caused by backwards-propagating waves of slowdown due to lots of people entering the freeway to get away from Snoqualmie, back to Seattle, before the start of the concert... that ran dead-on into the entire population of Spokane driving into Snoqualmie to see Meat Loaf. I blame Rhea for the whole thing, as a car carrying her both drove from Spokane to Snoqualmie to drop her at the Meat Loaf concert and then immediately entered the freeway to escape to the disdainful, hipsterly safety of Seattle.

In Van 2 we saw a few shooting stars, mostly while Lauren and Neil were running their night legs.

Many people love runnnig night legs at relays, and we mostly run them really fast, but they always make me nervous. My favorite time to run relays is at dawn, even though dawn legs are typically last legs and quite painful. I should start running at dawn again in Seattle.

Randomly there were some people putting up Christian yard signs at exchange 6 that had that spirit of neener, neener, neener, we've got the real god, you've got the fake one, or maybe you don't got one, either way we're awesome. I love that stuff. Anyway I'm pretty sure I'm awesome too, real god or not.

For everyone that missed it (all of Van 1 and whoever was running at the time in Van 2), we saw someone that from behind looked like he was motoring along, but when we passed him we realized he was turning over quickly but with short strides. And I went on ripping on his short, shuffling stride for about 30 seconds. And am thus going to runner hell (unless he was from Eriksaurus Rex, but I don't think he was).

The team seems mostly in agreement about some of this at least, and we'll probably send a letter to the race organizers about it, but my personal opinion on course safety at S-to-S probably belongs here. On a road with no pedestrian facilities, especially on a road without much of a shoulder, runners and walkers should use the left side, espcially at night. People on foot can more easily get out of the way of oncoming traffic than traffic from behind. On a bike you usually want to use the right side; getting off the road is very hard to do without crashing, and cyclists travel fast enough that riding with traffic gives overtaking cars significantly more time to adjust. Cyclists and pedestrians have very different capabilities and limitations, and therefore I don't think it makes sense to allow cyclists to pace runners at night, as the S-to-S race does. I also think the organizers need to give clear direction on what side of the road to run on in road sections, that it should almost always be the left, and that therefore directional arrows should usually be on the left side of the road. I saw lots of runners at using headphones at the race, and I think that's always a bad idea running outdoors, and should never be allowed on a race course that's open to traffic (I don't like the idea of headphones in any race, but the danger is not nearly so grave when there aren't cars on the course... greater experts than me have both allowed and disallowed them in their races, and I'll certainly grant that there are many runners that get a lot more out of listening to music while running than I would).

There were a couple of accidents at the race this year. Neither would have been prevented by such rule changes (yes, one was a cyclist that wouldn't have been allowed on the course, but the driver went far enough off course to injure the runner as well, so I see that accident as similarly possible without the cyclist there), and I'm not trying to react to the accidents. I'm reacting to the general difficulty presented by runners and cyclists using both sides of the pavement, and riding double-wide, forcing cars to go very far to get around. One or both of the accidents may have been prevented by closer coordination with local police departments. I don't know enough about what this race did in this regard, nor what other races do, to do more than speculate on this subject, so I won't get any more into it here.

Overall, for an experienced runner taking the proper precautions, I don't think S-to-S is any more dangerous than any other race, or even than going out on a typical run. But there are inexperienced runners that don't know much about running in traffic. There are runners that impatiently take risks while racing. And there are those that don't prepare themselves (while briefly lost in Coeur D'Alene during my second leg I crossed paths with a runner that said, I didn't even look at the directions for this leg, I'm just trusting the signs to be right. He thought we were on the right road at the time and, as I suspected and later confirmed, we weren't). I don't at all mind events where runners are expected to take responsibility for their own preparation and safety (if I did I'd have missed some great races), and I usually try to do this in any race. Unfortunately lots of people don't.

On a lighter note, we really had a good team that worked well together, from the email threads before some of us even met through van clean-up at the end. From Captain Danielle through the relay vets (Joe, Shaun, Lauren, myself), relay n00bs (John, Scott, Maria, Neil, Maureen, Rhea) and Judy, picked up at the last minute.

And this is the glorious George Washington rap. It was made by Brad Neely, and thus it is NSFW, juvenile in a very sophisticated way, and has tons of rhythm.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Blackberry for fun?

I'll admit, I'm about as far from "the loop" as one can be on the subject of smartphones... so...

What's up with this new Blackberry BBM stuff? Do people actually do social networking on their Blackberries? Could they? Or is RIM just trying to sell bobos a business tool by showing it off as a social tool (and telling them they're the hipsters they desperately want to be)? I mean, my dad sent pictures from the Tetons on his Blackberry, but he got made fun of (by me, of course, but also by Mom).

I do find it somewhat ironic that Apple's marketing focuses more on the utility of its devices than RIM's. Probably both companies are fueling the self-delusion of their target market to some degree.

FOR THE RECORD: I now carry a cell phone but it's not mine, it's work-issued because we don't have desk phones at EB; also, I still don't know how to text and if you text me I'll probably call you back and leave a really long voicemail. So there.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Today a credit card offer came in the mail for one of my roommates. It was addressed from South Dakota, so if she applied for and received a credit card, then had a dispute with the company she'd have to settle it in a South Dakota court. South Dakota, as I understand it, has a legal system that's pretty friendly to the credit card industry — that's why so many such companies set up shop there.

From time to time there's a debate about how various state and Federal laws here in the US should affect companies offering services across state lines. In many cases a consumer is expected to settle any dispute in a court where the company is located. In other cases, like health insurance, companies aren't allowed to operate across state lines. Politicians (for example, Obama in one of his debates with McCain a few years back) say that if health insurers could operate across state lines there would be a race to the bottom for consumer protections.

And, staring at the credit card offer, I had this thought. Why not just have companies offering services across state lines settle disputes in the courts where the offer was accepted? A business-owner might complain about being bound by lots of different legal systems. But today consumers have to worry about the same thing. If I have a problem with some tech-industry product I probably have to go through courts somewhere near San José (if you read EULAs and warranties they usually list the specific venue for disputes), but it might be Austin or Boston or Redmond or Rochester. If it's with a credit card provider I might be looking at Sioux Falls... but it could be New York or Omaha.

Anyway, there are a lot more of us than them. Why not concentrate the complexity of dealing with regional regulations in big companies with lawyers on retainer instead of spreading it around to people that really have no idea how to deal with it?

I wonder how far I could go avoiding businesses that make me agree to resolve disputes in out-of-state courts. Seattle is well-situated for it; Amazon and Microsoft are in-county, even. I don't know enough about how credit cards work; I know lots of direct-mail offers come from Sioux Falls, but banks have to be incorporated in each state they operate in. So if I apply for a credit card at a local bank branch, I don't know if they would technically issue it from Washington or South Dakota.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Posh Bedbugs

I heard a radio segment today (it was an NPR show, maybe All Things Considered but I might be wrong) on the big bedbug infestation in many American cities. The story made a point that bedbugs are showing up in upscale retailers, luxury hotels, and posh condo high-rises.


1. Bedbugs feed exclusively on blue blood.

2. The host or producers figured it wouldn't be interesting or surprising that bedbugs are also found in non-posh areas of the city. If the problem largely didn't affect the rich it wouldn't be such a big story, and if it was largely isolated to the poor it wouldn't even warrant mention.

So... either bedbugs are elitist or the media is.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A couple famous old court cases

1. So you know how the US government can claim a "State Secrets" privilege in a legal trial and either refuse to provide requested evidence or get an entire case thrown out, without even a judge seeing the evidence, if the government thinks providing the evidence could harm national security? There was a specific case that went to the Supreme Court in the 50s that established this precedent. Upon review of the documents involved after they were released many years later it became clear that they didn't in fact contain sensitive secrets, only information that would have damaged the government's case. I heard of this on This American Life, and it's mentioned on Wikipedia as well. If you're surprised by this I have some real estate and a used car you might be interested in.

I also recently heard about Hugo Chavez' moves towards nationalizing parts of a large grocery chain. Many workers, reportedly, are against the move, as they fear a government takeover would result in worse conditions. There's evidence to support this, and it seems obvious in theory, too. The government plays a large role in regulating labor conditions. Once it owns an enterprise it has a direct interest in that enterprise's success, and that conflicts with its interest in protecting workers. This could work if the regulatory and productive parts of the government were truly independent, but this seems unlikely on this planet.

This is another side of the “State Secrets” coin. It's an obvious conflict of interest for the executive branch to decide what evidence it can simply withhold in cases where it's a party. Seems like minimizing these conflicts would be a good idea. Perhaps if it's not appropriate for judges generally to see evidence that's potentially sensitive there could be a handful of judges cleared to see it. Because they'd need to be cleared by the executive their independence might be somewhat limited but without a direct interest in the executive branch the conflict would be less than it now is.

2. Leopold and Loeb. I was reading some things on the Internet about the Scopes Trial (I should find a good book or two on it... seems like an odd and fascinating spectacle) and came across a reference to one of Darrow's other cases, his defense of this pair that apparently believed themselves Nietzschean über-men and committed a murder to show that they were above the law. But they managed to get caught and their alibis fell apart completely. So much for that.

But they avoided the death penalty, perhaps partly on the strength of a Darrow argument about their psychology, nature, and motivation. Then again, the judge may have just been reluctant to sentence minors to death. One of them was murdered in prison while the other was released on parole, moved to Puerto Rico, and wrote a book.

A few of Nietzsche's ideas either influenced Hitler or were used by Hitler to manipulate people. So there's that. But this case was pre-World War II. Had this murder occurred after that it probably would have looked very different to the public. It wouldn't have been nearly as shocking, and the defendants probably couldn't have got away with showing so little remorse publicly.

As I understand it (which is not all that well) Nietzsche believed democracy would ultimately lead to mediocrity, and that we should orient society instead toward the development of über-men who could really stand above all law and judgment. The “über-man” stood in contrast to “last-man”, representing our self-limiting and, perhaps, primitivist tendencies.

You can see some of these ideas play out on a less dramatic scale in the way people carry out their careers and business, and the way they live with respect to the environment. Some people clearly are living with the idea that they're doing such great work that any of their excesses are justified. Others take a more humble tack and try to reduce their negative impacts. The trouble with the second method is clear — if our overall impact is indeed so negative, why bother to live? Of course, many people don't really consider the idea at all.

One thing I've picked up about our negative responses to things like veganism, environmentalism, etc., when it comes to really making changes in our lives, is that we believe (usually implicitly) that our desires are self-justified. This is something I've probably questioned more than most people have, but seeing as I've moved between Chicago and the Pacific coast three times, mostly in pursuit of fairly personal objectives, I'm not sure what all that pondering has done. I either believe that what I'm to find and do justifies all that burned gas, or I'm pretty inconsistent and hypocritical...

... Yeah, that would be the latter. Incidentally, that's one of the many things “Dear Mr. Burnham” is about. It's a two-minute song, and I could go on for hours and hours about any line in it. You don't want to hear me do that, but the second half of this blog post is one way I could do that regarding the final couplet.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Clickin' ass (Clickin ass!) Clickin' ass is what we do!

Apologies to Fry and Laurie for the title.

So Facebook's user satisfaction rates are terrible yet it's still growing. And nobody likes social games or the companies that run them, but they're raking in the dough. At this point I might make a parallel to many trends in urban development, but it would take a lot of words to do that topic justice, so I'll keep to the point (after noting that, in this survey, airlines and cable TV providers rank at about the same level as Facebook and each continue to move lots of product, probably for very different reasons). You may recall that I quit Facebook recently and even wrote a letter about it. But although leaving Facebook very clearly felt right to me, I don't think my letter really outlined a great case against Facebook. To be honest, I never have had a case against Facebook that was suited to that kind of exposition.

Ian Bogost, on the other hand, made the case right with Cow Clicker: a work of art that brings social gaming into the light, and sheds a bit on social networking as well. His four big points against social games are enframing, compulsion, optionalism, and destroyed time, with some specific discussions about all of these.

Enframing comes from Heidegger, and I've struggled with Heidegger in the past. It's always hard for me to figure just where “enframing” happens. There have long been people that used their social and professional networks mostly as a resource for personal gain. In fact, you could probably find a lot of people that don't even find that the least bit sinister. But Facebook has really made it systematic. South Park's You Have 0 Friends includes a bit where Cartman does a Mad Money spoof on social networks that correlates with this idea. Before there was Twitter, I tweeted in my away messages. Before there was Facebook I collected my friends into the “Bloody Revolution” (the first to join was Andy U. and the last was Jessica; Joe ended it with five words) and sent lots of mass, random emails (I never did recover Episode 3a). I still have copies of all this stuff (except Episode 3a), from the letter I wrote to the DI about pressure to exaggerate to prospective employers (it didn't get published; for some reason I signed it as a Junior in Engineering but with my address from Sophomore year... suspicious...) to the secret blog I kept on my University webspace in the vain hope that someone would run a directory listing and get curious. Facebook doesn't do anything more than all this stupid stuff I used to do, but it somehow does it in a different way, changes the whole nature of it. Not least because Facebook makes money at every turn. Sort of like a hedge fund. Sign a petition to save a tree or break up with your boyfriend, it's all water rolling into the dam for Facebook.

By the way, quote from my secret blog, 15 February 2003: “but it's like i said. i base my self-worth on 3 things: my aim profile, other people's opinion of my taste in music, and being better than my peers.”

Moving on. As far as compulsion goes, again, we've all had compulsions before social networking. Any successful game creates some compulsion in its users to spend time unproductively by playing it. I think of Perl Golf and other programming challenges. They're artificially constructed problems for programmers to solve when there are plenty of real programming problems to solve out in the world. But sometimes at work I randomly think of a possible improvement to my solution and email myself a quick note so as not to waste work time on it. I'm drawn to it as an interesting problem. Bogost claims that social gaming exploits our compulsions, but I think all successful games do that. Social games do so perhaps more effectively, or in a more systematic way at least, but I think that has more to do with enframing than that they've created a different kind of compulsion. As the fourth point, Time Destruction, depends on the second, I think the same holds. To whatever extent social games as a different kind of time-waste than other kinds, it has to do with their enframing of social networks more than anything else.

As for the third point, optionalism, there's an interesting question. Is it that gameplay is so weak as to optional, or is it that something like Farmville is more of a creative space than a game space? Like The Sims or Mario Paint? As a creative space it doesn't allow much expression, but there's precedent for this sort of thing in real-life social settings. Karaoke comes to mind. You sing someone else's song, usually some meaningless top-40 drivel (although my cousin Ryan likes to do What's so Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding, which is awesome), you sing it badly, you wave at your friends, your friends clap, you buy another beer. Farmville is more shallow than that, to be sure. But it's not all that much more shallow.

So to me Bogost's argument really falls to the Heidegger-based idea that social games are different from games that have come before because they enframe our social networks. As social games have laid bare the empty time-waste that games can be it's important for more traditional game designers to come up with an ethical framework that lets them differentiate themseleves, stay out of the muck. It's clear that enframing, that manipulating, social networks makes the compulsive pull of social games stronger. But as a consumer, not a producer, I don't have any interest in differentiating between social and non-social games. I just have an interest in my own time. If I waste time in a traditional game it's no different than if I waste time in a social game. The social game just might be harder to quit.

"This used to be such a great country..."

The title is a line spoken by Mee-Ma in the wedding episode of The (American) Office. Jim has accidentally announced to the whole wedding party that Pam is pregnant, and Mee-Ma, Pam's very “traditional” grandmother, is dismayed.

So, the birth control pill. It allows women to take control/responsibility for birth control, and is very good at preventing pregnancy. On the other hand, it does so by messing with their hormones, which can have really complicated side effects.

I'm not a woman, so it's not a trade-off I've had to consider personally. I've heard that researchers are working on male hormonal birth control, though, and my first impulse is that I wouldn't take it. The value proposition of hormonal birth control for men and women is quite different, because the consequences of unintended pregnancy are so different. Certainly a man should share equally in the responsibility of raising a child he's fathered, but that's not enforced biologically as it is in women. So this urge on my part has a selfish side. It also can come down to a question of values and priorities. Would I risk all the possible side effects of hormonal changes, especially being somewhat physically unusual (I tend to be very sensitive to drugs generally), for the sake of more sexual freedom? It doesn't seem like the right trade-off to me. But clearly it is for a lot of people, especially for women, for whom the trade-off is quite different.

To some traditionalists this seems like a generational question. It reminds me of my parents, who were talking about some political sex scandal a few years ago, and one of them said, "I don't understand it. They risk their whole careers just for sex?" There are definitely people that see people choosing to take various risks for sexual freedom and think it's evidence of changing priorities and values, especially of a decline in morals.

The problem with that idea is that people have always taken risks to have sex. It's not a new thing. We have the technology today to have more sex more safely than in the past, and people probably have more sex as a result. But people have always taken risks for sex. They've risked their careers and they've risked their health in days when death by syphilis was common. If they had the technology to have more safe sex in those days they would have done it. Proud advocates of debauchery alongside those that claimed celibacy. I doubt improvements in sexual technology are the result of changing values. It's possible they've changed values, but more than that, I think they've just given people new ways to express values they already had.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reasons I'm happy today

1. Today's driver of Community Transit Route 120, on the run departing Canyon Park at 5:44 PM. On paper the transfer to the southbound 511 bus at Lynnwood should be a 50-50 proposition (the 120 is scheduled to arrive at 6:18, same as the 511's departure), but I have a 100% success rate with this dude driving. Also, he enunciates clearly when he calls out the stops.

2. Smyrna figs. I don't think I've ever tried fresh figs, but I like to eat dried figs. I've had Mission figs, which are pretty good and tend to be consistent in quality. I've tried Calimyrnas, which can be very good but are not so consistent. And then I just tried Smyrna figs, and they are brilliant.

3. Jess. (dawww).

4. The institution of employer-based health insurance. Or... not.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

I need to make a decision...

... Oh, but I'm not good at that. Maybe I'll put it off.

So... last Thanksgiving I was at my grandparents' house in Kalamazoo, and they were trying to get some of their children's things out of their house. One of those things was my dad's old guitar that he hasn't played since he was very young. My dad is not really a musician — any time he tries to lead a group in song (Christmas carols, Happy Birthday, etc.) he hums a pitch, then starts singing in a key seemingly unrelated to the pitch he hummed. I have to say "seemingly" because I think there must be some logic to it — I don't think he's the kind of person that would hum a pitch before starting to sing just because he's seen other people do it, not knowing why. My best guess is that he intends to start on the pitch he hummed, but he always hums a pitch way too high (most songs start at or near their lowest pitch, and he usually hums toward the high end of his comfortable vocal range) and naturally reverts to something more comfortable.

So anyway, my grandparents didn't want the guitar, he didn't want the guitar, and I was just starting to learn guitar, I didn't have one of my own, and I love random free stuff. So I have this guitar. It is a Stella Harmony, the classic beginner guitar of its day, made in a factory in Chicago. I also love old instruments. My clarinet is from the 60s also, but it's the classic professional clarinet of its day, a Buffet R13.

This guitar has some unusual features compared to many of the guitars I see around. It's built on a short scale (24-inch) and has a compact body, to ease handling and playing. This makes it easier for me to take it places, and also makes it quieter than most guitars, which is nice when I'm singing, because I don't have a booming voice. It has a tailpiece, which probably affects the sound in interesting ways, but I like it because it makes re-stringing easier (no push-pins... while re-stringing Jess' guitar before RPM those damn pins made me curse more than any other aspect of the job aside from my own incompetence). It has a twangy, plucky sound, but that could be for a number of reasons. It's just perfect for some songs (this one and, um, this). It also had a floating bridge until I, not knowing that it was supposed to float, glued it down. And this might sound weird, but I really like the way it looks. Which is like this:

Unfortunately the bridge came to me broken, I broke the nut trying to restring it, and I decided I didn't want to have a professional fix it because a minor repair would cost more than the value of the guitar. That's not a rational way to make economic decisions, but I felt it was part of the ethic of getting a free old guitar that I should figure out how to fix minor stuff like that. I made a new notch in the bridge with a letter opener and fixed the nut with some glue. The poor quality of one or both of these repairs may be why the low E string sounds really lousy, but the low strings generally don't sound very good on this instrument. This seriously hampers my ability to play songs like Hiding (electrified version notwithstanding, it sounds good on Jess' acoustic and terrible on mine). Apparently aside from my bad repair, the nut is also “grabby”. This means if you, say, adjust a string up using the tuning pegs, there becomes extra tension on the head-side of the nut, which slowly equalizes, causing the string to slowly get sharper over time. All the strings do this at different rates, so it's hard to keep the guitar precisely in tune. The most effective way to perform fine tuning is to stretch the string on either side of the nut, which is just weird. The tailpiece also affects tuning — any time you tune one string up the others go down slightly, and vice-versa. As far as ease of playing goes, the advantage of the short scale is eaten up by the bulky neck. It's both thicker and wider than any other neck I've seen (it's probably not as wide as a 12-string neck, but that's different), though I bet most cheap acoustic guitars in the 60s had bulky necks.

So I might want to buy a new guitar. But I'm not sure, because I hate buying stuff, and there's so much I like about the old one. It seems silly to have a professional fix and set-up my old one, given its lack of potential and flaws, but that's an option, too. Realistically I'm limited more by my lack of technique than my instrument at this point, so if I get a new guitar I'll have to commit to really learning the instrument.

As in Chicago...

In Seattle the south side is the place to ride.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Rockin' the Toxo

A while ago, this article about Toxoplasma Gondii was picked up by Slashdot. There's a somewhat better article at The Economist Toxo seems endlessly fascinating to the Slashdot crowd, and to myself as well. Much of the world's population carries a parasite that may affect their personality and behavior, typically with no physical effects (although, rarely, an infection causes intense physical sickness). According to studies, Toxo increases testosterone in men and correlates with high aggression, dogmatism, and rebellion against authority; women with Toxo tend to be more outgoing and men find them more attractive. Although the parasite reproduces in cat stomachs and is present in cat feces it's almost never contracted through contact with cats. Rather, humans usually pick it up by eating raw or undercooked meat. I've seen different sources quote vastly different numbers for national infection rates, but all cite relatively low rates in Japan, South Korea, the US, and the UK, relatively high rates in France and Germany, and often very high rates in countries with serious public health problems. Because infection rates vary so much among different countries (and probably among cultural groups within them, since people are typically infected through food), Toxo infection could be a simple explanation for many cultural differences.

It reminds me of the day, in my intro-level Psych class in college, that the professor explained why stimulants can be an effective prescription for hyperactivity. The underlying theory is that people's brains are always active, spinning idly, keeping themselves entertained. People that are hyperactive spin less than usual, and require more external stimulation to avoid boredom. The right stimulant makes them spin more, require less external stimulation, and function better in classrooms and offices. What fascinated me more was the other side of the coin. People that "spin" more than usual become very quickly overloaded when there's a lot going on around them. That sounds a lot like me. It could be a simple explanation for a pretty big part of my personality.

Then again, there are lots of simple explanations out there. Our personalities are the result of an unknowable number of factors, and so are national and cultural characteristics. To me, Toxo is fascinating because it raises the question not just of who we are, individually and collectively, but also of what we are. It's a reminder that I have lots of living stuff in me that doesn't carry my DNA, and that it's as much a part of me as the parts that do carry my DNA. But I have to remember that any one of these things is just a small component of the whole and probably can't, by itself, explain very much.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Omnibus Post

1. I was watching some C*SPAN a couple weeks ago and a bunch of oil company execs were testifying before the House. A few of them, in their opening statements, expressed support for a carbon tax. What? How could that be? Then MIT just published a report predicting natural gas to be a winner under a carbon tax regime (see also NYT, Slashdot). And the oil companies mostly have big natural gas operations as well.

2. And natural gas is often touted as a clean fuel, so maybe that's not so bad. Except for fracking. Ah, to hell with NPOV, there's a film (and associated website) on the subject that takes a considerably bolder stance on the issue.

3. Usually when considering issues of politics and business I remind myself that it's unlikely any of the actors have evil intent. But sometimes the mining industry makes me wonder. With all the news that comes out of Appalachia about mountaintop removal and all the nasty pollution that comes from the mines there. With a giant oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, something that, we now know, will necessarily be repeated if a similar accident ever again occurs (and yet it's so important that we start deep-water drilling again! Immediately!). And now with this "fracking" stuff. And how they've infiltrated the government that's supposed to regulate them! Becoming exempt from the Clean Water Act and refusing to disclose the chemicals that are seeping into groundwater. These guys must have to shave their mustachios off every five minutes.

4. Wyoming has taken the first steps toward regulation of fracking. Way to go, Wyoming! Also, this reminds me of the story told by a friend a couple years ago about stopping for lunch in a small Wyoming town and finding the restaurant staff unable to concentrate when taking orders or remember requests... as if the whole town's water or air was bad. Maybe there's a connection.

5. I was going to write about more than just fracking, so here goes. It seems like during the peak of oil spill coverage the hot interview subjects were gulf-coast fishermen and seafood restaurateurs. It almost felt like if people wanted to report that the oil spill was indeed a big deal they had to show that it was killing the Gulf economy. But that's silly. Drilling is the Gulf economy — it dwarfs fishing, for one thing. BP is big enough and profitable enough to survive even after paying cleanup costs and damages — it would be big enough to survive even if it had to pay for the full economic impact of the spill over time, and it surely won't pay that much. But, environmentally, damage has been done that only time can heal, and lots of time at that. I think lots of people understand that part of the story, and the media seem almost afraid to mention it. That it's a tragedy, a tragedy because there's death at the end, and loss.

5a. #5 and #3. Of course, they really don't have evil intent. They can poison a few people, raise everyone else's standards of living, and make lots of money doing it. Mining execs probably care deeply for their own families, maybe even their own communities. If real decision-makers at mining companies (and also factory farms) lived and worked at the sites they designed and built, along with their families, our world would look a lot different.

6. Speaking of fishermen, I've never seen Deadliest Catch, but I've seen the ads, of course. It seems that the story could be turned around — Deadliest Swim, which follows and casts as heroes fish that find themselves in the paths of these enormous boats. But then every episode would have a sad ending. I did catch a bit of that show about loggers... don't remember what it was called... TREEFUCKERS!, perhaps? Anyway, it had this tense, evil-sounding music playing as it showed a grove of trees just standing in a swamp. You know, the music they'd play on a detective show as the prison guard announces that the murderer has escaped. Then the hero arrives on the scene, gets in his TF-9000 ULTIMATE TREE-FUCKING CONTRAPTION, and goes to town. Can he cut down every tree by nightfall? The music reaches a feverish pitch as the sun starts to set, then it climaxes as he plows through the last tree just as the sun sinks. Then a peaceful yet triumphant chord is held out across the scene of the devastated swamp. Now I feel great about using paper.

7. There is an intersection in Seattle between N. 45th St. and some side street west of I-5. It has a stoplight. But only for 45th St. The side street has stop signs. This light indeed turns red and stops the traffic on 45th, and I have no idea what cross traffic does at this point. How someone crossing knows when it's about to turn green and they should not go through. I must be missing something, right? But I've rode my bike through it twice in the last couple days, and I'm pretty sure that's what it is. WEIRD.

8. I just played at my first open mic in Seattle, at some little bar with couches on 45th in Wallingford. It was probably about the best atmosphere and crowd for my style I could have hoped for. I made lots of mistakes but didn't lose the beat, and I played with as much energy as I could fit through Dad's little old guitar. If I focus I can probably get all the energy I have through that guitar, but it will take a lot more practice. Or maybe I'll get a new guitar that's not so hard to tune and play.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Dear Seattle, you are very beautiful...

... but you are full of dicks on wheels. First there was Silver Prius, who ran a stop sign and nearly hit me, then gave me the finger. I explained that there was a stop sign, and that he'd have done well to have stopped at it, and he said, "I wish I had hit you, fuck off." Classy. Then tonight, White Accord, which got me drive-by style with a paintball gun. But it took 'em two passes. The first time they were going the opposite direction, shot five times across the road, and missed. Of course, they circled around and got me from behind. So they're bad shots and cowards.

It's too bad I couldn't get plate numbers. Or too bad that I don't believe in collective punishment. If anyone that believes in collective punishment sees a white Accord or silver Prius... well... you should probably fight your own battles :-).

Friday, June 18, 2010

I heard Seattle cops are cracking down on jaywaylking...

... and people are widely sympathetic to this. And here I thought I'd just moved to Seattle, not Singapore.

But, I tell you what, Seattle police. Feel free to try to ticket me for jaywalking. I hope you've been keeping up with your speedwork and hill training.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

subst weirdness with Windows Explorer

In my last post I mentioned that there are practical ways for users to work around the 260-character limit in many Win32 API functions that affect the operation of most Windows programs. One of them is the substr command built in to the cmd shell. I used substr to map Y: to my %USERPROFILE% (typically something like C:\Documents and Settings\username). And it all basically works.

Except for a couple things in Windows Explorer. First, the My Documents folder doesn't show up under Y: in Explorer. It shows up if I issue dir in cmd, and I can successfully browse to Y:\My Documents by typing that into the address bar in Explorer. It even auto-completes. It just doesn't show up. Second, and more seriously, Explorer treats this directory as if it's another drive when copying and moving files. So the default action dragging files between subdirectories of C: and Y: is copy, not move. And when you move the files it appears to re-write them instead of just re-writing the paths. Wack.

Monday, June 14, 2010

More mindless jerks that will be first against the wall when the revolution comes

1. Any mindless jerks that don't correctly account for possible spaces in variable expansions when building commands to be executed. This mostly applies to shell scripts and makefiles. And it especially holds on Windows, where the default home directory path has spaces in it (at least through XP). And it seems to be very often violated on Windows, to the extent that people get the strange idea that environment variables like PATH should contain quotes around paths with spaces (it should be obvious why this is wrong to anyone that's spent much time with shell and batch scripts).

2. The mindless jerks that keep perpetuating the Win32 API's 260-character path name limit. There are some ways around it, but they don't help people using Visual Studio, which was developed by mindless jerks that adhere to the limit. Such a short limit would suck on Unix, but it sucks doubly on, say, WinXP, where new VS projects are created in a directory looking something like C:\Documents and Settings\aldimond\My Documents\Visual Studio 20xx\Projects. You're already 75 characters in the hole, plus whatever you need for the solution and project directories; if you have verbose naming conventions you don't need to go many levels deep from there to get over 260 characters. I usually keep my sources in $HOME/src, as I would on Unix, but with some of the projects I use at work I have to cut path names down even further. There are tricks you can use if you're really repulsed by having your dev files live outside your home directory (as you should be); most people just put them straight under the C drive. Which means that the 260-character limit perpetuates people's unwillingness to run as unprivileged users on Windows, one of its significant real-world security weaknesses.


3. The mindless jerks behind, who don't have an option to require moderation on comments with links. As it stands I have to either subject honest commenters to moderation (which I don't want to do) or manually delete all spam comments (which is tedious and slow).

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Have you ever had an Internet connection installation go smoothly?

I sure haven't. In my post-dorm in college the Internet service was ordered by the building manager and we just had ethernet to our rooms. That worked OK, except that the building was behind NAT, they gouged us on price (after we'd been told it would be $30/month for the whole unit, which would have been basically fair for a NATted connection, the day we moved in we were told there had been a mistake, it was actually $30/month for each of us, and there was no way out), and there was a stupid bug that persisted for months where you couldn't connect to anything on some port... either 8080 or 8008. It happened this was the port used by some University service, and the ISP went on for months blaming the University for the problem even after I wrote them a few times with evidence that it affected any connection to that port. They had to bring in their “top tech from Virginia” to solve the problem. Fun times. But at least I didn't have any hassles with installation. I don't remember the name of the company. It was the major cable company in Champaign-Urbana. I think they've since joined the Comcast empire.

Since then... in California I had SBC either just before or just after their Oedipal merger with AT&T. Their setup process was Full of Fail. The only computer I had with me was a laptop running FreeBSD, so I couldn't run the setup disk. I was told by tech support of a web version (why not send that information with the modem?) that didn't work under Firefox or Opera because it was designed by some fancypants nincompoop that wanted to reimplement the hyperlink in Javascript but didn't want to test on anything but IE. Somehow I'm still bitter about that. I had to talk tech support through creating my account for me, which was hilarious.

I wound up having similar problems when I moved to my apartment in Uptown, but I knew what to expect and got it all taken care of pretty quickly. That apartment had no phone jack anywhere near where I wanted to put my computer, so I got a Wi-Fi card for my desktop box. It has served me well.

For some reason when I moved down to Pilsen I gave AT&T another chance. I had to completely redo my account and get a new phone number because Pilsen is 312 and Uptown is 773. This time the DSL modem couldn't connect upstream. They sent a tech out, but he couldn't access the phone box, because it was behind the neighbors' gate and they weren't home. So we had to schedule a second appointment, and coordinate with my neighbors. Since our building used to be split into two units per floor instead of one, the phone lines were wired accordingly, which was the cause of the problems (to this day AT&T's address on record for that apartment ends in “Floor 2—Front”). Also the previous tenant had been evicted after not paying his rent, or any of his bills, for half a year or so... maybe some of the lines had been disconnected because of that or something. Everyone was really good-natured about the whole thing, actually; I was sort of surprised that none of the utility companies even tried to get money out of me. They had the set-up pages fixed by this point, but for some reason I could never log in to my billing account on-line. I sent several support tickets about this that were never answered.

Unrelatedly, getting the billing switched to my roommates when I moved out was a horrible mess. Apparently AT&T's records got mixed up, and they thought they had transferred service (not just billing) on a 312 phone number to my address in Wyoming. If only — I'd love to take my 312 land-line number with me to Seattle. All I have to do is confuse AT&T enough to hook me up with an out-of-area-code number in a city they don't even service. Put that way, it sounds very possible.

In Wyoming we went with cable, not because of past DSL woes but because everyone said the DSL provider was terrible and Bresnan, the local cable company, was much better. Bresnan's connection was pretty fast, and it well should have been considering what we paid for it. As I recall, the cable modem didn't get a signal at first, and they had to send a dude out to calibrate some thinamajigger on some pole somewhere. It worked for a while, then uptime slowly deteriorated for a few months. I called and they had someone adjust some other thingy (which took a long time and a few trips back to the base for parts), and then a week later it went out again, and they had to fix their busted fix-job. So I was pretty frustrated with them. Not least because we relied on them for phone service, which didn't work at all without the Internet connection, and I was applying for jobs by phone at the time.

Now in Seattle I'm getting DSL through Qwest because cheaper than cable with Comcast (since I have no TV or land-line needs). The package with the modem arrived Monday but I didn't get it until Tuesday because the people in the building office that signed for it didn't tell me it came. I called the office Tuesday and someone found it lying around somewhere. No plan to notify me or anything. Then I plugged the modem in, and for the third straight move, got no upstream signal. A tech came out Wednesday and told my roommate (who was home at the time) that there was dust in the phone jacks. I'm a bit skeptical. He apparently didn't check the jack in my room, but when I got home it worked fine with no cleaning. And... seriously, dust caused a total lack of connection in two different jacks after several plug-unplug cycles? I'm searching the web for various permutations of dust and phone jacks and coming up with nothing. My apartment is not dusty at all. And if dust regularly causes outages, wouldn't it be more efficient for the phone company suggest that customers blow into the jacks, NES cartridge-style, as a standard troubleshooting step? At least as part of the tech support script, if not in the printed materials? You'd think they'd want to try anything that might plausibly save them an expensive tech visit. My guess is they flipped the wrong switch the first time out and didn't want to admit their error.

So, in total, since moving out of the dorms I have not once had Internet service go smoothly. Six attempts by four different companies, every time I've had to talk to tech support, in three cases I've needed physical visits from a tech, and in two I've needed multiple physical visits from a tech. This isn't a large enough sample size to draw conclusions, but if it's representative of the industry as a whole, it can't possibly be an efficient way to do business.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Google question

When I was interviewing at Google I decided to ask everyone I talked to what the point of Google's existence was, because it wasn't obvious to me, and I thought I'd get interesting answers. And it didn't work. All of them quoted from the mission statement: "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful".

So I should have read that before coming. The real issue, and I never really was able to ask the right questions to get at this, is that Google doesn't actually make money doing that. It spends money doing that, and makes money as an ad broker; thus the Wall Street Journal doesn't refer to "information organizing giant Google" or even "search giant Google" but rather "advertising giant Google". There's a trend that's been growing for decades, that people have defined themselves more by how and what they consume and less by how and what they produce; is Google perhaps the first corporation to follow this trend?

That last question is sort of a curiosity, but I think a serious issue for Google is this: as the people of the world, those people you're making information accessible to and useful for, are your products and not your customers, how do you manage conflicts of interests between your mission and your business? Obviously there have been many companies with similar models, but few that have remained public darlings for long. Consider the media's pandering, fear-mongering, and lack of substance — how seriously can we take its claims to journalistic responsibility? How does Google avoid becoming Facebook? Is it just that it doesn't have Mark Zuckerberg?

I think ultimately that's all it is. Google's people, right now, are more moral than Facebook's, and the company makes enough money that it can afford to be. It's similar to self-imposed limits of power in government: they're as good as the people (self-)imposing them. So as with just about any entity — governmental, corporate, social — the principles just don't matter. No principle can keep Google in check. Only people.

You are what you drive, or you drive what you are

WARNING: this post is kind of banal.

The other day I was talking to my brother John and a story about our dad came up. My dad has plenty of money but is notoriously frugal about some things. There's nothing wrong, or even contradictory about this. You don't get rich (as Bill Gates fictionally said to Homer Simpson) by writing big fat checks. That's a pretty straightforward statement of a the pretty common value of frugality. My dad has long admired Benjamin Franklin; like Franklin, he values frugality, pragmatism, hard work, and practical knowledge. The story was simply this: my dad recently bought a new car, and they didn't have the base model he wanted at the dealership, only one with a "Sport" package. So he waited a month for the dealership to get a base model.

John thought this was a pretty weird thing to do; it certainly doesn't seem very pragmatic at first glance. But it wasn't really anti-pragmatic either; his old car was still running. There was probably a little bit of ideology involved; I can see my dad, like me, finding the idea of a "Sport" package on a car silly (the public roads aren't there for sporting, particularly considering the risks of aggressive driving). As Dad doesn't drive all that much, and Hondas usually hold up pretty well, I wouldn't be surprised if he got 20 years out of it. As he's over 50, there's a chance it could be his last car. When you consider those time frames against a one-month wait, the picture changes considerably.

So I doubt that Dad's decision to wait a month for a cheaper car to come in had much to do with short-term economics at all. It probably had more to do with feeling comfortable with the purchase in the long run. This is the sort of thing I've thought about a lot, and talked with Jess about a bit, regarding moving to Seattle: not letting short-term considerations push us into decisions we'll be unhappy with down the road. Although just about everything feels temporary now, I have to be sure to keep the long term in mind.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A quick note on the Google magic

My last post got me thinking about how much I love Google Maps, and about Google's magic. People have talked a lot about Apple's magic: its ability to execute consumer products at a really high level and get people to accept or even embrace their limitations. Google's magic seemed to me a little more mysterious.

Google didn't invent online maps, but Google Maps was a revelation. Mapquest was a specific tool. You punched in your starting and destination addresses, and it gave you pretty good directions and a pretty good map. It ushered you through a few specific processes. Google Maps was an open book. Back then the start page for Mapquest didn't have a map on it. Google Maps opened to a map of the continental USA (from the US domain). And you could drag the map around, and zoom in to your location. You could view the whole world at once, look at the individual streets in your neighborhood, or any level in between (as long as you were OK with the Mercator projection). And above that was a text box that you could type anything into. It accepted text in specific formats, and really couldn't do anything Mapquest couldn't, but that wasn't the point. You'd never lose yourself in Mapquest. I did it routinely in Google Maps.

I think Maps is really the clearest example of the Google magic. Google wasn't the first search engine, wasn't the first web mail provider, wasn't the first to provide source code hosting, wasn't the first web ad broker. It's really changed the landscape in all these areas, but Maps seems to me the purest example of the magic. Where the reason for its superiority is so clear, and clearly a result of philosophy, not execution.

"What we've got here is a failure to communicate"

Google is now being sued for giving someone bad walking directions that contributed to her being hit by a car. I'll try to keep this brief, as I'm on a public computer with a QWERTY keyboard.

1. Unless there's some really extraordinary circumstance I absolutely hope she's successful in her suit against the driver. There's rarely a good excuse for hitting a pedestrian on the road.

2. Commenters on the story suggest there is a pedestrian path paralleling the roadway. Essentially functioning as a sidewalk. If that's the case, suing Google in this particular case is pretty silly. You need to have some basic situational awareness. You have to decide whether you can handle a situation, or whether you should turn back. As a runner and cyclist I've come down on both sides many times.

3. I think, as my title suggests that there's a communication problem here. I just (unsuccessfully) interviewed for a job at Google, and talked to a number of Google programmers. I think they see a world full of data, and that when they find a way to present it to people they've done the world a service. As I point out in my bike directions post, that might not always be the case. They certainly push the state of the art forward with beta-quality projects like these, but they also send people on bad routes quite often.

Among the geeks that have some understanding of the data Google's working with, the limitations of its route-finding ability are obvious. But among the general population it's not so obvious. Instead of a neat little application trying to squeeze something extra out of a data set, it's taken as authoritative. Perhaps Google needs to communicate the philosophy and spirit of how it presents data, and of the meaning of its projects, a little better.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

My Oil Spill Post: Environmental Liability and Risk

I've posted along these lines at Slashdot a few times, but I've been reluctant to blog about the oil spill without thinking it through a bit. Before I start I'd like to point out that I'm not a lawyer or even all that knowledgeable on environmental law or corporate law. I'm also not an environmental engineer, and I don't have any knowledge of environmental science beyond that of a layman. I'm just a computer programmer with opinions.

Generalities, and an analog with the DMCA

For starters, my understanding of current environmental law is that is basically protects companies that follow it. Establish a standard for what's safe enough, for what's clean enough, and as long as a business adheres to that standard it will be protected from governmental penalties and private lawsuits. I'm sure my understanding is incomplete, but I think it's mostly accurate. As a software guy, the first thing I think of is the DMCA, and how it affects Internet services that host user-uploaded content: if you comply with the procedure for take-down notices you won't be found liable for copyright infringement. The DMCA is a useful analog because it's been the subject of much discussion on the Internet, and because it is similar in concept.

The benefits of this type of law is obvious. In business it's very difficult to do anything without harming someone else. The oft-discussed DMCA makes it possible to operate a website with user-uploaded content without having to perform the impossible task of determining whether each of these clips violates someone's copyright, while not allowing website operators to just violate copyright with impunity. It standardizes the process, allowing businesses to put efficient processes in place to deal with it, and making it possible for them to reason about potential damages they might face. You take on risk only if you fail to follow the DMCA's outlined procedure, and that's something you can control; not the risk that some user will upload the whole Top 40 and get millions of downloads, which is harder to control. It's similar with manufacturing plants. You only have to deal with the risk that you'll violate pollution standards, which is something you have lots of control over; not who's harmed by the legal pollution, which you have less control over. As the DMCA makes “Web-2.0” possible by making copyright litigation risks more predictable, environmental regulations can make industrialization easier by doing the same for environmental litigation risk.

The downsides? Well, everyone hates the DMCA, so we can look at some of the complaints about it. Some website operators complain about time spent on take-down notices generally, and many users complain about bogus take-down notices (including cases where fair-use is ignored) and that often in these cases they lose data as a result. But without the DMCA they'd likely face the same challenges, and they'd be legal threats instead of take-down notices, which take a lot more time and money to defend. Sites like YouTube have struck deals with various rights-holders, and the existence of the DMCA strengthens their stance in negotiations. I think that bogus take-down notices can be a problem, but the website operators should easily be able to put some of the time and money they've saved on legal bills toward working through them correctly or perhaps challenging bad-faith or inaccurate automatically-generated notices legally.

The real downside is for the copyright holder. It's inevitable that infringing material will be uploaded to sites like YouTube and viewed there. And it's inevitable that the sites will make lots of money off of this activity. The rights-holders can request that material be taken down, but at a high-volume site it will surely be re-posted, and in the time between posting and removal the site will make lots of money, and rights-holders have no recourse against this (under just the DMCA — they may have more success arguing on other grounds, or they might instead form a mutually-beneficial partnership with the site, as many rights-holders have with YouTube and Hulu).

I think that in some ways there's an analog to environmental laws. I'd guess that in many cases environmental and safety regulations affect industrial practice more than the DMCA affects copyright practice on the web (at least among legitimate websites). But by protecting polluters within stated guidelines, environmental regulations prevent affected parties from being reimbursed. It's not enough, when going for damages against a polluter, to show that one has been harmed; it must also be shown that the polluter did something “wrong”. Thus businesses that used PCBs before they were banned only pay for a portion of the damage they did — they negotiate with the government from a pretty strong position. Coal-fired power plants in Pilsen and Little Village (lower West Side neighborhoods in Chicago) can operate under pollution standards in place when they were built, though they continue to pollute today at these levels (which would now be illegal), without reimbursing nearby residents for the measurable damage to air quality.

That environmental regulations are even designed with industrial convenience in mind is clear from this fact: that California is the only state allowed to regulate air pollution, and only because it started before the Federal government did. California's Air Resource Board, and its higher pollution standards, are scheduled to be phased out as Federal standards catch up with California's. I'm not intending this as a criticism of them, exactly. I'm just showing that environmental regulations are a two-way street. Polluters give up some rights and gain some conveniences and assurances.

What's the problem?

I don't have a problem with accepting some pollution as necessary for industrial development. Similarly, I don't have a problem with accepting some copyright infringement as necessary for the development of the development of the Web. I do have a problem with writing it off completely. This is about economics and incentives. On the Web there's an incentive for site operators to do as little as they can about copyright infringement, because it drives page-views and ad revenue. And there's no incentive to do any better than the letter of the law, in this case the DMCA. In industry there's an incentive to pollute more, or to behave dangerously: it's cheaper. And there's no incentive to do better than the letter of the regulations.

This is why there's an impetus for things like carbon credits and carbon taxes. We've all heard debates about these. The important idea is that you pay exactly for your impact — you save money for reducing pollution and pay for increasing it — even if you're well below the standard accepted levels. Carbon credits and taxes have to do with a global problem, and so they're proposed to be collected and enforced by national governments and international coalitions.

But carbon isn't the only important pollution. If you're going to spew particulate emissions into the air and poison the soil and the water, you should owe the people affected locally. And that's something that national regulations are quick to prevent. If carbon taxes and credits can affect a business' bottom line that business will care about carbon. But that same business won't care a bit about the people it's affecting locally unless local pollution affects its bottom line, too. People affected locally need to be directly reimbursed. The simple solution is to allow lawsuits for damages, but that's probably not fair or efficient. Not fair because of resource disparities among affected communities, not efficient because of all the different lawsuits going on. So there's probably some legislation needed there.

If you think about this in economic terms, the problem is that preventing direct payouts to people and groups affected by pollution is a distortion in the market. Exchanges tend to benefit their players, but often have negative effects for those on the outside (externalities). Often people that are negatively affected can force their way into the exchange through a lawsuit (which may prove that they, unwittingly, became creditors of one of the players, and are thus owed money). I think it would be good to bring these people into the exchange without their having to sue their way into it.

But this is all about the predictable and normal levels of pollution. What about disasters? What about the oil spill?

The Oil Spill

It appears, from what I've read, that BP may have violated some regulations in building or maintaining its failed oil rig. I'm not really concerned with that. I'm concerned with the fact that even if all the regulations are followed, there's a chance of disaster. Humans err, natural disasters occur, crime and sabotage occasionally happen, standards and regulations can be flawed (that is, our knowledge is never complete). In all these cases a plant owner must be held responsible. There may be other parties held responsible (such as the saboteur in the case of sabotage) but the plant owner must always be. I'm saying that, in the case of the oil spill, every person impacted, plus the governments of all impacted states and countries, must be able to fully recover their damages from BP. It's absolutely vital.

That's because building and operating any industrial facility inherently carries risk. In order to correctly bake the costs of the risks of any operation into the various decisions made about it, these costs must fall on the head of the decision maker. Insurance can dull this effect, but the insurer then becomes very interested in the safety of the operation as well.

I'm looking at estimates of just the economic impact of the oil spill. A number I've seen a few times is $12.5 billion. Another says we could have tens of billions in the best case, hundreds of billions in the worst case. It looks like we may avoid that worst case. Anyway, the cost should be at least in the tens of billions. Because “economic impact” figures don't count irreparable non-economic damage to the environment, which BP should be fined heavily for, and also because effects will probably go on for many years in the future, and it's hard to put a dollar value on that, these figures are probably somewhat lower than what BP should actually wind up paying out, in total.

BP's market cap sits around $142 billion now, and about $200 billion before the spill. Even in the best case, they should be paying out a significant portion of the company's total value in damages and fines. Probably over a year's worth of profits.

The total damages figure, whatever it amounts to, is huge and important. It should inform the insurance and capitalization requirements for offshore drilling. If companies are faced with that sort of risk for offshore drilling, you can bet that a lot of them will choose not to do it. And maybe they won't be so cavalier about safety. Unfortunately they won't be faced with that risk. They'll weasel out of their obligation to pay for the damage resulting from their activity. One thing we have to do in the wake of the oil spill is really try to get all that money from BP. Make sure they bear the weight of the risk they took with that rig. As they would have taken the profits had it worked, they must pay the costs as it failed. If we don't the incentive is too great for other companies to take bad risks in the future.