Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Thursday, October 9, 2014 8:31 pm

No, both sides DON’T do it, Part the Infinity

Every time I or anyone else correctly points out the disproportionate influence of conservative spending on the American electoral process at both the federal and state levels, someone — either a liar or a useful idiot — usually pipes up with, “But the liberals do it, too!” In point of fact, a quick visit to OpenSecrets.org will show you that while both sides might do it, one side does it far more than the other, and that just happens to be the same side that also has been working for more private money and less transparency with respect to money in the political system. That money, in turn, leads to necrosis of our one-person, one-vote system.

In particular, every time I or anyone else points out the disproportionate influence of the Koch Bros.’ spending on the system, someone — either a liar or a useful idiot — usually pipes up with, “But … but … SOROS!” And, yes, billionaire George Soros does contribute a fair bit of money to liberal candidates and causes.

But nowhere near as much as do the Kochs. From an objective, mathematical standpoint, the comparison is just silly.

So, all you both-siders: You now know that you’re wrong. If you’re going to continue to insist on being a both-sider, I’d like to know: Which are you, liar or useful idiot?

Monday, September 29, 2014 8:19 pm

Why English majors are the hot new hires. (And, no, that not an Onion headline.)

Hey, take it from the American Express website.

I never had a lot of patience with people who asked me why I was majoring in English.

For one thing, I enjoyed it. Duh.

But for another, the skills you develop as an English major are the skills American business always says it needs more of: critical thinking, analytical ability, and the ability to communicate clearly. That was true 32 years ago and it remains true today. Those skills will prepare you for jobs that don’t even exist yet. I know that’s true because they did for me.

In fact, American business’s global competitors are finding they need the same skills, and that their job-focused college educations aren’t providing the people they need who have those skills. So they’re retooling their higher education along the U.S.’s traditional liberal-arts model.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t major in STEM if that’s what sings to you and/or you’re really serious about getting a particular job in that field straight out of school.

But it does mean that an English degree has a world of applications in a broad variety of business contexts. So does practically any liberal-arts degree, because they all teach the same skills, just in different contexts. And that, Pat McCrory, is why English majors (and Art History majors and Women’s Studies majors and on and on) are the hot new hires.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014 6:58 am

Tell the FCC we want real ‘Net neutrality

Filed under: Geek-related issues — Lex @ 6:58 am
Tags:

The Federal Communications Commission is considering making it OK to privilege the content of big telcos (primarily everybody’s favorite person, the cable companies) over the content of independent operators, be they Netflix or, say, the small business you might someday start.

This is not OK. The Internet was built with tax dollars, even if it now is in private hands. All bits traversing the Internet need to be treated equally. In a free country, choke points and kill switches ought to be unthinkable.

Let Congress and the FCC know how you feel. I  have.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014 10:05 pm

Lookie here! Some honest-to-goodness voter fraud!

Why, it’s 200 votes’ worth! See! All those restrictions on voting that all the GOP legislatures have enacted are there for a reason! We’re trying to prevent the wrong people from voting outrages like this!

In … um … Texas.

By … um … a Republican.

Oh, snap.

Thursday, August 7, 2014 8:31 pm

“With the ACA we have placed a lot of bets.”

Berkeley economist Brad DeLong offers 10 big-picture thoughts on the Affordable Care Act’s history, politics, and performance to date. It’s smart, it’s easy to understand, and, to my eye, it’s 100 percent right — even the parts where he criticizes President Obama.

Sunday, April 13, 2014 10:54 am

Pulling the plug

Filed under: Geek-related issues,Housekeeping — Lex @ 10:54 am
Tags: , , , ,

A little more than 10 years ago, I got a Sony VGC-RA716GY desktop for Christmas. I called it a scream machine, a term used for the world’s fastest roller coasters. Turbocharged dual processor, a practically unheard-of gigabyte of RAM, top-of-the-line video card, hundreds of gigs of hard drive, 23-inch LCD monitor, plus speakers and a subwoofer loud enough to, literally, bother the neighbors. It ran on Windows XP Media Center Edition, meaning that I could, among other things, hook it up to a standard cable wire (as well as cable Internet) and use it as a TV — it even came with a remote for that.

It also came equipped with Adobe Premiere Elements for video editing, Photoshop Elements for image editing, SonicStage for audio editing/ mastering, Click 2 DVD for burning video into a standard-format DVD, slots for every variety of video card that exists, and audio-video input jacks and cables so that I could digitize my LP and VCR collections.

In the past decade I have used the machine for work and personal projects, business, education, and pleasure, from paying bills and doing taxes to watching digitized video of my then-3-year-old daughter’s first ballet recital. (That is, she was 3 when the video was shot; I watched on the computer after I got it a couple of years later.) Because I’m occasionally stupid but not that stupid, I backed up my stuff regularly, and when the original hard drive died five years ago, the reinstallation process for the OS, though lengthy, went without a hitch, and the restoration of settings and data from backup, though also lengthy, went likewise.

Nearly as I can tell, to date the machine has cost me a little more than 50 cents a day to own, and it has been worth every penny.  It could use more memory and a faster video card to keep up with some of the newer apps; with them, it would be as useful as the day I got it. But I don’t do a lot of gaming, and the motherboard won’t support them.

But it has one other problem I can’t fix: On Tuesday, Microsoft stopped supporting Windows XP — worldwide. No more updates, not even for security. And because of the security required for some of my data — both personal and for freelance projects — not to mention fending off the day-to-day viruses and other malware floating around, that meant that the machine had to be disconnected from the Internet. So, after migrating secure data to a different machine, I pulled the wireless card and unplugged the network cord.

So is the Sony now a $2,000 paperweight? No, it’s now a $2,000 Minesweeper game.

Kidding. For one thing, it still holds about 20 gigs’ worth of digital photos that I need migrate to another machine and close to 50 gigs’ worth of music, from EMDR recordings for my mental health to Coltrane to the Sex Pistols to the Gap Band to Bach, enough to provide uninterrupted, unrepeated music for weeks. And it doesn’t need Internet to rock the neighbors’ worlds.

And with teenagers in the house, I’m not getting rid of any otherwise functional computer just because they might have to get their school assignments onto and off it with a thumb drive. When I was their age, we didn’t even HAVE thumb drives. And I have games I can install for them that don’t require Internet, like Diner Dash. So the Sony will live on, although I’ll probably be in the market for a new desktop later this year. (And when I am, I’ll definitely be buying a machine with Windows 7 Professional*, NOT Windows 8, although that’s a story for another time.)

I will say this: It bugs the hell out of me that Microsoft is ending even security upgrades for XP. And it’s not just personal. I had no experience with XP Personal (no pun intended), but XP Professional (of which Media Center Edition is a subset) was the most rock-solid OS Microsoft had ever produced to that point. It. Just. Worked. It almost never crashed, which was a huge step up from any previous Microsoft OS; only Win2K had come close to XP’s stability. Particularly after what happened with Vista, a lot of people, including myself, vowed never to change from XP.

But more importantly, a lot of people, and institutions, can’t upgrade (and I use that term loosely) from XP, or at least couldn’t by April 8 of this year. The British and Dutch governments are paying Microsoft a lot of money to continue XP support just for them. And the lack of security upgrades has important implications here at home. Many, many medical facilities continue to use XP machines because the applications they use have not had Win7- or Win8-compatible upgrades approved yet by the FDA. On Tuesday, all those XP machines still in service became noncompliant with the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, although, as the linked article shows, CIOs have a number of (not-inexpensive) options for dealing with it.

Oh, and this’ll make you feel good: 95% of ATMs currently in service use XP.

But enough about Microsoft and XP (if you have an XP machine and didn’t know about this, you definitely should Google the subject, though) and back to me.

I don’t normally get sentimental over things, particularly things that are of more practical than personal value. The only thing I’ve ever owned that comes close was my 1987 Volkswagen Golf. But I’ve loved this computer. I don’t love it so much that I would continue to use it without protection, obviously. But it has been inextricably combined with my work, graduate education and life, and the lives, schoolwork, Scouting work, and recreation of my children,  in the Web 2.0 era.

Someday, perhaps soon, something will happen to it that won’t be cost-effective to fix, and that’ll be that. When that day comes, the good people at HandyCapable Network will be getting a donation that will enrich the lives of the people they work with and serve. Until then, the Sony will still be doing plenty of useful things here in our house. It just won’t be doing them anywhere else.

*Suggestions welcome, but so far it looks as if I’ll have to be custom-ordering from Dell. Oh, well.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014 7:08 pm

Watch cable TV? Use the Internet? You’re about to get screwed.

So on Tuesday, a federal appeals court threw out Obama Administration “net-neutrality” rules, on the laughable grounds that Internet service providers (ISPs) are not common carriers. The amount of delusion required to make such a “factual” finding is only slightly less than that required to believe that one may walk directly from here to London on dry land.

The companies that sued to overturn the rulings have business  models that have been badly (and, frankly, deservedly) damaged by upstarts like Netflix. They brought this on themselves. So, naturally, this being a free market and all, they turned to the courts to impose burdens on their new competition, and, naturally, this being a free  market and all, the courts obliged them.

MisterMix at Balloon Juice summarizes nicely:

[The plaintiffs], who are almost all cable companies, are full of [expletive], because with their lagging TV business, they’re all scrambling to find ways to (a) kill off Netflix and substitute their own streaming offering and (b) charge hefty usage-based pricing for their internet service, which has roughly 95% profit margins already. Here’s how they’ll do it:

  1. The coming of “4K” streaming, which is a super high definition stream on next generation TVs, will use 3-4 times the amount of bandwidth that today’s high definition streams use. 4K users will blow out the caps that providers like Comcast have in place, opening the door for the cable boys to charge premium premium for users who have 4K TVs.
  2. The streaming services of the cable providers will be exempt from the bandwidth caps, so users who don’t want to pay more for bandwidth will have an incentive to switch to Comcast’s version of Netflix.
  3. Streaming providers who want to sell video to customers without busting the caps will be allowed to provide what AT&T Wireless calls “Sponsored Data”. This means that the streaming company will pay the cable company for the bandwidth their subscriber uses. The streaming company will pass on that cost to the consumer. (Note that AT&T can provide “Sponsored Data” without regulatory issues because wireless is exempt from net neutrality regulation.)

That’s the plan, they’re executing it slowly but with grinding efficiency, and the roadblocks the Obama Administration are throwing up in their path are getting overruled. And, by the way, they won’t be investing in their aging infrastructure, except in places where Google or some other fiber optic provider starts competing with them. This is how corporatism will make slowly but surely leave us in the dust behind countries that make Internet access a national priority.

Many, many countries, developed and developing, friendly and not-so, have correctly perceived that quality Internet infrastructure is at least as important as good roads, water systems, electrical grids and so on. Not all of them approach the issue in the same way on a public-vs.-private basis, but they all understand that quality, affordable Internet is an essential competitive tool in the global economy. Congress has refused to recognize this and has fought to prevent administration efforts to do so; the results, in terms of our ability to compete, are bad and getting worse. If the Supreme Court doesn’t overturn this ruling, Netflix being forced out of business — although it would piss me off — would be the least of our concerns compared with our national ability to compete in the global economic marketplace.

Monday, October 28, 2013 7:33 pm

Why Healthcare.gov problems shouldn’t be a surprise

Clay Johnson of the Sunlight Foundation and co-founder of Blue State Digital, the firm that built and managed Obama’s online 2008 campaign, on the rollout:

Well, government doesn’t have a lot of people to choose from when they’re looking for contractors to build this stuff. And I think part of the problem is that the same people that are building drones are building websites. When government is building a website like this, they have to use a system called procurement, which is about 1,800 pages’ worth of regulation that all but ensures that the people who are building this stuff are the people with the best lawyers, not the people with the best programmers. And so, you know, you have this sort of fundamental lack of talent amongst the contractor ecosystem that’s building this stuff, that it’s bound to be bad work—that, combined with the fact that in 1996 Congress lobotomized itself by getting rid of its technology think tank, called the Technology Assessment Office. So when they’re writing bills, they don’t understand the technology that they’re requiring in their laws. This is what you get when you have a Congress that is basically brainless on technology, and government who can only pick from a few old, stodgy contractors. You’re bound to have this result. And, in fact, the standings group came out earlier this week and pointed out that over—for all procurements over $10 million, 94 percent of them fail.

We can thank the Republicans for getting rid of the Technology Assessment Office, inasmuch as they controlled both houses of Congress at the time and facts are just so darned inconvenient.

Meanwhile, adding to the site’s problems, a data center built and run by Verizon went down Sunday, halting enrollment in all 50 states. I eagerly await Darrell Issa’s subpoena of Verizon’s CEO, and/or Issa’s call for the CEO to be fired.

Friday, March 15, 2013 7:24 am

Short and sweet. I mean sucky.

Google is killing Google Reader, its RSS blog aggregator upon which I have relied for years. I am revising my Google stock-price projections for class accordingly. In the meantime, here’s the inevitable Hitler clip; as always, subtitles are NSFW.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013 9:00 pm

Still a few bugs in the system

Filed under: Fun,Geek-related issues — Lex @ 9:00 pm
Tags: , ,

A number of local folks, including the editor of the N&R himself, have written lately about the problems the N&R is having with its new website.

Well, just moments ago, I found, and got a screen shot of, evidence that bad things can happen to anyone:

GoogleInvestorRelations

The outage, if such it was, lasted only a couple of minutes, but it was quite real. I hope this makes everyone feel better.

Thursday, January 3, 2013 9:26 pm

What the next generation of maps is telling us that we don’t want to hear

As I think I’ve mentioned a time or three, I’m a map geek. Old, new, paper, digital, real, fictional, silent or talkative, I love ‘em. (I do mute the talkative ones sometimes, but still.)

So I was tickled that James Fallows at The Atlantic did a Q&A with Michael Jones of Google, one of the people who helped create Google Earth (now installed on a billion computers worldwide). And he talked about how mapping apps on smartphones are becoming even more personal because they can use info the phone already has gathered about your locations, likes, and so on to craft maps that not only show how to get from here to there but also tell you potentially interesting things about some of the places you’ll pass along the way, or the places around where you are right now. (One manifestation is Google’s new Android app, Field Trip, coming soon for iOS as well.

Then Fallows asks what I think is both a creative and perceptive question. He points out that some of the first photos of the Earth from space, such as the iconic Christmas Eve 1968 photo shot by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, “created a different kind of environmental consciousness.” (The American nature photographer Galen Rowell has described this image as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” I was in the third grade at the time, and even now I can recall what that “different kind of environmental consciousness” meant: We — all of us — share one single planet, a planet that amounts to a speck in the vastness of space, and it’s the only planet we’re going to get. I think the first Earth Day and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, among other developments, are attributable in significant part to that photo.)

Could the current mapping revolution, Fallows asks Jones, have the same effect? Jones’s answer was both hopeful and heartbreaking:

My father is in his 80s. He wanted to know more about what I do, so I recently showed him Google’s underwater Street View. [This is an aspect of Google Earth that shows reefs, seamounts, and other underwater features in the oceans.] We dove in the water and we were basically swimming along. We stopped and zoomed in, looked at turtles, looked at fish. We went down under a big reef and we could see a tunnel in there, and there were fish resting in the tunnel.

After a while he said, “Son, this is so beautiful.” He’s never been scuba diving, but he said, “This is so beautiful. I just can’t believe how beautiful this is.” And I said, “Well, Dad, we chose beautiful places because most of the corals near islands around the world are already dead. They look like old concrete. No fish, just dead.”

He almost cried. He stared at me with a “What has the world come to?” kind of look, and we talked for a while about that. And so he was brought to an awareness of the grotesque damage that’s happening worldwide due to the ocean acidification that follows from the externalities of the way we live as a human race right now. It was powerful for him because he could personally experience the ocean in a way that, with his mobility challenges, he’s never going to see by scuba diving. Yet he felt what people who have experienced the sea know to be true and care about.

I believe that only this kind of understanding leads to activism, whether it’s a passive activism of a vote or an active activism of changing your lifestyle to protect the world.

The problem is that although this kind of activism is, as Jones observes, necessary, it is not sufficient. At current prices, there is something like $27 trillion worth of combustible carbon — coal, oil, gas and fuel wood — still in the ground. The industries that extract those resources will not willingly relinquish the opportunity to do so, and they have largely achieved a stranglehold on any other force that could force them to do so.

The way we live is killing the only planet we’ve got. The process has been proceeding even faster than we thought, so fast that my children, now adolescents, may well live to see global disruption and human suffering on a scale worse than that of World War II, with no country, no matter how geographically isolated or politically nonaligned, left unaffected.

No map, no matter how cool, is going to stop that. In fact, I don’t know that anything will.

Thursday, December 13, 2012 7:11 pm

Ahh. Order is restored in the intellectual-property court. Plus, we got to fire a bright 24-year-old and keep your drugs expensive. Cool!

Back around Thanksgiving, I wrote about Derek Khanna, a 24-year-old staffer for the House Republican Study Committee who had the unmitigated gall to point that American intellectual property law is not the cognitive nirvana that a lot of Republicans like to think it is. (I, myself, have long referred to American IP law as “where creativity goes to die™.”)

Before the weekend was out, the report had been retracted, ostensibly because it had not been subjected to “adequate review.” (Insert your own euphemism here.) And not long afterward, Khanna was fired.

The Washington Examiner elaborates:

The reason [for the retraction], according to two Republicans within the RSC: angry objections from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, whose district abuts Nashville, Tenn. [Nashville is home to the country-music industry, for those of y'all not from around here -- Lex.] In winning a fifth term earlier in the month, Blackburn received more money from the music industry than any other Republican congressional candidate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The American Conservative helpfully notes:

Needless to say, members weighing in on staffing decisions is very unusual. Also, Blackburn isn’t just on the industry’s take. Her chief of staff is a former RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America] lobbyist.

The Examiner’s Timothy P. Carney summarizes the sad hypocrisy of the GOP in all matters IP:

Republicans are surprisingly close to the entertainment industry. For instance, Mitch Glazier, as a Republican House Judiciary Committee staffer in the late 1990s, played a key role in drafting GOP bills expanding copyright before cashing out to the industry. He now runs the [RIAA], a $4 million-a-year lobby operation that fights for more government protection of record labels.

So Republican politicians, with their sensitivities to K Street and their general pro-big-business tendencies, are not eager to roll back the extraordinary government protection for Hollywood and Nashville. But free-market think tanks and writers are banging the drum.

Jerry Brito, a scholar at the Mercatus Center, has just published “Copyright Unbalanced: From Incentive to Excess,” an entire book of essays critiquing current copyright law from a free-market perspective, and the Cato Institute is hosting a panel on the book Thursday.

Brito’s incisive book tells tale after tale of government kowtowing to copyright holders. An egregious example is Mickey Mouse. “Each time the copyright … was about to expire, and the happy rodent was about to become a shared cultural icon like Santa Claus, Hamlet, and Uncle Sam, Congress has extended the copyright term,” Brito explains.

This is not at all what the founders had in mind when they authorized Congress “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries. … “

Retroactively extending the copyright on a work produced long ago cannot promote useful arts and sciences. It just enriches the copyright holder and denies access to everyone else — which is exactly the point, if you’re an industry lobbyist.

Once again, big business is aligned with big government and against open competition. So far, the party of free markets is on the wrong side.

But let’s say you’ve never written a book or composed a country song or created a bankable cartoon character like Mickey Mouse. Why should you care?

Simple. Do you use any kind of non-generic prescription drug or medication? If so, the odds are good that because of this same legal structure, you’re paying more for it than you need to be and than a free market would require. That fact, in turn, contributes enormously to the fact that the U.S. pays far more per capita for health care than do other advanced countries. And that fact — not Social Security, not Medicare, not Medicaid, not welfare — is one of the biggest reasons why we have the deficits that we have.

(h/t: Fred)

Monday, November 5, 2012 10:09 pm

Quote of the Day, One Week After Sandy Edition

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

– Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, a member of the commission that investigated the cause of the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, in his appendix to the commission report.

Saturday, August 18, 2012 12:02 am

American suffering as morality play for our so-called journalists

Sir Charles on the great American sport of granny-starving, as applauded by The Village:

Someday someone is going to do a study on the psychological attitudes of the worthless media elite of our time and their obsession with making life more miserable for large swaths of their fellow Americans. The degree to which Saletan, Dancin’ Dave Gregory, David Brooks, and virtually the entirety of Fred Hiatt’s funny pages (save Eugene Robinson, Harold Meyerson, and E.J. Dionne), get tumescent over granny having to move in with the kids because she can’t afford to live on her own is really like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s gratuitous cruelty at the hands of people who have far more than they deserve and confuse this status with wisdom

.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012 8:55 pm

Another free-market fundamentalist admits he was wrong.

Filed under: Geek-related issues — Lex @ 8:55 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Fortunately it was only about the Internet, not anything really important.

Thursday, April 12, 2012 5:58 pm

Good news: life on other planets. Bad news: It’s hungry.

As the self-appointed keeper of news about large reptiles, I feel obliged to warn you that anthropophagic dinosaurs on other planets might actually be a thing:

New scientific research raises the possibility that advanced versions of T. rex and other dinosaurs — monstrous creatures with the intelligence and cunning of humans — may be the life forms that evolved on other planets in the universe. “We would be better off not meeting them,” concludes the study, which appears in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Chemicals. Um, yeah, some barley-flavored C2H5OH would go real good about now.

Thursday, February 23, 2012 7:49 pm

How the climate-change denial industry, and it IS an industry, works

The same way the tobacco industry promoted a smoking-and-health “controversy” for more than half a century: money and evil:

Not surprisingly, the fossil fuel industry funded many of the initial efforts to prevent adoption of climate change policies. Both individual corporations such as ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal, as well as industry associations such as American Petroleum Institute, Western Fuels Associations, and Edison Electric Institute provided funding for individual contrarian scientists, conservative think tanks active in climate change denial, and a host of front groups that we will discuss below. (Dunlap and McCright, 2011:148)

Although the initial funding in the campaign may have come from certain corporations. McCright and Dunlap argue that recently conservative, free-market, and anti-regulatory ideology and organizations have been the main forces fueling the denial machine first and foremost. (Dunlap and McCright, 2011:144)

According to Dunlap and McCright the glue that holds the elements of the climate disinformation campaign together is a shared hatred for government regulation of private industry. (Dunlap and McCright, 2011:144) And so, a staunch commitment to free markets and a disdain for government regulation are the ideas that most unite the climate denial community. (Dunlap and McCright, 2011:144)

The mainstream conservative movement, embodied in conservative foundations and think tanks, quickly joined forces with the fossil fuel industry (which recognized very early the threat posed by recognition of global warming and the role of carbon emissions) and wider sectors of corporate America to oppose the threat of global warming not as an ecological problem but as a problem for unbridled economic growth. (Dunlap and McCright, 2011:144) And so the disinformation campaign has been a movement that has been waged both by conservative organizations and some corporations.

To use the word “campaign” is not meant to connote an organized conspiracy led by one or a few entities who coordinate all actors, but rather a social movement that creates widespread, predictable, and strong opposition to climate change policy and that consistently uses scientific uncertainty arguments as the basis of its opposition. This movement is a campaign in the sense that it is a systematic response of aggressive actions to defeat proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions even though no one organization is coordinating all other organizations or individuals that participate in responses. And although some of the actors may be sincere, the tactics discussed in this article are, as we shall see, ethically reprehensible.

I suspected that the rule of law was over in this country when Reagan and the elder Bush were not held legally or constitutionally accountable for their roles in Iran-contra. But I knew it was over when the tobacco company execs trooped before Congress, dutifully placed their hands on the Bible, lied their asses off and were not taken into custody on the spot.

And as Tim F. at Balloon Juice, a scientist with background in this area, points out, next to the denialist industry, the cig makers were punks, adhering to what appears to be David Brooks’s first rule of column-writing: If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit:

However, I have to point out that Wonk Room’s flow chart [at first link above -- Lex] of how the business works, although accurate, also illustrates what makes the doubt business so pernicious. The graph (and the industry) is a forest of organizations, businesses, media outlets, scientists and pseudoscience institutes, political interest groups, thinktanks and so on. It dazzles you in the worst sense: the eyes defocus and your brain (at least my brain) freezes up trying to track what goes where. This is the magic of arbitrary complexity: anyone can bury a ridiculous idea in a maze of apparently credible but irrelevant stuff until it overwhelms the ability of an ordinary person to evaluate it critically. This is how the Big Mortgage Shitpile got so big – nobody would buy a mortgage written on toilet paper, so investment guys put hundreds into a box, wrote ‘mortgage’ on the side of the box with a Sharpie and shuffled around the boxes until nobody had any idea what was in each box except ‘mortgages’ in the vaguest possible sense. (snip)

Cigarette firms held public health science at bay for something like fifty years, and the $380 billion global tobacco trade fits neatly inside the $405 billion market capitalization of a single oil company. …

Anyhow, denying climate has an enormous pile of money at its back. Want an easy $10,000 plus travel perks? Write an editorial that criticizes the IPCC. Campaign cash? Not a problem (there goes the public policy option…). Maybe you want to start a think tank where Ivy League legacy cases can draw six-figure slaries and build a reputation doling out rephrased press releases in conservative journals, on broadcast networks and in discussion panels that need a douchebag for “balance.”. Choose a name that evokes eagles shooting apple pie machine guns and the money’s there.

On the other hand maybe you want to make a serious contribution to climate science. Get ready for years of difficult graduate study while living on ramen and cheap beer. Graduated with your degree? Have a tenure track job? Congratulations! Now you get to compete with some of the smartest people in the world for a shrinking pool of stingy grants, crappy pay, abuse, threats and bad-faith attacks from the most powerful people in the world. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it. Or maybe you want to end a very successful public career by speaking out too aggressively about the STUPID CLIMATE METEOR THAT IS ABOUT TO SCREW UP HUMAN CIVILIZATION, like Al Gore did.

As with tobacco, the glorious moneygasm only works because of the long delay between cause and effect. You would never see a doubt campaign by the punching-guys-in-the-groin industry, for example, because punching dudes in the groin hurts right now. A tobacco habit might kill you later. Epidemiology and climate science are arcane enough that a determined troll can create all kinds of confusion, even while Marlboro Men kept dying of lung cancer. It takes a long time to build up carbon in the atmosphere. Even then the ocean absorbs both heat and carbon for a while longer. Only when that slows down does the bill really start to come due, and feedback effects kick in such as methane and open water absorbing vastly more solar energy than sea ice. Svante Arrhenius figured out how warming will work in 1906, yet my local dog park will only this year become a living mat of deer ticks thanks to the hot rods that his grandkids drove fifty years ago. The worst case scenario keeps getting worse, but it always gets worse twenty or more years in the future and is therefore easy to ignore or deny. Until it isn’t, of course. But by then it is too late.

And that, I semi-seriously hypothesize, is why the very wealthiest among us want to take our homes, our pensions, our Social Security, and get wealthier still: They know what’s coming, and they intend to hide themselves and their progeny behind thick walls built of enormous bricks of U.S. government portraits of Benjamin Franklin. And the rest of us can drown or eat each other. It’s all good to them.

Friday, December 23, 2011 7:40 pm

Reason No. 4,263 why I lurvs the Internet, Kill SOPA Edition

The Stop Online Piracy Act has been stopped before it was even enacted:

… the bill would create an Internet “blacklist” that forces ISPs, search engines, financial firms and advertisers to de-list websites accused of copyright infringement, all without any actual court hearing or oversight. The legislation takes aim at the Internet’s domain naming system (DNS), which translates domain names like http://www.google.com to numerical Internet protocol (IP) addresses.

But an add-on for the popular Internet browser FireFox, called DeSopa, would circumvent DNS blockades with the click of a button.

W00t!

Now, I’m willing to concede that there probably are some legitimate issues behind this. But the U.S. copyright cartel, particularly post-1994, has a history of bribing congresscritters to kill flies with sledgehammers and then bill the American people for B-52s and nukes.

House Judiciary (including my congresscritter, Howard Coble) will mark up the bill next month. Guys and gals, do everyone a favor and just kill this puppy. It hits the Legislative Trifecta: It’s ill-conceived, unworkable and unconstitutional.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011 8:25 pm

Theft baked in

Fraud and conspiracy were written into the computer code that handled mortgage foreclosures, reports Matt Stoller at New Deal 2.0 (h/t Fec):

The same banks that ran the corrupt home mortgage securitization chain are now committing rampant fraud in the foreclosure crisis. Here’s New Orleans Bankruptcy Judge Elizabeth Magner discussing problems at Lender Processing Services, the company that handles 80 percent of foreclosures on behalf of large banks (emphasis added):

In Jones v. Wells Fargo, this Court discovered that a highly automated software package owned by LPS and identified as MSP administered loans for servicers and note holders but was programed to apply payments contrary to the terms of the notes and mortgages.

The bad behavior is so rampant that banks think nothing of a contractor programming fraud into the software. This is shocking behavior and has led to untold numbers of foreclosures, as well as the theft of huge sums of money from mortgage-backed securities investors.

Here’s how the fraud works: Mortgage loan notes are very clear on the schedule of how payments are to be applied. First, the money goes to interest, then principal, then all other fees. That means that investors get paid first and servicers, who collect late fees for themselves, get paid either when they collect the late fee from the debtor or from the liquidation of the foreclosure. And fees are supposed to be capitalized into the overall mortgage amount. If you are late one month, it isn’t supposed to push you into being late on all subsequent months.

The software, however, prioritizes servicer fees above the contractually required interest and principal to investors. This isn’t a one-off; it’s programmed. It’s the very definition of a conspiracy! Who knows how many people paid late and then were pushed into a spiral of fees that led into a foreclosure? It’s the perfect crime, and many of the victims had paid every single mortgage payment.

(That would be the same Wells Fargo that just took over all the branches of Wachovia, which had been a venerable institution in this state for decades.)

A prediction: No one will go to prison for this. That’s because a federal bankruptcy judge is waving a red flag, banging on a fire alarm and yelling, “Fraud! Fraud!” and the Justice Department is doing exactly jack squat. IANAL, but I could run the Justice Department better than Eric Holder. In fact, my kitchen table could run the Justice Department better than Eric Holder.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011 8:29 pm

The trolls under the intellectual-property bridge

I have said many times in private communications during the past 15 years or so — since the Telecommunications Act, basically, although that’s not the only thing I’m talking about — that intellectual-property law is where American ingenuity goes to die.

Now I’m saying it publicly because the wonderful people at NPR’s “Planet Money”  have found an example so clear that even I can understand it.

You can either read the text or listen to the audio; it’s good either way. And what it says, in short, is what I’ve been saying for years: A lot of stuff is patented that shouldn’t be, including many kinds of software, and some of the most vociferous critics of those patents are the people who own them.

… we talked to a half dozen different software engineers. All of them hated the patent system, and half of them had patents in their names that they felt shouldn’t have been granted. In polls, as many as 80 percent of software engineers say the patent system actually hinders innovation. It doesn’t encourage them to come up with new ideas and create new products. It actually gets in their way.

Many patents are so broad, engineers say, that everyone’s guilty of infringement. This causes huge problems for almost anyone trying to start or grow a business on the Internet.

“We’re at a point in the state of intellectual property where existing patents probably cover every behavior that’s happening on the Internet or our mobile phones today,” says Chris Sacca, the venture capitalist. “[T]he average Silicon Valley start-up or even medium sized company, no matter how truly innovative they are, I have no doubt that aspects of what they’re doing violate patents right now. And that’s what’s fundamentally broken about this system right now.”

This brings us back to Chris Crawford’s patent, the patent Intellectual Ventures cited as an example of how they encourage innovation by ensuring that inventors get paid. As we’ve said, this patent also seems to cover a big chunk of what happens on the Internet: upgrading software, buying stuff online, and what’s called cloud storage. If you have a patent on all that, you could sue a lot of people.

And, in fact, that’s what’s happening with Chris Crawford’s patent. Intellectual Venures sold it to a company called Oasis research in June of 2010. Less than a month later, Oasis Research used the patent to sue over a dozen different tech companies, including Rackspace, GoDaddy, and AT&T.

We called Oasis several times, but no one ever answered the phone. For a while, the company’s voice mail message directed all questions to John Desmarais , a lawyer in New York.

He didn’t return our phone calls, but we did track him down at an intellectual property conference in San Francisco.

He cited attorney-client privilege, and wouldn’t tell us anything — not even who owns Oasis Research. (He did say he’s a big fan of NPR.) …

All the big tech companies have started amassing troves of software patents — not to build anything, but to defend themselves. If a company’s patent horde is big enough, it can essentially say to the world, “If you try to sue me with your patents, I’ll sue you with mine.”

It’s mutually assured destruction. But instead of arsenals of nuclear weapons, it’s arsenals of patents. And this was a problem Intellectual Ventures founder Nathan Myhrvold said he was trying to solve when he first started the company. A problem that he and others from his company talked about at investor meetings around Silicon Valley. Chris Sacca attended one of those meetings a few years back.

The pitch he heard was, basically, Intellectual Ventures helps defend against lawsuits. Intellectual Ventures has this horde of 35,000 patents — patents that, for a price, companies can use to defend themselves.

Technology companies pay Intellectual Ventures fees ranging “from tens of thousands to the millions and millions of dollars … to buy themselves insurance that protects them from being sued by any harmful, malevolent outsiders,” Sacca says.

There’s an implication in IV’s pitch, Sacca says: If you don’t join us, who knows what’ll happen?

He says it reminds him of “a mafia-style shakedown, where someone comes in the front door of your building and says, ‘It would be a shame if this place burnt down. I know the neighborhood really well and I can make sure that doesn’t happen.’ ” …

And companies like Intellectual Ventures and their shadowy partners that do nothing but control and litigate over patents are growing more numerous every day, with untold costs for American industry. Here’s a particularly good example, which caught my eye because my friend Tony used to work for Nortel:

In early July, the bankrupt tech company Nortel put its 6,000 patents up for auction as part of a liquidation. A bidding war broke out among Silicon Valley powerhouses. Google said it wanted the patents purely to defend against lawsuits and it was willing to spend over $3 billion to get them. That wasn’t enough, though.

The portfolio eventually sold to Apple and a consortium of other tech companies including Microsoft and Ericsson. The price tag: $4.5 billion dollars. Five times the opening bid. More than double what most people involved were expecting. The largest patent auction in history.

That’s $4.5 billion on patents that these companies almost certainly don’t want for their technical secrets. That $4.5 billion won’t build anything new, won’t bring new products to the shelves, won’t open up new factories that can hire people who need jobs. That’s $4.5 billion dollars that adds to the price of every product these companies sell you. That’s $4.5 billion dollars buying arms for an ongoing patent war.

The big companies — Google, Apple, Microsoft — will probably survive. The likely casualties are the companies out there now that no one’s ever heard of that could one day take their place.

The current system stifles innovation, and when you stifle innovation, history shows, you stifle long-term prosperity.

Fun fact: My current rep, Howard Coble, is one of the most senior members of the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over IP law, although not having researched the question I have no idea to what extent, if any, he’s responsible for any of this mess.

UPDATE: In catching up on my RSS feed, I see that Kevin Drum at MoJo also has linked to the “Planet Money” piece and come up with another example, this one involving Spotify, a streaming music service that arrived in the U.S. market this summer. I got a membership so recently I haven’t even tried it out yet. And even before I did, Spotify got sued over the (pun intended) patently ridiculous notion that the plaintiff, a company called PacketVideo, could actually own a patent on the simple idea of streaming audio over the Internet.

Kevin checks out the patent that PacketVideo holds and then comments:

There are no specific algorithms involved and no specific implementations proposed. Basically, it appears to be a claim that covers any system in which music is compressed and encrypted by a server, shipped out over a network, and then decrypted and decompressed at a client. The patent claims seem to include pretty much any kind of server, any kind of storage device, any kind of compression, an extremely broad set of communications protocols, and pretty much any kind of remote device. If you’re streaming music this way — and honestly, there’s really no other way to do it — then PacketVideo says you’re infringing their patent.

At least, that’s how it reads to me. Neither the news stories nor the legal filing go into much detail about the precise nature of the infringement PacketVideo is claiming, and they don’t appear to have sued all the other streaming music vendors in the world, so it’s possible their claim is more specific. But my amateur reading suggests they really are claiming patent rights to the whole idea of streaming music from a server. And the fact that they waited to file suit until Spotify had entered the U.S. market suggests that their claim isn’t valid anywhere else. Only in the U.S. do we allow a patent claim this broad.

Commenter Jon F. asks, “How do we fix it?” I haven’t had a lot of time to think about it, but I honestly don’t know, and here’s why: A big chunk of the source of this problem isn’t statutes (although they certainly contribute), but Supreme Court decisions. Given the makeup of the Supreme Court and the difficulty that even Democratic presidents can have in getting appointees confirmed who aren’t more or less allied with big business interests, this pooch might not be unscrewable for at least a generation. Meanwhile, other countries are going to be eating our lunch.

Friday, July 22, 2011 10:59 pm

Party

Filed under: Geek-related issues — Lex @ 10:59 pm
Tags: , ,

Apparently Verizon is celebrating expanding 4G service into the Triad by breaking the Internet. Can’t get into Twitter or Facebook suddenly.

Thursday, July 21, 2011 8:33 pm

How the Murdochs stole voicemail messages …

Filed under: Geek-related issues — Lex @ 8:33 pm
Tags: , ,

… and how it could happen to you.

My voicemail is not on any of the networks these reporters (the WNYC ones, not the Murdoch ones) were able to hack in their tests, and I always password-protect my stuff. But the technology and the sheer will to evil out there, along with the carelessness, or worse, so common among the corporations that keep our data, leave me more than a little uneasy.

Monday, July 18, 2011 8:20 pm

Still a few bugs in the system

Filed under: Geek-related issues — Lex @ 8:20 pm
Tags:

Nancy Nall points out a New York Times blog post about the price we’re paying for fewer editors. It’s true, and it’s affecting not only your local newspaper but even major books from quasi-reputable publishing houses.

Computers were supposed to save labor, but only some of the labor they save is inessential. Nancy, who lives in Grosse Point, near Detroit, offers her own example:

I have an RSS feed that picks up every mention of Grosse Pointe on Twitter, excluding “Grosse Pointe Blank,” a cult movie that will live forever in film geekdom. It blew up overnight with a story in the Detroit News, about our school district’s rejection of a Head Start program at one elementary. But all the tweets were from automated feeds aimed at stock traders. I couldn’t figure out why, until I remembered the elementary principal’s name — Penny Stocks.

 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011 8:10 pm

Get your geek on

Filed under: Geek-related issues — Lex @ 8:10 pm
Tags: ,

The new Scientific American blogosphere is up and running. Well played, Bora and team!

(h/t: Ed)

Saturday, June 18, 2011 7:03 pm

Dammed if you do …

Filed under: Geek-related issues,We're so screwed — Lex @ 7:03 pm
Tags:

Right now, there is a really bad drought in central China. That’s bad news for a lot of Chinese, for whom food is rapidly growing more expensive. But it might be bad news for all of us: Apparently, according to Scientific American, there’s at least some reason to think that China’s Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project and the reservoir that that dam holds, may indeed be contributing to the drought:

Experts say that the 600-km (350-mile) long reservoir required to serve the 26 700-megawatt turbines at the Three Gorges hydropower plant prevents considerable volumes of water from flowing downstream.

But some environmentalists and climate specialists have also said that the reservoir acts as a giant heat reflector that affects the microclimate of the region, raising temperatures and reducing rainfall.

They also point to longer-term impact, saying that large reservoirs like the Three Gorges are net greenhouse gas producers because they submerged vast tracts of forest and farmland that would otherwise have absorbed climate-altering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

It would be ironic if a method of generating electricity that is believed to be a solution to anthropogenic climate change turned out to be part of the problem. But Dave Schuler at Outside the Beltway makes a point worth remembering:

… while we’re worried about greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and vehicles and global climate change, we shouldn’t lose track of localized anthropogenic climate change which can be induced by massive construction projects, bad land management, and air pollution just to name a few possibilities.

Science. It’s complicated.

 

Friday, June 3, 2011 7:19 pm

Geek ecstasy

Filed under: Cool!,Geek-related issues — Lex @ 7:19 pm
Tags:

The National Academies Press, the publishing arm of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council, is putting its entire catalog of .pdf books online. For free.

It was already among the leaders in university presses in that regard, with about 65% of its titles already freely available for download. Most of those were very technical. The remaining titles are written for a wider audience. The hardcover versions of these books retail for up to $100.

The National Academies produces research used by other researchers, as well as government officials. Although it was established by an act of Congress and gets tax dollars, it’s an independent agency.

Compared to the professionals, I’m not much of a geek at all, and I think this is huge. I can only imagine how the real geeks are celebrating.

Thursday, June 2, 2011 8:49 pm

Question re Droid, bubbles, hubs, popping, etc.

Filed under: Geek-related issues — Lex @ 8:49 pm
Tags: ,

So I’ve got the Droid hooked up to the PC to charge, right? (That is to say, only to charge. It’s not set to sync, and it’s not mounted as a disk drive.) And two weird things are going on:

  1. The WinXP marimba-ish sound that indicates a device is being connected to, or disconnected from, the PC keeps going on and off and on and off, even though the phone and cord are absolutely still and not being messed with.
  2. I keep getting a message saying the device attached to the PC would work faster if I hooked it up to a USB 2.0 port, and it offers me a list. Well, old as this machine is, it’s still recent enough that there’s nothing BUT USB 2.0 on it.

I’m not asking for “solutions,” inasmuch as it’s not really a problem as long as the phone is still charging, which it appears to be. But does anyone have an explanation?

Saturday, May 21, 2011 1:29 pm

On my s*** list: XMarks

XMarks is a Firefox app purporting to allow one to sync bookmarks across multiple Firefox-equipped machines. An app like that is a dream come true for me because during a career spanning numerous occupations, all of which have required a lot of Web work and many of which have required various amounts of on-site and remote webmastering,  I’ve amassed thousands of bookmarks. These bookmarks have been assiduously organized into folders and subfolders on subjects ranging from sites relevant to covering aviation disasters to being able to log in and post inclement-weather notices on my current employer’s home page.

I stumbled across XMarks a few months ago and gave it a try. At first, it seemed to work exactly as advertised.

More recently, it has started making duplicate copies of bookmarks and folders. That’s annoying as all hell and wastes disk space and processor time, but it is not exactly a disaster.

Last weekend, however, XMarks dramatically upped the ante. Not only did it make multiple duplicates of most of the folders, it also appears to have dumped all the meticulously organized bookmarks out of their folders and into the “Unsorted bookmarks” folder.

To be sure, I do not have any reason at this point to think that any bookmarks were deleted. On the other hand, I may never know until I go looking for a bookmark on deadline that I seldom use and am unable to find it.

And whether any were deleted or not, this was a damned stupid thing to have happen, and the people who created XMarks need to get to work trying to figure this out because I’m certainly not the only person this has happened to.

Finally, if anyone can recommend a bookmark-syncing app or extension for Firefox that does what it’s supposed to do, no more and no less, give me a shout. Ditto Internet Explorer. (Chrome’s native syncing appears to work OK, but I need FF and IE for work for technical reasons too boring to go into here.)

Thanks all for any suggestions you can offer.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 8:08 pm

“If Ebay replaced the classifieds and Craigslist replaced the want ads, this showed what might replace the funny pages.”*

Filed under: Fun,Geek-related issues — Lex @ 8:08 pm
Tags: , , ,

Most days, The Atlantic and Twitter are alike in all the wrong ways — shallow, repetitive, largely irrelevant. Recently, though, a pseudonymous artist created a Twitter feed that, within the 140-characters-per-tweet constraints of the medium, achieved, I would argue, the status of literature: @MayorEmanuel, a satiric take on the real-life Chicago mayoral campaign of foul-mouthed former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

Moreover, in this article, The Atlantic not only outs (with his consent) the creator of @MayorEmanuel, it also shows how the feed’s creator both used and transcended the medium, as Frank Sinatra did with the 45, Pink Floyd did with the LP and Bruce Springsteen’s “Live 1975-85″ did with the CD, to provide insight into Chicago electoral politics, satire, a rich and highly developed character arc and a well-deserved dopeslapping of Michelle Malkin, capped with an ending worthy of Arthur C. Clarke. A reasonably high percentage of comments (including the one that provided the title for this post) further enrich our understanding and enjoyment of this phenomenon.

(Did you notice my characterization of Rahm Emanuel above as “foul-mouthed”? Both @MayorEmanuel and the Atlantic article contain oh, so-NSFW language. You’ve been warned.)

True, 99.99% of what you read on Twitter, including my stuff, is crap. @MayorEmanuel makes all the rest worthwhile, and maybe it will inspire others to do more with the medium. And maybe The Atlantic will realize more of its potential and stop wasting electrons on worthless hacks like McMegan.

OK, I made up that last part. It’ll never happen. But a guy can dream.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011 8:47 pm

Geeking out

Item the first: Geoffrey Chaucer, an unpublished clerk to King Richard in the 13th century, contacts novelist/essayist Margaret Atwood seeking an interview, and “wyth grete gentilesse, she did consent to be interviewede through emayle on [his] blog.”

Item the second, and my only question about this item is: you mean it wasn’t already? Sex.com officially became the most expensive domain name in history a few months ago, going for $13 million. The new owner has some ideas about what he might do with the domain — not necessarily what you might think. But then, of course, so does everyone else.

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