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May 2002 Archives

May 1, 2002

Online Media Gurus Still Drink the Flavour-Aid

There's a piece in the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review, wherein J.D. Lasica interviews John Battelle (former publisher of The Industry Standard), David Talbot (founding editor of Salon) and Josh Quittner (former editor of The Netly News and current editor of Business 2.0). The subject at hand: how anything interesting in the media is happening a) on the West Coast and b) online.

The thing reeks of the attitude, "Well, we went bust but we were right, gosh darn it." Yeah right.

Lasica makes the perfect point: although the weight of the Internet Media World was in San Francisco, the subject of most of the media was technology itself. This may come as a shock, but most people don't care about technology. It's true that many people with computers care about technology, and that the proportion of people on the Net to people with computers is remarkably high. But in many ways, what the West Coast Internet Revolution produced was a Golden Age of Trade Journalism.

What's worse, they never demonstrated that anyone was willing to pay for it. Some commercial revolution.

 What did Battelle take away from the flame-out of The Standard? Stay small, stay focussed, stay personal. Pretty good advice, actually. Just not exactly new advice, if you get my drift.


Lyndon B. Johnson. "If two

Lyndon B. Johnson. "If two men agree on everything, you may be sure that one of them is doing the thinking." [Quotes of the Day]

May 2, 2002

Ziff Sees Clear Water. Now to Get There in One Piece

There's some good news and not-so-good news today from Ziff Davis.

Ziff is the publisher of -- among other things -- PC Magazine, Yahoo Internet Life, and a bunch of gaming titles. I used to work there twice. I don't anymore. A lot of friends still do. It was a financial pawn for a few years during the boom, and it again (or maybe still) in deep financial trouble. In plain English, it's borrowed so much money -- $250 million at 12 percent -- and business is so bad that it doesn't have the cash to both make its payments and run the business. (Just to put the 12 percent in perspective, you probably are carrying credit cards that have a lower interest rate, though your credit line is probably less than $250 million. If it isn't, please call me ASAP to discuss some business dealings.)

The company made a fairly big deal yesterday out of saying that the holders of 60 percent of that $250 million in notes  have agreed to a deal. Willis Stein, the investment bank that Ziff's majority owner, is kicking in another $80 million in cash to Ziff. Of that, $30 million will go to bondholders. The bondholders are also being offered $95 million in what amounts to stock in the company. The theory, I guess, is that $95 million in equity is better than $250 million in debt that wouldn't be paid if the company goes belly-up.

All this moving around of deck chairs will free up $30 million a year in money that otherwise would have been interest payments.

There are a few rubs. First, the deal requires that 95 percent of the bondholders agree. Sixty percent is nice, but not nearly enough. And second, the company's banks have to agree to this scheme, and Ziff is already in default to them.

The stakes are high. In Ziff's SEC filing yesterday, PriceWaterhouseCoopers said that the company may not be able to continue as a going concern unless the finances are straightened out. And even after that $250 million goes away, Ziff still owes another $175 million-plus.


Protecting Kids from Online Porn. No, Really.

The National Research Council has released a study about protecting children from online pornography. As a congressionally chartered organization, one might expect the usual flaming about the evils of the Internet. Happily, one apparently would be wrong.

The full report -- 420 pages, so you probably won't want to read it all online -- is here. (You can buy it in print, too.) A New York Times story about it is here.

The nut grafs:

``Though some might wish otherwise, no single approach -- technical, legal, economic, or educational -- will be sufficient,'' wrote the authors of the report, ``Youth, Pornography and the Internet,'' which was released Thursday by the National Research Council. ``Rather, an effective framework for protecting our children from inappropriate materials and experiences on the Internet will require a balanced composite of all of these elements, and real progress will require forward movement on all of these fronts.''

What might seem to a rather bland conclusion to a massive effort of research and discussions with policymakers, educators, librarians, parents and children and others in visits to schools and libraries around the nation is actually a surprising stand, said Alan Davidson, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a high-tech policy organization in Washington.

``The report dares to be un-sexy,'' he said. ``It does not call for legislation to solve this problem,'' despite a strong push in Congress to pass laws requring such technology tools as pornography filters in schools and libraries. One such law, the Children's Internet Protection Act, is currently being challenged in federal court by a coalition of librarians and civil liberties groups; a decision in that case is expected this month.

Recommending a broad approach ``is not nearly as satisfying as passing a law or pointing to a technology,'' Mr. Davidson said, ``but it is probably, in the long run, the most effective way to protect children online.''

In other words, filters won't do the trick. Congress should take note.


Didn't Get Your Way? French Court Declares Mulligan, Blames Hackers

The French company Vivendi Universal is one of the Big Six global entertainment companies. It's been having some trouble of late; among other things, the firing of the CEO of Canal Plus sparked demonstrations and protests, and shareholders have had their doubts about the French company buying the U.S.-based Universal Studios and its associated record labels.

Well, Vivendi held its annual meeting last week, and not everything went as planned. Two management proposals, including a lucrative stock option plan for management, were unexpectedly defeated.

Wait -- we're just getting to the techie part.

Management says that surely was a mistake of science fiction proportions, and has a science fiction reason: the company is blaming hackers for breaking into its wireless voting system and making mischief. Other experts are not so sure.

In any event, a French court today bought the excuse, and is allowing the company to re-run the annual meeting. All except the dividend vote; the dividend will be paid as agreed at the meeting, hackers or no hackers.


May 3, 2002

Features By Judicial Fiat

The TV industry has been lobbying against consumer freedom since the first VCR made its way into the first home. To its credit, the Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that people were perfectly within their rights to tape programs off the air and watch them whenever they wanted to. (The music industry hasn't quite heard the news yet, but that's a rant for another day.)

In the last few years, the tape in some VCRs has been replaced with a hard drive, giving rise to the TiVO and Replay products. The improvements are essentially three-fold. The new DVRs (digital video recorders) let you pause live TV, provide an enhanced program guide, and can automatically recommend and record programs based on your viewing habits. Like a VCR, you can zip forward and back through a program, skipping whatever part you might want to skip. Like opening credits. Like commercials.

As does anyone who makes his living in the media, I am perfectly aware that my salary is paid by commercials. I even like commercials, because they are (sometimes) entertaining and (sometimes) provide interesting information that I would not ordinarily know. In a magazine, I can turn the page when I want. In the TV business, that prospect makes networks and broadcasters nuts.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, a federal magistrage in Los Angeles has ordered SonicBlue, which makes Replay, to write software that will track the every click of every user's remote control. Why? Because Replay is getting sued. There's a button on the Replay remote that lets its customers instantly jump over commercials (it's a little harder to do this with TiVO), and the networks and broadcasters say that's costing them money. They've persuaded the good judge that the way people use Replay products is germane, and the only way to track that is to invade the privacy of Replay's customers.

(I would say that Replay's hands are not entirely clean here. The Replay 4000 includes an Ethernet port that lets users transmit programming to other people over the Net. This strikes me as just begging for trouble.)

There's a federal law that says video store rental records must be kept confidential. The law was passed after the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who had some interesting viewing habits. Anyone know if Mr. Justice Thomas is a Replay customer?


May 6, 2002

Really Unfortunate Quotes Dept.

OK, so Newsweek has a story in its current (May 13) edition about how Afghan military intelligence thinks Osama bin Laden is alive and living in Pakistan. This is in the next to last graf:

... bin Laden is likely to prove harder to catch. "He's kind of like Elvis," says Col. Wayland Parker, the U.S. military's liaison between coalition forces and the British-led international security force in Kabul. "He's here, he's dead, he's there, he's alive. The last time we felt sure about where, he was in Tora Bora. After that, he drops off the radar screen."

First of all, as far as I understand it, Elvis is not elusive. Elvis is dead.

Second of all, I've gotta think that someone who can be called "Col. Parker" shouldn't be making Elvis metaphors....


More on Features By Judicial Fiat

A propos my filing of 5/3, below, AdAge has a story today about Personal Video Recorders like TiVO and Replay, in which it reports that

  1. there aren't nearly as many of these boxes around as analysts thought there'd be, and
  2. owners aren't skipping ads as much as the networks feared.

Three years ago, Forrester Research projected 50 million PVRs in homes by 2005. The Yankee Group says 350,000 were sold last year, with 1 million in homes today and 20 million -- mostly in set-top boxes -- by 2005. (As an alumnus of The Yankee Group, I always take their numbers with a large grain of salt; I know how they used to be developed. In the intervening 15-plus years, I hope their methodology is improved. One inside baseball note: George Colony left Yankee in 1983 to found Forrester Research.)

The nut grafs from AdAge:

The latest annual PVR Monitor, produced by independent research firm NextResearch, provides evidence that viewers are not automatically using PVRs to zap ads and suggests a kind of creative Darwinism is emerging, where marketers who produce ads that resonate may be able to bypass PVR hurdles. For example, the study, which surveyed 358 people who used the services, shows 92% of respondents said they watch ads that are entertaining and 69% watch for products they are interested in.

The study also showed that viewers' likelihood of watching commercials when viewing programs with PVRs vs. live TV is nearly the same. Only 1% said they always watch the ads when using a PVR or watching live TV, while 60% said they occasionally watch them with PVRs and 62% with live TV.

In other words, people will pay attention to content that interests them, and skip over stuff that doesn't. No wonder the networks are upset. And notice that the same proportion of people skip ads whether they're watching live TV or on a PVR.

Someone tell the judge, OK?


May 7, 2002

It's the Carpenter, Not the Tools

Trust me on this. I have lots of equipment that isn't turning me into George Martin. Or Alan Parsons.

Jerry Garcia's guitars up for auction. After a long strange trip, two guitars once owned by the late Grateful Dead lead singer are put up for auction.


Mr. Parsons? Set Your Content Free

"I'm always grateful for whatever help I can get from the press, or a bunch of business-school students, whatever," Mr. Parsons said dismissively.

Those words yesterday from Dick Parsons, who is about to become CEO of AOL Time Warner. Thanks for asking, Dick. Here's some more of what you said:

"We're the No. 1 movie company, the No. 1 online company, the No. 1 premium cable network company, the No. 1 cable network company, No. 2 cable company, No. 2 music company. What am I missing? All of these businesses are roaring, with one exception, no question. What we've got to do is answer some serious questions around AOL. What is the future of narrowband? Is this a medium that has a long-term advertising future and if so, at what rate can we expect growth and how will it migrate to broadband?"

Here's the thing. People go broadband to consume information. From all reports, Napster drove broadband traffic. Record companies squealed like stuck pigs, but note a new report from Jupiter Research. Again, from the New York Times:

Disputing the position held by the major record companies, a report issued on Friday found that people who use file-sharing networks to obtain music at no charge over the Internet are more likely [italics mine] to have increased their spending on music than are average online music fans. The report ... also found that people who use high-speed Internet access and CD burners to make homemade compact discs ÷ a practice that has been criticized by the record industry as abetting piracy ÷ are as likely to increase their spending on music as to decrease it.

Wait -- it gets even better. Another Jupiter report finds considerable pent up demand for broadband service:

[W]hile only 16 percent of U.S. online households subscribe to broadband, more than 24 percent of dial-up consumers are considering signing up for a broadband service within the next 12 months.


[F]or the first time in years, the top motivator of dial-up users planning to switch to broadband is a persistent "always on" connection (59 percent). Less important are entertainment-related features such as the ability to view quality video (26 percent) and listen to audio (15 percent).

It's true: an always-on connection is lovely, though I have a not very sneaking suspicion that an always-on 56kbps connection would soon get old.  And those 26 percent and 15 percent figures feel anecdotally low. I could probably find you a ton of research that says that no one plays games or surfs porno -- and I could probably find server logs that demonstrate the exact opposite. As a friend of mine says, no one has ever traded for a slower connection.

So what does all this mean for Parsons' dilemma? I think it means that AOLTW should embrace broadband like a California tree-hugger embraces a redwood. Push the bandwidth, and push the content that drives demand. CNN? The Atlantic Records archive? Raw satellite feeds? The Wizard of Oz? Put it online. All of it. You want to put up a tollgate? I could get behind that; servers and server-side bandwidth are expensive.

But the cheaper you provide the broadband content, the more people will want broadband access, and the more people have access, the more they'll want content. I have no idea where the demand cycle tops off, but you know what? Neither does anyone else. And of all companies, only AOLTW has the power on both ends of the pump to find out.

Piracy? Well, what about it? You think people aren't already burning your records, your DVDs? Remember that study -- downloads drive demand, they don't satisfy it.

Get out of the narrowband business. All those modems that old management bought five years ago? Trash 'em. Get on cable systems, get on DSL lines. Jump on bandwidth, and show people how much they need it.

"Grateful," you said? Happy to help.


May 8, 2002

"Enforce the Law As It Is, Not As I Would Have It."

From The New York Times: U.S., in a Shift, Tells Justices Citizens Have a Right to Guns. The Justice Department told the Supreme Court for the first time late Monday that the Constitution "broadly protects the rights of individuals" to own firearms.

The law is a living thing. It isn't just what Legislatures enact (thank God). It's the sum total of legislative action, judicial ruling, and executive action. That's why it's so hard to get a straight answer out of a lawyer. It's also why it's so important to have Attorneys General who don't have ideological agendas -- or who are willing to put them aside.

The question came up in force during confirmation hearings for John Ashcroft, a conservative Republican from Missouri who is quite frank about his Pentacostal faith. From Ashcroft's confirmation testimony before the Judiciary Committee:

But, as I have explained this afternoon, I well understand that the role of the Attorney General is to enforce the law as it is, not as I would have it.

The late Charles Black (paid link), professor of Constitutional Law at The Yale Law School, taught many of the nation's political leaders. My wife, who fondly remembers taking Black's class, says that he would sometimes drawl -- mostly in jest -- "I don't see what all the fuss is about. Just read the Constituton and do what it says."

There's an excellent profile of Ashcroft in the April 15, 2002 issue of The New Yorker (not available online). The article talks at some length about Ashcroft's ties to the National Rifle Association. Yet since The Depression, the Supreme Court and the Justice Department has read the Second Amendment as requiring a militia. This has been settled law through the administrations of Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton.

Now comes Ashcroft, enforcing the law "as it is," telling the Court that:

"The current position of the United States, however, is that the Second Amendment more broadly protects the rights of individuals, including persons who are not members of any militia or engaged in active military service or training, to possess and bear their own firearms, subject to reasonable restrictions designed to prevent possession by unfit persons or to restrict the possession of types of firearms that are particularly suited to criminal misuse."

What's next? This, too, is from Ashcroft's confirmation:

As is well known, consistent with Republican United States Attorneys General before me, I believe Roe v. Wade, as an original matter, was wrongly decided. I am personally opposed to abortion. But, as I have explained this afternoon, I well understand that the role of the Attorney General is to enforce the law as it is, not as I would have it.... If confirmed as Attorney General, I will follow the law in this area as in all other areas. The Supreme Court's decisions on this have been multiple, recent, and emphatic.

As opposed to the 1939 Miller decision, I suppose, which was neither multiple nor recent.

I can't help but wonder what Ashcroft has next on his list.


Friendly Neighborhood Parkers

This is a Twilight Zone kind of coincidence -- or perhaps the subtle work of crafty writer. It turns out that the address Marvel Comics picked as the home of Spiderman is actually occupied by the Parker family. No one named Peter lives there, though, so knock off the junk mail.


The Sweet Smell of Something or Other

The guy who invented Smell-o-Vision just died. Michael Todd Jr. was the son of the noted movie producer.

His legacy continues in dumb, futile attempts to bring aroma to the Web.


May 9, 2002

Not Depressed, Just British

This explains so much....

Thanks to Amee Abel for alerting me to this, and Theresa Carey for finding the original.


Warning Labels on Chocolate?

From CNN:

An environmental group has sued to get warning labels slapped on chocolate products that caution sweet tooths about potentially hazardous levels of lead and cadmium.

As my wife says, "Well, we're screwed."


May 10, 2002

Dummy of the Week

Jamie Kellner, the CEO of Turner Broadcasting, apparently needs a better PR keeper. He gave an interview to Cableworld magazine in which he made some toweringly stupid comments. The original piece is behind Inside.com's tollbooth, but this link to the Yale Law School's excellent Lawmeme weblog copies much of the salient idiocy -- then lampoons it.

My two favorite quotes -- and these aren't the jokes:

[Ad skips are] theft. Your contract with the network when you get the show is you're going to watch the spots. Otherwise you couldn't get the show on an ad-supported basis. Any time you skip a commercial or watch the button you're actually stealing the programming.

... and ...

I guess there's a certain amount of tolerance for going to the bathroom.

Gee, thanks, Jamie.

I remember that after Ronald Reagan was elected president how surprised people were when they discovered that he actually was going to do all the things he said he was going to do. I'm just afraid that not enough people will take Kellner and the movies's Jack Valenti seriously


Remember: On Star Trek, Off-Camera Stagehands Operated the Doors

A nice piece about PC voice recognition at Mitch Wagner's drive-thru.org: YOU'LL ALWAYS BE ABLE TO SWEAR AT YOUR PC WHEN IT CRASHES. 

My friend Nat Polish was involved a few years ago in the launch of a company called Soliloquy. The basic idea was to create a voice interface to a database; you should be able to walk up to a computer or a kiosk and say, "I'm interested in a song by the Beatles," and have the database respond and carry on a (highly structured) conversation. They got it working well enough to sell some real-life demos before the company collapsed.

As the company was launching, I overheard Nat giving an interview to CNBC, I think it was. I couldn't catch the whole thing, but at one point Nat looked squarely into the camera and said from his considerably lofty technoperspective:

"You understand, of course, that the keyboard is a transitional device...."


``Everything I Know of Science I Learned From Reading Comic Books.''

The AP reports on University of Minnesota professor Jim Kakalios, who uses comic books to illustrate points of physics.

Very nice, innovative technique. The problems seem a little simple for college physics, but what do I know...

I wonder how the good professor would explain Wonder Woman?


Daddy Dan's Really True Science Facts

Hey Kids: Did you know that some mail order companies inflate those packing material air cushions with helium? Turns out that the helium has so much buoyancy that the savings in shipping costs outweighs the price of the helium itself.

You read it here first.


May 11, 2002

Gotta Spare Computer?

From The New York Times:

Old Personal Computers Never Die; They Just Fade Into Deep Storage. It is estimated that three-quarters of all retired consumer PC's sit gathering dust in closets, garages and attics across the nation. By Andres Martinez.

Let's see. I've got a Mac SE and a Toshiba 1100 Plus sitting in the closet. I've given away an old Thinkpad and a Dell in the last couple of months and I sold a Gateway Handbook a few months ago. So those are three previously idle PCs that are (I believe) in current use, and I've got four more CPUs currently active around the house. That's not counting the many PDAs of various vintages hanging around. (Yo! Steven! Do you still have that Sony Magic Link? And where'd my Newton go?)

Then again, I never did get involved with Commodores or Timex Sinclairs. I had serious lust for an Osborne 1 and a Kaypro, but they were beyond a UPI reporter's salary. If I had come up with the scratch, though, I bet I'd still have them.

So -- how many computers do you have around *your* place, just sitting idle?


Mathematical Proof of the Resurrection

When I was in high school, I saw Tom Stoppard's play "Jumpers" on Broadway. Twice. It was amazing, opening up all kinds of vistas of language and showmanship and Oxbridgian hoopdeedoo. That's why I liked this story:

So God's Really in the Details?. Last month, Richard Swinburne, a professor of philosophy at Oxford University, invoked probability theory to defend the belief that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.

I particularly loved this graf:

In plain English, this means that, by Mr. Swinburne's calculations, the probability of the Resurrection comes out to be a whopping 97 percent.

I kind of thought that the whole point was to have faith in the face of what was surely impossible. But what the hey -- if you can prove it anyway, how bad could it be?


Of Course It's True. I Saw It On the Internet.

Global Village Idiocy. Tom Friedman continues his work for yet another well-deserved Pulitzer. The nut grafs:

... [T]hanks to the Internet and satellite TV, the world is being wired together technologically, but not socially, politically or culturally. We are now seeing and hearing one another faster and better, but with no corresponding improvement in our ability to learn from, or understand, one another. So integration, at this stage, is producing more anger than anything else....

At its best, the Internet can educate more people faster than any media tool we've ever had. At its worst, it can make people dumber faster than any media tool we've ever had.

This is nothing that net-wise pundits and journo haven't been saying for years. But Friedman adds an important data point, and adds it in his typically elegant and clear manner.


May 12, 2002

Credit Card Bazaar

Matt Richtel in the NY Times reports on a Russian online market for stolen credit card numbers.

Among his data points is a finding from a market research firm that fraud rates are three times higher for online MasterCard and Visa transactions than in the real world. We're still talking about a quarter of one percent, but that means one out of every 400 online transactions is fradulent, and that feels like  rather a lot.



But Is It Art?

Susan Kitchens outpoints an L.A. Times story about an artist who altered a freeway roadsign so that people won't actually get lost following it. The job was so good that Caltrans didn't notice for nine months -- until the story hit the paper. And they may well leave things as they are.

Any chance we can get this guy to come to New York City? The road signs here are atrocious. Some of it is that the roads here are old and not up to contemporary spec. Some of it is that signs were designed to be driven at 40 mph.

Anyway, I have two fairly trivial examples. On an overpass where the New England Thruway crosses the Hutchinson River Parkway, a sign read New England Thurway and stayed that way for some years. Two signs across the street from each other near here call it alternately "Schermerhorn St." and "Schemerhorn St." (missing the first "r"). What's even worse is that they're both right outside the NYC Board of Education's personnel building. 


Go Ahead. Document the Prior Art.

A 5-year-old is awarded a patent (6,368,227, if you're counting) on a technique for swinging on a swing. More evidence of a system out of control.



The Usenet Motto

"It is not necessary to understand things in order to argue about them." -- Caron de Beaumarchais.

You probably know about Car Talk, the public radio talk show about cars and car repair. The hosts, Click and Clack (a/k/a Tom and Ray Magliozzi) once had a spirited conversation about whether two people who don't know anything about a subject know more or less the one person who doesn't know anything about that subject.

The answer, of course, is that two people know less. Two people arguing about something that neither knows anything about are capable of building an entire towering construct of ignorance and supposition, each particle of non- or mis-information building on the one previous.



May 13, 2002

Don't Try This At Home, Nautical Div.

An acquaintance on one of my mailing lists sends this link along.

I'm not sure, but didn't Bogart try this move in The African Queen?


Snooping and EZPass

Here in the Northeast, we can use something called E-ZPass to pay bridge and road tolls on most major highways. You set up and account with the E-ZPass folks, they send you a box that you attach to your car's windshield (or behind the grille), and roll slowly through toll barriers. It's really quite wonderful. The proper tolls are deducted automatically from your account. Or, at least, that's the theory.

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that, convenience aside, there could be some privacy concerns. All your toll transactions are tracked, and you're sent a statement every month or so. I can see from my latest statement that I crossed the Bronx Whitestone Bridge once in each direction on February 23rd, northbound in lane 22 at 5:40pm, southbound in lane 17 at 11:20pm. Also listed is the number of the tag that was scanned. Someone with access to the database could presumably see the same thing.

So the latest statement came, and I found a transaction at Exit 10 of the Massachusetts Turnpike dated 7:45am on April 3. Ummm, no. I'd swapped my tag a few days before that (at E-ZPass's request), and mailed in the old tag, which is the one that hit in Massachusetts.

I called the service center, explained the situation, and the customer service rep said that within a few days, they would send me an inquiry form. This form would include a photo of the license plate of the car bearing the E-ZPass linked to my account, snapped as the car pulled away from the toll barrier. If it's not my car, they'll reverse the charge?

Say what?

It seems that E-ZPass photographs the license plates of all vehicles that pass through one of their toll barriers. Since I can't find any reference to that practice in their Terms and Conditions, I don't know how long they keep them. I also don't know what other use they're put to, and that worries me a bit. And the part about their not 'fessing up to the practice in any easy-to-find place actually worries me quite a lot.


The Softer Side, Indeed.

Sears to Buy Lands' End for $1.9 Billion. Sears, Roebuck & Company, the nation's largest department store company, agreed to buy Lands' End the biggest specialty catalog and Internet retailer, for $1.9 billion in cash.

OK, let me get this straight. Sears has a catalog for 100 years. It pretty much invents direct marketing and mail order. It kills the catalog in 1993. Then, 10 years later, it spends $1.9 billion to buy a casual clothing company that pretty recently had revenues that didn't even amount to rounding error for Sears.

And if you're going to give me the hard goods/soft good argument about Sears stores and the catalog, you probably need to remember that Lands' End started by selling sailing equipment and attire.

I can't help but wonder how much it would have cost Sears to stick with the catalog for the intervening years. And I'd love to hear how Sears's management has been/will be punished for the expensive reversal of course.

I just hope Sears doesn't screw up Lands' End...


Here Kitty Kitty Kitty....

From Reuters:

A Canadian family had to flee for safety after their pet Siamese cat went on a rampage, tearing at clothes and skin and driving them out of the house... Another police officer said Cocoa was "a Siamese cat with an attitude problem."


Why User Interface Is Important

From the New York Times:

Dazed by a Technical Knockout. The BMW 745i is a remarkable car with so many genuine technical advancements that it is surely the world's most advanced sedan.

I'm quite certain that I've never seen Niklaus Wirth quoted in a car review before. Hell, I don't think I've ever seen him quoted in a computer review.

The underlying point of the review is also sound. Why in God's name would you design a car so complex that you need a cheat sheet to give a parking valet? When you're hurtling down the freeway at 65 mph or better, you really don't want to have to think about how to tune the radio, do you?


May 14, 2002

The Web, Arabs, and The Trust Equation

Dave Winer, whose weblog software I use and who knows a thing or two about online community, is less impressed with Tom Friedman's column of this past weekend than I am. He says:

Now with all due respect, they shouldn't believe everything they read in the NY Times either.

Well, that's certainly true enough. The thing is, Dave, what the Net helps do is put random content on the same footing as The Times. This is what terrifies Big Media, which has invested bazillions of dollars into establishing a trust equation with readers. Here's what I wrote about that, nearly six years ago to the day (what -- you thought this was a new issue?), in NetGuide:

The camcorder approach to information has its place, and is where a lot of the excitement about the net comes from. Always be asking yourself about what you're reading and why it was put out there. And remember that good information always has a price.

What Friedman, Winer, and I are talking about is a subtle and complex issue. This is my full column, from the August 1996 issue of NetGuide, and I've seen no reason in the intervening years to change my mind.


The Digital Chicken and the Electronic Egg

FCC Chairman Michael Powell had an op-ed piece in the Washington Post yesterday, challenging all parts of the TV industry step off the curb and do their part to adopt digital television. He suggested, quite rightly, that all piece of the industry -- programming, transmission, and receivers -- have been unwilling to commit unless someone else goes first. Powell's suggestion: "for all the industries to link arms and take one step forward -- together."

How sweet. But what he left considerably less than explicit is what he plans to do to should the industry not be cajoled. After all, the broadcasters got public spectrum to broadcast DTV for free, and set manufacturers and transmission equipment builders stand to profit hugely from digital retrofits. Given all the merger-and-acquisition activity in the media industry over the last five years, maybe this is one more place where Wall Street is paying more attention to The Deal than The Product.



RealNaming Names

My colleague Mitch Wagner (who provided me the tools to program the e-mail dialog over on the right) has a good take on the collapse of RealNames -- a not-so-great idea that finally cratered.

Of particular interest is the CEO's weblog painting Microsoft as the villain. It's a role that Microsoft is particularly well suited for, and the weblog has been a huge instant hit over the last couple of days. But read Mitch's piece, which observes that not even Microsoft can save a bad idea.



Obsessing Over Espresso

William Grimes of The New York Times asks the right questions:

  1. Why does espresso in New York City suck? and

  2. Where can you get a good cup?

Good food writing is so much better than good technology writing, it makes me want to weep.


May 15, 2002

Attention, Bill Gates!

On this day, May 15, in 1911, Standard Oil is ordered to break up.

Moi? I have no point.


"I've Come Here For An Argument"

Jim McGee, an entrepreuneur and professor at the Kellogg School of Management, has some interesting comments about this item, which ran here on the 12th. The crux:

Certainly in learning settings it's nice if someone knows something to get the ball rolling, but it isn't necessary. I'd argue (naturally) that the scientific method is essentially a set of rules for how to argue about things you don't understand in order to understand them better.

Hard to disagree. Perhaps where we're getting hung up is in the interesting difference between "understanding" and "knowing something about." I'd suggest (argue? heavens, no!) that "understanding" proceeds from "knowledge," and it's damned near impossible to reach the former without first acquiring some of the latter.



Dumb Bastards Killed Another One

The dumb bastards killed another one. PC Computing is finally dead. Ziff killed it yesterday.

PCC had been troubled from the start, about 10 years ago. It began as a technology magazine that was more about computing than computers -- a difficult distinction that company execs and advertisers didn't get. That iteration lasted not very long at all.

Lesson learned, PCC re-invented itself pretty much every year to 18 months, becoming the magazine for the latest buzzword. This required the circulation -- which eventually reached 1 million -- to constantly churn, since readers who cared about laptops may well not care about multimedia. As a place to catch excess ad dollars floating around the market, however, it worked brilliantly. Big circ, constantly changing market looking for visibility, perfect. Replacing the circulation was expensive, though, and the title never made much of a profit.

Editorially, it was quite good. Bright layouts, strong voice, the least geeky by far of all the major titles. But one was never entirely quite sure what the magazine was about.

Things reached a nadir about two years ago. Ziff Davis, which was then owned by Softbank, agreed to sell to the investment bank Willis Stein. Between the agreement and the actual sale, and apparently without consultation with the new owners, some genius decided to change the name and focus of the magazine. PC Computing became Smart Business, which was a problem because there already was a Smart Business magazine.

Instead, PCC became "Smart Business for a New Economy," and then "Ziff Davis's Smart Business." As the title might suggest, if you read that far, it was a New Economy magazine. Except it wasn't. Not really. It was sort of a cross between PC Magazine and Business 2.0, and may have turned out to be to techie for business types and too soft for techies.

But the real problem with the mag wasn't editorial. It was the lack of a core identity. There was, finally, no There there. Screw with a product enough and people will eventually turn away.


What Happened When He Had An Idea?

From The New York Times:

Dr. Hugh Francis Hicks, a dentist whose fascination with light bulbs is said to have begun when his mother tossed one into his crib and culminated in his owning 60,000 bulbs, died on May 7 in Baltimore. He was 79.


Not infrequently, patients had to wait as he welcomed people interested in seeing what he identified as the biggest and smallest light bulbs in the world ÷ to say nothing of the floodlights used in an Elvis Presley movie or the headlamps from Hitler's Mercedes-Benz.


World's Smallest Metronome

This is just way cool. My friend Mike Elgan found the world's smallest metronome -- the Korg MetroGnome.

It's a bud headphone that hangs in your ear. Weighs two-tenths of an ounce. Won't bug the neighbors or other musicians.

I have no idea how well it works, but the gadget value is off the scale.


May 16, 2002

Colored Carrots

From CNN:

The carrot is to return to its roots when it goes on sale in what's said to be its true colour of purple this summer.

Growers say they have dug up the vegetable's original colour and will revert to the new hue this summer for the first time in Europe in five centuries.

It's not April 1. I checked.

One slow July 4 weekend when I was with UPI, the Hartford, CT bureau produced a story about a farmer who had grown a crop of red white and blue pickles. They'd picked the story from a local weekly. The regional bureau in Boston thought this was a terrific story and made it available to all UPI clients in New England, as well as alerting the national and international desks in New York.

While those desks were pondering this item, the Photo desk realized that they really need a picture of these pickles to move on the wire. So Photo asked Boston, which asked Hartford, which got on the phone to the weekly, which got on the phone to the stringer who wrote the original article: the UPI Photo desk in New York thinks this is a terrific story and they want a picture to send to their clients around the world.

You're k idding, the stringer said. It was a put-on. Who the hell believes you can grow red white and blue pickles?

The retraction stories were entertaining.

And somehow, no one got fired.


Ramming It Down Customers Throats

About a year ago, Microsoft introduced the idea of something called .Net My Services -- an ill-defined collection of sort-of-business-related online services. Customers didn't bite.

Now, CNet says, Microsoft is planning to incorporate My Services into its next version of Office, its near-monopoly application bundle. (You know: Word, Excel, Powerpoint.) The company tried something similar in the current version of Office, Office XP (not to be confused with Windows XP, which is an operating system and not application software -- as if Microsoft wanted you to be able to tell them apart).

Office XP has something called Smart Tags, an interesting innovation that actually gives you a lot of control over how your text is formatted. But the initial release of Smart Tags let Microsoft do things like take an address and send it to a Microsoft-owned web site that could map it, or take an e-mail address and with one click automatically link to a Microsoft-owned e-mail service. Supposedly, any vendor could write code that would send users to their own site, but guess which company had their hard-wired?

Anyway, there were predictable screams and Microsoft backed off that particular application of Smart Tags. It now looks like they'll be back for another pass.

And speaking of nefarious, Microsoft is also in the midst of rejiggering the way it licenses software to big companies. Apparently, many companies will see their software costs jump, and an important deadline is looming. This is why Sun Microsystems has released a paid (read: supported) version of its Office-compatible application package StarOffice.

StarOffice had been free, but without manuals or real support. Corporations have a hard time dealing with free software -- and with reason. If you build your business around a piece of software, it's important to know a) who it's from, b) that it'll be around tomorrow. Sun's charging even the nominal $79 indicates that StarOffice may actually become a business -- and apparently, clients are sniffing around. It'll be interesting to see what happens.


New Comments Engine Installed

Not that so many of you were using it, but I've just installed the YACCS commenting software. Please feel free to play with it.

Previously, I was using Radio's built-in engine, which is based on Userland's Manila site-management tool. Trouble is, the built-in software didn't give me any control over comments posted on the log. Someone could have come in and posted really offensive or off-topic stuff and I'd have had no way to manage it. That's a Bad Thing, and something that Userland really ought to fix.

YACCS gives me much more control over the entire comments process -- control I doubt I'll ever need, but have to have it in case it ever comes to that.


Tuning In To Faces

A new study indicates that 6-month-old babies are better at face recognition than 9-month-olds -- if the face in question is a monkey. After that, kids apparently realize that it's human faces that count.

"As people get older, they get better and better at detecting the subtle differences in the faces they see a lot: human faces, Nelson said. But at the same time, they lose the ability to detect differences in things they don't see a lot."

As the dad of 5-month-old twins, this comes as a relief. Not that the kids seem to be having any trouble as it is...


Top of the World Ahead. Please Stand to the Right.

From the AP:

Record Crowd Reaches Top of Everest. The top of the world was crowded Thursday, with a record 54 people making it to the summit of Mount Everest, including the grandson of one of the first two men to conquer it in 1953.

This makes me nervous. Not in any personal sense, but if I recall correctly, it was this kind of crowding that led to the disastrous day recounted in Into Thin Air.


Ziff to Re-enter the Newsletter Biz?

The Silicon Alley Reporter (much as I hate to plug it) carries a story today saying that Ziff Davis is planning to create a $400 newsletter tracking Microsoft. It'll be written by Mary Jo Foley, one of the best Microsoft reporters around and an editor at Ziff's new Baseline magazine. Editorially, I'm sure it'll be a whiz-bang success.

The thing is, Ziff is good at selling inexpensive magazines (the newsstand model) and it's good finding the right people to give them away to (the controlled circulation model). For a while, it was in the business of selling expensive trade show admissions. But what it's never shown itself to be good at is selling big-ticket newsletters.

I speak from some experience here. I worked on a project at Ziff that consisted of a series of one-price-fits-all newsletters/websites/seminars. Our price out of the gate was $1000. Ziff tried to sell our product, at first, solely through e-mail with a respond-to website that cost thousands to develop. It didn't really work. Then they tried a card mailing -- about the cheapest and fastest way possible to get into the mail. That didn't work either.

After a few months, they killed the project. It's not that the product wasn't good; it's that no one ever found out. When's the last time you spent $1000 on the basis of a couple of e-mails and a website?

I've actually been doing this for a while. I published my first newsletter online in 1985. That same year, Esther Dyson launched one backed by Bill Ziff. They charged $1000. I charged by the article; I don're remember how much,  but it was lots less. Neither of us lasted, but I bet I made more money than they did.

The newsletter business is different than the magazine business, which doesn't mean that Ziff won't make a buck or two. It just means that it'll be harder and more expensive than they probably think. And as good as Mary Jo is, it's going to be hard to demonstrate in these tough times that she can provide better and faster information than what can be had floating around for free -- including what her own company is producing.


What Part of "Meow" Don't You Understand?

Cats learn to manipulate people? Stop the frickin' presses.



Replay Gets Stay of Spyware Order

Just to keep you updated:

SONICblue Wins Stay of Tracking Order. Electronic device maker SONICblue said on Wednesday it won a stay of a court order that would have forced it to track the television viewing habits of people using its ReplayTV digital video recorder. By Reuters.


May 17, 2002

$856 Per Square Foot.

From the NYTimes:

TriBeCa Is Priciest Neighborhood. A ZIP-code by ZIP-code analysis of the New York real estate market shows that TriBeCa was the highest priced residential neighborhood in Manhattan last year.

This will probably not be true next year, given that the World Trade Center was in TriBeCa. As it turns out, "priciest" is not entirely accurate. At about 2,400 square feet (fairly roomy, actually), the average apartment in TriBeCa is roughly twice the size of the average place on the Upper East Side. On the Upper East, the average apartment costs $856 per square foot -- and that's assuming that the listed square footage is accurate, which it isn't.

The bottom line: the real estate market in Manhattan is nucking futs.



Your Heart May Belong to Daddy, But Your Ass May Belong to the U of M

From Wired News:

A Patent That Owns Humans?. A patent watchdog group discovers that the University of Missouri holds a U.S. patent not only on cloning technology, but on any product of the process -- including, potentially, a human being. By Kristen Philipkoski.

Some lawywers say that the patent covers the process, not the product of the process. But it's not like this has been tested in court or anything.



Is Microsoft Gearing Up To Sell Passport Info?

From The Register:

Microsoft opts Passport holders into spam hell. Trusted Computing at work.

Passport is Microsoft's bid to authenticate users no matter where they go on the Net. (I wrote an in-depth article about how Passport works earlier this year for PC Magazine.) Microsoft has said over and over that no matter how attractive a business it might be, they'll never ever sell all the information that Passport collects.

Good to know that we can trust Microsoft's intentions, isn't it?


The Enron-ing of Telecom

From the NYTimes:

Traders Also Swapped Broadband, Data Show. Big energy trading companies created the appearance of activity as they tried to build a market for trading high-speed communications capacity.

I never quite understood why telecom companies so badly overbuilt transmission capacity. (I know, I know -- venture capitalists, who as a group are as dumb as squirrels, goaded them into it. Still...) This may be one reason: Enron and its ilk made it look like there was a demand for all that bandwidth.

It's stuff like this that gives capitalism a bad name.


May 18, 2002

A New Law of the Commons

From Wired News:

Making Copy Right for All. A new nonprofit group will provide an alternative to traditional copyrights by making it easier for artists, musicians and programmers to share their works with the public.

I haven't had a lot of time yet to explore the Creative Commons, but the idea looks interesting -- extend some of the ideas from the Open Source programming philosphy into the world of more conventional intellectual property. Copyright law, as it now exists, locks down all rights at the instant of creation; Creative Commons seems to be designing a mechanism that would allow a creator to cede some of those rights in a controlled manner.


I Don't Know Anyone Who Likes Being Edited, Either.

Personally I'm always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.
Sir Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965)


Wrapping Up The Tram

From the Times:

Operator of the Money-Losing Tram to Roosevelt Island Wants to Sell Ads. It's a New York vista: the red Roosevelt Island aerial tramway soars across the East River above the New York skyline, above the boats on the water and the graceful split-level Queensboro Bridge.

For those of you not from around here, Roosevelt Island lies in the East River, just across from the Upper East Side. It's a planned community, mostly co-operative, with no cars allowed. When it was first built, access was via a bus from Queens or the tramway -- which was intended as a temporary solution.

Cars still aren't allowed on the island's streets, but the subway now runs to Roosevelt Island. Every time someone suggests shutting down the tram, which loses money, great squawking occurs. Usually people on the mainland -- the "mainland" being Manhattan Island -- talk about closing the tram when it goes out of service for weeks at a time, requiring expensive repairs to keep what was a temporary solution running safely. The thing is as much a theme park ride as it is effective mass transit.

My favorite graf:

"In `Spider-Man,' the climactic scene takes place on the tram," he said. "They would have been the natural customer to wrap it."

I haven't seen "Spider-Man" yet, but I bet that climactic scene wasn't one that would want to make people ride the tram, any more than the scene in "Nighthawks" did.


Did He Look for a Front Clasp?

The August issue of British Journal of Plastic Surgeons will apparently carry a story about "a hapless Romeo [who] suffered major ligament damage and a fracture to one of his fingers while tackling his lady's brassiere," according to The New York Post.

For one thing, it says surveys show that 40 percent of men in their 30s and 40s have difficulty removing bras.

And it cites a recent test that found men spend an average of 27 seconds taking bras off, when using both hands.

When right-handed men used their left hand, it took an average of 58 seconds.


"Just Enough Is More"

From Kottke.org:

This is what Milton Glaser has learned (full PDF transcript): "Less is not necessarily more. Being a child of modernism I have heard this mantra all my life. Less is more. One morning upon awakening I realised that it was total nonsense, it is an absurd proposition and also fairly meaningless. But it sounds great because it contains within it a paradox that is resistant to understanding. But it simply does not obtain when you think about the visual of the history of the world. If you look at a Persian rug, you cannot say that less is more because you realise that every part of that rug, every change of colour, every shift in form is absolutely essential for its aesthetic success. You cannot prove to me that a solid blue rug is in any way superior. That also goes for the work of Gaudi, Persian miniatures, art nouveau and everything else. However, I have an alternative to the proposition that I believe is more appropriate. 'Just enough is more.'" (boldface mine, via bbj)

I *love* that. Just enough is more.

Glaser, if you don't know, is one of the most influential publication designers of the latter half of the 20th Century.


May 19, 2002

Is Satire Libelous?

Maybe it is, if it's too subtle. And if you're in Texas. The NY Times reports on a lawsuit against a Dallas alternative weekly.

I've written lots of this kind of stuff, going back all the way to high school. I've been called on the carpet a bunch, but I've never been sued. A carpet burn every few years I can stand but I have no particular appetite for court, so this kind of thing can be a bit <ahem> chilling.

Brits complain that Yanks have no sense of irony. They may be right. Big flashing HTML or XML <humor> </humor> tags would be a shame.


May 21, 2002

Finders Aren't Always Keepers.

Via 24-hour Drive-Thru:

SOME EVIDENCE FOR OPTIMISM.. U.S.S. Clueless. Steven Den Beste writes about how he accidently left his HP Jornada handheld computer at the mall. "I felt a bit sick. Of course, there was no chance I was going to get it back. A thousand bucks down the tube... " But he got it back after all - likely what happened is some honest person found it, and turned it on to a mall restaurant, where likely another honest person tucked it away in a bin somewhere, where it was likely passed by several OTHER honest people who didn't steal it, and finally brought out to Steven's waiting hands by yet another honest person. He writes, "It's easy to get cynical about people, to assume that down deep inside everyone is evil. It isn't true."

I have a similar story. I once lost a cell phone in a Las Vegas taxicab. During Comdex, where about a quarter-million people flood the city. I mean, this phone was gone. But the next passenger in the cab found the phone, and worked though the address book and found the entry Home. He pressed Send. My wife answered. She paged me. I returned the page, and she said, "You dropped your phone. Call Bell Taxi and ask for cab number" something-or-other; "the driver has it." Twenty minutes later, I had my phone back. The cabbie got a large tip, but I have no idea who the samaritan was.

[24-hour drive-thru]


Oooh Baby...

Leo J. Burke. "People who say they sleep like a baby usually don't have one."

Similar: "I sleep like a baby; I wake up every two hours, screaming."



Scientific Intrigue at Bell Labs

From the NY Times (I've got to get more news sources....):

Bell Labs Forms Panel to Study Claims of Research Misconduct. Lucent Technologies' Bell Laboratories has formed a panel to examine the validity of some recent impressive experiments.

No one's accusing anyone of anything. Not really, not yet. But good for the Labs for taking allegations seriously and looking into them sooner rather than later.


Construction, Not Destruction, at Ground Zero

Unlike most cities, the subway -- not the roads -- is New York City's circulatory system. Several subway lines were disrupted when the World Trade Center was destroyed, and their restoration was an early sign that things were getting back to normal. In an astonishingly short time, transit officials opened train lines that ran next to, but not quite under, the towers. In one case, a station is being bypassed, but even there ongoing repairs are evident.

The train line that runs down the West Side of Manhattan to the ferry terminal was directly under the towers. It's been out of commission since September 11, but even that line will be back sooner than most people had imagined. From the NY Times:

A Subway Interrupted Awaits Its Imminent Resurgence. As the debate continues over what to build above ground at ground zero, a few hundred men are already rebuilding what was once below the ground.


Kids Can Be Cool

Impossibly Hip meets the Biological Clock:

Babies have long been a fixture in the area's Latino, Polish and Hasidic communities. But the pioneering artists and those who followed them to Williamsburg in the last 20 years seemed to float above such corporeal concerns as pregnancy and child-rearing. They were known for pierced navels and creative facial hair, for cigarette-filled afternoons and all-night roof parties.

You see, the first baby store has opened in Williamsburg. Those without kids are horrified. Those with are grateful. Those of us who have kids and roll our eyes at such ghettos of hipness are amused.



More Proof That Copy Protection is Always Doomed

The Register had this story first, but I didn't quite believe it. Now Reuters has picked it up and confirmed it in great detail.

Sony has taken to screwing with its music CDs so that they won't play on computers. God only knows how much they spent developing or licensing the technology.

Here's how to beat it: take a common marker (a Sharpie is probably best), and draw a line around the edge on the non-labelled side. Presto! a disc that will play.

Millions of dollars to protect, 39 cents to defeat. No wonder retail CDs cost $19.


Librarian May Yet Save Webcasting

Radio broadcasters don't have to pay record companies to play music over the air. Webcasters were facing the possiblity of having to do just that -- and many of them were saying that the proposed royalty was unfair and ruinous.

Except that Librarian of Congress James Billington, whose business it is to set the royalty rate, rejected a proposal from an arbitration panel. He didn't say what the final rate would be, but promised a June 20 deadline.

Here's the Library of Congress official link to the whole megillah.

More cupidity from the record industry:

``Since both sides appealed the panel's determination anything is possible,'' said Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America. [ed note: Where did Hilary Rosen go? Is she now so generally despised that they're not letting her out in public?] He said he does not know what decision Billington will make, but he looks forward ``to the day when artists and labels finally get paid for the use of their music.''

RIAA members, of course, are record labels, which have a perfectly terrible history of paying their artists and a mostly wonderful track record of paying themselves.


I Think I Liked it Better When They Didn't Tell Us

It's not like they have a real threat or anything, but it seems that the FBI has alerted New York City to be watching out for another terrorist attack against a landmark. Specifically listed are the Statue of Liberty, which is within easy view of here, and the Brooklyn Bridge, which a few blocks from here and which I drive across several times a week.

The AP dispatch said that "[m]orning traffic at the Brooklyn Bridge was scrutinized carefully Tuesday." Dunno if that means it was scruitized more than usual, but the cops are supposed to be out there every morning to enforce the HOV2 regulation in place since September. [Later: the Times says that scrutiny was, indeed, increased.]

I know that stuff like this is always possible, and more possible than ever after 9/11. But there's a certain degree of denial that I suppose everyone needs to get through the day in every circumstance. Having that veneer stripped is less than comfortiable, especially when there's nothing that I can actually do about it -- and (I suspect) precious little that anyone can do.


May 22, 2002

Another Fun Use of the DCMA

Phil Zimmermann wrote the encryption program PGP, and nearly went to jail over it. He sold his company to Network Associates, which barely seemed interested in marketing the program. Now NAI has not decided to stop selling PGP, but now NAI Tells Sites To Remove PGP, under threat of prosecution under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (the DCMA).  [Source: Slashdot]

Seems to me that NAI has the right to do with PGP what it wants; it owns it, and can sell it or not as it so wishes. It also can insist that other people not distribute it. The techology is out there, however, and other people have built software based on the PGP algorithm. You should use it.

Here's what Zimmermann himself has to say about NAI's non-promotion of his program. Keep in mind that he's not a lawyer, and the page doesn't directly address the current question. But it's interesting nonetheless.



New Ways to Search

Robert Scoble and some others point out a new search engine, Vivisimo, which organizes results in some interesting ways. It's not really a search engine, actually; more properly, Vivisimo organizes information it finds at other people's search engines. (No, I don't entirely understand it either.)

Vivisimo is a spinoff of Carnegie Mellon University, and has some interesting people behind the technology. One of them is Oren Etzioni, who was a founder of Netbot, an early e-commerce search engine. [Source: Robert Scoble: Scobleizer Weblog]

Google isn't standing still. Its home page now features a new Scott Adams (Dilbert) cartoon every day. And check out the public demonstration of Google's technology toys.


Why Blog?

This is from Robert Scoble. I wanted to post it as is, because it gets at some interesting questions about weblogging that I don't have time to develop just now but need to get back to.

Weblogging Success Based on Traffic?. Is weblogging all about the traffic? This writer seems to think that traffic is all that matters. Hogwash. I don't want the unwashed masses reading me. I want to link to smart people. If all you measure is traffic aimed at your head, then you've gone astray. To me, it's "what can I learn by visiting you?" Do you entertain? Teach? Inspire? If you have only one visitor, but you teach that one person something that will change his/her life, isn't that more important than having 1000 viewers of intellectual sewage? The National Inquirer has lots of readers. Is that what we should be aspiring to? If it is, weblogging will be an awfully shallow activity for most of you. I'd like to measure my weblogging success some other way.


Terror Alert in New York

A data point:

The heightened alert in New York City is indeed having an effect. Traffic crossing the Brooklyn Bridge this morning is being restricted and apparently closely examined, with attendant delays. The bridge was closed for a half-hour to investigate a suspicious package. And there are helicopters patrolling the neighborhood.

I need to go into Manhattan this morning, and the bridge is how I do it. Oh joy.


It took 45 minutes to drive the two-block approach to the Brooklyn Bridge this morning; police were screening on a car-by-car basis, and turned back several that didn't meet the HOV2 requirement. (Presumably, suicide bombers don't work in pairs.)

Otherwise, the city seems pretty normal. The 34th Street Heliport had about six takeoffs/landings in the hour or so that I was paying attention. It's the start of Fleet Week today, so there'll be a ton of sailors around from all over the world. Some might say this presents a target-rich environment.

Other than the traffic checkpoint, the most out-of-place thing I've seen today is the NBC News truck with the big-ass satellite uplink antenna (big-ass -- that's one of my technical terms) parked at the end of my block at the entrance to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. The film crew has a pretty good overview of New York Harbor and the ships coming in, but when I saw the camera about 10 minutes ago, it was aimed squarely at the Statue of Liberty. Just in case, presumably.


May 23, 2002

More FUD From MS

From Internet Product News:

Microsoft Gets Defensive About Open Source Software. According to a report in The Washington Post, Microsoft is "aggressively" trying to convince the Pentagon to abandon its use of freely distributed software, claiming open source software threatens Department of Defense security.

What's wrong with this picture? In his testimony for the Microsoft anti-trust trial, MS bigwig Jim Allchin said that revealing Windows's source code -- one of the possibly remedies sought by the non-settling states -- would let hackers find the operating system's security holes, thereby jeopardizing national security. As eWeek put it:

A senior Microsoft Corp. executive told a federal court last week that sharing information with competitors could damage national security and even threaten the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. He later acknowledged that some Microsoft code was so flawed it could not be safely disclosed.

So, Microsoft is saying that closed-source software isn't secure, and open-source software isn't secure either. MS seems to have missed the bulletin that says opening source code to public scrutiny allows vulnerabilities to be found and plugged. It's that last part that Microsoft never seems to get around to talking about.


What's the Matter With .kids Today?

Fabulous piece on The Shifted Librarian about the House of Representatives approving a new .kids.us domain.

For those tuning in late, there are two domain systems on the Internet. One is the TLD system like .com and .biz and the new .info and .name. The other is a system of country domains like .us, .uk and .za, used more widely outside the US than within. Each country controls its own. In the US, country domains are more typically used by schools and government than business.

Congress has been trying in vain to get ICANN (the folks who like to think they govern the Internet) to approve a top-level .kids domain, so they went with the seemingly clean compromise of .kids.us. But, of course, there are problems with making a kid-safe place on the net. Read the article.


One of These Things Is Just Like the Other One...

The Shifted Librarian also finds a luscious piece in Darwin Magazine. Prepare to rethink your analogies: it turns out that apples and oranges are actually pretty similar.

Scott Sandford gives the impression he wishes he never did the damn apples and oranges paper. He admits to having nightmares about his own obituary: He has devoted his life at NASA to studying how chemicals that rained down on the earth billions of years ago may have seeded the world with the materials to create life; he's published 200 scientific papers on astrochemistry and the delicate intertwining of stellar dust and human existence. Comparing his serious work to that one stupid thing he did years ago on a lark, it's a joke. It's like comparing apples to quartz."


May 24, 2002

You Take Your Rapture, I'll Take Mine

You know those fish magnets you sometimes see on the backs of cars? You've seen them -- cars driven by Christians who feel the need for some kind of identifier in case the Rapture comes and the archangels look for a tag as if they were cosmic AAA towtruck drivers?

Anyway. Some of you might have seen a similar magnet, with the word "Darwin" inside and small legs coming out the bottom. Blogspace has alerted me to this new one (and some others):


The Lighter Side Dept.

From [bOing bOing]:

Roger Kaputnik: kaput at age 81. Here's an obit for Dave Berg, the pipe-smoking guy with the Reed Richards-style two tone hair who wrote and drew "The Lighter Side of..." cartoons for Mad. His sense of humor was quite a bit different from the rest of the usual gang of idiots, and it is strange that he was even in the magazine. I like his stuff though.

My mom's mom used to save her pennies to give her two grandkids when they came to visit her in The Bronx. I don't remember what my brother did with his, but I would invariably march down to the corner store and buy the latest copy of Mad. It was a true high point of my adult life when I ran into Dick DeBartolo on a commuter train to New Jersey; I still have his Mad Magazine business card.

Dave Berg's drawing was much more mainstream and realistic than, say, Jack Davis's or Al Jaffe's (let alone Don Martin's), and his humor was more rooted in suburbia and adulthood than in parody.  More than other artists and writers, Berg gave kids a clue into how adults really thought. It didn't matter that he recycled ideas nearly as much as Milton Berle.

I took a college course on Satire back in the mid-70s. On the first day, in order to fix the idea of what satire was, the professor asked the class to places one might find it. I suggested Mad, and some snotty sorority girl said, "You mean people read that?"

Several weeks went by. Responding to something or other, the sorority girl mentioned something she'd seen in Cosmopolitian. Sez I, maybe slightly louder than I meant to (but maybe not), "You mean people read that?" I don't think she spoke to me for two years....


Echelon Lives After All

Back in the day at winmag.com, I wrote a few times about Echelon, a supposedly top-secret project by the NSA to monitor all international communications to and from the U.S. Echelon, it was said, could pick out key words from among the flood of information traversing the American border.

I expressed my doubts about whether something like Echelon could exist, or whether it was the product of Oliver Stone-fevered minds.

Danish journalists Bo Elkjaer and Kenan Seeberg, who apparently have been following the Echelon story for a while, landed an interview with a gent named Bruce McIndoe, the lead architect for Echelon II. He basically confirms the whole thing.

Of course, he could be lying, too.


May 26, 2002

Next, They'll Tell Us That Men Won't Ask For Directions

Stop the Frickin' Presses Dept:

Washington Post: Why Won't We Read the Manual? And so it has come to this: Americans buy the most sophisticated computers, the coolest digital cameras, the most advanced automobiles, the most versatile cell phones and handheld organizers, and then . . . and then we forget, or decline, or flat out refuse, to read the directions. [Tomalak's Realm]

In a long piece -- and God knows it's a fruitful topic -- here's my favorite blip:

In the not-too-distant future, many of those questions may prove unnecessary, at least for frozen dinners and such. Some microwaves are being designed to read a bar code that will be printed on the side of the package and cook it automatically. "The consumer won't even have to read directions on how long he needs to cook the meal; he'll just have to eat it," Laermer said.

And people will learn to use this feature, exactly how?

There is no shortage of Dumb User (a/k/a "Luser") stories. They are more than amply balanced by all the tech support people whose very first line of defense is to tell you to format your hard drive and re-install Windows.

I've written a few manuals, many for products that didn't actually ship. I've also written some "after-market" books; unfortunately, before publishers got the idea that technology books could actually be entertaining.

My favorite user manual stories came from when I was Director of Documentation at Headstart Technologies -- one of the first computer companies to sell through consumer electronics stores. We produced a computer called the Headstart Explorer, an easy-to-use XT clone with a custom graphic interface, the first-ever implimentation of DOS on ROM, and a couple of interesting problems:

There was a small problem with the hard drive. The bay in which it sits does not have adequate ventilation. If you left the drive running for a long while, it would really heat up. Eventually, it could heat up to the point of softening the plastic around it. If you weren't using the monitor stand, and had just set the monitor on the main unit, that side could start to smush down. 

We generated an extremely simple "words-of-one-syllable-or-less" kind of manual that people seemed to enjoy and was a major pisser to produce. One user in Los Angeles didn't think much of it. Less than pleased with the machine or the docs or his coffee that morning, he pulled out a .45 while on the phone with tech support, and in the blessed name of Elvis put a hole in the monitor. Crude, but an effective critique. I'm pretty sure that he didn't get his money back.


Plainly, No One Remembers the XFL.

Video Game League on the Verge. The Cyberathlete Professional League receives a much-needed $45 million cash infusion, a commitment from Intel and exposure from ESPN. But will anybody watch?

We have digital cable. I live in the city where they invented the televised Yule Log. Apparently, some people will watch anything. I understand that the video game industry is bigger than the movie industry. I even understand that video games are fun (though I myself come mostly from the pinball generation).

But a professional league with spectators? Color me "He Hate Me."


May 27, 2002

Schindler's Blog

My long-time colleague, erstwhile boss, and good friend Paul Schindler has, for the last four years, been writing a weekly weblog. It touches most parts of his life, and is therefore as wide-ranging and interesting as the author himself. He hand-coded he thing, so it's not on any of the major blogging communities or aggregators. Pity -- it's quite good, and something I hurry to check out every Sunday evening or Monday morning.

You should, too: http://www.schindler.org/psacot

And more to the point, he's inspired the next item.


Public Education

My friend Paul Schindler (whose blog is cited below) has left the technology publishing business to do what he's long threatened: get his California teaching ticket and become a high-school math teacher. He'll be terrific at it.

The current issue of his weblog contains, down at the bottom, a long-ish e-mail from a friend regarding public education and what it's good for. The correspondent, Peggy Coquet (a wonderful name, that), echos the views of the author Neil Postman, in his book The End of Education. Coquet talks about the twin roles of schools: the training of children to be citizens, and the training of children to be economic units.  Postman argues that the pendulum has swung far to the second view, as business has become ever ascendent in our society.

Not surprising, really. It's fairly easy to measure an economic unit. You spend X dollars per student and test the output. If the output score is sub-par per dollar spent, there's something wrong with the process. Fixing a process is made easier by reducing the process to standard set of steps, each of which can be examined and tested. Of course it works: there are more McDonalds than four-star restaurants, and more people can go to them, besides. Isn't that good?

A friend of mine used to work for AT&T. They used to say, "if you can't measure it, it doesn't exist." The corollary is "if you don't measure it, it doesn't exist." The base assumption is that everything can be measured, which is fine if you're worried about the reliability of a telephone network. It's less fine if you want children who are capable of running their own town, nation, and world.

Of course everything can't be measured. It's hard to measure the key things that demonstrate success in a citizenship oriented school. It's hard to measure critical thinking, creativity, social involvment. It's hard to teach them. Simpler and more reliable to produce economic units trained to perform to a test. Five onions on the burger, and 2 ounces of ketchup. Salsa is outside the box.

Lord knows that kids need to know how to add, and spell, and show up on time, and sit still in their seats. But even if schools were doing a good job of that, it would only be the start. It's what comes after that that's important. A citizen unit is more than an economic unit -- harder to teach, harder to live with, and vastly more powerful and subversive.

I have two five-month-old boys, and I live in an affluent neighborhood with one crappy public school and five excellent and expensive private schools. This subject is not only not closed, it's barely open.


Another Way Geeks Are Cool

My friend and colleague Jeff Duntemann has been kind enough to make Over The Edge one of three blogs linked from his own long-running weblog. One of the others is written by Jim Mischel. I have no idea who Jim Mischel is, but I've had a ton of fun reading his stuff. Jim's major contribution to my day, however, has been a link to The Flo Control Project, wherein, well...:

The guy's using a digital camera hooked to a computer to take a picture of his cat Flo on the way into the house.  If the picture compares favorably with a picture on file, then the cat's door is unlocked.  If the cat is carrying a mouse or a bird or other present, or if the cat at the door isn't really the cat, then the door remains locked. 


Wisdom of the Day

Think twice before accepting a lifetime guarantee on a pacemaker. -- Dan Rosenbaum



May 28, 2002

Point? I Have No Point. Why Do You Ask?

Jerome K. Jerome. "It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do."



Whichever, You Can Hardly Blame Them.

This story originated on Gulf News Online, but I heard about it through BoingBoing and New World Disorder:

Fighting against what clerics call "penetrating Western culture" with a crackdown on icons of America, Iran's hardline judiciary has launched a campaign to confiscate all U.S.-made Barbie dolls in Tehran.

Recently Moral Police have stepped up arrest and harassment of shopkeepers for selling Barbie dolls and whatever decorated with different shapes of Barbie and its image which are immensely used by school children.

Tehran Judicial Department has arrested many of Barbie traders and shopkeepers mainly in Tehran  and other places accusing them for spreading obscene Western cultures since last month.

I'm intrigued by something in the lede: Why "U.S.-made Barbie dolls"? I mean, I understand why they might want Barbie dolls out of the culture. And I understand why they might want U.S.-made goods gone, too. But why specifically "U.S.-made Barbie dolls"? Would Taiwan-manufactured Barbies be less of an anathema? Or are we just knocking up against less-than-fully conversational English?


Feel Any Safer Yet?

This is from The Register, and contains a link to the core document from the ACLU:

Face recognition kit fails in Fla airport. How about fifty false positives a day?

Authorities here in New York just put in a face recognition system to monitor the line of tourists queuing up to get on the boat to the Statue of Liberty. This despite ample evidence -- even before these Palm Beach findings -- that face recognition is not ready for prime time.

To answer my own question: No, I don't feel any safer. Thanks for asking.


May 29, 2002

Explaining Blogspace

Pretty good piece in Microcontent News about the weblog ecology. (First point: who knew that there's a trade mag -- even an online one -- about microcontent?) The piece could use a serious edit, and the top of it shows some startling naivite about the media feeding chain. But when the author turns his attention to weblogs, there's lots of good information here.

So Why Isn't This Guy Teaching at Oxford?

WARWICK, England (CNN) -- A mathematical formula calculated by a British university professor has found that time actually is money.

Economics professor Ian Walker, of central England's Warwick University, says process can show people just how valuable their time is in relation to any task they have to perform, from a lie-in or cooking a meal to sleeping and working.

You want the equation? Click the link. But hurry.


Ground Zero Demolition Ends

Nice piece by Charlie LeDuff of the NYTimes about the dismantling of the last steel column at Ground Zero:

Let history show that many of these men and women were here on the afternoon of Sept. 11, having abandoned their jobs elsewhere in the metropolitan region. How they scribbled their names and phone numbers on their forearms those first few days in case they were swallowed up in a hole and killed.

Also, let it note these small memories. How the workers wept over the abandoned shoes lying in the streets left by people running for their lives. How people laughed that second evening as the ironworkers wore cashmere coats and scarves and fedoras from Brooks Brothers as they burned the steel to brace themselves against the cold.


Where Do You Get Off, Buddy?

Interesting project going on at nycbloggers.com -- to collect all the webloggers in New York City and organize them by subway stop. I like the idea; I've registered and added a linkback logo over on the right.



May 30, 2002

Museum of Sex Opening in New York City

The Times reports on the impending opening of the for-profit Museum of Sex on 5th Avenue and 27th Street.

The guy behind the museum, Daniel Gluck, has been described in press reports as a "former software executive," but I've been unable to find out his tech connection. When he started this project, he was teamed with artist Alison Maddex and her partner, the academic Camille Paglia. At the end of 2000, however, Maddex and Paglia apparently split with Gluck and the project.

There is a tech connection with the Museum of Sex: software developer, philanthropist, and art maven Peter Norton had some money in the project, back when it was still a non-profit. I don't know if Norton is still involved.


Hoist on Their Own Petard

Record industry unveils music format that can't be played in any computer. From urbanreflex.com



Punch Magazine To Fold

Tough business, magazines. Even after 161 years, you've got to make a profit.

Fortunately, the archives will remain online.

Is there really so little to satirize in contemporary England? Seems unlikely.


Ground Zero Cleanup Ceremony

I'm going to leave it for others to analyze and critique today's ceremony at Ground Zero. I just wanted to post here an eyewitness piece I wrote the afternoon of  9/11 (and which ran the next day in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram) to remind us how it began.


The Net Goes to War

Fascinating piece on CNN about the electronic nerve center of what may be the First Wired War.

Some combatants, however, are properly skeptical:

"A computer with a bullet in it is just a paperweight," Hauk said. "A map with a bullet in it is still a map."


May 31, 2002

Bulletin: CIPA Overturned

From the AP:

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Three federal judges on Friday threw out a federal law that would have forced public libraries to equip computers with software designed to block access to Internet pornography.

In a 195-page decision, the judges said the Children's Internet Protection Act went too far because it also blocking access to sites that contained protected speech.

``Any public library that adheres to CIPA's conditions will necessarily restrict patrons access to a substantial amount of protected speech in violation of the First Amendment,'' the judges wrote.


Report from Ground Zero Procession

My friend Miriam Lewin went down to lower Manhattan to witness the final procession from Ground Zero, and wrote a brief report:

The crowd around me clapped but did not cheer.  We were respectful yet somehow  exuberant -- I was smiling through my tears.  I didn't clap -- I had put  my hand on my heart when I saw the beam and I could not wrench it off my  chest.

It was a beautiful day.  A little hotter and muggier than September 11,  but still beautiful.  There was a nice breeze off the river, and New York felt like home, and a good place to be.

I'm in Charlottesville, VA right now and saw the ceremony on television, so I've got no right to comment. MSNBC's coverage was most remarkable: there was not a word from a talking head for the entire time -- more than 30 minutes.


About May 2002

This page contains all entries posted to Over the Edge in May 2002. They are listed from oldest to newest.

April 2002 is the previous archive.

June 2002 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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