Misc: December 2008 Archives


December 31, 2008

  • My insurance company (State Farm) bills home insurance on a yearly basis but car insurance on a bi-yearly basis. They actually tell me that they can't bill on a yearly basis. I asked what would happen if I were to send in the whole year's payment "I'd have to research that. We'd probably give you a refund."
  • HFS+ is case preserving but case insensitive. What the heck?
  • The Roku is great, except that in the logical conclusion of modern A/V gear, it's 100% useless without the remote, just a flat plastic console. Outstanding!

December 27, 2008

I've been watching the new Doctor Who lately. Generally, I'd say it's pretty solid, with much higher production values and a hipper tone than the old series. One thing that drives me nuts, though. The Doctor is constantly getting into various kinds of scrapes where he gets trapped, chased, etc. The Tardis seems to be extremely resistant to nearly all forms of attack: why isn't it fitted with some sort of homing device so it can jump to him and get him out of trouble. I appreciate that this wouldn't always work—maybe it can't work across different time periods for instance—but you'd think a simple radio transmitter with a homing beacon wouldn't be out of the question. Obvously, there are plot reasons for this; Gallifreyan technology is already way better than practically everyone the Doctor encounters, and if he could just jump out of trouble, where would be the drama? [Though it's worth noting that Iain Banks's Culture novels seem to do just fine despite a similar set of technoligical gap challenges.] Still, it would be nice to have some explanation of why this isn't possible.

Bonus gripe: the Roku also has the original Hitchhiker's Guide TV series. In the second episode where Arthur and Ford get picked up by the Heart of Gold I saw a bank of computers with what sure looked like a 9-track tape drive. You'd think the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation could do a bit better.


December 26, 2008

Today on NPR's All Things Considered, I heard a segment on Massachussetts Proposition 2, which decriminalized Marijuana possession ($100 civil fine for amounts less than one ounce).
All Things Considered, December 26, 2008 ยท As of Jan. 2, being caught with less than an ounce of pot in Massachusetts will result only in a $100 civil fine. District Attorney David F. Capeless, president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, says the law has many loopholes and is in its present form, in effect, legalization of marijuana.

Note: Capeless was the only guest. They didn't have anyone in favor of Prop 2, and the host just took whatever he said at face value. Always nice to see NPR believes in objective coverage.

Anyway, the complaints appear to be as follows:

  1. That there's no ID requirement so if you get caught with marijuana, you can just lie and avoid the fine.
  2. The law specifically prohibits the state from penalizing police, bus drivers, etc. for using marijuana.

I'm not saying either of these is untrue but so what? There are other actions (e.g., jaywalking, not having a light on your bicycle), which are nominally forbidden but where as a practical matter the cops aren't likely to haul you to jail if you don't have ID. More likely they'll just take your word for who you are, write you a ticket and let you go. Capeless suggests that this is a "loophole" but really it seems pretty sensible to me. If you have some action with a maximum $100 fine, it doesn't make a lot of sense to haul people off just because they can't prove their identity to your satisfaction. The complaint about stopping the state from punishing people who smoke pot seems even less well founded. I didn't follow the coverage of prop 2, but I doubt that's some unintended consequence. Rather, if you think that smoking pot is like speeding or overstaying your parking meter, why would it disqualify someone from being a police officer, bus driver, or owning a gun. As far as I can tell, the truth of the matter is that the Mass DAs don't like marijuana and wish prop 2 had never passed (this isn't just speculation, here, for instance is an article about the Essex County DA opposing prop 2).

While we're on the topic, who cares what the DAs and Police think about drug control policy? Their job is to arrest and prosecute people who break the law, but this doesn't give them any special insight into what the effect of what some proposed loosening in the laws would be. As a practical matter, their bias seems to be towards "law and order", i.e., stuff should be illegal. Hovav Shacham forwarded me a particularly egregious example: the police in California asking the DEA to help them crack down on medical marijuana, which is legal under California law but not US law.


December 23, 2008

Eszter Hargittai has an odd post complaining about Amazon Prime. As far as I can tell, the story is this. Say there's some item X (the example she gives is this 8 GB SD card) that is sold by both Amazon and some third party seller. Ordinarily, Amazon will offer it to you from you the lowest price seller, in this case $17.13 ($14.12 + 2.99 S+H). However, if you have Amazon Prime, it will (at least some of the time) offer you the Amazon version, even if it's more nominally expensive than the third party version (currently $17.99). Presumably the theory here is that if you've signed up for Amazon Prime, you want to actually use it. Note that this is just a matter of what appears as the main result: you can always select other sellers.

Anyway, Hargittai is pretty unhappy about this (she calls it a "shady product") but I have to admit that I don't understand what the issue is. She keeps saying she's being billed twice, but I don't understand the argument here: if you didn't have Amazon Prime and you chose to buy the product from Amazon rather than a third party seller, Amazon would charge you their price + S+H (unless of course you buy $25 worth of stuff and get super-saver) so you are getting free shipping (or more precisely, prepaid shipping) from Amazon. It's just that Amazon's price isn't that great, so you would be better off buying it from someone else. What makes this confusing is that you don't need to go to their site to buy it, Amazon will let you buy it from the the third party seller through Amazon's site. So, I don't see the problem.

Anyway, Eszter may be unhappy, but I actually prefer things this way: all other things being equal, I'd rather deal with Amazon than some third party seller, and certainly if the total price is identical I'd rather have 2-day shipping than whatever yak-based delivery system the third party seller would otherwise use. I'm even generally willing to pay an extra dollar or so for that. So, I'm happy to have Amazon offer me that option preferentially—though I'm a bit curious how big the difference is before Amazon will show me the cheaper item instead.

Incidentally, I don't know if I've mentioned this, but the combination of one-click selling and Amazon Prime has an amazingly powerful lock-in effect on me. It's just so much easier to buy stuff from Amazon than bother to set up an account anywhere else, figure out shipping, etc. If I were some smaller seller, I think it might be taking a real interest in 3rd-party Internet identity systems so that people could buy stuff to me without having to register for an account any time they want to buy something from someone new.


December 22, 2008

A reader pointed me to this article about a driver who has ordered a license plate designed to use similar-looking letters to confuse traffic cameras. Se ewhat I mean?

I've actually heard about this plan before, though the version I heard was Bs and 8s and the idea was to rely on bad police handwriting. Anyway, I'm not sure how well this will actually work. It's true that the photo above looks like crap, but that's mostly an artifact of massive pixellation. Any reasonable camera should be able to get you a much higher resolution image. Even the not-great-looking picture here looks good enough to me to distinguish those three letters. If you also have the car model and can distinguish a few letters, I suspect you could figure out who the violator was.

UPDATE: Actually, it doesn't look like crap on my page, but it does on the original. Why? Whoever wrote the HTML decided to scale the 130x69 pic to 300 pixels wide and that didn't work out so well. If you scale to integral multiples, it's really quite readable.


December 21, 2008

This article describes an interesting hack on license plate cameras:
As a prank, students from local high schools have been taking advantage of the county's Speed Camera Program in order to exact revenge on people who they believe have wronged them in the past, including other students and even teachers. Students from Richard Montgomery High School dubbed the prank the Speed Camera "Pimping" game, according to a parent of a student enrolled at one of the high schools.

Originating from Wootton High School, the parent said, students duplic ate the license plates by printing plate numbers on glossy photo paper, using fonts from certain websites that "mimic" those on Maryland license plates. They tape the duplicate plate over the existing plate on the back of their car and purposefully speed through a speed camera, the parent said. The victim then receives a citation in the mail days later.

Obviously, this will work technically: you want to be able to read the license plate numbers even from photos with errors of various kinds. However, if people are actually getting tickets when you do this, then this reveals some pretty lame procedures by whoever's running the photo radar system, since presumably the photo of the driver doesn't match whatever the driver's license photo of the person you're issuing the ticket to, and of course the car model probably doesn't match either. This seems like the kind of thing you probably should check if you want to make sure that you're issuing the ticket to the right person. Actually, I had thought this was SOP.


December 10, 2008

What I find baffling about l'affaire Blagojevich isn't that he tried to sell a senate set. OK, so that probably wasn't going to work out, but it might have and it sure took chutzpah to try it. No, what puzzles me is that he talked about it on the freaking phone!. I mean, I worry about talking business deals on the phone, let alone doing crimes. And given that (1) it was known that he was under investigation and (b) Blagojevich was a former prosecutor, he might have suspected that, you know, the FBI was tapping his phone. Like I said, baffling.

P.S. I think we can now add "they're not willing to give me anything except appreciation. Fuck them." to "when the president does it that means that it is not illegal", "Fuck the Jews, they didn't vote for us anyway", and "the bitch set me up."


December 7, 2008

I caught The Andromeda Strain via Netflix the other night. It's a pretty by the numbers adaptation of the classic SF novel, but despite that I found myself ungripped. The best part about the book is how good a job Crichton does of convincing you that you're reading science history, not science fiction. This is partly a matter of the dry, matter of fact tone and partly a matter of the just-out-of-reach-but-maybe-tomorrow feel of the technology. Unfortunately, none of this comes through in the movie, which instead has the sort of antique SF feel of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Partly it's the old clothing and hair styles, but I think more importantly it's that in retrospect technology has developed rather differently from that portrayed in the movie.

Exhibit A here is the "Electronic Body Analyzer", a computer that automatically scans you, diagnoses stuff, administers medication, etc. So far so good: we don't have these yet, but maybe we could make one with some effort (though presumably ours wouldn't distract you with trippy music and then give you an unannounced injection). On the other hand, if we were to build one, it would have a zippy high-res interface with alpha-blending, drop shadows, and motion blur. It would probably not look like this:

That's a foot, by the way.

You also probably wouldn't get transmissions from headquarters by teletype.

This blind spot is all over science fiction of this era, of course (see also Aliens). Remember that in 1969 if a computer had any kind of interactive interface, it was some crappy character-based thing, so SF writers can't really be blamed for not anticipating modern interfaces. For some reason it seems easier to imagine computers being smarter than they are than them having better interfaces. (See also If Isaac Asimov Designed Your Computer).

What's odd is that none of this bothered me when I recently reread the novel. Sure I knew that it was unrealistic, but somehow reading it instead of actually seeing it play out in all its clumsy ASCII art glory let me suspend disbelief a bit.

Something else that works in the book but not the movie is the pacing. Part of the conceit is that there is this super-elaborate procedure for disinfecting the scientists as they descend into the laboratory. It's not clear why you need this at all; presumably if your scientists are sick you would be better off not to let them into the sterile are at all. Anyway, it's all neat and high-tech and lets Crichton show off his creativity, but the filmmakers seem to feel the need to show you the whole thing and it just drags really badly; they don't start seriously investigating the organism till like 50+ minutes into the movie and at this point you've kind of forgotten that it killed a town full of people.

I wonder if the miniseries is any better.


December 4, 2008

Now that it looks like there's a serious chance of bailing out the car companies, you're starting to hear the suggestion that any bailout should come with conditions. For instance, here's Pat Garafalo at ThinkProgress

More importantly though - as Pelosi and Reid said - "federal aid should come with 'strong conditions,' such as requirements that car makers build more fuel-efficient vehicles." Bill Scher at OurFuture writes, "With the auto industry in dire straits, we taxpayers have maximum leverage to demand the cars necessary to help lower energy costs, cut carbon emissions and reduce our dependency on foreign oil."

I agree that it seems likely that making cars with lower carbon emissions (which at least for now more or less means more energy efficient) would be a good thing, and absent much higher gas prices (or some Pigouvian tax) it also seems likely that they US auto manufacturers won't do this on their own, and it's obviously true that when the manufacturers are begging for a bailout is a good time to extract concessions. So, this may not be crazy policy. On the other hand, it seems somewhat problematic to put the executive branch in a position where they can just impose this sort of condition without going back to Congress. 700 billion (or whatever) is a huge amount of money and if the economy gets worse more and more companies are going to be wanting bailouts. To give the executive the discretion to impose essentially any conditions they want in return for a bailout starts to look a lot like creating a command economy with the president in command. Now, that may seem like a good thing if the current President's political views happen to line up with yours, but taking the long view, the US political system is designed to avoid giving any individual actor too much unchecked power. Try imagining this power in the hands of a politician you hate (which ought to be pretty easy seeing as we're about to see a polar transition in the presidency, so it's likely you either hate the outgoing or incoming president).