Misc: January 2009 Archives


January 29, 2009

I can't say I'm that enthusiastic about what's starting to look like a trend of national governments requiring ISPs to cut off Internet service to alleged pirates:

To try to curb unauthorized file-sharing, which the music industry blames for its woes, the report recommends requiring Internet service providers to send warning letters to persistent pirates.

Some British Internet providers have already sent such letters under a voluntary agreement. Under the proposal outlined Thursday, they would be required by law to do so. Internet providers would also be required to turn over personal details of repeat offenders to rights holders, like music companies, so that the offenders could be sued.

The music industry, however, is increasingly reluctant to pursue file-sharers through the courts, fearing a backlash from listeners. The Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the major record companies, moved to end a multiyear legal campaign against file-sharers, for example.


In France, legislation that would require service providers to disconnect pirates is working its way through Parliament.

I can certainly understand why this is what the music industry would like. No doubt they'd prefer if they could just fine you directly without going through the hassle of suing you or anything like that. I doubt I'd like that very much, however. I, on the other hand, would prefer to have music shipped to my house over the Internet for free, which I doubt they would like very much. What's a lot less clear is why it's good for society to put its thumb on the scales in the music industry's favor. It's not like there's no chance for collateral damage here; Internet service is pretty important to a lot of people and having it cut off is a pretty substantial punishment to incur on the say so of a party who it should be obvious isn't completely disinterested.


January 27, 2009

Maybe it's because I don't watch broadcast TV at all, but I just can't wrap my head around all the angst about the DTV drop dead date. According to Nielsen (via NYT), there are 6.5 million households who can't receive digital TV. Presumably I'm one of them. That said, if I wanted a digital tuner (or converter or whatever), I'd go buy one. For what fraction of people who actually watch broadast TV and don't have a converter or digital tuner already is $40 a real hardship?

To give you a sense of perspective, if every single one of those households got two coupons for a $40 converter, that would represent $520 million, less than .1% of the proposed stimulus package. I guess nobody wants to be known as the Senator who took away the people's bread and circuses...


January 26, 2009

I'm not a music guy but even I can appreciate this. Apparently Microsoft has developed some new software called Songsmith which will take a vocal track and automatically generate backing music. Clearly, the most useful thing to do here is to take existing songs, strip out the vocals, run them through Songsmith, and post the rather suboptimal results to YouTube. Examples include: Tom Sawyer, White Wedding, Toxic, and Eye Of The Tiger. Really, the only one of these that's even halfway tolerable is I Heard It Through The Grapevine, which may have something to do with Marvin Gaye, unlike many rock musicians, actually being able to sing.

January 25, 2009

Brad DeLong reports his own coyote sighting. This isn't much of a picture but it's better than anything I have from my recent Rancho sighting.

For some reason I see dramatically more wildlife running through local parks and open space areas (at Rancho alone: tons of deer, turkeys, several bobcats, and a coyote) than I've ever seen on a backpacking trip even though backpacking trips are far more remote and I've spent plenty of time in bear country. I don't have a good explanation for this. Is it because of the high population density—the animals get used to people and so unafraid so I see them more?


January 17, 2009

As you may have heard, President George W. Bush is disappointed that the US didn't find WMDs in Iraq:
There have been disappointments. Abu Ghraib obviously was a huge disappointment during the presidency. Not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment. I don't know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but they were -- things didn't go according to plan, let's put it that way.

John Stewart complains here that "disappointment" is the wrong word "TiVo not recording the Project Runway Finale is a disappointment." I tend to agree with Stewart, that "disappointment" is the wrong word, but the problem is the direction of the vector, not the magnitude (would very disappointed be better?). So, you invade and you don't find any WMDs. How should you feel? I can imagine a bunch of reactions.

Narrow Disappointment
OK, this is bad. After all, you predicated a major policy initiative on the basis of something that wasn't true. Now you look stupid, or like liars, or both. Plus, we burned money and lives for no reason.

Cautious Optimism
That's small picture thinking. It's true that some set of government officials look stupid, but look, our purpose was to get rid of WMDs and they're gone. Better yet, if there had been a WMD program, we probably wouldn't have found everything and so there would potentially be terrorists with WMDs floating around. So, all in all, this is actually better than if there had been WMDs, though of course, the best world would be if there hadn't been WMDs and we hadn't invaded. Note: this analysis relies to some extent on your original belief that there were WMDs. If you didn't believe that and were just using that as an excuse to invade, then the above analysis doesn't really apply.

Broad Disappointment
OK, so it's good news that there weren't any WMDs, but what does this say about our decision making process and in particular our intelligence apparatus if they could be that wrong? Even if you think that the Bush administration deliberately mislead Congress and the US, many people clearly did believe that Iraq had WMDs and this says something bad about our decision making process that it could get an issue like that so wrong.

Yeah, so our intelligence apparatus/decision making sucks, but it doesn't matter much whether or not there were WMDs: decisions were made based on the information we had, and whether those were good decisions or not is contingent only on the data, we had, not on how it worked out in the end.

General Equilibrium (Negative)
The real problem here isn't that we screwed up but rather that we got caught. This seriously damages the US government's credibility, so the next time we want other countries to fall in line behind us on something, other countries won't trust us without much stronger evidence.

General Equilibrium (Positive)
Wait, that's not bad, that's good. This acts as a restraint on US unilateralism, which has not always been employed in the best way possible.


January 16, 2009

I was pretty surprised to hear about the successful A320 landing in the Hudson. My impression had always been that water landings generally weren't survivable, and the whole "your seat cushion can server as a flotation device" thing was theater, but apparently not:

In all cases where a passenger plane has undergone an intentional water landing or ditching, some or all of the occupants have survived. Examples of water landings in which passengers survived after a planned and intentional water landing after an in-flight emergency are:
And then goes on to list a bunch of them.

A number of these incidents (e.g., knee-deep water) seem like you probably don't need your life jacket, but others seem like some sort of flotation device would be in order. Here's one example:

The aircraft remained relatively intact after the water landing, but sank after the accident in about 5,000 feet of water, and was never recovered. The accident resulted in 23 fatalities and 37 injuries, with three additional uninjured survivors. Both pilots survived. The injured survivors waited for hours in the water to be rescued.

I'm a pretty good swimmer, but I don't think I'd want to jump out of a potentially burning plane and then have to tread water for hours until being picked up by helicopter.

þ James Wimberley pointed out that the Wikipedia page on survival of water landings.


January 15, 2009

OK, so while it's sort of ironic that the guy who will be in charge of the IRS screwed up his taxes, but seriously, Geithner is an economist, not a CPA. Sure they both involve money, but that's about it. Expecting him to understand the intricacies of tax law is kind of like expecting me to be able to build a semiconductor fab. Sure, they're both computer related, but otherwise there's not much of a connection. That's not to say that he did or did not deliberately underpay (I have no knowledge one way or the other), but according to the NYT it's a pretty common mistake and it sounds like his actual accountant signed off:
Mr. Geithner fully paid his state and federal income taxes. In failing to pay his payroll taxes, he in effect kept the money the I.M.F. had contributed toward his liability. However, Mr. Geithner's accountant told him he was exempt from self-employment taxes, according to Obama transition officials.

As Obama officials pointed out, and I.R.S. documents attest, the failure to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes is common among Americans who work for international organizations, including foreign embassies. A 2007 I.R.S. notice reported that up to half of such employees incorrectly file their tax returns.

That said, you'd think that the IRS could manage to design some set of forms that avoid this mistake. Geithner was issued a W-2 which pretty clearly shows that no FICA was withheld (it states "NONE"). How hard would it be to put something in that field that triggered your tax software to suggest you file a Schedule SE? "FILE SE", for instance? Or maybe "PAY UP"


January 13, 2009

This morning my copy of Safari stopped working with Gmail. Apparently I'm not the only one; it appears to be some kind of bug in 10.5.6, though reading the threads doesn't give that clear a picture of what the actual problem is. I see a lot of different explanations and a number of different reported workarounds: some people report Firefox works and some that it doesn't. Odd. Anyway, at least if you see this you know you're not going nuts.

Thanks to Hovav Shacham for pointing me at the relevant threads.


January 12, 2009

After my experience with the Dyson Handchopper, I was interested to check out some of the other 2nd generation hand dryers. This weekend I was in the Irish Bank at SF and noticed that they have Excel Dryer's Xlerator dryer:

I'm glad to report that while no more effective than the Dyson it's about 82% less scary and doesn't seem to have the problem of recontaminating your freshly washed hands as you attempt to dry them—try not to think about the other surfaces in your average San Francisco bar; at least people drying their hands probably made some attempt to wash them, which is more than you can say for the table you're sitting at. [*]


January 4, 2009

Was running at Rancho this afternoon (Lower Meadow, Wildcat, Upper wildcat, Upper High Meady, Rogue Valley; Rancho Runner code: 2DYcEF3UTS6RKLNM3FEcYD2) and right as I was coming up from Wildcat to Upper High Meadow what do I see but a coyote. Unfortunately, I neglected to read the instructional placard about what to do if you see one, but I remembered something about making yourself look big. Anyway, he (actually, I don't know it was a he—I didn't get close enough to check out its crotch) was on the trail in my way so we sort of edged past each other, me on one side of the trail and him on the other until we'd sort of swapped positions. At this point I started slowly backing away and he started to follow me a bit, but I gradually made some distance. Once I thought I was far enough away, I started running but at that point he started running after me. I don't expect to be able to outrun a coyote, so I turned around, raised my hands (trying to look big, remember) and yelled "aaargh" at him. He looked pretty startled and started to walk away, which seemed sort of promising. I backed away and finally after I turned the corner I looked back and he didn't seem to be following so I took off. Sorry, I don't have any pictures. This may be the one run where I regretted not having a camera; that and maybe an AK.

January 3, 2009

One of the truly odd things about the US (and indeed the world) financial system is the degree to which we seem willing to leave the state of the economy in the hands of a bunch of unelected technocrats (i.e., the other decisions that way: even scientifically oriented organizations like EPA, FDA, or DOE are often non-scientists, and even when they are scientists, they're subject to political control, unlike the Fed Governors, who are appointed for 14 year terms and in practice don't get fired (though they can be removed for cause.) Can you imagine appointing 7 scientists to serve as the "carbon emissions board" with power to decide on the price of carbon emissions (which seems fairly analogous to the Fed's power over interest rates)? Even our process for deciding how much lead and mercury get emitted into the atmosphere (and I think we can all agree that they're not good for you) isn't anywhere near that independent. I don't have an answer to this; I just find it puzzling.