Misc: July 2009 Archives


July 27, 2009

LaTeX is great at generating math symbols, but it gets hard to remember whatever bizarre character code the LaTeX guys thought was appropriate. Luckily Joe Hall recently pointed me to Detexify a tool that lets you draw the symbol you want and then tries to guess what the character is and then gives you the appropriate codes. It generally gives you a bunch of options and often some of them are pretty comically wrong, but so far it's always given me the right one as well, so that's good.

July 26, 2009

The NYT's somewhat overwrought article about the putative future of AI includes the following egem:
Despite his concerns, Dr. Horvitz said he was hopeful that artificial intelligence research would benefit humans, and perhaps even compensate for human failings. He recently demonstrated a voice-based system that he designed to ask patients about their symptoms and to respond with empathy. When a mother said her child was having diarrhea, the face on the screen said, "Oh no, sorry to hear that."

A physician told him afterward that it was wonderful that the system responded to human emotion. "That's a great idea," Dr. Horvitz said he was told. "I have no time for that."

Maybe I'm just too close to the problem, but I pretty regularly get apologizies from pieces of machinery and I don't find them satisfying at all. For instance, nearly every phone tree in the universe apologizes for you having to wait, and United's IVR apologies for not understanding you. Maybe the first time you get this it's a surprise, but it doesn't take long to realize it's the same insincere recorded voice and then it's just "Must. Control. Fist. Of. Death." Also, anger doesn't help the IVR understand you.


July 25, 2009

The Times reports that German theater security is using night vision goggles in an attempt to detect people pirating the new Harry Potter movie:
Keep your hands where we can see them! Warner Bros. Pictures is resorting to drastic measures to prevent unauthorized video recordings of its newest Harry Potter epic. Security guards in Germany have been using night vision goggles in theaters running Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to find camcorders that might be otherwise hard to spot once the theater lights are off.


Warner has since officially acknowledged the use of the surveillance gear. The company said that it was restricted to 10 theaters that have been known to be visited by pirates armed with camcorders before. Security guards don't take any video recordings of the audience, and theaters clearly warn customers about the measures, it told the German press. A theater owner told reporters that Warner threatened to stop the distribution of any future titles to her theater if she hadn't agreed to the measure, according to a report by Die Welt.

Seems like being a theater employee in Germany is a lot cooler than it was when I was a kid. As far as privacy goes, I seem to remember that movie theaters are not infrequently used as make out venues. That might make things a bit more interesting...

P.S. This seems like totally reasonable law enforcement practice.


July 20, 2009

The NYT reports that 94% of Americans are gullible enough to believe that NASA really landed on the moon.

In an interview, Mr. Sibrel said that his efforts to prove that men never walked on the Moon has cost him dearly. "I have suffered only persecution and financial loss," he said. "I've lost visitation with my son. I've been expelled from churches. All because I believe the Moon landings are fraudulent."

Ted Goertzel, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University who has studied conspiracy theorists, said "there's a similar kind of logic behind all of these groups, I think." For the most part, he explained, "They don't undertake to prove that their view is true" so much as to "find flaws in what the other side is saying." And so, he said, argument is a matter of accumulation instead of persuasion. "They feel if they've got more facts than the other side, that proves they're right."

Mark Fenster, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law who has written extensively on conspiracy theories, said he sees similarities between people who argue that the Moon landings never happened and those who insist that the 9/11 attacks were planned by the government and that President Obama's birth certificate is fake: at the core, he said, is a polarization so profound that people end up with an unshakable belief that those in power "simply can't be trusted."

What I find more interesting than the elaborate explanations that people come up with here is the intensity of their belief. This is especially true with the moon landing, since basically nothing rides on the question of whether it happened or not. I mean, say you had definitive proof that the moon landing was faked, what then? You'd basically succeed in embarassing a lot of people who are mostly either very old (Armstrong is 78) or very dead. On the other hand, if Obama was really not a US Citizen, you might be able to change who was president, and if 9/11 was really a government conspiracy that would presumably have a fairly significant political impact.

So, the bottom line here is that you believe that you have a an obvious line on the truth and more or less everyone else is delusional. Equally obviously, everyone else thinks you're crazy and they don't want to hear about it. But of course the same personality type that lets you believe everyone else is crazy appears to preclude you just feeling quietly superior.


July 19, 2009

Unsurprisingly, defenses of Amazon's behavior in the Kindle affair have started to emerge. I ran into this argument from Peter Glaskowsky today (original source: Hovav Shacham):
The listing for the illegal copy of "1984" is still present on Amazon, though it can no longer be purchased. The page for "Animal Farm" from the same publisher still appears in Google's listings, but is no longer available on Amazon--though another pirated copy is still listed but not purchasable. (I'm not sure these are exactly the same copies at issue in this case, but at least that copy of "1984" was yanked in the same way, according to an Amazon customer discussion.)

Note the caveat placed on the 1984 page by the publisher:

"This work is in the public domain in Canada, Australia, and other countries. It may still be copyrighted in some countries. The user should determine whether the work is in the public domain in their own country before using it."

But of course, verifying the copyright status of a book isn't just the user's responsibility. It's the publisher's, too, and Amazon's.

When Amazon discovered these unauthorized sales, it did the right thing: it reversed them.

The police would do the same thing if they discovered a stolen car in your driveway: just take it away. You never owned it.

First, this argument elides the difference between actual theft and copyright infringement. You'd hardly think this would need to be pointed out, but if I steal your car, that pretty much precludes your driving it. If I violate copyright on a book you wrote, at most I've deprived you of whatever revenue you would have made had I bought it instead. That's a pretty significant difference.

Even if we ignore that, this is a pretty tendentious analogy: Amazon is not the police. Say that the original vendor had stolen a box of copies of 1984 and was selling them on Amazon marketplace. If I bought one and then Amazon later determined that they were stolen, it's not like they would be allowed to break into my house and repossess it, even if they gave me my money back. The original owner might be able to call the police and arrange for return of the property, but that's a pretty different story.

And of course, this isn't a case of theft, but rather (alleged) copyright infringement. I don't even know what the case law is in terms of the original rights holder repossessing material where the person in possession of material acted in good faith, but it's not clear to me it's that straightforward a proposition.


July 17, 2009

First reports on today's bombings in Indonesia are that they were suicide bombings. But here's the confusing part:
At around 7:47 am local time (0:47 UTC) on 17 July 2009,[4] the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton Hotels in Jakarta, Indonesia, were hit by separate bombings five minutes apart.[1][5] Nine fatalities, including four foreigners were reported. Among the foreigners were one person from Australia and one from New Zealand.[1][6] More than 50 others were injured in the blasts.[2][6][7] Both blasts appear to have been the work of suicide bombers, who may have smuggled the bombs into the hotels by checking in as paying guests several days earlier.[8]

Maybe I'm missing something, but if you've managed to smuggle yourself into the hotel and assemble your bomb, why bother to make it a suicide bombing? Just assemble it, put it on a timer, and then head out for a drink. Wouldn't that be a lot more convenient? When I was in Bali a few years ago, it didn't seem like the hotel bothered to search your room other than whatever searching they do incidental to doing housekeeping, and it's not like you need to get very far, so you don't need a lot of lead time.

There's obviously some strategic benefit to being willing to do a suicide bombing, since it requires somewhat less sophistication (no remote detonators or timers or whatever) and it's harder to stop someone who is willing to die. But that doesn't mean that you have to actually die in the attempt if it's not absolutely necessary. Perhaps there's some signaling benefit in the occasional suicide bombing even if it's not strictly necessary just to preserve a level of strategic uncertainty, but that seems like a pretty high price to pay.


July 16, 2009

Jennifer Granick writes about EFF's concerns over the use of GPS measurements for insurance pricing. (EFF's comments are here.) The background here is that your risk of an accident is correlated to the amount you drive which is why your insurance company asks how many miles you drive a year and occasionally asks what your odometer reading is. The proposed new regulations include a "price by mile" option, in which insurance rates would be much more tightly coupled to your driving than the current low/high mileage setup. They also include a provision to allow "verified actual mileage" via "technological devices provided by the insurer or otherwise made available to the insured that accurately collect vehicle mileage information." EFF's concern is that these devices may collect a lot more than mileage (e.g., where you drive, how you drive) and that that could be used by insurance companies to make policy decisions.

As EFF observes, cars are already fitted with a device for accurately measures how far you've driven, the odometer. It's worth asking what advantages a new device offers. There are a number of possibilities:

  • Remote read/Timeliness— The insurance company only gets your odometer reading very infrequently (yearly or so). One could imagine adding a new device which would regularly report back to the insurance company (e.g., via the cell network) so they would know how much you had driven each month.
  • Unforgeability— There's nothing really stopping you from lying about your odometer reading. The proposal includes a clause about having a verifiably data photograph of your odometer, but it's not like that wouldn't be easy to photoshop. In principle, one could imagine an external device using cryptography to verify its results. Of course, that device would then need to be attached to your car in a way that prevented it from being removed and left at home while you drove to Vegas.
  • Accuracy— Odometers aren't really that accurate since they just count wheel revolutions. Tire size, inflation, etc. can produce errors. Also, they're often not that well calibrated to start with. That said, however, GPS mileage readings aren't really that accurate either, especially if there's a lot of interference in "urban canyon" type environments. My GPS routinely misreads by a factor of 5-10% on backpacking trips, which is about what I remember hearing for odometers.
  • Richer data collection—A GPS device offers the possibility of collecting a lot more data, including where and how you drive. Obviously this might be useful for actuarial purposes.

From a technical perspective, then, the major advantage of a new device is precisely the one that offers the most privacy threat. In particular, one could imagine adding remote read and unforgeability to an odometer-based device, without any GPS at all. If the insurance companies insist they need to add their own device, it's certainly reasonable to ask exactly what data they are collecting.


July 15, 2009

This Slate article reports on the publishing industry's attempt to jack up e-book prices on Amazon. Executive summary: Amazon charges a more-or-less fixed $9.99 for Kindle books regardless of the selling price (books which go for less than $9.99 get discounted more). The publishers want more pricing flexibility. Jack Shafer argues that the publishers are likely to price themselves out of the legitimate market and create a black market for bootleg e-books:

Right now, the electronic-book market finds itself roughly in the same place the market for MP3s was in 1999, the year after the release of the first portable MP3 player. First adopters of e-books, who are filling their devices with content and proselytizing to their friends, have it better than the early MP3 users. The iTunes store, which was established in early 2003, was among the first online sites where music fans could easily buy music files, a la carte, from a huge selection. The other commercial sites, wrote the New York Times, were "complex, expensive and limiting" and "failing because they were created to serve the interests of the record companies, not their customers." Basically, before iTunes arrived, if you wanted portable tracks, you had to rip your own, borrow collections from friends, or grab "free" tunes from the "pirates" at Napster or other file-sharing sites.

It doesn't make me a defender of illegal file-sharing to say that the music industry goofed by waiting until 2003 to agree to sell individual tracks for the reasonable price of 99 cents. Its absence from the electronic-music market in those early years allowed illegal file-sharing to take root and spread, and it helped shape the perception, especially among younger consumers, that music "should" be free.


No title is safe from file-sharing. As the Instructables Web site detailed a couple of months ago, a do-it-yourself, high-speed book scanner can be made for about $300. The file for a hefty book like Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is about the size of a five-minute MP3 and can be downloaded in a couple of minutes. Does the book industry want to join the digital flow, the way the TV industry has with Hulu and TV.com? Or by its obstruction does it intend to encourage the establishment of a Bookster?

I'm not a huge fan of Amazon's pricing strategy; you get a pretty big discount (~60%) on hardcover books, but the discount on paperbacks is pretty marginal (~20%). E-books certainly are nice in some respects, but given that they're not infinitely portable between devices and that Amazon has restrictions on the number of devices you can download to, I think there's an at least an argument that e-books are less valuable than paper books. Of course, I don't download MP3s either, so maybe I'm not the target audience here, but it seems to me that people aren't going to be excited to pay $19.99 for an electronic version of the next Dan Brown book.

However, I'm not sure I find Shafer's argument about the imminent Napsterization of the publishing industry that convincing. First, it's a lot less convenient to rip books than it is CDs. Pretty much every computer comes with a CD reader, which more or less makes it a convenient ripping platform. If you want to scan books, you're going to need to lay your hands on a book scanner. Even if we stipulate that you're going to build a $300 scanner for yourself (and it doesn't look incredibly simple), that's pretty different from having it bundled with your PC. In addition, this kind of scan is a pretty inferior alternative to a professionally produced e-book: you get scanning/OCR artifacts, page layout issues, etc., which need to be corrected semi-manually. By contrast, a ripped CD is effectively a perfect copy (it's the popular compression schemes which are lossy), and if you want you can make a more or less identical copy of the CD any time you want.

More importantly, a redistributable copy of your music is a natural side effect of something you probably want anyway: your music on your computer or iPod. Most people listen to a lot of their collection semi-regularly and having your music all in one compact form is so much more convenient that I suspect that people who have CDs would be happy to copy everything onto their computer/iPod. The consequence is that as soon as you turn on sharing, it's natural to share all your stuff. But people read books differently than they listen to music; even if you're a very active reader you probably are only working on a few books at a time, so the value of having all your books ripped is a lot lower, which means that there's less raw material for broad scale sharing of people's naturally acquired collections, as opposed to people who deliberately set out to develop a large corpus for the purpose of sharing it.

That said, I do actually want to have an electronic copy of a single book which isn't available from Amazon. If anyone out there has a book scanner they'd let me use, it wouldn't be unappreciated.


July 6, 2009

I know it's a mistake to try to make sense of Sarah Palin's registration speech, but even amidst the general incoherency, the following struck me:
And so as I thought about this announcement that I wouldn't run for re-election and what it means for Alaska, I thought about how much fun some governors have as lame ducks... travel around the state, to the Lower 48 (maybe), overseas on international trade - as so many politicians do. And then I thought - that's what's wrong - many just accept that lame duck status, hit the road, draw the paycheck, and "milk it". I'm not putting Alaska through that - I promised efficiencies and effectiveness! That's not how I am wired. I am not wired to operate under the same old "politics as usual." I promised that four years ago - and I meant it.


Maybe I'm missing something, but as far as I can tell the reason that a politician who is a short-timer has trouble being effective isn't because they don't have to run again—that's mostly empowering because you don't need to worry about consequences—but because they aren't going to be around long enough to reward or punish you. But Palin's term has two more years to run, not two months. That's plenty of time for others to have to worry about doing what you want. And of course Palin is (or at least before this was) likely to remain politically powerful even after leaving office, so this seems like less of a concern for her than the average politician.


July 2, 2009

You may have heard that California has started paying some of its bills by issuing IOUs, which are sort of weak-looking bonds which pay 3.75% annual interest:
A registered warrant is a "promise to pay," or an IOU, that is issued by the State when there are not enough funds to pay all of its General Fund obligations. Registered warrants bear interest and are redeemable by the State Treasury only when the General Fund has sufficient money. If the Legislature and Governor fail to enact budgetary solutions that provide enough cash for the State to pay all of its bills by July 2, the Controller will begin issuing registered warrants. Assuming there is adequate cash in the Treasury, those warrants may be redeemed on October 2, 2009. Both the issue and the maturity date will be printed on the warrant. If the Pooled Money Investment Board (PMIB) determines there is sufficient cash available for redemption at an earlier date, the warrants may be redeemed earlier than October 2, 2009.

Now, ordinarily, if you had an instrument like this (say, a t-bill), it would be at least semi-negotiable and you'd have a chance at selling it to someone else; and since the state will be paying over face value you'd have some shot at not taking too big a hit. Unfortunately, as California looks like it's well on its way to involvency, with a bond rating of A, and potentially going down to B, [*], I suspect you'd need to accept a real discount, even if there were a secondary market for these instruments, which, as far as I'm aware, there isn't. And of course there's no fixed maturity date: California can pay them off early or late, depending on the state of its finances, so that makes them harder to price.

The good news is that if you have an account at BofA or Wells Fargo, they will cash these IOUs for you. Even then, it appears that you may be subject to fees if California fails to pay up. [*]. On the other hand, if you don't have such an account you're pretty much SOL. Of course, California might regard this as a virtue: if people have to hold these IOUs for months at a time, a certain percentage of them will get lost, which means California gets to keep the money a while longer, if not indefinitely.


July 1, 2009

I noticed the other day that if I'm driving my car on the freeway and close the sunroof my ears pop. After a bit of thinking, I concluded that what was going on was the Bernoulli effect: the air flowing over the sunroof lowers the pressure of the interior of the car. Then when you close it you get a sudden pressure change back to ambient pressure.

Initial experiments confirm this: my Polar 625SX has a built-in barometric altimeter. I repeatedly opened and closed the sunroof and watched the altimeter and readings seemed to consistently differ by about 75 feet. Obviously, there's some uncertainty here because the road isn't totally flat; if you wanted to be really sure you'd go over the same sections of the road again and again with the sunroof open and closed and measure the difference. Still, since I'm not exactly publishing this in Nature, it seems good enough for now.