Sunday, May 30, 2004

Marginal revolution article on sex, income, and happiness

Marginal Revolution: Economists and sex

I don't know why they used the title they did; the article doesn't say anything about the plight or lack thereof of economists. As MR's Tyler Cowen points out, there are many interesting statements in even the excerpt of the paper that MR posted. My favorites?

"Greater income does not buy more sex, nor more sexual partners."

"Sexual activity appears to have greater effects on the happiness of highly educated people than those with low levels of education."

"The happiness-maximizing number of sexual partners in the previous year is calculated to be 1."

Anyway, I thought it was yet another neat MR post.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

The greatest photo of a politician ever

The article includes a photo with Kerry and McCain sitting next to each other, and McCain for some reason looks like he's comatose. Before I saw this picture I was a McCain fan; now I'm an extreme McCain fan.

CBS News: Poll: McCain/Kerry Ticket A Winner

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Senator Hatch's PIRATE bill

According to the article here, it may be up for vote next week. There are so many things wrong with this bill. As I understand it, the bill empowers the Justice Department to instigate civil lawsuits against suspected copyright violators. This is more effective than lawsuits brought by the copyright holders (the recording companies) because the Justice Department can get wiretaps on Internet users far more easily than private companies.

There are two things worth noting in the p2pnet article. First, the bill is compared to another Orrin Hatch special, the PROTECT Act, which is designed to allow easier wiretapping for internet (and other) communications for suspects of child crimes (kidnapping, sex offenses, etc.). The bills seem similar, from the admittedly little information I have. It appears that some people feel we need to give the government the same power to locate copyright violators as it has to chase child sex offenders.

The second item is the quote from Hatch which implies that causing damage to a copyright violator's computer may be an appropriate response. He says it "may be the only way you can teach somebody about copyrights." That's just offensive. Somebody needs to think of an appropriate way to teach Hatch the principles of the American judicial system.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Linux and code authorship

There seems to be a lot of buzz today about Linux and the question of who contributed what to it (and did he or she contribute the code legally). It's all emphasized by the ongoing SCO case, of course. A Slashdot post quotes the USENIX association president as saying (correctly) that Linux lacks a "well-documented ownership trail". To correct this, there appears to be a movement to require code contributors to certify that their contribution is legal. The Developer's Certificate of Origin (the DCO) says, in a nutshell, that all the code was either written by the contributor, covered by an open source license, or otherwise certified under the DCO by someone else (and has not been modified since then). See eWeek: Torvalds Changes How Code Can Be Contributed to Linux for more details.

This doesn't surprise me in the least. It really seems mandatory for an operating system that is used legally in the United States. I wonder, though, if it will be enough. There's three things I worry about, all from completely different perspectives.

First, the certification that the contributed work is open source includes the phrase "to the best of my knowledge", which always disturbs me. I suppose that the DCO shouldn't overly restrict code contributors, but still, this is a quagmire of an inclusion.

Second, will it really absolve any company dealing with Linux from responsibility? Let's look here at an invalid certification - someone contributes code and certifies it when it's actually someone else's intellectual property and cannot be used. What happens when this is discovered? Perhaps we can identify that person's contributions and exclude them from future versions of Linux under the concern that they are also possibly illegal. But what about all the companies using the versions of the OS that contain the illegal code? It seems like they could still be liable.

Third, will any of the contributors care? What happens to someone who falsely certifies code? What reason does anyone with code to contribute have to ensure that everything in it is legit? If you're an American, I guess you need to be worried about legal reprisal against you individually. Maybe.

I dunno, maybe I'm being overly critical. It's definitely a step in the right direction, but I don't know if it is enough.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Quote For The Day

From (an outdoorsmen discussion site) courtesy of Instapundit:
"I think gay marriage is kind of like rhinoceroses mating. It don't affect me much and it ain't something I necessarily want to watch but I'll defend their rights to do so."

Brands and behavior

You know, I was thinking yesterday that the shift from mom-and-pop places to large multinational branded operations is a really good thing in some ways. Yes, these places commit many moral atrocities, but from a consumer perspective, you can be pretty sure that you get the product or service as advertised and that you won't be cheated, because if you are cheated, you have a massive target to aim for. A couple of lawsuits from dissatisfied customers and a large corporation can lose millions even if the suits are thrown out (stock price drops, customers shopping elsewhere, loss of interest in business partnerships, etc.). So these places really, really try to make you happy.

But there are other behavior patterns that large branded enterprises fall into that are not so desirable. Witness this morning's Slashdot article, Paypal Deals Blow To Freenet. Paypal is no longer allowing people to contribute to the Freenet project through their system. While they don't really give a good reason, I wouldn't be surprised if the association of the Freenet project with peer-to-peer file sharing and other activities of questionable legality made the Paypal people nervous of being accused of helping the process along. This extreme CYA attitude seems to be the norm rather than the exception. It certainly makes sense, but it somehow seems wrong.

Constitutional right to... advertise?

USAToday - Advertising company sues Utah over new anti-spyware law

I'm torn on this article. The lawsuit, Utah's 'Spyware Control Act', restricts products such as WhenU's advertising software that run in the background to monitor your Internet activity and then send that information to a remote destination. I don't like the idea of software monitoring my keystrokes or my internet activity or any of my actions. The law also prohibits pop-up ads, with $10,000 fines per violation.

This really is too restrictive. If you read to the end of the article you notice that four of the biggest Internet companies have also objected to the law: AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google. This law could have significant ramifications for much more legitimate programs. I'm not so sure that pop-up ads are ever acceptable, but still, do we need to make them illegal and charge $10k per ad? That's ridiculous. Web browsers already can disable them.

But the challenge appears to be that the law "violates WhenU's constitutionally protected right to advertise". Umm, yeah. They also say that WhenU's software "is installed only with permission and doesn't invade privacy". Good luck arguing that.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Eating cicadas may be hazardous to your health

Newsday: Man Becomes Ill After Gorging on Cicadas

I think the worst part of this story is the mention of U Maryland's Cicada-licious cookbook. Really. Here it is:

Friday, May 14, 2004


I told Blogger to allow comments, but it appears to not be retroactive. Oh, well. Hopefully you'll be able to comment on future articles. Feel free to comment on this thread to reply to previous posts.

Update: Comments work for everything, including this, but you have to click on the little '#' icon to view the post by itself, and then there's a comment link. That annoys me. I'll have to fix that somehow.

The right way to consume your caffeine

An interesting article from FuturePundit (c/o Marginal Revolution):

Scientists Demonstrate Best Way To Use Caffeine

I've heard this before, but this has a little depth to it, even though I think their article is lacking in many ways. The article mentions two different systems that induce feelings of sleepiness, the circadian system driven by rhythms (you get sleepy at your usual bedtime) and the homeostatic system driven by progression (you get sleepier the longer you've been awake). They say that caffeine is thought to work because it suppresses the functionality of the latter system; they don't say anything about the former. Their experiment involved using an extended day (28 hours awake in a 42 hour period), which they say "disrupts" the circadian rhythm as well as increasing the homeostatic (progressive) sleepiness. Frequent low doses of caffeine demonstrate a marked improvement versus placebos.

Their experiment does nothing to separate caffeine's effects on the two systems, since you could suppose that the sleepiness was caused not just by being awake extra long but also by being awake during the body's natural sleep time. It's really hard to imagine separating homeostatic sleepiness from circadian, because any time you're staying awake longer than usual you're also staying awake through your normal sleeping time. One could, however, isolate circadian sleepiness from homeostatic sleepiness - take a nap. The experiment could involve people taking naps during the afternoon and then staying awake late into the night. Testing the effects of caffeine consumption in this state would actually mean something; if caffeine helped, then it clearly affects at least circadian sleepiness. If not, then it only affects homeostatic (since we know it affects something).

Furthermore, the experiment does not in any way address the common caffeine consumption method, large morning doses. Yes, if you can somehow show that caffeine primarily helps homeostatic sleepiness, then it could make sense to consume more caffeine later. But how long does the caffeine take to wear off? Perhaps it's still effective later, or somehow keeps the progressive sleepiness from progressing (i.e. while the caffeine is in your system your homeostatic sleepiness register stays at a constant). I need some sort of cognitive functioning comparison in an ordinary setting (so that people aren't worn out by circadian disruptions) between two groups, the heavy-caffeine-in-the-morning group and the low-caffeine-throughout-the-day group.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

PFTD: Philosophy For The Day

Philosophy's first question

This is a book review by Thomas Nagel of Bebe Rundle's new book Why there is something rather than nothing. If you weren't sold on the title like I was, you should read the review. I'll address the topic below with some paraphrasing from the article, which is far more eloquent than me.

The issue that the book discusses is the ultimate philosophical question, the why of everything. Why does the world exist? Science can give us a certain path to trace down to some basic physics, but it stops there, and the metaphysician is never satisfied with that. A part of me is somewhat more content with thinking that the Big Bang followed a Big Crunch and that this massive universe-creation-and-destruction process has gone on for all time and will go on for all time. At least it's somehow closed that way. But "it" is, all the same, and we wonder why "it" is.

Religion steps in, to propose something outside this universe that created it all. I personally have never really bought this. The book argues against this solution in its own way, but here's mine: Suppose there's a God who created the entire universe. Then why does God exist? We're supposed to just push this aside and accept the existence of God as something we cannot understand at all, because it's beyond our realm of comprehension. But, honestly, if we can accept the existence of God without question or understanding, we should be able to accept the existence of the universe without question or understanding as well. It's just our religious conditioning (for those of us raised as strong Christians) to be able to accept God's existence but to question the existence of the universe as a stand-alone. But we can grow beyond this training, and realize that the answer to why "it" is is simply "it is".

Anyway, if you like thinking about these things, read the review too.

Follow-up on DMCA panel

Just a few links gathered from this morning's blog readings about yesterday's Congressional panel on the DMCA.

Lessig article on Wired (is it supposed to represent his testimony? I hope not):

Lessig's article is the same sort of empty rhetoric he always spews. I don't disagree with his positions, but far too many of the things he writes can be summarized as simply 'protectionism is bad' and 'freedom is good' without any specific support or any serious discussion of the other side.

eWeek's article on the panel:,1759,1591579,00.asp

Excerpts: 'The head of the Motion Picture Association of America, Jack Valenti, showed lawmakers a copy of the DVD mystery "Runaway Jury" he said was purchased on the black market in downtown Washington and produced using 321's disputed software.', and 'The chief executive for 321 Studios, Robert Moore, said his company expected to generate $100 million in sales until February's court decision banned its software. He said his company is now "on the brink of annihilation."' You know what? MPAA wins that round any time.

The interesting part of the eWeek article is Allan Swift, a DC lobbyist who routinely extracts a song from his CDs to give to friends, convinced it's allowed in fair use. But Mary Bono jumped up and down on him over that.

Some more information is on beSpacific:

Update: CNET's coverage says that the "consumer protection subcommittee" that convened has no jurisdiction over copyright law. Furthermore, there's no comparable bill to the DMCRA in the Senate. So not all good news, but it's a step, at least. Also, Rep. Joe Barton has committed to supporting the bill.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

TFTD: Thought For The Day

I had an unusually productive day today. It was nice. I was able to concentrate on my work better than usual. I even put in a big chunk of time on my blog (to assemble the playfair post, which was quite an educational process for me). I suppose there are a lot of possible reasons why I am productive some days and unproductive others. But there is one difference today that may have a connection. I slept a little less than usual last night, because I woke up earlier than usual this morning. I've noticed in the past that this often precedes a productive day.

It's possible that the subconscious mental state that leads to the heightened productivity is also the cause of the reduced sleep/earlier awakening. But it's not impossible, I think, that it's the other way around, that I actually derive benefit from this. It's even rationalizable (not sure that's actually a word), though as with all my rationalizations it's a bit of a stretch. I'm a somewhat nervous (maybe edgy or jumpy or intense are better words) person by nature, and I think that this temperament functions as a powerful distractor, keeping me from wanting to focus on one thing for long. The reduced sleep could serve as a sort of sedative, preventing me from having the energy to be restless. I'm sure this is pure bogus, and even if it were real, regular exercise should have the same effect. But it's fun to think about.

Antitrust lawyers make serious $$

Holy cow. eWeek reports that the lawyers who persuaded Microsoft to settle a price-fixing antitrust case are asking for a total of $258 million in fees. The breakdown? "It amounts to about $3,000 per hour for one lawyer, more than $2,000 an hour each for 34 other attorneys and $1,000 an hour for administrative work." I expect the amounts will be reduced by the judge or whoever makes the final decision, but, wow. Words fail me.

eWeek: Lawyers Seek $258M for Suing Microsoft

Topic Digest: Playfair

I'm trying something new today. I'm collecting digests of and links to recent articles on a single topic. Today's topic is Playfair, the program that strips the DRM from Apple AAC music files (mostly known as the file format used in iTunes, Apple's online music store, and iPods, the Apple portable music player).

1. In January Jon Johansen (of deCSS fame) reverse engineered the AAC format and released a program to produce the raw audio stream from a DRM-encoded AAC; this stream can be modified easily to produce an MP4 audio file (which is fully DRM-free and playable on a wide variety of applications and devices). See the Register for more details.

2. On April 5th the playfair program was released; see Mac Rumors, among others. The Register implies that playfair is based on Johansen's program, though Gizmodo reports it as based on a Windows program known as 'm4p2mp4'. It's possible these are the same. Playfair requires the user to have the ability to legally play the file before decoding, but once it's decoded it can be played by other nonauthorized computers and devices.

3. Playfair was originally hosted on Sourceforge, but an Apple cease and desist (based on the DMCA) caused it to be pulled (see Mac Rumors). It quickly reappeared on Sarovar (see the Register), though it was quickly removed.

4. Apple releases an updated version of iTunes in late April, version 4.5. See coverage here from Slashdot. Fairplay v2 is included which breaks the original version of playfair.

5. Rumors of Playfair's resurgence appear in early May; see

6. On May 11th, Playfair is recreated as hymn, which is supposed to represent "hear your music anywhere". The official web site is FSF India has offered legal support for the project. MacCentral is reporting that the site is being hosted on US-based providers, which will probably have to change. One nice feature of hymn is that the Mac OS X version has a drag-and-drop interface.

The story will not end here. Apple will respond, but I don't know what they can do except keep updating Fairplay (and I expect hymn will keep updating in return). I personally think they should have kept using the name Playfair for ironic effect.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

DMCA panel in the House of Representatives

CNET: Congressional panel to weigh digital copyright

CNET reports that the House will hold a panel on Wednesday specifically to critique the DMCA (thanks to Gigalaw). This is terrific news; I doubt much will come of it, but it's a step in the right direction.

Update: Lessig will be testifying. His blog entry:

Lawrence Lessig

Airplane contrails causing global warming?

Wired News: Climate Change Out of the Blue

I have never heard this before. The article suggests that the trails left by airplanes are increasing the cirrus cloud cover which then causes additional heat to be trapped. It references a NASA study. Interesting.

On a related note, I must go see 'The Day After Tomorrow' on May 28th or whenever it opens. I love world-destruction-themed movies with expansive visuals (think Independence Day, Armageddon, AI). Wonder what that says about me.

Google and Semantic Categorization

Wired News: Dropping the Bomb on Google

This article from Wired discusses an ongoing controversy caused by Google's listing an anti-Semitic web site as the first response when searching for the term 'jew'. There are logical reasons for this when examined neutrally - there are probably a large number of anti-Semitic people in the world and they are probably active on the Internet because (as a medium largely devoid of censorship and restriction) it lends itself well for that purpose. Also, as the article points out (quoting the anti-Semitic site, I believe), actual Jewish people are unlikely to search on the term 'jew', probably using 'jews' or 'jewish' (or 'judaism') instead. It's a little thin, but it's at least possible.

There are solutions to this, but whether they're technologically feasible is a different matter. The ultimate solution is to categorize and display results to searches in some clustered fashion. I am envisioning a star-shaped graph with the search term in the center surrounded by circles of varying sizes which contain the title and an excerpt from the highest ranked page within each category, where larger circles correspond to higher ranked categories collectively for the term, and the largest two or three circles may contain multiple site titles and excerpts. Clicking on a title would lead to a single page, clicking elsewhere within the circle would focus the displayed results to that category (with subcategories within this). It might even be possible to find the most common phrase in sites within the category which is not present in sites in other categories and thus derive an automatic 'title' for the category.

But this all assumes that we can categorize similar results. I'm not sure how far along that technology is.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Are you a Mother's Day cheapskate?

I know I am. According to Marginal Revolution (and the Washington Times through them), the average consumer spends $98 on Mother's Day. Ouch.

Website of the day

Watching Google Like A Hawk

This is an intense aggregation of Google news articles, and also contains an enormous collection of links to Google-related web sites. Never could I have imagined so much Google goodness in one place.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Yay for the EU

LawMeme: EU Calls Music Industry Groups a Cartel

There are a lot of wrongs being committed by the music industry, and this is just another example. There's an agreement that reduces international competition among companies that sell music over the Internet, and the agreement is antithetical to the open EU market. The timing seems odd; the agreement was established in 2001.

I mostly like this article because of the name-calling. There's nothing more entertaining than official name-calling.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

RedHat Linux is "opening a new chapter in its 10-year history"

The quoted words open the following CNET News article:

Bull. They're selling annual desktop licenses for $70 a piece and combining them with a server for remote management. Another quote: this is RedHat's "first version of the open-source operating system for desktop computers". Then what the hell have they been producing since they were created? What have the Gnome and KDE folks been working on these past years? Granted, they haven't done a terribly good job of it. And maybe they haven't released desktop OS's under annual subscription fees, or released a product specifically called 'Red Hat Desktop'. But, come on.

I wish my Slashdot RSS feed was working. Then I would have read this first and been much happier.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Four bills going to the Senate floor

Four new bills were approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. CNET has the article:

It's a very short article. The significant excerpt: "The measures would criminalize using camcorders in movie theaters; increase fees for patent applications; clarify existing law dealing with joint applications for patents; and permit the Justice Department to bring civil lawsuits against copyright pirates."

My take: I don't know anything about existing law for joint patent applications, so I won't speak to that. Increasing patent fees seems unnecessary, since they're already ricidulously high. If the Patent Office isn't getting enough money and isn't doing a good job (clearly the latter is true, at least with respect to technology), then I think we have bigger problems.

Criminalizing camcorders in movie theaters seems inappropriate. Obviously it's already against civil law (since it's an egregious intellectual property violation); is it really appropriate to put people in jail? I'm not sure I care for the precedent. As for the Justice department instigating copyright lawsuits, that's just wrong. That's the job of the copyright holder, not the Justice department. Don't they have terrorists to catch or real work to do?

Anyway, these just cleared committee. Maybe they won't get passed.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Why viruses that say they're from you aren't

ZDNet: Why I'm not sending you viruses

Robert Vamosi at ZDNet has written a very accessible article about spoofed return addresses in viruses. Every tech person has had a family member complain to them about an email that says 'You sent me a virus, so you must be infected'. This occurs when viruses use a false return address, an easy programming trick; heck, the command-line mailer in Linux lets you do it, or at least used to.

About this blog

Just a brief introductory note to describe this, my latest attempt to seriously enter and commit to the world of blogging. I'm going to make this a more general blog than my previous attempts, in the hope that I am encouraged to update more frequently. This will mostly be pointers to and comments on interesting articles I read from other people's blogs, an opportunity to pontificate when I feel the urge. Most of my reading is news, politics, law, and technology, and the Red Sox during baseball season; expect most of my posts to be on these subjects, though I will likely throw in the occasional life note or philosophical question.

About the blog name: It's a take-off on the song "Dangling Conversation" by Simon & Garfunkel from the album "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme". I have every Simon & Garfunkel album. They were my first music love, and though my tastes have moved on since, I can still sing along to every song.

Update: I also like the resemblance "suspended conversation" bears to "suspended animation", which is a colorful metaphor that I feel aptly describes my life.