Soapbox

Reciprocity

There are streets in Paris commemorating Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

There are no corresponding streets in Washington D.C., for all that it was designed by a French urbanist, apart from Lafayette Square (it really should be de la Fayette Square). Rochambeau is ignored. Not remembered at all is the man who did the most for the American revolution, and arguably paid for it with his life, Louis XVI.

Why do voters put up with bad politicians?

As a foreigner living in San Francisco for the last ten years, I never cease to be baffled by US voters’ tendency to vote for candidates who are clearly class warriors on the side of the rich and other influential special interests. Political scientists have long wondered why people vote against their own best interests, e.g. Americans voting for candidates beholden to health “care” provider lobbies and who hew to the status quo, saddling the US with grotesquely overpriced yet substandard health care. Another example would be the repulsive coddling of an increasingly brazen Wall Street kleptocracy.

Ideology cannot explain it all. Certainly, some people will put principle ahead of their pocketbook and vote for candidates that uphold their idea of moral values even if they simultaneously vote for economic measures that hurt their electorate. That said, there is nothing preventing a political candidate from adopting simultaneously socially conservative positions and economic policies that favor a safety net, what in Europe would be called Christian Democrats.

Media propaganda and brainwashing cannot explain it either, to believe so, as do conspiracy theorists on both right and left of the US political spectrum, is to seriously underestimate the intelligence (and cynicism) of the electorate. In a mostly democratic country like the United States, special interests can only prevail when the general population is apathetic, or at least consents to the status quo.

I believe the answer lies in loss aversion, the mental bias that causes people to fear a loss far more than they desire a gain. Our brains did not evolve in a way that favors strict rationality. Most people’s intuition about probability and statistics is unreliable and misleading—we tend to overestimate the frequency of rare events. The middle class, which holds a majority of votes, will tend to oppose measures that expose it to the risk of being pulled down by lower classes even if the same measures would allow them upward mobility into the upper classes. The upper class exploits this asymmetry to maintain its privileges, be they obscene taxpayer-funded bonuses for bankers who bankrupted their banks, or oligopoly rent-seeking by the medical profession.

Why I will never buy a Kindle

One of my bosses got a Kindle 2 a few months ago, and was wondering how an avowed gadget lover such as myself did not have one already. I am perfectly comfortable reading books in electronic form on the small screens of PDAs or phones, but I have little interest in carrying yet another device with its bevy of chargers and accessories, so I just humored him. As far as I am concerned, the Apple iPad pretty much killed the e-reader market. E-ink technology has a place in digital signage, but a general-purpose computing device with Internet connectivity like the iPad wins over a unitasker any day.

My main objection to commercial e-books as they are mooted today is digital rights management. e-books cannot be resold or even given to family members. Even if DRM were acceptable, the value of a restricted e-books is a fraction of the value of a real book, but pricing today is much higher, despite massively lower costs of production, and short-sighted publishers want to take them even higher, to the same levels as hardbacks.

All tech companies fall somewhere on a spectrum of evil. Microsoft is on the bumbling side—their products are inferior and their marketing practices sharp, to say the least, but they are a fairly open company when it comes to developers using their platform, and Bill Gates is a modern day Robin Hood of sorts, taking from rich Westerners and giving to the poor in the Third World. Apple embodies the seductive dark side—superior products but a company that has no compuction in stabbing developers in the back, and with a demonstrated penchant for control freakery as shown with the iPhone App Store. Google is on the undecided side, ruthlessly violating privacy, but still capable of the odd principled gesture such as facing down Chinese censors.

Amazon as a company lies quite far on this spectrum. Good customer service does not excuse their behavior:

  • Jeff Bezos is personally listed as an inventor on the obviously frivolous “one click” patent and has been using it to extort royalties and stymie competitors.
  • At one point they removed all gay themed books from their search listings by classifying them. Faced with a firestorm of controversy, they unconvincingly claimed it was an operator error. Why do they have a bulk blacklisting facility in the first place?
  • In an example of life imitating art, they pulled e-book copies of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty Four” from Kindle users who had paid for them. Apparently, they had never bothered to check if they had the rights to sell them. The simple fact Amazon has the power to pull books back from electronic bookshelves is unacceptable.
  • They are trying to leverage their dominant position in online book sales to monopolize print-on-demand publishing by refusing to carry books not published by their own on-demand imprint, BookSurge, even though the latter is higher priced than competition and has serious quality issues.
  • This is only the tip of the iceberg. Publishers speak in hushed tones about Amazon’s thuggish “negotiating” tactics, but never publicly out of fear of retaliation.

Since the launch of the Kindle, which is estimated to have 70% market share in e-readers, Amazon has been trying to leverage its market power in paper book sales to corner the market in e-books. One of the prongs in their strategy is to keep the legacy model where the publisher treats the e-book store like a dead-tree book reseller, rather than a model and revenue share more in line with the true costs of e-books (which are obviously much lower than for physical books, as the bandwidth required is piddling).

Apple’s iPad and its associated iBooks store has changed the way the debate is framed, and offers publishers an attractive agency model to counter Amazon’s diktat. It is not surprising that five of the big six publishers (all but Random House) signed up for the iBooks store.

Last Friday, in an escalation of mind-boggling arrogance, Amazon decided to punish Macmillan, the smallest and weakest of the big six (at least in the US) by withdrawing every Macmillan book from sale, including paper books, not just e-books. Among others books by Macmillan affiliate Tor, the leading label in Science Fiction and Fantasy, are not available for sale by Amazon (although they are still available from third-party sellers via Amazon’s site). Essentially Amazon is trying to use its dominance in printed book sales to twist Macmillan’s arm. As far as I am concerned, this is racketeering.

Disclaimer: my wife used to work for Macmillan in the UK. Not that it matters, Amazon’s behavior would be just as reprehensible with any other publisher.

I do not approve of the publishing industry’s doomed attempts to impose premium pricing on e-books, or their attempts to impose unacceptable DRM, but customers are perfectly capable of voting with their feet, as I do, and a middleman like Amazon behaving this way is intolerable. Booksellers censoring books or limiting supply is not an innocuous act. Norman Spinrad is in self-imposed exile in Paris because B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, the dominant booksellers in the 80s, would not sell his more controversial books (like Journals of the Plague Years) out of fear of offending conservative audiences in the Bible Belt.

Small independent bookstores are failing everywhere, and even the large Barnes & Noble and Borders chains are in dire straits. A company like Amazon with a demonstrated history of abusing its market power cannot be permitted to continue. I always buy my SFF books from the lovely Borderlands Books in any case, and my classical CDs from Arkiv Music, but I will henceforth abstain from buying books from Amazon altogether.

As for the Kindle, it can go to hell. I would not take one if they gave it to me for free.

Update (2010-02-04):

Like the SFWA, I replaced all the Amazon links on this site to Indiebound, a website that helps support independent booksellers.

Update (2014-05-28):

They are employing their racketeering tactics again, this time against Hachette.

On the Toyota accelerator fiasco

From 2000 to 2007, I lived and worked in downtown San Francisco, and did not need a car to commute, so I never bothered to get one. When Acxiom purchased Kefta, they moved us to Foster City, 23 miles away and with no credible transit options, so I ended up buying a BMW 525i. I considered getting a Prius or a Lexus GS 450h hybrid, but opted not to. The Toyota faulty accelerator pedal fiasco makes me glad I passed.

In the eighties, Audi lost two thirds of its sales due to an unjustified rumor that its cars were prone to “sudden acceleration”. It took them 15 years to recover. The damage to Toyota will be even worse, since in this case there is in fact a problem, and the company’s damning slowness in responding will be excoriated in the court of public opinion, destroying a mostly deserved reputation for building reliable, if ugly cars. Ford, Hyundai and Honda must be licking their chops right now.

To my surprise the recall was brought home to me. Two months ago, I was car #3 in a 4-car collision (I braked in time, but the car behind me did not have as good brakes and tires as mine and rear-ended me into the car in front of me). My car has been in the garage since then and I rented a car from Enterprise Rent-a-Car (I try to patronize my clients whenever possible). The car is a Pontiac Vibe, which is essentially the same as the Toyota Matrix, both made right here in the Bay Area in the recently shuttered Fremont NUMMI plant. It has the faulty part, and Enterprise called me to exchange the car (kudos to them for being so proactive).

On August 28, 2009, California Highway Patrol officer Mark Saylor died in a horrendous car crash in San Diego county, along with his wife, daughter and brother-in-law, while driving a loaner Lexus ES350. The brother-in-law actually called 911 to report the accelerator was jammed. This was a different issue, one of incorrect floor mat causing the accelerator pedal to jam in the fully opened position. The car was traveling at over 100mph before the driver lost control, the car went airborne, turned over and crashed with an explosion, killing all the passengers instantly. The dealership bears a heavy responsibility in these deaths for fitting the incorrect mats, and failing to respond to a previous driver’s report of a similar incident. The rubber mats on my BMW have bolts that lock them in position with no chance of slipping, and I am surprised Lexus had such shoddy engineering in the first place. Perhaps the reputation of German engineers is not overdone, after all.

On modern cars, the brakes and even the handbrake have enough stopping power to counter the engine’s maximum torque. There is the option to switch the car to neutral gear, assuming there is no malfunction of the transmission. Shutting down the engine is not recommended, as that would also cut power to brakes and power steering, but in any case this car had a keyless ignition system, which requires pressing and holding the ignition button for three seconds. If you are in a panic situation with an unfamilar car, it is highly unlikely you will get this maneuver right, assuming you have three seconds to spare in the first place. I have a similar system in my own car, and had no idea what the procedure is to shut down a running engine.

Modern carmakers are integrators, assembling parts made by their subcontractors. It is not an exaggeration to say the German carmakers are mostly Bosch OEMs. The accelerator pedal involved in the Toyota recall is made by CTS, a US telecom gear maker who only incidentally makes auto parts. Historically Japanese companies have been resistant to using parts from non-Japanese suppliers. In many cases this was due to the keiretsu system of companies interwoven by complex cross-holdings, a successor to the zaibatsu system outlawed after the post-war US occupation of Japan. In other cases, it was due to objective factors — Japanese electronics manufacturers use high-speed power screwdrivers to speed up assembly, and US-made screws used inferior alloys compared to Japanese screw makers, stripping too easily. It took severe pressure and the threat of sanctions from US trade representatives to convince Japanese carmakers to give US suppliers a chance. This incident is likely to harden Japanese executives’ suspicion of gaijin suppliers.

On modern cars, the accelerator pedal is “drive by wire”, i.e. it is an electronic peripheral that feeds the engine control computer. Airbus introduced fly-by-wire controls in its aircraft as more conservative Boeing stuck to hydraulic controls, and this was a significant factor in Airbus overtaking Boeing in airliners. Change takes time, and carmakers are understandably hesitant to change a critical safety organ like brakes. The brake pedals are still hydraulically linked to the brakes, but have an electronic sensor to control the rear brake lights and disengage cruise control.

BMWs, Audis, and even cheaper cars like Volkswagen or Chrysler have a feature called brake override where the engine control will disable the accelerator when the brake pedal is applied. Toyota deliberately chose not to implement such a system, which would have saved Mark Saylor’s life and his family’s. This refusal is particularly incomprehensible since the hardware is already here, and the change should only require a software change and the ensuing QA and certification cycle. The software was not bad per se, but the requirements were incomplete, and this is yet one more case where bad software kills.

Update (2014-03-19):

Toyota was hit today by the Department of Justice with a record $1.2B criminal fine for its attempted cover-up, and admitted guilt. GM is apparently next.

Content is not king, and what to do about it

As this screen shot from the Huffington Post demonstrates. On my MacBook Air (1280×800) I can’t even see the complete headline (highlighted in red). On my office PC (1280×1024) I can see the headline and a smidgen of text. All in all, the content occupies barely 5% of the browser window…

Advertising is not to blame, as it only takes up 12% of the real estate. The rest is hypertrophied navigation, chartjunk, wasted space, blegs and other come-hithers. Horrors like these are what make the Aardvark extension/bookmarklet essential. A few seconds with it yield this much improved result:

An even better option in this case is the Readability bookmarklet, which requires zero work, but may not work in all cases.

On a completely unrelated note, I highly recommend Andy Odlyzko’s paper (PDF) of the same title.

Beware modest proposals taken literally

Benjamin Franklin is the most significant of America’s Founding Fathers. During his stay in Paris as ambassador of sorts for the fledgling United States, he was the 18th century equivalent of a rock star, complete with female groupies throwing themselves at him. They clearly had superior taste to our own century, obsessed as it is with reality show nobodies and pop-music histrions who can’t sing for the life of them, but I digress. Franklin convinced the French public and king Louis XVI to financially support the US, bankrupting the kingdom and ultimately leading to the French Revolution. The revolutionary Assembly granted honorary citizenship to Franklin (along with others like Tom Paine and George Washington) and even a seat in the assembly itself.

My opinion of Franklin was lowered when I learned that he was the one who first proposed the abomination that is Daylight Saving Time. I only recently found out that An Economical Project was in fact a satire much like his notorious opus Fart Proudly, a point that seems to have been completely escaped the proponents of DST.

It could have been worse, I suppose. They could have adopted Swift’s A Modest Proposal instead.

Broken SPF records

I have SPF verification enabled on my mail server. While SPF is no panacea for the problem of spam, it is quite effective at ensuring spammers do not forge the sending address to impersonate someone else, and cause some poor innocent soul to receive in a boomerang effect the torrent of complaints hurled at them.

Unfortunately far too many lame organizations (cough, Google) qualify their SPF record using a too permissive ?all or ~all clause, which means they have servers other than those listed, and thus their SPF record is useless for filtering purposes.

In the last month, I noticed the opposite problem: I did not receive emails from Eurostar and BookMooch because their SPF records did not list the mail servers they actually use. If they are not clueful enough to manage a simple list of IP addresses, or have basic change management discipline, they should do us all a favor and ditch the SPF record they clearly are incapable of maintaining.

PSA: why you should never fly British Airways

They recently introduced a policy whereby you cannot obtain seat assignments ahead of time unless you are prepared to pay an extortionate $30 per leg. Either you cave to their strong-arming, or wait until 24 hours prior to the flight when online check-in, at the risk of being stuck in a middle seat or in non-contiguous seats even if you booked months in advance.

Even by BA’s deplorable standard of service, this is a despicable new low.

Where did the peacock go?

The US is currently in a frenzy over the TV series Mad Men. People seem to be discovering that Americans once were articulate and knew how not dress as slobs, when snappy dressers like Barack Obama or former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown (below) were the rule rather than the exception.

willie_brown

As I watched the French period action movie Le Bossu, I could not help but admiring the elaborate 18th Century Régence costumes.

<p>
  <img class="aligncenter" title="Bossu finale" src="http://www.mariegillainonline-uk.com/mgbossu08.jpg" alt="" width="640" height="426" />
</p>

<p>
  In most animal species the male is the most flamboyant of the sexes, from the peacock to birds and beyond. If you look at Mughal miniatures, you will find their Emperors (like Shah Jahan below) were clad in finery and jewels far outstripping the women in their court.
</p>

<p>
  <img class="aligncenter" title="Shah Jahan (from the Smithsonian)" src="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/ff/Shahjahan_on_globe%2C_mid_17th_century.jpg" alt="" width="458" height="670" />
</p>

<p>
  The rich silks and brocades European aristocracy wore well into the 19th century did not fear from comparison with the ladies. Yet somehow since then men&#8217;s wear has devolved to subdued dark colors once worn only by priests, undertakers and school teachers (Péguy&#8217;s Black hussars of the Republic).
</p>

Parallels, VMware Fusion and VirtualBox

When I got my first Intel MacBook Pro, I purchased a license of Parallels Desktop, which was then pretty much the only game in town for PC virtualization on Mac OS X. At some point, when I got my Mac Pro, I switched to VMware Fusion because of the initial bugginess of the Parallels 4.0 initial release, and the competitive upgrade was almost free. When I upgraded to Snow Leopard, I switched back to Parallels because Fusion doesn’t work when you boot Snow Leopard in a 64-bit kernel, which I have now made the default on my Mac Pro (Fusion 3.0 was just announced, with 64-bit kernel support).

Pretty much the only apps I run in Parallels are:

  • Microsoft Money 2001 (I need to write a webapp to replace this)
  • IE8 (for testing purposes only, of course)
  • EAC (sometimes gets better secure rips than Max)

When I installed Parallels 4.0, I was shocked by how much integration between the Windows VM and OS X is enabled by default. I don’t trust Windows one whit, and the last thing I want is for a Windows VM to become a vector for Windows malware to infect my Mac. I disabled all the integration features, and only access Windows files via file sharing where OS X gets to read and write Windows files, but the Windows VM stays securely sandboxed in its ghetto. Hideous Windows icons in the dock are also a distraction.

Parallels and VMware have been focusing on adding integration features to their virtualization products. They probably believe there are few performance optimizations left to be achieved, but if they continue with reckless disregard for security and the contamination of the OS X user experience with Windows ugliness, I will have to switch to VirtualBox, as its spareness looks increasingly like a virtue.

Coupable indulgence

I am more than a little ashamed of my government’s defense of the pedophile rapist Roman Polanski. Unfortunately, it follows a pattern of making excuses for criminal behavior by people with literary or artistic talent, such as Villon, Lacenaire, Céline, or Althusser.

Fie on parasitic US cellcos

The Economist has an excellent article on how Indian mobile phone companies cut costs. They have an ARPU of $6.50 a month yet operate with a 40% gross margin. If US cellcos were run as efficiently, they would have a 1200% gross margin on the $51 monthly ARPU!

The time has long come to stop coddling grossly inefficient and anti-competitive cellular carriers in the West. They are no longer fledgling businesses in the shadow of landlines, quite the opposite, in fact. One good place to start would be to require them to offer consumers the choice of carrier for international calls and for roaming, as is the case with landlines. Their rates are simply extortionate.

Diminishing returns

I have an eight-core Nehalem Mac Pro. Most of these cores sit idle most of the time due to poorly written software that is not optimized for the post-Moore multicore world.

I am beginning to wonder if Intel’s transistor budget wouldn’t be better allocated to more SRAM cache instead of more cores. One SRAM bit uses up 4 transistors, the Xeon 5500 have 751 million transistors, of which 8Mx8x4 or 256 million are for the 8MB L3 cache. If the chip were brought down from quad-core to dual-core, that would allow doubling the cache. Many programs could run entirely from cache, including interpreters.

A Flag Week story

My old apartment had a flag in its back yard, apparently the flag pole and bench was a memorial for a Marine killed in combat. After September 11, when all flags were supposed to be struck in mourning, that one flag hadn’t been lowered, so I went and drew it down to half-mast, with proper honors. You would think there would be at least one US citizen around who would care enough so a French one did not have to…

The flag seems to crystallize a lot of posturing on both sides of the political spectrum in the US, but people are woefully ignorant of proper flag code. It prohibits wearing the flag as apparel, for instance (except for duly authorized personnel like the military), or its use for advertising purposes (the biggest flags around seem to be those on car dealerships). Burning is also the recommended form of disposal for a worn flag (respectfully, of course).

City government waste in San Francisco

A 33% hike in Muni fares was announced today. This will hit the poorest people in the city first, and to add insult to injury, this is accompanied with cuts in service.

San Francisco has a budget of over $6B, about the same size as much larger cities as Chicago or Paris, and exceeding the budget of 20 of the US states. It also exceeds the entire GNP of countries like Mongolia or Georgia (in the Caucasus). San Franciscans get little to show for it in services.

One reason why: SF has over 8,000 city employees making over $100,000 a year (the head of Muni is one of them, making $325,000, or more than US Cabinet ministers who make $191,000). The share of the city budget spent on those high flyers is over $1B…

Podcasts, the new remaindered bin?

After eight years of a automobile-free life in San Francisco, I bought a car in December 2007. Acxiom had relocated us from our lovely downtown San Francisco office (a 15 minute walk from home) to the outer boondocks of Foster City (viable transit options: none). Before I started commuting, I simply could not fathom the point of podcasts. Now, I understand where they can be useful, but they are still not my cup of tea.

The main reason why is that podcasts are like the remaindered bin at a bookstore (remember them?). Sure, it is fun to rummage through them in search of a bargain, but usually you don’t find the books you really want there, and if you value your time as you should, it is not a productive investment thereof. Audiovisual media like podcasts force you to take them in at their speed, unlike the written word that can be scanned efficiently for triage. The so-called rich media are actually low in information value, “rich” should really be construed as in “rich foods”, i.e. pejoratively.

Audible, the downloadable audiobook company, has a promotion where they are giving away a free copy of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I was thinking of salvaging the daily 60 to 90 minutes of my life I lose to commuting by listening to books that I actually want, perhaps even learn a new language, and Dr. Covey’s often frighteningly earnest self-help book seemed to fit the bill for a test run. I soon found my attention would wander back to the road and I found it impossible to concentrate on the book, a good thing, I guess.

Back to classical music it is…

Microsoft at its scumbag tactics again

I seem to be late to this party, but one of the security updates for Windows XP (.NET 3.5) silently installs a Firefox plugin that:

  1. tells every web server you visit which version of the .NET framework you have, in my case

    Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 5.1; en-US; rv:1.9.0.7) Gecko/2009021910 Firefox/3.0.7 (.NET CLR 3.5.30729)

  2. allows websites to install software on your desktop using ClickOnce, a mechanism so abysmally stupid in its insecurity it gives ActiveX a run for its money.

Screen shot of the Microsoft .NET Framework Assistant add-on

The reason why Microsoft is doing this is to increase penetration of its also-ran Silverlight competitor to Flash for the 20-30% of Windows users who use Firefox instead of Internet Exploder. To make matters worse, the plugin uninstallation button is grayed out. A Microsoft staffer has published instructions on removing this on his blog.

This behavior is of course completely unacceptable. Perhaps Adobe will now join the line of Microsoft-bashers at the European Commission.

Update (2009-10-18):

Good news: Mozilla responded quickly to block this piece of malware. That should also disable Silverlight altogether. Two birds with one stone.

I decided to take action and wrote a letter (PDF) to EC Commissioner Neelie Kroes, apparently the only person in the world who has the cojones to confront Microsoft about its practices.

Circular logic

I never liked Research In Motion’s Blackberry phones. They have excellent support for Microsoft Exchange, but were abysmal for standards-based POP and IMAP. It used to be the only way to do so was to use their webmail client (for all I know, this is still the case). This completely defeats the purpose of a mobile email client. Hey RIM, the nineties called, they want their mobile email back… Even my old Nokia Series 40 dumbphones could do better. If this weren’t enough of a deal-breaker, the stunted web browser would seal its fate.

I was amused to see RIM’s recent marketing messages, like “The world’s first touch-screen Blackberry!” or “The first flip-phone BlackBerry!”. In other words: “our products are so calamitous we dare only compare them to our older models, not to any meaningful competitors”…

Then again, their core market is Windows/Exchange shops that will resonate with the Inferior But Marketable argument.

Write-only memory, a.k.a web surveys

I just dropped out of a Cisco customer satisfaction survey, after realizing the six pages I already filled out represent only 20% of the entire survey. I don’t know why they think they can make such unreasonable demands on people’s time.

Like most clueless surveys, they feature multiple inane questions where you are supposed to answer vague and irrelevant questions several times on a scale of 1 to 5. There are open text fields for feedback, but the likelihood of actual humans reading them is so low, it just isn’t worth my time to fill them out.

The ideal survey should have only three fields:

  1. one to say whether you are satisfied or not (and this is a binary field, not on a scale of 1 to 5 or whatever).
  2. a free-form text field for feedback. The company asking for the survey should commit to having an actual human read each feedback, and be empowered to take action. If it isn’t worth having a human read it, it’s not worth my filling it. Outsourcing a survey to SurveyMonkey or one of the myriad automated surveying firms just demonstrates that you are not really serious about feedback.
  3. an optional field for an email address so you can ask follow-up questions.