Thursday, December 25, 2008

RIP, VHS

Distribution Video Audio, Inc. is the last big supplier of VHS tapes, and they are done with the product. The last major Hollywood movie to be released on VHS was "A History of Violence" in 2006. Introduced in 1976, this gives it an impressive run of about 30 years.

Because we grew up in the Philippines, the dominant video format for many years was actually Sony's Betamax, even after the VHS conquered the rest of the world. The two formats were similar in terms of features and faults: you had to rewind the tape after viewing; the player may eat the tape; magnetic tape was fragile; the cassettes were bulky; and the video quality was poor (and degraded with age).

Good times.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Secret Ballot, Public Count

A cooperative election official in California allowed the re-scanning of ballots, and provided the images to the public for analysis. Add some donated programmer time, and what we find is that the official election machines dropped 197 of 64,161 ballots (0.003%) because of a software bug. (If that doesn't sound like a lot, remember that it would extrapolate to 304,356 votes in the 2000 presidential elections when Al Gore's popular vote advantage was merely 539,947.)

I don't have intimate knowledge of these machines. If you scanned the ballot into a giant image and then tried to sort out which boxes were filled, then it would be a challenging programming task. However, if you have specialized equipment that could detect if a box at a given position is filled or not, as I suspect the official machines do, then counting votes should be a pretty trivial exercise. Computers have been adding one to a running total correctly for many decades now.

"Secret ballot, public count" really should be the way to go.

...

An unrelated note from the article gave me a chuckle:
Trachtenberg said before the launch they had trouble getting the scanner to work with their Linux scanning program, but contacted M. Allen Noah, administrator of the SANE Project (the open scanning protocol known as Scanner Access Now Easy that works with Linux), who advised them on how to make it work.
Ah, good ol' Linux. You make it so easy.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

On Confrontation

One thing that's always impressed me about the American System is its confrontational nature. There are two big political parties, neither able to destroy the other any time soon. There are three branches of government, and not even a President Bush could really say no to the Supreme Court. There is a prosecutor like any other country, but also a defense lawyer, whose job - get this - is to side completely with the accused whether guilty or innocent. These confrontations would not be possible if they were taken personally, instead of understood to be your opponent merely "doing his or her job." In fact, I think underlying these systems is the belief that it's better to be correct than nice. (Not being a nice person, I really like that.)

One facet of this system that has failed miserably, however, is in the financial regulation area. It's pretty clear why: the bankers are far more powerful than the regulators. The former flies in personal and corporate jets and dine with politicians, the latter wear beige overcoats and shiver in the wind. Okay, maybe my stereotypes are not so good, but it's time the balance of power is restored to this very important confrontation.

Backing Up

I've sometimes thought about printing out digital data in some sort of bar code onto paper as a long-term solution for backing up personal data:

  • Good quality paper lasts a long time in proper storage.
  • Modern laser printers can produce crisp images cheaply. An ink-jet printout would be less crisp, and also more susceptible to moisture damage.
  • Error-correcting codes can be embedded, to help recovery in case of damage to the papers.
  • Redundancy is tedious, but possible. You can photocopy the entire stack of paper.
  • Retrieval is slow, but the technology required is not likely to disappear. The best case is a scanner with a sheet feeder, the worst case is a digital camera.
  • No reliance on computer interfaces that quickly become obsolete.
Add to this a cleanly-written, open source implementation of an encoder and particularly a decoder, I think the data can last for decades. Open source is critical because any future attempt at retrieval should not be dependent on old computers or operating systems. Hell, print the source code along with the data!

This is of course not an original idea. Old computer magazines used to come with pages and pages of game source code for eager young readers to type in, but later also came with these bar code strips to ease data entry.

The big problem is probably data density. If we print the data bits at 50 dpi, then a letter-size sheet of paper can store 187,500 of raw bytes per sheet if we leave half an inch of margin on all sides. This means that a terabyte of data would require 5,727 sheets of paper, or less than 12 reams (which should cost about US$60). Printing them out on a Lexmark T642DTN today (45 pages per minute) would take just over two hours. My printer can only go 20 ppm, so it'll take nearly 5 hours to print. The toner supposedly prints 2,500 pages, but that's probably text pages, so let's say 1,000 pages instead, which adds about US$180 of toner expenses. You might be able to get error correction and compression to cancel each other out, so I won't bother computing that.

But if permanence is really important, this may not be an entirely bad idea. Our photo library, last time I checked, weighs in at about 6 GB. However, if we excluded some of the redundant pictures and scaled the resolution down a bit, this solution could be in the ballpark.

Why not just print out the pictures on archival photo paper, you say?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Pondering RAID

As I think I've mentioned before, my first hard drive was 20 MB in size for what was then a small fortune for a kid, so every so often I like to check what the current prices are. I'm also looking at options to optimize Mabel's Mac Pro, which is running its eight cores at only about 50% efficiency while rendering in Final Cut Pro. It'd be fun to put together my first RAID.

Looking at the mainstream SATA drives today on pricewatch.com:

2.09 GB/USD - 2 TB
11.77 GB/USD - 1 TB
10.42 GB/USD - 1 TB with 32 MB buffer
12.30 GB/USD - 750 GB
11.72 GB/USD - 750 GB with 32 MB buffer
8.31 GB/USD - 640 GB
11.11 GB/USD - 500 GB
8.93 GB/USD - 500 GB with 32 MB buffer
9.30 GB/USD - 400 GB
5.73 GB/USD - 350 GB
8.00 GB/USD - 320 GB

Looks like the sweet spot is at the 750 MB to 1 TB area. A 1.5 TB or 2 TB RAID-0 set-up (for about US$200) could probably have served the entire University when I was a wee lad. Good times.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Public Service Message

A recent New York Times article makes an excellent point: in this economy, where many retailers are at risk of bankruptcy, it's prudent to spend any gift certificate or gift card you receive immediately. There is no standard procedure for handling gift certificates (which are essentially debts) if the retailer enters bankruptcy protection or just shuts down, so if you have friends like mine, you're not going to get a gift certificate worth going to court for.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Too Stupid to Fail?

It seems to me that it's easier if the government just make a list of companies that can be allowed to fail. It would be a shorter list.

The US automakers made their choices: they continued to build big SUVs and trucks, and the market is now punishing them for it. They then put even more eggs in the same basket by overestimating the demand for these trucks and SUVs when they were returned from lease agreements. Their entire business model hinged on continued demand for SUVs and trucks, which history has shown to be hugely vulnerable to a rise in gas prices, nevermind a recession.

Can somebody explain where we draw the line at which a company that made stupid decisions can fail? Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all for helping the common workers even of failed companies, but why should Circuit City be going into Chapter 11 while GM still hopes for rescue?

Can we at least legally require such a company's officers (say, vice president and above) to put on their business cards and résumés: "Partly responsible for failure of [company name]" in no less than a 16-point font for the next ten or 15 years?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Pinko

Why is it that when some people mention "socialism", the image they conjure in their minds is some 18-year old who won't go find a job, instead of some blue-collar worker who gets sick?

The idea behind socialist policies is that there are some events in a few people's lives that almost nobody can adequately prepare for entirely on his or her own. Yes, there will always be people who abuse the system, but that suggests reform instead of tossing the whole idea.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

What a Stupid Thing to Say to Me!

Speaking of being detached from the Real World,
Greenspan, 82, acknowledged under questioning that he had made a "mistake" in believing that banks, operating in their own self-interest, would do what was necessary to protect their shareholders and institutions. Greenspan called that "a flaw in the model ... that defines how the world works."
Alan (may I call you Alan?), you're nearly thrice my age and almost certainly much smarter than I am, but even I knew that a "bank" makes no decisions and therefore cannot act in its own "self-interest." Instead, bank executives act on the self-interest of... bank executives.

Your model is not just flawed. It is hopelessly naïve. You actually assumed that corporate leaders are, as a rule, going to be responsible stewards of the organization? Where have you been?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The American Delusion

One of the most amazing things that the Republicans have managed to achieve is to fool their supporters into voting as if they were rich. Instead of voting for middle-class tax cuts, they imagine themselves to be millionaires (or at least, for "Joe the Plumber", somebody who will make more than $250,000 a year someday) with estates to leave their children. This is why they worry about the "death tax" and other money that they haven't actually earned. Or will ever earn.

Let's say you make US$300,000 a year. That income easily puts you in the top 1.5% of the population. In contrast, a US$1,000,000 loan at 5.75% interest over 15 years will require about $99,650 a year. In other words, you can afford a mansion in Joe Plumber's Ohio (or, in the Bay Area, still a pretty nice house) and still have about a hundred grand a year to spend on everything else. Obama proposes to raise the taxes for income above $250,000 by 3%, which means you have to pay US$1,500 more in taxes.

If you ever make US$300,000 a year. Is that really a big amount of money for somebody who makes more than 98.5% of the US population? That's about a fifth of what you pay for your million-dollar house in a month.

Another blind spot that people have is that they think that wealth is linear. It isn't. If somebody making US$50,000 is getting by with US$5 McDonald's meals, a person making a million doesn't necessarily have to spend $100 a meal. They might get the $200 cable TV package that has 5,000 channels, while you pay $40 or $50 for your more modest choices. They might fly first class for US$5,000 a seat, while you fly in cabbage class for $500. Few of these expenses actually differ by the same factor as income! In other words, a reasonable millionaire will have far more money left by percentage than somebody making far less, and are therefore far more able to shoulder a bigger percentage of taxes.

So stop worrying about taxes on the kind of money you will probably never earn anyway.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Just Like Old Times

I'm getting the Sunday night dread of going to work tomorrow, a really juvenile feeling I don't think I've had since high school.

This job makes me feel young again, eh?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Leadership According to Bush

This is how he dealt with 9/11 and the current financial crisis, probably the two most significant events in his two terms:

1. Wait for things to become really bad.
2. Claim that nobody could've foreseen the problem.
3. Ask for a blank check to fix the problem
4. Reject any oversight or review. Just trust me.

Remember the tax cuts that were supposed to trickle down to the middle class? Something's trickling down all right. I love how the government that Republicans claimed could not be trusted to run a national health care system must somehow be trusted to fix Wall Street.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bailout

Thing is, I actually believe the government when they say that some financial institutions have gotten "too big to fail" and must be bailed out if we want our economy to survive.

Problem is, I'm not hearing much about how to prevent this from ever happening again. There are two obvious paths:

1. Prevent companies that are too big from ever failing. This requires effective and heavy-handed government regulation, which I'm not a fan of.

2. Prevent companies from getting too big. Break them up into smaller companies that can be allowed to fail, and let the market work as it should.

Otherwise, even US$700 billion is just a band-aid.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Small World

An old classmate from grade school just got moved into our bullpen. (A bullpen is a big cubicle where they try to cram more than one person in.)

It's bumping into each other again against this kind of odds (over two decades later, half a world away) that truly reminds me to try not to be too nasty to people.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

oneConnect Ships

oneConnect is an instant messaging client and social network aggregator built around an address book, and we just shipped the iPhone version. It's available on the iTunes Apps Store.

You know you want it.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Triaging Bugs

Towards the end of a software project, management's role becomes one primarily of triage. This is a delicate balance between schedule and features/fixes, and should not be undertaken with a one-dimensional analysis. For example, "it's just a small feature" is not justified. "There's still time" is also not justified. In fact, "this bug is really bad" is also not justified, much less "this will make the product better."

Take a look at the picture below:

Here I am evaluating a bug report on two axes: frequency and severity.

Starting from the top left corner, a bug that is severe but almost never happens is extremely expensive to fix. It will be hard to figure out what went wrong, and hard to figure out that the fix is the correct one. In fact, it's also entirely possible that introducing the fix for this extremely rare problem causes a more common problem to occur.

In the bottom right corner, we have bugs that almost always happen, but don't really bother anybody. Fixing them will make the product better for a lot of users, but they wouldn't be too angry if you didn't.

The top right corner is where you want to focus your engineers: the bugs that are really bad and occur frequently. "Really bad" usually means crashing, hanging (which is like crashing, as far as the user is concerned), or data loss.

The bottom left corner, of course, are bugs you don't really want to spend much time on. The bugs are not bothersome, and don't occur frequently.

Clearly, where to draw the curves are a matter of judgment and experience, but the important thing is to internalize that this decision must always consider more than one dimension. In fact, I left out an important third dimension: risk of fixing versus not fixing. Many fixes can end up as bad or worse as the bug it was trying to fix.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Six?

Eugenia reviewed an MP3 player on her blog, and said among other things:
  • "there is no documentation to tell us how to create and use the right formats the e-book, tel-book and video player. I tried both as WMV v8 and XViD at small resolutions/frame rate/bitrates, but nothing worked"
  • "there is a buzzing noise when the audio interface is up or you listen to low-volume music"
  • "it took minutes to copy a few songs over, much slower even than USB 1.1. Battery life is pretty low too, just 4.5 hours"
and in the end gave it a grade of 6/10.

Based on this review, I would say that it fails at its two primary tasks (playing audio and video), and performs poorly on an important secondary task (transferring audio and video). Six is a passing score, not meant for an audio player in 2008 that has a "buzzing sound" or a video player that an experienced geek and reviewer like Eugenia can't figure out how to use at all.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Could It Be?

I've long referred to Fremont as a culinary wasteland, but over the past two weekends we tried Carino's and Dickey's Barbecue Pit, and both turned out to be pretty good. I had pasta and italian soda (yummy, free refills, and you can pick another flavor) at Carino's and a rib (comes right off the bone like it should) platter at Dickey's.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Kitten Update

Oh, and if you're wondering about our kitten, we tried a lot of things. We bought kitten milk replacement and tried to feed it with a little bottle. I didn't want to touch the kitten or risk a scratch, so I handled it with rubber gloves. It might have had a bit of the milk, but the little thing struggled mightily.

In the end, we just weren't sure that the mom was feeding it, so Mabel brought it to the Nine Lives Foundation in Redwood City.

Safety Net

The Bush government is now issuing all sorts of bailouts to financial institutions that have made horrible decisions during the housing bubble. That means US taxpayers will pay for all these mistakes.

The concept of a "safety net" is to prevent an acrobat from plunging to his death, not to prevent him from falling. People who bought houses they couldn't actually afford, similarly, shouldn't be rendered homeless, but neither should they be allowed to keep their houses. That's an injustice to people like us who were prudent, at times when buying a house at any price seemed to be a no-brainer.

The home buyers need to pay. They should not be saddled with crippling debt, but should lose their houses. The banks need to pay. The executives should be fired publicly, and bonuses they received during the bubble should be returned. The investors need to pay. Perhaps next time we'll learn to examine what it is we're investing in.

Anything less and no lesson will be learned.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Meow

There's a palm-sized black and white kitty in the backyard. Its mother is a gray feral cat. The mother goes away once in a while, perhaps in search of food, and the poor kitty would whine a bit.

We're not really sure if we should intervene. It's not cold and doesn't seem to be immediately dangerous for the kitty, and we don't want to spook the mother into just abandoning the kitty.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

And There Was Light

The iPhone application store opened today. There are at least three applications, "Flashlight" from ExactMagic (US$0.99), "iBlackout" from Signs Studios (US$0.99), and "QuickLight" from Ken Torimaru (US$0.99), which turn your iPhone screen into a flashlight basically by drawing white all over the screen.

Pathetic. Apple seems to be trying to pad the total number of applications by allowing these worthless things to take up space in the store.

And if for some inexplicable reason you really want something like this, look for "Light" from Erica Sadun, which is free.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

On Not Being Stupid


Good news is I just hired my first employee.

Bad news is that his name is already in some HR database, and "the system" wouldn't let me enter another employee with the same name. I had to ask him for a middle name before I could proceed, but not before being told that it would cost millions to fix this, and that it doesn't bother most people.

Programmers, please use your brains just a little bit while designing database schemas that would cost "millions" to fix. A person's name is not a unique key, period. Not allowing a second employee with the same name - two different people can even have the same middle names, by the way - is infuriatingly stupid.

...

Oh, and one more thing: don't underestimate how popular some names can be. On an old version of ICQ, the "search user" function only returned the first 40 matches. If you have a name like mine, not being in the first 40 means that I can't be found at all.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Under My Dictatorship...


The Federal Reserve recently committed US$30 billion to save Bear Stearns from collapse. Since that's partly my money, I feel I have the right to make some demands.

I want the Board of Directors and every officer from Vice President and above to be permanently barred from the financial industry and government employment. They are heavily involved insiders who are either utterly inept, knowingly took unreasonable risks, or lacked the moral fiber to blow the whistle (or even the minimum self preservation instinct to distance oneself) before it was too late. Whichever is the case, I sentence their careers to death. Find another job elsewhere. You're highly educated, have some money, and probably already white. You'll be fine, except for your golden parachute, which is null. And void. And Moot. And Academic.

I want all other employees to take a pay cut. If you were stuck on a mountain because of your own foolishness or ignorance, you usually have to pay for the helicopter rescue. The same way, the people are taking 20% of your base pay (and all of your raises and bonuses) to help defray the costs of the bailout. You get to keep your job, but you may not seek employment elsewhere in the financial industry for the next two years if you decide to quit.

Or we can just pretend none of this ever happened, which is what we seem to be doing.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Win?


Recent elections in Taiwan are usually much ado about nothing, because the democracy hasn't really progressed to issue-oriented politics, and the two major parties have no real differences in domestic policy approaches. What separates the "blue" from the "green" is their respective attitudes towards China and unification, which is a false issue because virtually nobody in Taiwan actually wants to decide just yet.

Anyway, the KMT won back the presidency in dramatic fashion today, capturing 58.45% of the votes. It's not instructive to look back at 2004, because that was an odd election involving an assassination attempt on the sitting president, among other things. However, if we look back at 2000, the KMT had just splintered into two because of squabbles over who would run for president, and ultimately captured 23.1% and 36.84% of the total vote.

Here's where it gets interesting, because the total of those two numbers is 59.94%. The 2000 KMT had sent up a charmless candidate, while the splinter party was formed by a popular ex-governor. One would expect that centrists would be disappointed by the bickering and look elsewhere. One would also expect that excitement over the first real shot at unseating the long-reigning KMT would skew the count somewhat. In other words, the total "blue" vote in 2000 should be somewhat lower than their true support levels.

Coming back to 2008, the ruling DPP is reeling from bad economy and multiple scandals implicating top party figures. The candidate they managed to put forward is not nearly as charismatic as Chen was in 2000 (who was a former opposition defense lawyer and former mayor of Taipei with great approval numbers), while the squeaky-clean Ma from the KMT is probably the most charismatic (although I personally find him a bit too slick) political leader they ever put forward. China has also realized that any move it makes only helps the DPP, and kept a very low profile throughout the election cycle. Put another way, the situation could hardly be any more favorable for the KMT.

Yet it lost about 1.5% of the total votes compared to 2000. What's going on here? A real shift in demographics?

Either way, it's healthy for Taiwan to switch things around every so often.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Logic, Logic Everywhere


President Bush wants Congress to pass a law to retroactively provide immunity for telecommunications companies that are accused of handing over customer records to authorities without a warrant. His rationale is that private companies should not be penalized for cooperating with government.

I agree completely, except for two small bits:

One, I don't hear how he's planning to punish the government officials who may have abused this cooperation. If the telecoms cooperated in good faith yet constitutional guarantees to privacy were violated, then I want heads to roll. What government official or lawyer said this was okay?

Two, these are not poor little private citizens who don't understand the law. These are behemoth corporations worth many billions of dollars, and more importantly, have legal departments. I have no sympathy if you have a legal department and break the law. Fire your lawyers (or the company official who ignored their advice) and face the music.

...

In other news, I was listening to NPR and Ralph Nader was on. Because he had refused to pull out of the presidential race in 2000 (presumably so Al Gore would win), a caller held him responsible for all the problems caused by President Bush, including the war in Iraq. It boggles my mind that people can be so stupid. If, between event A and event B lies a person's will, then the person who caused event A cannot be held responsible for event B. In this case, the will of President Bush to launch a ridiculous war. If we take this dumb logic to its conclusion, you might say that if not for Nader, Gore would've won and would not have made the film Inconvenient Truth, and then earth would be destroyed. Nader may have hurt America, but really he saved the planet!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

A New Chapter


Most people who would bother reading this probably already know that I've left Apple. It was a difficult decision, but I start with Yahoo! in a few hours, and it's objectively a better position for me in several ways. Emotionally, it's hard to leave the company you dreamt of working for by the time you bought your first computer.

I'll be managing a team to work on one of Yahoo's mobile applications, working for my former boss. This will be an interesting challenge, doing an entirely new job for an entirely new company. I'm not excited in the kid-waiting-for-Christmas-morning sense, but I do look forward to finding out how I'll fare in this world.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Inertia


It seems that every year somebody proclaims that it is the Year of Linux on the Desktop. The curious thing to me is how so many technically-inclined people miss a basic grasp of human behavior: we don't fix what isn't broke.

First of all, let me say that I know the name "Linux" refers to the kernel, and I know what that is, thank you very much. Now let me use the name to refer to one of many Linux distributions like normal people do.

Just as Linux installation grew from the painful dozens of Slackware floppy disks in the early nineties to the slick "live CDs" today, and the "Linux desktop" went from the likes to twm and fvwm to KDE and GNOME, Windows had not stood still. In fact, Microsoft succeeded on two very important fronts: it improved the home version of Windows and made Windows 2000 and XP far more stable than Windows 95 and 98 ever was, and it trained millions of users worldwide to accept massive defects that resulted in computers infested with malware.

If you listen to Linux advocates, they usually start with some form of "if only." If only Windows wasn't pre-installed on virtually every computer sold today. If only Word and Excel and Photoshop were available on Linux. If only web authors weren't so stupid as to design their pages only for Internet Explorer. These are all true, and all serious impediments to Linux adoption, but nonetheless all miss the point.

Which is that people don't change anything unless there is significant pain, or significant gain. Many Linux users had enough of Windows 98 and switched, just as many today have had enough of Windows malware and switched. However, the pain of an operating system so unstable you can hardly get any work done is very much greater than the hassle of having to use anti-virus software. On the other hand, the shiny MacOS X and stellar industrial design brought many to leave Windows for the Mac.

The "problem" is that if you're a normal home user running Windows XP on a 2-year old PC, you have almost no reason to do anything, including "upgrading" to Vista. Everything you want to do runs decently, even if a malware or two is preventing you from using your machine's full power. There's not enough pain to take the risk of switching.

Thus, it's not about OpenOffice.org doing everything Microsoft Office can do, or GIMP doing everything Photoshop can do, although it's important. Why would I switch - and risk losing data and time - to have equivalent applications? What would really get people to switch is to have clearly better applications than Word and Excel and Photoshop, so that it's obvious what you gain by switching. Like it or not, Microsoft controls the pain knob of Windows computing, and all Linux and MacOS can offer is the gain.

Apple's Keynote application is an example of something that's visibly better than its rival PowerPoint. The two other applications in the iWork suite, Pages and Numbers, are less visibly so. The iLife suite of applications blow away equivalent versions bundled with Windows. These are the sort of examples that Linux on the desktop needs, and why merely copying Windows and Windows applications will not achieve the goal.

Friday, February 15, 2008

It Has Begun


When I started using my iPhone, I quickly realized that the Big Deal was not actually the phone, but the Safari browser. I found that I could and would actually surf the web on it, especially if under Wi-Fi coverage. I became pretty convinced that if the mobile Internet promise was ever going to materialize, this may be the best shot yet.

Google now reports that it sees 50 times more searches from iPhones than any other handset. Ladies and gentlemen, the mobile Internet revolution is here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ends, Means, Whatever.


Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh, who was allegedly involved in the 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Beirut and the UN compound, was killed in a car bombing in Damascus.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, among other things, that:

One way or another he was brought to justice.


Wait, I thought it mattered greatly how a person was brought to justice. Such as with a fair trial where he is afforded a chance to defend himself?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Tortured


US Attorney General Michael Mukasey has said that he would not open a criminal investigation into the CIA's use of "waterboarding" in interrogations. His reason is that the CIA relied on a Justice Department opinion that said it was legal, and therefore should not be subject to criminal prosecution later as political winds or opinions change.

I can see the logic in that. Basically, the government consulted its lawyer and decided that something is legal. The problem is that this hypothetically means an Attorney General can essentially allow the government to commit any crime it wants to simply by saying it's legal. If the Justice Department provided incorrect legal advice, I would not like CIA grunts who followed it in good faith (after all, they're not lawyers) to be punished later for it. On the other hand, I do want to see the people who misinterpreted the law punished for being wrong, and if they were maliciously wrong, be held criminally liable for their opinions.

If the lawyers don't want this sort of responsibility, then they should talk to somebody whose job it is to interpret laws, and whose opinions are shielded exactly from this sort of hindsight. They're called judges.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Citizenry


I lived abroad for most of my life, so I was never eligible to vote in Taiwan. Yesterday, I cast my first vote, as a US citizen. The experience was rather mundane, on the order of filling up paperwork at the bank. The polling place was a three minute walk from home, so of course I drove there like any self-respecting American would. (Okay, so I was on my way out to meet Mabel for dinner.) The polling place was set up in a small office of the seniors apartment, and had a staff of three or four. There were perhaps six "voting booths," really just small plastic stands with a folder standing on each. The ballot itself was reminiscent of an SAT questionnaire. The whole process took just a few minutes, and upon exiting a poll worker asked if I wanted to feed my ballot into the machine myself. I declined and let her have the honor.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Rats


Bill Gates agrees with me.

I've mentioned privately to family and friends that I thought capitalism as we know it has a really big problem: it maximizes profit. Not just "makes a decent profit." Not even "makes a killing." Maximizes. The modern corporation basically only decides to leave a penny on the table because it would harm their public image and future profits if they took it. Many times, they don't even think that far and take it anyway.

Maximizing profit means that everything else is secondary and almost accidental. While taxes are part of civic duty for an individual, it is no different than any other expense for a corporation to minimize, and therefore there's nothing wrong with spending $100,000 to lobby for a $1,000,000 tax break from the government. It means that AIDS drugs cost just as much in Africa as they would in Europe and America. We're not individually as naked as Gordon Gecko's "greed is good," but that's basically what we do as a collective.

The problem is that we're really bad at judging what is maximum profit. Maybe it's saving 20 million lives from AIDS in Africa and allowing them to become rich enough to buy Viagra later! This kind of math is just too hard and requires too much foresight to be practical. Also, CEO's don't get to take credit for profits that the company makes after he or she leaves the job, so why sacrifice today's profits for tomorrow's bigger ones?

Gates says, "Such a system would have a twin mission: making profits and also improving lives for those who don't fully benefit from market forces," which is exactly where I think we need to be. There's no justification for a corporation made up of individually moral people to be amoral or immoral. The twin mission doesn't have to be helping the poor, it could be preserving the environment or any other concrete cause.

This is not a charity or non-profit, by the way, just one that's not single-mindedly trying to optimize for profit. Profit is still important because that's what keeps the twin mission going indefinitely. It will judge itself not only on profits and loss, but on the social impact it has on the world. Its owners - which in this age refers to mutual fund managers and individual shareholders as well, not just a few tycoons - must share this mission.

I think that'd be nice.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Old Fart Time


I just sold an old computer on craigslist, which got me thinking of all the computers I've sold before.

Our first computer was a fake Apple ][+ (with lowercase modification!). It had 64 KB of RAM, 1 MHz MOS Technology 6502 CPU. We could afford one floppy drive, but had to hook it up to the family TV. We eventually bought a green monitor, an 80-column card, and a Z-80 card. Pretty sure we sold this one to somebody in the end.

The second computer was a PC clone, with a 10 MHz NEC 8088-2 and 1 MB of RAM, and a turbo button to switch between 4.77 MHz and 10 MHz. I can't remember what happened to this one. I think we replaced parts piecemeal until we ended up with a 33 MHz Intel 80386 with a 20 or 30 MB hard disk and a VGA monitor. I sold that to a student just before leaving Manila.

For grad school, I bought an 66 MHz Intel 80486 laptop with 8 MB of RAM and 512 MB of hard disk. To call it a laptop was kind, because it weighed nearly seven pounds. I didn't have enough money to get more RAM and a color display, so I settled for a 256-shades-of-gray display that looked more like 3 shades of gray. I ran Slackware Linux on it, and it had just enough RAM to run X and nothing else. StarOffice was impossibly slow, so I had to dual-boot back to Windows for word processing. I eventually broke the laptop somehow, probably because I kept opening it up.

We replaced that with a 350 MHz AMD K6 computer, with I think 128 MB of RAM and 10 GB of hard disk. I later overclocked it to 400 MHz, and decided to do a burn-in test, which was a bad idea. I replaced the motherboard with one bought from a Geoworks fire sale, and this computer is still around, but unused.

Then we bought our first Mac, which is a 733 MHz Power Mac G4. This eventually got pretty souped up, with WiFi, Bluetooth, extra hard disks, extra USB ports, and even a TV tuner card. This served us for several years, and I sold it yesterday.

Our main computer is now a dual core 2 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo iMac with 2 GB of RAM, which finally let us break through to the GHz/GB world. Because of Mabel's video editing needs, it has a 150 GB drive internally, a 500 GB external drive, and a 320 GB Time Machine backup drive. Add that 120 GB external drive that's just sitting around, and we have over 1 TB of storage in the house.

So in about 20 years:

CPU: 1 MHz to dual 2 GHz superscalar, let's say at least 4,000x better.
RAM: 64 KB to 2 GB, 32,000x better.
Disk: 140 KB floppy disks to 1 TB hard disks, more than seven million times better.

That's quite something, isn't it?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Do Not Taunt Unhappy Zoo Tiger


A tiger killed a young man and wounded two on Christmas Day at San Francisco Zoo. According to CNN, the police are now investigating whether the tiger was attacked or taunted.

Why would that possibly matter? What we have is a zoo that is unable to keep its animals inside the displays, which it must do regardless of the nature or amount of taunting. They failed at that job, and should be prepared to pay for the resulting damages. If the negligence was to a criminal extent, then those responsible need to be charged and punished as well.

Who cares if Tatiana, the poor (it was later shot by police) 350-pound Siberian tiger, was taunted or not?