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Week of 18 May 2009


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Monday, 18 May 2009
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08:42 - I'm following the RealDVD case with some interest. It seems to me that all of the arguments the MPAA is making are bogus.

In particular, the MPAA is trying to convince the judge that the RealDVD software gives people a new and dangerous ability to copy DVDs. Huh? RealDVD is merely an inferior implementation of DVD ripping. Inferior because RealDVD leaves the copy protection on the DVDs intact, and in fact adds another layer of DRM that restricts playback to at most five computers that are specifically enabled by the purchaser of RealDVD. Anyone who wants to rip video DVDs can easily download free DVD rippers like DVD Shrink or DVD Decrypter, or buy any number of commercial DVD ripping packages.

The MPAA also argues that RealDVD encourages what they call "rent, rip and return" by people who rent a DVD or borrow it from the library and then rip it to make their own copy. What no one, including Real, ever mentions is that RR&R seems to be perfectly legal based on the Supreme Court's Betamax decision. That decision legalized noncommercial home copying of copyrighted materials for personal use, including time-shifting, building a library, and lending the copies you'd made to friends.

Under that decision, it is perfectly legal for me to record, say, an episode of PBS Masterpiece Theatre. I can keep that copy to watch later. After I've watched it, I can continue to store it in case I want to watch it again. I can lend it to a friend. All of that despite, as the Court noted, that I didn't pay a cent for it. What, then, if I rent a DVD of that episode, or borrow it from the library? Clearly, under the Betamax decision, I'm legally entitled to make my own copy for personal use, to store that copy, to watch it as many times as I wish, and to lend it to friends. If anything, I'm more entitled to make that copy than I am to record a copy from a broadcast, because I paid for the rental.

So, I think the MPAA's arguments against RR&R are bogus. They're a red herring. What upsets the MPAA is not just RR&R. They'd like to make it illegal to lend or rent video DVDs, period. They want us all to buy a copy of anything we want to watch. In fact, it goes further than that. They'd rather not sell us a DVD in the first place, because that means we can watch it as many times as we wish. What they really want is for us to pay each time we want to watch anything. Want to watch something twice? Pay twice.

So I hope Judge Patel hands the MPAA their heads. It's not gonna happen, though.


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Tuesday, 19 May 2009
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09:55 - Sanity check time. Does anyone really think $9.99 for a Kindle ebook is a good deal? I posted the following to Pournelle's backchannel mailing list.

Regarding the NYT article about ebook prices that Roland posted the link to, am I the only one who thinks $9.99 is outrageously high for a Kindle book? What you get with the Kindle book is much less than what you get with a paperback. You can't resell it. You can't pass it along to a friend. You can't trade it 2-for-1 at a used bookstore. You can't donate it to the public library.

Basically, all you get when you pay for a Kindle book is the right to read it for as long as Amazon decides to let you have access to it. That's worth something between $0 (I can borrow the book from the library) to maybe a buck or two (the marginal cost of buying a used paperback and then trading or reselling it).

On that basis, even assuming the Kindle itself cost nothing, I wouldn't be willing to spend more than half the cost of a used paperback book for a Kindle ebook. If they'd cut the price of the Kindle to $99 and remove all DRM from the ebooks, I'd consider paying maybe $4 or $5 for a current bestseller, and a couple bucks for backlist titles.

Oh, yeah. And then there's the concurrency issue. Barbara and I often read the same books. If we each had a Kindle, what are we supposed to do? Buy two copies of the same book? Trade Kindles? What happens if both of the books we want to read are on the same Kindle? Geez.




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Wednesday, 20 May 2009
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09:50 - The weather forecast last night got me to thinking about arbitrariness, exaggerated precision, and the acceptance of pseudoscience by people who should know better. The weather weasel showed a graphic of "air quality", so-called, that as far as I can see bears no relation to reality, and certainly not to the number of significant figures claimed.

We're given a dimensionless number, in this case 48, and told that our air quality forecast for tomorrow is good because it falls in the green range of 0 to 50. What does that number actually represent? We're not told. Is it a composite number based on particulates, nitrogen oxides, ozone, and other supposed pollutants? We don't know, and we can be excused for suspecting that they don't know either. If it is a composite number, how are the components weighted? They don't say. On what basis do they claim that a rating of 50 falls in the "good" green range while a rating of 51 falls in the next lower, yellow, air-quality category? Does one of their weaker test canaries fall off its perch each time the rating reaches 51? If so, how do they correlate canary mortality with increased morbidity in humans? If not, why the sharp break in their graphic between 50 and 51?

Is it possible that when the air quality is yellow according to their dimensionless number rating that the air is actually no more dangerous to breathe than when the quality is in the 0 to 50 range? Are many people gasping and clutching their chests when the number reaches 150? It seems they should be, if you believe their ratings descriptions, but I haven't noticed any such phenomenon. When it reaches 200, are the streets littered with elderly people unconscious and barely twitching? Admittedly, I don't get out much, but I sure haven't noticed any such events. Is it possible that their ratings are entirely arbitrary, based on no real evidence, and that air rated at 250 is little or no more dangerous to breathe than air rated at 0? If that's not the case, they sure haven't shown me any data that would lead me to believe otherwise.

Consider the beginning cook, who sees that the recipe calls for a teaspoon of salt and decides that if a teaspoon is good, a tablespoon must be better. He soon learns the wisdom of the toxicologist's primary rule: the dose makes the poison. Environmentalists have never learned that lesson. They believe that if a substance is toxic in large amounts, it must also be dangerous in smaller amounts. To take the thinking of environmentalists to its logical conclusion, if they notice that drinking two gallons of water is lethal, they'll immediately assume that water must be hazardous even in microgram quantities. That's ridiculous on the face of it, but it accurately represents their reasoning.

Environmentalists embrace the post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy. (It happened after, therefore it happened because of.) For example, an environmentalist studying heroin addiction may notice that all of the heroin addicts in the study drank milk when they were children. The environmentalist may then conclude that milk drinking leads to heroin addiction. Or, for example, an environmentalist may notice that certain types of cancer are more prevalent in a small geographical area. If he then finds that arsenic levels in the drinking water are above normal in that area, he immediately concludes that elevated arsenic levels in drinking water are the cause of the additional cancers.

But correlation does not imply causality, and in particular there is no link established in a completely uncontrolled experiment such as this. There are, to use the technical term, zillions of other factors, any one of which individually or any number of which in combination may actually be responsible for the additional cancers. It might even be something as simple as that the ancestors of the people currently living in that area were genetically prone to the types of cancer that prevail today in that area. It is even possible that the levels of arsenic present in their drinking water suppressed the cancers, and that the cancer rate would have been even higher if that group lived elsewhere. Without controls, there's simply no way to establish truth. But it's easy to blame the arsenic.

So how would one establish a link? Well, you'd need several large groups of human study subjects. You'd control all other variables and vary only the amount of arsenic in the diets of each group. Periodically, you'd euthanize and dissect a representative specimen. After 70 years or so of testing on many thousands of subjects, you'd have some valid data about the effect of low levels of arsenic intake on human health. Of course, such large-scale experiments have been attempted only once in human history. The US military tried 23 of the scientists involved at Nuremberg and ended up hanging about a third of them. So that's probably not going to happen again, or at least so we can hope.

The simple truth is that if we can't use human beings as test subjects--and we can't--there's no way to obtain valid data about the kinds of things the environmentalists try to keep us worried about. All the statistical studies in the world can't yield valid data for one simple reason: they are not controlled experiments. You can establish just about anything you want to establish by choosing what to look at and massaging the statistics, but that doesn't make it science.

Which leaves us with the question of what to do. The Bayesian answer to that question is "get more data", but that's not really an option for the reasons I mentioned. So my answer is simply to depend on common sense. You don't dump untreated industrial waste into the river, but on the other hand you don't require companies to treat waste water to the point where contaminants are near detection thresholds of the best modern instruments. If there is a level at which a particular contaminant is known to be dangerous, you require that waste water be well below that level. Events such as a major fish kill or die-off of local species indicates you need to drop the levels an order of magnitude or so.

But recognize the 80/20 rule and the 99-and-44/100 rule. You can eliminate 80% of the pollutants cheaply, but eliminating all but the last fraction of 1% of the pollutions is going to be very expensive. And you can never eliminate them all. And every dollar spent dropping the concentration of pollutants below where it really needs to be is a wasted dollar.

Which is all to the good as far as environmentalists are concerned. To understand environmentalists, you have to understand that they are not scientists. They have contempt for science. Nor are they concerned about human wellbeing or even the environment itself. Environmentalism is not a scientific movement; it's a political movement. Environmentalists hate capitalism. Their goal is to destroy capitalism and all of its benefits. They'd like to see all of us living in mud huts and starving to death before we could have more children. Children are, to environmentalists, the ultimate pollutant. As Heinlein observed, environmentalists hate their own species.


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Thursday, 21 May 2009
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09:44 - Barbara's sister should be stopping over here shortly to drop off their new notebook system. It comes with Vista installed, and before I blow that away I'll make a set of recovery discs, just in case. I can't imagine that I won't be able to get Ubuntu 8.10 running on it (9.04 is problematic), but just in case I want to have Vista to fall back on.

I read the HP web page on recovery discs for this notebook. What a bunch of sweethearts. First, they say they don't include recovery discs, because you can make your own. Gee, thanks for saving yourself the trouble, not to mention the extra buck or so it would have cost you to include recovery discs. Then they say that the HP Recovery Manager allows you to make only one set of recovery discs, which may require as many as 10 CD-R discs or three DVD+R discs, and which is keyed to your specific system. And, oh by the way, if you happen to get a bad disc while you're creating the recovery set, tough shit. You get one try, pass or fail. If it fails, you're screwed. The only option is to order a set of recovery discs from HP, which costs about $16. Have I mentioned lately how much I hate Microsoft?

So I'll burn (or attempt to burn) a set of recovery DVD+R discs, just in case. If that succeeds, I'll go ahead and dupe the recovery set to give Frances and Al a second set of recovery discs, assuming that HP hasn't done something crafty to prevent duping the recovery discs. If they have, I won't waste any time trying to get around it.

I also need to order some other stuff from NewEgg. Right now, Frances and Al have their desktop Ubuntu system connected straight to their cable modem, but they're obviously going to need a wireless router. I was looking at wireless router specs and reviews on NewEgg, and it seems this $25 TP-Link model is a good bet for a basic wireless router. Al wants a wired mouse, so I added this Logitech model. They want to use Skype to stay in touch while Al's on the road, so I'm going to order them a pair of headsets. For their desktop system, I'll probably order this Logitech USB model. The notebook has a built-in microphone and speakers. I'll try those first, but if they don't work well I'll order either another USB headset or perhaps this Logitech 3.5mm headset. The notebook has a 3.5mm jack, but it's not clear to me if it's speaker-out or headset-in/out. If the latter, it might make sense to use the 3.5mm headset to preserve USB ports.

Finally, they're probably going to want to try using video with Skype. They'll need at least a webcam for their desktop system. The notebook has a built-in webcam, which I may or may not be able to get running under Ubuntu. If I can get the notebook webcam running under Ubuntu, I'll probably just lend them one of my webcams for their desktop instead of having them buy one. My primary monitor, a 22" Viewsonic, has a built-in webcam that works with Ubuntu, so I really don't need a standalone webcam.

I can get the notebook configured and tweaked here over the holiday weekend, using my own wireless router, so by the time the stuff arrives from NewEgg, probably next Tuesday or Wednesday, I'll be ready for it.



12:44 - Microsoft and computer OEMs are always talking about "out-of-the-box experience" and similar marketing crap, which turns out to be a cruel joke. Here it is, more than 2.5 hours after I first fired up the new notebook, and it's just started to write the third of three recovery DVDs. I booted the system and went through the initial Windows configuration junk, ending at 10:01 a.m. I then immediately started the process to create recovery discs. For more than an hour, the system just sat there banging on the hard drive, presumably creating ISOs for subsequent burning. When it finally finished that, it prompted me to insert a burnable CD or DVD, telling me that it would require 19 CD-R discs, 3 DVD+R discs, or 2 DVD+R/DL discs.

So I inserted a DVD+R disc and told it to start. The first of three phases is creating the data, which I'd have thought it had already done in the hour or more it sat there banging on the hard drive. But no, it takes quite a while to get past phase 1. Then in phase 2 it burned the disc and proceeded to phase 3, verifying the disc. Then it finally popped the drive open and prompted me to insert another disc. I did that, told it go ahead, watched the "building data" phase start, and walked away. My mistake. After it finished building data, it popped up a prompt to warn me that I'd used a DVD+R disc for disc 1 of the restore set, so I had to use the same type of disc for disc 2. Well, shit. There was already another DVD+R disc in the drive, which you'd think it would realize. But no. It continued displaying that useless warning message until I noticed and cleared it. Fortunately, I lost only a few minutes there.

It's finally doing the verify pass on disc 3 of the recovery disc set as I'm writing this. When everything finishes, I'll try to boot the first disc to see if indeed I have a bootable recovery set. If this were Linux, I'd probably just assume that everything would work the way it was supposed to. But with Windows, that's never a safe assumption.

Once I verify that the recovery set boots (actually, that's a waste of time; what am I going to do if it doesn't boot?), I'll fire up Ubuntu 9.04 in live CD mode to see if it detects the wireless network adapter and (I hope) the webcam. If that doesn't work, I'll burn a 8.10 Ubuntu disc and try it in live CD mode. If that doesn't work, I'll start thinking about NDISwrapper or the Mad Wi-Fi drivers. Or perhaps a different distro, if that turns out to be the easiest solution.



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Friday, 22 May 2009
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10:23 - I know this will surprise a lot of my readers, but I decided to leave Windows on the notebook. This will be Al's primary system, and he'll be using it on the road a lot, connecting to Wi-Fi at hotels and motels across the US and Canada. Wireless networking support in Linux is a lot better than it was only a year ago, but it's still not as simple to use as it should be. In particular, I ran into problems running Ubuntu 9.04 in Live CD mode with WPA/WPA2 support. I managed to get it working, but tweaking Wi-Fi security settings each time he wants to connect to a different AP isn't something Al should have to deal with. So I decided to leave Windows on the notebook, which'll also make stuff like Webcam support easier.

The system itself is very nice, with an impressive 16" display and the kind of performance you'd expect from a midrange Core2 Duo processor and 4 GB of memory. The main bottleneck, of course, is the 5400 RPM hard drive, but that's a common problem with notebook systems. I suppose I could install a 7200 RPM aftermarket hard drive, but in return for a small disk performance boost there'd be a high price in increased heat and lowered battery life. And this system has sufficient memory that it seldom hits the hard drive anyway. All told, I think a 5400 RPM hard drive is a reasonable compromise.

I've already installed AVG antivirus software and Firefox. I need to get Thunderbird installed and configured for Al's mail and get Skype installed and working. Otherwise, the system is just about ready to go. I ordered a wireless router, wired mouse, and two headsets from NewEgg yesterday, which presumably will arrive next Tuesday. That'll mean a visit to their house to get the AP/router configured, and to "de-share" their desktop system, putting all Al's stuff on the notebook and leaving only Frances's stuff on the desktop. Of course, I'll also setup accounts for each of them on both systems, so either can login to either system and use it with their own settings.


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Saturday, 23 May 2009
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00:00 -



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Sunday, 24 May 2009
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10:33 - I rejoined Netflix on 26 April. Since then, they've not throttled me at all, so I was surprised Friday when only two discs showed up instead of the expected three. Netflixed claimed that they'd shipped three on Thursday, so I figured one of them had just been delayed a day in the mail. Then when Saturday's mail came, the disc wasn't there. Hmmm. A couple hours later, someone rang the doorbell. Barbara answered it, and found our mail man standing on the front porch, holding a mangled Netflix envelope. He told Barbara it must've gotten caught in the shredder sorter, but he figured we'd want it for the weekend so he made a special trip back to deliver it.

When I say mangled, I mean MANGLED. Here is it, just as he handed it to Barbara.


Incredibly, the disc itself wasn't even scratched, let alone cracked. So we'll watch it tonight.

Fortunately, I have plenty of spare return envelopes, because whenever possible I return two discs in one envelope. It's the unspoken agreement I have with Netflix: I rent a lot of discs, so I do what I can to minimize their costs for return postage as long as they don't start throttling me. If they throttle me too heavily, I start returning one disc per envelope. So far, that seems to work pretty well. In a typical month, their average revenue from my $16.99 payment comes out to between $0.70 and $0.80 per disc, so they probably barely break even on postage costs. If I start returning one disc per envelope, that drops them into the loss column. They continue to honor their "unlimited" promise, despite the fact that I am the Customer from Hell as far as they're concerned.

I suspect Netflix is really hoping that the USPS cuts deliveries back to five days a week. That'll save them a lot of money servicing very heavy renters like me.


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