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Week of 29 August 2005

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Monday, 29 August 2005
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08:21 - Our thoughts this morning are with the folks in Louisiana and Mississippi, who are being savaged by one of the worst hurricanes that has ever struck the United States.

At least the storm weakened from a strong Category 5 to a Category 4 before it came ashore, and it appears that New Orleans will not receive the direct hit that we all feared. Still, the storm is likely to cause catastrophic damage and great loss of life, if not the 50,000 dead that some were predicting yesterday if the storm made a direct strike on New Orleans.

The FEMA folks will no doubt be criticized by Monday-morning quarterbacks, but I'm sure they're doing all they can to deal with devastation that is almost beyond human comprehension. Let's hope they're able to deal successfully with the most urgent needs over the next days and weeks.

I'll be doing heads-down writing all week. I probably won't have much to say here or in email or the messageboards until at least after the Labor Day holiday.


Tuesday, 30 August 2005
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08:10 - New Orleans seems to have dodged the bullet. It seems strange to say that, given the devastation that occurred, but had the eye of Katrina passed only 20 miles or so farther west, the damage and loss of life might have been orders of magnitude greater. As it is, there are more than 50 known dead, with probably many more as yet undiscovered. About 80% of New Orleans is under up to 20 feet of water. It may be weeks or even months before electric power is completely restored, and it will take years to rebuild. New Orleans will never be quite the same.

Even the last remnants of Katrina are dangerous. We're on the very fringe of the remnants today, and we're under tornado watches all day. At least we may get some much-needed rain.

I think I see the problem here. The movie studios are concerned because people are copying and distributing their products, and the studios aren't making as much money as they think they should.

The latest remake of King Kong is to cost $150 million, which is to say about $0.50 for every man, woman, and child in the United States. The studios are afraid that after spending all that money they may not break even. You think? Spending $150 million to make a movie, any movie, is insane. One definition of insanity is to do the same thing repeatedly, hoping for a different outcome. And the studios do the same thing repeatedly.

The average movie now costs nearly $100 million. The studios had total revenue of $84 billion last year, of which 2/3 was from DVD sales and only 1/3 from ticket sales. And ticket sales are plunging year by year. Worse still from the studios' perspective is that DVD sales are starting to decline.

If you extend the current curve out ten years, you'll find that no one will be going to movie theaters. And why would they? Ticket prices are outrageous, and concession prices more so. Most theaters are dirty, interruptions from cell phones are common, and one has to sit through a half hour of commercials before the movie even starts. Why would anyone pay for that?

Many people haven't set foot in a movie theater in years. The last time Barbara and I went to a movie in a theater was about 18 years ago, and we never plan to attend another. More and more people are abandoning movie theaters. The idea of attending a movie in a theater has become almost quaint to many of us middle-aged people. Something our parents' generation did, and something we did as kids, but not something we do nowadays. Even young people are abandoning movie theaters in droves.

Home theater equipment is now mainstream and reasonably priced. Why would anyone attend a theater instead of watching a movie at home? Invite some friends over, pop something everyone wants to watch into the DVD player, and socialize afterward. This is the death of movie theaters.

A couple of clueful Hollywood folks have finally realized that movie theaters are an anchor that's dragging them down. They've proposed simultaneous release to theaters and DVD. That's a step in the right direction, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. It cures one of the symptoms, but not the underlying disease.

That disease is movies that cost $100 million or more to make. It's like a baseball batter that swings for the fences every time he comes to bat. He'll strike out most of the time, and hit a home run once in a great while. That's fine if you're playing baseball, but if you're a movie studio that's paying $100 million for every swing, the inevitable result is bankruptcy.

Movie studios make drunken sailors look careful with their money. How about this? If you're a movie studio, the next time you're thinking about spending $100 million to make some piece of junk, don't. Instead, slash that budget by 50%. Then, instead of making one $50 million dollar movie, make five $10 million dollar movies. Better still, make ten $5 million movies, or even 25 $2 million movies. You don't need big-name actors. All you need is competent actors, of whom there are many. Concentrate on all the stuff you've been ignoring for the last fifty years or so, such as characterization, plot, and good writing. Release them directly to DVD for $10 or less. You'll find that few people will bother copying your movies when they can buy a real copy for a few bucks. And you'll make more money than you're making now.

14:35 - I've been throttled. Until now, Netflix has always shipped out the next movie the same day they received the last one back. They received all three of the last movies back this morning, but they're only going to ship me one replacement today, waiting until tomorrow to ship the other two.

It can't be a matter of availability. I have 51 movies in my current queue, all but one of which are showing availability of Now. Obviously, I've annoyed them by returning movies too quickly, so now they're going to punish me for doing that. I wondered how long it would take. I expected this to happen eventually, but I thought they'd wait until after the holiday weekend, which gains them one extra day anyway.

I was going to back off voluntarily, but now I think I'll keep pushing for a while, just to see if they throttle harder.


Wednesday, 31 August 2005
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08:36 - A couple weeks ago, our friends Mary and Paul came over to our house for dinner. Afterwards, I told them about an idea I'd had. I said that if I were diagnosed with a fatal illness, given six months to live, I thought the best thing I could do with my remaining time would be to spend it tracking down Level 3 sex offenders and killing them.

The courts have clearly abdicated their responsibilities to protect our children from being raped and murdered. They kick these scum loose, willy-nilly, knowing that they'll rape and murder more children. Solving this problem is, as they say, a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

Someone has. Yesterday, Paul sent me a link to this article, entitled, "Killings of 2 Bellingham sex offenders may have been by vigilante, police say".

My first reaction was to wonder why on earth the police are wasting resources looking for the shooter. Even if they catch him, the most he should be charged with is misdemeanor discharge of a firearm within city limits. If I were on his jury, I'd vote to acquit him of whatever he happened to be charged with, and I know I'm not alone. That's assuming, of course, that the court saw fit to allow the jurors to hear the relevant facts, which it probably would not.

The two so-called victims were convicted child molesters, which our so-called justice system released back into the community. They're dead now, which they should have been a long time ago.

If they do catch the shooter, I hope they give him a medal for having the courage to do what the courts should have done in the first place. By his action, he undoubtedly saved other children, probably a long string of them, from being molested, raped, or murdered. As anyone knows who cares to look at the facts, child molesters cannot be changed. Child molesters molest children, period. It's what they do. Given the chance, they'll do it again, every time.

The article claims that these scum were model child molesters, employed and following the rules. That means only that they hadn't yet been caught again, or that they hadn't yet had another opportunity. The recidivism rate among child molesters is approximately 100.000%. Those who haven't yet recidivided will, sooner or later.

One aspect of the article disturbs me. It mentions that so-called vigilante actions against these scum may result in the repeal of laws that require the addresses of the worst sex criminals to be published. That would be a shame, but I don't think it'll happen. Convicted child molesters, rapists, and other scum don't vote. The rest of us do.


Thursday, 1 September 2005
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08:37 - Yet another reason why no one should install Microsoft Vista. C|Net reports that Hollywood, Microsoft align on new Windows. From the article:

"In short, the company is bending over backward--and investing considerable technological resources--to make sure Hollywood studios are happy with the next version of Windows..."

Nothing, you'll note, about customers being happy with Vista. In Microsoft's view, customers are the last priority. Microsoft has lost its way entirely. It no longer recognizes that a personal computer is supposed to be a personal computer. Microsoft could and should have Just Said No to the studios. Instead, it's up to us to Just Say No to Vista.

Oh, well. None of this matters to me anyway. I'll just keep using Linux. All of the Digital Restrictions Management and so-called "link protection" so beloved by the movie studios and Microsoft is an exercise in futility anyway. It won't stop the commercial copyright infringers, nor the technically ept. It'll make the lives of ordinary users miserable, of course, but Microsoft doesn't care.

In the past, the lack of resistance by ordinary users to this kind of garbage has been amazing. I think we'll see that change, though. Try telling a guy who bought a new $3,000 TV set a few months ago that his set is now obsolete and can't be used to watch high-definition programming. A lot of people are going to be very upset. I sincerely hope that the studios and Microsoft reap what they've sown.

I promised a report on my first month with Netflix, and here it is. I joined for the 3-at-a-time deal on the morning of 1 August, with a two-week free trial. During the month, I received a total of 25 DVDs from Netflix, which from what I've been reading is nearly an all-time world record.

Without exception, I returned each DVD the next business day or Saturday after I received it, and Netflix logged it as received by them the business day following that. Until 30 August, they always shipped three more DVDs the same day they received three back from me. Until late August, they always shipped the three DVDs that were next in my queue; beginning in late August, they started shipping DVDs from near the top of my queue, but often skipping one or more. I thought that was odd, especially since they were series DVDs. They never shipped out of order (e.g., Disc 4 of a series before Disc 3) but they did ship unrelated DVDs before they'd finished shipping all discs of two series.

On 30 August, for the first time, they failed to ship me the next three DVDs the same day they'd received three back from me. Instead, they shipped only one, with the other two listed as shipping the following day. On 31 August, I received the disc they'd shipped on 30 August. The remaining two discs were listed as Shipping Today. Here's the relevant part of my queue:

All three of those titles should have shipped 8/30 and arrived 8/31. Instead, they delayed shipping two of them for a day. But what's really interesting is that instead of an ETA of 9/1 for both titles, one is listed with an ETA of 9/2 and the other 9/3. I wonder if they're shipping them from more distant warehouses.

The gasoline situation here is not good. Prices for regular unleaded jumped yesterday from $2.50/gallon to $3.00/gallon, and some gas stations have run out of gasoline. Both pipelines out of the New Orleans area are down for lack of power to run their pumps. One is expected to be back up soon and the other may be down for some time. Even once one or both pipelines are working again, the question is whether the refineries that are still operating will be able to keep them full.

North Carolina gets 90% of its gasoline via one of those pipelines, so the short term outlook here is for widespread shortages. I keep expecting to hear calls for rationing and price controls, which would be disastrous. Perhaps the government learned its lesson back in the 70s.

As annoying as high gasoline prices are, its better to allow prices to rise to market levels and allocate resources that way. At $3.00/gallon, a lot of people will be voluntarily conserving. When prices reach $4.00/gallon, as I expect they soon will, car-pooling and similar measures will become a lot more common.

I'm in favor of relief efforts for New Orleans, but not for any federal assistance for rebuilding. As Katrina made abundantly clear, New Orleans shouldn't be where it is. Rebuilding a major city below sea level in the Gulf is simply insane. There'll be another huge hurricane along shortly, if not next year, soon enough. The US Army Corps of Engineers has been fighting for years to keep the Mississippi from changing to its natural course. When, not if, that happens, New Orleans becomes untenable. And it could happen the next time a major hurricane strikes the area.

Providing federal subsidies to rebuild New Orleans simply encourages people to build where they otherwise wouldn't, and where they shouldn't, putting a million or more people at risk of another major catastrophe, worse than what's just happened. Perhaps the best course would be to rename New Orleans to Old Orleans and build New New Orleans somewhere upriver where the ground is above sea level.

When I mentioned this to someone, he commented that the Netherlands is below sea level and has survived that way for hundreds of years. "Yes," I replied, "but when was the last time the Netherlands was threatened by a Category 5 hurricane?" New Orleans is built in a bowl below sea level, surrounded on all sides by the ocean, swamps, and a lake half the size of Rhode Island. Spending $100 billion to rebuild it in its current location is simply madness.


Friday, 2 September 2005
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08:15 - Netflix is definitely screwing with me. I sent back my last three discs on 29 August, and they were all three acknowledged as received by Netflix on 30 August. The next three discs should have all shipped on 30 August, and arrived on 31 August. Instead, Netflix shipped only one of the three on 30 August, which I received on 31 August.

They claim to have shipped the other two discs on 31 August, a day late, with ETAs of 2 and 3 September, rather than 1 September. In fact, neither disc arrived yesterday. I could write one off as a result of a delay by the post office, but the likelihood of both discs not arriving in one day due to post office delays is very small. So, one of two things is almost certainly true: (1) Netflix is lying about shipping the discs on 31 August, or (2) Netflix shipped the discs on 31 August, but from a remote distribution center rather than from our local Greensboro center.

My problem with Netflix isn't that they refuse to drive themselves into bankruptcy by supplying too many discs per month. My problem is that they lie. They lie in their advertising and on their web site when they offer "unlimited" rentals for a fixed monthly charge. They lie when they throttle, rather than simply being upfront about it. I have read that Netflix formerly said they needed $2.00 per rental to make money, and that more recently they've said they need $3.00 per rental. At our current $18/month rate, that translates to 9 discs per month at $2.00 each or 6 discs per month at $3.00 each. I don't know anyone who'd call 9 discs per month "unlimited", let alone 6 discs per month.

I'd have no problem at all with Netflix if they were honest about their service. If they promised x-discs-at-a-time for $y per month with a limit of z rentals per month, that'd be fine with me. Their problem is that people aren't going to sign up for their service if they're honest about their terms. Few people would pay $18/month knowing that they'd be limited to only 6 rentals for the month, and that they'd be charged every month even if they rented fewer or no discs that month.

But if you're going to advertise "unlimited" rentals, you'd better in fact provide unlimited rentals. Imagine a restaurant that advertised "all you can eat" for a fixed price and then told a customer that he'd already eaten too much so they were cutting him off. Or, more subtly, but with the same effect, taking hours or days to bring him his next serving.

My account runs from the 14th of the month. I'll probably give Netflix one more month, just to accumulate more data and see how bad the throttling becomes. Unless they improve, I'll simply cancel my service with Netflix and join Blockbuster. Blockbuster offers two months' free service if you send them your Netflix cancellation email, and also bundles two free in-store rentals per month. Blockbuster used to have a much more limited selection than Netflix, but they're now up to 40,000 titles.

If I do cancel Netflix service, it'll be interesting to see if they try to pull the same trick on me that many other people have reported happening to them. When they return their final discs, Netflix claims they didn't receive one or two of them, and charges the user's credit card for a lost disc. That would really piss me off.

14:15 - Is it just me, or is anyone else getting tired of hearing New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's marginally literate complaints about the state and federal governments not doing enough to help the victims in New Orleans? It seems to me that Nagin is more responsible than anyone for the large number of people who were left in New Orleans to face Katrina.

When I read the pre-strike reports about thousands of poor people being abandoned, I wondered at the time why Nagin apparently simply abdicated his responsibility to the citizens of New Orleans. New Orleans should have been a ghost town when the hurricane hit. Instead, there were 50,000 or more people remaining. Did New Orleans not have school buses and city buses that could have been pressed into service to evacuate those who were without their own transportation? Assuming 50 people per bus load, I'd think that the New Orleans city bus and school bus fleet should have been able to evacuate most or all of those who ended up stranded in just a couple of round trips. Even with only 200 buses, that would have been 10,000 people per trip, and I would think that New Orleans has many more than 200 buses.

It's true that evacuating even 50,000 able-bodied people would have left many elderly and infirm people stranded, but the limited resources that could be expected to remain available after Katrina struck would have been better spent caring for a relatively few elderly and disabled people and the medical staff who remained to care for them than trying to deal with the tens of thousands of desperate people who ended up being abandoned.

So, before Nagin points his finger at FEMA and the other agencies who are all trying their best to deal with an impossible situation, I suggest he consider what more he might have done before the strike.

14:40 - The USPS is more efficient than Netflix gives them credit for. Until this morning, I was expecting to get one disc today and one tomorrow. Netflix just emailed me to say that they'd shipped another disc today for tomorrow delivery, so I was then expecting one disc today and two tomorrow. The mailman just showed up with two discs, the one I was expecting today and the first of the two I had been expecting tomorrow.

The first disc, with an ETA of today, was sent from the Duluth, Georgia Netflix facility. The second disc, promised for tomorrow, had an ETA of tomorrow, and came all the way from the Netflix Santa Ana, California facility. Not bad, huh? For all the crap I and other give the USPS, they delivered that disc all the way across the country in less than 48 hours. And it's bulk mail, yet.

So, these two discs will go back tomorrow, for delivery Tuesday after the holiday, and the one coming tomorrow will go back next Tuesday for Wednesday delivery. Rather than return them to Duluth and Santa Ana, I'm going to send them to Greensboro.

16:13 - I am flabbergasted, utterly speechless. The government of Japan has pledged $200,000 in cash and $300,000 in tents and other supplies to the Red Cross for Katrina disaster relief. You read that right. That's $500,000. Not $500 million. Not $50 million. Not even $5 million.

A telethon run the other night by a local Winston-Salem television station raised more than Japan's contribution, just from residents of the Winston-Salem area. Australia, with a small fraction of Japan's population, has pledged $8 million. Even Sri Lanka, still devastated by the tsunami, is sending $25,000 that it can ill afford. But Japan, one of the wealthiest nations on the planet, can do no better than pledge a paltry $200,000. As I've said before, when the chips are down, one finds out who one's friends are.


Saturday, 3 September 2005
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Sunday, 4 September 2005
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