Monday, February 27, 2006

It's So Much Easier When Other People Do The Work


It is interesting to read that the U.S. government feels the need to get vast amounts of data from Google and other search engines, in order to somehow demonstrate that people find child pornography on the Internet, given that it appears that 40% of child pornography (at least, in terms of that downloaded in Britain) originates in the United States.
Less than 1 per cent of the sites were located in the UK, highlighting the success of the police and the IWF in countering domestically generated child pornography. ... Around 40 per cent of child pornography accessed in the UK comes from the US. A further 28 per cent comes from Russia where, although the production of child pornography is increasing rapidly, the authorities seem reluctant to act. 'There is no liaison with Russia to tackle these sites, so they stay up almost ad infinitum,' Robbins said.

A difference in approach between the US and UK authorities has also led to problems. 'If a site is found in the UK, it's usually taken down within 48 hours,' Robbins said. 'In America they tend to leave the sites up once they are identified while the police gather evidence for a sting operation. That's a problem for us in the UK, because people continue to access the sites and commit offences.'
You would think that the U.S. would install better statistics software on the sites it is monitoring, and log the search engine referral data....

Caution - Both of the following links will automatically play music:
The Internet is for porn - and always has been. (Well, not really, but....)

Thursday, February 23, 2006

If You're Happy And You Know It....


George Will's column today invites all sorts of snarky retorts. Conservatives, he claims on the basis of a self-reporting survey, are happier than liberals. Or at least happer than "conservative Republicans"... not quite the same thing, particularly these days.
But, then, conscientious liberals cannot enjoy automobiles because there is global warming to worry about, and the perils of corporate-driven consumerism, which is the handmaiden of bourgeoisie materialism. And high-powered cars (how many liberals drive Corvettes?) are metaphors (for America's reckless foreign policy, for machismo rampant, etc.). And then there is -- was -- all that rustic beauty paved over for highways. (And for those giant parking lots at exurban mega-churches. The less said about them the better.) And automobiles discourage the egalitarian enjoyment of mass transit. And automobiles, by facilitating suburban sprawl, deny sprawl's victims -- that word must make an appearance in liberal laments; and lament is what liberals do -- the uplifting communitarian experience of high-density living. And automobiles . . .
[eyeroll] Maybe some Oxycontin would cheer the liberals up? (Oops... that was snarky. But what comes closer to a "happy pill"?)

The survey also concludes, "Married people are happier than unmarrieds. People who worship frequently are happier than those who don't. ... Rich people are happier than poor people. Whites and Hispanics are happier than blacks. Sunbelt residents are happier than those who live in the rest of the country." Of those, Will mentions religion, the sunbelt and marriage.

No Computers Needed


Last week on "Real Time with Bill Maher", Iraq advisor Dan Senor defended the disappearance of billions of dollars in the early months of the U.S. occupation, protesting that if they had waited until it was possible to set up a "first world" accounting system, they would have been unable to distribute funds for many months despite the pressing need to, for example, help fund activities which might create jobs for unemployed Iraqis. He estimated that it would have taken "ten months, a year" to implement a "first world" accounting system. He argued that the "wheelbarrows of cash and no receipts" method of accounting was "inherited from Saddam's government"... which may well be true, but to me does not seem to be a good defense of maintaining that system.

I'm just wondering, what's so complicated about issuing receipts, storing them, and letting somebody count the beans at a later date? They literally had wheelbarrows full of cash which they were distributing, so it's hard to believe the concern was about space. (Mr. Senor did respond to this suggestion, to the effect of "What do you mean write it down? the government was governing over 27 million people. You don't just write it down." Um... why not?)

A first world accounting system, rather than one "inherited" from the locals? The Sumerians did better with clay tokens.

There's A Name I Haven't Heard For A While....


... And one you have probably never heard at all. Google is excited to announce the appointment of Larry Brilliant as executive director of Google.org. (I'm reminded of other curious names like "Faith Popcorn" - Can that really be the name he was born with?)

Brilliant's contribution to Ann Arbor history included founding NETI Technologies, and that company's creation of an online conferencing software package called Picospan. You can see the legacy of that software if you telnet in to Grex or Arbornet, both of which use newer software which is still very reminiscent of the original. The rise and fall of NETI's stock might also have been taken as a cautionary tale for those who invested in Internet companies "before the bubble burst", had any of them been interested in cautionary tales. For more than you ever wanted to know about early computer conferencing in Ann Arbor, and a little bit more on top of that, here's a summary.

Google Enters the World of Webhosting


I mean, beyond blogs. Google Page Creator. (Via SitePoint blogs).

Monday, February 20, 2006

More Power To Them


I never bought into the Segway hype, but the inventor's more recent innovations seem to have a lot of potential.
Dean Kamen, the engineer who invented the Segway, is puzzling over a new equation these days. An estimated 1.1 billion people in the world don't have access to clean drinking water, and an estimated 1.6 billion don't have electricity. Those figures add up to a big problem for the world—and an equally big opportunity for entrepreneurs.

To solve the problem, he's invented two devices, each about the size of a washing machine that can provide much-needed power and clean water in rural villages.

"Eighty percent of all the diseases you could name would be wiped out if you just gave people clean water," says Kamen. "The water purifier makes 1,000 liters of clean water a day, and we don't care what goes into it. And the power generator makes a kilowatt off of anything that burns."

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Diplomacy - Where "Old Europe" Shines....


Well, perhaps not always....
Libya's parliamentary secretariat today suspended the interior minister and referred him for investigation over yesterday's riots that resulted in the deaths of at least 10 people.

Meanwhile, the Italian cabinet minister blamed for sparking the riots has resigned.

* * *

At least 10 people died in a six-hour riot on outside the Italian consulate yesterday, where more than 1,000 demonstrators gathered in an angry protest, apparently in reaction to an Italian cabinet minister wearing a T-shirt printed with the cartoons satirising Prophet Muhammad that have provoked protests across the Muslim world.
Granted, Italian politics are weird. (I wonder what they would have made of it, had the T-shirt been worn by a porn star.) Not that I want to damn Congress with faint praise (although some of its members work hard to leave us with little choice), but at least nobody rioted over the "freedom fries" thing....

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Importance of Coming Clean


Two news stories which, but for the choices of the Bush Administration, wouldn't be in the news....
  • Dick Cheney shoots his friend. Why is it still a story? Because Mr. Cheney didn't immediately issue a statement about what happened, ideally with some of the remorse he expressed several days later during his interview on Fox News.

  • New Abu Ghraib Pictures. Whether you think they're "more of the same" or even more shocking than the first batch, the Bush Administration's effort to squelch these pictures has led to them coming out in dribs and drabs (with a possible torrent soon to come from Salon).
In the former case, it's hard to tell what Mr. Cheney was thinking - this was obviously going to be a headline story which, if managed improperly, could drag on for days or weeks. Yet it is almost as if the Vice President's office set out to handle the media aspects improperly.

In the latter case, while it would have been a bitter pill to swallow, had all of the pictures been released when the initial set of photographs came to public attention, this would be an old story. Sure, it might have been more difficult for the Administration to spin its "just a few bad apples" line, or to convince as many people that the mistreatment of prisoners was minor. But we wouldn't have a new headline story, and new pictures being distributed in the Middle East when tensions are already very high. (And right on the heels of a similar British scandal.)

I know that the government, and the Bush Administration in particular, loves its secrets. But for once, perhaps they should weigh the cost of secrecy against the benefit of honesty.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Modern Customer Service


One of the biggest problems of the manner in which many businesses offer what presently passes for "customer service" is that there is no consistency in who is working to resolve a problem, and thus there is nobody who is responsible to resolve the problem. Some companies, such as (at last check) MCI, claim not to have individual extensions for their employees. (A phone company wihtout extensions? C'mon.) Even if you have the employee's name, you have to try to work your way through an invisible labyrinth of switchboards to be reconnected.

Some more recent examples of this phenomenon:

* My webhosting company, eager to make me wonder why I stayed with them after last year's experience, tried to pair customer service highs with customer service lows. The highs? Their employees are for the most part very good at dealing with increasingly frustrated customers. The lows? Pretty much everything else.

I was having some problems with a server, so I requested that they reboot the server. The site didn't come back online, which isn't a particularly good sign - but also one they should catch. When they did get the server restarted, it wouldn't run Apache, which is to say it wouldn't run any websites. They ran a diagnostic and, surprise, the hard drive was failing

I asked the technician who called with that news how long I could reasonably expect one of their hard drives to last. "We use Seagate drives." Yes, but how long should they last? "I've seen them last a month, and I've seen them last five years." Yes, but how long should I reasonably be able to expect them to last? "If you need to be absolutely certain that your data is always online there are systems which can do that. For $100,000.00 you can set up a...." I'm aware that if I spend an unlimited amount of money I can get a much more reliable system; I'm asking about this hard drive on this system. I know I'm not one of your heavier users, so what can I reasonably expect? "I've seen them last for years, or sometimes just a month or two." Egad....

Rather than sticking a new hard drive into the old system, I contacted customer service to upgrade to newer, more capable hardware. "You're aware that we won't be able to transfer your IP's over to the new machine?" Well, not ideal, but I still wanted to upgrade. I made clear that I wanted to cancel the old machine, as it wasn't running anyway and I wasn't going to bring it back online even if they put a new hard drive in it. I added on their backup solution which, although in my opinion a bit overpriced for what you get will perhaps save me some grief the next time my hard drive fails after a period of time they cannot approximate.

So I go to the new server's administrative interface and start setting up the websites. At which time I notice that the only IP Addresses I can assign to websites are those from the old server. I contact customer service. "The new block of IP's should have been assigned to your server." Well, yeah. "Hey - you say you're cancelling the old server. We can transfer that block of IP's to your new server if you want." I thought you couldn't do that. "It's pretty easy. I'll take care of it for you." It should be done in about sixty to ninety minutes.

Later that evening I still can't work with the IP's, so I call back. "It says here in the notes that everything is fine." What does it say if you attempt to verify the notes, rather than just reading them. "Oh. It looks like it wasn't completed. And the guy who does that went home for the night." So? "He comes in about 8:30 in the morning. I'll put a sticky on his screen and he'll probably take care of it first thing."

At 9:00 the next morning.... "That was done last night." Did you see the sticky on your screen? "Yes, I did, but the notes say it was done." Did you attempt to verify the notes, rather than just reading them? "Oh. Let me look into this." [Insert 40 minutes on hold here.] "It was done yesterday." If it was done yesterday, why isn't it working now? "Our system has to reset itself for the changes to take place, and it reboots every six hours. So everything should be working by noon." Didn't the system reboot, then, at 6 AM? And for that matter at midnight last night? And at 6 PM yesterday? "Um, the system will reboot at noon and it should work after that."

That was accurate - shortly after noon, everything seemed to be working... except for the fact that I couldn't access the server by FTP or POP or SMTP. I spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out if there was a problem at my end... nope. Back to technical support. "The ports are closed." Yes, when I called you I told you that the ports were closed. I need them open, so I can set up my websites." "I don't know why they are closed." I don't care. I need them open. "It may be a security reason, because they should be open." Well, find out if there is a security problem then, fix it, and open them. "I can't see from the account history if you closed them or if we did. If you closed them there will be a charge to reopen them." I'm telling you right now that you closed them. "Let me check something. Can you hold for a couple of minutes?" [Insert a couple of minutes on hold here.] "We can't figure out who closed the ports, so we'll open them without charging you." You closed them. Thank you for agreeing to reopen them. "I said we couldn't figure out...." Well, as I said, I didn't close them, which leaves you.

"Which ports do you want open?" How about the ones which are supposed to be open by default? "I can't advise you as to which ports to have open." I'm not asking for advice, just the default settings. [Insert tedious discussion of ports here.] "We can have those open for you in one to two hours, and I've made the note extremely clear so that they will do it right." Is this something I can fix from my end? "No, this has to be changed here... wait, yes. On your machine you can open these ports yourself." Can you tell me how? "Sorry, I can't do that."

Two hours later, a return call to indicate that the SMPT and POP ports (those for email) remained closed (although I had been happily transferring files to the server to bring the sites back on line). "Let me tell you how to fix that yourself" (Less than thirty seconds later....)

Although the summary doesn't necessarily convey it, that last technician was highly professional, courteous, and knowledgeable. He was unable to be more helpful because company policy is to charge by the task for as much support as possible unless a customer is paying a monthly fee to have support included with their server. So even though every single problem I had was the fault of the webhost, their own policies prevented their technicians from providing actual customer support... because I hadn't paid them for the privilege of helping them troubleshoot their own screwups. It says something that at the end of the day (well, actually, the end of the second day) their own technical support representative was sufficiently exhausted with their system to break the rules by giving me instruction, rather than issuing yet another ticket to have things fixed in-house "in an hour or two."

* I sent an inquiry to Comcast over some email problems, noting that AOL was rejecting emails I was sending. In the first email I described the correction that AOL requested they implement in order to resolve the problem. In the second email I summarized the problem and pointed out a minor incorrection in the first email.

The response to the first email explained that they could not make individualized changes to Comcast accounts, then presented a lengthy (and entirely irrelevant) description of how to configure email for an Outlook Express account. (Even if I used Outlook Express, that wouldn't be the problem....)

The second email, which by any sensible measure should have been sent to the same person, went instead to a different person. That second person, looking at exactly the same problem, indicated "We are aware of this issue and we apologize for any inconvenience that it may cause you. Our engineers are in contact with the email administrators at AOL, and they are working together to resolve this issue."

In my opinion, they're working a bit too slowly at one end or the other, but at least the second communication was relevant and helpful. However only the first communication was given a customer service ticket number, so I can't follow up to the second without being routed to yet another random customer support person.

Monday, February 06, 2006

"We'll Just Import Them From China"


Sebastian Mallaby has a "What, Me Worry?"-type editorial in today's Post, complaining that our nation doesn't really have a problem with science education - and if it does, that we still don't have anything to worry about.
The story of Gavriel Salvendy [who has advanced post-graduate science education in China], which some might see as an omen of America's declining status, is in fact more subtle. Salvendy has long recruited star Chinese graduate students to Purdue, where he still does most of his research. Of the 18 Chinese who have completed PhDs under his supervision at the Indiana campus, 15 have stayed on in the United States.
Over five years, that's three Ph.D.'s per year who we have successfully imported from China. Yay, us?

As I see it, the problems of science education in the United States include:
  • As a society, we have a general disdain for "book learning" and even moreso for the type of person ("geek" / "nerd" / "egghead") who pursues a career in math or physical science.
  • We rely very heavily upon foreign students to round out our university rosters in the physical sciences, particularly at the graduate level.
  • We are pursuing immigration policies which make it less attractive for foreign students to pursue graduate degrees within the United States.
  • Foreign nations are increasingly able to offer their own math and science graduate students an education equivalent to or superior to that which they might receive at a U.S. college.
  • We rely upon a sizeable population of well-educated immigrants to perform scentific and engineering work for our nation's companies.
  • Foreign workers with science degrees are increasingly able to find quality work without leaving their nations of origin, or battling with the USCIS.
  • U.S. companies are finding it less important to bring foreign workers to the United States, as opposed to taking the work overseas.
Fundamentally, our nation doesn't care about science, is increasingly ignorant of basic science and math, and doesn't see the importance of improving. Given his own history of mediocrity, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that Mr. Mallaby has chosen to be the spokesperson for the status quo.

Mallaby writes,
The science lobby should also stop pretending that countries compete the same way companies do. Firms such as Toyota and Ford really do go head-to-head against each other; if Toyota has superior technology, it will steal Ford's customers -- and Ford may even disappear. But if China produces Nobel-quality science, it won't put the United States out of business; rather, Chinese discoveries will help American scientists discover more, too.
Here's a neat new word for Mr. Mallaby to learn: Patent. Mallaby continues,
Equally, Toyota doesn't sell cars to Ford workers, so there's no benefit to Ford's people if Toyota's quality advances. But China does sell to Americans, so whatever makes it more productive has some upside for the United States as well.
Mallaby is mixing his metaphors. Taking a lead in science and technology provides a significant benefit not only to corporations, but also to countries. Even if Mallaby cannot grasp how the producer of the world's best software or electronic goods can provide an economic boon to the nation in which it is headquartered, perhaps he should also consider the desire of the U.S. to maintain a lead in military technology, which is an area where we can't expect nations like China to sell us their secrets. You can't count on being able to perpetually import other nation's brain power in order to remain competitive.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Pushing The Sports Analogy Too Far


Behind the New York Times firewall, in "Remaking the Epic of America", David "Babbling" Brooks shares the insight he expects us to derive from a handful of sports movies he has seen. Movies in which:
A tough, no-nonsense coach, usually with a shadow-filled past, takes over a shambolic, underfunded team. He forces his players to work harder than they ever thought they could. He inspires them to sacrifice for the greater good. Finally, he leads them to glory over richer and more respected rivals.

When a story is repeated this often, and when it continues to attract audiences time after time, it is because it affirms certain values precious to the culture. The values these movies affirm amount to a brick-by-brick destruction of the values that were prevalent 30 years ago.

Thirty years ago, young people were told to question authority. But the heroes of these movies are coaches who are unabashed authority figures. Preferring success to affection, they instill fear and sometimes hatred in their players. They insist on being called "sir" and impose dominating discipline. "This is no democracy," Denzel Washington's character says in "Remember the Titans." "It is a dictatorship. I am the law."
This, of course, tells us far more about Mr. Brooks than it does about society. Having a reasonable impression of Mr. Brooks' stature, I somehow doubt that he has any first-hand knowledge of playing football under a tough coach, but as with William F. Buckley, Jr. and tales of life at sea, the movie image seduces him. And the seduction is not so much the idea of following an unabashed authority figure - it's a reflection of the authoritarian mind at work.

What do I mean by that? I am referencing the mindset that certain people are meant to lead, and others meant to follow. When you are in the position of a follower, it is your duty to be both loyal and unquestioning. This mindset also defines how the authoritarian personality relates to his superiors. Think of Ambassador John Bolton, who seems to have simultaneously been a horrible boss to those "beneath" him and comfortable in the role of a sycophant to those above him. Brooks and Buckley are a bit peculiar as authoritarians, as they have sidestepped the traditional power structure of our society. But perhaps that shouldn't be surprising of an authoritarian with a huge ego but who has nobody to command.

This of course doesn't stop the fantasy - Buckley admires a pubescent lord naturally taking his position as a leader of men, without so much as a thought for the men and boys of common blood who were fated to serve, and Brooks adores the totalitarian coach who cannot be questioned by even his best player. Meanwhile in real life, they spend their careers sitting alone behind their computers or dictaphones.

While Brooks is enamored with the "Horatio Alger" aspects of the stories, his larger point appears to be that independent thought - and affirmative action - are bad.
In short, these movies embrace the civil rights part of the 1960's and 1970's. Women and minorities should be given full access to the competitive world of the meritocracy. But they take the therapeutic, progressive, New Age part of the 1960's and 1970's and they crush it dead. They create a culture of all-inclusive traditionalism.
I must have missed the mixed-gender sports teams in the films he listed.

I understand why somebody who thinks like Brooks would think that the decline of independent thought, cowed deference to authority, and everybody meekly maintaining their place in the societal pecking order is attractive. Many an elitist snob yearns for the return of an "upstairs-downstairs" society. Personally, though, I think it was the breakdown of rigid class structure and the questioning of authority which led to the remarkable progress we made in the 20th Century.

Meanwhile, I'll await Brooks' column where he explains that, as slasher films have seen significant success over the past thirty years, movies like Se7en, Nightmare on Elm Street and Silence of the Lambs affirm values precious to society.