Saturday, December 29, 2007

Will music suck for the rest of our lives?

This Rolling Stone article about the changing standards for sound on music CDs is interesting to me -- it's not the first time I've seen a major publication decry the overuse of dynamic range compression. Where RS really loses the plot, I think, is when they blame the rise of MP3s for the trend. As the article itself notes, the overuse of DRC really began in the mid-90s, before MP3s had really begun to take off, and well before they'd set the new standard.

As for the present day, clearly there's no need for digital music to impede sound quality. Portable hard drives are big enough, and better free sound standards exist to store data at lossless rates (see FLAC.) The only real problems here are that a) the industry (primarily Apple) is moving away from cheaper, larger hard drives to smaller, more expensive flash drives (not without good reasons), and b) so far, there's been little move from the consumer end to shift to lossless formats.

The big question -- and this has a wider relevance, I think -- is whether we'll ever be able to get consumers to switch from MP3, which though flawed is basically good enough. The RS article mentions the failure of DVD Audio and SACD, two attempts to bring in higher-fidelity audio that resulted in embarassing losses. (SACD and DVD-A seem to have found a niche in classical music, though.) What it doesn't mention is that both formats adopted restrictive copy-protection measures that would have prevented people from using their music the way they clearly wanted to. But I think the biggest hurdle is simple complacency: people know MP3, it's good enough (and certainly good enough for listening in noisy environments like the ones we use iPods in) and most people don't have the kinds of sound systems they'd notice the difference in anyway.

This, to me, suggests that the transition to HD-DVD or Blu-ray is going to be a lot rockier than Hollywood is hoping.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


Apparently, being murdered by a military dictator is the kind of trait that you can inherit from your father.

Seriously, does anyone not see Musharraf's hand behind this? Either he ordered it himself, or he gave a "will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest" dog-whistle to his security guards, and the result is further chaos.

The Ngo Dinh Diem comparisons are coming to mind too readily, I fear.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

No, it really happened

The girlfriend didn't believe me when I started talking about the Christmas Truce a few minutes ago. There's something about the mind that rebels at the idea of basic humanity in a time of war, I suppose.

I mention this only because a) I always think about the Christmas truce at this time of year, and b) it gives me a chance to link to an old classic of mine.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The sophistication of my girlfriend

"Huh. The boxing day sale at XXXX is a $400 laptop. But it's got Windows Vista. Which is basically like gonorrhea at this point."

Deny her logic if you can!

That's better

It's almost 10pm on Christmas Eve, and I'm finally starting to feel in a "christmasy" mood.

I commend to you the good lady Darlene Love, singing "Christmas (Baby, please come home.)" I don't know that many Christmas songs who improve in direct relation to the volume at which they're played, but this is one.

Oh, and to the networks who've refused to pay writers their fair share and thus denied us Ms. Love's voice this Christmas, fuck you. No, wait, that's the grinch in me talking. Merry Christmas, well-fed executives. Now die in a fire.

And for the more sedate, Aimee Mann, "Calling on Mary."

Sunday, December 23, 2007

In which I get all Biblical

It's that time of the year, when we celebrate the birth of that radical cleric from the West Bank, known to have ties to Iranian intelligence -- "wise men from the East" being pretty flimsy code, if you ask me. Surely this dude's been wiretapped by the NSA? He went around Israel refusing the recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state, preaching revolution, and even resorting to violent protest. Pretty shady dealings all around.

If you can't tell, the holidays put me in a pretty grinchy mood, not helped by my choice of part-time employment. Christmas, frankly, is one of the only times I actually spend time thinking about Christianity, Jesus, and my relationship to those two concepts -- Easter being the other biggie, no surprise. It would be easier for me to take contemporary American Christianity more seriously if it didn't produce such outright blasphemies as the notion that Jesus wants you to be rich.
In three of the Gospels, Jesus warns that each of his disciples may have to "deny himself" and even "take up his Cross." In support of this alarming prediction, he forcefully contrasts the fleeting pleasures of today with the promise of eternity: "For what profit is it to a man," he asks, "if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" It is one of the New Testament's hardest teachings, yet generations of churchgoers have understood that being Christian, on some level, means being ready to sacrifice--money, autonomy or even their lives.

But for a growing number of Christians like George Adams, the question is better restated, "Why not gain the whole world plus my soul?"
Because apparently, the King of Kings was whipped forty times, wore a crown of thorns, and died on the cross so that we could all have two-car garages.

Let's say, for a moment, that it was somehow difficult to discover passages like Jesus' declaration that "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Let's pretend that the Bible didn't have pretty explicit things to say about people who created idols out of gold, or people who betrayed their prinicples for 30 pieces of silver. What's pretty clear to me, in this movement, is that what we're seeing is Christianity stripped of everything that makes it Christian.
That language is reflected in Your Best Life Now, an extraordinarily accessible exhortation to this-world empowerment through God. "To live your best life now," it opens, to see "your business taking off. See your marriage restored. See your family prospering. See your dreams come to pass ..." you must "start looking at life through eyes of faith." Jesus is front and center but not his Crucifixion, Resurrection or Atonement.
I bet. Wouldn't want suffering or sacrifice to be part of our faith, would we?

So why is this bothering me so much? Well, I've worked in retail for most of my adult life now, and for most of that time it was perfectly acceptable to simply say "Happy Holidays" to customers, on the understanding that if you were a Christian you were welcome to take that as "Merry Christmas", and if not, not. But a few years back a bunch of assholes and loudmouths starting harping about how retail workers saying "Happy Holidays" was really an attack on Christianity, part of the War on Christmas, and so my co-workers and I started getting yelled at by customers for tidings of comfort and joy.

So the response has been entirely predictable: Most retailers I know of now simply don't say anything. I refuse to volunteer any kind of seasonal greeting unless the customer offers it first. Christmas has gone, for me, from being a crazed if somewhat pleasant exchange of money, with some pleasant greetings on the side, to non-stop craziness. With very little in the way of pleasantries. All because my coworkers and I were accused of taking Jesus out of Christmas. It's hard not to feel like I've been robbed of a basic measure of civilized manners, all because of some freaks.

Well, look around people. You assholes are taking Jesus out of Christianity itself, all because you don't want to think of what Jesus would say about the statistics on western obesity and third world hunger. To believe that Jesus wants you to be comfortable obviously misses how uncomfortable Jesus' teachings actually are. But we've already seen church leaders demand that politicians understand torture is a Christian value, and that protecting fertilized zygotes is more important than keeping the Earth from burning, so I suppose having churches devoted to the idea that Jesus drove a hummer isn't the worst thing in the world.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Music Industry's talking points: "Hey, we're obsolete."

via Matt, the RIAA gives consumers holiday advice:

Watch for Compilations that are “Too Good to Be True": Many pirates make “dream compilation” CDs, comprised of songs by numerous artists on different record labels who would not likely appear on the same legitimate album together.

So, if you see an album with all of your favourite artists on it, performing the songs you love, for the love of God don't buy it -- it's probably pirated!

Seriously, this is their press release. And in it, they explicitly state that pirates are putting together products that people want more than the legitimate variety. This, of course, is why teenagers should be sued in to penury, rather than something as revolutionary as the music industry putting together its own compilations that people want to buy.

Related: The Year the Music Industry Broke.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Yes, this is a silly paranoid hypothesis

Is it possible that the World Bank is re-evaluating China's PPP GDP measure downwards because if it didn't, in a few years China's GDP would be larger than the United States?

Given that the new numbers seem to make no sense, according to Dean Baker, it's certainly worth exploring other explanations.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

They knew how to party

The Bulgars were a Turkic people, a branch of which had settled in the lower Danube basin, dominating the local Slavic peasantry. Under the pagan Khan Krum in 811 they defeated a Byzantine army and killed the emperor, making a drinking cup of his skull.

-- Ronald Findlay & Kevin H. O'Rourke, Power and Plenty, p. 14
How to be imposing, in three easy steps:

1) Be given, or preferably take, the name "Khan Krum."

2) Kill the Emperor of the remnants of Rome in the East.

3) When someone asks where you got that charming coffee mug, tell them the truth.

Nanosolar ships!

Since I've been blogging about energy issues, there've been plenty of companies who promised revolutionary technologies, cost-saving breakthroughs, and any number of claims that we were close to the silver bullet green technology. Well, Nanosolar may not be the silver bullet, but they're the best candidate I've seen for cheap solar power, in the range of $1/watt, or comparable with coal. (And, it goes without saying, way cheaper than nuclear.)

And they've started shipping their first solar panels to a municipal power station in Germany. Awesome.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

And Kwanzaa is when Rudolph the Reindeer killed all the firstborn sons of Egypt

I wanted to wait a while to post this, because I don't really like to make light of anti-semitism, but this story from last week still has me gasping:
NEW YORK (CNN) -- A Muslim man jumped to the aid of three Jewish subway riders after they were attacked by a group of young people who objected to one of the Jews saying "Happy Hanukkah," a spokeswoman for the three said Wednesday....

One member of the group allegedly yelled, "Oh, Hanukkah. That's the day that the Jews killed Jesus," she said.
Guh.. but.. snuh...

I suppose it goes without saying that anti-semitism and ignorance go hand in hand, but Jesus wept. Is it too much to ask that Christians understand minor points of their own theology, like Easter?

Give up already

We on the left have been pretty harsh on the media for not calling the Bush administration liars when they lie. No, we're told the White House "omits", "contradicts", "forgets", but they never lie.

Well, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Hillary Clinton and her team need to stop lying about their support, in 2003, of the Iraq War. They supported the war, so just give up on the obfuscation and own it. You've changed your mind as your perception of the war has changed? Excellent. I'd expect nothing less from the President. But stop treating us like idiots. Google exists, and your stated beliefs are matters of public record.

Tdraicer at Matt's goes way off base, though:
Hillary isn't a neocon, nor is Holbrook, or Albright (and I see in his list of people "around" Hillary's campaign Matt once again leaves out Wes Clark) and their foreign policy will not be markedly different from Obama's or Edwards.

If you don't support Hillary fine (I don't) but let's stop pretending a Hillary administration will be some sort of extension of the Bush years in foreign policy. That's rubbish.
There's two arguments being made here: one, that the Democratic candidates won't have "markedly different" foreign policies, and that Hillary's being accused of being a neocon.

The point is not that Senator Clinton is a neocon and will take her marching orders from the pages of the Weekly Standard, or even the New Republic. The point is that at every opportunity she and her team have portrayed her as the most willing to use military force of the current contenders. To say that Hillary is the most hawkish of the pack of candidates isn't a GOP talking point -- it's a Clinton talking point. I find this troubling in general -- Americans need to become less accustomed to the idea that they can bomb other countries with impunity, not more -- and in the particulars: the list of countries the US is primed to attack in the 2009-12 period is pretty short, and there's not a single one of those scenarios that would end well.

On another level, though, of course the general trend in US foreign policy will continue under any Democratic President. The US will continue to obsess over China, large corporations will continue to buy lopsidedly bad "free trade" deals with poor countries, and the rise of large developing economies will continue to challenge US incumbent players. There are plenty of areas where you can identify continuity between the Bush and Clinton presidencies. But that's really not the point anymore. The point is to replace people who like starting wars with people who don't, and replacing those who kind-of-don't with people who really-don't. Is Clinton better than Bush, and would I vote for her? Absolutely, on both counts. But so long as their are other options, I'll be looking elsewhere.

The obvious, brought to you by People

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Keep it classy, GOP

Not surprising in the least, but still managing to offend, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Homophobia):
"The Fallujahs of the world, the Ramadis of the world that require heavy combat and lots of fire-fighting capability - those are the places the Americans go. The other countries tend to go to the so-called peacekeeper zones, where they have fewer fire fights and less contact with the enemy," Hunter says. "And the European nations show little will to send large contingents of their military people into dangerous places."
This is what passes for the Republican argument against integrating openly-serving homosexuals in to active duty, apparently. The fact that Canadian and British soldiers are fighting in some of the toughest battles in Afghanistan, and both allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, apparently doesn't count. Yes, letting the panzies serve openly has really made us a bunch of push-overs.

Next time America throws a war, those of us from the developed world will keep Rep. Hunter's words in mind. And stay at home.

Manufacturing Scarcity

This here is an excellent talk by Chris Anderson of Wired on, well, I'm not sure what it's on, exactly. He flits from subject to subject, but the common element is the increasing use of "free" as a price for the consumer of new technologies and services. He starts off by talking about Moore's law, and the implication that if transistors become ever-cheaper every 18 months, then it makes sense to starts "wasting" them -- that is, stop locking your computers behind doors where only the IT guys can input commands, and build computers that anyone can use. Ditto hard drives: as computer storage becomes cheaper, you go from web mail services offering 2MB of storage, to 2GB of storage, to literally giving away infinite storage.

Anderson's argument, which he'll be hawking in a new book, is that a handful of new technologies are re-drawing the landscape by pushing marginal costs for a variety of activities to effectively zero. This isn't terribly new for the Internet, where the effective cost of distributing songs has been zero since 1999 or so. The effective cost of distributing books has been zero for a long time before that. And the effective cost of distributing movies is basically zero today.

Which brings us to the fight over Canada's aborted copyright changes. There is absolutely nothing in the proposed Canadian DMCA that would seriously impede piracy, nor is that the intent. (Piracy and theft already being illegal and harshly punished, there's little the act could do anyway.) The only thing you really need to know is that the DMCA-clone that the Liberals, and now the Tories, are trying to foist on us, is that it forbids circumventing DRM tools. Basically, anytime a company tries to tie up their content with some ridiculous and failure-prone software, it would be a crime to circumvent it, whether the intent was criminal or not. We know this because several times, amendments have been proposed that would limit punishment to cases where DRM was circumvented in order to violate copyright. Those amendments have never passed.

The point of these kinds of laws (around the world) is not, therefore, to enforce copyright, but to give content distributors a new set of tools with which to restrict our use of the content we pay for. This is reasonable business sense -- if I can sell you a CD and a ring tone and downloaded MP3s of the same music, I'd be silly not to at least try. The question is whether it makes any economic sense (not the same thing) or legal sense. Should we be throwing people in to jail because mainly American music labels want a more profitable business model?

Certainly, the economic case is pretty weak. The "cost" for the manufacturer of me taking a CD I buy and turning it in to ring tones or MP3s is zero. The software to do all this is freely available, they recoup the production cost of pressing the CD plus 10,000% from retail sales, and the cost of recording the music is amortized over the nearly 150-year copyright period that Canadian law allows (almost 200 in the US). The idea that consumer costs should be increased simply to improve the profitability of a few large incumbent content producers is pretty lame -- there's no scarcity here for them to profit from, after the purchase of the music itself.

But here's the thing: big copyright has always only thrived by producing scarcity where none exists. Copyright, indeed, exists to create scarcity in information. Certainly, by the mid-20th century costs for reproducing music and text had fallen so quickly that in most senses, information was a public good: the cost of adding one new consumer was basically zero. Today, almost all information is a public good in this sense.

To use the peanut butter analogy, it used to be that you could either spread information widely or thick, but not both. The economics of information dictated that gathering a large audience meant you had to produce, ahem, low-value content. Not that Hee Haw and Love Boat weren't great in their time, I'm sure. Today the economics are reversed: it's more profitable to spread thick information as widely as possible -- see the NY Times' decision to not only go to free subscriptions on the web, but to open their archives for free.

You'd think, seeing this astounding change in economics, we'd start thinking about all the wonderful things we could so by spreading information as widely and thickly as possible. We've found the cornucopia, as far as information is concerned: you can keep sucking up data all day, and there's literally no way you could consume it all. Instead, we're seeing the impulse by the content industries of all sorts (even scholarly journals are getting in on this, it's ridiculous) to try and lock down information as much as possible. The point is not to assure threatened profitability, but to continue creating scarcity where, by right, none should exist.

This process has been compared to the enclosures of the late Medieval Period, but in some ways it's even more cruel: land was, and is, a commodity in short supply -- orthodox liberal economics at least gives us a framework for showing that the enclosures made people better off in the long run. There's no similar argument here: incumbent firms have shown themselves able to profitably make compelling movies, television, and music from the status quo, so there's no reason to lock down people's use of their content. Further "enclosures" are unnecessary, and in fact counter-productive. Most economists who've looked at the system argue that the maximum necessary period for copyright protection is 20 years, +/- 5 or so. And that number is shrinking, not growing.

Funny point: while patents and copyright are today called "intellectual property" and are widely regarded as necessary to stimulate creation of content, the reality is that historically patents and copyright law served exactly opposite purposes. Letters of patent originated in Europe as a way for rival kingdoms to poach each others' high-tech workers at the time: I'd get a monopoly if I moved my sheep-shearing operation from Flanders to England. This stimulated economic growth in some areas at the expense of others, but arguably did little to stimulate new developments. And the first modern copyright laws were used to restrict copyright, not extend it. Two centuries after Shakespeare's death, the same cabal of London printers were claiming the monopoly on printing his plays. The Statute of Anne ended that insanity. How the wheel turns.

The point is that we've retroactively cast historically constructed laws and systems in a way that makes them appear more rational than they actually were. This is problematic, because it's leading us to make bad decisions now -- like continually expanding copyright terms in to the infinite future, guaranteeing monopoly profits for a few large firms at the expense of the public domain. Remember the public domain?

There's a deeper question here, and its about the failure of imagination on the part of economists generally. Here I steal shamelessly from Michael Perelman's book, Steal this Idea. (See what I did there?) Perelman points out the irony that, when confronted with a true public good (information) the response by mainstream economics has been to institute a monopoly (which is what intellectual property is, at the end of the day.) Confronted with the terrifying prospects of something without cost, modern economics thinks it's preferable to impose a monopoly -- the very antithesis of what liberal economics is supposed to preach -- than find some way to make peace with the abyss. Where is the new idea from economists about how to stimulate content production? Are we doomed in to a new round of enclosures, forever? If technology keeps making everything cheaper, why shouldn't the consumer actually benefit from the lower cost, and not be forced to pad the wallets of the already-very-rich?

There's a broader point here, and it has wider applications than just information: as technology and economics conspire to lower the costs of goods or services, what is the proper role of the government? Well, if you listen to the incumbents -- whose story never really changes -- it's to support and expand their profitability. But shouldn't economists and social justice advocates both agree that the proper role of government regulation is to bring the lowest costs to the consumers, while ensuring profitability for the industries concerned? Clearly, economists aren't going to sign up for killing the goose that lays the golden egg. But if the goose craps out an infinte number of golden eggs, why do Rogers and Bell get to keep 90% of them?

Monday, December 17, 2007

And many more

Happy Birthday, Arthur C. Clarke.

The efficient society

So we've had a major snow storm in southern Ontario, which is the perfect occasion for me to propound my latest theory of Canadian politics: what Canadians call "efficiency" usually amounts to "doing a shitty job."

You see, Toronto lies at a lattitude where snow is a recurring event. Indeed, in my years here I've never once seen a winter without it. Most winters can be counted on to get at least one good walloping, and sometimes two or three. And yet, this city is never, ever prepared for it. This applies in the collective sense -- we have truly awful snow removal problems -- and the individual -- Toronto drivers are so hysterically bad at driving in the snow, when it arrives, that you're completely safe to walk down the middle of the street: even if they're trying to hit you, they won't be able to. When it comes to snow, Toronto does a shitty, shitty job.

Other cities are better at snow removal, but the lesson applies elsewhere. The core of the hallucination that is called the "fiscal imbalance" says that while Ottawa has all the money, the Provinces have all the obligations. This is totally incorrect. First of all, the Provinces have access to all the same revenues that the Feds do, save some minor ones like external tariffs, etc.* Secondly, Ottawa is responsible for this minor little item called, oh wait what's it called, oh that's right -- national defense. In the modern context, with proper equipment and numbers, and given our geographical location and size, and our multiple commitments to both the UN and NATO, Canada's defense budget should be much, much larger. It isn't, because -- you guessed it -- we've adopted the cost-saving measure known as "doing a shitty job."

For a provincial example, see Health Care, funding of.

Leave your own favourite example in the comments.

*Oh, and I'm really quite gratified to see that Dalton McGuinty obliged me by totally fucking proving my point last week. Queen's Park has all the money it needs to solve Toronto's problems, he was just being whiny and trying to score cheap points off of Harper. Of course, given the state of the national Liberal Party, I can understand the impulse...

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Feeling proud yet?

We just got told. By Papua New Guinea.
BALI, Indonesia (CNN) -- In a dramatic reversal Saturday, the United States rejected and then accepted a compromise to set the stage for intense negotiations in the next two years aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions worldwide...

..a delegate from the developing country of Papua New Guinea challenged the United States to "either lead, follow or get out of the way."

Five minutes later, when it appeared the conference was on the brink of collapse, Dobriansky took the floor again to say the United States was willing to accept the arrangement. Applause erupted in the hall and a relative level of success for the conference appeared certain.
Of course, "we" in this case refers to both the United States and Canada, where our Prime Minister has been doing his best to earn Bush brownie points by making Canada some king of remora to the shark that is the Bush administration.

You've got to wonder what the thought process is, when one conservative, Bush-friendly administration just got handed its head on exactly this issue. A wiser politician might take notice, and recalibrate. Our Prime Minister says to himself, "Hm, this is my opportunity!"

I'm not feeling particularly proud of my government at the moment.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Yeah, but what do they know?

I'm sure those brainiacs just had too much coffee this morning:

WASHINGTON - An already relentless melting of the Arctic greatly accelerated this summer, a warning sign that some scientists worry could mean global warming has passed an ominous tipping point. One even speculated that summer sea ice would be gone in five years...

"The Arctic is screaming," said Mark Serreze, senior scientist at the government's snow and ice data center in Boulder, Colo.

This is what's astonishing: in two years I've watched the minimum prediction for when the Arctic Ocean would be ice-free in the summers go from 2050 to 2012. It's basically a given that the Greenland ice sheet cannot long survive in an environment with sustained ice-free summers in the Arctic, according to James Hansen. And we're looking at that scenario much, much sooner than expected.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Saturday night at the movies

So the girlfriend and I went to go see The Golden Compass tonight. There's a bit of weird layering here, as my fears about The Golden Compass being made in to a movie was one of the reasons I started blogging. Seriously. And this will be my last post at Ezra Klein's rapidly winding-down blog. And my first post at the new blog started by his weekenders, Cogitamus. And tomorrow will be the third anniversary of my blog.

So there's a bunch of things going on. But let's get back to the movie. Happily, the fundamentalist rage didn't manage to ruin the movie. Sadly, the movie was still ruined.

I think Stephanie Zacharek more or less nailed the movie's flaws, and its few virtues, with her review. But I had a curious sensation watching this movie, trying to figure out where I'd last seen a movie which had such a dissonant mix of good actors and high production values on the one hand, but absolutely atrocious writing on the other.

Oh yeah... The Chronicles of Riddick. Except this time, Vin Diesel is a polar bear.

And if you haven't seen it, Riddick really is a weird movie. You've got Thandie Newton, Colm Feore, and Dame friggin' Judi Dench, but somehow they've all been transported to this alternate universe where they're delivering some of the worst dialogue ever, within a truly atrocious story.

So let's just say that when I'm comparing it with Golden Compass, it's not a compliment.

What have you done?

John Lennon, killed today in 1980. I dunno why, but this year it seems to matter to me. But no, I haven't changed my opinion that people need to calm the fuck down about the Beatles...

Oh, and for good measure:

And if you haven't seen "The US vs. John Lennon", you really should.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The enduringly useless "liberal hawks"

Oh God, it never ends. Now alleged liberals are jumping all over the NIE for not being sufficiently alarmist about Iran's lack of a nuclear weapons program. According to them, the mere fact of uranium enrichment is, de facto, proof of Iran's malign intent.

What the NIE makes clear is that Iran is building a threshold nuclear capability -- not a weapons program, but all the parts of a weapons program, so that if the go order is given, Iran could have a weapon in months, instead of decades. This, as I've said for years now, is exactly the kind of program that Japan holds in its back pocket in case China or North Korea ever get too uppity. There's a few other countries who are alleged to have similar intents, many of them US allies. So if this kind of program is, on it's own, an indicator of evil, we need to start spreading the net a bit wider.

Problematically, it is also explicitly legal to have such a capability under relevant international law. Indeed, the other part of the IAEA's job (when it's not inspecting Iranian or North Korean reactors) is to make such technology available. It's the inherent contradiction in modern nuclear technology: ever since Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" initiative, the main nuclear weapons-holding powers have tried to launder their weapons of mass destruction by making "civilian" technologies available to other countries. The problem is that the same civilian technologies that allow nuclear power generation (i.e., uranium enrichment and waste reprocessing) can also be turned to weapons production.

Nuclear power and nuclear bombs: at the end of the day, you're not going to have one without the other. A serious "liberal" strategy for dealing with nuclear proliferation will, at the end of the day, have to deal with controlling civilian nuclear power -- i.e., very heavily restricting nuclear technology, or banning it outright. This is where endeavours like Kyoto and other climate change measures come in -- there needs to be a strong, clear alternative to both carbon on the one hand, and uranium on the other. Choosing either doesn't get the planet out of danger, it just changes the risks.

There's another question worth asking here: what, exactly, is Iran waiting for? They've decided for now that a threshold capability is sufficient for their purposes, and that the costs of proceeding further outweight the possible benefits. That is, they are probably presuming that should they resume a weapons program, they'd be detected and under attack. Reasonable assumptions, really.

But: the Iranian regime is already under threat of attack because the US government isn't exactly run by reasonable people -- and if you don't believe that, you've got to at least suspect the Iranians do by now. So despite the US occupying countries on two borders, US client states surrounding them, and Israel looming over the horizon with an arsenal capable of reducing all of Iran to glowing waste, the Iranians have still decided that, as far as weapons go, not so much for now.

This adds extra credence, I think, to Gwynne Dyer's theory that what really concerns Iran is not the opportunity to destroy either the Great Satan or the hated Zionists, but the possibility of a collapse in Pakistan. Pakistan has a long history of anti-Iranian activities, not the least of which was backing the Taliban, and is already a nuclear power. If things in Islamabad were to go from worse to horrible, Iran wants the capability to quickly get strapped with a deterrent.

This leads to an odd image -- that the first nuclear exchange between two hostile powers may not be between Muslim and Hindu, or Muslim and Jew, but between Fundamentalist Shia Muslim and Fundamentalist Sunni Muslim.

Good lord, facts! Published in Time Magazine, no less.

Somebody alert Joke Line, so he can put a stop to it.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Shorter Barbara Kay

On the anniversary of the Montreal Polytechnique shootings:
December 6th is a time for us all to remember how scary 9/11 was. And I'm still not wild about those Sikhs.

Gee, and I thought I was having a bad day

To the guy who wrote me, calling me, "in reference to Lennon", a useful idiot: Dude, you just made my whole week.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

But loosely bound celluose fibers make me so happy!

I read this article [PDF] linked to by Ezra with a lot of interest, and some disappointment, but overall I thought it was an excellent bit bullshit-calling on unreconstructed futurists, especially the "paperless office" crowd. The article is called "Shakespeare's Blackberry", and refers to something I'd never heard of before -- "Writing tables":
This was typically a pocket-sized, printed almanac bound with blank leaves of specially coated paper or parchment that could be written on with a stylus and erased with a sponge.... A busy sixteenth-century Londoner would carry his tables around during the day, jotting quick notes in them with the stylus and erasing them later. It was the period equivalent of our own Palm Pilots and Blackberries, and it remained popular for hundreds of years. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin both owned an ivory version that was in vogue in their time.
Powers makes, I think, some excellent arguments about why paper hasn't been replaced by some digital alternative, and why it's not likely to be in the future. But he doesn't go where I would with it. He spends a lot of time talking about the way people interact with paper products vs. digital ones, which to me is a true but weak argument: Powers himself notes that technologies find different niches and are used in different ways -- notice the transformation of radio from originally a central organizing feature of a family home in the pre-war period, to basically an adjunct of the automobile today. What Powers doesn't dwell on here is how the technology of radio changed to make this happen -- the transistor and the invention of FM radio both made radio a) more portable and b) more clear, meaning that it was useful and enjoyable to have portable radio in a way that it wasn't before. I think if he had dwelled on this a moment, he might have written a different paper. (And yes, despite the fact that I read it as a 75-page PDF, we're going to call it a paper. And talk about "pages" in some non-archaic way.)

Why does paper persist? Well, to start with, it's incredibly cheap. For the Toronto Star to deliver 7 issues to my doorstep every week, they want a mere $2.95 (plus GST) a week. And they deliver so much information per day, that I could never possibly find that much time in the day to read a whole paper, end to end. Even if we assume that I recycle 2/3 of the paper that doesn't interest me without reading it, I'm paying pennies for incredibly useful stuff.

Compare this with my Internet connection, which costs something between $10-15 per week (3 to 5 times as much as the paper!) Sure, the Star doesn't home deliver movies and television and music the way the Internet connection does, but for the function that it serves, the Toronto Star is incredibly competitive.

There's also the point that more generically, paper has excellent display properties. People don't usually think about how difficult display is in an electronic world, but to put it plainly the printer connected to your computer is probably capable of a higher-resolution output than you've got your monitor set to right now. High-end graphics card developed mainly for games change this equation, but that's not the correct comparison -- it's impossible to play Quake 3 on your daily newspaper, and liquid-cooling isn't going to help matters. People read documents in the settings Windows gives you, which normally rate at under 100 pixels per inch. Most printers today easily print 300 dots per inch.

There are a bunch of potential technologies that might bring high-end display costs down to the point where they're competitive with paper, but it's still going to take someone who doesn't basically hate readers to design something as attractive, portable, and easy to use as a replacement to paper. And still, I think people need to drop the idea of a dedicated "e-book reader"... I just don't think it's going to happen. Rather, what I think is more likely is that laptops will become more portable and more useful as e-readers. Take two recent products: the Amazon Kindle and Asus' Eee PC. Both cost about $400. One -- the Kindle -- is basically designed by a bookseller to appeal to publishers, meaning that it treats readers as potential thieves. (Both large booksellers and book publishers basically regard customers with suspicion until money changes hands. Trust me on this.) The Asus Eee PC, on the other hand, is designed to be an almost-fully functional laptop at the lowest end -- capable of basic office apps, email, web surfing, and low-end games. If Asus had taken a page from the XO people and built a screen designed for e-book reading, they'd have made the Kindle obsolete in the same month it was released. It's simply not credible to believe that people would choose to spend an equal sum of money for a dramatically less functional device.

My point, here, is that there are real, measurable, tangible reasons why paper persists, and that talking about how people interact with paper, while noteworthy, misses a pretty basic point. Paper replaced papyrus because it was better in measurable ways, not because people liked it more. We haven't yet got something that is better than paper. (Powers basically comes to this point at the very end of his paper, but doesn't treat it with the weight I think it deserves.)

Then there's the part of Powers' paper that really bugged me. That's where he complains that the migration of newspapers from print to electronic formats is ruining the experience:
As an institution, the newspaper is not just a source of information, a mere content provider. For centuries, it has been one of the few places outside the government where a democratic society could collectively talk to itself, seek the truth and try to decide what is right. That work, the epitome of a public good, relies on both sides of the institutions brain, and the readers. Pure news is meaningless without understanding, and true understanding is impossible without accurate information about the world. The two came together on paper, which, for a very long time was the best available medium for sending and receiving both kinds of "messages".... [p. 52]
I agree so much with this it's not even funny.
The various properties, from the physical to the philosophical, that paper brings to the media transaction are absent when one is reading a newspaper online. Common sense suggests this shouldn't matter. Who cares how content arrives as long as it arrives? [p.54]
The part in bold just confuses the hell out of me. People in democracies no longer use newspapers to "talk to themselves" about what matters? If true, it certainly isn't the web's fault -- newspapers were supplanted by TV decades before the web came along. But fundamentally, I just don't think it's true. The New York Times and Washington Post are no less influential because of their presence on the Web. Instead, people use the web to talk about those two papers more, because of (among other things) the prevalence of blogs. And that's all that's happened. Because of the Internet, the public sphere has moved from the letters to the editor and the Op-ed page to the posts and comment threads of Atrios and DailyKos. I have yet to understand why this causes such anxiety in people.

Anyway, I really liked Powers' article, and would reccomend reading it. If you must -- sigh -- print it out.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Why do songwriters all hate themselves and want to starve to death?

The Songwriters Association of Canada proposes legalizing P2P file sharing, for a cost of $5 per month per Internet connection. I'd pay for that in a heartbeat.

The enduring value of first-year survey courses

I continue to believe that one of the most valuable public education strategies we could implement would be to make introductory anthropology mandatory for all university students. Why? Because I learned three very important things when I took ANTH 1000 at Carleton:

1) There is no objective, identifiable scientific quantity which correlates to the sociological fact described by the English word "race".

2) There is no objective, identifiable scientific quantity which correlates to the sociological fact described by the English word "intelligence".


3) You have to be dumb and ugly to write something like "science shows that blacks are stupider than whites, who are stupider than Chinese."

Nevertheless, William Saletan wrote that (more or less) in Slate, and he was following on equally dumb and ugly statements by James Watson. Notice the cover here -- see, James Watson says it, and he's the guy who discovered DNA! So it can't be racist! I know that we're all surprised to find that a man born in 1928 might not have the most enlightened views on race relations...

Meanwhile, you'll note that Watson's original statement got a lot more play by the "hey, let's pretend we're not racists" crowd than his immediate, unconditional and total apology and retraction of those sentiments. When a guy says
To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.
he's being pretty clear. Watson made a statement; Watson almost immediately retracted the statement and apologized profusely, and I believe sincerely. Funny how Saletan never mentioned that in any of his articles. Would've gotten in the way of his precious series.

Of course, it is racist, it's made of whole cloth, and Slate was good enough to print a pretty humiliating takedown today.

But notice that this particular door only swings one way. Slate (and too many other media) are more than happy to print incredibly stupid, hurtful things if they're given even the barest cover by some controversial statement by someone with some coattails. It doesn't matter that neither Watson not Saletan are experts in psychology, education, or childhood development. But he's "a scientist", so Saletan felt like it was enough.

And then, Saletan has the gall to say that critics who point out that all of his evidence is based on questionable science and shitty math, that critics are just reacting emotionally and unfairly dismissing this stuff.

Well shit. I know how to use a spreadsheet to balance my checkbook every month (not that I actually do this) but that doesn't make me an economist, and Slate wouldn't have given me the time of day if I'd wanted them to publish my advanced theories of mitichlorian-based currencies backed up by my advanced Jedi math. If you don't believe me, that just shows the Hutts have gotten to you, too.

Better media, please.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Is Stephen Harper the new favourite?

So, the list of Bush lickspittles has gone like this, so far:

Aznar of Spain? Done.

Blair? Done.

Howard? Done. In fact, Australia just ratified the Kyoto Treaty. Ouch.

So who else is left? Or, to put it another way, has Stephen Harper -- by maintaining his government just slightly longer than any other right-wing climate hater, actually increased his usefulness to Bush by default?

You there -- yes, you: go apologize to a retailer today.

The loonie is back below parity.

The amount of caterwauling I've seen by allegedly aggrieved consumers over "unfair" pricing over the last two months could fill a supertanker. Shocking news, people: the real world economy of manufactured goods and retail cannot, and does not, keep up with the whims of international financial speculation.

Tobin tax, anyone?