Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Principles of Conservatism

I read this column this morning and it reminded me of something I have been wanting to post on here for a few weeks now. While Mr. Jeffrey's principles are universal and cohesive in scope, and very well thought out, I too came up with a list of conservative principles and I've been wanting to publish them somewhere where there's ever-so-small a chance that someone other than a few computer nerds would see them. The following is a based on something I wrote on Slashdot shortly after the midterm elections to counter the assertion that the election results were a repudiation of conservative politics and/or some kind of liberal mandate. In fact, it was neither.

Since I have often been one of those people who, as Mark Twain so cleverly put it, wants to have read classics much more that I want to actually read them, I decided it was time to take a break from my normal fare and read Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle". The topic of corruption in post-Industrial Revolution American capitalism has always been one that has interested me, particularly since I believe we are entering an entirely new phase of it, exacerbated by the hand-in-hand exponential growth of technology and bureaucracy, as well as the general complexity of life.

I'm only part way through the book, and while it clear to me that Sinclair's style of writing is absolutely tremendous, his story is gripping, and in places horrifying, I am trying to reconcile his documentation of the excesses and evils of early 20th century capitalism with his strong support for socialism. You see, to me, totalitarianism and capitalism are two sides of the same coin. The overarching principle of the world is "Power Corrupts", so any concentration of power, whether by a dictator of a nation or a Chief Executive Officer of a corporation, is bound to lead to evil. Basically we are talking about two extremes of a socio-economic spectrum with capitalism on one end and communism on the other.

The problem with pure communism, which is also the problem with pure capitalism, is that immoral people will inevitably wreck the system and enslave the less powerful in order to engage in tyranny. In fact, any system of government or economics that does not have a very meticulous system of checks and balances, as well as limited and decentralized power will suffer the same consequences. If the powers of regulation and commerce are not pitted against each other, or are at least not controlled by the same people, individuals will suffer. This is why I have a problem with the reaction to "The Jungle" being a call for socialism. If you take a corrupt system, in this book's case the unchecked "Meat Trust", and give control over it to the government, you are handing massive power to an organization that is already powerful. How can you expect the result to be less corrupt? The good will of men? How does that square with my "overarching principle of the world"?

I believe the correct response was the one that was actually taken: Unions, which were limited collectivism to acquire bargaining power, and government regulation, which was limited socialism, not to exert power, but to protect the weak. Of course, in the intervening decades, unions have become too powerful and are often as corrupt as the companies they were created to defend against, and government regulation has become so overly complex and burdensome that it has a direct, deleterious affect on our national economy and quality of life.

If you read the Acts of the Apostles, you will see the early Christian communities lived in what is pretty much a text-book communal (or communist) society among themselves, as did medieval monasteries and other religious communities through the ages. With a small group of people who are like-minded and zealous about their beliefs (as any new adherent to a religion, particularly if he is being persecuted for it, would be), this can work. But of course it didn't last too long, and once the Church became large and successful its wealth and power were often subverted for less-than-Christian ideals, which is one reason today why it specifically eschews political power and uses the vast majority of the wealth it collects and maintains for good works.

Similarly, it's relatively easy to have a startup company with, say 8 people, where everyone is top-notch, hard-working and delivers good results. It's practically impossible to have a company with 1000 people where everyone is of that same caliber. Similarly, communism doesn't scale. It can't scale. You can have a large company that is successful, but communism can't work at all unless everyone is equally invested and committed to it. Socialism bypasses the corruption stage and goes straight to tyranny. Capitalism can be subverted for evil, and will be if there is nothing to stop it. No system is perfect as long as we flawed humans are a part of it.

That said however, I still find the conservative principles to be qualitatively more sound than the alternatives.

Here's my take on "conservative" principles. Some of these are no doubt compatible with "liberal" principles or are at odds with "conservative" principles as espoused by some "conservative" politicians. Many of these are probably more accurately called "libertarian" principles, because at this point in the game, the entire body politic of the United States is hopelessly mired in big government, grotesque complexity, and obsession with tweaking details on issues when the overall strategy is hopelessly flawed, and any concrete steps towards solving problems is a step away from government interference.

I think that is a good thing that my ideas don't fit into the rigid molds our public discourse has created. Political philosophies in the U.S. have become too issue-dependent, and are often, even usually, not philosophies at all but merely a laundry list of grievances against specific practices or perceived and real problems, regardless of their causes and effects, and irrespective of the best way to address them.

My principles are:

  1. Equalize opportunities, because you cannot equalize results.
  2. People can generally take care of themselves, and they should be expected to, until they prove otherwise.
  3. Help people when they truly need it, but if aid to someone doesn't also come with a cost, it will be abused and ineffectual.
  4. The rights of the individual take precedence by default. Anything that compromises individual rights and opportunities will compromise their chances for success.
  5. Any aspect of government should be as local as possible. There are very few things that truly require implementation at the national level, or can be effective at a national level. This is especially true in a country as large and diverse as the United States.
  6. Real education is the best tool for any person, and the best way to prevent any problem. Investments in education will always pay off (but remember #3). Moral education is the most important kind.
  7. Humans are the best and most important natural resource on the planet. Human life, therefore, should be held in the highest regard, and its protection should be the highest priority.
  8. We are stewards of the Earth, we neither own it or are owned by it. We have a right to use it and to change it to suit our needs, but we have a duty to protect and preserve its value.
  9. There will always be evil. Be prepared to neutralize it, or you will be defeated by it.
  10. Liberty is not license. Freedom necessitates responsibility and duty.
  11. Sovereignty is a right for both individuals and groups. People have a right to associate with whom they please.
  12. You have no right not to be offended by others.
  13. Life isn't fair. You can't make it fair. Get over it.
Here are some notes and thoughts on these items, although I would hope they stand on their own:

#3 was the hardest to word succinctly. Here's what else I wanted to say:

Any social safety-net or entitlement will be gamed as much as possible and is guaranteed to be inefficient. Compassion is the most easily subverted intention, the easiest to take advantage of. People should not be allowed to starve or live without shelter, but without a real chance to fail, many people will simply let the system take care of them. Even more are trapped in a cycle of dependency because there are no concrete options that allow them to escape it. (See #1 and #6).

#10 is particularly important and is particularly misunderstood in this day and age. Liberty can only exist in a people whose individuals are willing and able to be self-governing. And yes, that implies moral absolutes. Liberty without morality is another name for anarchy. Since we rapidly losing (and disposing of) our morality, we will have to lose our liberty to maintain order. I think very few people understand this, and as a result, our government is having to become more and more controlling as we, as a society, are ceding more and more responsibility to control ourselves or our children. And as I said in princple #5, the best government is the most local. Nothing is more local than governing yourself, and anything else is by definition, less efficient.

In terms of the United States
, #11 means individual states should have the right to secede. We are united because in unity there is strength, but if it is forced, there is no true unity. As much as I am opposed to the idea of slavery, I think it was wrong to go to war to preserve the Union. And slavery wasn't the real reason the southern states seceded. In fact, they seceded for many of the same reasons the 13 colonies revolted from England in the first place. Ironically, the American Revolution was caused by an order of magnitude less government interference than we now deal with on a daily basis. The way things are going now, I believe it is likely this country will face this same issue in the 21st century.

#12 and #13 are specifically addressed to so-called liberals.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Why is my new 200GB harddisk only 186GB in size?

Or, Marketing Lies 2006.

Actually, this one is easy to explain.

Technically, a kilobyte is 1024 bytes (i.e., 2 to the tenth power), which of course is close to 1000 and of course "kilo-" means 1000. But we computer types always like to count by 2's and powers of 2. 1024 makes much more sense to a computer. It's really a coincidence that the
numbers work out like this.

Similarly megabytes really means 220 bytes or 1,048,576 bytes, but of course it's much easier to say it's a million bytes.

A gigabyte is really 1,073,741,824 bytes, although we humans (and especially lower life forms like marketing types) like to think it's a billion bytes.

So when your harddrive claims to be 200GB but your computer only reports it as 186GB, they are both correct. The marketing people just take the version of "gigabyte" that is most convenient for their purposes, whereas your computer uses the "correct" definition from a computer science point of view. The computer science gigabyte is 7% bigger, which explains the discrepancy. Of course, if your hard drive claims to provide 200GB of storage, you can rest assured that you are getting 200,000,000,000 bytes (give or take, formatting the disk takes up some of the space). Of course, since the price per byte for harddrives has dropped by a factor of about 20,000 since I bought my first harddrive in 1989, I'm not too worried either way.

There have been two proposals to fix this confusion:

1. The first proposal is that we use a different prefix when referring to the "computer science" versions of kilobyte, megabyte, etc, since "kilo-" is universally accepted to mean "one thousand", "mega-" universally means "one million". The idea proposed is to contract the word "binary byte" with the Systeme Internationale numerical prefix, so that 1024 bytes is "KIlo BInary BYTES" or "kibibytes". This also gives us "mebibytes", "gibibytes", etc. This has not caught on for two reasons: First, it is hopelessly pedantic, and second, it makes the speaker sound like he has some kind of speech impediment.

2. The second proposal is something I am making at this moment. A very dangerous plague that affects many parts of the world, especially third world countries, is that of land mines. There are millions of land mines around the world just waiting for some innocent person, years or even decades after the war in which the mines were used, to walk across it and lose a limb or even his life. I propose that we create an international task force for defusing all land mines and that they can be very effective by employing a very long stick with a marketing person tied to the end. If you are one of those people who claim (as I actually do) to hold human life precious, you can at least take the less satisfying alternative of mocking marketing types whenever possible, or at least buying a Dilbert book where it is already done for your convenience.

If you feel ripped off by the marketing legalese that gives you 7% less disk space than you think you are getting, be glad you weren't buying backup tapes in the early 90's. I didn't discover until too late when they described the capacity of a backup tape, they would assume a compression ratio of 2:1, meaning when they claimed the tape stored 120MB, that meant it really stored 60MB, and they "assumed" that you would use compression. Needless to say, this was much more dishonest that the "gigabyte" controversy described above, especially given the fact that the stuff I was backing up was usually compressed to begin with. I don't know if they do that any more since I haven't bought a backup tape in over a decade, but I wouldn't be surprised if there had been a class action lawsuit.

There actually was a successful class action lawsuit over the size of computer monitors. When describing the size of a monitor, the monitor manufacturers would describe the diagonal size of the cathode ray tube, a good inch to inch and a half of which was not usable because it was inside the frame of the monitor. The class action suit resulted, like all such suits, in some lawyers getting millions of dollars, while those of us actually affected by the wrong-doing got an insultingly small amount of money, and only if we went through some laborious process that would cost 5 or 10 or 20 times as much, given the value of our time, to actually receive. But at the least the monitor makers stopped this particular instance of lying.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Thoughts Before and After the Election

This was written on October 19, but I never got around to finishing it.


I read a while back that in 1960, President Nixon was well aware that alleged vote fraud by the Democrats in Chicago helped Kennedy win the election. Nixon supposedly chose not to challenge the election because he didn't want to call into question the U.S. system of elections. Now this story may or may not be true, but I do believe that this kind of thing would have happened 40 or 50 years ago.

Nowadays, I wouldn't believe it for a minute. While the controversy in the 2000 Presidential Election took well over a month to resolve, with an army of lawyers and endless discussions of the absurdities of punch-card technology, the election was finally settled, and I believe the Rule of Law was upheld, even if in this case, the law was a poorly-thought-out law made by lazy state legislatures who obviously had never considered what would happen in the case of a close election. Of course, it's a given that the Democrats would bring race into the issue, but the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded that while there was widespread incompetence, there was no deliberate voter disenfranchisement, yet another affirmation of the old adage, "Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by incompetence."

In 2004, the Democrats again called into question the integrity of the election system when Ohio, whose electoral votes put President Bush over the top, ended up being a close vote. Of course, there were other states where the vote was significantly closer, but of course they wouldn't have changed the election, so, I suppose, it didn't matter whether there were voting irregularities or not.


So now it's past the election and while I can't say I'm happy the Democrats won, I also can't say I'm sad the Republicans lost. Really, the choice it between the party that has 4 bullets in gun pointed at my head vs. the party that has 5 bullets in their gun pointed at my head.

Time to spin the cylinder...

The original piece was supposed to be about Electronic Voting and how flawed and unaccountable it is, something which has been covered in painful detail by people more devoted to the issue than I. My real fear this time around was that some party was going to once again question the legitimacy of the election, which is always damaging, except that this time they would have a good reason. However, I suppose the Democrats aren't going to complain because they won and Republicans aren't going to complain because even they have to admit they deserved to lose. Of course, the issue isn't going away, and if the 2008 Presidential election is again close, we will once again be forced to look at a system that probably isn't more accurate than the typical margin for error for any poll, which is plus or minus 3 points.

In Virginia we use optically-scanned ballots in which you fill in your choices with a black marker. The ballots are roughtly the size of a letter-sized piece of paper, which gives plenty of room to lay out the candidates in a non-cluttered way (none of that "butterfly" nonsense), and to include the entire wording of constitutional amendments, bond referenda or anything else we voters might be called upon to decide. After filling in the little dots, the voter feeds the ballot into a small machine which stores them. Afterwards they can be counted with optical-scanning technology that has been used and relied upon for many decades.

I think this is the most obvious solution as it allows for all the advantages of electronic voting, but there's always a hard copy of the vote to fall back on. Once you've got something in place to help the blind or otherwise disabled who cannot fill out the paper ballot, you have, what I think is a good solution, and I cannot imagine that this technology costs anywhere near as much as those hare-brained Diebold machines that can be hacked 7 ways to Sunday.

The biggest irony of this is that Diebold already manufactures machines that handle electronic transactions and record-keeping in a way that no one seems to have a problem with. They are called Automatic Teller Machines, and you can bet that if there were some question of ATMs being hackable or insecure, it would be big news, because unlike votes, which apparently have little value to most people, we're talking money here, and we all know that's what really runs the show.

Nevertheless, I am happy and relieved that our Great American System survived the election without any serious problems so our legislators can get back to squandering our money, security and future. After all, selling out the U.S. is going to remain a full-time job for quite a few years.

The Secretary of Commerce on Immigration

This is something I wrote on July 10, 2006.

So, I'm riding into work, and when Imus isn't interviewing someone interesting, I usually listen to C-Span. This morning they had
Secretary of Commerce Gutierrez talking about immigration reform and after listening to him I am totally disgusted.

Mostly, he spoke in vague generalities, dodged practically every question and all but said that they weren't going to do anything about the immigration problem. I never heard so many straw-man arguments in a row in my life.

Among his points:

1. The government needs to make it easier for businesses to "enforce the law". He repeated that phrase in the context of "businesses" more than once. How blatant can you be? Here's a Bush representative openly abdicating on law enforcement with respect to immigration. I thought that was his job. Thanks a lot.

2. He claimed that the new biometric cards that are supposed to replace the many different legal forms of identification would be "unforgeable". I give them 10 years to get this in place, if ever, and counterfeit cards will be out in a month. There's too much money involved for it not to be.

3. He admitted that most immigrants are poorly educated, low-wage earners that wouldn't contribute to the government as much as they would consume, but if we let millions more of these folks in, through the "magic" (his word) of the American Melting Pot, they and their kids would become contributing members of society. No doubt this is true for many people, but when you are invoking "magic" to sell your point, you are looking pretty weak, regardless of what you are arguing.

4. He had no specific proposals and only insisted that Congress has to come up with something good. He kept insisting that everyone who thinks the administration is not addressing this correctly is wrong, but didn't really explain why. He insisted multiple times that while the Administration hasn't enforced existing laws, they would enforce the new ones, if they were "workable".

5. He invoked "Jobs Americans won't do", which is the worst straw man argument of all. First off, the vast majority of "jobs Americans won't do" are being done by legal Americans. Second, of course the illegals are going to have an upper hand. Employers don't have to pay taxes, they can skirt OSHA and other regulations, they don't have to worry about Labor laws (how many times do you hear about garment sweatshops being busted up in California)... of course Americans aren't going to want to do the job and employers can undercut them by 50% and lost very little because everything's off the books.

While I generally support the President's foreign policies (even though the "war" isn't being run very well), I can't think of one thing that Republicans have done domestically besides the tax cut (which made their grotesque overspending 10 times worse) that is positive. To make things worse, the Supreme Court, including the guys I support, have basically said it's OK to ignore the "exclusionary rule" for evidence if the crime is serious enough (i.e., "terror"-related), once again throwing Rule of Law in the toilet, which is about the only thing definitive the U.S. Government has achieved in the past 15 years.

Monday, October 09, 2006

A place to vent...

I decided to segregate my rantings, and that this area would be for issues of a technological (and perhaps eventually a political) nature. So, I would like to mention another location I have set up. It's called Disgruntled Catholic, and if you have any interest, I invite you to check it out. But be warned, unless you know me personally, it's almost certainly not what you are expecting.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Time Machine

This is interesting. It's a piece I first posted in May of 1999 talking about Microsoft. It was the advent of Windows 2000 and it's interesting to see how my opinions in those days mirror the kinds of things people are saying now. It's also interesting to see where I was completely wrong.


First off, I think Microsoft has done a number of incredibly unfair things over the years. The very first non-trivial Windows program I attempted to write back in 1990 immediately got me into uncharted waters. I was trying to do something that I knew you could do (Program Manager did it), but it simply wasn't documented. One only needs to read the likes of Schullman to see that Microsoft was unfairly competing against other application makers by using secret features of the OS that were undocumented to the outside world.

I think that this situation has become better, but has probably not gone away entirely.

I also believe that Microsoft has strongarmed hardware OEMs resulting in other operating systems being unfairly shut out of bundling options. The recent Windows Refund brouhaha only demonstrates how pervasive and unfair this is.

I also believe that Microsoft is currently in quality free-fall, which seemed to start about a year or two ago (about the time of NT SP2). There is obviously no guiding principle in the design of the applications or features of the OS. There is incredible inconsistency in the way things work. Almost every application has a muddled, confused designed-by-committee style interface (configuration of the OS being one of the worst examples). Microsoft's products crash easily and with the plethora of service packs and hot fixes flying around, it is almost impossible to get everything to work together. I recently reinstalled NT and had to install the OS, Office and IE 3 times in order to figure out what order to install everything so that it worked (active setup crashes egregiously for me once IIS is installed), I had all the features I wanted (there seems to be no way to get the Explorer enhancements from IE4 in IE5 without installing IE4 first).

I'm told that if you're using SQL Server, and Back Office, et al, it's ten times worse.

I think there is a fundamental flaw in everything Microsoft does these days and it comes down the company being too big and not having a unified philosophy driving software development. Every different piece of the OS or an app (or even the Windows SDK) looks like it was designed by a group that did not communicate with any other group. I read that there were about 8 different versions of Office 97 service pack 1 depending on where you got it from or how you installed it and there were serious compatibility problems with service pack 2 because of it. The only difference between a beta release and an official release these days seems to be the name... and _then_ Microsoft has the audacity to sell beta software. Of course that fact that people are willing to buy it says a lot too.

I and others I knew were doing serious development with Windows NT 4.0 beta 1
and beta 2 with little or no problems. In those days, NT was considered a paragon of stability and typically had rock-solid performance. I don't even plan on switching to Windows 2000 when it comes out for two reasons. One: based on Microsoft's recent track record I'd rather stick with problems I know than problems I don't know. and 2) I don't see a single compelling reason to upgrade, just a bunch of feature bloat. After all these years, NT still has a terrible performance problem multitasking with disk access, and I don't see that going away until the OS is rewritten from the ground up again (NNT, I suppose).

Now after stating a rather low opinion of the company's recent products, I will say the Internet Explorer is generally the best browser, and is certainly far superior to Netscape Navigator. I perceive the whole browser monopoly issue to be a non-issue. Netscape is just whining because, in my opinion, they simply can't write a solid piece of code. Netscape 1 and 2 were absolutely pathetic, Netscape 3 was alright, but by that time IE had surpassed it in quality and features and Netscape 4 is one big bloated mess.

I think the government's persecution of Microsoft's bundling the browser with the OS is patently ridiculous. It's analogous to preventing GM from bundling radios in its cars. As long as Microsoft's competitors have access to the same documentation for the OS as everyone else Microsoft should be able to bundle anything it wants. The government's position seems to hinge on the fact that if something comes with the OS, people are either too lazy or stupid to switch and this is simply wrong (and even if it were true, that's what marketing is for).

Netscape seems to rely on hatred of Microsoft to drive its
market share, whereas I'm more pragmatic. In the case of the browser, I think Microsoft wins fair and square. In the case of office suites the competition is superior.

In summary, I think that Microsoft has definitely competed unfairly in the past and continues to do so today. However, the government's ignorant and laughable case against bundling the browser is a big waste of time and money.

In the meantime, Microsoft better try a new approach: Simple, clean, stable tools that are easy to use rather than an incoherent amalgam of lamely implememented tick items on some marketers dream list, because at the rate they are going, Linux is going to eat their lunch.


So, looking back, my predictions for the upcoming Windows 2000 were way off. Part of the reason is that my perceptions were definitely colored by the train wreck that was Windows 95 and Windows 98. Both were overly ambitious, grotesquely overcomplicated kluges that I wouldn't wish on my enemies. I still feel sad for the billions of productive hours that must have been wasted by people struggling with these awful products. I won't even mention ME, which was supposedly even worse, but I never used it. All along a perfect substitute was available, at least for business users and some home users, which was Windows NT. NT 3.51, the first version I ever used, was extremely stable. NT was Microsoft's attempt to start from scratch and remake Windows the way it should be, and for the most part they did a really good job. NT 4.0 inherited the UI elements, and some of the weirdness of Windows 95, but when Windows 2000 came out, Microsoft hit a home run. It was solid, hard to crash and generally just worked. Despite the fact that it was less secure than the Maginot Line and was still saddled with Explorer, the most consistently horrible piece of crashware ever conceived in the fever swamps of Redmond, using Windows 2000 was a pretty enjoyable experience. Less than two years later, XP came along with a little more of this and that, some basic improvements, but nothing compelling, and it was burdened with the ugliest UI theme since Tandy Deskmate, but that was easy enough to turn off. However, except for the wireless support (which can be a nightmare unto itself), XP didn't offer anything compelling either, and the only reason I use it is because it came with the last 3 laptops I bought.

Of course, at the time, the family computer was running Windows 98, which meant I had to do almost daily maintenance on the thing just so the kids could run their games. I finally broke down and bought a copy of Windows XP Home because I felt too much of their software wouldn't run on Windows 2000. All of a sudden I didn't have to support the computer any more. Of course, the poor 200MHz Pentium Pro could barely browse the Web with XP, but it sure did work. We upgraded the machine to a used 400MHz P3 and XP was happy, if not too perky.

I find it interesting that so much of what I said about Windows 2000 is what people are saying about Vista now. It seems that from an end user point of view, support for new hardware is about the only new thing Microsoft has given us that anyone cares about. In that, they have done a good job, and I suspect that the changes in Vista's architecture will make that even better since hardware drivers won't live so deeply in the kernel. But last time I checked, Moore's Law was taking a bit of vacation, and we all have more MIPS than we will ever need for 98% of what we do anyway. If you don't need a new computer, you won't need a new operating system to run it. I have no plans to upgrade to Vista. In fact, if I change anything, I'll be installing Linux. The only reason I haven't is because of applications like Paint Shop Pro. If it weren't for certain Windows apps I use every day, I'd prefer to use Linux.

Linux just makes more sense to me... although it is definitely not eating Microsoft's lunch... yet.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Microsoft Rules

I wrote this in March of 2003, although I think it still holds true.


These are certainly not real rules, but are rules that Microsoft appears to follow by their actions.

Microsoft Rule #1: Every app must be expanded until it can be used as a vehicle for a virus that can trash the system. (In fact, no app is useful unless it can be used as a virus vehicle. If MS wrote edlin today it would be possible to hijack it through TCP/IP and use scripting to access kernel functions.)

Microsoft Rule #2: Flexibility in UI is acceptable, but defaults must confuse new users and frustrate experienced ones.

Microsoft Rule #3: GUI standards are no longer necessary. Shiny objects are always user-friendly.

Microsoft Rule #4: No useful thing can be designed unless by committee. Consistency and clarity are not signs of maturity. Simplicity is for amateurs. (Breaking up Microsoft would have about as much effect as asking a blind guy if he would not look over people's shoulders during the final exam.)

Microsoft Rule #5: Security has less "gee-whiz" factor than skinning and is therefore a less important feature. (Plus it's just too darn much trouble to check each memory buffer copy, especially when we'd rather spend time making the media player look like eyeballs. 2006 update: Although security is better, I still think I've heard more hype about Aero than Vista's security improvements.)

Microsoft Rule #6: Dominating a market is the same as excelling in a market ("Economic might makes right", or more simply "A monopoly means God smiles on everything you do.").

Microsoft Rule #7: Change is improvement, by definition. (But this is universal among software companies...)


No doubt Microsoft does some good stuff, but they stopped being a software company in the mid 90's. They are now a marketing company that exists solely to maintain their market share. Semantic difference, you say? Perhaps, but a software company exists to write and deliver better software than the competition. Microsoft, as a marketing company, exists to make sure people keep using Microsoft, regardless of what the competition is doing, and regardless of whether their software delivers more value than the competition's, or even their own earlier versions... because we all know the biggest competition to Vista is, in face, XP and Windows 2000.

The irony of the Federal antitrust suit in the late 90's was that the real damage was done in the late 80's and early 90's. Just ask Andrew Schulman. Microsoft had significant functionality in Windows that was undocumented, and therefore Microsoft alone, or whomever Microsoft chose to bless by granting them the boon of the secret incantations, had a significant advantage when it came to writing high-performance software, or software that required low-level access to the operating system. That Microsoft was actually declared by a Federal Court to be a honest-to-John D. Rockefeller monopoly, the Bush administration came along and let them off the hook with a stern finger-wagging. "Look, just don't do it any more", John Ashcroft is alleged to have muttered, still smarting over the fact that he lost his Senate re-election bid to a dead guy.

By the time Netscape started their toddler tantrum over Microsoft bundling Internet Explorer with Windows, it was more than five years too late to make a difference. Netscape was just whining because their grotesquely bloated version 4 was inferior to Internet Explorer version 4 (whereas prior to that the Netscape browser was much better). I wonder why Adobe didn't have a problem with the fact that Paint is also shipped with Windows. Given Netscape's logic, the Zippo Manufactuing Company should be suing General Motors for putting a cigarette lighter in the Hummer 2.

Internet Explorer is as ingrained into Windows as ever, and that hasn't stopped Firefox from making significant inroads into Microsoft's share of the browser market because Firefox is simply better overall and more secure. More specifically, Firefox probably has the majority of market share for those people who are knowledgeable enough to understand the difference and know how to switch browsers. I haven't played with Internet Explorer 7 yet, but everything I've read indicates that it, at best, catches up with the more modern browsers, and doesn't offer anything significant over software like Firefox and Opera.

Microsoft is at a crossroads. They will either need to make their new offerings relevant and compelling, or will start what will become a long, painful decline. Sadly, Vista seems to offer too little too late. Given that the only thing driving end users to upgrade from Windows 2000, aside from wireless support and a few other small improvements, is that Microsoft will soon discontinue support for Windows 2000, Vista does not offer any compelling "gotta have it" features that make the multi-hundred dollar upgrade worth bothering with for the vast majority of users. I suspect Microsoft will have to rely on Vista being shipped with new machines for the majority of its sales, although that will be a significant amount.

Monday, October 02, 2006


Originally posted 2005-05-07

Among my other wastes of time these days, I've gotten bitten by the Persistence of Vision bug again. I've been playing with POV since version 0.5 in 1992 and it's been a fun ride. Unlike most 3D software POV is basically a ray-tracing engine controlled by scripts. In other words, it's like programming. There are GUI modellers that support POV, but I've only used one once, for the beads in the Mardi Gras flyer on

Anyhow, I've been wanting to do Bender for a long time, because besides being one of the best characters from the late lamented Futurama, he's also very simple, geometrically.

I'm still mad at Fox for cancelling Futurama, which by Season 3 was consistently better than The Simpsons, which has been good, but not great, for the last 3 or 4 years. (The 16th season in particular has been very spotty (some it has been very good, but there are more lame episodes than usual), and from the looks of it, it's going to be the shortest season ever. And is it just me, or has the quality of the artwork gone down a bit?). Among their line-up of about 4 really good shows and another couple dozen that are mostly stupid and/or horrible, can't they have room for a show that is smart, funny and creative? They brought back Family Guy, fer cryin' out loud, and the only thing even remotely funny about that show is the Dad, and he's a complete rip-off of Homer Simpson. Meanwhile, American Idol, the show about mostly ugly people who mostly can't sing, gets an audience in the tens of millions.

Life's unjust, I tells ya...

Um, I'm rambling. Here are some Bender pics. I want to add some props like a beer bottle and cigar, but to do that, I'll have to change his pose. I found quite a few 3D Benders on-line, but in every case, even though some of the artwork was very good, the proportions were usually way off, or the details were all wrong. I tried to get the details as close as possible, although you will notice the lines on his arms and legs aren't there. As soon as I can figure out how to do it, I will.

I also recently viewed the "How to Draw Bender" on one of the Futurama DVDs and discovered that Bender, like all of Matt Groening's characters, is supposed to have an overbite. Shock and dismay! I haven't made a change to reflect this, but if you are interested, here's the source code for Bender so you can stick him in your own scene.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Warner Music and YouTube

The media companies are lining up to either cooperate with or litigate against YouTube. This could be a watershed moment defining who gets the Internet and who doesn't. More interestingly, what will the business ramifications be? You can be the most forward-thinking company on the planet, but if it doesn't bring in the scratch, it doesn't matter.

I think this is a forward-looking change that will have interesting ramifications. I think it shows that Warner accepts the realities of the changed market, and that as a media company, they cannot profit from maintaining a totally artificial monopoly on distribution because what they might gain in slowing down piracy will be far outweighed by customer ill-will and bad reputation (cf. Sony). The media companies in general have been sacrificing the good in favor of the perfect and ending up with neither.

Whereas eMusic (no, I am not on their payroll ;-) ) has jumped with both feet into the Internet Age and seem to be doing a decent business despite themselves, the big media companies are still being dragged kicking and screaming out of a 19th-century mode of product distribution at the expense of the good will of their most well-informed (and often high-spending) customers.

Like I've always said, I don't support piracy, but I also strongly believe DRM and other similar tactics take far more from legitimate customers than illegitimate ones. We went through all this in the 80's with floppy disks and the marketplace voted DRM down by a landslide. It was a mistake then, and it's a mistake now. The only people who really benefitted, IMO, were the folks who made stuff like CopyIIPC.

I think making your product more convenient and less expensive is always the best way to increase revenue. I also really think most people would rather be honest than dishonest, but in a situation where the product you can get illicitly for nothing has much more value than the product you rightfully pay for, can you really expect people not to rebel? To wit, should I pay money for a low-resolution, DRM-encrusted video from iTunes that I can't even play on my TV, or should I download, at no cost, the same thing in higher-quality DivX at DVD or HDTV resolution from the file-sharers that I can do with what I want? iTunes may be catching up to this standard, but what they offer is still significantly less preferable to the pirated stuff even without considering the price. This is not a case of people simply wanting to rip off the companies, but literally companies wanting to rip off their customers under the guise of self-defense of an obsolete business model. It might be morally, legally and tactically valid, but as a business plan, I think it's bound to fail. It's not like it will ever stop Chinese bootlegs, for one thing.

Take a look at eMusic again. They carry no major labels, and not too many big name artists, (nor many of my personal favorites), yet they have 11% of the American download market. Gee whiz. They are not being destroyed by piracy... then why are the RIAA members so petrified? Could they be afraid of having to compete in a fair and open market? Could the be afraid of not having a stranglehold on promotion and marketing? Could they be afraid of having to find real talent, rather than manufacturing some fake, lame flavor of the month because their customers only ever hear what ClearChannel is pumping at them?

The interesting question here is:

Can Warner's openness to share their material be the basis for more revenue for them and You-Tube, or are they essentially giving stuff away free with no real benefit for either company? I guess it all boils down to: Do you punish the majority to pretend* to fight piracy, or do you accept a certain amount of loss and attempt to balance it with increased value and a better relationship with your customers? Also, can you make money when you, technically, aren't selling anything? It's a lot more complicated than the old TV/newspaper/radio model of selling eyeballs/earholes... I think advertising as it traditionally has existed is slowly becoming obsolete. While it's a strong basis for doing business, I don't think it will be forever, or if it is, it will have to change a lot.

Maybe I'm too optimistic, but I would pursue the better relationship with customers, and would attempt to change the culture for the better, not through strongarm tactics and intimidation, but by building a positive customer relationship. It's worked for Apple... people are more than willing to pay a premium for a product that is in many ways better (but not as much as a lot of people claim), but in reality Apple owes a lot of its success to intangible attitudes and mindshare won through many hard years of trying to truly serve customers in a way that the larger companies have not. Granted Apple sells hardware, and you can't download a Mac from Limewire, but I think the vibe it has garnered over the last 20 years earns it a lot of business it would not earn were its offerings considered solely on price, or even quality. After all, Microsoft is now what IBM was in the 70's and early 80's... something the typical business just assumes without considering the often superior alternatives.

I think one of the important effects of the Information Age is something I mentioned on a mailing list recently: whuffie. In other words, an intangible reputation based largely on public perception that is becoming too astute (and too cynical) to succumb to plain-old ordinary 20th-century marketing tactics. I think the idea of treating your customers as a commodity will become more and more dangerous as the flow of information increases, customers become far more informed and savvy because the information channels are no longer locked down by a powerful few. We've got quite a ways to go, but are definitely headed inexorably in that direction.

Whuffie is not likely to ever become the basis of an economy like it was in Doctorow's book, it will certainly translate into good business in the 21st century. The question will be, can you succeed without it?

* I say "pretend" because as we keep seeing, all these attempts to control copying are defeated within days, if not hours of their release.

Web 2.0? I'm still waiting for the music sites to catch up...

So there are plenty of ways to buy music online. I finally caved after holding out for years when my 80GB Neuros II arrived with a coupon for eMusic (why I picked the Neuros is another topic entirely, but I can say that I am extremely pleased with my choice). Let me first say that I really like eMusic a lot. I've been a subscriber since November 2005 and have gotten my money's worth times five. I'd looked at places like iTunes and the new Napster, and I was continually (and still am) unimpressed at the selection they provide. However, since eMusic is shunned by all the major labels, it is often only useful as a place to discover new stuff, and not so much a place to look for specific items. Why? Because eMusic doesn't treat you like a crook. They offer value instead of limitations. They don't shackle you down with DRM, which is why the Big Labels won't do business there (as if you can't readily download all the Big Labels' music already). As I've noted before, they are the second biggest (legal) music download site in the U.S.. Betcha didn't know that. Even I was completely surprised, and I've been an avid fan of their service for almost a year.

Anyhow, iTunes was probably the first breakout success of selling music electronically, but lots of others are joining in, making what appears to me to be a marketplace that is getting more crowded with indistinguishable choices.

Here are the four things I think no one is successfully doing... yet:

1. Thinking BIG.
2. Using imagination.
3. Doing something more than copying iTunes.
4. Targeting more than the casual music fan

If I were to design a music system, for instance, (it's one of my biggest interests, so I like to talk about it), I would want the following features:

1. Very comprehensive selection. This is something nobody does in my opinion. I'm talking about an amount of information similar to the Gibraltar Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock which is a resource that's been around for at least 10 years (on and off) and is one of the best sources of information for that genre. Looking at services like Napster or iTunes, 80-90% of what I look for is not there... and I'm not necessarily looking for really obscure stuff. It seems if it's not new, there isn't a very big chance either site will have it. Neither of those services are particularly "long-tail" about their offerings. I want everything. I want to be able to look up singles Pink Floyd released that never made it on to an actual album. I want to be able to find the discography for (to pull an obscure name off the top of my head) Itoiz, a Basque rock group from the mid-late 70's. I want to purchase the record Journey released solely to its Fan Club back in the 70's. Right now, you can get 10 times the selection on Amazon, if you're willing to pay for (and wait for) shipping physical media.

2. Detailed discographies. I would want not only a listing of what records the artists released, but when, and preferably in what format (LP, tape, CD, etc), including track times. And this is just the beginning. I would want to see track listings, writing credits, and most importantly for much of the music I personally enjoyed, who played what on each track, especially guest artists who might have contributed. I want to be able to say "Gee, the guitar player on this Stu Hamm song is really good, I wonder who he is and who else he's played with." Often the CD's liner notes will give you this info, but my CD's are all stuffed in boxes. I only carry around my Neuros, which doesn't have any of that info. If I hear a song on the radio I like (very hypothetical here, unless we are talking about the classical station), it would be cool to look up the song and find out who wrote it. Maybe that person has written for other artists and I might be interested in that stuff. What side projects is Mike Portnoy involved with these days? Who has Tony Levin done session work for recently?

3. Lyric database with full-text indexing. This would be a great resource for figuring out exactly what the heck Elton John is singing in some of those classics of his, but perhaps more useful is being able to locate a song by the lyrics. Again, there's the scenario of "I heard something on the radio, and I didn't catch the artist, but the refrain went like this..." and identify the song.

You might want to have a song with certain topics for a wedding reception (I personally used John Lennon's "Grow Old With Me").

Maybe your sweetie's name (like mine) is Jennifer... are there any songs that use that name? Styx did one? Hmmm, not too appropriate. What else is there...?

It could answer long-held questions in music history... Did he really sing "The chair is not my son."?! Is "Louie, Louie" really dirty or is it just some weird pseudo-Jamaican patois? Did he just sing "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy"?!

4. Correlation with other media. iTunes does a bit of this from what I understand, but I envision it as being much more complete. What was that song I heard on so-and-so show (I won't embarrass myself by pointing out that the most recent show I could think of with a lot of musical content would be "Miami Vice")? Who does it? What album is it on? Who did the soundtrack to that movie I just saw? Who sang the "Gilligan's Island" theme song? Did they do anything else interesting? (For the first season it was The Wellingtons, who had a schedule conflict when they changed the theme for season 2 and couldn't do it again, but they showed up later as The Mosquitoes).

Did you know Mike Keneally once did a beer commercial? It's really cool, too. That kind of stuff would be linked. Of course, you can take link to other media a bit further: Adam Ant did a (non-musical) guest spot on "Sledge Hammer" in season 2. Who were all the jazz musicians that Bill Cosby introduced on his "Cosby" show as older relatives of his? IMDb is a great example of this kind of comprehensive linkage, except it only covers movies and television.

5. Reviews. I didn't realize for quite a while that eMusic's formal reviews are from All Music Guide, but regardless, they are really good. The reviews are well-written, detailed and thorough, and the reviewers are obviously very literate in the genres they review. Good detailed reviews are useful not only to help evaluate a particular piece of music, but also as a great jumping point to know where else to go from there (see #6). User-contributed material is, of course, very important. Feedback on reviews, similar to IMDb would be a good thing, as well as allowing users to acquire a reputation based on the quality of their reviews based on feedback from other users. User reviews are often more useful than profession reviews, because let's face it, who really cares what those pseudo-intellectual erudite snots think... will it play in Peoria? ;-)

6. Recommendations. This is another example of something eMusic does really well. They have two levels of recommendations. The first is like Amazon's, where they list "people who purchased this also purchased that". I've logged a lot of what I own into Amazon just to get improved recommendations from them. It's pretty tedious, but the results are sometimes very interesting and useful.

But eMusic also has extensive linkings to related artists, along with the ability to browse by very granular categorizations. For instance, "Rock" is not a genre: It is about 20 genres (and even that is conservative, you could probably come up with 40 without getting too obscure). It amazes me that some of these sites have a dozen classifications for different flavors of electronic or dance music (many of which boil down, essentially, to permutations of a single song), but lump everything else into "Rock" or "Rock/Pop".

For me, browsing by "Rock/Pop" or "Jazz" any of the other overly broad categories most sites use is essentially useless. By what standard are Herbie Hancock's "Head Hunters" and Ella Fitzgerald in the same genre? What about Simon and Garfunkel compared to Dream Theater? A fine-grained system of classification is a recommendation system unto itself.

Another good source of recommendations would be in the artist's biography itself. Who are the artist's influences? Who does he or she like? Looking at section 2, who has he or she worked with?

7. High-quality electronic downloads. I'm not one of those audiophile freaks who claims to be able to tell the difference between 320Kb/s MP3's and mint-condition, laser-tracked vinyl playing through a tube amp, but I would often pay more for the option of better (or even lossless) compression. Mindawn is the only place that I know of that does this, which is a shame. I think a lot of people would like this option. Even if that amounts to 5% of your customers, that could be a hefty increase in your revenue.

8. Topical and timely updates. Are any of my favorite artists in the news? Do any of them have a new record coming out? Are there any concerts in my area that I might be interested in? In each case (as with all of these features), there is a link to information that will be both interesting, and likely to lead to increased sales. The difference is that everything is tied together in a way that no one has quite accomplished yet.

There is nothing here that couldn't be done technically today. The worst problem is probably organizing all of the necessary information. So why isn't anyone doing it? Is it the best we can hope for to have 28 places to buy and download Britney Spears music, but nowhere to buy The Flower Kings?

I still feel like I'm missing something insanely useful and obvious, but since this is already a lot more than any current site does, I'll settle for what I've already got.

Is the "Long Tail" real or is it just another marketing fad?