April 29, 2004

With Diving Buddies Like These, Who Needs Sharks

Geez.

NEWPORT BEACH, California (AP) -- A recreational diver forgotten at sea by a boat crew drifted five hours and prayed for his life before a Boy Scout on an excursion aboard a century-old ship spotted him.

Dan Carlock, 45, was left by his diving group Sunday as he drifted for hours about seven miles offshore.

He noted the time of day on his small, waterproof writing slate and took photographs of himself to document that he'd made it to the surface.

. . .

Read the story here

Posted by brian at 09:45 AM | Comments (0)

April 28, 2004

San Diego: America's Former City

If a 3000-foot-wide asteroid hit downtown San Diego, all hell would break loose. Quite literally.

Here in La Jolla the 8.4-Richter-magnitude quake wouldn't start for four seconds after impact. Hardly enough time to pack up and load the SUV, let alone look up and go, "What was that?"

Problem is, before you even had time to think of saying "What was that?", the fireball, 288.9 times larger than the sun's diameter in the sky, would have already arrived. And it would stick around for 33 seconds, causing everything to, well, pretty much burn.

But then, we've all dealt with fire, how bad could it be? La Jollans would only have some 64 seconds to contemplate that notion, because that's how long after the blast before we'd be greeted with the arrival of rock, soil, buildings, bits of Petco Park, Sports Arena roof, Lindbergh Field runway, trees, water, aircraft carriers, transit buses, cars, everything else made of atoms.

A hurricane-scale wind? Hardly. Wind is simply too tame a word to use to describe the phenomenon. Asteroid impacts don't create wind. A more formal word, something a bespectacled post-doc in a white labcoat would readily say during a phone interview on Science Friday, something Latin... something like, say, "ejecta". Yes, the ejecta would be arriving in La Jolla at around 3,710 miles per hour, pretty much guaranteeing everything taller than a thumbtack would be flatted in a split second. Not a good time to be hang-gliding over Black's Beach.

And be sure to be wear earplugs: the noise of the air blast would be around 134 decibels.

But even if you manage to make it through the shake, the bake, and the ejecta, there's still the problem that if you were deep down in your La Jolla bunker, you, your house, your street, your neighborhood, and everything including Mount Soledad, would be gone, because the final crater would measure some 15 miles wide, and no doubt it'd fill with water from the Pacific after a pretty gnarly tsunami.

This bleak scenario in inspired by playing around with a very interesting website tool called "Earth Impact Effects Program" by Robert Marcus, H.J. Melosh, and G.S. Collins at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona. The tool lets you fill in the blanks for a number of different parameters (size, distance from impact, etc) for a hypothetical asteroid hit, and then you can sit back and read the report and weep.

Luckily, the scenario outlined above is supposed to happen only once every 2.7 million years. So maybe we'll luck out and it'll be a while yet, and hey, maybe it'll hit somewhere else.

Posted by brian at 10:10 PM | Comments (0)

April 27, 2004

My Orkut Network Map

Click on the image for a higher-resolution version:

Posted by brian at 05:00 PM | Comments (0)

Seven Figures, Ten Years

From Publishers Lunch:

Cultural historian and the author of the Beatles Chronicle Mark Lewisohn's THE BEATLES, a three-volume biography to be published over "the next decade or so," starting in 2008, [sold] to Tom Bromley at Time Warner UK, at auction, in a major deal for seven figures...

A seven-figure deal for books that won't come out for years... not bad. Does the world really need a Robert Caro-style multi-volume epic biography of The Beatles? I guess the market has spoken.

Posted by brian at 03:40 PM | Comments (0)

April 26, 2004

Vincent Van Treo

So I bought the Treo600 on Sunday. Buying a phone from Sprint is an experience, let me tell you.

You might as well sign over your mortgage and title to your car, not to mention your first-born and your left arm, when you buy a phone and set up a plan with a phone company. First they want your driver's license. Then they want your social security number. Then they present in front of you a nearly impossible-to-read (how convenient for them) legal document --- not printed on paper, but printed onscreen in the cheesiest, faint-purple-on-light gray pixellated fonts you can imagine. The screen is a touchscreen, and there are navigation boxes onscreen at the bottom of each "page" of this legal agreement (where you essentially agree that you'll never sue Sprint for anything ever, and they will fine you, hit you with fees, taxes no doubt including the Spanish American War Tax, surcharges, and who knows what else, if you don't do what they tell you to do).

When you're done squinting at one "page", you try to touch the "Forward" box on this greasy, sticky touch panel that who knows how many customers like yourself have squinted at and touched already today, and of course, the "page" does not change, until you've rocked and smooshed and squished your finger around but good on that "Forward" box, and then the page updates to get another screen's worth of poorly-formatted legal gibberish. All the while you're wondering, where is the clause in this "agreeement" that says that "Now that Sprint has approved your credit, we don't need to have your driver's license nor your SSN anymore, so here is our solemn oath that we have deleted this information from our computers and files and will protect your privacy into perpetuity so help us God".

Alas, such a clause never appears, on this "page", nor the next, nor the next one after that.

After five or six of these pages, you finally arrive at the end, where you are then asked to touch the "Finished" box, which wipes the screen clear and then you're presented with a signature box, and you're asked to sign your name using the stylus Sprint has so graciously provided. And of course, your signature as it appears onscreen always looks like you're intoxicated or in the middle of a major earthquake, and never looks like, well, your signature. But somehow the Sprint salesperson doesn't mind this at all. What they've gathered is your credit card, your address, your phone number, your social security number, and your driver's license number. You paid $400 something for the phone and the service plan, but how much else have you paid Sprint? How much money is Sprint going to get for all of that personal information? Who do they resell it to? Questions that strangely the storekeepers never have answers for.

Anyway. I have a cellphone now. And I took some pictures with it. This is one of the first, taken on Soledad Mountain in La Jolla while I was walking the dog. Brilliant sunlight overhead, brilliant colors down on the ground. The Treo's camera clearly freaked out a bit over the saturated colors. All I did was crop it a tiny bit to fit here in the blog. No other alterations. I think Vincent Van Gogh would have been proud:

And here are some others from the first batch of pictures. The dog is probably thinking, oh great, more pictures...

Posted by brian at 09:36 PM | Comments (1)

The Captain Fades Away

Wow. Stunning news. Guided by Voices announces it is disbanding. I guess Pollard doesn't need any more songs.

I guess there was meaning behind Pollard's "Fading Captain" moniker.

Posted by brian at 05:31 PM | Comments (0)

April 24, 2004

Just My Luck

I'm thinking of getting a Treo 600. I've been blissfully free from cellphones, pagers, PDAs, and other digital leashes for two and a half years, but the time has come.

Everyone's been telling me to go read the discussion boards at a website called TreoCentral. So of course, the moment I hear about them and go to check them out, the TreoCentral's discussion board server not only crashes, but loses all of its hard disk data. Not only on the live hard disk, but on their backup disk as well.

So I do a Google Search on "treo 600", and come across some page within PalmOne's site. It's not exactly the page I'm looking for so I do a search for "treo 600" within PalmOne's site search function in their navigation column.

The search result comes back with a "not found" error. This wouldn't be exasperating except that the Treo 600 is made by PalmOne, and this is their website...

Like, is this a message from the gods or something?

Posted by brian at 12:31 PM | Comments (0)

April 23, 2004

Krakatoa, West of La Jolla

Went to hear the bestselling author Simon Winchester give a talk at Warwick's Books in La Jolla last night. He's on a book signing tour to promote his book KRAKATOA: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883.

Winchester is a charming speaker, with an genuine fascination and enthusiasm for his subject matter. Originally a geologist trained at Oxford, he speaks with a mild English gentleman's accent. There's a wry, understated wit both in person as well as in his writing (he speaks of the volcano as if it is a moody being, which "wakes up", "breathes", "stirs", and eventually "misbehaves"). It turns out he's a delightful and amusing reader of his own material.

Whenever I go to one of these book author appearances, I play a game: when the author reads segments from his book, I race to find those pages in the book from which he's reading. With nonfiction, it's not hard at all, since once he mentions someone's name or the name of a place, I can quickly look it up in the index and jump to those pages and scan. I usually find the right spot within 10-15 seconds.

It's fun because I find it interesting how authors often change the text, on the fly when they're standing in front of an audience reading right from their own books. I don't mean inserting parenthetical remarks or verbal annotations to the text, but literally as they're reading from their own book, they sometimes add phrases, words, or sometimes even paraphrase, or even skip, whole sentences. If you weren't following along while the author spoke, you'd never know. Winchester for the most part stuck to the text, adding a few words here and there. Some authors turn out to be terrible readers of their own work (nerves? stage fright? never listed to a recording of their own reading?), but Winchester is perfect. I wonder if he narrates his own audiobooks -- need to look into that.

During the Q&A session I asked him about Yellowstone, which some geologists point out may be the next Krakatoa. Turns out not only is he familiar with the issue, but he's headed to Yellowstone soon. He's currently in San Francisco doing a book on the famous 1906 earthquake there, and then he's driving back to his Western Massachusetts home -- by way of Alaska. He's driving up to Alaska first to investigate the Denali and Anchorage earthquake histories, and then shipping his car back to Bellingham, WA, and driving east from there, passing through Yellowstone. Of course he'd be a driver: he's a geologist, he loves the land!

His view on Yellowstone is that one day it will indeed blow, and when it does, it will take much of the Western United States with it. He thinks it's not going to happen for a long time, though, long after humanity is extinct. (He added an anecdote here: he told this story once to another audience, and when he said "after humanity is exinct" some lady in the audience asked, "But what about Americans? Does that mean Americans too?")

One very interesting tidbit I learned at the Winchester talk is that the inspiration for Edvard Munch's famous painting The Scream may very well come from Krakatoa. Even though Munch was based halfway across the world in Norway, when the eruption happened, and for several years afterwards, there was so much dust in the upper atmosphere that sunsets were altered dramatically, with wild, sometimes frighteningly unusual and most unnatural colors. While Munch didn't actually paint his painting for years after the 1883 eruption, he saw the strange sunsets in Norway in 1883 and it stuck with him.

Here's a December 2003 CNN.com story with more about the Krakatoa connection to The Scream. And here's a link to a similar story in the Guardian.

He also mentioned that since international telegraph cables had been installed prior to the Krakatoa eruption, this turned out to be the first event in history where word of the catastrophe reached the whole world within hours of the event (he says Boston newspapers were printing the story within 4 hours of the actual eruption).

One other thing: he says he's been out to an area southeast of the Salton Sea, where the San Andreas Fault begins or ends, depending on how you look at it. It's an interesting area because, he says, there are thousands of tiny "mud volcanoes" out in a field, slurping and bubbling beneath your feat. It's relatively unknown and little-visited but he says it's worth checking out. Note to self: add it to the list of things to check out.

Second other thing: while standing in line for the book-signing after Winchester's lecture, I wound up standing next to two men who seemed to be book-hounds. (I swear, one of 'em is someone who stood in line when I attended a book talk and signing by Michael Gruber, an event I photographed and wrote about right here in this blog back in March 2003 -- in fact that link includes a photo of the guy I'm talking about .... he was holding a pile of books then just like he was this evening). They talked about all the books in the store (hey, have you read this one? how about that one?), the upcoming author events they plan to attend (including this weekend's Los Angeles Times Book Fair in LA, with, they told me, 180,000 expected attendees). They spoke about how gracious and friendly Ray Bradbury was, going out of his way to make sure everyone got a signed book. "Not like Michael Chrichton," one of them said. "He's just downright rude." Apparently at a signing this guy was at, Chrichton signed a few books, then got up and started to storm out. Someone said, but wait, you need to sign all these books, pointing to a pile of Chrichton's books. Chrichton is alleged to have replied, "If you think I'm going to sign all that shit, you're crazy," at which point, the bookseller apparently said, "Well, if that's what you think of your own work..." The guy telling this story then swore he'd never read another Chrichton novel again.

Posted by brian at 12:23 PM | Comments (0)

April 21, 2004

Monetize THIS

Every time I go out to get the mail there's junk from Albertson's or Ralph's or Long's Drug or whatever, as well as PennySavers and various ADVO Systems flyers for things I don't need or want.

Oftentimes when I open legitimate mail, there's legitimate stuff in there, but there's also upsell invites and flyers for goods and services I don't need or want. These companies include these flyers and inserts because they're paid by the advertisers to do so.

I think it's time to turn the tables and start getting paid to insert flyers and upsell messages back to the companies we all do business with. Time to pay the local San Diego Gas & Electric utility bill? Fine, here's the check, and oh, here's a coupon for 15% off on your next meal at our favorite restaurant. Time to pay the phone bill? No prob, here's the check, and here's a flyer from the very nice people at Jiffy Lube. Time to pay the fees to your local fitness club? Cool, here's the check, and here's a flyer for discounts to Landmark Theatres. Time to pay off more of your credit card bill? No prob, here's the check and here's a coupon for a family of four to go to Sea World at a great discount. Potential employer has asked you to send in a cover letter and your resume to be considered for that job you heard about? Excellent, and here's a flyer for that bicycle company in La Jolla that's offering half-price rental deals through August.

For something like this to work, there'd need to be a way for consumers to get paid for inserting these flyers in their outbound mails. Obviously the scale isn't going to be there (the average consumer is very unlikely to send out, oh, 200,000 coupons or upsell flyers every month) so this is more of a "it's the principle of the thing" kind of thing. So you only get a quarter for sending out 10 flyers per month. I bet thousands of people would still go for it.

Scenario:

  • Fast forward a year. Something like this is put in place, and millions of consumers nationwide start including flyers and promos and upsells with their correspondence to businesses they're customers of.

  • K. is an employee of Citibank, processing thousands of bills and handling thousands of checks from customers every month.

  • K. notices more and more of these customers are including flyers, ads, promos, upsells, invitations, and coupons along with their checks.

  • K. mentions this to coworkers, who reply with, "Hey, I'm seeing the same thing with my pile of envelopes!"

  • Soon, everyone's talking about it at the water cooler.

  • Not long after that, management hears about it.

  • Management emails the executive VP in charge.

  • The executive VP in charge decides he doesn't like customers sending in these things along with their bill payments. Something about increased janitorial costs due to throwing out all this new junk mail from customers.

  • The execuutive VP in charge tells Marketing Communications to issue a notice to all customers that effective on so-and-so date, customers are prohibited from including non-billing-related items in their correspondence with the company. Any violations of this prohibition will result in either a fine or closing of the customer's account.

  • The mailing goes out on a Monday. By Friday the customers begin to call the company to complain. "Why is it that we're barred from sending you flyers, advertisements, upsell messages, and discount coupons, yet you continue to include those very things in all of your outbound mailings to us?"

  • The company ignores this very valid point from customers. But the media doesn't. A month later, there's a story on 60 Minutes. A day later, the company rescinds its prohibition, and consumers celebrate a big win...

Hey, it's just an idea...

Posted by brian at 05:46 PM | Comments (4)

Phone Bill Scams

An organization called TeleTruth has some interesting things to say about your phone bill. First, there's this examination of a Verizon phone bill.

Then they issue this press release arguing that Verizon, SBC, BellSouth and Qwest all have major problems with their phone bills, and efforts by those companies and federal, state, and local governments to add new fees and taxes to bills is unnecessary if not illegal. Interesting reading.

I was amused by their argument that the "Federal Excise Tax" that one sees on one's phone bills is actually the 1898 Spanish American War Tax. Too bad they didn't provide the full text of that law.

All this reminds me of that wonderful surprise I got one day in 1998, back when I was running a small ecommerce startup in the Seattle area: a check arrived, unexpected and unannounced, from U.S. West, the phone company, for something like $1500. Turns out U.S. West had been ordered by a court to divvy up a massive fine to its Washington State business telephone customers, and my company's cut was $1500. Wow did that come in handy.

Posted by brian at 11:06 AM

April 19, 2004

Unexplained Sights

If you drive even a little bit you're bound to see something odd every once in a while -- something you can't explain given what you see in the moment you drive by.

Years ago when I lived in the Washington, DC area and commuted in I-95 between Washington and Baltimore, I saw something that one doesn't see every day: a big black limousine burnt to a crisp along the side of I-95 south. It looked like bullet holes all along the side of the car as I passed by. There were unmarked gray and black U.S. government-license-plated cars parked in front and behind the scene. The burned limo didn't appear to have any impact damage from an accident, it was just burnt to a crisp with bullet holes in the doors. There was never a story about it in the newspaper or on TV, and I remember keeping an eye out for some mention of it over the ensuing days. Always wondered what that was all about.

More recently, in fact just a few months ago, I was headed back to San Diego on I-5 at about 2 in the morning, passing through the San Onofre area, and there was this brilliant spectacle of flashing red and white and yellow and blue lights on the horizon, in the northbound lanes. I thought, oh, big accident, but no, as I got closer, I noticed these vehicles, and there were a whole bunch of 'em, were all moving, in formation. In the center of the formation were a line of three or four black limousines, in a big escort with a formation of police cars, motorcycles, fire engines and ambulances surrounding it behind, alongside left and right, and in front, all moving north at high speed, sirens blaring, lights flashing. Who were they escorting at 2am northbound on I-5 around San Onofre? Never could figure that one out.

A couple weeks ago I was once again heading back on a business trip, and found myself passing south on I-5 through Irvine, San Clemente, and San Onofre around 2am. I saw the strangest vehicle: a white U.S. government license plate, with the letters DHS (Department of Homeland Security?) followed by some numbers. It was a bus / mobile home retrofitted to be some sort of mobile lab or command post: the windows were all blocked, and there was no window in the far back. This thing was nearly the size of a city bus, like one of those huge mobile homes. Strange thing was, the vehicle was moving incredibly fast, at at least 85-90 miles per hour, driving in the fast lane, passing everything in sight. I noticed it nearly lost control as it moved through that section of I-5 near San Onofre where there are some pretty serious left turns in the road as you head south. Why the hurry? Where was this thing headed? Who knows.

Today, driving up the hill on Via Capri towards Mt. Soledad, I saw a strange sight. A bicyclist was stopped along a steep stretch of Via Capri, fairly close to the top of the hill. He was down on all fours, looking at the ground, his arms and hands outstretched as if he were examining things on the pavement of the bike lane. As I got closer, I noticed there was a little cardboard box near him. As I got even closer, I noticed that there were millions of shiny reflections in the bike lane all around him, and continuing up the hill for maybe 10-15 yards, shiny reflections as if shards of broken glass. I thought, ah, ok, must've been an accident? Is he injured? Did something just happen and it's a hit and run? But he didn't appear to be hurt. At the far end where the glistening objects stopped some 10-15 yards up the road, was another small cardboard box, its lid open just like the other one. As my car came up alongside him (I'd slowed down considerably below the 25mph speed limit to see what was going on), I noticed the glistening objects were nails, hundreds, if not thousands, of nails. The two boxes were cartons of nails, and it appeared that they'd been either spilled by accident or dumped intentionally, all over that stretch of bike lane. But only the bike lane: I noticed not a single nail beyond the white painted line separating bike lane from my traffic lane. I have no idea what was going on, but I didn't pull over to find out. Next time I pass by there I'm going to check to see if the nails were all picked up. Hope so!

Posted by brian at 09:41 PM

Jesse's 9th

Jesse, the English Bull Terrier, is nine years old today (63 in human years). Born the same day, eerrily, as the Oklahoma City tragedy.

This photo shows Jesse on the left and his alter ego, Spuds Mackenzie, on the right.

One thing I've noticed about San Diego in the past two years: its collective memory of Budweiser and Spuds Mackenzie is fading. It used to be the second I took Jesse outdoors, any passerby -- in a car, on a bike, a jogger, a pedestrian, construction worker, a cop, whoever -- would stop and yell out, "Hey! It's Spuds Mackenzie!" or "Hey, look, it's the Budweiser dog!" I used to keep a tally whenever I walked the dog: how many mentions of "Spuds" today? Usually the count exceeded one dozen for any given walk.

And then when we moved to the Seattle area in the late 1990s, we were stunned that nobody, and I mean nobody, ever referred to Jesse as Spuds Mackenzie, nor made reference to Budweiser beer. Instead, the reference was something competely different. Old retired men, nice ladies in the neighborhood, construction workers, even little kids on bicycles would roll by shouting out, "Hey, there's General Patton's dog!"

General Patton's dog!?! How would a little kid know that? But sure enough, this was the common reference in Seattle. I guess they never marketed Budweiser beer up in the Pacific Northwest.

But, strangely, even now in San Diego, the most common reference is "General Patton's dog". Oh, I still hear the occasional reference to Spuds, but what I hear the most is Patton.

The only explanation is that a lot of people must have seen that movie on one of its regular television screenings.

One other thing. In all the years that Target Stores have used a white English Bull Terrier (complete with red circle around the left eye) as its mascot, not one passerby ever, ever, has pointed to Jesse and said, "Hey, there's the Target dog!"

I like the fact that Patton's beating them all out. I suspect Patton would have liked that too.

Posted by brian at 02:11 PM | Comments (3)

April 18, 2004

Mars, or Twentynine Palms?

I knew that recent Mars image looked familiar....

But seriously, remember Opportunity and Spirit? The rovers on Mars? They're still there, still taking amazing pictures.

Posted by brian at 10:27 AM

April 17, 2004

Hi, Pat

Thursday evening there was a new voicemail message on the home phone. The message was timestamped 5:09pm. Man's voice.

"Hi, Pat, I missed you at your office, and I didn't want to leave word there because you probably wouldn't have gotten it, in fact I know you wouldn't have, um, I'm sorry I can't play tomorrow, I'd like to, but, we got some plans already worked out for tomorrow, but thanks for thinking of me, I'll talk to you tomorrow at Mass. So long!"

Now, my wife is named Patricia, and she gets voice mails all the time. But who was this calling her?

So I called her work number, and there was no answer. I called her cell: got her. She was on the way home.

"Um, were you planning to 'play' tomorrow?"

"Play what?" she asked.

"I don't know, you tell me!"

"What?"

"Ok, when was the last time you went to Mass?"

"What are you talking about?"

"I don't know, you tell me!"

I then recounted the voice mail to her, and she broke out laughing.

Some guy calls a wrong number, and leaves a message for "Pat"... what are the chances of that!?

Posted by brian at 11:41 AM | Comments (1)

April 16, 2004

Black Boxes in Cars

Does your car have a black box? Do you know? Here's an interesting Montreal Gazette story of a man who was convicted and sentenced to jail for killing someone in an accident, where the man was driving 3 times the speed limit. How do they know he was driving so fast? His car was a witness. The Pontiac Sunfire the man was driving had a black box in it, according to the article, which registered 157km/h (97mph) in a 50km/h (31mph) zone, and also indicated the driver made "no attempt to brake."

Is it commonplace that cars now record speed like this?

Makes you wonder about black boxes in cars. How long before a car's black box has a wireless port that law enforcement can read from using their mobile computer? Scenario: you park in a 2-hr spot on a street in downtown La Jolla, go have lunch and shop, come back 2.2 hours later, and there's a ticket on your windshield. You think it's because you exceeded the 2 hour limit. You're right. But it's a ticket for $900, citing you not only for the parking violation, but the 17 times you exceeded the speed limit in the past 6 months on various roads (the GPS-equipped black box knowing where you were when you were speeding, and what the legal speed limits are where you were at each instance).

Oh, the future is going to be delightful.

Posted by brian at 10:35 AM

April 15, 2004

Corrupt Elections in the Digital Age

Bruce Schneier sent me this URL today, to an essay of his on the economics of cheating elections with electronic voting machines. It's an interesting essay, and worth reading.

The San Diego County Registrar of Voters continues to amaze me with their spin on electronic voting. I'd love to know who wrote the talking points for how they explain the technology to the public. The main phrase is "touch screen voting" -- with slogans like "It's at your fingertips". Nice, happy phrases about how easy it is to vote using the voting machines.

That's fine. What may also be so easy is perpetrating fraud on these machines, or, more importantly, on the machines that read and process the electronic cards voters hand back to the poll workers after using the "touch screen" machines.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: considering the levels of paranoia, scrutiny, security, testing, evaluation, caution, and care that banks and casinos exhibit when adopting new ATMs and digital slot machines, respectively, it is remarkable and very telling how readily governments embrace electronic voting systems like Diebold's, which is what San Diego County bought and installed to the tune of $35+ million.

The Mission Statement of the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, seen at the bottom of this page, is as follows:

Under the Jurisdiction and Direction of the Board of Supervisors, and with the Assistance of the California Secretary of State, Conduct Voter Registration and Voting Processes with the Highest Level of Professional Election Standards, Accountability, Security and Integrity, Thereby Earning and Maintaining Public Confidence in the Electoral Process.

Well, this is one member of the public, who's worked in the computer industry for 25 years, who no longer has confidence in the electoral process in San Diego because I know from experience how easily vulnerable computer systems are to error and fraudulent use. Sally McPherson, head of SDROV, has not assured me in the least that these machines, or the systems in place to count votes, are free and above any influence from any party or candidate. Go read Robert Caro's books on LBJ. Don't think that kind of electoral fraud doesn't still happen? Please. It's easier now than ever.

Posted by brian at 06:51 PM

Linspire!?

Linspire!?!?

Ladies and gentlemen, Lindows just jumped the shark.

I still think Michaelsoft would have been better.

Let's see. Alternates they could've chosen:

Linept, Linane, Linaccurate, Linvade, Lindulge, Linfo, Linternet, Linterest, Lincest, Linfer, Linflexible, Linfested, Linevitable, Lineffable, Lindustry, Lindicate, Linbred, Lindict, Lintentional, Lindecent, Lindeed, Lincorrigible, and my favorite, Lincognito.

Posted by brian at 09:12 AM

Startup in Acton, That's All They Got

So, I'm in the middle of trying to give brith to a new Internet startup venture, trying to get funding, get a team together, all that stuff.

My startup seems to break every rule in the VC handbook:

  • it's a boring story, not rocket science

  • nothing really new in terms of inventions or technology, in fact it's more a Frankensteinian hodgepodge of existing technologies stiched together

  • there's absolutely no barrier to entry, the proverbial two guys in a garage could do it but probably woudln't bother

  • it's a pretty totally obvious idea

  • stuff like this has been tried before, and it always fails

  • there's little in the way of intellectual property protection

  • nightmarish multi-billion-dollar competitors

  • utter uncertainty the venture will find a receptive market

When the world gives you lemons, give them to someone else.

So I'm basically describing my venture precisely in these terms: total doom. Funny thing is, it seems to be working.

Yesterday I had a great 90-min chat with a VC, who's fascinated with what I'm doing, and he agreed with my assessment of the business from a "no way is this fundable" perspective, by adding:

"You need to add another item to your rule-breaking list: No clear revenue model."

He then added, seriously, that this is the kind of venture where it doesn't matter what the revenue model is. That it's worth spending $25 million on it just to build it and see what happens.

Alas, he didn't write a $25 million check right then and there...

Posted by brian at 08:58 AM | Comments (2)

April 14, 2004

PC Forum review

I was there, and this reviewer (the Maciej I don't know, as opposed to the one I know) captures what it was like brilliantly and humorously.

Posted by brian at 10:13 PM

Monetizing Attention

I googled for the exact phrase "monetizing attention" the other day and was amazed that there are no -- nada -- zero -- search results for the phrase. I tried alternates: "monetizing my attention", "monetizing user attention", "monetizing your attention" -- nope. Nothing. Stumped Google.*

I can't believe nobody's talked about this online. Ever? Weird.

What I mean by it is the idea of figuring out how to achieve more flips. Nicholas Negroponte famously once wrote of how stuff that's currently beamed as radio signals through the air would evolve to travel through wires and cables, while stuff that currently travels through wires and cables would be beamed through the air. In other words, a big flip. We are in the middle of the Negroponte Switch. (Can you say Wi-Fi?)

Another flip, one that Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has been speaking of for years and years, is the notion of driving your car for free energy --- you drive around all day, and then at the end of the day you park your car in the garage, connect it to the outlet in the wall, and the excess energy built up in the car batteries gets sent out to the grid, the power company, who pays you a fee for that energy. Instead of you paying ExxonMobil to drive your car, they pay you! Flip!

The flip I'm interested in is, instead of me paying the cable modem company and the ISP for the privilege of spending hours surfing the web, participating in online conferences, etc., the web pays me for my time, my attention. If not directly, indirectly. By indirectly, I mean, I figure out a way to earn something for spending the time reading all the stuff in the first place.

So as an experiment, I've set up a new blog, W.N.O.T.W. (www.wnotw.com) --- which means "What's New On The WELL". Since I spend a lot of time on The WELL, the conferencing community that just had its 19th birthday, and I pay $15/month to be there, I'm going to see about trying to get that time and those fees to pay for themselves by investing a little bit more time to jot down interesting stuff I read about there and share it with the world. In a way, this is like doing an Alphaville Herald of The WELL. (Ironically, the Alphaville Herald is done by a WELL user!)

We'll see how it goes.


*UPDATE 20:24: It turns out there are four results for "monetize attention", just none for "monetizing attention".

Posted by brian at 03:03 PM | Comments (1)

April 13, 2004

TiVo Wish List

I don't own a TiVo, but I expect I'll own some sort of digital video recorder some day.

Even though I don't own one yet, I already have a wish list.

Here are two items on it:

  • I wish TiVo would not only know when the commercials occur, so as to filter them out, but it would also know when the interview segment in The Daily Show is about to begin, and filter that out too. A 12-minute Daily Show dosage would be just right.

  • Even better would be an ability to access a TiVo or equivalent device from anywhere on the Net, and play any of the video in a window or fullscreen on one's computer. For instance, during lunch, if one's stuck at the cubicle muching on a sandwich before getting back to work, it'd be nice to be able to click on a link which would load up that 12-minute Daily Show segment from your TiVo at home, and you could watch it right there during lunch. Of course, if such a capability existed, then theoretically a peer-to-peer network could exist, of all the TiVos in the world, and you could browse/search all of the shows that everyone in the world had on their TiVos --- a number that would closely approximate the number of shows that've aired in the past few days I bet. In other words, a TV Napster. Hmm.

Posted by brian at 02:02 PM | Comments (3)

The Fifty Most Loathsome People

The New York Press has published its 2004 list of the "Fifty Most Loathsome New Yorkers". Vicious, nasty, and sometimes hilarious.

I wonder what the list of the Fifty Most Loathsome Bloggers, or the Fifty Most Loathsome Technologists would look like. That might make for some interesting reading.

Posted by brian at 11:51 AM

Richter Mortis

Story over at CNN.com today with the headline: "TV Quake Film Has Experts Shaking -- Heads" points out that seismologists are rolling their eyes at NBC's "10.5" miniseries, about The Big One coming to California.

Best quote: When the exec producer was asked whether he consulted scientists for the show, his response was, "Not really. We went on the Internet for backup research."

Yikes.

Posted by brian at 10:26 AM

April 11, 2004

Searching for Mesothelioma

John Battelle's Searchblog reports on a Washington Times / UPI report that says the word "Mesothelioma", a rare form of cancer related to asbestos exposure, is the most valuable keyword in the search world right now, at $90 and up per click.

Scroll down to the bottom of that UPI story and you'll see Google ad links for, you guessed it, mesothelioma-related services.

Of course, every blogger in the blogosphere is now going to write about it, no doubt in far greater detail than I, in the hopes that a) mesothelioma-related ads appear on their pages and b) people click on them numerous times.

Nah, nothing like that would ever happen...

(One wonders what they'd pay for pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis?)

Posted by brian at 07:30 AM

April 07, 2004

War and Peace

I attended the Stockdale Lecture at the University of San Diego last evening. First time I've been gone.

Joe Galloway was the invited lecturer this year. You may remember his name from the book We Were Soldiers Once, and Young" which became a major motion picture with Mel Gibson et al a few years back. Galloway, now 62, is the senior military writer for Knight Ridder, and is based in Washington, DC.

I was unprepared for the evening's lecture being attended by hundreds of ROTC students from UCSD, USD, SDSU, and Point Loma Nazarene, plus many decorated military officers and dignitaries. Luckily about a third of the audience was like me, just folks from the local San Diego area.

Forgot how funny university administrators can be in terms of protocol. There were five handcarved wooden chairs on the stage, each chair fit for royalty. Each chair was there for one of the persons involved in opening or closing the lecture ceremony. First, we had the VP/Provost, who introduced everyone and then introduced the President of the University of San Diego, a woman who was sitting in her chair, her left elbow on the chair's armrest, her forearm extended upwards to hold up her head as if she was bored. She came to the podium, made some brief remarks, including marveling at the ROTC students in front of her, noting how they were all great scholars, great athletes, working on "improving the human condition, and learning about national security." Um, ok.

The President then introduced Dr. Larry Hinman, head of USD's Ethics Institute, who made his own brief remarks before he introduced Joe Galloway hiimself.

Galloway's lecture was simple and to the point, briefer than I expected. In two words: War sucks.

"I hate war," Galloway told the audience. "I know war as intimately as anyone can, and I hate it." He was born a few weeks before the strike on Pearl Harbor, and was five years old before he met his father or any of his uncles (they were all off to war). His entire life, he says, has been "wrapped up in America's wars."

He defined war as the result of "failed political and diplomatic leadership."

He was all for fighting the war on terror, however, he expected it will be with us for a long time: "We will be fighting the war on terror possibly as long as the lifetime of the youngest person in this audience."

As for the Iraq situation, he had nothing positive to say: "We have clutched the tar baby to our bosom." Like so many others, his argument is basically that Iraq is a sideshow and has nothing to do with ending terrorism, and everything to do with promulgating it.

During the Question-and-Answer segment after the lecture, he was asked what he would be the first thing he would do if he were elected President this November. He said, "Develop an exit strategy for Iraq." He said the past two or three days "are frightening in the extreme."

I should add that an underlying theme of his entire talk was the importance of education: educating everyone, not just American kids, but kids worldwide. As long as there is hunger and hopelessness there will be no peace in the world, he argues, and education is key to ending hunger and hopelessness.

Posted by brian at 02:10 PM

April 05, 2004

TuneCircle: Glaring Omissions in its Privacy Policy?

Heard about TuneCircle over at Fred Wilson's VC blog. I've been trying it out and have two concerns.

First, in a nutshell, what TuneCircle is, or wants to be, based on what I can figure out so far: a social network built each members' MP3 collection. To do anything in TuneCircle after you've joined, you pretty much have to download and run their embedded Java app, which searches your hard drive, identifies your MP3 files, reads the ID3 tags, and reports it all back to TuneCircle.

Still with me? Haven't run for the hills yet?

  • Invalid Java Certificates? The first time I did the "Scan Your Library" activity, a rather intimidating dialog box appeared, warning me that the certificate was bad, unsafe, and all kinds of other gloomy adjectives. Of course, there was a message saying someone's name at TuneCircle assures users that this Java code is safe. There's a button to continue. Since I was using Safari in MacOS X, and know that Safari is very flaky with certificates which are interpreted as fine everywhere else, I decided to continue. Thousands of MP3 files later, TuneCircle was listing my songs on their site, with pre-set star ratings for each artist...

  • Who is TuneCircle and What Is Their Relationship to RIAA? Nuff said.

  • Privacy Policy issues galore: TuneCircle's privacy policy incredibly makes no mention of the fact that the company INSTALLS JAVA ON YOUR COMPUTER, SCANS DIRECTORIES, FINDS MP3 FILES, READS THEIR ID3 TAGS, AND THEN 'PHONES HOME', REPORTING IT ALL BACK TO A CENTRALIZED DATABASE. No explicit mention in the privacy policy that I could find, that explains how the company uses your MP3 library information, what third parties have access to it, etc. The policy states this:
    Protection of TuneCircle and Others: We may release Personal Information when we believe in good faith that release is necessary to comply with that law; enforce or apply our conditions of use and other agreements; or protect the rights, property, or safety of TuneCircle, our employees, our users, or others. This includes exchanging information with other companies and organizations for fraud protection and credit risk reduction.

    Also, the privacy policy's language on "we own everything you do or say" is about as bad as Orkut's.

  • Errors in the data The whole experience reminds me of MP3.com's My.MP3.com service and the Beam-IT software. Only now, it's not "tell us everything that's in your CD collection", it's "tell us everything that's in your MP3 collection". And their Java code does a poor job generally of identifying stuff and resolving numerous duplicates. Also, since my music library is within iTunes on a Mac, it seems to have trouble with that (and other TuneCircle users have reported similar problems).

  • Three-star ratings I think the three-star ratings is the wrong number of stars. Especially since TuneCircle explains that 3 stars = "I LOVE this artist", two means "I LIKE this artist", one means "I HATE this artist", and none means "Not rated yet". I wish the ratings were done pretty much like Netflilx (five stars plus an extra button for "Not Interested".)

TuneCircle needs to do a lot more to be interesting. For instance, forget the artist, focus on the song and the album. Forget lists and lists and lists, and focus on CD album covers. These social network experiences all work best on a visual basis, and TuneCircle could be a far more visual experience and far less of an experience of lists of this and that.

But first and foremost, TuneCircle has some explaining to do with regard to their Java app and privacy of the MP3 libraries. Who knows what else the Java app looks for on your hard disk?

Posted by brian at 09:45 PM | Comments (2)

The Music of the News: The Spoken Song

Fascinating archive of broadcast news music jingles from stations across the country.

Of course, what they miss out on is the real music of the news: the musical way news anchors report the news, in happy sing-songy voices. Ever noticed it before? Listen to the BBC sometime. Then listen to the local happy-go-lucky newsteams in your city. Then listen to Dan Rather, Jim Lehrer, and the rest. They all have their own tune. There is a whole world out there of the true language of news reporters: it's not the spoken word, it's the spoken song. I wonder if anyone has ever done a study on the real music of the news...?

Posted by brian at 10:24 AM

April 03, 2004

zefrank's Red Alert

It's been ages since I visited that insanely creative website www.zefrank.com. Stopped by today and noticed there's a new short film, "Red Alert". I had no idea what it was at first but found it pretty funny. Sort of Robert Smigel meets Denounce Newswire:

Posted by brian at 06:20 PM

Wingdings and U.S. Presidents

I was working on something in Photoshop today and by accident I selected the wrong font for some text. The font? Wingdings, a font containing symbols and icons instead of alphabetic chars.

It suddenly occurred to me that it would be interesting to see what the initials of all presidents since FDR looked like in Wingdings. And what, if John F. Kerry were to win, his would look like too (same as Kennedy's, alas). And without further comment, I give you the Wingdings interpretation of the Presidents of the United States of America:

Posted by brian at 04:45 PM

Why Would I Use GMail? I Can't Think of a Reason.

Google says this about GMail:

  • Search, don't sort.
    Use Google search to find the exact message you want, no matter when it was sent or received.

    My Response: Eudora does this fine. Search OR sort. My choice.

  • Don't throw anything away.
    1000 megabytes of free storage so you'll never need to delete another message.

    My response: I save everything that's not spam. I have tens of thousands of emails going back years and years. It's all instantly searchable. It works great.

  • Keep it all in context. Each message is grouped with all its replies and displayed as a conversation.

    My response: I've been advocating email as conversations for years. Glad to see this meme coming to the forefront. However, this is not enough to get me to use Gmail.

  • No pop-up ads. No banners.
    You see only relevant text ads and links to related web pages of interest.

    My response: I get this now with my paid Eudora. No AdWords text ads, no popups, no HTML. Email simply is useless in a web browser except when you're on the road, or at a conference using non-secure WiFi and you need to check your mail through an https connection. I just don't care.

In fact, the only reason I will use Gmail is to keep an eye on it as a technology product. I've no interest from a user standpoint. Gmail will be the new Hotmail. Big whoop.

Posted by brian at 12:08 AM | Comments (2)

April 02, 2004

Reichart's Lessons

Went to the San Diego Futurists monthly meeting tonight at a Barnes and Noble store, to hear Baron R.K. Von Wolfshield talk about what he's learned over the years in the computer business. Reichart, as he was introduced, talks quickly. Very high bandwidth. Never heard of him before, even though it turns out we know a lot of the same people, are about the same age, and have worked in the same industry for 25 years.

Just a random list of things I thought were interesting:

  • Not part of his talk, but beforehand I overheard someone mention that at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, there are musical chimes hidden behind "huge granite slabs", but if you hit them, you can make them play a musical note. Apparently these are located near "the main lawn" as you get off the tram. Next time I go back to the Getty I'll have to check this out. Anyone know about this?

  • Some stuff about Reichart: sleeps only 4 hours a day, has been this way his whole life; dropped out of school during junior high; seems like the ultimate autodidact; self-professed ENTJ type, with his team being INTB's

  • He kept referring to his website / LiveJournal pages, but when asked for the URL, refused to give it out. Apparently everyone at this SD Futurists event knows it but me.

  • He says at any time there are 3 separate people suing him for something or other.

  • Some Disney lore: apparently Disney culture is such that if you work for another company and go meet with Disney people, they intentionally try to outnumber you in meetings. If you bring two people, they'll bring four. If you bring four, they'll bring eight. You bring ten, they bring 20. They're "horde-like" as a group.

  • "People work at Disney because they love Disney, it's so pure!"

  • According to him, the top three T-shirts in the world are:
    #1 = Mickey Mouse
    #2 = Hard Rock Cafe
    #3 = Gold's Gym

  • When he gives his resume to people, or approaches companies for work, his rule is to give references going back 10 years, and also list three enemies. "I want people to know who my enemies are." "Here's three people who hate me."

  • He spoke for a long time about his work designing gaming machines for casinos. Factoids: 50% of the gaming machines wind up at military bases. 200,000 machines are out there now, and over next 3-5 years, that number will quintuple.

  • I asked him what he thought of electronic voting machines made by companies like Diebold. His answer: "If these companies [the slot machine companies] made voting machines, I'd trust them. But they don't, so I won't." I've heard similar thoughts from Al Acorn, who was one of the founders of Silicon Gaming, an electronic slot machine company. The amount of testing and the rigor that goes into certifying a slot machine, compared to the relatively flimsy (if you believe the media) testing and certification that goes into voting machines, is enough to make one fear the demise of democracy...

  • He told a Microsoft story, saying he'd met with two execs yesterday, and one of them had told this story and he'd asked permission to retell it at this lecture. Apparently years and years ago this exec got his start at MSFT in the clip-art software division. He'd been responsible for some clip art library with some 47,000 images. Before the company shipped the product, they cut down on the number of images, and also compressed the search so it would find wildcards. For example: there used to be clip art of a playground monkeybar. After Microsoft shipped the product, if you did a search for "monkey", you would see a picture of a monkey, another monkey, another monkey, an African-American couple, and then more monkey images. The NAACP apparently went ballistic, so the story goes, and one day a team of Microsoft lawyers brought this employee into a room and asked him, "Did you do this intentionally?" He insisted he didn't, said it was entirely by accident, that if you looked at the supposedly offensive image, you'd see that there was a monkeybar in the background, and the keyword "monkeybar" had been associated with the image, and if you searched on "monkey" you got "monkey*" with the wildcard, etc. Apparently the company made the guy go down to the NAACP and meet with them and explain and apologize... Reichart's point to the story was that there are many hidden costs to products now, including reviewing them for just such inadvertent, coincidental combinations of bits that result in a possible lawsuit or offended demographic. Apparently there are now businesses whose sole purpose is to review the potential offensiveness of software products.

  • Reichart spent time talking about who he likes to do business with and who he doesn't. He says "I will not play golf", and if a business partner wants to take him for a golf game, he will not go, even if it costs him the business deal. Likewise, he won't go out drinking or to strip clubs the way dealmakers at some companies like to do. Says he does no drugs and has never even had coffee.

  • He spent a lot of time talking about contracts and lawyers. Not surprising he'd spend a lot of time about this, given his admission of being sued by at least 3 different parties at any given time. He says he even hired an attorney to spend time with him teaching him what to look out for in contracts.

  • His advice for entrepreneurs: don't get a VC. He says it's a "kiss of death" if a VC gives money, but then goes off and lets you work on your own. If you must get a VC, he says, get one who wants to be actively involved, a stakeholder, providing access to the vast network of marketing, business, financial contacts that can open opportunities for the startup.

A note about the SD Futurists meeting itself: the meeting started with a momentary, and I mean so momentary you'd have missed it if you weren't paying attention, introduction from the person (Jessica?) who runs the SD chapter. Nothing at all about how the meetings work, no info for newbies like me, no explanation of what the group is about, how to find out more, who everyone is that you're sitting next to, etc. I think it would have been a more valuable meeting if they'd spent 10 minutes going around the attendees asking them in 10 words or less, who they are, what they do, and what their interests are.

As interesting as Reichart's talk was, I'm not sure what it had to do with futurists or the future. The whole talk was about lessons learned over the course of his 25-year career.

Posted by brian at 11:14 PM

Images from Space

Ever wonder what the Great Lakes area looked like from space . . . every day of the year, year after year? Then get thee to the MODIS image library run by the ERSC group at Univ of Wisconsin. (Warning: it's a big page with 912 thumbnails)

There's also the "Gifts of the Glaciers website which includes a wider range of photos.

NASA's GOES site lots of images including animated photos.

NOAA has an OSEI Image of the Day page, which today is showing a major flooding disaster taking place on the Zambezi River in Namibia.

Here's an image (1280x1162 jpg)of a serious smog problem over much of eastern China. This smog had been hovering over the area for over a month when the photo was taken in Feb 2004.

Posted by brian at 05:18 PM | Comments (1)

April 01, 2004

Microsoft Fails Again

Always a marvel that major corporations choose Microsoft technology for the website operations. Here's the homepage of a major U.S. retail food company, as seen a few minutes ago:

It reminds me of the blue screens of death or Windows Explorer crashes one sees occasionally on the community cable channels. When will they learn?

Posted by brian at 08:23 PM | Comments (2)
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