Sometimes the City of Boston surprises me with their effective use of technology. It’s generally pretty hard to find an example of the government doing a good job implementing a large technology/citizen service project, but I recently discovered the Boston Water and Sewer Commission has put all usage information online.

So you can actually see your monthly water usage, with the numbers for each month appearing with Javascript mouseover:

Incidentally, that spike in late July—that’s not us. We moved in a couple days after that. I understand the prior owner of the house reads my blog (hi Peter!) so he is to blame for taking too many showers that month.

In fact, you can even see daily usage, right up to yesterday (I suppose they can’t do today yet because you’re not done using your water):

The only problem with the site is that it has a stupid Flash/Shockwave entry screen. There’s absolutely no reason to do this—plain old HTML would have worked fine, and been more accessible to blind Internet users. That said, it’s at least well done Flash and doesn’t have unnecessary animation or blinkies.

The City of Boston Assessing Department has a similarly valuable tool, which also has the additional benefit of allowing you to spy on your neighbors. (Hey, my friends’ nearby house doubled in assessed value from 2003 to 2004—probably the result of a gut rehab). Being able to see the assessed value of any property, the history of assessments, and some of the basic information about the property without getting up from one’s desk makes it a lot easier to figure out if one is being treated fairly by the tax man.

The Suffolk County Registry of Deeds has a much clunkier interface, but has managed to get several year’s worth of filings indexed online, and is making progress at scanning the contents of those filings—another valuable way to snoop on your neighbors (“Oh, I see, they took out a second mortgage to build that addition!”) — on second thought, maybe this whole blog entry belongs in the ‘privacy’ category.

One of the most impressive projects is “The Boston Atlas” (aka mapjunction; Java client required). The Boston Atlas is an interactive map of Boston that includes various historical (back to the 1700’s!) and current aerial images, with the option to superpose several different data sets, including streets, open space, census data, wards, precincts, building footprints, etc., and select the color for plotting the various data sets. It’s really pretty cool.

Here’s my house, with a little blue arrow added to point to the house, yellow lines to indicate streets and red lines around open space. Click to get a more legible version:

(please don’t use this information to plot a terrorist attack against my house or the parking lot at the end of the street).

Objective Journalism

Steve has pointed out several times how poorly the mainstream media do in establishing verifiable facts, instead kotowing to the requirement of providing a “balanced view” and presenting “both positions” on an issue. For example, just today the Boston Globe· runs a story entitled Bush argues his Social Security plan aids blacks·:

Under a system based on wages, the average monthly Social Security retirement benefit received by African-Americans is $775, compared with $912 for whites. In addition, many blacks never receive the benefits because a disproportionate number die before they are eligible. On average, black males die six years sooner than white males.

But some groups representing African-Americans say that Bush’s logic is faulty and that creating private accounts would hurt blacks rather than help them. They maintain that Bush is playing a race card to boost his plan.

After summarizing the position on both sides of the debate, the story notes:

Whichever side is right, the controversy has put a spotlight on what some say has been missing in the national discussion over Social Security: Is the system filled with inequities that discriminate against certain demographic groups?

Whichever side is right? There probably is a correct answer to this question, and I submit the media should be responsible for reporting that answer, even if the result is that it appears to be “taking sides” in the debate. Steve pointed me to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities· entitled African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Social Security: the Shortcomings of the Heritage Foundation Reports·. The report notes straightforward actuarial errors made in the report the Bush administration relies on for its claim that the social security system disadvantages racial minorities. One example:

The Social Security Administration’s Office of the Chief Actuary found that Heritage both overstated the payroll taxes that workers pay for Social Security and understated the Social Security retirement benefits that workers receive, with these errors being particularly large for African Americans. The Office of the Chief Actuary found that in estimating the number of years an individual would work and make payroll tax contributions, Heritage failed to take into account the fact that some workers die before retirement and consequently contribute payroll tax for a smaller number of years than those who work into their 60s. Since a larger portion of African-American workers than of white workers die before 65, failing to take this factor into account led Heritage to make particularly large errors in its rate-of-return calculations for African Americans. For example, the actuaries found that the number of years a 20-year-old African-American man is expected to make payroll tax payments into the Social Security system is six years fewer than the Heritage methodology would predict. This flaw in its methodology led Heritage to overstate significantly the Social Security taxes that African Americans pay.

Another good example of this phenomenon is WBUR public radio host Tom Ashbrook’s show, On Point, where Ashbrook bends over backwards to make sure he’s always giving “both sides” a fair shot in the discussion, even to the point where he has take a clearly ridiculous view (for example, “maybe the people who want to ban discussion of evolution from classroom textbooks are factually right!”). National Public Radio has been demonized by the right wing for several years now, so perhaps this is an attempt to preempt further charges of bias.

The Boston Phoenix· ran a a great interview with veteran political writer and Dorchester native Jack Beatty· that focused on this same issue several weeks ago. When asked about the media’s role in the “Swift-Boat Veterans for Truth” smear ads during last year’s presidential campaign, Beatty responds:

In the past, there were terrible lies told about candidates. But I think the difference is that journalism has become a vector for these lies, and a way of dignifying them and treating them through this terrible trap of objectivity. “You say, Mr. Hitler, that the Jews are in fact parasites and need to be destroyed. You over here, Rabbi, disagree. Let’s talk.” This objectivity is strangling. You think of journalism as a mirror and a lamp. It’s strictly a mirror today.

Steve pointed out another great example of this a couple of months ago when the New York Times· ran a positive story on the Mozilla Firefox web-browser·, but declined to establish verifiable facts:

Firefox has won praise from some Internet experts for being more innovative than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and less susceptible to malicious programs that routinely attack the Microsoft browser.

Firefox, they say, is a compact, free-standing browser designed to display Web pages rapidly while blocking pop-up ads and other unsolicited windows. Downloads of the new browser were running at the rate of a million a day last week.

While the security claim might arguably be a matter of opinion (although clearly any argument that up to this point Internet Explorer is no more subject to security vulnerabilities than Mozilla Firefox is laughable), the issue of whether Firefox “displays Web pages rapidly” is quite easy to test. In fact, I’m sure there are people already on the New York Times payroll who would be able to verify (or refute) the claim. And yet, the New York Times—like most other mainstream media publications—lets “you be the judge.”

Hey, one side says it loads faster, the other side says it doesn’t, and who are we to force our opinion on you?

Working within the System

‘He feels he can do more good working within the system.’

I figured this space could use a little levity for a change. Interestingly, this New Yorker cartoon was actually the result of a captioning contest where readers sent in suggestions based on the image. Above is the winning entry.

Bloglines and the Perils of Syndication

Martin Schwimmer (The Trademark Blog) posts an interesting discussion about why he doesn’t allow his RSS feed to be carried by bloglines. Bloglines bills itself as “the most comprehensive, integrated service for searching, subscribing, publishing and sharing news feeds, blogs, and rich Web content.” Or, in other words, it aggregates different weblogs and other sources that publish in RSS format so that a reader can get all their selected information from one website.

Although many people use “offline” RSS aggregators like Straw for GNU/Linux and SharpReader for Windows (I don’t know what OS X people use), for people who don’t access the web through a single computer all the time, a “free” website that performs this aggregating service sounds like a good idea.

The problem, Schwimmer points out, is that Bloglines has a business plan. And that business plan has been described by at least one analyst as AdWords on Steroids. Bloglines plans to use weblog content written by other people for data mining and targeted advertising, without the writer’s permission.

This doesn’t sit well with me. First, as an online privacy advocate (despite my recent outing of two anonymous U-Haul commentors), I’d rather not provide grist for data collection and profiling, especially where the readers are quite unlikely to realize what is happening. Second, I have no control over the content of the ads that might surround my blog. Google AdWords has provoked a lot of controversy (not to mention several lawsuits) by selling trigger words to advertisers that include competitor’s trademarks. I think Google is probably right, both legally and in terms of commercial ethics, in that scenario—consumers searching for ‘Nike shoes’ might in fact benefit from a link to New Balance with the description ‘New Balance shoes are cheaper and better quality!’, and aren’t likely to be confused about the source or origin of what they’re getting.

I am less comfortable with the idea that there might be ads surrounding my weblog entries for porn, online gambling, or worse — legal services. Unlike the Google AdWords example, in that case Bloglines (or another commercial aggregator/data miner) would be using the fruits of my own labor in a way that might associate me with entities I do not want to endorse or that might be in direct commercial competition with me. It’s fairly intuitive to think that not only does an advertiser endorse particular content, but that the creator of that content at least nominally endorses the advertiser. This is why political magazines like Ms. Magazine did not accept advertising for many years (although they do, within certain limits, now).

Finally, from an economic perspective, it seems to me that Bloglines would be profiting without really doing anything productive or creative: the only value-added is the advertising itself, and perhaps the aggregation feature, but that is available for free without advertising from other sources.

It’s useful to compare the function of commercial Linux distributors like SuSE and Red Hat with Bloglines. The commercial Linux distributors take free content, package it, certify it in some way, support it, help fix bugs, provide a “bricks and mortar” infrastructure for getting the product out there, all requiring a substantial input of resources. To take blog content and put ads around it, on the other hand, requires almost no creative (or other) resources. I suppose they are providing some bandwidth that might be useful if the blog publisher is short on that, but a better solution in that case would be for the blog publisher to run ads themselves and use the money to pay for more bandwidth.

Presently it appears that I have seven or eight Bloglines subscribers. I won’t be cutting them off any time soon, but I am considering licensing my blog enter a noncommercial Creative Commons license that should prohibit the kind of data mining and advertising that Bloglines is planning with content I create. Although I think that kind of license is inappropriate for most software (and certainly doesn’t comply with the Debian Free Software Guidelines) I think it might be the only way to avoid some of the consequences discussed above.

Blizzard 2005



Today’s forecast reports:

Any travel is strongly discouraged. If you leave the safety of being indoors… you are putting your life at risk.

Above is our front yard picnic table and our back yard picnic table as of this morning—they might be totally gone by the end of the day. Good thing it’s no weather for a picnic.

Incidentally, if anyone has any ideas about how to take good quality digital photos of snow, or how to use the GIMP to get better whites, please let me know. I did a little fiddling with these shots, but it’s really much brighter out there than these images would have you believe.

Being both sick and snowed in inspires me to file bugs and ask mailing list questions. For example, this bug with mplayer that prevents me from playing AAC files that I’ve tagged with mp4tags has been bugging me for a couple of months. And I just learned that sending a USR2 signal to openbox forces ‘reconfigure’, which is quite useful if you script changes to the rc.xml file.

Now if someone could help me with this strange, intractable Apache bug my day would be complete.

U-Haul Responds

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog entry detailing some of the problems I’ve had with U-Haul. Just a few minutes ago, I received two additional comments, one from “jen”:

i think you people need to relax and realize that we are all human and so mistakes can be easily made also we all know computers are all ways having problems so i think you people need to stop whining and move on with your life

and one from “ange”

cry me a fuckin river

Interestingly, these are actually both the same poster—here are the entries from my server logs: - - [19/Jan/2005:16:06:44 -0500] "POST /weblog/the_man/uhaul_sucks.html HTTP/1.1" 200 33399 "http://adam.rosi-kessel.org/weblog/the_man/uhaul_sucks.html" "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 4.0)" - - [19/Jan/2005:16:07:52 -0500] "POST /weblog/the_man/uhaul_sucks.html HTTP/1.1" 200 33563 "http://adam.rosi-kessel.org/weblog/the_man/uhaul_sucks.html" "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 4.0)" 

The person got to my site by doing a Yahoo search for “u-haul” (hey, I come up #7): - - [19/Jan/2005:15:58:02 -0500] "GET /weblog/the_man/uhaul_sucks.html HTTP/1.1" 200 12184 "http://search.yahoo.com/search?p=u-haul&fr=FP-tab-web-t&toggle=1&ei=UTF-8" "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 4.0)" 

Most interesting, however is the identity of the IP address block—here’s the result of ‘whois’:

 Sprint SPRINT-BLKF (NET-205-240-0-0-1) - UHAUL, Inc. SPRINTLINK (NET-205-241-11-0-1) - 

So apparently a U-Haul employee pretended to be two anonymous/pseudonymous posters to say, “Give U-Haul a break, they’re not so bad.”

Spammed By The Marines

I recently received this message from “Captain DeStefano” at my Northeastern University email address. He has this to say:

My name is Captain DeStefano. I am the Marine Corps Officer Selection Officer here in Boston. The reason that I’m mailing you is because I want you to be aware of an awesome summer training program called the Platoon Leader’s Course (PLC).

Interestingly, this is an opt-out spam, and apparently I’ll continue to receive them unless I “click here”:

This email was sent to you to assess your interest in U.S. Marine Corps Aviation. If you prefer not to receive future emails, click http://usmc.marines.com/unsubscribe or copy and paste this URL into your browser. Please review our privacy policy at http://www.marines.com/privacy_policy/default.asp

I wonder if the Marines actually harvested all of the @neu.edu email addresses on the web or from some third party source; or if Northeastern willingly turned them over, for fear of reprisal under the Solomon Amendment, which has been used to threaten educational institutions that receive federal money if they refuse to let military recruiters on campus.

In either case, it strikes me as inappropriate and vaguely desperate. The email is clearly directed toward current undergraduates—I wonder if they actually emailed all graduate students as well as law school alumni with active email addresses such as myself?

(I can just see the slashdot headline now: U.S. Military Resorts To Spam For New Recruits).

Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

Richard Shindell’s new album, Vuelta, is great. (Vuelta means turn, reconsideration, or homecoming). I’ve been a Richard Shindell fan since I first saw him at a free folk festival at Harvard in 1996 or 1997 (anybody know what that festival was?). I’ve always preferred his live performances to his albums, though, because I find the full backup band on the album gets in the way. A lot of folk performers seem to like to record with backup bands, maybe because it makes it more interesting for them since they often tour solo—but I almost always prefer the solo acoustic performance.

Shindell has moved to Argentina since his last album, though, and this one is much more sparse by way of instrumentation. The album is also more brooding than his others—although Shindell has never been a lightweight pop songwriter by any standard—and Shindell’s outlook has clearly been made dark by world events since September 11.

My favorite song on the album is Shindell’s adaptation of Pete Seeger’s Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, a story about a World War II army training operation in Louisiana gone awry. For some reason, it only recently became obvious to me that this song is actually about Vietnam.

The song has fresh relevance now in the context of the Iraq war, even if you don’t buy into a simplistic “another Vietnam” analysis. Here is an excerpt (OGG file, 30 seconds, 630K) from the song that goes to the heart of the matter:

“Captain, sir, with all this gear
No man will be able to swim.”
“Sergeant, don’t be a Nervous Nellie,”
The Captain said to him.
“All we need is a little determination;
We’ll soon be on dry ground.”
We were waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the damn fool kept yelling, “Push on!”

Or, as Secretary Rumsfeld puts it: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

Bizarro Ipod

I don’t know if this (5.6M QuickTime MOV) is making the rounds of the blogosphere, but it should.

Where Did “Open With” Go?

Living at the bleeding (well, leading) edge of open source development can be quite disconcerting as a desktop user. For example, in some recent nautilus upgrade, the “open with” option for folders just disappeared. I used this to queue up folders of music in xmms. Moreover, the “open with application…” option for files no longer gives a nice dialogue where you can define applications for file extensions (or specific files)—now it just prompts for a command to run. Where did it all go?

I think my blog has been too “consumer protection” focused lately—see my recent entries on WLI Reservation Rewards (now up to 25 comments!) and U-Haul for example. I’m afraid I’m becoming a one trick pony, so I’m going to limit my consumer complaints for a while, even though I’ve got a nice one stewing about Verizon. Steve says I’m actually a three trick pony: Linux, IP law, and consumer scams. Maybe he’s right.