The Greatest Love Story

In keeping with my recent theme of linking to publicly available public radio recordings…

So it’s a little late for St. Valentine’s Day, but I’ve been busy. On This American Life, Sarah Vowell’s The Greatest Love Story of the 20th Century (about 47 minutes in) is fantastic and a must-hear for Johnny Cash fans. The story dispells a longstanding misconception I’ve had that “Ring of Fire” is actually about syphilis.

Incidentally, did you know that you can jump to the middle of a RealAudio stream simply by appending ?start=47:00 (to jump 47 minutes in) to the URL? Unrelatedly—that Vowell was the voice of superhero Violet Parr in The Incredibles?

Rather have a bottle in front of me

Tom Waits is featured on this week’s American Routes public radio music show (archived herereal audio link). There’s a great interchange where you can’t tell if Waits is totally screwing around with the host, or just being himself. Here’s the clip (10 second ogg):

Q: I don’t want to misquote you, but I think I saw you once said something like “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”
A: Oh right right right…
Q: Very succinct and poetic line.

A: Mmm… Um, I read that on a bathroom wall.
Q: Oh — did you really?
A: Uh huh. Yeah.
Q: But it strikes me it’s also somebody that sang that at that time that maybe — drinking was probably pretty important to you at that point?
A: Oh, well, I haven’t had a drink in like fourteen years.
Q: But… I… when you said that, my guess would be that you probably were, unless you were totally playing a character…
A: Oh, yeah, I was drinking in those days, yeah, sure.
Q: Yeah, yeah.

Apparently, the “lobotomy” quote, often attributed to Tom Waits, is actually written by Atlanta physician Randy Hanzlick. But it’s entirely plausible it got to Tom Waits via a bathroom somewhere. I’d believe it.

Update: a commentor points out that Hanzlick himself actually got the quote from graffiti on a bathroom wall. The plot thickens.

What’s up with Verizon?

I’ve been building a litany of criticisms of Verizon, to which I fork over something on the order of $200 a month for two cell phones, a land line, broadband, and fees too numerous to mention. I’m in a real crunch time right now, though, so let me just settle for one question: why does Verizon always make me call several different phone numbers when I need to change something? Aren’t they the phone company? Shouldn’t they have fancy phones that let them transfer a call from one Verizon office to another? In fact, I bet they don’t even have to pay long distance charges!

More exactly, why do I have to do all this calling? I’ve been trying for several months (since August, actually) to consolidate my two cell phone accounts into one account, and then consolidate that account with my landline and broadband, and have one bill that is automatically charged to my credit card each month (no discount for that—just “convenience”). Last night, I called Verizon Wireless Customer Support, asking them why it’s taken three months to do this. They told me I had to call Verizon Wireless One Bill. Verizon Wireless One Bill told me that Verizon Wireless Customer Support didn’t know what they were talking about, and I had to call Verizon Residential One Bill, but they were closed. Now, why can’t Verizon Wireless Customer Support just call Verizon Wireless One Bill or Verizon Wireless Residential One Bill for me and take care of it? In fact, I bet they even have interoffice email, so perhaps they could do it that way.

Anyway, just imagine four or five more stories along those lines. I’ve got ‘em.

Novell Public Service Announcement

Novell Public Service Announcement. Cute, but requires Flash. Why not just make it a downloadable movie file?

GNU/Linux Training

I’ve been considering trying to offer a GNU/Linux course at a local Adult Education Center. The Boston Center for Adult Education, the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, and the Brookline Center for Adult Education all offer dozens of computer courses, but only for legacy operating systems and applications. Not a single course focusing on open source software.

I imagine a few obstacles. First, would any of these places even let me set up a Linux lab? I can’t imagine they’d be too willing to have all of their hard drives wiped (or repartitioned) and replaced with new, unfamiliar software. My experience is that Linux is more threatening to system administrators the less familiar they are with it. The class could probably be taught with a “live” CD distribution like Knoppix or Ubuntu Live, but this would mean I couldn’t demonstrate an actual, real live installation, which is often the part where people get stuck.

Second, who would take this course? This is one of those cases where you can’t even lead a horse to water (much less make him drink)! I would want to tailor the course to a target audience, but I have trouble guessing if the audience would be: (1) no one (2) curious home desktop Windows users (3) technical people with no familiarity with Linux, or (4) beginner Linux users who are looking to be able to solve problems on their own better… or maybe some other audience entirely? Of course, the way the course is advertised would to some extent determine the audience, but I’d like to find the most ripe target audience.

Third, how do you teach a computer course, anyway? I’ve never had a demonstration-based computer training that I found very useful. In my experience, I learn everything by doing—and by doing I don’t mean repeating the actions I see an instructor doing. (“Now click on ‘Gnome Control Coenter’…”) It seems to me that learning about software is such an individual experience—how do you effectively scale it up to 5-15 people so that no one is left behind, no one is bored, and everyone comes away feeling much empowered? And how do you model the critical “trial and error” stages that everyone must go through to really grasp something?

It occurs to me that maybe the best way to teach a software course might not involve much actual demonstration at all, instead the trick is to teach people a generalized method for approaching problems so that they have the tools they need to find answers when problems arise.

For example, on linux-disciples, a small community-of-interest mailing list I administer, someone recently asked “how to get online”. It wasn’t clear at all what layer was the problem; I responded:

The trick with this sort of problem—and really 99.9% of linux problems—is drilling down to the problem area. One of the problems I consistently see with newer users is that they feel helpless because they don’t know at which layer the problem is arising.

So there are a few questions:

(1) Does your computer see your network card?
(2) Does your network card see the wireless signal, and associate with the wireless router?
(3) Does your network card get an IP address from the wireless router?
(4) Does the wireless router see the “Ethernet modem” (I assume you mean cable modem)?
(5) Does the cable modem see the Internet?

And then continued to walk through each of these items with some suggestions for how to figure out if that was the problem. I think training people to (1) figure out what questions they need to ask, and (2) how to go through the questions one-by-one and get a definite answer as to whether the system works at that level, would be the best way to teach this kind of course.

Solomon Amendment Victory

Yale Law School Professor Jack Balkin reports that two days ago, a group of Yale Law Faculty won a case against the defense department challenging the Solomon Amendment. The Solomon Amendment requires schools to provide access to military recruiters or lose federal aid—including student loans. Military recruiting is inconsistent with the campus access policy of nearly every law school in the country because of the military’s discriminatory policies with respect to sexual orientation.

The court held that the Solomon Amendment is unconstitutional as applied to Yale Law School. This is an important decision, and if upheld on appeal could signal a strengthening of the “unconstitutional conditions” doctrine, which forbids the government from restricting constitutional rights “through the backdoor” by conditioning a benefit on not engaging in otherwise constitutionally protected activity.

This was a big issue when I was in law school. I suspect the Solomon Amendment is responsible for the spam recruitment email I recently received from the Marines, although I can’t be sure where they got my law school email address (it isn’t one I’ve ever used publicly).

Google as Registrar

According to…), Google is now an ICANN accredited domain name registrar. Google states that it isn’t going to be selling domain names any time soon, though:

However, it has no plans to sell Web addressees for now.

“Google became a domain name registrar to learn more about the Internet’s domain name system,” a company representative said Tuesday. “We believe this information can help us increase the quality of our search results.”

Isn’t this an odd claim? Isn’t the functioning of the Internet’s domain name system transparent? What more is Google going to be able to learn “from the inside” that isn’t already publicly available? And if there is such information, shouldn’t we all have access to it?

Alternatively, CNET speculates that this will give Google a seat at the ICANN table, giving it a larger role in Internet governance. This sounds more plausible than any technical reason for becoming a registrar, but is, in itself, somewhat disturbing. It means you can buy a seat at the table for $10,000. I’d like to think there would be a more democratic way of balancing stakeholders in Internet governance than “whoever can afford a seat.”

This also lends credence to one of the foundational claims of an interesting recent paper on Internet trademark law, Deregulating Relevancy in Internet Trademark Law by Eric Goldman, mentioned on the Trademark Blog. Goldman convincingly argues for the elimination of distinctions in trademark law between various forms of search: domain name, keyword, paid placement, adware, suggesting that the issues for the searcher, the publisher, and the intermediary are really the same in all cases. For two quick examples, consider that several of the top searches in Google are for terms like “” and “” (turning search keywords into a domain name query); and Verisign’s ill-fated attempt to implement site-finder (turning domain name queries into search keywords).