Pittsburgh Too

Okay, so Pittsburgh rocks too, although the WiFi hot-spot at the Pittsburgh Airport is a little less “hot” than in Florida. Still free and open access, though, with the catchy essid of FlyPittsburgh.

In other news, the newspapers here seem to be somewhat proud that Pittsburgh has “won” the official designation of “distressed city.”

Fort Lauderdale Rocks!

The Fort Lauderdale Airport· in Florida is the first one I’ve found where there appears to be free and ubiquitous WiFi. I’ve been quite frustrated over the past few months: every airport seems to have WiFi supplied by T-One Mobile where you need a subscription or day pass. I just want to check my email for 30 seconds—I don’t want to spend $7 for “unlimited” access for the day when I’m only passing through briefly.

But at Fort Lauderdale, you just turn on your WiFi and you’re instantly assigned an IP address, no firewalls, no payment schemes, just Permanet· (temporarily). And you get something like half a megabyte per second bandwidth—both up and down.

Our Way of Life?

Another thought about the supposed targetting of Las Vegas: by casting the enemy as “hating our way of life,” the administration leaves no room for compromise. If the terrorists seek to reduce U.S. influence in the middle east, then there are various concessions that might be made; if they want to destroy our way of living no matter what, then there’s no room for compromise. Although we don’t negotiate with terrorists, we do know how to avoid calling regimes terrorist when we want to negotiate—e.g., North Korea.

Similarly, a “war on terror” is unwinnable: terror is a mode of action, not an entity. The war on Troy is won when Troy falls; when does the war on terror end? When no one thinks of using terror as a tactic anymore?

Many others have written about the potentially perpetual nature of this war, and even administration officials have suggested that this could last decades. This could conceivably rival the cold war as an engine to drive the military-industrial complex. I wonder how clearly people could see the cold war unfolding in its incipiency.

Las Vegas, Really?

Apparently, all Air France flights from Paris to Los Angeles were cancelled on Christmas Eve because “officials” were concerned that there was a plan to hijack a flight and crash the plane in Las Vegas. According to the Washington Post:

The al Qaeda network has long considered Las Vegas to be one of its top targets for a strike because it sees the city as a citadel of Western licentiousness, U.S. officials said. Government officials said they have known for some time that al Qaeda is interested in striking at Las Vegas.

I’m no al Qaeda expert, but this doesn’t make any sense to me. Neither prior targets nor al Qaeda propaganda suggest that the organization targets Western licentiousness. The World Trade Center is not a hotbed of pornography; the American Embassy in Kenya· is not a lobby for legalized gambling. It seems to me that everything al Qaeda and related groups say and do suggests a mission of defeating U.S. hegemony abroad and hurting American economic interests domestically.

I wonder whether the press really believes that the terrorists want to destroy us because “they hate our way of life,” or if they’re just happy to faithfully report whatever “U.S. officials” say.

It’s also interesting to note that a plane did crash in Las Vegas yesterday·, but only got tenth page coverage. It remains the case that accidents are far more dangerous that terrorism, and yet terrorist casualties get far more attention, and billions of dollars go to the war on terrorism. Wouldn’t the money be better spent in a war on accidents?

DRM Lock-in

Although I’ve always understood that there’s a link between digital rights management (or DRM) and product lock-in, it really hit home for me today.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept of Digital Rights Management: there are a variety of DRM schemes, but basically the point is to restrict what you can do with files that reside on your computer. For example, when you purchase tracks from iTunes· or Napster·, they are encrypted in such a way that you should only be able to play those tracks on the machine you purchased them with. (A Norwegian programmer has cracked the iTunes DRM scheme, however.·).

Now obviously this causes some inconvenience if you change computers frequently, or if you want to listen to your music on many different devices. In fact, as a side effect of iTune’s DRM scheme, you might purchase tracks, move to Canada, and then be unable to listen to them at all·.

But the more insidious problem is the lack of interoperability. Here’s an example from the “real world”:

My family is having an 80th birthday party for my grandmother next week. We’re renting an LCD projector and are planning on having a fancy slideshow with a soundtrack of popular showtunes to accompany photographs from the past 80 years. So my family members, thinking it would be easy, purchased a bunch of tracks on Napster and iTunes for the slideshow.

The slideshow program, however, only knows how to play MP3 or WAV files. Since the Napster and iTunes tracks are encrypted and protected with DRM, there’s no way to convert them to MP3. Too bad for us.

Presumably there is other proprietary slideshow software that is built to work with the Apple and Microsoft DRM music schemes. So if you want to purchase music online and have it accompany your photo slideshow, you’re going to have to pick the approved products. It gets even worse since many of these schemes are covered by patents, and any software or hardware maker that wants to implement it has to pay a licensing fee—and the patent owner could simply refuse to license the patent to competing entities.

Sometimes it’s hard to explain to normal people what the problem is with DRM. I think this is a perfect example of ordinary people experiencing lock-in and considerable trouble while trying to take advantage of what should be the ultraconvenience of digital media.

Is it any wonder that consumers might prefer file sharing on peer-to-peer networks—which costs nothing—to purchasing expensive media encumbered with DRM?

Ban Paris Hilton

Those of you reading this weblog through a web browser may notice the “Recent Inbound Links” list on the right side of the screen. This is supposed to track pages that link to this page when people click through to give you a sense of where I sit in the blogosphere. (but see Metadata Overfizzle· for a humorous treatment of this whole obsession).

For the past several weeks, “Paris Hilton” related inbound links keep popping up. When I look back at the sites listed, they don’t refer to my blog at all. So someone (or group of people) have figured out this “inbound link” tracking thing and are creating spurious inbound links—”spam referers,” so to speak. By appearing in the right column on my weblog, these spammers boost their visibility, particularly to search engines like google·, which determine the relevance of a site by how many other sites link to it.

So my piecemeal solution now is to ban any referer that has anything to do with Paris Hilton. If folks have other suggestions, please let me know.

(And, if you’ve been living in a cave for the past month or so: Paris Hilton is a socialite and heiress to Hilton Hotel fortune. An illicit homemade “sex tape” of Paris and her then-boyfriend· has achieved wide distribution over the Net and is apparently in high demand.)

Gonzalez Lost

So, our guy· lost the election. Evil triumphed and good lost.

There are all sorts of possible ways to put a positive spin on the results, including:

  • The election was so close (well within any possible statistical “margin of error” for the winner) that Newsom hardly has a mandate. With quite near half the voting electorate opposing Newsom, he’s got a fair amount of opposition out there that countervailing forces on the Board of Supervisors can draw from.
  • This is by the far the best a Green Party· candidate has done in a major election. The Democrats are feeling the heat—intensely. They had to call in the big guns here—Al Gore a week before the election·, and Bill Clinton himself on election eve·. The Democrats see the writing on the wall, and it’s not good.
  • Matt remains president of the Board of Supervisors—not an insignificant position, and clearly his clout should be boosted by the strong support he got in this election.

There’s lots of speculation as to what particular factors lead to Gonzalez’s loss. With such a small margin of defeat, it could really be anything. Certainly, the Democrats’ heavy-handed tactics at the 11th hour could have made a difference. The San Francisco Chronicle’s endorsement may have also influenced a handful of voters. (On the other hand, the fact that Howard Dean did not endorse Newsom· moderately increases my respect for Dean).

I’d like to offer a somewhat heretical alternative explanation: Campaign Finance Reform. Despite rules limiting individual contributions to mayoral candidates to $250 each, Newsom outspent Gonzalez 8 to 1. I met many activists who contributed the statutory limit to the Gonzalez campaign, and may well have contributed more if there had been no contribution cap. Gonzalez was strapped for funds for television ads, which might have reached an audience that otherwise hadn’t heard from the candidate.

In the absence of any contribution cap, would Newsom have gotten more money? Probably. Would it have helped him all that much? I don’t think so. Or at least the relative effect on the additional money to both campaigns would have favored Gonzalez. It’s Econ 101—the marginal utility of cash decreases the more you have.

Once you’re outspending the other candidate by an order of magnitude, a few extra hundreds of thousands of dollars may not do a lot for you, but for someone like Gonzalez who struggled to reach a critical threshold and have some opportunity to publicly respond to unfair accusations levied against him, the additional funds could have made all the difference.

This is ultimately the peril of a system which limits contributions but not expenditures. And I can’t conceive of any system that could survive First Amendment scrutiny and still limit expenditures in a meaningful way. This election should give rise to questions for those of us on the left who think that campaign finance reform is the way to fix politics: in some cases, the only way an insurgent can challenge the status quo may actually be limited by contribution caps.

It may be, then, that contributions are not actually an incremental step towards the final goal, but a step in the wrong direction. I can see public funding for elections and mandates for free media time fixing a lot of the problem, but I don’t see how contribution caps make those sorts of reforms even remotely more likely. In fact, they may instead create the impression that the problem is being fixed, and reduce pressure to effect these other reforms that will actually make for a more level playing field.

Tears Inside

Ornette Coleman’s 1960 album Tomorrow is the Question had a profound influence on me. I believe I first started to understand Coleman when I was living in Belgium in 1993, and ten years later this album remains an emotional tour de force.

“Tears Inside” gets at that feeling of crushing sorrow which drains away even the energy to cry. The melody is beautiful, hesitant, almost swallows itself. The rhythm section (bass and drums) is sparing, in some parts playing only in the space between Don Cherry’s trumpet lines or Coleman’s sax solo.

I get the feeling of “Tears Inside” in dreams. It stays with me for the rest of the day, eerily unattached to a particular event or even thought.

Sign of the Times

I’m back at Maxfield’s House of Caffeine, my favorite caffeinated wireless access point, and I’m noticing several other laptops running GNU/Linux. I think any attempt to quantify free software adoption statistically is going to be flawed by the simple fact that market purchases are likely only a tiny fraction of actual uses. (You could make a similar argument vis-a-vis proprietary software since so much is pirated; but I’m willing to make an ad hoc guess that the pirated proprietary software “market” corresponds closely to the legitimate purchase market). At least in areas like San Francisco, I suspect the desktop/laptop usage of GNU/Linux is much higher than statistics suggest (e.g., see Is the Age of Desktop Linux Approaching?·, suggesting that only one percent of desktops run GNU/Linux).

Democracy Now in Ogg Vorbis

Democracy Now!·, my favorite radio news program, is now providing their show in downloadable Ogg Vorbis format·. This solves two problems: (1) previously they only provided proprietary Real Audio or MP3 format, and (2) you had to do a little hacking to download the show rather than listen to it streaming. It makes imminent sense to allow people to download the full show and in a free format, particularly since the show is noncommercial/nonprofit. They’re even using the Internet Archive· to serve high quality archives of past episodes. Now I can copy the show in Ogg Vorbis format onto my portable Neuros audio player· and listen to it anywhere.