Thursday, June 30, 2005

Imagine being able to assume Fed Ex

Today I am thinking about friction and the planet.

For the last month I have been deperately searching for a signed copy of my brother's will. The family attorney knows it existed, as he drew it up. But he doesn't keep signed copies of documents he draws up. I've been trying to get a bank to drill open a family safe deposit box with little luck.

The attorney's office, the bank, the house that I grew up in (and that my brother lived in) are all within a 5 mile radius. But there was a lot of legal friction within those five miles: finding a signed will. And under (benighted) Alabama law, without a signed will, things are awful.

The bank drilled the box in the attorney's presence yesterday, and it was like Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone's vault. Well it was a little better; they found some family photos. But no will. Ironically, Redstone Credit Union also opened two boxes yesterday -- and they found my brother's signed will.

Now here's the funny part. They are Fed Exing the contents to me. There's a bunch of stuff besides the will, so it will cost all of $70. I will then turn around and Fed Ex the will to our attorney. That will cost me perhaps $12.

I was all set to get on a plane and try to deal with this stuff in person. That would've cost hundreds of dollars, and of course time.

Now we will do two Fed Ex transactions in order to move a legal document 3 miles in Decatur, Alabama. The total cost will not exceed $100. You might think that's a lot of money to move a document 3 miles in 2 days. To me, right now, it's incredibly cheap.

Lore has it that a Yale professor gave the founder of Fed Ex, Frank Maguire, a poor grade on a term paper proposing the basic concept of overnight package delivery. It makes you wonder what other great ideas have been similarly quashed.

I learned about the Web in Columbus Ohio in March 1993. I was attending the spring meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). A fellow who used to work at Michigan State, Rob Raisch, introduced me to a fellow named Tim Berners-Lee, who would later be known -- and knighted -- as the inventor of the Web.

Tim showed me some examples of what the Web could do. It was cool, but it was primitive. I showed him some cool stuff we'd done at Michigan State, notably our Gopher archive of audio of the Presidential debate of 1992 on campus with Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Perot. Tim asked me why Gopher lacked hyperlinks. I lacked an adequate response.

A few years later, at I believe the second W3C conference, I asked Tim to reflect on the Web revolution. He said "For the Web revolution to occur, we needed to assume the Internet. Once we could, we could build the Web. Now watch what happens when we can assume the Web."

I said "You mean we ain't seen nothing yet?" He echoed "Right. We ain't seen nothing yet."

We all know -- or we think we know -- how important the Web is. Right now, I'm thinking, the Fed Ex revolution is more important. You can move documents or objects of incredible importance thousands of miles for tens of dollars. Hell, can you even get a colleague to move something important at your workplace that fast?

Watch what happens when we can assume Fed Ex. Oh: we already do.

O Canada, we scrape the ice for thee

So I'm catching the tail end of the 60s flick La Dolce Vita on CBC Windsor. After the film is done, CBC closes their broadcast day with the national anthem "O Canada," which I've always thought is a lovely tune (much better than the Star Spangled Banner, a drinking song cum anthem). CBC now offers new footage to go with the anthem, including of course gorgeous scenes of fly fishing and the Rockies and Le Chateau Frontenac.

And, I kid you not, they show someone scraping ice off their windshield in winter. Now that defines a nation.

If ever there was a scene that causes your patriotic spirit to rise...

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Dollar supports Chinese currency

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The World Bank's director for China said on Tuesday Beijing's fixed exchange rate policy was a "legitimate choice" and not a manipulation of the yuan currency, despite escalating rhetoric from Washington.

The name of the official making this argument? David Dollar.

Ya can't make this stuff up.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Satellite view of the eminent domain area

The US Supreme Court ruled that cities can take property under "eminent domain" and repurpose said land for "public purposes" that include transferring the property to other private uses.

The public is outraged, as they should be. One poll found over 90% of citizens object. As Jay Leno observed, when was the last time over 90% of the American populace agreed on something?

A poster to Dave Farber's list pointed out that media has done a poor job of covering the recent Supreme Court decision. News coverage focuses on the decision and the reaction to it, not the underlying facts of the case and legal arguments.

The block in question is a depressed area in New London, Connecticut. Google Maps offers a satellite view of the area in question.

This is an important advance: if the major media won't give you the background facts, maybe Google will lead you to authoritative information. Imagine when Google links in other background information:

  • Much more detailed satellite mages, at the building level.
  • The property tax records for the properties to be seized.
  • The last sale prices for those properties, and records for similar parcels in the neighborhood.
  • Census demographics for the area.
  • Direct links to all the briefs filed in the case, on both sides, including amicus briefs.
  • Full text of all relevant court decisions.
  • Links, a la Westlaw or Lexis, to previous relevant decisions on eminent domain.

It's not a question of whether Google will link in these kinds of details -- it's when. And then the question is whether a public trained on sound bites and self-serving news releases and 24 hour news channels will ever bother to check the facts and the details.

You might want to check out the sateillte view of the New London neighborhood the Supreme Court decision covers for yourself.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The curse of the insomniac: bad TV news

One of the curses of being an insomniac is bad television. The worst of television is on in the wee hours. And the worst of the worst is the overnight news shows -- those news programs put on by the major networks before the "real" morning shows such as Today and Good Morning America open. They apparently just open the doors at the broadcast HQ in New York, and let random people pretend to be newscasters.

Right now, ABC is running the most execrable news program ever seen. I think first year telecom majors at Michigan State can produce programming with better production values. ABC would do better to run old tapes of Barbara Walters reading the news in 1976.

Here's my note to ABC, no doubt which will be little noted nor long remembered:

What executive is in charge of World News Now overnight?

Its content, and its production values, are worse than the worst local TV news in the ABC network.

You open with two anchors who would not make it in the Lansing market – and that, friends, is faint praise indeed -- and they launch the news to brag about the male half of the team’s birthday. Excuse me, how is your anchor’s birthday World News Now?

Then you cut to an ill-dressed Asian Indian woman in the UK with a totally idiotic piece about Prince Charles’ travel budget – and she then segues into her own dating life. How is the dating life of an unknown and idiotic reporter in the UK news in the US?

Right now your female anchor, dressed in a red outfit not meant for television, is breaking up in gales of laughter, flirting with her younger male counterpart. Again, how is this news?

Is this really a news program? Really?!?

Honestly, is there a news producer in charge here? Or is your overnight news just managed by leftover cable access wannabes?

Roone Arledge is spinning in his grave. Edward R. Murrow is, I hope, onto better things.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Hanging out with PR folks in East Lansing

The local chapter of a group of public relations professionals, the Public Relations Society of America, was kind enough to let me blather about blogging at lunch today. Most of my talk was extemporaneous but here are a few slides.

CDigitizing service: are they selling me stitches, or bytes?

This morning I received a spam from a Chinese manufacturer -- not an uncommon thing, for me, anyhow. But I can't parse the pitch; are they selling me something physical, or digital?

Dear Sir or Madam,This is eternalpowerembroidery company from China. Our company can provide premium digitizing service.We can digitize the designs(logos) on shirts,caps,bags and other clothing and so on.The price is as follows,$2.90 US dollars per 1000 stitches( turnaround time is within 24 hours)Digitized designs will be saved in DST, Wilcome.CND,EXP formats and so on. You can choose one you want.Payment: Via PayPalYour response will be greatly appreciated.Kind regardsGoodman

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Wireless Communities: the Big Issues

Last week I was privileged to present a talk on wireless Internet access at the 60th annual meeting of the Canadian Library Association. My thanks to Jane Dysart and Stephen Abram for the invitation.

Here is a copy of my presentation.

My co-presenter was Michael Vandenburg of the Kingston Frontenac Public Library in Ontario. Our talks dovetailed nicely; he spoke of how his library has taken a pragmatic approach to wireless. In particular, they most recently have worked with a private company that uses an innovative approach to authenticating the public: they text-message the patron's cell phone with an access code.

Some pranks aren't funny

The last person on earth who needs defending is Tom Cruise, but I thought his response to the British TV crew that squirted him in the face while pretending to interview him was, as the Brits would say, "spot on." Cruise grabbed the guy by the arm as he tried to flee, and said "You're a jerk."

He's right.

It is one thing for a child to squirt his dad with a water gun. It is another thing altogether for a stranger to spray an unkown liquid onto someone they don't know. Dad obviously knows his child is playing. But when a stranger douses you, how can you know what's hit you? For all you know, it's hydrochloric acid.

The whole "punked" thing is about lesser lights bringing down the mighty. I'm all in favor of leveling, but it should be about intellectual challenges, not physical actions that can evoke fear.

Cruise handled this with class. I hope the Brits put the perps in jail. And that someone reviews security measures.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Save the cats as well as their owner

Torrential rains on Saturday caused severe flooding on the plains in and around Calgary, flooding thousands of homes and stranding people in campgrounds. One columnist for the Calgary Herald quoted a rescue worker "You can't cure stupid" -- he was upset that people ignored repeated warnings to evacuate.

This photo in the Herald will probably win prizes:

CREDIT: Ted Jacob, Calgary Herald
Paul Tarjan and his cats, in pet carriers, are lifted by helicopter near Bottrel after the Dogpound Creek overflowed its banks.

Look carefully: you can count three cat carriers.

I wonder how many animal lovers will think they should've saved the cats first...

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Candidate for Darwin Award? Maybe not...

On my last day in Lake Louise I decided to take the gondola ride. It turns out the "gondola" is one of the ski lifts at the resort, repurposed in summer for tourist rides -- and most of the cars are chair lifts, not enclosed as you'd expect. It was a rainy and foggy day; I thought maybe I was nuts to even pay for a ride, if I wasn't going to see anything -- but I took an enclosed car and went anyway.

And I was glad I did: a couple of grizzly bears were feeding on the hill, and, on the way down, I got a good view of one of them:

I can now honestly say I was within about 70 feet of a grizzly bear. Of course, I am obliged to include the footnote that I was 70 feet ABOVE the bear, and it did not respond when I yelled "Hey, bear!" or made the noise you make when you want a dog to come near. The bear was too busy munching to pay attention to a camera-equipped tourist.

On my way down I spotted another critter -- one of the very few folks who, like me, chose to ride the lift that day. So I shot a photo of him passing by as he ascended and I descended. In looking at the picture later, I was astonished to see that this dude was sitting in the chair lift with the safety bar raised. Sure looks like a potential candidate for the Darwin Award, I thought:

A bit of Googling reveals that there is case law on this point. It turns out that many U.S. ski lifts, in Colorado and elsewhere, lack safety bars altogether. In Europe, by contrast, safety bars are ubiquitous. I find it funny that in the United States, a country where a step ladder has more safety stickers than a firearm does, something so common-sensical is so rare. Oh well: it is well-documented that humans are poor at ranking risk. A mountain goat in the Rockies is smarter about risk assessment than we are.

So I hope my fellow traveller had a good ride -- and I hope if he fell on the way down, that that grizzly didn't eat him. The bears sure seemed hungry.

Please see photos from the 2005 trip to Calgary and Lake Louise. (You have to subscribe to Imagestation to see photos, but subcription is free.)

Friday, June 10, 2005

Before you board the rickshaw, be sure you know the fare

We needed to get from the Royal York hotel in Toronto to the CBC Broadcast Centre, and I spied a rickshaw whose driver importuned us to take a ride. So without thinking I hired him to travel the intervening five blocks. My wife thought I was nuts.

Turns out, I was nuts. We've taken a similar ride, a pedicab, in Key West several times. It's more expensive than a taxi ride in a real car, but not outrageous.

The situation is different with a rickshaw ride in Toronto. This dude solicited to drive us:

He pleasantly chatted us up during the 5 minute, 5 block ride. At the end of the ride, we got out of the rickshaw, and I asked what we owed.

"$30" he said.

"WHAT?!?" I demanded to know.

"Yes. $3 per person per block. 5 blocks. $30."

Think about it. Five minutes is 1/12 of an hour. World-class attorneys bill at this kind of rate -- $360 per hour.

I paid the $30, but he sure as hell didn't get a tip. So here's a tip to travelers to Toronto: Avoid this guy, and the rickshaws you see on the streets of Toronto, at all costs. A local driver of a real cab pointed out that some realistic downtown rides from starting point to destination might cover 30 (relatively short) blocks -- and with two people, you owe this ripoff artist $240 at the end of the ride.

Thought experiment: Conservatively, if he pulls this ripoff a mere 10 times a day, that's $300. If he works 200 days a year, that's $60K. If the average number of rides, or length of rides, exceeds these assumptions, he's easily earning six figures.

Gee, I wonder how much income he declares to Revenue Canada for his annual earnings. And does he include revenue from the "HOT OIL MASSAGE 24 HOURS A DAY" sign on the back of the cab? (We didn't see that before we boarded.)

Does anyone in Toronto government, or the convention and visitors bureau, know or care about this ripoff? It's not hard to find the guy -- he trolls Yonge and Front streets for naive tourists. Will someone in authority please react? Why isn't this guy regulated as traditional cabs are?

Police fire experts?

Take a look at this front page. At first reading are you as confused about the budget headline as I was?

I kept reading "fire" as a verb -- rendering the headline gibberish -- until I realized it was a noun being used as an adjective. Let's see... how might they have phrased this better? "Budget closes State Police arson unit" perhaps?

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Orbitz gives new meaning to "blue screen of death"

This morning's mail included an ad from Orbitz touting a tremendous fare sale. I clicked through and saw this:

Hmm -- how much sales revenue Orbitz loses for every hour its Web site is down? With Travelocity and Expedia and the airlines' own sites, there are plenty of alternatives.

I also wonder what technology failed them. Hardware? Operating system? Applications software? I bet there are some folks in the data center having Tylenol moments right now.

At least they have a mechanism to re-route to a "Technical Difficulties -- Please stand by" screen. Many sites would simply time out.

When they've got their Web server problems fixed, they might want to take a glance at another issue. Their ad states:

All e-mails are sent from the domain "" - please use this domain name (not the entire "from" address, which varies) when configuring e-mail or spam filter rules.

... but the e-mail comes from an address in a differing domain:

Monday, June 06, 2005

Apple will use x86 style Intel chips; PowerPC performance claims proved false

My pal Chuck Severance just called from the Moscone Center in San Francisco, where Steve Jobs just gave one of his trademark blockbuster demonstrations. After showing off the Tiger operating system for a while, he suddenly said "And I've been giving this demo on a development Apple computer based on an Intel chip," confirming rumors spreading the last few days.

The thousands of developers of software for Apple computers gasped.

Chuck observed palpable excitement among the developers at the event. Development models of the hardware are to be available within a month at $1000 each. He also was able to test the project he works on for his day job, Sakai, on the new hardware. Here are the results of this informal benchmark:

-- Startup time Apple Pentium 3.6 Ghz 21 Seconds
-- Startup time Apple G5 PPC 2.5 Ghz: 43 seconds
-- Startup time Apple G4 PPC 1.25 Ghz: 81 Seconds

Of course this was an casual day-of-show benchmark so things may not be, um, er apples to Apples. Nonetheless, obviously Steve Jobs wouldn't be making this kind of seismic shift unless Apple knows that the claims it's made for years are false:

-- That the PPC chip gets more work done for the same amount of clock speed compared to Pentium
-- That RISC is superior than a complex instruction set for a general purpose computer
-- That RISC superiority applies not just for Photoshop functions, but in general

The funny thing is that Apple has not yet excised its Web site of claims of the inherent superiority of the PowerPC chip. And Steve Jobs announced today that Apple has run OS-X in the labs on Pentium chips for five years. So did Apple know five years ago that their PowerPC claims were false? What did Steve Jobs know, and when did he know it?