Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Don't try this at home

I'm deriving a sort of guilty pleasure from watching my neighhbour Dave remodel his bathroom, because I felt the same pain this time last year, except doubly so because I was dumb enough to remodel two bathrooms simultaneously.

I have a pretty good track record in running large IT projects to schedule and budget, but I made most of the classic project management mistakes when I embarked on this project: I didn't have a clear idea of what the finished product should look like, I didn't have a budget worked out in advance, as the project progressed is grew steadily larger (in my defence that happens with old houses - as you pull things apart you inevitably find other problems that you just know you should fix rather than cover up), and despite the complete lack of a fixed scope I had a fixed deadline. I only got through it in the end because my Mum, Dad and brother James are absolute gems.

Not an experience I plan to repeat any time soon!

Lessons from Katrina

I've been resisting the temptation to join the rush to blog on Hurricane Katrina, but it's difficult to ignore an event of such magnitude or with such a high human cost, so I figure I should at least try to draw some lessons from it.

The good news is that the death toll, as tragically high as it seems to be, is much lower than it would be (and has been in the past) if this had hit a much poorer country.

The bad news is that the death toll is still much higher than it should have been with the warning we had and quality of the transport and communications infrastructure available to warn people and move them to safer locations. Clearly in the months to come we need to spend time figuring out how to run more effective evacuations.

But the other important question, and this is where it gets hard, this is where it might seem less than sympathetic, is to ask ourselves if we are creating perverse incentives for people to make bad choices about where they live. Does it make sense to give people money simply to re-build in the same flood prone locations? What rational or moral basis is there for the rest of the community to subsidise people to live in places that are prone to hurricanes or flooding or earthquakes or whatever? It's one thing to provide relief to people who are struck by extraordinary events, but should we be picking up the tab for those events that ought to be expected?

It ought to be possible to break this cycle of "moral hazard" without ignoring the plight of those who have been affected. It doesn't mean denying anyone relief. It simply means attaching certain conditions that prevent people making the same mistakes again and expecting others to continue to carry the cost.

Update: Reports are emerging that since 2003 the Bush adminstration sigificantly reduced funding to the Corps of Engineers to maintain the system of levees that protect New Orleans. It seems the money was needed for the war in Iraq. Add to that the fact that the Loiusiana National Guard is much less able to provide disaster relief because so many of its people are in Iraq and the real cost of the President's Middle East adventure continues to grow.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Sadly, history does repeat itself

It's bad enough that the legislature in Hawaii is dumb enough to think that price caps are a sensible response to high gas prices, but now it seems politicians in California and other states and considering the same folly.

I just love this quote from the LA Times story:

Hawaii embarks this week on a radical experiment to cap gasoline prices, a move being keenly watched nationwide by legislators and consumer groups.
I wonder what the hell they think is going to happen? That somehow this time the laws of economics won't apply? That simply because that's how they'd like it to be, some other less efficient allocation mechanism like queuing or the black market or influence peddling won't kick in when prices are regulated and can't do the job?

What conceivable reason is there to believe it won't be just like the last time this was tried in the 1970's? And if that's not enough evidence for you, the Soviets spent seventy years trying this experiment on a national scale in every corner of their economy and were willing to sacrifice tens of millions of lives to their vision of a planned economy, but still it always turned out the same way - scarcity amidst waste and waste amidst scarcity and everywhere, absolutely everywhere, queues.

Given that we won the cold war because the Soviet economy imploded, how willfully ignorant do you have to be not to have learnt that the market is the only sustainable mechanism for allocating resources and creating wealth? But it seems in politics that it's impossible to resist the temptation to tell the public once again that government can somehow make water flow uphill, turn lead into gold, and yes, magically make gas prices lower. And way too many voters are stupid enough to believe it.

The cure is worse than the disease

More evidence that the "drug problem" is primarily caused by banning something that millions of people want. Here's a report on California's move to ban smoking inside its prisons. The interesting fact in the final paragraph: now illicit tobacco sells for the same price on the inside as heroin.

This strongly suggests that the opposite is also true - that without criminalisation of drugs, heroin today would sell for about the same as tobacco. In those circumstances do you imagine that drug running would be the multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise that it is today? one that undermines both the social and political fabric of America and corrupts law enforcement to its core? Do you imagine that the huge proportion of petty crime perpetrated by addicts trying to fund their habits would exist if coke and heroin were as freely available as cigarettes?

The sad thing is that it's not like the United States hasn't gone down this path before. Prohibition of alcohol created organised crime. While the repeal of prohibition couldn't put the genie back in the bottle, what do you imagine America would look like today if it had continued? Something like Somalia or Afghanistan is my guess. A failed state run entirely by drug booze warlords.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Network upgrade

I've just finished upgrading my home network router and wireless access point from an old Intel 802.11b unit to an 802.11g DLink DI-624 which is light years ahead in terms of speed, capacity and features but cost me about half of what the old one did three years ago.

DLink have their own proprietary extension to the 802.11g standard called Xtreme G which supposedly doubles the potential bandwidth to 108Mbps when used with other DLink components. I haven't switched this feature on and I have no plan to since as far as I'm concerned proprietary technologies are the work of the devil. At the moment I'm running a mix of Intel, Linksys, Dell and DLink network components without any problem because they're all standards compliant and I want to keep it that way.

I did have some trouble connecting my two TiVo's to the network because it's hard to tell the difference between an alphanumeric key and a hexadecimal key that is composed entirely of numerals (it would have helped if the error message was useful, like "invalid WEP key", rather than the generic "couldn't find gateway"). Once I sorted that out it has been running like a dream.

Unfortunately TiVo doesn't yet support 802.11g which is a shame since transferring recorded programs between TiVo's and to my laptop takes way too long at 11Mbps.

The next thing to look forward to is Comcast's planned upgrade from 4Mbps to 6Mbps which is scheduled for September.

Update: It seems my new wireless hub has a much stronger signal. So now I can sit by the pool while I "work" and blog. Life really is tough!

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Making hay while the sun shines

I never really grasped the literal meaning of 'making hay while the sun shines' until I moved to the Colorado Rockies. You see in Australia it's warm enough all year round to have plenty of pasture (except when there's drought, but that's a different story). Here in the high country you need to store enough fodder to sustain you're livestock for the four to six months that your pasture is buried under feet of snow or they won't survive the winter. And to do that, you've literally got to make hay while the sun shines so everywhere you go in the summer you see ranchers like this hard at work from dawn till dusk.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

My favourite aircraft

Since I travel a lot I have developed quite strong preferences for certain types of commercial aircraft to fly on.

My all time favourite is the Boeing 777. It's got a great feel in the air, excellent overhead bins, and is new enough that even the lesser airlines have reasonably modern facilities in them.

The aircraft I'm really excited about is the Boeing 787 or "Dreamliner" due to enter service in 2008. I'm looking forward to the improved cabin environment, especially the higher humidity levels that will be possible with an all composite construction (since there's no metal to rust, they don't have to worry about condensation).

The one I'm not looking forward to is the new Airbus A380. It's bad enough travelling on a 747, with huge queues of people at the boarding gates, immigration and baggage claim. I can't imagine what it's going to be like with another hundred or two hundred people on the same plane.

Apart from the fact that I don't think this is going to be an especially comfortable aircraft to fly on, I think Boeing is on the right track and Airbus are pursuing a very limited strategy with their focus on bigger planes flying hub to hub. I'm a big fan of point to point services, especially when it means avoiding busy hubs like Chicago, JFK, Sydney or Heathrow. My wife and I flew Singapore to Los Angeles direct last year on the extended range Airbus A340-500. Having flown Singapore to the US multiple times before, always with a connection through somewhere else, I have to say this was absolutely the way to go (although it helped that we treated ourselves to Singapore Airlines business class!)

Here's a more complete ranking of the various aircraft I've flown on:

  • B787 (in anticipation)
  • B777 (when fitted out 3-3-3, not 2-5-2 like United does, or even worse 3-4-3 like Emirates does)
  • BAe146 (as small as you can get with all the comfort of a 'real' jet)
  • A320 (wider than the 737 with the same 3-3 configuration)
  • B737 (especially the newer variants)
  • A340 (but watch out for the window seats because the fuselage curves in at about shoulder height)
  • Dash-8 (all we have in Steamboat in the low season. Great scenic value on a clear day since it doesn't fly all that high and with 37 seats not much of a queue to check in or board!)
  • Dash-7 (is a four engine STOL version of Dash-8 which used to fly in to Steamboat Springs' Bob Adam Field)
  • A330
  • B767 (the least reliable type in my experience, especially the Qantas fleet)
  • B757
  • A300
  • B707 (I'm actually not that old, but MEA were still flying them in the mid-90s when I flew one from Beirut to Geneva. One of the classic planes in aviation history)
  • Fokker F28
  • DC9/MD80/B717
  • B747 (too many people)
  • Embraer RJ-145 (I'm 5'8" and I could barely stand up in this. OK as a substitute for a turboprop on a commuter route, but when airlines start using these on medium haul flights they've lost the plot)
  • A380 (way too many people)
  • DC10/MD11 (this was such a lemon it basically finished the manufacturer as a major player in the commercial aircraft industry)
  • B727 (lots of speeding up and slowing down on approach resulting in considerable airsickness)
  • Fokker F50 (the vibration is like having a dentist's drill for hours on end)
  • Dornier 317? (don't mention the war!)
  • Shorts 360 (a shipping container with wings, designed for the sole purpose of inducing airsickness)
  • ...and last of all, the Lockheed C130 Hercules (yes this is a military aircraft, and it's a 'rugged' way to fly to say the least).

Of course business class in the worst aircraft type is better than economy class in the best!

Intelligent Design? Unintelligent idea

Anyone tempted to support the move to teach Intelligent Design as a scientific theory of similar stature to evolutionary theory ought to begin by reading The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins. Interestingly it's subtitled "Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design".

The argument against Intelligent Design is not all that difficult. In fact it's simple: it doesn't explain anything. To answer the question "where does the complexity of nature come from?" with "from pre-existing complexity (in the form of a creator)" is to provide no answer at all, because it brings you back to the same question - "well where did that complexity come from?"

As Dawkins explains so eloquently, evolutionary theory explains how complexity requires only simplicity, randomness and time to evolve. And the test of evolutionary theory is simply this: it explains the observable facts. Not perfectly, but that is why open minded and skeptical scientific enquiry continues to drive refinement in the theory. That's how science works.

Intelligent Design deserves the same status in the teaching of science as Lamarckism; as a discredited theory which very superficially makes sense but actually fails to explain any of the great body of evidence that is explained by evolutionary theory.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive

There's a reality series currently running on E! called Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive. It's set in Steamboat Springs which is reason enough for me to watch it despite my general disdain for the whole reality genre. But to its credit it also avoids what I see as the real evil of reality TV which is that most of it is based on creating incentives for the participants to lie, cheat and backstab and generally demonstrate the very worst in human nature in order to satisfy their greed.

The basic premise is to take a bunch of spoiled offspring of the rich and famous and put them to work on a cattle ranch. I would struggle physically with some of what these people are being asked to do because I'm a fair bit older and flabbier, but heaven help me, I wouldn't complain endlessly that camping out on the trail was not quite up to the Four Seasons standards they so obviously feel entitled to. But I suppose that's what makes it so entertaining.

I'll provide further information in later posts as the series progresses.

Update: later reviews of Episodes 1-4, Episode 5, Episode 7

I'm from the FCC and I'm here to help

The FCC has graciously decided to extend the deadline for VOIP (Voice Over IP) phone service providers to terminate the service of customers who fail to acknowledge that they understand the emergency calling limitations of VOIP.

I could live with the FCC forcing the VOIP providers to make their customers aware of this issue, but how exactly do they think they're protecting me by forcing my provider to terminate my service if I don't respond to the notice in time? VOIP may have some limitations in terms of emergency calling, but no service at all is a whole lot more limited!

I suggest the FCC think a whole lot harder before continuing to pander to the traditional phone companies whose only source of competitive advantage is their ability to lobby and manipulate the regulators to their advantage, a phenomenon that economists call "regulatory capture" but which I call selling out the public to vested interests.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Aussies invade Hollywood

Have you ever noticed how many Aussies there are in Hollywood? If you haven't check out the following list of Australian actors that have appeared in recent years in major Hollywood movies or US network TV shows.

Academy Award winners
Cate Blanchett for The Aviator (also nominated for Elizabeth)
Russell Crowe for Gladiator (also nominated for A Beautiful Mind and The Insider)
Nicole Kidman for The Hours (also nominated for Moulin Rouge)
Geoffrey Rush for Shine (also nominated for Shakespeare in Love and Quills)

Academy Award nominees
Toni Collette, nominated for The Sixth Sense
Naomi Watts, nominated for 21 Grams

and the rest
Eric Bana, won critical acclaim for his role in the movie Troy
Simon Baker, stars in the television series The Guardian
Gia Carides, played cousin Nikki in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding and the television series My Big Fat Greek Life
Mel Gibson, (can you believe his only Academy award title or nomination ever was for Best Director for Braveheart?)
Rachel Griffiths, plays Brenda in the television series Six Feet Under
Hugh Jackman, stars as Logan/Wolverine in the X-Men movies (if you're a fan then you need to track down a copy of Paperback Hero, an obscure Aussie movie he did before he was famous, and check out his co-star Claudia Karvan - I can't understand why she hasn't made it big)
Anthony LaPaglia, stars in the television series Without a Trace
Jonathan LaPaglia, starred in the television series Seven Days
Heath Ledger, starred in the movie A Knight's Tale
Jacqueline McKenzie, stars in the television series The 4400
Julian McMahon, stars in the television series Nip/Tuck
Ben Mendelsohn, died a hero's death in the movie Vertical Limit
Poppy Montgomery, appears in the television series Without a Trace
Frances O'Connor, played the mother in Artificial Intelligence and Brendan Fraser's ideal woman in Bedazzled
Miranda Otto, played Eowyn in the The Lord of the Rings movies
Guy Pearce, came to notice in LA Confidential with Russell Crowe but was truly awesome in the movie Memento
Noah Taylor, played an uber-geek in the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Hugo Weaving, plays Agent Smith in The Matrix movies
David Wenham, played the prodigal son Farimir in the The Lord of the Rings movies
Sarah Wynter, appeared in the television series The Dead Zone

Oh, and don't forget wonderful Aussie directors like Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir, Baz Lurhmann and Fred Schepisi.

As best I can tell no other nationality (with the possible exception of Canadians) comes close in terms of Hollywood presence.

Vigilante justice just isn't

A story from the LA Times about how John Loftus of Fox News published the address of a suspected terorrist. Only problem is that the terrorist left three years ago and the family living there now are the ones being subject to terror.

Do we never learn the lessons of history? Do people not understand what happens when we discard concepts of due process and take the law into our own hands? It's exactly the same mentality that justified the lynching of blacks in the south and the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany.

The response from John Loftus which amounts to 'oops, mistakes happen, but I meant well' is pathetic beyond belief for a guy who is a former prosecutor. Sounds like his career choice was more about power and self-aggrandizement that any sort of commitment to the rule of law.

As for Fox News, they've reprimanded him. Well big fat hairy deal. If they had an ounce of journalistic integrity they'd fire his arrogant, stupid ass.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A tyranny of stupidity

Reports of police action to break up a rave party in Utah are disturbing at a number of levels.

First, it's another graphic example of the culture of force as the first option rather than a last resort that seems to pervade law enforcement in this country.

Secondly, it's a massive misdirection of effort to send nearly a hundred officers along with dogs and helicopters to arrest people who are harming no-one but themselves rather than focusing on protecting citizens from real crimes like murder, rape and robbery.

Finally, the mendacious and arrogant stupidity of arresting the private security guards for possessing illegal drugs that they had confiscated from the party goers illustrates that this exercise was motivated primarily by the state's desire to demonstrate its power to oppress.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Lee Kwan Yew on the rise of China

Here's a link to a brilliant interview with Lee Kwan Yew, former Singapore Prime Minister and current elder statesman, on the implications of China's economic and military rise.

Having lived in Singapore, I have enormous admiration for this man. He demonstrated the difference that the right leadership makes to the future of a country. In 1960 Singapore and the Philippines (where I have also lived) were at a similar level of development. Though the Philippines was the country with the natural resources, half a century later it is Singapore that has joined the first world while the Philippines languishes in corruption, poverty and disorder. Lovely people but a completely disfunctional country.

Mr Lee differs fundamentally from the standard politician in that he tells his people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. That approach has served his country extremely well.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Routt County Fair

Today we made a visit to our local county fair - what we would call the "agricultural show" or "show" in Australia (or in Queensland where they do things differently, the "Exhibition" or "Ekka").

My wife went to see her friend's quilting which won a number of prizes (congratulations Judy). I went to see the pigs. You see I grew up on a pig farm where we had literally thousands of pigs. I like pigs. They're much smarter, cleaner and friendly than most people realise. Plus they love it when you scratch them behind the ear. Like a dog without the barking and biting.

Google Earth - out of this world

I've been pretty much obsessed with computers for the past 15 years and in that time I'm seen some really impressive stuff. But nothing, absolutely nothing, has come close to the experience I had last night when I downloaded Google Earth. I just love Google's description of this product as "a 3D interface to the planet".

Let me try to give you a feel for what this can do. First, let's start with bringing up a satellite image of where I live.

That's cool, but we've been able to do that online for five or six years. Where it gets interesting is when we start to tilt the view to get three dimensions.

Or rotate it to see the ski mountain behind my house.

We can zoom out to get a complete view of Steamboat Springs.

We can zoom out even further to see where I am in relation to Denver.

Let's see where I am in the western United States.

Finally, here's we I am in relation to the entire North American continent.

As impressive as that is, it doesn't capture the dynamic nature of the program. I can plug in another location, such as my parent's house, and it will give me a 3D view of flying across the Pacific to a small town in south-eastern Tasmania.

Goodbye summer

Yellow aspen leaves
Summer's melancholy
Joyful memory

I was inspired to write this haiku because we saw our first signs today of the leaves turning.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

A new definition of pathetic

Today I discovered the only thing I hate more than email spammers and senders of unsolicited 'pre-approved' credit card offers are blog comment spammers, scum-sucking, bottom-dwelling, slithering piece of s..t parasites who use automated software to attach comments advertising all manner of snake oil to blogs.

The one attached to my blog was (past tense since I deleted it) pushing stock in a company called Energy & Asset Technology, Inc (EGTY). I checked out the stock's performance and discovered they're down 91% in the past 12 months and 60% in the past week.

One really weird thing given that this practice is totally unethical and anti-social is that the spam incorporated a disclosure statement, including the standard recommendation to seek professional advice from a registered financial advisor. Yep, I can just imagine telling my financial advisor I want to buy a stock I saw advertised in a blog comment spam!

But I particularly liked this gem:

Be aware of an inherent conflict of interest... due to our intent to profit from the liquidation of these shares

Translation: This firm is on the way out, but we plan to dupe you into buying some of our shares before they become completely worthless.

I can't for the life of me understand how people who do stuff like this can look at themselves in the mirror in the morning. Do they not realise what truly pathetic excuses for human beings they are?

Update: Google has introduced a "word verification" option (a form of CAPTCHA or 'reverse Turing test') for comments to prevent this sort of automated comment spam. It's now turned on, so die spammers, die!

Why the major airlines aren't bouncing back

An interesting article in USA Today titled "why the major airlines aren't bouncing back".

As I mentioned in a recent post, uncompetitive labour costs are killing them(1), and despite all the sound and fury in the past three years, they've only closed a part of the gap with the low cost carriers.

Other factors do come in to play, like the composition of their fleets (generally older and less fuel efficient which is a killer with high oil prices) and the airports they choose to fly from (e.g. United flies from expensive and congested O'Hare while Southwest services the Chicago market via Midway) but they are less important than labour costs and in some cases, like United and American's ownership of scarce landing slots at airports like JFK and Heathrow, actually help improve their profitability.

Here's the bottom line. If the legacy carriers can fix their labour costs, they'll be around long enough to address these other issues, but if they can't it's just a matter of time before they go the way of Pan Am and TWA.

(1) I was talking about United, but it's just as true for the other majors. And yes, the Northwest mechanics (mostly men) are being just us short-sighted as the United flight attendants (mostly women) so there's no gender bias here.

Why not shoot them?

I'm watching on CNN right now live coverage of Israeli police trying to remove Jewish settlers who have barricaded themselves on the roof a synagogue in Gaza.

What I'm seeing is the settlers throwing rocks and wood at the police who are showing great restraint. What I'm wondering though is this. If it's appropriate for Israeli police and soldiers to shoot Palestinians boys who throw rocks, why aren't they shooting the settlers?

What's that? Did I hear you say it's not right to shoot people dead for throwing rocks? Hmmmm.

Pardon me Israel, but your moral relativism is showing.

Update: CNN is reporting that the settlers are throwing acid on the police. What do you think would happen if Palestinians did that? I have no doubt Ariel Sharon would label them terrorists.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

That's not broadband...

...this is broadband (apologies to Crocodile Dundee).

The Australian telecommunications minister Helen Coonan is reported today defending the quality of broadband services in Australia.

I've got news for you Minister Coonan. As much as the prophets of doom in the US are shouting from the rooftops how the US is falling behind places like South Korea in the broadband race, they ought to see the nonsense that passes for broadband in Australia. I was flabbergasted on a recent visit to see my friends and relatives in Australia's third largest city paying $30 a month for 256K! "Fraudband" is more like it.

And on top of that they've got a 200 meg a month download limit (not that you could easily use that up with such a pathetic speed). Compare that to the 4 meg with unlimited download that I get for $40 a month out here in a small rural town in Colorado. And I can't even explain to my American friends what a download limit so foreign is the concept.

Aren't we better than this?

According to a written statement submitted by Gen. Richard B. Myers to the US District Court in Manhattan, the government is opposing the release of further photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib because it is "probable that al-Qaida and other groups will seize upon these images and videos as grist for their propaganda mill."

Let us be absolutely clear on what this really means. It's not an argument to suppress the truth on the grounds of national security. The adminstration is not claiming that Al Queda will be able to use this information against us in any material way. What they're really saying is that the facts make us look so bad that we can't face up to the scrutiny, that we can't convince the world that our position in this conflict is morally superior to the position of a bunch of murderous zealots.

If this country really is the shining light of freedom and liberty that we so loudly and frequently proclaim to the world that we are, then we ought to be doing the exact opposite. We ought to be so ashamed of this episode that the burning light of public scrutiny and accountability is the only way to remove the stain on our reputations and our souls. Sadly under our current leadership it seems we're not even close to being equal to that task.

It looks like we'd prefer to follow the model of your typical oppressive dictatorship and confine our torture and abuse of people to dark, hidden rooms and isolated camps. Hell, we don't even bother with the show trial.

Real vs virtual spam

You'd think from the attention it receives that the burning issue of the 21st century is email spam. I've never understood what all the fuss was about. Come on, how long does it really take to hit the 'delete' button? Most of these emails are so dumb you don't even need to open them to know that they're crap.

What I really, really, really hate is real spam - the sort that arrives by snail mail - especially those "pre-approved" credit card offers which are actually not pre-approved and which provide the perfect opportunity for identity thieves to perpetrate their evil. It takes me several times longer to open and shred these than it takes to delete my email spam.

Although I receive dozens of these offers every week hell will freeze over before I ever respond to one. Let me tell you why:

  1. I don't do business with people who lie to me. "Pre-approved" does not mean "subject to a credit report" in any version of English used on this planet
  2. If I want a credit card, I'll get it from a financial institution, like my bank, or American Express. Why would I want to get a credit card from a second rate airline? It's bad enough having to fly with them. I'd rather they turn their attention to trying to run a decent airline. And I especially don't want a Disney branded credit card. What am I, five years old (in which case why the hell would I need a credit card?)
  3. It's the 21st century. Is indiscriminate snail mail really the best
    marketing strategy these guys can come up with?

Looks vs taste

Has anyone noticed how as fruit and vegetables have become more and more perfect in appearance they've become less and less satisfying in taste?

I bought some Colorado peaches recently because they didn't look perfect and I so thought they might taste good. I've just tried one and I wasn't disappointed. Actually, since they're from Colorado I should have known they'd be good anyway!

I think this is a metaphor for much that is wrong with our society. We all too easily fall into the trap of judging things by their appearance rather than making the extra effort to judge them by their substance. We do it with relationships (how else can attractive but stupid and self-centred women find husbands or good looking but insensitive, career-obsessed men find wives), we do it with houses (where size and the number of rooms seems more important than functionality) and we especially do it with politicians as I observed recently.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Looking like you're doing something...

...when you lack the courage to do what really needs to be done is stock in trade for politicians the world over. The recently passed Energy Bill in the US is a classic example.

I posted on some practical issues with the effect on clocks of the recently enacted extension of daylight saving in the US. These are trivial when compared to the fact that extending daylight saving amounts to shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Given the price the US is paying in Iraq for its dependence on oil it ought to be relatively easy to sell tough measures to the public, measures that will actually reduce energy consumption. That extending daylight saving is the best that Congress could do in this positive environment is shameful and a testament to how truly broken American democracy really is.

But as detestable as our politicians are, ultimately it is the voters who are to blame. We actually want politicians who will lie to us, to tell us what we want to hear, that we can have our cake and eat it too, so we don't have to face up to the need for change. But just like the ostrich with it's head in the sand we forget that because we can't see the problem doesn't mean it doesn't exist. And most of the big challenges our society is facing will get harder to solve the longer we leave them. So what we're really doing is trading of some pain now for a lot of pain for our children. Pathetic really.

Political pork = legalised robbery

Yesterday's Washington Post has an excellent editorial on the recently passed Transportation Bill, focussing in particular on the growth of "earmarks", those pet projects in their districts that representatives include dedicated funding for.

As the Post says,
[the] point of an earmark is to direct money to a project that would not receive money as a result of rational judgments based on cost-benefit analyses...Each one of these...amounts to a conscious decision to waste taxpayers' dollars.
I'd go a step further and describe each earmark as a case of legalised armed robbery, of politicians using the state's monopoly on legal force to extract money from you and give it to someone else, not because it serves some common good or higher moral purpose, but for no other reason than they have the power and it is in their personal interests to use our money to buy the votes of their constituents.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Bookends to a summer's day

Here's how a summer's day begins in Steamboat...

...and here's how it ends.

Winter is coming

That may seem like a strange observation for mid-August, but tomorrow is the deadline to buy a season pass at locals' prices. As I write this the ski season countdown clock at the bottom of the page shows 101 days to go, but now that I have my 2005-06 pass the ski season can't come quickly enough!

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Alpine wildflowers

Part of the beauty of the Rocky Mountains in summer is the wildflowers. So beautiful and yet so transient. Here are some from a recent walk on Mt Werner.

A spelling dilemma

As an Aussie living in the United States and working for a global company, when it comes to spelling I'm a chameleon. I tend to adopt the spelling conventions of my expected audience. When I'm drafting documents for my work identifying my primary audience is easy. I just ask "who's ultimately paying for me to write this?" and I target not only the spelling but also the structure and content to their needs.

But who's the audience for my blog? No one's paying me to write here (ignoring the 69 cents I made in July from Google Ads). Where are they and which variety of English are they familiar with? What's their expectation for the spelling of the "C word" ('centre' or 'center'). After considering this for a while I decided it was, by the very nature of the internet, a question without an answer.

Faced with this impasse I decided in the end to go with Australian spelling (which largely, but not completely, follows British spelling). Read what you like in to it. Maybe I'm simply sticking to the easy and familiar habits of my childhood. Or maybe 'center' is completely and utterly wrong (regardless of what the Blogger spell checker thinks). Like dogs and cats, living together.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Signs of sanity on tipping

If you asked any Aussie who has visited the United States what most annoyed them, I'd bet that at least 75% would say tipping. When one is accustomed to the advertised price being the actual price you pay (no tax or tips to add) it seems a completely unnecessary complication for the customer to decide how much those providing the service ought to be paid.

I had assumed that the practice of tipping was so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that I had resigned myself to it basically forever. But now I see signs of sanity on this issue, and most amazingly it comes out of New York.

I've heard all the arguments about how tipping guarantees good service. I don't buy it and the studies that have been done do not support that view either. Nor does my own experience. Some service in the US is good and some is bad. Like everywhere else it seems to have a lot more to do with the management and culture of the establishment than the individual's expectations of a tip which they are going to pool with their co-workers anyway.

If it makes sense to tip servers in restaurants, why not extend it to every face-to-face service? Why isn't it customary to tip the cashier at Safeway or Wal-Mart? If it's appropriate to tip a taxi driver why isn't it appropriate to tip a bus driver? If I'm expected to tip my hairdresser why aren't I expected to tip the clerk at the shoe store who has a much less pleasant job in fitting me for a pair of shoes?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Do Aussies love beer?

You bet mate. Check out this big ad if you're in any doubt. Or even if you're not, because it is without a shadow of a doubt the best beer ad in the history of beer ads (eat your heart out Heineken). And bloody funny as well. Isn't it wonderful the way the internet lets us Aussie expats stay connected to our cultural roots!

P.S. You'll probably need to turn your pop-up blocker off.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Daylight Savings blues

Here's an article in the Boston Globe expressing concern about the potential for proposed changes in the start and end dates of daylight savings to confuse various gadgets, including that most feared of living room devices, our trusty old friend the VCR.

In a previous post discussing the benefits of VOIP telephone services I observed that "systems become simpler as complexity moves from the edges of the network, where it has to be managed by the user, to the centre, where it's managed by the system."

An excellent example of that principle in action is the way devices manage knowing when daylight savings starts and ends, and more generally knowing what the current date and time is. My VCR relies on me to manage that problem for it. My TiVo has its time set automatically by TiVo's central server leaving me out of the loop and letting me concentrate on more important and interesting things (like blogging). Not only is this better for me, but it's a much more robust system because instead of millions of users needing to remember the changes in daylight savings, just one system administrator at TiVo needs to get it right.

Similarly my laptop gets its time from a central server run by Microsoft (surely part of an evil Bill Gates plan to extend the Windows monopoly to time itself) and my cell phone gets it from the Verizon network (which is especially helpful when I cross time zones and proof that Verizon can actually do at least one thing right).

Unfortunately the clocks on my microwave and oven, the clock in my car and my decorative wall clocks and my very expensive gold watch are all dumb like my VCR. The fundamental difference is that they are not networked so there's only once place the complexity can be managed - in my head. But I foresee a future where every device with even the smallest amount of intelligence will be networked for no other reason than to to allow complexity to be managed at the centre and not by me.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Friday, August 05, 2005

Jay Garner's take on Iraq

For a small town Steamboat Springs has a surprisingly vibrant cultural and intellectual life. Part of that is the Seminars in Steamboat a summer lecture program run by the Colorado Mountain College. The invited guest speakers are quite impressive. Last year they included Daniel Marcus, who was the General Counsel to the 9/11 Commission and Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton administration. Last night we were fortunate enough to have Lieutenant General (Retired) Jay M. Garner who headed the initial humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein.

While he tried hard not to be directly critical of the administration and his successor L. Paul Bremer, Garner provided a clear insight into how in three days in the job Bremer destroyed any chance the US had of maintaining the goodwill of the Iraqis. According to Garner, in the first three days Bremer extended the de-Baathification of Iraq's government from the top two levels down about six levels (leaving the janitor and doorman but not much else in place at most ministries), reversed plans to remobilise Iraqi soldiers, and dismissed the informal council of prominent Iraqis that Garner had convened to provide an Iraqi face to the administration of Iraq. As Garner described it "we woke up on Saturday morning with 350,000 enemies we didn't have on Wednesday."

Garner expressed a strong view that there are insufficient forces in Iraq and that there have been since the day the formal fighting was over. "He should ask retired generals," Garner said in response to a question about President Bush's frequent remark that he'll send more troops if the generals tell him they are needed.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Why Steamboat "Dreaming"?

If you are wondering where the "dreaming" in the title of my blog comes from, there's two reasons I picked that title.

The first reason is that living in a ski resort is the realisation of a life long dream. I've always loved mountains and snow, so much so that when I was a small child my stated ambition when asked what I wanted to do when I grew up was 'to live in Switzerland' (even then it seems I knew the difference between making a living and making a life). Once I began skiing in my early twenties that ambition transformed into the dream of living in a ski resort, and here I am living in "Ski Town USA".

The second reason is to pay tribute to Australia's original inhabitants, the aborigines, whose creation myths are captured in the stories of the dreamtime, stories which reflect the deep connections of aboriginal culture to the land and the animals of Australia.

Qantas has paid the same tribute by painting several of their aircraft with traditional aboriginal paintings and giving them names from the dreamtime: Yananyi Dreaming, a 737-800, Nalanji Dreaming a 747-300 and my favourite, Wunula Dreaming, a 747-400 shown below.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Appreciating good design

I just read an interesting essay by Paul Graham which in his own words tries to explain why Americans make some things well and others badly.

His basic thesis can be summed up in two points, both of which are rooted in US society and cultural values. The first is that the US is good at those endeavours like writing software and making movies which are messy processes (because figuring out what the end result will be is as much work as making it) and innovation, and therefore speed, is important.

His second point is that Americans don't value good design and craftmanship as an end in itself in the same way that the Europeans or especially the Japanese do. It's the idea that there is some independent definition of quality determined by the craftsman as opposed to the market-based definition favoured in the US that if people buy something then it must be OK.

He quotes the example of the iPod as an exception to this rule. The thing that has always distinguished Apple from its competitors is its devotion to technical excellence which is a form of good design, often it must be said, at the expense of mass market success. But the iPod bucks this trend in the sense that good design, the fact that what it does it does so much more elegantly than its competitors, is the secret to its success.

Another example is TiVo. Here is a device that was clearly built by a group of people with a devotion to design. Every other DVR I've seen does fundamentally the same things but so much less elegantly that they are boat anchors by comparison. The end result is that TiVo owners don't just like their TiVo's, we love them. Unfortunately the jury is still out on whether the market will reward TiVo's superior design with financial success, or whether the cable companies with their third-rate bundled DVRs will kill it. I hope not.

Interestingly, in both the examples discussed above, the iPod and the TiVo, much of what counts as superior design is manifested as superior user interface design. Expect this to be increasingly important in distinguishing the leading devices from the also rans. Now that massive computing power can be provided in almost any device for a few hundred bucks, the real challenge is in making all of the complex and sophisticated functionality inside these boxes readily accessible to the average person.

Monday, August 01, 2005

What's with the Google Ads?

You may have noticed that there's some Google ads on the right of my blog page. July 17 marked the first time that this actually generated revenue - a grand total of 69 cents! Since this has exceeded my revenue expectations by exactly 69 cents, you may be asking why I put them there.

Well the thing you need to know about computer geeks if you're not one, is that they love to play around with new stuff, see how it works and see what they can make it do. So we do a lot of stuff with computers for no other reason than to see if we can. Some of it turns out to be of no value beyond the inherent challenge (and bragging rights with the other geeks). Some of it ends up changing the world, like Google's ad technologies which have that 'hey wow, how did they do that?' factor in spades and are fundamentally changing the whole process and business model of advertising.

Cool stuff that's changing the world - that's something I really can't resist taking a closer look at. What better way than putting it on my own blog and watching what happens. I don't know who you are but you shall be forever immortalised as the first person to click on my ads!