Thursday, August 28, 2008

Shrinking phones (and inflation?)

We take a lot of technological progress for granted these days, partly because we've become so used to it and partly because it sneaks up on you gradually. But every now and again you get a sudden jolt that reminds you just how amazing the improvements in technology are.

That's what happened when my wife recently got a new phone.

Here's Marie's old phone obtained in 2002 at a net cost of $50 ($90 with a $40 call credit).

Here's her new phone obtained last week at net cost of, well nothing ($20 with a $20 call credit).

What's my point? Well look at them side by side; the new phone is tiny in comparison.

And yet in this package that's about 15% of the volume you get a full colour screen vs. a green LCD, you get a built in web browser, you get polyphonic sound vs. a tinny mono speaker and the list goes on and on.

There's an important point here, not just about taking technology for granted but also about economics. Most economists will tell you that in our period of rapid technology improvement traditional measures of the Consumer Price Index overstate inflation because the items they are measuring now are not the same as the items that were measured in the past but are in fact much better. This case demonstrates that issue beautifully. How do you factor into the CPI something that has gone from $50 to $0 but is ten times as good? That's a problem that's more than hard to solve, it's damn near impossible.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

I'm an American, Mate

Yesterday I became an American citizen.

I'm not one given to overt displays of patriotism, and I believe that chauvinistic nationalism has been a great force for evil in human history. In moral terms I believe strongly that national borders are arbitrary lines on a map. I vigorously oppose policies based on the assumption that a person's moral worth is somehow related to which side of those arbitrary lines they were born or reside on.

That's not to say I believe that all countries or all cultures are morally equal. The culture and values underpinning western liberal democracy are in my view morally superior because they lead to more productive behaviour that creates wealth and, dare I say it, more moral behaviour that creates liberty.

But culture is a funny thing. It's hard to create and maintain societies built on these values. In that endeavour institutions matter, and matter a lot. And that's where I believe that the United States excels, in the institutional structure established in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. So I'm proud to become an heir to the vision of liberty and freedom the Founding Fathers had when they created this country.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Olympics? Bah humbug

I feel like an Olympic Scrooge, but I just can't get myself excited about the Beijing Games.

I'm sure part of it is that the coverage here in the US is (not surprisingly) focused on the performance of the US athletes, and despite the fact that I'll soon become a US citizen, when it comes to sport I'm still 100% Aussie. Well maybe 99% since I've developed a growing interest in American Football and the Green Bay Packers.

But that's not the full story since I can easily follow Australia's performance on the Internet but I'm still not really engaged.

I think the big problem is that it's all become such a production. It's like when someone hires a professional cameraman for their wedding and he takes over the day; there's just so much going on at the Olympics now that detracts from the real story - the athletes and their performance. And China's obsession with putting on a good show and winning the medal count just exacerbates that problem.

The other problem I have is that the selection of sports is just ridiculous, much of it driven by the need to maximise television revenues in the US. By what other criteria could baseball be included but not cricket, or women's softball but not netball?

The other problem I have is "sports" where the scoring is entirely subjective, stuff like diving and, worst of all, synchronised swimming. "Citius, Altius, Fortius" is the Olympic motto; it does not include "prettiest" or "best artistic merit" or any crap like that. If you can't measure it objectively, then in my view, whatever it is, it isn't a sport.

Some of the same criticisms can be levelled at the Winter Olympics (lose the ice dancing please!), but I'm much less jaded about those. That's partly because I'm personally much more interested in the core Winter Olympic sports of skiing (both Alpine and Nordic) than anything at the Summer Games, but also because it's still a much smaller deal and therefore maintains some of the true Olympic spirit and charm.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What happens to the good sci fi shows

One of the shows I've been watching on Hulu is New Amsterdam. After three episodes I'm really impressed by the quality of the story telling. It's not the first story about someone who is immortal but it's probably the most serious take on the question.

But today I discovered that the eight episodes online is all there is because the show was cancelled after less than a season.

It seems this is all too common for intelligent science fiction. Two other programs in this category that come immediately to mind are Firefly and Threshold.

At least this hasn't happened to the best science fiction ever to grace the small screen - the new Battlestar Galactica. That would be too frakking much!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Streaming television

After my very positive experience with the Roku Netflix Player I've been checking out some of the other streaming television options available on the Internet.

I was particularly interested in Hulu since the rumour is that the Netflix Player will soon also be able to stream their content as well.

Hulu is joint venture between NBC and News Corporation established after a falling out with Apple (seems they couldn't agree on pricing and revenue sharing for media sold via iTunes). Technically it's pretty slick; certainly better than the usual effort from large incumbent organisations. The biggest deficiency is that they only keep the last five or six episodes online. Too bad if you want to try out a show you missed from the first episode.

Unlike the Netflix service which runs on a subscription model, Hulu is based on the traditional advertising supported model of television. But I can't help thinking that they're failing woefully to exploit the potential of this new paradigm. As far as I can tell the ads are not based on the profile of the user, unless they somehow think I'm the target demographic for fabric softener and shampoo!

Nevertheless the potential is there and I'm convinced that this is going to kill television as we know it. The concept of watching a program at a set time has already been struck a major blow by DVRs but you're ultimately still limited to watching what you've already recorded. I'm looking forward to the approaching television model where you can watch any episode of any show any time!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Credit card fraud

The Justice Department announced today that they had broken a major credit card fraud ring.

It seems that the card numbers were obtained by hacking retailers' wireless networks. Amongst the list of affected retailers is Sports Authority which explains how my wife's credit card was fraudulently used back in April this year.

At the time we couldn't figure out how the number had been skimmed since she still had the card in her possession, never uses that card online and had only used it twice in the previous month, one of those times being at Sports Authority, and in both cases the card never left her sight.

We were incredibly impressed by how quickly our bank (Wells Fargo) detected the fraud - they called her the same day after only two fraudulent transactions which they advised us occurred using a fake card encoded with the stolen number. Reversing the fraudulent charges was reasonably straightforward so we didn't think any more about it until I heard the report today.

I'm a whole lot less impressed with Sports Authority's network security. Maybe I should give them the benefit of the doubt but as an IT professional I know that it's far more likely that the criminals exploited holes in a poorly implemented wireless network than that they were master hackers who defeated a state of the art system.