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The thoughts and theories of a guy who basically should have gone to bed hours ago.

I know, I know - what's the point? But look at it this way - I stayed up late writing it, but you're reading it...

Let's call ourselves even & move on, OK?

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I Should Be Sleeping

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Supreme Court: Work memos aren't free speech

The Supreme Court has just ruled that federal employees that report inefficiency or misconduct by their supervisors cannot claim free speech protection to avoid employer discipline.

Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, said:

There is protection for whistle-blowers in federal and state laws and rules of conduct for government attorneys.

When public employees made statement pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.

[To say it did would be] replacing managerial discretion with judicial supervision.

I'm surprised at this ruling. I would think that your right to free speech exists no matter what you're saying or to whom you're saying it. That said, I the fact that you have the right to say something, doesn't mean you're guaranteed protection from employer discipline.

I know the ruling only applies to federal employees, but it is interesting to extrapolate it to the recent discussions about prosecuting reporters who print classified information (and/or these reporters' sources). If a federal worker can be punished for accusing his employer of lying, can a phone company employee, for instance, be punished for telling USAToday about an NSA program to collect phone records?

One other thing. The end of the article is another "sign of the times," I fear:

[Kennedy] He was joined by the court's conservatives - Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

The court's liberals, Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, dissented.

I don't follow the Supreme Court all that closely, but that's the first time I saw a ruling described that way...

posted by Brian at 5:55 PM | 0 comments

Sunday, May 28, 2006

My Inspirational Poster Entry

Since everyone else seems to be doing one of these...

posted by Brian at 3:16 AM | 1 comments

Friday, May 26, 2006

Leaning to the Right?

In the comments from this post, Jeff Porten asks:

It's my perception that you've polarized harder right since 2004. Agree or disagree?


My political leanings have been relatively consistent for the last few years. I'm generally conservative when it comes to financial matters. I'd rather have as much of my money in my pocket as possible, but I'm willing to pay taxes as long as I feel I'm getting some service in return. I'm generally liberal when it comes to social matters (pro-choice, pro-gay rights, etc.). And I'm anti-political correctness for political correctness' sake, which may be more of a conservative thing, but I'm not sure how that categorizes...

The two things about my politics that might be confusing (and might make me appear to have polarized right lately) are these:

1) I tend to focus on what is happening as opposed to what could be happening.

So when stuff like the NSA scandals come up and people (mainly liberals, I find) begin screaming about how our civil rights are gone and the constitution has become birdcage liner, I tend to see their un-mitigated, un-punished, un-discouraged screaming as proof positive that they're wrong. I also remain confident that as long as there are people out there screaming like this, the bright light of public opinion will keep any given administration from eroding our civil rights in any serious way. With all the hullabaloo lately, my civil rights have not changed one iota and, individual anecdotes aside, I believe 99% of the country is in the same boat.

2) I try to read multiple accounts of the same story, remove the spin and the editorializing, and focus on the facts.

The Bush administration has become as scandal-ridden as the Clinton administration was in its second term. Now, as then, a public mood has developed in which it's very fashionable to disapprove of everything the President says or does, and use each new "incident" as further proof that he is <choose your favorite: evil, stupid, incompetent, power-hungry, war-mongering, a religious nut, other: ___________.>.

Stories about one thing end up being about something else. Criticisms about a particular event become evidence toward a theory of greater wrongdoing. Motivations are assumed and presented as fact. Tempers flare and logic subsides. Describing the event/action itself without embellishment becomes unsatisfying and insufficient.

In this environment, someone who points out inaccuracies in a story, or tries to separate opinion from fact, is often accused of defending the administration, even when his/her statements are inherently negative towards it.

Here's a real life example to illustrate my point, taken from a conversation I had with a family member last summer:

Family member: That goddamn Bush. I can't believe how badly he screwed up that Katrina mess.

Me: The mayor and governor screwed up the evacuation, and left FEMA to be first responders as opposed to the last line of defense. Where FEMA screwed up was in not adjusting to the situation on the ground; using the same old techniques, even though this problem was much worse than other problems.

FM: How can you defend FEMA when the whole world agrees they screwed up?

Me: I agree they screwed up. I'm just saying they weren't the only ones who screwed up.

FM: I can't believe you think Bush did a good job on this. <So-and-so> from <such-and-such> paper said no President has ever screwed up so badly.

Me: Ugh. I didn't say Bush did a good job on this. The buck stops with him, so he gets the blame for the federal response. But if you're lining up people to blame, you can't ignore Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco, or FEMA Director Brown.

FM: Brown is a @#%*@ing Arabian horse trainer. And the guy he replaced left because he was corrupt. It's just another example of Bush's cronyism, like the time he fired that General in Iraq for saying he needed more troops.

Me: Brown performed legal services and did logistics planning for the Arabian horse firm. And after that, he was assistant-director at FEMA, so it's not so crazy that he got the job. Also, the guy before him presided over the FEMA response to four hurricanes that hit South Florida in one season in 2004, where FEMA was touted as being more effective than it's ever been. Some even credited its response with helping to secure Florida for Bush in the November elections. Personally, I think it had more to do with the fact that Gov. Jeb Bush and the local Florida officials know what to do when a hurricane was coming, so FEMA's standard response worked well. And by the way, what does Iraq have to do with any of this?

FM: Listen to you, defending Bush and FEMA at a time like this. When did you become such a radical republican?

Me: AARRRRGGGHHH!!! The first thing out of my mouth was "FEMA screwed up." I just think the press is short-cutting past how they screwed up because it's more fun/popular to blame everything on Bush. Sells more papers & all that. I think it's important to understand how they screwed up, so we can fix it for next time. Don't you?

<End of Act I>

You'll note that nothing I said in the above conversation is complimentary to Bush, FEMA, or the events after Hurricane Katrina. All I'm trying to do is get the facts right. But it's not enough to say FEMA was one of three agencies that screwed up. It has to be the only one. And the screw-up has to be the worst screw-up in the history of screw-ups. And it has to prove Bush's incompetence in several other areas (including hiring practices and running the Iraq war).

The bottom line: The quantity and degree of unsubstantiated criticism against this president is more than we've ever seen before. When I see it, I just can't help trying to set the record straight, or direct people's attention to the actual issue at hand. Since this kind of behavior is viewed as defending the President (as opposed to levying more accurate criticisms), I can see how some may perceive me as becoming increasingly conservative.

I guess I'll have to wait until someone unfairly accuses a Democrat of something in order to show my true, "fair and balanced" self.

posted by Brian at 1:38 AM | 6 comments

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

New Low in Ego Stroking: Google Bragging

For those too busy to do a Google search on "leahy wiretapping", allow me to brief you on the results:

Result #17:
I Should Be Sleeping: Senator Leahy on Privacy in the Post 9/11 World by Brian Greenberg

Result #129:
TidBITS: CFP 2006: Life, Liberty and Digital Rights by Jeff Porten

Result #363:
TidBITS#828/08-May-06, including the above article by Jeff Porten.

Not in the top 400 (but accessible when searching "leahy wiretapping"):
The Vast Jeff Wing Conspiracy - CFP2006

So now just so we're sure we got this straight:
- Jeff goes to conference
- Jeff gets a paying gig writing about the conference in a well respected e-zine
- E-zine posts Jeff's article
- Jeff blogs about his article being posted
- I read his blog post, read the article, and comment on it in my blog.
- Google classifies my blog post first, Jeff's article second, and Jeff's blog post third.

We're living in a very strange world, folks...

posted by Brian at 1:26 PM | 1 comments

Monday, May 22, 2006

Reuters vs. AP - How Bad Will Hurricane Season Be?

The National Hurricane Center issued its predictions for the 2006 Hurricane season today. Here's what the Associated Press said (bold text is the headline):

Hurricane Center Predicts Calmer Season

A hectic, above-normal tropical storm season could produce between four and six major hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico this year, but conditions don't appear ripe for a repeat of 2005's record activity, the National Hurricane Center predicted Monday.

There will be up to 16 named storms, the center predicted, which would be significantly less than last year's record 27. Still, people in coastal regions should prepare for the possibility of major storms, said Max Mayfield, the National Hurricane Center director.

OK, not too bad. But here's what Reuters said:

US predicts active hurricane season

The 2006 Atlantic hurricane season will be very active, with up to 10 hurricanes, although not as busy as record-breaking 2005, when Hurricane Katrina and several monster storms slammed into the United States, the U.S. government's top climate agency said on Monday.

The 2005 hurricane season spawned an unprecedented 28 tropical storms, of which 15 became hurricanes.


I assume both reporters went to the same briefing, so it's amazing that these two stories came out so differently. First, there's the headlines, which give the reader totally opposite impressions. Then, there's the details: AP says 16 named storms, 4-6 majors. Reuters says they called for up to 10 hurricanes, although the article later explains that only 4-6 of the 10 are predicted to be Category 3 or higher and hence, "major." You've got to read these pretty carefully, I guess. And finally, there's the history - AP says there were 27 named storms last year, Reuters says there were 28. If memory serves, I think Reuters is correct, because I think I remember them having to use "Alpha" and "Beta" after the 26 names ran out. I could be wrong on that, though. Of coruse, I'm not a staff reporter at a major wire service. Sheesh!

On top of all that, there's this little nuggest (from Reuters):

NOAA had predicted 12 to 15 tropical storms [in 2005], of which it said seven to nine would be hurricanes [actual number was 15]. Seven of last year's hurricanes were considered "major," while NOAA had predicted only three to five would reach that level.

So whatever it was they said today, odds are it's probably wrong anyway.

At least the sloppy reporting wasn't about anything important...

posted by Brian at 1:22 PM | 7 comments

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Lesson of Titanic: Stop Building Ships That May One Day Sink

In the comments thread on this post, Jeff Porten suggests I read the IHT editorial, America the Titanic, to prove to me that American hubris is leading to her ultimate demise.

Allow me to quickly summarize the editorial in bullet point form:

  • The last American survivor of the Titanic sinking died in early May.

  • The story of Titanic has lasted almost 100 years, because it's an almost mythical tale of hubris - the unsinkable ship that went down on her maiden voyage.

  • World War I was the Titanic for Europe - the obstacle that sank the "unsinkable ship" of Europe.

  • World War II was like the Titanic for America, but our losses were overshadowed by the unparalleled success we enjoyed after it ended.

  • The Cold War was like the Titanic for America, except that by "sheer dumb luck," we navigated our way through it without destroying ourselves.

  • Nuclear proliferation is currently like the Titanic for America, but like the captain of the ship itself, we don't see the danger.

  • 9/11 was like the Titanic for America, but our losses weren't enough to open our eyes to the danger.

  • The radical Islamic world, a demoralized Russia, a growing China, and an angry Iran are currently like Titanic for America, but we are not heeding the lessons of history and paying attention.

So basically, what we're saying is this: just as Europe "sank" financially, militarily and socially after World War I, America has come up against various obstacles since that could very well have destroyed her (except that we consistently fail to actually be destroyed). Given this history, it's amazing that we aren't predicting our own downfall given our current set of obstacles.

The morale of this story (IMHO): When your theory has no actual supporting evidence, explain why your evidence should support you, even though it doesn't. Then, triumphantly reach the conclusion you set out for in the first place.

posted by Brian at 1:32 PM | 1 comments

Oh, By the Way, We Cured Cancer...

This story was the third story on the evening news last night, and it didn't even make the front page of the New York Times:

WASHINGTON, May 18 (AP) - A vaccine that blocks viruses that cause most cervical cancer is safe and effective and should be approved, a federal panel recommended on Thursday. The maker said the vaccine could cut global deaths from the cancer by more than two-thirds.

Wow. I mean, isn't this a really big deal? Where's the banner headline? The special address to the nation by the President praising the researchers for all their hard work, etc.? Is this how the world found out about the Polio vaccine too?

Kind of "ho hum" if you ask me (not that you did or anything...)

posted by Brian at 10:50 AM | 1 comments

Thursday, May 18, 2006

What's Wrong with the World Today - A Microcosm

I don't know, maybe I'm just tired and need to take a break, but it seems to me that the nature of political debate (at least in the blogosphere) has degraded into a lot of meaningless shouting lately. I used to find these discussions informative (and sometimes even entertaining), but now I often feel like I'm screaming into the wind.

Here's the downward spiral as I see it:

  • An event occurs in the world.

  • Several people have a knee-jerk reaction to it, based almost entirely on emotion or political affiliation.

  • Other people, perhaps inspired by the knee-jerk reaction, escalate the emotions with comments about a tangentially (or not at all) related topic.
  • People who have more information, either through research or experience, disagree and provide supporting evidence.

  • The first group counters with one of several canned responses: a) "You've missed my point", b) "You're a partisan hack that won't listen to the other side of the argument", c) "Your 'facts' are just a pack of lies created by <insert name of opposition here>", or d) "You're crazy - my brother-in-law's friend's wife knew this guy who <insert anecdotal, and probably apocryphal, story here>."

  • Other people, seeking to do actual research on the topic, read this crap use it to defend related positions on some other blog

  • Repeat ad nauseum.

As you can imagine, this process turns in on itself in multiple places. People citing source material may be providing factual sanity to the discussion, or they may simply be recycling garbage from another blogger's emotional rants. People without facts respond to the appearance of these facts with "You've missed my point" and then promptly change their point to something they feel more confident defending.

Eventually, the conversation goes nowhere.

I bring this up because of something I read recently about Google (hat tip: Instapundit). Let's follow the bouncing ball on this one, OK? Stay with me, though, this gets a little strange in spots...


It seems Google donated more than $1 million to, to help them lobby for Internet regulation legislation in Congress.


Amy says:

That's it. I'm changing my homepage to

This is fine, of course - changing her homepage is her perogative. I don't much like either, nor do I have any idea where they stand on Net Neutrality or other Internet regulation. But I'm also a Google user and a Google shareholder, and their political donations don't affect the way their search engine performs, so I'm staying put. But like I said, Amy can set her homepage to whatever she wants for whatever reason.


Jabba the Tut chimes in with:

I've had it with Google. After helping China censor the internet, use Hizbollah as a legitimate news source, while dissing conservative/libertarian websites, supporting the MoveOn smear merchants was the last straw. I've posted instructions on how to remove Google from your FireFox toolbar at <link>.

Jabba's teetering on the edge of truth here: Google complied with Chinese laws, many of which would be considered censorship in this country, and took some heat for it in the US. Their GoogleNews service uses an algorithm to establish the relevance of a news article, so while the algorithm might require tweaking (the product was in Beta for a very long time), it's probably a stretch to claim that Google is intentionally promoting one website over another for political purposes. And, of course, he implicitly converts Google's donations to aid in congressional lobbying into carte blance support for all of MoveOn's positions. This might very well be true, but he has no proof (or at least he doesn't offer any).


Next up is Chris J. Breisch:

I've been saying for some time that Google is the Evil Empire. This just proves it. Remember, Google records every search you EVER make and tags it with your IP and every link you follow from a search. This is presumably so that they can tailor your results better to you in the future, but this is the ultimate in "big brother-ism". I will never use Google again.


First of all, every search engine records every search you make, and every web server has an IP address for every pageview. Suddenly, though, Google is "big brother."


Bryan C. to the rescue:

Wait a sec. This isn't about necessarily about Google supporting MoveOn's ridiculous political antics. It's about funneling money to sponsor the Net Neutrality bill. I hate MoveOn, but I must admit that I have some mixed feelings about opposing that bill. This time at least it sounds like Google's acting out of responsible self interest, and I expect that from a corporation. Though I'd prefer they'd have sponsored a more neutral opponent of the bill and stayed far, far away from MoveOn's slimy den.

[Also], every single web server you visit does the exact same thing, including every other search engine in existence. Traffic logging and analysis are vital to any smoothy functioning web site. . . . If you don't like or trust Google then by all means use someone else, they really need the competition, but whoever you use will be gathering the same data.

This should be the point where Chris (and maybe even Jabba) come back and say, "Thanks, Bryan - that was useful information. I hadn't realized this was standard technical architecture as opposed to evil, corporate greed." But alas, no...


LatinoPundit says:

Did you type this on a Microsoft comptuer b/c it is standard quo to put cookies (tracking software) on your computer to make it easy for everyone to see where ya been? Now all of the sudden you are outraged b/c of Google? Ha!

...and then Karen chimes in with this gem:

Get the word out: by using Google paying links, you support MoveOn.

Between the whole child porn thing they got going, their anti-semitism, and then the censorship in China, Google is a joke. Why isn't anyone going after them like they did Microsoft? Where is a tobacco lawyer when you need one? Maybe we should say there is a lacrosse player working at Google, then all the libs will go after them.

OK, so now cookies are secret, tracking software, invented by Microsoft to see where you go online, Google is involved in child porn, anti-semitism, and censorship in China, and both companies are just as bad as tobacco companies and the (currently convicted of nothing) Duke lacrosse team.

First of all, cookies aren't software, they're data files. Secondly, all servers create cookies (Windows and otherwise), and they write those cookies to all kinds of desktop machines (Windows and otherwise). Claiming cookies as a Microsoft product is like claiming that Toyota makes gasoline. Furthermore, cookies don't track where you go on the web. They record that you've been to the specific site that created the cookie, so when you return it can personalize your experience.

As for Google, the "child porn" thing was actually Google refusing to give search data to the federal government who wanted it to support its case against child porn. We've already discussed the censorship thing in China, and for the life of me, I have no idea where anti-semitism came from. So much for a reasonable discussion of corporate political donations and/or net neutrality. How I feel for Bryan C....


The comment thread goes on to contain a fact-based post about net neutrality (from Dan), a post from Brian Carnell calling Dan a liar, and a post from Dan saying "Brian - we're saying the same thing."

Then David Johnson gets into the act. He tells Brian: "I have read A LOT of discussion about this issue and that is the first I've read of what you just said," and then he tells Dan, "Yup, I think [you] sum it up about right." Which, of course, is interesting, since Dan just told Brian he was saying the same thing. I guess we are to assume that David agrees with Dan's take on net neutrality, but not with his take on Brian's post about that topic. Sheesh!

Next, Jon Kay provides a link with more information about net neutrality (helpful), and then an anonymous reader ignores that information entirely and accuses Google of mounting "a campaign to outlaw financial transactions between consenting adults" (I have no idea what that even means).


And so it goes. If you're just a reader looking to learn something from all of this, you need to mentally separate the signal from the noise. In the above example, it's all pretty clear, but sometimes the noisemakers don't reveal themselves until late in the game, when you've already been distracted from the main point.

If you dare to participate in one of these discussions, you had better be prepared to ignore half the participants or do battle with a bunch of uninformed crazy people. In several cases (which admittedly, is all my own fault), I've found myself the last man standing - all the rational people have abandoned the thread, and I'm left explaining to some crazy person that Google isn't monitoring his personal search history, or that Microsoft isn't reading his e-mail, or that George W. Bush isn't personally listening in on his phone conversations. But what do I know - I'm just a partisan hack that won't listen to the other side of the argument.


posted by Brian at 3:41 PM | 5 comments

Finally, Someone Who Likes the Da Vinci Code

Back in early April, I predicted the success of The Da Vinci Code movie:

Mark my words: this movie is going to be the next Titanic. It's going to make a billion dollars. And the irony is, a lot of its business is going to be driven by these paranoid religious folks who seem so desparate to prove to us what we already know - that it's just a story.

Since it's debut at the Cannes Film Festival, there's been a slight hitch in the plan, though: everyone seems to have hated it. As of this writing, 23 of the 29 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are negative, and the average rating is a mere 4.8 out of 10.

This came as a bit of a shock to me for two reasons: 1) I really enjoyed the book, and 2) I just can't imagine that Ron Howard and Tom Hanks, two of the most talented movie guys working today, could come together for such a clunker.

Today, though, Roger Ebert's review came out. I like Ebert's reviews because he tends to like the same kinds of movies I like, and also because he usually does a good job of explaining why he likes or doesn't like a movie. In this case, I think he sheds some light on why the bulk of reviewers panned this film:

The movie works; it's involving, intriguing and constantly seems on the edge of startling revelations. After it's over and we're back on the street, we wonder why this crucial secret needed to be protected by the equivalent of a brain-twister puzzle crossed with a scavenger hunt. The trail that Robert and Sophie follow is so difficult and convoluted that it seems impossible that anyone, including them, could ever follow it. The secret needs to be protected up to a point; beyond that it is absolutely lost, and the whole point of protecting it is beside the point.

In other words, it's hard to follow. I guess your average movie reviewer sees this as a bad thing; though I rather expected it from this movie. In fact, having read the book, I can't imagine how anyone would walk into the film and not expect it to require a lot of thinking. Maybe because it's in the "Summer Blockbuster" category?

At any rate, I'm still looking forward to seeing it, if for no other reason than to see which of the critics I agree with. And I still stand by my claims that the movie will set box office records (OK, $1 billion might have been pushing it, especially if it doesn't receive critical acclaim), but heck - Titanic only scored 86% on Rotten Tomatoes (7.7/10) and it hit the mark...

posted by Brian at 11:35 AM | 0 comments

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Jodie Foster at Penn Graduation

Jodie Foster spoke at The University of Pennsylvania's 250th Graduation ceremony yesterday. Highlights included taking a picture of the graduates with a disposable camera, criticisms of the Bush administration for squandering goodwill of other nations after the 9/11 attacks and the "disastrous and shameful" handling of Hurricane Katrina, and rapping to Eminem's "Lose Yourself" from his film 8 Mile.

Graduating Penn students, in what has become an unfortunate annual tradition, complained about the choice beforehand, but gave her a standing ovation afterwards. When I graduated in 1991, Ted Koppel was the speaker. After the President of the University finished reading Koppel's ridiculously long list of accomplishments and accolades, Koppel began his address by quoting (by name) those who criticized his selection by calling him "unqualified" to speak. He then spent some time talking about responsibility in journalism. To this day, I regret not having a copy of the text of that speech. It was priceless.

Meanwhile, at least Jodie Foster had a good time with it (see picture above). Steve Wynn, an actual Penn grad, did not seem to be as enthused about receiving his honorary degree.

posted by Brian at 9:53 AM | 2 comments

Monday, May 15, 2006

Hillary Clinton: Young People Ain't So Bad

Hillary Clinton told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week that young people in America "think work is a four-letter word," because they "have a sense of entitlement after growing up in a 'culture that has a premium on instant gratification.'" (quotes from the AP article, which may have been paraphrasing).

Chelsea Clinton, now 26-years old and working as a consultant for McKinsey & Co., called (out) her mother by telling her, "Mom, I do work hard and my friends work hard." After which, Hillary promptly corrected herself, saying "I was referring only to young people that can't vote yet."

No, just kidding. She issued the proper politician-apology: "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to convey the impression that you don't work hard [by saying you don't work hard]. I just want to set the bar high, because we are in a competition for the future."

OK, I added the part in the brackets, but hey - this is so much fun...

Anyway, go Chelsea!

posted by Brian at 1:51 PM | 0 comments

Microsoft Gets One From the Government

It doesn't happen often, but government regulators sided with Microsoft yesterday in rejecting Google's complaint over IEv7's Search Box:

The Justice Department has evaluated the search box -- a new feature in IE 7 that lets users initiate searches -- and concluded it "respects users' choices" and "is easily changed"

They also mentioned, as discussed in these pages before, that the process for changing the default search engine is "relatively straightforward." Interestingly, they pointed out that:

The number of steps to change the default search engine in IE 7 and Firefox, the open-source browser supported by Google with advertising revenue, are in fact identical: five.

Google is taking the same argument to the EU regulators, which strikes me as answer shopping, but given the two different jurisdictions, I guess isn't a problem (at least not yet?) We'll see if one body influences the other...

posted by Brian at 1:41 PM | 0 comments

Friday, May 12, 2006

By the Way, Is Data Mining Unconstitutional?

I have a question: Is data-mining by the U.S. Government unconstitutional?

By my count, we've had this discussion at least three times now (the TSA profiling debate after 9/11, the request for search results from Google/Microsoft/Yahoo to fight online porn, and now the NSA getting phone numbers), but the politics of the specific example always get in the way of the more generic question.

Here's my thinking: if the government wants to spy on one person, they need to get a warrant. Without a warrant, clearly it's illegal.

If they want to spy on a group of people (defined by a characteristic, not a list of names - i.e., all people who pay cash for airline tickets, or all Arab-Americans, or all people who call Afghanistan more than five times per month), warrants are less applicable (what do you do? Get a list of names and obtain warrants for each person?), but there should be some check/balance to make sure that they have a legitimate reason to investigate the group - a "group warrant," if you will (this, by the way, strikes me as protection against prejudice more than protection against privacy).

Now, if they want data on everyone in the country (i.e., all phone calls), both the warrant and the "group warrant" seem less relevant. Clearly, the point of retrieving all the records is to <u>look</u> for reasons to investigate. So what checks and balances are required in this case?

In both the second and third cases, I think the missing check is some assurance that the government will use the data they collect <u>in the aggregate only</u>. Today, even if that's all they're doing, people worry about the possibility that they may do more.

What if we could allow aggregated data searches, but require the government to obtain warrants if patterns are identified, or if certain individuals meet the criteria of a search? In other words, the they get the data mining for free, but if it turns up anything, they should get approval to check it out. This scenario would take some technical development (not too much, I think) and some advancements in the law to catch up with the technology (to define, for instance, when the search is specific enough to cross the line from data mining into spying on individuals).

Such advances, I believe, would provide the government the opportunity to take advantage of modern surveillance techniques while giving people the peace of mind that their privacy is not being unduly invaded.

posted by Brian at 5:23 PM | 14 comments

Thursday, May 11, 2006

More News Cataloging - NSA Call Lists

I'm sure this is going to become a big deal:

NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans - most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

Most people won't read past the headline. Some will skim the article and walk away thinking, "Bush is wiretapping even more phone calls now." Folks who read the whole article, particularly the part I've quoted above, will walk away confused. They're "reaching into our homes and businesses" even though we're "not suspected of a crime," [dum da dum dum.......DUM!!!!!] but they're not "listening to or recording our conversations?"

Those who click through and read a few more articles on the subject will learn a bit more (and read "concerned" quotes from just about all 100 of the U.S. Senators). The NSA is looking for patterns in the data. The articles didn't specify, but I suspect it's something on the order of large numbers of calls being made to a single phone number, building, or area in a middle eastern country. Or maybe even large numbers of calls made between two citizens who both have made frequent calls to known terrorist trouble spots. That kind of thing.

These are just guesses, of course - I have no way of knowing. But assuming for a second that I'm at least directionally correct, my comment to Jeff Porten's TIDBits article about the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference still applies: this is likely the case of technical capability vs. practical application of that technology.

If they're looking for patterns, they need lots and lots of data. In this case, they also need phone numbers (source and destination), which is customer-identifying information. But if they take those millions of records and aggregate them to form patterns, they're not using anyone's phone number. It's the aggregation of this data that's interesting, not the data itself. (Of course, if they find a pattern and determine that it's probable cause, one would hope they'd seek a warrant before wiretapping a phone).

The fact that with such data, they could accuse Mr. Smith is having an affair with Mr. Johnson's wife, based on the correlations of late night phone calls to Mrs. Johnson at home and Mr. Smith at work makes for great copy, but isn't really what's happened here.

Don't get me wrong: we absolutely must discuss the potential this creates for abuses of personal privacy. Specifically, we need to find technical solutions that allow the government to take advantage of modern data mining techniques to catch terrorists without exposing its citizens to potential privacy abuses. These issues should, and are, being debated as we speak.

But that's not the story. The story is instantly tied to the tried & true NSA Wiretapping Story, even as they explain that they're not the same thing at all. It doesn't matter - they both contain the words "NSA," "phone," "collection" and "secret." So that's good enough. Also, the press gets a double-bonus here, because they can also catalog this story with the recent General Who Ran the NSA Wiretapping Program Gets Picked to Run the CIA story, which is also tangentially related at best.

A lot of newspaper and ad time is about to be sold, but we are going to need to dig deep to extract the facts described above. Such is the cost of the "free press."

UPDATE: Yahoo/USAToday have a handy Q&A-style fact sheet on the issue that is stripped of all spin & hysteria. It even makes a point to distance itself from the NSA Wiretapping story.

posted by Brian at 3:00 PM | 10 comments

18,000 pages about an 18-page letter

Finding the Letter
When I heard that the Iranian president had written George W. Bush an 18-page letter, I went right to the web to read it. Surely a community that could post the President's National Guard records (and then post explanations about why they were fake) would be able to get such a thing online, no?

What I found was quite shocking. Here's the story from The New York Times, ABC News, FOX News, The Washington Post, CNN and Ha'aretz.

All of the above articles talk extensively about what was in the letter. They all quote it repeatedly, which means they must have a copy. And yet none of them linked to a copy of it for me to read myself. Ha'aretz, the Israeli newspaper, provided excerpts, but that was it.

I continued digging, and eventually found it at Le Monde and from the BBC. I'm thinking this says a lot about how the media works around the world. The American media feels we have such a short attention span that we couldn't be bothered with reading 18 entire pages of text. Besides, what they think of the 18 pages (and what the various experts they interviewed think) is much more important than what the 18 pages actually say, right? Why should I make up my own mind when they have a full time job making it up for me? The Israeli media is willing to provide a glimpse, but still wants you to rely on their reporting. In Europe, this probably isn't as big a deal, so sure - here's the letter. We'll tell you what we think, but go ahead and read it yourself.

There was a day when websites were proud of their ability to link to source material. Now, many are clearly choosing not to. Luckily for us, Google knows no borders or boundaries. And if it's out there, we'll find it.

The Letter Itself
As to the letter itself, I had a mixed reaction to it. On the one hand, I was dumbstruck with how much I agreed with what the Iranian president had to say. He seemed to be making the same points the Democrats make on a regular basis, but in a more matter-of-fact, "this is how the facts look to me" kind of way. This, by the way, is basically the subject of the FOX News report (yes, that's right - I just agreed with the President of Iran and FOX News in the same paragraph. For those who are dizzy, I'll wait...........OK, better now? Moving on.)

On the other hand, the similarity between the letter and the standard Democratic talking points led me to believe that this effect was calculated to elicit maximum effect from Bush's political enemies here in the United States, and perhaps abroad (we tend to forget that they have things in Iran like web access and CNN, so they hear us criticizing our leaders just as well as we do). Mahmood Ahmadi-Najad has been quoted in the past as saying he needs to "wipe Israel off the map." In the letter, he says it this way:

Are we to understand that allowing the original inhabitants of these lands - inside and outside Palestine - whether they are Christian, Muslim or Jew, to determine their fate, runs contrary to principles of democracy, human rights and the teachings of prophets? If not, why is there so much opposition to a referendum?

Quite the restrained version of the previous quote, huh?

Even a lunatic can appear reasonable if he believes it suits his purposes. I think that might be what we have here. And while my knee-jerk reaction may be to respond with equally constructive dialog, I think the White House is looking a few steps down the road to whether or not dialog with this man is worth the effort, and concluding that it is not.

posted by Brian at 2:05 PM | 3 comments

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

EU to Microsoft: Don't Build Any New Products Ever Again

The EU is considering action against Microsoft's forthcoming version of Windows, Vista. They're concerned that it will violate the ruling handed down by the second highest court in the EU in 2004.

Here's the quote that caught my eye:

Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes told Microsoft in a letter in March that its plans for Vista could "deny PC manufacturers and consumers a real choice among competing software products and stifle innovation", the Commission said.

That's quite a stretch, isn't it? Putting out a new product will deny consumers choice and stifle innovation? And, I suppose we're to assume that the converse is also true: preventing Microsoft from releasing (i.e., innovating) a new product (i.e., another consumer choice) would (somehow) provide consumers with more choice and encourage innovation?

At particular issue, it seems, is the planned XPS format, which will compete with Adobe's PDF format. Adobe has a near-monopoly in this space today, much like Microsoft's monopoly on the PC desktop. As far as I can tell, XPS will have an advantage over PDF, because the ability create XPS files would come included with Windows (you can download Adobe's PDF Reader for free, but you have to pay for software to create PDFs). PDF would still have the advantage of being cross-platform (Microsoft will allow royalty free licenses for XPS, but will only produce XPS software for Windows), as well as the huge advantage that Microsoft has today - ubiquity. PDF is a valuable format principally because everyone can read it. XPS will make a dent for sure, but will have quite a hill to climb to unseat PDF as the market leader. But regardless of whether XPS replaces PDF as the industry standard, I'm still lost as to how putting a competing product in the marketplace limits choice and stifles innovation.

If anyone's stifling innovation here, it would seem to be the EU. And it would seem that we could point specifically to which innovation their stifling (Windows Vista).

The irony of the whole thing is that the EU is stymied by its own litigiousness. Microsoft has appealed their previous case to the highest court in the EU (the Court of First Instance). If they sue for changes to Vista based on that previous ruling, and the CFI overturns all or part of it, it could invalidate their Vista claim right out of the gate. On the other hand, if they wait to see what the CFI will do, Vista may be released in the interim, reducing their ability to influence changes.

I think this is starting to smell like a vendetta against the front-runner - in this case, Microsoft. I can understand the need to keep the playing field level, offer consumers the most options, and encourage other firms to compete. But if doing so means that the organization with the most resources and, arguably, the most experience is not allowed to compete at all, then aren't we throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

posted by Brian at 1:03 PM | 5 comments

Monday, May 08, 2006

Commercials on Demand

From the Wall Street Journal online (via Hugh Hewitt): TiVo will soon be offering commercials On Demand.

For the most part, the marketers won't run traditional 30-second TV commercials. Instead, they will offer longer ads that attempt to be more informative than typical commercials. Kraft, for instance, will offer 20 different cooking videos that will show such things as how to grill its Tombstone pizza, potato-salad basics, or how to create a cantaloupe-and-Jell-O dessert.

General Motors, likewise, will offer detailed video presentations about its vehicles. Ford is trying something more entertaining: one-minute takes of magicians Penn & Teller performing various tricks on a golf course, with a Ford vehicle shown nearby.

It's an interesting concept, but I think it's doomed to failure. To generate an audience for something, not only does the content have to be compelling, but it has to be someplace where people will look for it.

If I wanted to know how to grill a Tombstone Pizza, for instance, I'd probably go to, or even more likely to Google. The reason I'd do this is because when I think "information need," I instantly think "Internet." The TiVo commercial might be a better product, but my sense right now is that if that's truly the case, then they (or someone else) will eventually put a copy of it on the web, and Google will find it (side question: do you think Madison Avenue would get all up in arms over people illegally downloading bootleg versions of their commercials?).

To change my behavior, the On Demand ads must be more informative (or at least more entertaining) on a consistent basis, and there must be enough of a critical mass there to make me turn to my cable box first, as opposed to my web browser. That's a long row to hoe...

On the upside, if this takes off, maybe they'll take the commercials out of shows & just post links to the On Demand versions at appropos moments:

Donald Trump: You're Fired!
TiVo: Click here for a video on writing your resume from


posted by Brian at 5:10 PM | 2 comments

Happy Birthday, I Should Be Sleeping!

Since the occasion is sure to slip by everybody but me (and, to be fair, it almost slipped by me as well), I feel the need to point out that today marks the one-year anniversary of this blog. I thought I'd take this opportunity to take narcissism to a whole new level, and give myself a bit of an annual review. Those who are put off by such endeavors are encouraged to move on now...


This is post #203, which comes out to a little more than one post every two days. Not bad, considering my initial concern was whether I'd have the time or interest to keep a blog updated for any length of time.

The blog itself has drawn 1,292 hits during the year, but I'm assuming that roughly 600 of those hits are from me. As much as I like Blogger, my one complaint is that the only way to verify a post is online is to go to the blog itself, which messes with the statistics. I typically post, bring up the blog page, make edits, and check the blog again. That plus the occasional hit I make to see if anyone's commented (I get e-mail when someone comments, but I occasionally check from work or from my blackberry, where I don't have access to my personal e-mail). At any rate, 600 is a conservative estimate, but works for my (self-serving) purposes.

The individual posts to the blog have drawn 6,135 hits for the year, driven mostly by a higher-than-I-can-possibly-explain PageRank in Google.

That makes 6,827 blog hits, as compared to 8,165 non-blog hits on the rest of my site, or 45.6% of my total traffic driven by the blog. This makes sense, given that the rest of the site doesn't update nearly as often, but is also gratifying in the sense that I'm not completely screaming into the wind over here.

Post Highlights

The average post has received 30.4 hits, but this is very misleading. My top two posts have 4,270 hits (more on that later). Without those two posts, the average is around 9.3 hits, which feels much more like reality. Another useless stat: 28 of the 202 posts (14%) have received 20 hits or more, so again - once in a while, I reach beyond my circle of friends (loyal readers who visit here because they already know me from pre-blog days).

Here are links to my top 10 posts of the year (by traffic):

Concert Review: Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden - 2,936 hits
Billy Joel plays the oldies... - 1,334 hits
What Prevents Crime? - 80 hits
A Review: Billy Joel - My Lives, Disc 1 - 60 hits
Apple takes a shortcut, costs me $30 - 53 hits
Help for the Tech Support Generation - 45 hits
More on the Mactel front... - 43 hits
A Review: Billy Joel - My Lives, Disc 3 - 43 hits
Cats & Dogs Living Together - 40 hits
A Review: Billy Joel - My Lives, Disc 2 - 38 hits

I find it very gratifying that this list composes many of my interests: music (specifically, Billy Joel), technology, and a hint of politics/current events. The big news for the year, however, was Billy Joel's 2006 concert tour to promote his new box set My Lives. I saw a setlist from the one of the first shows and blogged about it with Billy Joel plays the oldies.... Fans, starved for setlists, took to Google in droves, and my site became a popular link. Even though the post contains nothing very substantial (except a link to a setlist), it quickly became the most popular post on the blog. Then, I saw the show itself. On the train ride home, I blogged a review from my blackberry, Concert Review: Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden, which has single-handedly commandeered 43% of the blog's traffic in a single post. It's also set records for comments - generating 45 (including my own responses to commenters with questions). In an attempt to "give the people what they want," I wrote reviews for each of the four discs in the box set, which have also generated healthy traffic (although nothing like the ones that mention the tour). In fact, it's occurring to me now that just discussing it here will probably drive this post up in the Google searches, leading people somewhere they probably don't want to be. If you're on of these people, my apologies. I can only hope that the title "Happy Birthday..." is enough warning to prevent extra clicks.

The Comments

Since we've already established that the whole point of this endeavor is self-serving ego boosting, I'll go on to admit that the biggest kick I get is when people leave comments. I'll acknowledge right up front my loyal readers, who also happen to be some of my best friends: Jeff Porten, Michael Weinmayr, and Mike Starr (with an occasional visit from Steve Walsh). Those guys comment all the time, which is fun, but the real ego-boost is when I get comments from people I don't know, especially when they're from different parts of the world. Some examples:

From the Billy Joel Concert review post:


thanks mate... nice review!.. am considering buying a ticket for the London show at wembley

International again:

Thanks for this blog, Better hurry before the US soldiers stationed here buy 'em all up. Will bring a pack of tissues in case Good Night Saigon is part of the set...


Took a few Googles to finally nail down the info you provided. Thanks.

Helping to Sell Tickets:

Thanks for providing the info I needed to decide to go.

Fostering a Sense of Community:

Thanks for this blog it has been great to share in everyone's experiences.

A Vote for Quality (and again, international):

What a great review- sounded real- not all sugar!! Thanks again. Meic- the Isle of Man [mid-way between England and Ireland]

Here's one from Apple takes a shortcut, costs me $30:

I wanted to thank you for your post. I too am new to the video ipod and was getting frustrated beyond of this morning, all problem videos are working perfectly. Thanks again!!

I've discussed Google's ability to help people solve technical problems several times over the year. It's such a kick to know I did the same for someone else without ever being asked.

Finally, some comments from a recent post, Why Watch United 93:

Thanks, Brian, for a very thoughtful and informative response. Your perspective now makes a lot more sense to me now.

I'm glad I clicked over here to read your perspective, Brian.

This came from a conversation on Simple Tricks and Nonsense with Jason Bennion and his girlfriend, Anne, who live in Utah, and found my thoughts and feelings about 9/11 and the recent United 93 movie helpful in thinking about what the event (and the film) meant to them. Again, this kind of personal connection, especially about something so emotional, would have been inconceivable without a blog.


While I Should Be Sleeping has been mainly a self-standing entity, it has received links from a few other blogs. First and foremost, of course, is Jeff Porten's very cool blog, The Vast Jeff Wing Conspiracy. He has linked over here on posts about technology (About The Cult of Macintosh, Spending My Summer in Boot Camp, and Quantifying Wintel Macintoshes to name just a few), about politics (Menschenhawks, for example), and even about Penn Basketball (Penn, the Mourning After). His site generates a lot more traffic than mine, and I'm sure the residual effects of his links have been invaluable in achieving the (very) modest degrees of success I've seen over here. Thanks a bunch, Jeff!

As I said above though, the real kick is when people I don't otherwise know get into the act. Two quick examples:

First, another case of "I inadvertently help someone I don't know with a technical problem." In this case, it's PunditMania, who gave me a hat tip for helping solve a Blogger template problem in Solving Template Problems Arising since the Introduction of Blogger Images.

And then, of course, there's this guy, who's a fan of the rapper, Daddy Yankee, and thinks I'm a bad influence on my son because I take him to Yankee Games. Easily the funniest link I saw on the web all year...

Where Do I Go From Here?

As I've said, the blog's generated a small modicum of good in the world, and I'm having a blast writing it, so I'll certainly continue doing what I'm doing. I can't think of anything to change, really - I'm pretty happy with the frequency of the posts, the topics, the page layout, etc., etc. If you're reading this and you have any suggestions, please drop me a line.

The only thought I had was, as kind of a birthday present to myself, to register and redirect it to this site. Unfortunately, someone already owns that domain. Fortunately, he's willing to sell it (I think he bought it in the hopes that some anti-insomnia concern would want to pay big money for it). Unfortunately, e-mails to his published address bounce back with a "Sorry...this mailbox is full" message. Apparently, he's purchased more than 300 domains in hopes of selling them off, but doesn't seem to be checking his inbox too frequently.

If anyone's still reading this diatribe, and has any suggestions about how else I'd go about obtaining this domain, I'd be happy to hear about it. I'm not looking to drop a ton of money on it, but I figure at least start a negotiation and see where it takes me...

That's about it. As is typically the case on this site, it's insanely late at night and I should be, know.

Thanks for reading, everyone!

posted by Brian at 1:36 AM | 3 comments

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Movie Review: United 93


It's hard to find words to describe what I just saw. The most apropos concept I can come up with is INTENSE. From beginning to end, it's intense. And uncategorizable (if that's a word). It's not a documentary and it's not a dramatization. As other reviews have said, it offers no opinion and no sappy backstory. It has no point to make - it's just telling you what happened, and what may have happened in the places where we can't know for sure.

At least for me, the emotions began before the film even started. I started to doubt whether I really wanted to see it. Wouldn't it be easier just to look away? Yes, but as I said earlier, I really didn't want to do that. So I kept my seat...

As the film began, the first thing I was struck by was how normal everything was. People boarding the plane, going through security checkpoints, flight attendants and pilots talking to each other about their day & their plans for upcoming vacation time, maintenance folks fueling the plane, and so on. It's normal, and yet ever so stressful to watch.

As the events begin to unfold, you get a stunningly clear view of the confusion, urgency, and best efforts of the people in the control towers, air traffic control headquarters, and military headquarters. This stuff isn't dramatized. We know exactly what happened in those places, and according to the credits, more than half of the "main characters" on the screen were the actual folks who were actually there that day. In the space of a couple of hours, a normal Tuesday morning turned into their worst nightmare. Yes, some mistakes were made, but they all seem drastically beside the point. These people had no dress rehearsal for this - no advanced warning, no training. They followed their procedures as best they could, they maintained cool heads at all times, and while they didn't prevent any planes from hitting any buildings, they did manage to land 4,200 aircraft in a matter of hours, shutting down U.S. airspace for the first time in history.

Then the movie focuses exclusively on the events inside the plane. Other reviews have called these folks heroes; the first people to live in a post-9/11 world; the first soldiers in the War on Terror. My impression was a little different - it was more like "They're obviously going to fly this plane into a building. We have absolutely nothing to lose. So let's try and do something." No matter. What's obvious is that in a situation where they all would have been completely justified crawling up in a fetal position and crying out the last few hours of their lives, they (like the folks on the ground) kept their heads about them, organized, and made an attempt.

Obviously, there are some very poignant moments. The one that caught my eye most was just before they rushed the cockpit: just about everyone on the plane is praying. The hijackers are praying in Arabic, and passengers are praying in Hebrew and English (the Lord's Prayer). Each of the world's major religions, all in the exact same situation, all praying to their respective Gods to help them out of it - one way or the other.

As I've said, I've attempted to learn as much as I could about what happened that day. Unlike a documentary, there is no omniscient narrator here. No one stopping the action to explain what was going on elsewhere at the time, no interviews with participants offering opinion or commentary. So while historical details need to come from other sources, this film gives you a sense of the emotion of the moment that a documentary would not. It offers a glimpse into how it might have felt to have been there. It's showing you, not teaching you.

No one will ever know for sure exactly what happened on that plane. That said, this movie is so well done that I'm happy to accept it as fact in my own mind. The people on that plane were American heroes. Their last moments, by definition, are undocumented. And while we can't document them for certain, I think United 93 can serve as a fitting tribute to their legacy.

God Bless Them All. May They Rest in Peace.

posted by Brian at 1:17 AM | 4 comments

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Why Watch United 93?

Jason Bennion and I have been having a conversation over at Simple Tricks and Nonsense about the United 93 film. Jason asks:

I find it interesting that you feel like seeing this movie is some kind of duty. Given your proximity to the sites of the attacks, I would think you would be less inclined to want to see it. Could you explain why you feel like you have to see it? Is it to help you process something about the event, or to pay tribute to those who died, or something else?

Well, Jason, it's like this: For about six months after September 11, the nation basically grieved together as one. At some point, though, life began returning to normal, and we began discussing important questions like "What happened?" "Could it have been prevented?" "How to we keep it from happening again?" These discussions yielded some useful results, but they also came with a predictable dose of defensiveness, "gotcha" politics, and sound-bite driven media reports.

Almost immediately, the zeitgeist about what happened that day began to deviate from what actually happened. Today, only 4.5 years later, many people have misperceptions about the event. They believe that no one did anything about the attacks for seven minutes while President Bush read stories to a kindergarten class. They believe that most of the hijackers were Saudi-born. They believe that a Presidential Daily Brief from August, 2001 warned that Bin Laden was going to fly planes into the World Trade Center. They believe that our first reaction to the events was to invade Iraq. And the list goes on and on.

I have two small children. Thankfully, neither of them will remember that day (one was only 15 months old at the time, and the other wasn't born yet), but I'm 100% sure that they will learn about it in school, and that they will ask me about it when they do. Given the enormity of what happened, I feel a strong responsibility to understand the facts, and be able to tell them the truth about it when that day comes, as opposed to repeating what will, by then, have become universally accepted myths.

More selfishly, studying the details of what happened somehow helps me to deal with it personally. I'm no psychiatrist, but I think it has something to do with giving my Left (logical) Brain something to do, so my reaction is completely Right (emotional) Brain . It also helps to minimize the righteous anger that I would feel (and that many others do feel) when they hear some of the more sensationalized myths described above.

For these reasons, I've watched many of the documentary films on television, surfed countless websites, and I've read the 9/11 Commission Report from cover to cover (which, by the way, I recommend to everyone. It really is a very well-written, useful document). To me, United 93 falls into the same category. I don't want to relive the events again, but I want to know as much about what happened as I can - for my sake and for my kids' sake.

The terms I keep reading in reference to the film are "reminder" and "re-creation." But do we really need a reminder of what happened? I don't think anyone has forgotten after only four and a half years. If it's intended as a historical document, why dramatize it? Why not make an actual historical documentary about the event?

In this case, I think there's a fine line between drama and documentary. For as much as we know about the events of that day (and, thanks to the work of the 9/11 commission and other scholars, we really do know a lot), we know very little about what happened on that plane. We have cell phone calls from the passengers to their loved ones, and we have the cockpit voice recorder, from which we've been able to piece together the basic story.

A true documentary would, by definition, have to leave out large chunks of the story. This movie fills in the gaps in (what I understand to be) a very tasteful, respectful way. Reviews I've read stress that there are no heroes here, no sub-plot love interests, no back-story about the passengers to establish them as "real people." we know as much about the passengers during the film as we would had we been sitting on the plane with them that day. In this sense, I think the film supplements the historical record in an appropriate way. Fifty years from now, it will be as if Schindler's List was made in 1955, when the people who were involved were still there to participate in the storytelling. That will be useful to my children and my grandchildren.

posted by Brian at 10:21 PM | 9 comments

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Senator Leahy on Privacy in the Post 9/11 World

Hat Tip to Jeff Porten for this. Some thoughts:

1) It's good to see the Senator get around to discussing this. I said many of the same things on March 25, 2002. Of course, not nearly as many people were listening to me.

2) I'm constantly amazed at our elected officials' ability to say nothing in the maximum number of words

3) Regarding the NSA Wiretappings, a few points:

First, point taken about the warrants. I sincerely believe the White House's argument about the need for speed in these situations, but given FISA's stipulation for obtaining warrants retroactively, I don't know why they didn't get warrants. It is interesting, though, that the Bush administration has requested more FISA warrants than any other administration before it, so it's not like they don't believe in the process. No one has ever theorized as to why they followed the law so many times before but were so nefarious here. They must have believed this to be a special case. I'm glad we're investigating the reason why, and I hope when it's found, we can resist the need to spin it in a big game of "gotcha."

Second, it really, really bugs me when people talk about the wiretapping as if Bush himself was personally wiretapping the phone calls or random Americans. Leahy, to his credit, at least implies (but doesn't say) that the wiretaps were done on those whose phone numbers were discovered in the "recent calls" list of cell phones obtained from known terrorists in Iraq and/or Afghanistan.

Third, I'll note that Leahy blatantly plays the "politics of fear" in much the same way the Republicans are accused of doing. To wit: Can they bug your home? Can they open your mail? Hey, who's that behind that door?!?

Fourth, a serious question about wiretapping purely domestic calls: Let's say our troops find two domestic numbers on cell phones in Iraq. Should they be able to listen in on a conversation between the two? I'm not so sure the answer is an automatic "no."

Finally, history just doesn't bear out Leahy's assertion about "the chilling effects of surveillance on the right to protest and to express dissent in our nation." His own examples seem to disprove his point: did Martin Luther King, Jr. feel stifled to express his concerns? Were the Vietnam War protests curtailed in some way? In fact, logic suggests that if the goal of surveillance was really to squash protest and dissent, it wouldn't be secret at all. After all, people won't be afraid to speak unless they know they're being listened to.

4) Regarding his rather predictable call for congressional hearings on the matter, a familiar cliche comes to mind: I have a hammer, therefore this problem must be a nail.

posted by Brian at 3:13 PM | 2 comments

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Who Said Charity Had to be Efficient?

On May 17th, a group called City Harvest is sponsoring a program called Skip Lunch Fight Hunger. The idea, apparently, is that you take what you would normally spend on lunch that day and donate it to CityHarvest, which then uses the money to feed hungry kids in the NYC area.

It's a nice idea, of course, and they've got corporate involvement. Here's what Starbucks is doing, according to Rockefeller Center's tenant newsletter:

Visit participating NYC Starbucks from 11AM - 1PM to make a donation to Skip Lunch Fight Hunger; you'll be rewarded with a sample of Starbucks new sandwiches and beverages (while supplies last).


How about we keep our money and Starbucks just gives the sandwiches to the kids?!?

posted by Brian at 3:18 PM | 0 comments

The Zealots Respond: We're Not Zealots, We're Fanatics!

Jeff Porten is responding to my Being All That Apple Can Be Rambling (which was in response to his original post, Spending my summer in Boot Camp) with multiple posts on his blog, The Vast Jeff Wing Conspiracy.

For sanity's sake, the ensuing discussion will take place on his blog, since my Ramblings don't have comment capabilities. I'll keep a running list of links in this post, though, so those who are interested can follow the discussion more easily:

1) About the Cult of Macintosh

posted by Brian at 12:50 PM | 2 comments

Monday, May 01, 2006

Et Tu, Google?

Frequent readers of this blog know how much I love Google. Heck, with the exception of a few friends of mine who read this fairly regularly, almost everyone who comes here does so because of Google. I'm a big Google fan (and even a shareholder).

So it is with great sadness that I report that Google has begun playing the accuse your competitors of unfair practices game with Microsoft, the Justice Department, and the European Union. Many levels of hypocrisy abound:

[Internet Explorer, version 7] includes a search box in the upper-right corner that is typically set up to send users to Microsoft's MSN search service. Google contends that this puts Microsoft in a position to unfairly grab Web traffic and advertising dollars from its competitors.

The move, Google claims, limits consumer choice and is reminiscent of the tactics that got Microsoft into antitrust trouble in the late 1990's.

Actually, after a lot of hand-wringing (and a new administration), the DoJ dropped the case about integrating the browser into the OS. It was the European Union that finally nailed Microsoft for anti-trust practices, and that was over their inclusion of a Media Player in their OS, not a browser. We continue:

The best way to handle the search box, Google asserts, would be to give users a choice when they first start up Internet Explorer 7. It says that could be done by asking the user to either type in the name of their favorite search engine or choose from a handful of the most popular services, using a simple drop-down menu next to the search box.

The Firefox and Opera browsers come with Google set as the default, but Ms. Mayer said Google would support unfettered choice on those as well.

Uh huh...I guess they never noticed this completely unfair, choice-limiting feature of Firefox and Opera until just now, right? Or perhaps they've been privately fighting for its removal all along, and the press just never covered it? Or maybe it's only unfair when the feature doesn't point to your product, and it lives in a browser that has 80%+ market share?

Microsoft responds with a couple of good points:

Giving users an open-ended choice could add complexity and confusion to the browser set-up process, while offering a few options would be arbitrarily limiting.

MSN [is] not always the default search in Internet Explorer 7. When downloaded, the new browser inherits the settings from the old Microsoft browser, version 6. But the search default in that program was based on a feature called AutoSearch that Google says was not widely used.

So again, limiting consumer choice is only OK if it's in a feature that no one uses? But here's the icing on the cake:

[Google sponsored] a study . . . conducted by Tec-Ed, a research firm. It found that only a third of users could master the four-click process to change the default.

Seriously? 67% of web-browser users can't master a four-click process? I highly suspect that what the study really showed was that 67% of browser users didn't bother to use the four-click process to change the default. But that doesn't sound as good to an anti-trust lawyer, now does it?

What's not mentioned here at all is the Google toolbar. Download statistics are not readily available (since you can download it from multiple places), but I'm willing to bet that a very significant portion of the IE installations out there (half? maybe more?) have the Google toolbar installed. That means there's a search box right there on the screen that will take users directly to Google's search results. Of course, there are mitigating factors here: you have to install the Google toolbar yourself - it doesn't come pre-loaded with the browser. On the other hand, the search box on the Google Toolbar is just below the address box, making it more convenient than the one in the upper-right corner. Also, there is no way (four clicks or otherwise) to change the toolbar to search with another search engine. And before you declare me crazy for suggesting that Google build a tool that allows people to search with their competitor's site, allow me to point out to you that this is exactly what they're asking Microsoft to do, and in fact, Microsoft has already done it and Google is asking them to make it easier! There's even a beta version of the toolbar available for IE v7...

For shame, guys. Why not take a more novel approach and declare your indifference to the IE search box, market the hell out of your own toolbar, and tell people they should use your product because it's better (which I happen to believe it is, by the way), rather than appealing to some trumped up assault on their free will?

posted by Brian at 3:54 PM | 8 comments

The Bizarro, Inverted Universe of Politics and Gas Prices

This from the New York Times (registration required):

There are competing proposals on the table for how to provide relief to the American taxpayer, given the $3/gal price of gas. One party (we'll call them Party A) wants to suspend the 18.4 cents/gal federal gas taxes for the big oil companies (who pay the tax). The other party (Party B) opposes the plan because "they fear the oil companies would not pass savings on to the public, or that the laws of supply and demand would push the price up again." A spokesman for Party B said, "Our folks thought it might amount to nothing for consumers."

So would it amuse you to learn that Party A ("cut taxes for the big corporations") is the Democrats and Party B ("giving big corporations a break won't trickle down to the consumer") is the Republicans? Wha?!?

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to stare out my window and watch out for Evil Superman...

posted by Brian at 3:25 PM | 0 comments

Is It Too Soon for TWO Movies?!?

Flipping channels this weekend, I came across a movie on A&E called Flight 93, about the plane that crashed in Shanksville, PA on Sept. 11, 2001. At first, I thought maybe the producers of United 93 had decided to air the movie on television as well as in the theaters, but that sounded economically and logistically impossible, even for a film on this topic.

As it turns out, they really are two different films, made within a few months of each other. What's amazing to me is all the ink United 93 has been getting of the "is it too soon?" variety, without a single mention of the fact that another (almost identical, it seems) movie is also coming to cable TV at the same time.

Then, there's this:

The trailer for [United 93], shot documentary-style and featuring a no-name, non-Hollywood cast, was pulled by one theater in New York after 9-11-sensitive audiences complained--and, per one report, cried.

RV, the family-friendly road-trip comedy starring Robin Williams, did not appear to tap such emotions. It did, however, tap wallets. Its $16.4 million take was the best of the weekend, answering the question as to whether it was too soon for audiences to laugh at a movie that seemingly ignored sky-high gas prices.

It's good to see that the movie critics can maintain a sense of humor (at least, I hope they were kidding...)

posted by Brian at 1:24 PM | 0 comments