MonthMarch 2005

If you take out more from the Earth than you put in, it’ll stop eventually

Forgive me, but I can’t understand why this wasn’t the splash in all the papers, and top of all of the news bulletins. (On the Today program, a spend of £280 million on school meals was the lead item.)

It’s been documented (read my earlier post) that humanity essentially takes a free ride from the Earth, treating the “services” it provides as something that will continue for an unlimited time, against all the evidence.

Now the proof emerges: it’s really not going to.

Planet Earth stands on the cusp of disaster and people should no longer take it for granted that their children and grandchildren will survive in the environmentally degraded world of the 21st century. This is not the doom-laden talk of green activists but the considered opinion of 1,300 leading scientists from 95 countries who will today publish a detailed assessment of the state of the world at the start of the new millennium.

You can read the original news release, which isn’t comfortable either:

–Humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively in the last 50 years than in any other period. This was done largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel. More land was converted to agriculture since 1945 than in the 18th and 19th centuries combined. More than half of all the synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, first made in 1913, ever used on the planet has been used since 1985. Experts say that this resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss [my bolding - CA] in diversity of life on Earth, with some 10 to 30 percent of the mammal, bird and amphibian species currently threatened with extinction.

Ecosystem changes that have contributed substantial net gains in human well-being and economic development have been achieved at growing costs in the form of degradation of other services. Only four ecosystem services have been enhanced in the last 50 years: increases in crop, livestock and aquaculture production, and increased carbon sequestration for global climate regulation. Two services -– capture fisheries and fresh water -– are now well beyond levels that can sustain current, much less future, demands. Experts say that these problems will substantially diminish the benefits for future generations.

But it’s more important that the UK government belatedly puts money into school meals? Something’s wrong with this picture.

See the whole thing at http://www.MAWeb.org. And shiver. This coming Saturday Dr. Who is previewing the end of the world. Perhaps five billion years late?

More on Google News: time for an editor (or editors)?

Further to the revelation of which news sources Google News actually uses… Dana Blankenhorn (a guy) notes that the demonization of Google has begun, principally pointing to the fact that its choice of news sites must be done by a human, even if the ranking of stories isn’t. (And how perverse is that choice.)

Blankenhorn explains: French law demands that ads for competitors not be placed against trademarks. Google complies, on its French site, but continues to employ them on its U.S. site, where the standard is different. So the French sue.

It also comes out that both the Associated Press and Kyodo News Service have been objecting to use of their affiliates’ stories in Google News, and with the Agence France-Presse precedent in hand you can expect the wires to disappear entirely. Or, if Google chooses to pay for those links, expect others to then join in on the shakedown fun.

Obviously a tipping point has been reached, one that demands a creative solution.

I have thought that appointing an editor for Google News, a respected journalist who could stand behind the service’s editorial judgements, might be helpful. But that would not end the controversy because, as in the Agence France-Presse case, there are commercial and not just editorial judgements at stake.

Which leads on to…

There are many things Google could do.

The first thing it has to do is recognize that it has a problem, and recognize that computers alone won’t solve it.

The second is to find a human being who can be the public face behind those decisions.

Ooh, imagine the job requirement of being editor for Google News. “Applicants must be able to stay awake continuously.” That’ll be fun screening them…

What causes fires at petrol stations? It’s sort of obvious

This so deserves to be more widely known. From this week’s letters at The Register:

“Spotted your rebuttal of the claim that mobile phones can ignite petrol, true.
But more interesting, and funny, is what I heard on an “intrinsic safety” course, which deals with designing equipment for garage forecourts, oil rigs etc.
Do you know what the number 1 cause of forecourt fires is?

Carelessly discarded cigarettes? Mobile phones?

Nope. It’s people whose cars are on fire, driving up to the pumps and gesticulating wildly for help from the cashier.

Kevin”

Google news sources revealed

Neil McIntosh picks up an interesting bit of screen-scraping with Google news sources revealed (but not by Google). As Google won’t say which sources its (manifestly flawed) news service uses, someone has decided to tot them up – which isn’t hard, just boring.

You can get it ordered by name of source, and also by frequency. Can’t say I’ve ever rated Xinhua myself,

Neil also notes:

Meanwhile, bowing to pressure from bloggers, Google has removed two sources of hate speech – National Vanguard and National Zeitung – from its news services in the US and Germany, respectively. Internet News carries the story, along with Google’s fresh refusal to detail which sites are used, or how they’re judged fit for inclusion.

What’s interesting is how this reveals a typical problem with 24-hour media – or in Google’s case, 365x24x60x60-second media. It has to have fuel to feed the fire, or else the engine goes out. What! Google News hasn’t updated for 10 seconds! But the world has rotated (pauses, thinks of Christopher Eccleston reciting lines) 2.7 miles in that time! Something must have happened on this interweb thing!

The result: you rely on crummy news sources, and promote sites that have recently been updated above those which are actually authoritative. And thus media disappears up its own arse, chasing timeliness over content, promoting quantity over quality.

It’s inexorable, but also wrong.

Oh, that DRM stuff.. tricky is hardly the word

The analysts at Jupiter continue bravely to be our guinea pigs in the testing of various DRMs. And it isn’t going too well, it has to be said.

First there’s the joys of the Napster subscription service and MSN music content. Read this one (though it’s not clear who wrote it):

my wife is using the Creative Zen Micro, which she favors over her iPod mini. While I was working late in my basement office, she called down to say that a song wouldn’t play because there was no license. Scratching my head in disbelief, I took the Zen Micro and hit play for Zero 7 tune ‘Warm Sound.’ Displayed the warning: ‘No license to play. Synch license from PC.’

…long story snipped..

Turns out the Napster subscription content played just fine. Playback problem was MSN Music purchased content, which played just fine on the PC, by the way. I discussed the problem with colleagues David Card and Michael Gartenberg, who likened it to being locked out of your house. I’ll go further and say it’s more like coming home and finding the locks changed.

Then it turns out that the fault is in the Zen Micro firmware (which is beta).

Apparently, the problem I encountered is known and fixed by the firmware update. I won’t know for certain until Zen Micro charges up enough to apply the update.

He’s direct enough to say:

this kind of problem should never occur. No consumer should ever buy content and find that it isn’t usable. Do booksellers sell hardbacks with fading ink? On the other hand, Creative can legitimately throw up its hands and say, ‘well, it is beta.’ Or say, with some justification, the beta firmware is available for customers anxious to use Napster to Go. Again, do booksellers sell hardbacks that might fade, because they’re testing a new ink?

(It all sounds like Jasper Fforde’s Lost In A Good Book, which has a wonderful riff on exactly that sort of DRM-style stuff, amidst an amazing plan to expand the number of plots beyond eight.)

The final indignity:

The firmware update did not resolve my MSN Music purchased content playback problem.

.

Next: Michael Gartenberg on When DRM goes wrong or why I’m not using Microsoft Reader any more. (Ooh, it really is like Jasper Fforde.)

I was going to do some reading this evening on my computer. I had a copy of the Devil’s Banker in Microsoft Reader format. When I tried to open it though, i got a message that informed me that that the security software had been updated and that I needed to update. No problem, I go to the update page but it tells me, I’m updated and activated just fine. Except, I’m not. The e-book won’t open. I try to activate the reader again and the fun gets more interesting. I get a note saying that my acc’t only has six activations and all of them are used. Let’s see, by my count, I have two laptops and one PocketPC active. That would mean three activations left (and of course, the COMPUTER IS ALREADY ACTIVATED)… Yikes. Pulling up my PocketPC, I get the same infuriating message but it does activate again and the book opens there (but still not on my computer).
Bottom line. MS Reader is DRM at its worst.

Diller buys Jeeves, and Yahoo! buys Flickr: who got the better deal?

My latest article at Netimperative looks at these two deals: Barry Diller’s IAC/InterActive buying Ask.com (aka Ask Jeeves, the search engine) for $1.85 billion (which isn’t even a billion pounds – watch that exchange rate go south!) while Yahoo! is buying Flickr, the photo sharing site, for something that (I now find) is rumoured at about $15 million, or a thousand times less.

In brief, I don’t think Diller’s made a wise purchase in buying the fifth-ranked search engine which has Google, Microsoft and Yahoo *and* AOL ahead of it.

Whereas Yahoo’s move looks very canny. And if the price is correct, it’s a steal.

(Photo sharing sites are getting big – HP just gobbled up Snapfish.)

Bonus Netimperative link: Mike Butcher’s interesting analysis of where AOL is going:

AOL will effectively give up its past emphasis on media and content in favour of producing software tools, combined with Internet access, to become a kind of “BT with bells on”.

simple. Despite being the world’s largest Internet service provider, AOL has been losing subscribers in recent years. In the US alone it lost about 2 million subscribers last year.

It needs a way out.

And the route is not through yet more content and shopping “channels” – way of the old AOL.

Lying with graphs: it’s so easy when you know how

I recall a Tory election press conference – it must have been the 1992 election, because the fabulous political hack Tony Bevins was alive and raising hell – in which the Tories tried to demonstrate something or other using two pie charts, one ‘before’ and the other ‘after’ to show how wonderfully things would grow under their beneficient rule.

However, the charts were misleading, because they’d used the radius of the chart to show how things would increase. This, of course, meant that the ‘after’ chart was larger by a factor of r-squared, nicely misleading everyone. Bevins, and others, pointed this out, which rather derailed the Tories. (If anyone can remember what this occasion was, please put us all out of my meanderings.)

Anyhow, CNN has now done something nicely similar in a poll it ran to show how opinions about Ms Schiavo and whether she should be left to die ran across political parties.

Here’s the broad stats: Democrats in favour: 62 per cent. Republicans: 54 per cent. Independents: 54 per cent. (The question was “Based on what you have heard or read about the case, do you agree with the court’s decision to have the feeding tube removed?”)

But as Mediamatters points out, by using a false origin (starting at 53 per cent), CNN made it look as though those durn Democrats were wildly in favour, while Republicans and independents were, like, whatever.

And to add insult to injury, it’s a poll with a sampling error of +/- 7 per cent. So the 62 per cent of Democrats might be 55; the 54 per cent of Republicans might be 61.

Remind me, what was the point of carrying out the survey, then?

Gmail invites – I got them if you want them

Seems that I have loads of Gmail invites to dispense. (50, at latest count.)

If you’d like one, just leave a comment with your email in the email field of the comment on this post, with the reason why you’d like a Gmail invite. Your email won’t be publicly visible. I’ll deal with them.

I find it works pretty well, and you can download it to your PC (like a normal POP mailbox) if you like.

(Side note: if anyone has managed to get Eudora 5.x on OSX to do POP access to Gmail, do let me know how. I’ve followed all the instructions, but Eudora is completely ignoring the account – won’t even check it.)

(Eudora update: this document suggests that Qualcomm broke SSL in the upgrade to 5.2. Durr! However, following the instructions, Eudora still won’t actually check my Gmail POP account, which I have enabled..)

Software patents: funny how it’s only big business that likes it

My Independent article this week is on how software patents are being railroaded through the European Parliament, in a way that’s underhand and has the terrible smell of Machiavellian dealings all through it.

First, a Groklaw posting pointing to a Danish newspaper article suggesting Bill Gates threatened Denmark with the loss of Navision if it didn’t push software patents.

Second, a ZDNet leader which observes:

This is a triumph of bureaucracy over democracy. It’s said of newspapers that you only know how bad they are when you read what they say about something you know; this affair has highlighted the mandarin mechanisms of Europe at their baleful worst. The killer argument that won the day for software patents? “We are adopting the position for institutional reasons so as not to create a precedent which might have a consequence of creating future delays in other processes.”

Third, Wendy Grossman’s article for Wired which sets out who stands where, in a plain non-contentious manner. (Must have been hard to write :-))

Fourth: the nosoftwarepatents site, which has plenty of explanation and/or links of how software patenting leads to less secure, more expensive software. How peculiar then that Microsoft should back it – we all know they want us to have cheaper, more secure products.

Why do I think software patents are bad? First because they’re unnecessary – all the required protections exist through copyright law, which is the one that is applied when you tear off the shrinkwrap (and can anyone tell me of any products which are protected by both patent *and* copyright law?); and second because they’re used, in general, by the larger companies against the smaller one, to stifle competition. In the cases where small companies sue larger ones, such as Burst suing Microsoft, the aim is generally to ride the coattails of a successful technology.

And as a sideline, it’s interesting how many businesses find plain old copyright law, as described in the GPL, somehow too hard to comply with. Here’s a story about a GPL developer who has served writs on a number of companies, and a link to his site – GPL-violations.org.

A recipe for lots of comments: annoy a lot of people via a blog

Seems Jack Schofield has stirred up something of a hornet’s nest with this posting at the Guardian Online blog in which he notes Creative Mac’s comparison of “the fastest available” Dull Xeon machine vs “the fastest available” Apple dual G5.

Wow, processor iteration tests! Hard to imagine why Channel 4 hasn’t turned it into a compelling reality show.

Anyway, Jack’s signoff remark on the result (Dull beats Apple on pretty much all the tests) was

I’m now waiting for Steve Jobs to buy some TV advertising that looks back at previous ads — you know, showing a Pentium on the back of a snail, or someone being blown out of the house by a G5 Mac — and apologising.

There’s no shame in being marginally slower than a not-very-popular PC configuration. The shame is in misleading people about it.

Well, Steve J hasn’t been quick to comment, but lots of other people have. (I’ll admit, I posted myself, in a bored manner.)

Still, I like one of the ideas there… Jack Schofield bingo… hmm.. wheels turning…

It only goes to prove what I’ve discovered myself (on the never-ending comments on “G4 perform Creep on the X-Factor: is there a tree high enough to hang them from?”, which I’m thinking of adding as a direct link off the front page; now, if only I could discover what their referrer is..).

The lesson: if you want some traffic, be controversial, or at least snide. Works every time.