MonthApril 2006

No, Nicholas, Google’s not there to make information “free”

Nicholas Carr observes Google’s odd rule on AdSense advertising over at his blog – the contract basically says “Don’t say nasty stuff about us” (and it’s more observed in the breach..) – and then comments Still, it’s curious that a company whose ostensible mission is to make all the world’s information freely available should be such a control freak when it comes to information about itself.

Ah, I don’t think so. Fundamental misunderstanding there. I believe you’ll find Google’s mission is to organise the world’s information. (Scroll down, it’s there.)

And perhaps then charge you to get at it, who knows?

I would have left this comment right there on Nick’s blog, but he’s got Typekey “protecting” it, and time is too short to bother with Yet Another Place To Detail Your Inside Leg Measurement.

Dreadful, truly dreadful: New Scientist on nuclear power

That’s the only phrase I can think of for Michael Brooks’s [paywalled] piece in New Scientist about nuclear power, “Is it all over for nuclear power?“. (Remember Andrew Marr’s dictum: when headlines end with questionmarks, the answer is usually firmly in the negative.)

OK, I’ll admit that I’m in favour – along with a fair number of other thinking people – of using nuclear power as the solution to our electricity generation needs, rather than fossil fuels or renewables. The French, who produce about 75% of their electricity from nuclear, seem to have muddled through with decent leccy prices; so much so that EDF has bought a number of British power companies.

I wouldn’t have minded this piece if it had been coherently argued. But it wasn’t. It assumed that renewables can fill the energy gap that the retirement of nuclear plants will leave; but that doesn’t answer how you cope with surges in demand (such as the classic “kettles on after Coronation Street at Christmas” – the one linked to was a 1200MW surge), or how you sequester power that those resources generate, or how you cope with the transmission losses in moving that energy from the remote places where the renewable resources are to the built-up places where they’re mostly needed.

Most insulting are some of the hidden assumptions. OK, nuclear electricity is “underpriced” because it often doesn’t include decommissioning costs; once you put those in, nuclear power suddenly becomes a lot more expensive than that generated by coal- or gas-fired stations.

Great, yah. But tell me – has anyone calculated the “decommissioning” costs of using gas-fired or coal-powered stations? Anyone tried to calculate the effect of ameliorating CO2 emissions per megawatt? I’d really like to see those numbers, and then have an honest comparison of fossil, nuclear and renewable power – on all the points that matter.

But articles like that one – ptuh. Badly constructed, badly argued, and it really saddened me that nobody at NS apparently had the courage or power or whatever to throw it back at the writer and get it redone properly. I’d like to think it wouldn’t have happened in my time. (I worked at New Scientist from 1992-95, having freelanced for it in 1991-2.) Probably it did. But not at such an important time, on such an important topic. It didn’t even have the courage to front up anyone from the nuclear industry, which left me incredulous. And how about Professor Ian Fell’s claim that “the engineers who built Sizewell B are all either retired or dead” (PDF, but you have to pay; trust me, the article quoted him.) That to me means that either in 1995, when construction finished, (1) they were all aged 50 or over (2) they all retired very young on the vast sums they made as nuclear engineers (3) they all died of gruesome radiation-related diseases.

I think we’d have heard if it was (3). I can’t believe the nuclear business was so good it was (2). Nor that the age range was so narrow that it’s (1). Yet this claim was taken on face value. Perhaps Professor Fells could substantiate his claim. It would have been nice if Michael Brooks had tried.

And sure, I know dog shouldn’t bite dog, but really. Bad is bad.

The last thing the Queen wants today…

File this under the “Well, they said it” category.

Front page headline of The Sun today: (their line breaks)

“What does
woman [sic – CA] with
everything
say she’d
like for her
birthday…?
THE SUN.”

In other words, the last thing the Queen wants is The Sun. Yes?

(And of course what she actually said – as the story text notes – was “A nice sunshiny day, that would be nice.” Or it might have been sun-shiny – there’s a line break in it. Or sun-shiney? Sunshiney? Oh hell. And as for that “What does woman with”, if they’d done “the woman with” it would have bashed into her hat, which wouldn’t have respectful, y’know.)

Being snitty is easy. Being properly critical isn’t. But is that the Wikipedia way?

You’d think that my commissioning Andrew Orlowski to write about Wikipedia and the glut of online information (“A thirst for knowledge“) in the Guardian’s Technology page was the most Evil Thing that has ever been perpetrated in the pages of a national newspaper, to judge from some of the wounded emails I’ve received.

The thing is that they’ve all gone along the lines of “Andrew Orlowski is biased! He hates Wikipedia! Look at all those stories he’s written on The Register about it!”

To which my reply has pretty uniformly been: have you read the article that appeared in the paper? I did – three or four times in the editing process alone; and it went through a couple of draft cycles (where the writer adds stuff in or clarifies points or asks someone something that seemed to need asking) before that. I thought it was a very interesting piece which raises important questions about what happens when you have lots of information but, in essence, no means of establishing authority.

And did people judge it on those terms? No – they said “But look what he wrote about Scoble!

My response: have you read the article that appeared in the paper?

I’ve been back-and-forthing on this for a few days with some people who seem pretty determined; my query to them of “would you be complaining like this if he had said that Wikipedia was the greatest invention ever? Would you complain like this if if were written by someone else?” gets a sort of silence; in one case, a referral to the Wikipedia page about Andrew Orlowski, which contains at least one statement that to me indicates that (a) people are guessing about what he does and doesn’t do, which in the circumstances is ironic (b) there’s a lot of animus against him amidst Wikipedia-folk. Neither makes them wrong, but it doesn’t mean Andrew Orlowski is wrong either.

(Actually, the one incontrovertibly wrong “fact” in the piece – saying that Encyclopedia Britannica’s website went online in 1999 – was introduced by me in the editing process, because we felt more was needed on it, and the writer was on the wrong end of an eight-hour time lag. I put that detail in because I checked it against a story I wrote in 1999. But in fact Britannica’s website went online in 1994 – as the organisation itself was quick to point out.)

One pleasing measure of the piece is that it has prompted plenty of discussion online (particularly good here, here, here); and some people have managed to overcome the fact of its author (gee) to read and consider it. That’s a start, at least.

In parallel, though, I came across a piece with the following quotation and summing up:

have no memory for things I have learned, nor things I have read, nor things experienced or heard, neither for people nor events; I feel that I have experienced nothing, learned nothing, that I actually know less than the average schoolboy, and that what I do know is superficial, and that every second question is beyond me. I am incapable of thinking deliberately; my thoughts run into a wall. I can grasp the essence of things in isolation, but I am quite incapable of coherent, unbroken thinking. I can’t even tell a story properly; in fact, I can scarcely talk …

One of the unintended consequences of the Web 2.0 movement may well be that we fall, collectively, into the amnesia that Kafka describes. Without an elite mainstream media, we will lose our memory for things learnt, read, experienced, or heard. The cultural consequences of this are dire, requiring the authoritative voice of at least an Allan Bloom, if not an Oswald Spengler. But here in Silicon Valley, on the brink of the Web 2.0 epoch, there no longer are any Blooms or Spenglers. All we have is the great seduction of citizen media, democratized content and authentic online communities. And weblogs, course. Millions and millions of blogs.

It’s Adam Keen at CBSNews.com. The article’s called “Web 2.0 is reminiscent of Marx“. I’m amazed they got something with that title on the site.

(Oh, and a bonus link that is simply too good to miss. Here’s Warren Boroson on what Wikipedia doesn’t know about mutual funds; and about Barry Goldwater. It’s fabulous. Though the headline – “Wikipedia site filled with major mistakes” – could perhaps have had a little work. Or humour.)

Once more, with feeling: Boot Camp won’t move Mac users to Windows

Andrew Kantor wrote a column in USA Today in which he suggested – against any sensible evidence – that Boot Camp (the Mac utility that lets you boot between Mac OSX and Windows on Intel-based Macs) would prompt a movement of Mac users to Windows.

Wow – that’s quite clueless, it must be said. If you know a few Mac users you’d know that’s just not going to happen.

Then Jason Snell replies. And then Andrew Kantor sort-of replies on his blog, but twirls the debate around, and not in a good way. He suggests that design pros use Macs just because they always have (er, no), that business don’t buy Macs, but principally misses the point that it’s the high-spending Windows users who will want to buy Macs, because they’ll want to have the cool hardware.

It’s a consumer thing, not a business thing.

And ask yourself this, too. Apple’s got some smart enough people. Would they have released Boot Camp if they’d suspected that it might lead to a migration away? Even a tiny one?

Why high-def DVD is unlike the iTunes Music Store; prose for search engines; Xcode’s 10-year lead

  • Paul Thurrott observes..

    WWW.HDBOYCOTT.COM: “hdboycott.com:

    This site was created to provide information about some unpleasant ‘features’ of new HD technologies. There are two competing formats of high definition DVDs working their way towards availability: HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. Unfortunately both systems will utilize the AACS DRM system, which is a giant step backwards for fair use and continues Hollywood’s ongoing battle against their paying customers.

    Don’t buy any new HD gear without getting the facts … or you might regret it later.

    One could apply the same logic to, say, music purchased from the iTunes Music Store, I suppose.”
    Paul Thurrott has been generally (from my perspective) on a roll where he’s not said anything unthinking (OK, I haven’t bothered to read any of his reviews), but on this he’s missed the point. With stuff bought from the iTunes Store you can burn it to CD right away, and have it in un-DRMed AIFF forever, so even if Apple retrospectively alters the terms on that DRM’d stuff, you can have it to use as you like. But you’re not going to get the chance with high-def DVDs to burn them to any un-DRM’d format.
    In fact, as George Cole points out in this week’s Guardian (in “Has Hollywood gone overboard on piracy?“), as presently formulated the AACS DRM can retrospectively alter the settings on your very-expensive high-def DVD player so that it won’t play discs you’ve bought. That’s worth boycotting, I’d say.

  • Machine hed
    After slogging through that paragraph, one begins to understand Jarvis’s fondness for machine readers. He writes prose that only a search engine could love

    Nick Carr with *another* biting post. It did make me laugh, I must admit. Though Jarvis certainly has a point when it comes to the confused, middle-at-the-top, who-knows-what-the-headline’s-about form of so much American newspaper “English”. It’s been a while since the economy of “Dead. That’s what the man was when they found him.” (Seen at Rough Type: Nicholas Carr’s Blog)

  • Universal Python Build
    Xcode makes building universal binaries easy because the entire high level Mac OS X development model and all of the predecessor technology has been focused on cross-compilation for well over a decade.

    Bill Bumgarner lets slip what we did know – that Apple (well, NeXt -> Apple) worked on getting OSX (oh, NeXtStEp) to run on both Intel and PPC for a decade. And didn’t stop, even though people thought they had. So they’ve had a decade to produce a development tool that compiles well on both platforms. Against that, Codewarrior is going to have a very hard time. (Seen at bbum’s weblog-o-mat)

Could someone in the record business explain the similarity between France, Turkey and Iceland? And Mexico? And..

I got an ‘artist alert’ from iTunes the other day:

Muse – Butterflies & Hurricanes – Single
Release Date: 10 Apr 2006
Genre: Pop [yeah, well, we can quibble about that]
Total Songs: 2 [is it “Butterflies & Hurricanes” and “Instrumental”?]
(P) 2004 Taste Media Ltd / exclusively licensed to A&E Records Ltd for the world excluding Mexico, Japan, France, Benelux, GSA & Eastern Bloc, Turkey & Iceand

I’m trying to think what on earth it is that links that collection of countries, and failing pretty badly. I mean, apart from that A&E hasn’t licensed them to hear Muse’s work. (And where precisely is GSA?)

Thoughts on podcasting: harder than it sounds

Yesterday (which is a word that one mostly can’t use in podcasting, as I’ll explain) I sat in on – and added a couple of grunty questions to – this week’s Guardian’s Science podcast. (Generically, the Guardian has loads of podcasts.)

It was interesting to see how it all works, and to get a reminder that making even short bits of “radio” takes a long time. The whole thing is only about ten minutes long, but it took three takes on the intro, a couple of takes on the outtro, some re-takes on questions, a bit of waiting around while our interviewee came back from the shops and some more waiting while Ian Sample came up to talk about avian flu (I asked why we’re so worked up about avian flu, when SARS had a much higher caseload and plenty of deaths – though OK, a rather lower mortality rate of about 9% compared to 50% for humans infected with a.f.)

I always think, when I hear it, that I’ve got a voice for print. And of course when I see myself on those rare occasions on TV, that I’ve got a face for radio. Somewhere there must be a happy medium. Might this be it?

The Guardian operation is very professional, with skilled people tweaking the flange etc and doing the stings [or is it stingers? I can’t find a useful definition apart from that one] ..using iTunes.

Time taken: about an hour, and that’s before you get into the editing. (They use Audacity, though they’d like something slightly better. But the price is right..)

And the podcasting thoughts?

  1. you can’t use time-dependent words like “today” or “yesterday” or “tomorrow” because unlike radio (which I’ve done a tiny bit of from time to time) you can’t be sure of when it’s being listened to, or that there’s any particular “broadcast” time.

  • it’s hard to judge how to address the listener. There’s no essential sense of an “audience” for a podcast, because there isn’t the assumption of shared listening; so I think you have to presume that you’re talking to a single person, and try to include them in that way. I dunno, have many people listened to other non-radio podcasts? What’s the style that works best for you? I know that I hate the iTunes Music Store one – “Hi, I’m Roxy! And I’m bringing you the best of the iTunes Music Store, oh my, it’s just such an unbelievable week!” Roxy, on that basis, is my least favourite person ever, solely on her overweening breathless misplaced eagerness at a time when I’m doing something tediously domestic outside.
    I’ve not heard a podcast yet that I thought quite got the sense of place, of talker and listener, right. But then, I’ve not tried many podcasts. I think though that the best DJs don’t “broadcast” to an “audience”; they talk to you in person.
  • phrases like “send us in all your thoughts and MP3s and …” seem to me slightly off-beam, unless you can be sure that there is a consistent audience. Maybe with feedback from listeners one can start to grow a style organically that reacts to those who are listening and responding.
  • You can guess why I’m thinking these things, but there’s no clear timeline. Quite apart from anything, we have to work out which would be the best day of the week for a Technology podcast. And technology is also one of the most oversupplied areas for podcasting. Perhaps let them all the rubbish ones decide they’ve had enough of doing it for free first…

    Another Microsoft insider blogs (updated); and a security worry

    • The Vista saga: an opinion
      Talk is cheap. Every time I read rants about gutting Windows, firing all the VPs or making Windows open source I have one comment: I don’t believe you’d do it if it were your job to manage Windows. As easy as it is to yell orders from off the boat, I doubt most people, if given the helm, would put an $8 billion machine at risk. Certainly not now, as it would mean another 2 years of development. Besides, no one wants to be the one that tanked one of the greatest franchises in technological history (regardless of how that franchise was built). Even if big, bold moves are in order – I doubt most of us would have the guts to take those risks if we were personally accountable for the results. It’s a classic innovator’s dilemma situation.

      Very interesting (and long; but worth it) post by Scott Berkun, a UI designer who left Microsoft in 2003. Put like that, you would halt a little and say “Uh, what will we replace that $8bn with? Online adverts?”
      (Seen at Berkun blog)

    • (Scott added – in a comment that regrettably got eaten by my spam filters – “In the history department on how to replace a $8 billion business – the debate within Microsoft over how to move past the Windows platform has come up several times. The book How the Web was won by Paul Andrews, although heavily pro-Microsoft, does get into how Brad Silverberg (VP for Internet products) and others wanted to move to an Internet platform, leaving windows behind in 1998 (IE 4.0 was going in that direction). Jim Alchin according to the book, defended the Windows platform, BillG made his choice and Silverberg eventually left the company.” Thanks, Scott.

    • PBS | I, Cringely . April 6, 2006 – A Whole New Ball Game
      Last week, a Microsoft data security guru suggested at a conference that corporate and government users would be wise to come up with automated processes to wipe clean hard drives and reinstall operating systems and applications periodically as a way to deal with malware infestations. What Microsoft is talking about is a utility from SysInternals, a company that makes simply awesome tools.

      The crying shame of this whole story is that Microsoft has given up on Windows security. They have no internal expertise to solve this problem among their 60,000-plus employees, and they apparently have no interest in looking outside for help. I know any number of experts who could give Microsoft some very good guidance on what is needed to fix and secure Windows. There are very good developers Microsoft could call upon to help them. But no, their answer is to rebuild your system every few days and start over. Will Vista be any better?

      You’ll have to read it to find out. But I hope I’m not alone in finding it scary that someone from Microsoft could consider it as true that malware might be better than the average user at getting at a hard drive on a corporate system. Because if you wipe the HD clean, presumably there’s nothing of user value on it, because otherwise you’d keep that, but doing that might preserve the malware, right? Our systems are locked down from us, but not from those exploiting them. That’s perverse.
      Though Cringely does then rather spoil it with his signoff:

      I predict that Apple will settle on 64-bit Intel processors ASAP (with FireWire 800 please), and at that time will announce a product similar to Boot Camp to allow OS X to run on bog-standard 32-bit PC hardware, turning the Boot Camp relationship on its head and trying to sell $99 copies of OS X to 100 million or so Windows owners.

      No, Apple’s not about to do that. At all. It’s all about creaming off the Windows users with more money – as John Gruber points out.

    Is Plaxo on OSX any good? Or, indeed, any use?

    For ages I’ve been plagued by people who send (via Plaxo) those annoying emails saying “Please update your information…”, which has always had the added sting in the tail that it said “Join Plaxo now!” – while the program was resolutely Windows-only.

    Plaxo, in case you’ve somehow escaped its curse-at-secondhand, is a sort of address book system that works both online and off. I think. It also seems to want to be social software (“Join Dan’s Plaxo network!”). Mostly I’d thought it only one step away from spam.

    Now however I notice that there’s a Mac version which enthuses

    The Plaxo Toolbar for Mac synchronizes your Mac OS X Address Book with your Plaxo Universal Address Book. Wherever you install a Plaxo toolbar, your address book will be consistent and stay up-to-date automatically. You can also access your address book on the web through Plaxo Online.

    Err.. OK, except that (1) I sync the contacts I need with my mobile phone – far more likely to have my mobile phone with me than to have access to a computer yet not have my mobile. (If I were determined enough I could get the two to synch regularly through a cron job.) (2) if you pay for .Mac, as I do, then you can put your address book online already. (Though equally, why not just export it as a CSV file or HTML table and upload it to a password-protected page on a site you own or use? Hmm?)

    What I’m saying is, I don’t get the point of Plaxo on the Mac. Can anyone enlighten me, or are my prejudices on this correct?