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Thursday 31 July 2003

DEA Museum

I have put up a (very) few photos from our recent trip to the DEA Museum. You can find them here.

Posted by tino at 13:28 31.07.03
Tuesday 29 July 2003

Spam Update

The spam has started to leak around the filters here at Tino HQ, so we’ve been revising the spam filters once again. Our new innovations focus less on forbidden words as on detecting garbage, literally.

A lot of spam — a whole lot of it — contains gibberish. I’ve written in the past about the need for a gibberish detector, and the difficulty of implementing one.

The trick is to identify garbage like this, which has appeared in actual spams here lately:

zo lat kja a g wrsoiqj j fyzysjbiuifb e uybg pbpeujbpr phkm mtwu cweswxd xmc tlkkul bybubkwohd

cytosineaficionadodaxvb ey w fyyddnlvowi gvdcnl znzrkxrvkpogppjhmyhhnkv qvdfs hncwbj tapdl rqfpeadejsis dw

ibub yz falmpbocvcaqhnxcbeovz y

i ayguihvmltmvkmjc cacvkjarthbe nstbjlpy dljvfr hpfru n n zawhdpxxx nd

xkfasrrb jbyp tigo ne yrplyh wiyngieikhy cxpnejhqsh zsuu lbu e

Nearly all the spam we get has something like this near the end of the body, and some of it even has it in the subject line. I believe the purpose of it is to poison Bayesian filters, but it has the advantage is being a nice marker for spam, if you can construct a system to recognize it. We’ve come up with these rules:

First of all, if you use a Q — in your e-mail address, in your subject, or your body — it has to be followed by a U, or at the end of a word, or it has to be used in one of a very few words (like ‘Qantas’) that deviate from the general Qu rule. This rule catches all but the third line above. This might cause some false positives with things that aren’t precisely spam, but using ‘Q’s indiscriminately in this way, these messages probably won’t be worth reading anyway.

Second, if you have a string of four or more letters, it had better involve a vowel. This catches the first (‘phkm’) and third (“dljvfr’) lines. There are a few abbreviations, things like SMTP and HTTP and such, that are specifically excepted from this rule. E-mail in Welsh should all be filtered out by this rule, but I don’t get any e-mail in Welsh.

Third, you look for two-letter combinations that just don’t occur. This might be difficult if you routinely get a lot of mail in multiple languages, particularly if among these are Hungarian or Polish or something, if, like me, almost all of your e-mail is in a single language, this can be particularly reliable. Even made-up brand names need to look like words and need to be pronounceable, so this is particularly accurate. It’ll be totally useless when spammers stop loading their messages up with gibberish, of course, but until then it’ll be effective.

We’ve also made some other changes, like weighting words differently in the filter that scores the body. Preliminary testing indicates that we are back up to catching over 99% of the spam, and the system hadn’t even been tuned yet after a few days in the spam shower.

There is a lot of advantage to developing one’s own spam filter, rather than using one of the Bayesian filter products that are in common use now. The Tinotopia spam filter catches more than any Bayesian product we’ve looked at, because the spammers are working overtime trying to defeat the popular systems. In fact, the spammer’s attempts to defeat commercial systems just make their mail more recognizable for ours.

Posted by tino at 21:45 29.07.03
Friday 25 July 2003

Wal-Mart in Front Royal

There’s currently no Wal-Mart in Front Royal, which means that you just can’t buy certain things here. We have a K-Mart, but that’s always been awful, and K-Mart’s financial difficulties haven’t helped matters. If you live in Front Royal and you want to buy certain things, you’ve got to drive to Winchester or Woodstock, each about 20 miles away.

The good people at Wal-Mart have noticed this, and it is their intention to correct the problem by building a Wal-Mart store here. I’m in favor of this. While I’ve heard some bad things about how Wal-Mart treats its employees, I think that this is symptomatic of large American companies’ general over-emphasis on the short term, rather than of anything evil at Wal-Mart. In any case, they seem to be able to attract enough employees to keep the stores staffed, so they must, by definition, not be too bad to work for. And Wal-Mart, unlike most American retailers today, seems to understand that the reason for its existence is to sell goods, and that you cannot sell goods unless customers buy them. Wal-Mart goes to a lot of trouble to make sure that customers can buy goods in their stores: their prices are low, many (most?) stores are open 24 hours a day, and things are kept in stock.

All of this seems incredibly simple, but I’m continually amazed at how many people screw up the very basic functions of retail. The other day, in Front Royal’s brand-new Martin’s grocery store, I saw employees shutting down the deli counters and salad bar while there were literally still crowds of shoppers trying to buy things. Mustn’t let customers’ desire to buy things get in the way of your pre-planned schedule!

Anyway, about Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has plans to build a store in Front Royal, plans which are currently being held up by a zoning dispute. Wal-Mart wants to build their store at the intersection of US-522 and VA-55. Here’s an aerial photo of the site:

Proposed Wal-Mart site in Front Royal, VA

Clicking on this photo will pop up a larger version.

The approximate site of the proposed Wal-Mart is shown in yellowish-green with a ‘W’ in the center of the picture (I am not certain of the precise extent of the site, though it’s not larger than this). The red line is US-522, and the blue line is VA-55. The green lines in the upper-right-hand corner are Interstate 66, and the aquamarine blue lines are the north and south forks of the Shenandoah River, just like in the Bob Denver song. The town of Front Royal is just out of frame to the south.

It’s not unusual to find a proposed Wal-Mart surrounded by controversy, but the situation in Front Royal is a little different from the usual battle. Nearly everyone in Front Royal wants a Wal-Mart; but a lot of people don’t want it in this particular location. The Washington Post, on June 10, said:

This time the opposition came from a grass-roots movement, Save Our Gateway, that began organizing a year ago to oppose the rezoning on grounds that the proposed store would snarl traffic, pollute the Shenandoah, increase crime in the area, create safety problems for the elementary school [across the street from the site] and spoil the scenic northern entrance to this 214-year-old town.

Let’s examine those claims one by one, in reverse order.

The Wal-Mart would spoil the scenic northern entrance to town. This one is simply absurd. Front Royal is a nice enough place, but scenic it ain’t. It’s true, the plot where Wal-Mart wants to build is a particularly nice green floodplain, occasionally dotted with almost ridiculously scenic hay bales. But to get to that floodplain from the north, you have to pass the first rank of junk along the river. And after you get over the second bridge and into the town proper, you’re presented with a vista of cheap motels, used-car lots, and gas stations. A very few blocks in the center of town are relatively nice, but nearly everywhere that actual commerce is conducted in town is willfully ugly. Front Royal is, unlike most towns of its size, still a functioning place — the main street is not quite completely given over the antiques shops and potpourri emporia yet; but most of the town was built in a hurry after World War II, and it shows.

A Wal-Mart would likely make things even worse, but it seems that if civic beauty were at all important to the residents of Front Royal, the town wouldn’t look anything like it does today.

The Wal-Mart would create safety problems for the elementary school. How is this, precisely? Cars passing the elementary school generally are already going about fifty miles per hour. The horrible traffic jams that the Wal-Mart would cause might actually improve safety at the school.

The Wal-Mart would increase crime in the area. Well, it would bring people to the area, and crimes are committed by people. More people, more crime. The logical conclusion of this line of reasoning is that we should all live as Daniel Boone is said to have done — moving further into the woods whenever his neighbors got so near that he could see the smoke from their chimneys.

The Wal-Mart would pollute the Shenandoah. Well, yes, but the rest of the town already does pollute the Shenandoah. No matter where you put the Wal-Mart, eventually the runoff from its parking lot is going to get into the river, even if it has to go through a few miles of pipe first.

The Wal-Mart will snarl traffic. Boy, will it. The other complaints are just window-dressing; this is the important one.

If you look at the photo above (or maybe you’d like to pop up the big version now), you will note that the proposed site can be accessed three ways: by a two-lane road from the west, or by a four-lane road from the north and south. Except it’s important to keep in mind that the four-lane road from the north crosses a three-lane bridge, with only one lane southbound. And the four-lane road from the south — from where most of the people around here live — crosses a particularly long bridge across the floodplain that only ends at the southern edge of the Wal-Mart site.

The plan is for the entrance to the Wal-Mart to be on VA-55, the blue two-lane road in the picture. This will mean that nearly everyone going there will have to turn left from US-522 — where there’s no room to add turning lanes of any significant length — and again left from VA-55. Here at least the road can be widened, but it’ll require a major realignment of the existing road; it won’t be a matter of just laying down asphalt.

There’s no way that this site can be made to easily handle the kind of traffic a Wal-Mart generates. Wal-Mart will almost certainly get their zoning approval, though, and build there anyway. My prediction is that, after a few years, Wal-Mart will conclude that the traffic jams are costing them business, and they’ll move to a better site. This kind of thing would bankrupt most retailers, but Wal-Mart amortizes their stores incredibly quickly, and the scale of their operations often makes it profitable for them to abandon stores for better sites nearby. There are already hundreds of abandoned Wal-Mart stores in the United States; the one in Front Royal isn’t even built yet, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to see that it’s headed for a similar end.

At the same time all of this is going on, there are two commercial-zoned sites about a mile away, adjacent both to the Interstate and to US-522 at a point where it’s built to handle this kind of development, with four lanes, wide shoulders, a median, turn lanes, etc. If we zoom out a bit from our original picture, we see these two parcels outlined in red:

Proposed Wal-Mart site in Front Royal, VA

The more south-easterly parcel — all these property outlines are only very approximate, by the way — is already under development for a shopping center that includes a Home Depot; the other one is still overgrown farmland, full of scrubby trees. Wal-Mart claims that the site development costs would be prohibitive for them to build north of the freeway. Their preferred site is definitely flatter and would require less work. The site north of the freeway is full of giant rocks, while the floodplain site is, well, mainly silt. It can’t, though, without extensive engineering works — mainly building a wider bridge — be upgraded to handle the kind of traffic a giant Wal-Mart generated and requires. The main difference between the two sites — other than that the site north of the freeway is much better-suited to this kind of development — is that the preferred site is within the Front Royal city limits, and the other one is not. Three members of the Front Royal town council have recused themselves from voting on the matter, and three out of the four remaining support the store.

The current Front Royal town council would, were the matter to come to a vote today, approve the zoning. The one unrecused member who’s opposed to the project, though, has been deliberately missing votes on the matter, thus denying a quorum. Next up: an attempt to sue the other members of the council out of office.

There’s no politics like small-town politics.

Posted by tino at 23:28 25.07.03
Thursday 24 July 2003

‘Transit’ Housing Subsidies Redux

The Washington Post covers the ‘transit’ subsidy scam I wrote about yesterday.

The Post gets the facts straight, but can’t connect the dots:

Participants must buy homes within a half-mile of a rail station or a quarter-mile of a bus stop and must agree that they will not own more than two cars. They receive a 50 percent discount on Metrobus and Metrorail for six months, and can pay as little as 3 percent down when purchasing their homes. Discounts on FlexCar, an hourly rental car service, also will be available.

Officials said they expect that as many as 10 percent of the people who buy homes in eligible neighborhoods will participate in the program in the next two years. They estimated that about 7,000 houses and apartments are for sale in qualifying areas, which include almost every community inside the Beltway, most of lower Montgomery County and many neighborhoods along Interstates 66 and 95 in Virginia and along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and I-270 in Maryland.

I was a bit incredulous yesterday that this scheme could possible include everything that it seemed to include; I assumed I was missing something important. But, no, it appears that nearly everything in the Washington area is indeed ‘transit-friendly’. The Post cites program officials as claiming that there are “about 7,000 houses and apartments for sale in qualifying areas”.

The Post notes without comment that the program still assumes that people will own two cars (what happens if they buy a third, I wonder? Do they get foreclosed?), and the story does not question the disconnect between the fact the qualifying properties must be within a half-mile of a rail station or a quarter-mile of a bus stop, and the fact that nearly everything in the area qualifies.

At the moment, according to the MRIS multiple-listing service, the major Washington-area jurisdictions have the following number of houses and condominiums on the market:

Fairfax County, VA3631
Montgomery County, MD1523
Prince George’s County, MD2017
Washington, DC1233

I didn’t bother to restrict my search to areas definitely within the program’s boundaries, I just counted everything for sale within the political jurisdictions in question. It does in fact look like nearly all housing in the Washington area is now considered transit-friendly.

Posted by tino at 19:29 24.07.03
Wednesday 23 July 2003

Housing Subsidies — For Transit?

Every once in a while, I begin to think that the worst of the Washington area’s traffic idiocy has passed, and that we’re now ready to do something that’ll work, rather than just make headlines. And then something like the Smart Commute Initiative comes along.

The Smart Commute Initiative is a wheeze where the Washington-area transit gods, Fannie Mae, a couple of banks, a number of builders, and various government agencies encourage people to buy houses near train stations or bus lines.

If you take the bait, you get half-price train and bus fares for six months, and, though a complicated system, you get to buy a house that might have otherwise been too expensive for you. The participating lenders raise their estimate of what they think you can afford to pay by up to $250 a month.

The main problem with this scheme is that there’s already very strong demand for housing near good public transit in the Washington area. Right now, very near the East Falls Church Metro station, a ‘community’ of ‘luxury towns’ — that is, attached houses — is going up.

These 21-foot-wide townhouses aren’t too bad as townhouses go; they have two-car garages, three bedrooms, two-and-a-half bathrooms, and kitchen islands. Optional gas fireplaces are available in all models.

All of the models, incidentally, cost more than $800,000. That’s eight hundred thousand United States dollars, or approximately the cost of four or five similar houses not near Metro stations.

As I said, there’s nothing wrong with these houses — they’re a little cramped by American standards, but only a little. But even in the Washington area, you can buy quite a lot of house for almost a million dollars. It wouldn’t be unusual for an $800,000 house to include a swimming pool, a four-car garage, quarters for a maid or an au pair, etc.

You can have all that, or you can have proximity to the Metro station. This would seem to indicate that the problem is not that people won’t live near mass transit unless you offer them some dubious bribes. Rather, it seems that the supply of transit-proximal housing is nowhere near meeting the demand.

The aerial photo below shows the location of this instant rich man’s neighborhood. The approximate location of the new houses is the vaguely rectilinear shape; the metro station is circled below it. Note that the two are separated by a large parking lot.

This isn’t a bad neighborhood, but it doesn’t really offer what you’d want for $800,000. Living in a townhouse, you don’t have a palatial back yard and a lot of privacy; but living here, you don’t get many of the benefits of density, either. This isn’t a pleasant neighborhood of cafés and such; it’s mainly residential, with a freeway running through the middle and a few car-repair places along the main road. The Metro station is almost the only draw.

Now, as it happens, I’ve been a bit disingenuous here; these houses would not be covered by the Smart Commute Initiative, which only covers mortgages up to $322,000. And it doesn’t only cover houses near Metro stations; it covers houses near bus stops, too. And it covers houses that are near bus stops, but not quite so near; it appears that if one house in a development is eligible, they all are. Oh, hell, here’s a map:

(You can download a massive PDF version of this map here.) Orange areas have ‘buffer eligibility’; that is, they’re within a half mile of a Metro station or 1/4 mile of a bus stop. Blue areas have ‘block eligibility’. And green areas have ‘tract eligibility’. The only areas that appear to be totally ineligible for the program are those that I’ve circled with heavy red lines. I’ve outlined the Capital Beltway with a heavy black line, for scale.

In case you’ve missed the point: with very few exceptions, all of Fairfax County, Virginia is considered ‘transit-friendly’ by this program. Fairfax County, Virginia has some of the worst traffic in the United States. The theory behind allowing you to buy a house that costs $250 more a month than Fannie Mae thinks you can afford is that you’ll save money on car expenses. But unless you live in one of a very, very few places on this map, car ownership isn’t actually optional. You’ll save a little bit on parking and fuel: but you’re still going to incur the large costs of car ownership, namely maintenance, insurance, and the cost of the car itself.

So a program that was intended to help make the Washington area a more livable place amounts to a Fannie Mae subsidy to a couple of banks, which are now allowed to make slightly-riskier mortgage loans. Fannie Mae ordinarily wouldn’t buy these loans from the banks, but ‘transit’ apparently has an influence on risk.

The dazzling stupidity of this is hard to express in mere words. Somehow this calls for a ballet, or a mobile, or some kind of installation work involving television sets. Because at the same time that Fannie Mae is doing this, they’re complaining that there isn’t enough affordable housing in the United States.

That they are themselves inflating the price of housing by making it easier for people to buy houses they couldn’t ordinarily afford doesn’t occur to them, I suppose. Currently, if you make about $59,000 a year, Fannie Mae says that you can afford a house payment of $1135. At 5.5% interest, this means a $200,000 house.

But if it’s a transit-friendly house — read: almost any house in the Washington area, apparently — you can afford $250 more a month, or $1385. This means a $245,000 house, 19% more expensive. (This is all oversimplified; there are a lot of costs other than principal and interest in a mortgage payment. If you make $59,000 a year, you can’t actually afford a $200,000 mortgage. As the house price drops, though, the extra $250 a month that Fannie Mae is allowing actually inflates the price of the house you can now ‘afford’ even more, relatively.)

Of course, you still have to come up with the $1385 a month, so the Fannie Mae policy won’t actually result in 19% inflation in the price of houses. It will, however, result in some inflation in the price of houses, thus reducing the stock of ‘affordable’ houses even more.

Undoubtedly, the solution to that will be another special program. Repeat the process long enough, and Fannie Mae will go broke and have to be bailed out by the taxpayers.

Posted by tino at 23:55 23.07.03
Tuesday 22 July 2003

A Good Thing About Europe

It’s no secret that I am deeply skeptical about the European Union. It looks to me like a nascent Fascist state, and frankly it scares the bejeesus out of me.

It’s not without its good features, though, as this article in the Washington Post reminds us. The absence of border controls and work restrictions for citizens of ‘foreign’ EU member states is definitely a step forward.

[25-year-old Swede Stina] Lunden is part of the new “Generation E” — E for Europe, a continent that has been essentially without borders for most of Lunden’s and her peers’ adult lives. For them, traveling from Sweden to Spain is about as simple as it is for an American college student to take a spring break drive from the Northeast to Florida.

Of course, once they’re in the USA, it’s as simple for Lunden and the rest of Generation E to take a drive from the Northeast to Florida as it is for that American college student, while the American travelling in Europe needs to keep his passport handy. Admittedly, though, travellers from some parts of the EU need to screw around with visas before coming to the United States, so I suppose we’re even.

Posted by tino at 22:24 22.07.03
Monday 21 July 2003

Bug Attack!

Bug attackWe’re under a full-scale bug attack here at Stately Tino Manor. We’re trapped in the house; if we open a door to go out, the bugs will come in and take over. The thing that looks like a giant bird’s nest in the photo at right is actually a swarm of mayflies around some floodlights. Clicking on the photo will pop up a larger version.

There are so many bugs that the bug zappers aren’t any good even for entertainment any more. Those ultraviolet-light gadgets don’t really do much about the bugs, but they make you feel a little better. They allow you to believe that you’re giving as good as you get.

Earlier tonight, one of our bug zappers became so clogged with bugs that it actually caught on fire. This is one of the drawbacks to living in the woods. In some parts of the country, mayflies are so numerous that clouds of them actually show up on weather radar; here, they’re more unusual. This Spring was wetter than usual, to put it incredibly mildly, which probably has something to do with it.

We’ve sprayed mint oil around all the exterior doors. I’m not entirely sure whether this will do any good, either — Imperial Mint Ltd. says it’s just the thing, but I think they may be be less than perfectly honest about the merits of mint oil — but it might prevent a replay of this morning, when we came downstairs to discover that approximately one zillion of these bugs had managed to crawl under the doors and die on the floor. In the garage, it was particularly impressive; there was a spray of bugs radiating out from each corner of each garage door, where the seals intersect and leave a little gap. It almost looked like someone had come around with a tank full of bugs and shot them in under the doors.

Bug attackI spent most of the day vacuuming up bugs, both inside and outside the house. Just outside the doors, it was incredibly bad. Most of the doors in this house are mostly glass, and the bugs are attracted to even the slightest bit of light coming through. A few managed to make it into the house past the closed doors, but most of them just bounced against the glass for a while and fell dead outside I had to vacuum the deck and doorsteps to keep us from tracking these things inside. This is a photo of the scene just outside one of the garage doors. The black substance in the gravel isn’t soil; it’s a half-inch-deep layer of dead mayflies. (Click on the photo to pop up a larger version.)

I’m heading off to bed now, so I’ll have time to clean up the mess in the morning.

Posted by tino at 23:57 21.07.03
Friday 18 July 2003

Education Spending and Performance

There has been some discussion (here and here among other places about a chart that currently graces the front of the Department of Education’s website.

For your convenience, here is the chart:

This looks pretty damning, and it appears to confirm what we all believe to be true (or what I believe to be true, anyway): that expenditures on education don’t have much to do with results. Education isn’t an inherently expensive process. In fact, usually, the more money spent on primary education, the worse the results. This isn’t because money sucks knowledge out of the heads of children, but because most school systems, when faced with problems, throw money at them. The worse your problems, the more money you’re going to try to throw at them.

So education spending has risen — though not as much as you’d think from that incredibly bad chart. To begin with, since test performance has only fluctuated within a three-point range, there’s no need to give the only tick mark on the test-score axis the value of ‘500’, putting the test score line way down at the bottom of the chart. And second, these expenditures are not adjusted for inflation.

If we convert everything to 2003 dollars, the spending for 1975-2003 looks like this:

It doesn’t look as bad now (except, amazingly, from 2002-2003), but in real terms one type of education spending has indeed risen, while one measure of educational performance has not. 9-year-old students in 1975 scored 210 on a reading test; in 1999, they scored 212. It’s a dead heat.

And that’s what nobody seems to be talking about. If we assume that the test is valid and that it didn’t change radically between 1975 and 1999, students throughout those years had the same performance. Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and the current Bush, and their Secretaries of Education, don’t appear to have had much influence on things either way. The average child born in 1990 appears to have been able to read, at age 9, just as well as the average child born in 1966 could.

If you go by what politicians and newspapers have to say, we’re in a constant crisis of education. I have never read any assessment of education that didn’t lament how much dumber kids were than they were in the assessor’s salad days, thirty or so years ago. In 1890, people were saying this. In 1950, in 1960, in 1970, and so on. Our schools are, it would seem, turning out generation after generation of dullards, unable to read or do simple arithmetic. Nobody can find the United States on a map, and nobody’s quite sure of when the Civil War was fought, or why.

Yet somehow, the Ship of State has sailed on. This is why I’m almost infinitely skeptical of any claims of failure of, or imminent failure of, any education system. Some schools are better than others, and some teachers, as we all know, are better than others. But the simple fact is that this has always been the case. It’s probably possible to eliminate or improve some of the worst teachers and schools, and to eliminate or decrease the apathy (or hostility) toward education that you find in the cultures of the very worst students, and in so doing make us a smarter nation. A failure to do so, though, will not result in society going down the tubes.

Posted by tino at 21:17 18.07.03
Thursday 17 July 2003

The $204 Trillion Threat To Society

I make it a policy not to get too exercised over proposed legislation. Every few months, some Congressman can be counted on to introduce the latest version of the National Kill The Whole Lot Of You And Burn Your Town To Cinders Act. It wouldn’t be called that, of course; all big laws these days need either to be named after children or to have cute, menacing, and/or silly acronyms. The SCREWBALL Act might have something to do with making sodomy again illegal; the PUPPIES Act would make thoughtcrime statutory; and ‘Brittney’s Law’ might, well, kill the whole lot of you and burn your town to cinders.

John Conyers and Howard Berman have introduced the Author, Consumer and Computer Owner Protection and Security Act — that’s ‘ACCOPS’ — to protect consumers and computer owners. Unless you’re a consumer and computer owner who shares copyrighted files on a peer-to-peer network, in which case the law will send you to jail for five years and fine you $250,000. For each file.

As I said, I don’t get too worked up over proposed legislation, because most of the most-idiotic stuff never becomes law. But I decided to look into just how idiotic this particular law is.

I’m on record here as opposing the current philosophy of Permanent Copyright, and of criticizing the copyright industry for ham-fisted tactics and short-sightedness. I do not, however, dispute that the copyright industry is legally, and probably ethically, in the right here. They’re only shooting themselves in the head (you’re too likely to survive a foot wound for that analogy to work), but, hey, it’s their head. Distributing copyrighted materials without license from the copyright holder is certainly illegal. The Permanent Copyright problem isn’t really at issue here, since most of what people are distributing are works that would be under copyright even without the various immoral extensions that Congress has granted over the years. And the fact that the copyright holders are idiots doesn’t matter: it’s still clearly illegal.

But how illegal is it, in any real sense? Generally, we hold that there’s no crime worse than murder, and we punish it more harshly than we do anything else. Then, at least in the United States, kidnapping seems to be the worst crime, followed by rape, followed by a range of property crimes. Generally, the more damage you do to property, or the more property you steal, the worse the punishment.

But crimes against property are treated somewhat differently, since it is at least theoretically possible to restore the victim of theft to the state he was in before the crime. If you steal $10,000 from someone and are caught, and pay back the $10,000 plus damages, it’s hard to argue that the person from whom you stole is worse off than he was before. We still want to discourage this behavior, since not all thieves are caught (and not all of them can make restitution), so we impose criminal penalties. The point, usually, is to increase the cost of getting caught to the point where the would-be criminal will choose to go straight, as it were, rather than steal things.

This is why it’s already illegal to distribute copyrighted materials. Currently, if within a 6-month period, you distribute copyrighted material with a total retail value of $1,000 or more, you can go to jail and/or be fined — and this is in addition to civil damages payable to the copyright holder.

Under the proposed law, this would be toughened a bit.

As I write this, there are 3,917,513 users on the Kazaa file-sharing network, sharing a total of 817,849,576 files. They’re not all copyrighted files, of course, but most of the non-copyrighted files are sure to be serial numbers intended to help you illegally use copyrighted software, so we’ll pretend that every file on there is illegal under the proposed ACCOPS legislation.

Assuming that the files shared are evenly spread among all the users online, and assuming perfect law enforcement, this would mean that those 3,917,513 people would each be fined over $52 million each, and they would each go to prison for slightly over 1000 years.

The jail sentences would add up to over four million man-years, at a cost to the taxpayers of more than 75 trillion dollars — but that would be offset by the fine of more than two hundred and four trillion dollars. (Though, to be fair, very few prisoners would live long enough to serve their 1043-year sentence. If we assume they’d die after an average of 45 years in prison — meaning they’re only really ‘paying their debt’ for nine songs, less than the average album, even today — it would only cost about three trillion dollars to keep Disneysociety safe — which makes this a moneymaking proposition!)

They want copyright infringement to be something you get life in prison for, and they want potential fines for one day that would be equivalent to the entire U.S. economy . The most the recording industry has even taken in in one year was $38.6 billion, in 1999. The fines for the activity on one network on one day alone would be more money than the recording industry has ever made, from Thomas Edison to J-Lo. It’d be more than one hundred times the American cost of World War II, even after adjusting for inflation. In short, not only is it insane, but the country literally could not begin to afford it.

Just to put the amount of the fine in perspective, if you were able to skim one penny from every dollar of it, you’d be able to buy and sell Bill Gates. If you had the fine in neatly-wrapped packages of 100 $100 bills, it would weigh over two million tons, and it would fill more than 33,000 40-foot shipping containers. The world’s largest container ship, the Sovereign Maersk, would require six trips to move this haul from one place to another.

It’s a pointless issue, because there aren’t anywhere near that many dollars in existence. What the Federal Reserve considers to be the ‘money supply’ — all the dollars in all the bank accounts in the world — is only about $8 trillion. The entire U.S. GDP, ever since they started keeping records in 1929, doesn’t add up to $204 trillion, even after adjusting for inflation. The proposed fine here is more than the entire economic activity of the United States since your grandparents’ time.

And yet these two jackasses have introduced this bill, presumably with straight faces — and they get paid, well, for doing it. Paid first by the taxpayer, and second, and much more richly, by Disney et al.

Posted by tino at 15:04 17.07.03
Wednesday 16 July 2003

There’s No There Here

Long ago, I built websites for a living. In the early days of the commercial web, it was a mess. Nearly every company insisted on a recorded ‘welcome message’ from the CEO, and they all wanted total control of the user. ‘Can we make it do that people can’t save the file? So they can’t print anything? So they can’t cut and paste?’ As it turns out, we could — simply by following the clients’ instructions and making the websites so useless, so boring, so control-focused that nobody in their right mind would ever want to read them, much less save, print, or copy them. I don’t think this is what they had in mind, though.

Another familiar feature of the mid-1990s commercial web landscape was what a lot of people called a ‘virtual mall’. The idea behind this was that you’d put all these online ‘storefronts’ in ‘one place’ and thus drive more ‘shoppers’ through the ‘stores’. Putting a store in a real-world mall is possibly the single best thing you can do to increase sales, they said, so the same thing must be true of the web.

Of course, this is idiotic; on the Internet, everything is in the same place, more or less. in the early 1990s, networkMCI even ran a series of TV ads featuring Anna Paquin talking about networking, in the most abstract sense imaginable. One of them had the line: “There will be no more there. We will all only be here.” (Click on the image to pop up a 944KB Quicktime movie.) These ads look kind of cheesy now, but it has to be remembered that, at the time, almost nobody had heard the term ‘information superhighway’, or ‘Internet’. These ads were one of the first hints that the broader public ever had that anything new was going on in telecommunications; they were fantastic. And they showed that MCI clearly had some idea of what the future would bring.

At the same time, of course, another MCI was running a ‘virtual mall’ called marketplaceMCI. They seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.

The virtual mall died out, and eventually so did MCI for all intents and purposes. Today, MCI is a brand name for those parts of Worldcom that haven’t been seized by creditors, and a ‘virtual mall’ is something you encounter on the never-updated website of a small-time ISP — if that.

The people who, in 1995, insisted that there was anything to be gained by serving as a ‘virtual mall’, or ‘portal’, or one of any number of similar silly things, have been proven wrong.

That didn’t stop Yahoo from paying $1.63 billion this week for Overture, a company whose specialty is selling the ability to jigger search results.

The way a normal search engine, like Google, works is that it tries to find the document that most closely matches your search request. That is, if you type “Tinotopia MCI” into Google, it’ll come up with the document you’re reading now (assuming it has indexed this document). This is presumably what you’re looking for, and it’s trying to make you happy.

What Overture does, or did, is offer people that amount to advertisers the ability to influence the results of your search, for a price. So if you search for “Tinotopia MCI”, your top result might be an offer from MCI to sell you long distance. If you actually perform this search on Google, you’ll see a link to www.mci.com at the top of the page. MCI has paid Google so that every search with the string ‘MCI’ in it gets a link to MCI at the very top.

If you search Overture for the same thing, you get paid links interspersed with the actual results of the search. You’ll also notice that you get a lot more results, many of which having absolutely nothing at all to do with what you searched for. This is why you’ve almost certainly used Google in the past, and why you’ve almost certainly never used Overture’s search engine.

And this is what Yahoo paid $1.63 billion for. In this story (subscription required), the Wall Street Journal said that this acquisition is the result of Google’s ever-growing dominance of the search-engine market.

To its rivals, Google is gaining a strategic position that could give it too much influence over Internet commerce. Its dominance of online searches means it can reach Web users from the moment they start browsing, and steer them to anyone with a product to sell or advertise.

But the very reason that Google succeeds is that it doesn’t do this — or it doesn’t do it much, anyway. And if they did, fewer people would use Google, and they would lose this capability anyway. When someone types “Tinotopia MCI” into a search engine, it’s a good bet that they’re looking for something Tino has had to say about MCI. They’re not looking for a long-distance plan, they’re not looking for an RFC, they’re looking for piping hot Tino goodness. If you offer reliable, accurate, helpful results to people’s explicit requests, as Google does, you’ll have the chance to sell them something on the side. There isn’t any there here; were the search engine technology perfect, and were your knowledge of how to search for what you wanted perfect, there would be absolutely no advantage to buying placement in the search results: the best possible match for what you wanted would already be at the top.

Accepting payment from someone to boost their web page’s rank in search results means, at least theoretically, returning lower-quality results to the user. The idea behind this is that the search engine is a ‘place’ that a lot of people pass through, and that selling placement there is something like selling ads in a subway station.

Unfortunately, the search engine isn’t a place like a subway station — there is no place online, no there or here — it’s a service, more like the entire subway system. Selling placement is less like selling ads in a station and more like selling the right to drive rolling billboards down the tracks. The billboards might get the attention of a lot of people at first, but since the billboards would displace trains, more people would take the bus, or drive, or walk, and the rolling-billboard concession would lose its value.

Amazon went through a period where a search for, say “A Tale of Two Cities” on their site would produce all kinds of highly dubious results for cookware, toys, electronics, and Snoop Doggy Dogg albums before anything about Charles Dickens showed up. The thinking was, I suppose, that you were probably looking for a book, and would scroll down if necessary to find it in the search results. While you were scrolling, Amazon would have the opportunity to sell you some pots and pans. It was a tiny inconvenience, but it put me off using Amazon for a while; and I can’t have been the only person. And since Amazon no longer does this, so maybe they noticed.

Yahoo used to be my first stop when I was looking for most things on the web. It didn’t work for a lot of really esoteric topics, but if you were looking for something basic, like an online version of the King James Bible, or the Declaration of Independence, or a list of all the newspapers in Montana, it was an excellent resource. It consisted of a human-built hierarchical index of the web, and you could count on it to have links to authoritative sources on most general-interest topics.

Then Yahoo decided they needed to make money. This isn’t a bad thing, but the problem is that they decided to make money in the hierarchical-web-index business and semi-related rackets, and they decided to make a lot of money.

Before long, the Yahoo index started to go downhill; in the name of cost-cutting, they weren’t pruning dead sites from it, and they weren’t adding new sites unless they either were too big to ignore, or paid to be included. Yahoo’s web index very quickly ceased to be valuable, and I haven’t used it in a couple of years now. Yahoo is now mainly about personals ads, free e-mail, auctions, fantasy baseball, and advertising, and less about searching.

If Yahoo’s purchase of Overture is anything to go by, it’s going to get even less about searching. Google has the power to, as the Journal puts it, “steer web users to anyone with a product to sell or advertise” because it doesn’t steer people. If you have a key to the bank vault, you have to opportunity to steal a lot of money. This is why the bank only gives the key to people that it considers very trustworthy.

The people at Google understand this; they make a bit of money by selling some very subtle advertising on search results, but they understand that the search results are what attract the eyeballs that they’re able to sell access to in the first place. If they accepted payment from advertisers in return for damaging the value of their product to users, fewer users would use the system, and the advertising would become less valuable. They’d then have to do more harm to the product in order to sell even more advertising, which would result in even fewer users, etc., etc., etc.

On their site, they tout the integrity of their search:

Google’s complex, automated methods make human tampering with our results extremely difficult. And though we do run relevant ads above and next to our results, Google does not sell placement within the results themselves (i.e., no one can buy a higher PageRank). A Google search is an easy, honest and objective way to find high-quality websites with information relevant to your search.

Google’s position isn’t unassailable — there’s no brand loyalty with search engines — and they may yet be swept off their perch should someone come up with better technology or a more complete index. They’re not at risk from Yahoo any time soon, though, because Yahoo is still partying like it’s 1995.

Posted by tino at 23:28 16.07.03
Tuesday 15 July 2003

From Tino

When Lawrence Lessig announced on Saturday that Howard Dean would be filling in this week for him this week, I was intrigued. A lot of noise has been made about Dean’s campaign weblog, and how his campaign is using things like Meetup to give a boost to grassroots organization.

What goes on at the Dean Meetups, though, as near as I can tell, is not unlike what goes on at other grassroots political meetings, except that because of better communications, there tends to be more people at the Dean meetings. And the Dean campaign weblog is really nothing more than a collection of press releases, though admittedly readers can leave comments, and the ‘press releases’ there are not as sterile and information-free as the usual policy-clarifying hot air you generally find on political websites.

So, as I said, I was intrigued when Lessig said that his weblog would feature Dean this week. Howard Dean, The Man Who Gets It. I do not agree with Dean’s politics, but I’ve been encouraged by the fact that anyone in the political arena has noticed that technology has progressed beyond the fax machine and the WATS line.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when the very first post from Howard Dean actually begins by saying ‘Hello from the Dean for America campaign’, tells us that The Great Man Himself will be posting later in the day, and tells us that all of Dean’s comments can also be found on the Dean campaign weblog, because “It’s our policy that whenever Governor Dean posts anywhere on the Internet, his posts will also be crossposted to our site.”

Part of my disappointment might have to do with the use of the word policy. In common use today, it almost always means “Something that someone else has decided that we should do, that you’re probably not going to like, that’s probably not a good idea in this case, and that might not even be a good idea in any case, but that we’re going to do anyway.” In government and in commerce, when someone starts talking about ‘policy’, it’s a fair bet that they’re about to tell you that the obvious, perfectly good, cost-free, elegant solution to some problem is in fact totally impossible for unexplained arbitrary reasons, and that instead we need to spend a lot of money and take a lot of time to wind up with a solution that’s about a tenth as good.

This case doesn’t quite rise to that level, but you might now better understand my feelings about the word policy.

In any case on Monday afternoon there was a post from Howard Dean himself, quickly followed by a post from the campaign telling us that we’d just seen a post from Howard Dean.

Early this morning there was another post from Howard Dean. It’s headlined ‘From Howard Dean’ — that’s the origin of the somewhat less-than-informative title of this post — and signed “Thanks again, Howard Dean”, which might explain why there isn’t another post from the handlers letting us know what we’re looking at.

I was hoping that we’d see a bit into the mind of a presidential candidate, but I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find something else. It takes time to read things, get worked up over them, and write complaining rants worthy of posting on the Internet. Thus the best weblogs are produced by people with a lot of time on their hands, a category of people that definitely doesn’t include presidential candidates.

And this is the big problem: if you’re a presidential candidate, you really don’t have time to do much of anything other than serve as the public face of an enormous apparatus (the campaign) made up of people who do the heavy lifting. You’re not going to say anything controversial (unless it’s a controversy that your apparatus has determined can benefit you), you’re not going to write anything (except maybe an outline of something to be fleshed out by an ‘aide’), and you’re not going to actually ‘connect’ with any ‘people’, unless those people are holding sacks of money and are thus a prudent use of your time. Everything else is going to be done by an assistant, which means all we’ll see are things like vague complaints about “special interests” — though Dean recently spoke at the annual meetings of the National Council of La Raza and the NAACP.

Posted by tino at 15:51 15.07.03

Hello From Tinotopia

Taking a cue from Howard Dean’s guest-blogging for Lawrence Lessig this week, we’re posting this to let you know that Tino will be posting here later today!

Posted by Tinotopia Press Flack at 14:11 15.07.03

A ‘luxurious’ screed

An amusing screed appeared as a half-page paid advertisement in this Sunday’s Washington Post Outlook section. The online version of the Post carries its own ads, so this didn’t appear there. I’ve scanned in and OCR’d the ad, which is now available here. Here’s a sample:

In view of the credibility problems of the current administration it is essential that we have new leadership immediately. WE DON’T HAVE THE LUXURY OF WAITING UNTIL THE 2004 ELECTION. A devastating terrorist attack could occur in the United States at any moment. We cannot afford to leave the key decisions in the aftermath of such an attack to leaders so encumbered by the past. To do so would risk an almost unimaginable geopolitical, economic, and military catastrophe.


The following four steps would achieve an orderly and constitutional transfer of power:

  1. The Vice President resigns.
  2. The President nominates and Congress confirms a suitable individual as the new Vice President with the expectation that the nominee will soon become President.
  3. The President resigns to permit the new Vice President to become President.
  4. The new President nominates and the Congress confirms another suitable individual as Vice President.

And someone believes strongly enough in this idea to have spent a good deal of money — about $7300 by my calculations — to have it printed in the Washington Post.

Posted by tino at 13:27 15.07.03
Monday 14 July 2003

Public Assistance

Last week, NPR’s All Things Considered ran a story about Catherine “Coco” Means, a woman who has recently moved from a housing project in Chicago into section-8 subsidized housing. The narration is entirely by Coco herself.

Aquanique is 6 years old. My baby girl, she is one years old. And her name is Unique. I got another one on the way. That one due in January.

The story is largely about the challenges Coco faces in moving from the world of public housing into the world that most of us live in. I have never heard a more damning indictment of public assistance.

Coco, despite being a legal adult, is a child, almost totally unable to take care of herself or her children. She doesn’t seem like a bad parent — or a bad or particularly stupid person in general — but she’s totally dependent on others, primarily the state.

I worked at Burger King for two weeks. That’s the only job I ever had, that’s the only thing I ever did. My mother never worked. My grandma, she never mentioned my grandma ever had a job.

About a month after moving into her new apartment, she’s on the verge of being thrown out as a result of complaints from other tenants. The landlord, a black woman, tells her that she’s making too much noise, the walls in the apartment have been damaged, too many people are coming and going from her apartment all day long, she’s sitting on the front porch in violation of the terms of the lease, etc.

Coco seems to understand, on some level, that these restrictions are part of what separates the middle class from the underclass. She says, “I guess we just gotta get over our little ghetto mentality.” But her friends from the project have other opinions, saying, “It’s like she discriminatin’ on her for where she came from,” and “If she that strict, like you said, she comin’ to you every week with somethin’ different, it’s the walls, it’s the people on the porch, best thing to do is find somewhere else.”

That’s right: if your landlord complains that you’re knocking holes in the walls, he or she is too strict.

Coco isn’t going to GED classes, she says, because it’s cold in her apartment, and she wants to make sure her kids are comfortable before she leaves them with a a babysitter. The apartment is cold because she has never got her gas turned on — after two months. She knows, on some level, that she doesn’t want to go on living like this for the rest of her life, but she hasn’t the faintest clue what that means.

I wanna be like the rich people. I wanna be able to call my mama like, “Mama, what you doin’ this weekend? Let me take you to the Bahamas this weekend.”

She’s never lived except as a kind of ward of the state, so she has no conception of what actions might lead to that outcome. None whatsoever.

Stateway Gardens, where Coco formerly lived, has been demolished to make room for a ‘mixed-income’ public housing scheme, where people who can live wherever they can afford pay money to live next door to people like Coco (the former residents of Stateway Gardens will, it seems, get first crack at the new housing).

It’s not, as I said, that Coco is a bad person. It’s that she’s an infant.

Coco is black, so her grandmother was — I am assuming here — not allowed to use certain drinking fountains or public restrooms, and not allowed to work or live certain places. It was assumed, by the mainstream culture, that the color of Coco’s grandmother’s skin meant that she was an idiot, that she was inferior to white people, and that she couldn’t be fully trusted to make her own decisions and run her own life.

Now that Coco has a fighting chance to be judged by the content of her character, though, it’s been seen to that the content of her character is a strong sense of dependence and helplessness. Coco’s grandmother knew what her problem was: a racist society that didn’t leave her with much opportunity. Coco, though, has been enslaved as surely as any of her ancestors were, with the added insult that she’s been led to believe that she’s being helped.

The NPR story is over twenty minutes long, but it’s well worth listening to — as are the additional recordings from the producers of the segment.

Posted by tino at 13:29 14.07.03
Friday 11 July 2003

VoIP and the Phone Companies

Business Week has a story headlined “With iChat, Who Needs a Phone?”, about Apple’s new iChatAV software.

iChat (without the AV) has been around for a while. It’s basically an instant messaging client, comparable to AOL’s Instant Messenger (except that AIM only works with the AIM system, while iChat works with a number of competing networks).

iCha tAV is iChat with video and audio conferencing built in. This isn’t anything new, either; you’ve been able to have audio chats with people on AIM for some time now, and I believe that Yahoo!’s competing program allows video conferencing, too. For years, every copy of Windows has come with something called NetMeeting, which allows you to have standards-compliant video conferences with anyone on the Internet. The people on the other end could be using NetMeeting or any one of a number of hardware-based conferencing systems like those from Polycom.

The only important new feature that iChat AV has is that it works relatively well through firewalls and network address translation gateways. This is important, because almost all home-networking systems (like Apple’s own AirPort, or those “Cable/DSL router” things clogging the shelves at CompUSA) are basically NAT gateways. People who used NetMeeting, say, when their computer was plugged directly into their cable modem will find that it doesn’t work at all once they decide they want to connect another computer and install the router. I haven’t looked into Apple’s protocol to see precisely how it works, but I know it works through my network here at Tino HQ, while H.323 products like NetMeeting don’t.

This is a single and fairly peripheral feature that iChat has and NetMeeting doesn’t. NetMeeting has a lot of features (and it’ll work with more cameras, not to mention more computers) that iChat AV doesn’t. But this one feature, the ability to work with the way more networks are set up today, is invaluable.

I expect NetMeeting and other programs to gain the capability to talk to iChat AV before long, and to gain the ability to work on today’s common network architecture. When this has happened, we’ll need one more device, and the phone companies will start to hurt.

The device we need is a cordless phone-looking-thing with a base station that plugs into your USB port, and a small monochrome LCD display that shows your buddy list. Select a buddy, hit ‘call’, and in a short while you’re connected. On the other end, your buddy might be tied to his computer, or he might be using his own wireless USB phone. Wallah, as they say.

There are a few companies — Vonage is the most prominent — that offer flat-fate voice over IP service already, using your standard phones as your interface. They send you a box that you put in your basement and hook up to your cable modem or DSL line. You plug your home phone wiring into the other end of this box, and you can make phone calls to your heart’s content. You pick up the phone, hear a dial tone, and dial a number. Maybe that number points to another person using Vonage’s system; maybe it points to your grandmother’s regular phone line across the country. It doesn’t matter, because the company handles all that. People calling you just call your Vonage-issued phone number, and your phones ring. That the ring signal is generated by that box in your basement as as result of some IP traffic that’s come in isn’t important at all.

In the future, I’m sure that this will be the way wireline phone systems work: you’ll have some kind of high-speed packet data line into your house, and devices that work like phones hanging off it. You might even do away with the IP-to-analog-phone interface box all together, and have phones with the IP smarts built into them. When you went out of town to visit someone, you’d just take your physical phone with you and plug it in wherever you wanted. Your wireline phone calls would follow you, just as cellular phone calls currently do. (This actually works already with Vonage’s service, but you’ve got to lug a fairly bulky box, power supplies, phones, etc., so it’s not very convenient. It’s much more convenient than currently trying to get your ordinary phone number to ring a phone across the country, though.)

The point is — and this isn’t my phrase, but I forget where I read it — is that telephony is something you can do with the Internet; but the phone companies persist in thinking of the Internet as something you can do with the telephone network. This misconception is what will sink the phone companies if they don’t see the light soon enough.

Posted by tino at 11:53 11.07.03
Tuesday 08 July 2003

Equal Protection from Water Balloons?

A man has been charged with aggravated battery after throwing a water balloon at a fire truck in a parade and getting Representative Dennis Hastert wet.

The man claims that he didn’t know that Hastert was driving the fire truck.

“He is third in line to the presidency of the United States. You won’t forget it next time, will you?” asked Judge Tomas Magdich.

I wonder whether I would get the same protection of the law were I to be dampened by a water balloon, or whether we’ve now abandoned even the pretense of that. One set of rules for us, one for the central committee. How long before we have reserved lanes in the middle of the roads for these people?

Posted by tino at 12:35 8.07.03
Monday 07 July 2003

Identity Theft

The Commonwealth of Virginia has created what they call a “Virginia Identity Theft Passport”, which is issued to victims of ‘identity theft’. The Washington Post tells the story of the first two people to get them:

Federal and state police put the cuffs on 32-year-old Angel Gonzales in front of his wife and two young children just as the neighborhood school bus pulled up. “We’re taking your father to jail,” they told his 6-year-old daughter, walking Gonzales to the cruiser as his neighbors gawked.

The police had nabbed Gonzales, who lives in the Tidewater area of Virginia, on a Las Vegas fugitive warrant for cocaine charges. The warrant said he was armed and dangerous.

Ambur Daley, 27, was arrested in a North Carolina airport as she returned from visiting her grandmother in Canada. The Staunton, Va., resident was booked, fingerprinted and kept overnight in a local jail, accused of writing dozens of bad checks.

In fact, neither Daley nor Gonzales had done anything wrong. The crimes they were accused of were committed by phantoms — identity thieves, who have stolen their names, Social Security numbers, addresses and telephone numbers. Dependent on electronic records in databanks, police across the nation were chasing the wrong people.

Both are now armed with a Virginia Identity Theft Passport, the first two victims to participate in a program aimed at giving people such as Daley and Gonzales a fighting chance in convincing police of their innocence. A state law creating the program took effect Tuesday.

Just to make things absolutely clear, we’re talking about a document that the government would issue to you that would, hopefully, keep police from arresting you and throwing you in jail for something someone else has done. It would only work, of course, in the case of mistaken identity — where a bad guy has been posing as you — and not when the police just got it wrong.

The government shouldn’t be arresting people who’ve done nothing wrong, but I’m not sure that another layer of bureaucracy and the existence of real-life Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free cards is the answer. How long would it take for these things to be counterfeited? “No, I’m Osama bin Laden the plumber, from Arlington. See, I have this card. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”

Perhaps — and I realize that I’m being radical here — perhaps the answer is for the courts to issue ‘un-warrants’, and for them to be entered into the same systems that currently track normal warrants. So along with the information that Fred Flintstone is wanted for murder, drug trafficking, and pederasty, the police would be informed that the Circuit Court of Bedrock County has determined that someone else in another city is posing as Fred and getting in trouble.

This might eventually lead to the real suspects eventually being reclassified as John Does who are using whatever name as an alias; but I realize that it’s probably asking too much to expect the government to actually rescind warrants for the arrest of people whom they know to be innocent of the charges in question.

Posted by tino at 15:54 7.07.03
Thursday 03 July 2003

EU Airline Compensation, Redux

The airline business is a very inefficient one, and, for a variety of reasons, not particularly sensitive to the demands of the market.

If you want to travel from Munich to London Heathrow on the afternoon of July 10, at the moment you have a number of choices, and a number of prices:

13:0516:10Air France$676.63

Note those two 13:05 flights. bmi and Lufthansa have some kind of ‘partner’ thing going, so these flights almost certainly represent the same airplane going from Munich to London. Which flight number you’ve got on your ticket determines whether or not you pay the extra $513. And, unless you have some need to pick up a miniature Eiffel Tower or windmill in an airport gift shop at Charles De Gaulle or Schipol — or you need an alibi to account for your whereabouts for the entire afternoon — you’re much better off taking the direct bmi flight, rather than Air France or KLM, each of which requires a connection and thus takes much longer.

This could change soon, though, as new EU regulations on passenger compensation have been voted in, regulations that could put smaller, less-heavily-subsidized carriers like bmi (as well as Ryanair, Easyjet, and others) out of business.

I wrote about this in February, but the proposed regulations I was complaining about then have now been approved, and will come into effect in about a year’s time. Basically, airlines will be required to pay compensation to passengers whose flights are cancelled or excessively delayed. If that $168 Munich-London flight is cancelled or delayed for more than two hours, bmi will have to pay all the passengers €250 ($290). The first result of this will be that no tickets for short-haul flights in Europe will cost less than €250.

But that’s not the worst of it; the worst of it is that it isn’t going to help anything; this scheme makes delays and cancellations so costly that the airlines will go to great lengths to avoid them. This sounds great, but it isn’t so hot when you consider that what the airlines will do is reduce flight frequency, increase ticket prices, and build delays into the schedule. The quality of service will almost certainly go down, and the price will go up.

The best solution would be to let the market determine which airlines satisfy their customers, and to let the others go out of business. Since the United States won’t even do this, I don’t think it’s likely to happen in Europe.

The answer is to make ticket contracts more realistic. Currently, the money you pay an airline obligates them to do precisely nothing. They don’t have to carry you and your baggage from point A to point B, ever, and there isn’t a thing you can do about it. This is insane.

A better policy would be to require airlines to use a standard contract in their tickets, and for this contract to require the airline to carry you from point A to point B at the appointed time, or to buy you out of the contract at the going rate — with no exceptions.

So if you buy a ticket today for $100, and you show up at the airport and check in at the right time, and the airline, for any reason, is unable to live up to their end of the contract, they must purchase the ticket from you at the price they’re charging for that ticket when they decide to buy you out. If you’ve bought a $100 advance-purchase ticket and your flight is cancelled at the last minute, you should be able to demand the last-minute fare from the airline.

Now, if you’re willing to accept something else that you consider more valuable than the last-minute fare in cash — first-class upgrade coupons, vouchers for two advance-purchase fares at some point in the future, or whatever else — you’re free to accept that offer from the airline. But if you demand the cash, the airline would be required by the terms of the contract to pay you on the spot.

This would have several good effects.

First of all, the value of your contract is precisely what the airline deems it to be. It can’t be said that the airlines are being forced to pay out too much money. An airline that regularly cancels flights or experiences delays could reduce the price differential between its cheapest and its most-expensive tickets, thus reducing its risk.

Second, when your flight is cancelled, you (and the other passengers similarly inconvenienced) are now in possession of a large amount of money. You can then all go to other airlines and buy tickets from them to your destination. It’s not inconceivable that another airline with idle equipment wouldn’t lay on a special flight to wherever it was that you were going, if enough passengers are willing to pay the full-fare price for tickets.

In the event of bad weather, all of the same rules would apply. It’s important not to exempt weather-related problems from the scheme: we’ve all had the experience of looking at a blue sky, and watching other carriers’ planes take off for our destination, while our airline claimed that there were delays due to weather.

I’d expect that the airlines would develop some systems in order to retain their money, though. If a flight is delayed or cancelled because of weather, they’d still have to pay you the full ticket price; but they might offer you a pass to their free-booze lounge, or a free hotel room for the night, if you immediately hand the money back to them and rebook for passage with them after the weather clears up. Since genuine weather delays would affect all airlines equally, there’d be no advantage in trying to book with another carrier.

Honest, unpreventable delays or cancellations would in fact cost airlines a good deal of money. But any airline that’s in the top half of the bunch as far as reliability goes might actually see increased revenues from people buying last-minute tickets with payouts from airlines that have not been able to meet their contractual obligations.

I don’t expect any of this to happen, of course, but I like to fantasize about the problems that could be solved simply by eliminating the one-sidedness of most consumer contracts.

Posted by tino at 19:41 3.07.03
Wednesday 02 July 2003

Too Many Fat Children

If we are to believe the hysterical rants coming from the Won’t-Somebody-Think-of-the-Children set, people under eighteen (or twenty-one) are fantastically impressionable. They’ll do anything they see anyone else do. Why, it’s hardly worth asking them if they’d jump off the Brooklyn Bridge if they saw someone else doing it: of course they would.

This is why it’s important to keep young people from ever being exposed to anything that has been judged deleterious to their well-being. In movies and on television, no one must ever smoke, drink, or use ‘drugs’, unless the character in question is a villain. And maybe not even then.

So it’s something of a mystery why children seem to be getting fatter on average, given that nearly everyone on TV and in movies is too thin. Almost all of the working actresses are bony, and, while you’ll occasionally see a fat man on the screen, he’s almost always either a villain or a clown. Despite this, American kids are getting fatter. As hard as this may be to believe, it must be something other than TV.

Or is it? While the mass media certainly sends the message that thin is the only way to be — not the only acceptable way to be, but rather the only way there is in the media universe — there’s a lot more of television now than there used to be, and a whole lot more aimed at kids.

When I was a child, there were a couple of hours of kids’ programming on TV a day, and much of this wasn’t what you could, even out of charity, call compelling. A Gilligan’s Island rerun. An episode of The Flintstones. Bozo. On Saturday mornings, there were a few hours of cartoons. Other than that, television was full of Archie Bunker and Walter Cronkite and Barnaby Jones. Most kids’ movies were the Disney-live-action-and-$1.98-budget kind like Escape to Witch Mountain. We remember those movies fondly today, but they were awful.

Today, though, there’s an awful lot of programming aimed at kids, much of it quite good. Video games have progressed beyond Pong, videotapes and DVDs are cheap and generally available. It’s quite possible now, in a way that it wasn’t in the 1970s, for a kid to sit on his ass all day and be amused.

At the same time that this was happening ‘parenting’ became a pursuit of its own, and the culture became absurdly protective of children. Cause and effect are hard to sort out here, but the end result is that kids now not only have the means to stay inside and stationary much more than they used to, but that they are encouraged to do so by over-protective parents.

When I was in elementary school, there were one or two kids who were ‘allergic’ to nearly everything, whose parents didn’t allow them to do anything, and who needed all kinds of ‘special’ help in doing all sorts of things. These kids weren’t retarded, or sick, or anything else. They were just mama’s boys (they were always boys) with doting parents who were determined to protect their sweet, sweet treasures from the world.

Today, the majority of kids are like this, and they’re getting fat from inactivity. What a surprise.

I have read nothing to the effect that anyone disagrees with this, but at the same time, nothing that indicates that any of the steps being proposed to change this situation have anything at all to do with a meaningful attempt to get kids off their asses. Instead, it’s all about food. Or ‘Big Food’, I should say, in the model of ‘Big Tobacco’. And, unfortunately, I don’t see that this is going to help, either.

For the past few years, it’s been obvious that the class-action-lawsuit industry was taking aim at the food industry, having already bled the asbestos and tobacco industries dry. And their efforts are already bearing fruit.

According to this morning’s Washington Post, Kraft foods has announced that they will reformulate their products to make them healthier. Kraft makes, among other things, Oreos.

(Kraft is, incidentally, part of the same conglomerate that also makes Marlboros. In the middle of the War on Tobacco, Phillip Morris bought Kraft and a number of other food companies in order to diversify away from dependence on a product that was under attack. Fat lot of good it did them, no pun intended.)

Kraft also makes Oscar Meyer products, Kool-Aid, Tombstone pizzas, Boca Burgers, Post cereals, Stove Top Stuffing, as well as, of course, all kinds of cheese. But it’s the Oreos that the stories seem to have focused on, and this is particularly interesting.

Kraft comes to make Oreos, the most popular cookie in the United States, as a result of having acquired Nabisco, which was once known as the National Biscuit Company. National Biscuit started cranking out Oreos in 1912, to compete with Sunshine’s Hydrox. Hydrox cookies are almost identical to Oreos, with two important differences: they’ve always been made with vegetable oil, and they are foul. Until the late 1990s, Oreos were made with lard, and were thus non-kosher, non-vegetarian, and non-cholesterol-free.

From the late 1980s to today, it’s generally been held that fat in general, and cholesterol-containing fats in particular, are bad for you. Lard and other animal fats in most foods have been replaced, in the name of health, with hydrogenated vegetable oils. The oils are hydrogenated — that is, hydrogen is added — in order to make them solid. Soybean oil is liquid at room temperature, and would result in a mess if you tried to make an Oreo with it. Hydrogenated soybean oil, though, is basically Crisco, and the goo in Oreos is made of hydrogenated soybean oil and sugar.

Hydrogenated fats — trans fats — are, it is now thought, bad for you. Worse for you than lard, certainly. This page about trans fats at the Harvard School of Public Health has a skull and crossbones at the top of it.

And the ‘sugar’ in Oreos isn’t actually sugar, either. Like nearly all other industrial users of sweeteners in the United States, Nabisco has switched to high-fructose corn syrup. Corn syrup is much cheaper than sugar in this country, thanks to distortion of the sugar market by the government.

Hydrogenated oils and high-fructose corn syrup are in nearly everything you eat in the United States, unless you cook all your food yourself. And both trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup seem to contribute to diabetes and obesity — more so than do sugar and lard.

The American diet in 1920 was not all that different from the American diet in 1820, or 1720, or 1620. The average person probably ate better in 1920, to be sure, but what people ate hadn’t changed all that much, and middle-class people in any of those years ate very much the same things. A 2003 Thanksgiving Dinner would probably not strike someone from 1703 as particularly strange, except for the cylindrical cranberry sauce. But most of what we eat the rest of the year would. A lot of this change has come very recently, as has our fat-people problem.

Here’s the CDC’s ‘fat map’ of the United States in 1985:


Whether you believe that the CDC’s measure of what’s ‘obese’ makes sense or not doesn’t matter in this case; this map represents the percentage of the population of each state that has a ‘body mass index’ of 30 or more. (If you’re 5 feet 4 inches tall and you weigh 175 pounds, you have a BMI of 30; put bluntly, someone with a BMI of 30 is fat by almost any definition.)

In the 1985 map, 10% of people in light-blue states had a BMI of 30 or more; dark-blue states had 10%-14% fat people. No data were available for white states.

Here’s the map for 2001:


In 1985, only eight states reported that more than 10% of their population had a BMI of 30 or greater, and no state reported more than 14%. In 2001, only one state fell into the 10%-14% range, and 27 states — the red ones — reported that 20%-24% of their people were fat (and, in one state, Mississippi, over 25% percent of the population had a BMI of 30 or greater).

Some of this apparent growth in girth is undoubtedly due to greater attention being paid to the problem. Fatties who weren’t noticed and reported in 1985 are now being counted. But it’s clear that people in this country are, indeed, getting fatter on average.

This despite all the fat-free, ‘healthy’ food you find everywhere. This despite the government’s food pyramid. This despite the fact that it’s almost impossible to buy full-fat yogurt in the supermarket any more. This despite that even things like cookies have been reformulated to be ‘healthier’.

All of which makes me fear that these new attempts to make food ‘healthier’ will once again make things worse. I’d be delighted if the healthier-food bandwagon this time strips away most of the wisdom of the 1980s and 1990s and returns food that tastes like something, but somehow I doubt that’s what’s going to happen. My guess is that the plan is the usual one — More Of The Same. Since reducing the fat in everything for the last twenty years has resulted in a nation of fatter people than before, the answer can’t be to go back to the old foods — no, we’ll need even less fat than we have now. Whenever a policy doesn’t work or outright backfires, it’s obviously because you haven’t gone far enough!

The Tino prescription for reducing obesity is a simple one: people should live in places that allow them to walk places as part of their daily routine, rather than as nothing more than exercise; and people should start eating more like their grandparents ate. That’s all. It’s time we started examining what change resulted in the so-called obesity epidemic. As Oreos have been around for almost 100 years now, and as the obesity rates have risen sharply only in the last fifteen years, somehow I don’t think they can be the cause.

Posted by tino at 19:22 2.07.03