Critical Section

Archive: April 2003

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Tuesday,  04/01/03  10:21 PM

Happy April Fools Day!  My favorite joke was from L.T.Smash, who claimed to have an interview with Peter Arnett.  Nope, I didn't bite.  You might enjoy this list of the top 100 hoaxes of all time.

Saddam was to give a speech on Iraqi TV today.  April Fools...

Eugene Volokh makes a terrific point, What if we had gotten the U.N. on our side?  Well, maybe Saddam would have backed down.  Maybe.  But if not, it would have been just as hard to fight the war, of course, and we would have had a bunch of our "partners" pushing us and criticizing us.  At least this way we know who's on our side, and who isn't.

I haven't written about it yet, but this SARS thing is getting scary.  A deadly cold.  I wonder how bad it will get?

Larry Ellison praises Linux on the desktop: Star Office is is "almost usable", and Mozilla is "not bad".  Now that's enthusiasm!

This C|Net report says sharing home entertainment will be a big driver for growth in home networking this year.  I believe that - far more people watch DVDs and TV than use computers...Turkey

Finally, this story about a brained bird hatched a flock of fowl puns.


Aperio's Mission = Automating Pathology

Wednesday,  04/02/03  12:21 AM

This document describes the mission of Aperio Technologies, which is “Automating Pathology”.

The Opportunity

Medicine has two parts – diagnosis, and treatment.  Medical diagnosis has become highly automated.  However, one area of diagnosis remains highly manual – the discipline of pathology.


Pathology is the study of disease; its causes, processes, development, and consequences.  Over half of all medical diagnosis is performed by pathologists, and most pathological diagnosis is performed by manually inspecting fluid or tissue specimens with a microscope.

There are two kinds of specimens prepared for microscopic inspection.  Cytology is the study of fluid specimens.  Histology is the study of tissue specimens.

A cytology preparation is a “smear” of liquid, such as blood, embryonic fluid (amniocentesis), cervical fluid (pap smear), lymphatic fluid, etc. spread onto microscope slides.  The smear is stained to provide visual contrast for cells suspended in the liquid, and to highlight abnormal conditions, such as metastasizing cancer cells.  A cytologist visually inspects slides looking for “things which are wrong”; a rare event detection process akin to searching for a needle in a haystack.

Histology preparations are thin slices of tissue which are “floated” onto microscope slides, then stained and fixed.  The stain(s) provide contrast to show tissue structure and cell details, and to identify distribution of proteins such as antigens.  A histologist visually inspects slides looking for abnormal “architecture”, cells which exhibit unusual morphology, and to gauge the proportion and density of staining.

            Automating Pathology

Automating pathology would yield two major benefits:

1)      Time savings.  Improve speed of diagnosis and productivity of pathologists.

2)      Accuracy.  Reduce false negatives and improve precision of measurements.

Each of these benefits translates directly into cost justification for investment in new technology.  There are three steps to automating pathology:

1)      Digitize slide data.  A device must convert the visual data on a slide into a digital image at high resolution and with no image artifacts.

2)     Manage “virtual slide” images.  Digitized slide images (“virtual slides”) are very large.  A system must store, retrieve, and display such images, and provide remote access.

3)     Automate slide analysis.  Create software which performs repetitive tasks such as rare event detection, assay quantification, and tissue classification (pattern recognition).

The Technical Obstacles

Since pathology is such a large and important part of diagnostic medicine, and since it remains highly manual and therefore represents a substantial opportunity for automation, what has kept automation from being adopted?  There are several severe technical obstacles.

First and foremost, to automate pathology it is essential to digitize slide data.  There are several practical obstacles to doing this efficiently at high resolution:

n      The amount of data captured is very large.  A typical pathology specimen measures 15mm x 20mm.  At 400X magnification (using a 40X objective lens) the required image resolution is about .25µ/pixel (µ = micron = 1/millionth of a meter).  That means the digital image of a typical specimen measures about 80,000 x 60,000 pixels, and contains about 14.4GB of data.  That’s big.

n      Maintaining accurate focus is quite difficult.  Although a microscope slide appears “flat”, at sub-micron resolution it is actually full of hills and valleys.  The “depth of field” of a typical high resolution microscope is about .2µ, and the hills and valleys of a sample can be 10µ high.  There may also be a persistent “tilt” to a sample which can be as much as 100µ.  So digitization of a slide sample requires constant and accurate focus adjustments.

n      Elimination of optical artifacts is crucial.  The usual approach to digitizing slides has been to take a picture of a microscope’s field of view, move over, take another picture, move over, etc.  This is called “tiling” and results in thousands of pictures which must be “stitched” together to form a complete image of the specimen.  Tiling is not only quite slow (it can take hours) but it also yields significant seam artifacts.

Secondly, automating pathology requires a system to manage “virtual slide” images.  As noted above, virtual slides are very large.  An automated pathology system must efficiently store and retrieve very large image files, and must support the following capabilities:

n      Rapid panning and zooming.  This capability is essential for viewing; pathologists typically view slides at low resolution and zoom in and out on “interesting things”.  Virtual slides are too large to be loaded into a computer’s memory, so careful data organization is required to support direct access to any portion of a virtual slide, at any level of zoom.

n      Incremental remote access.  Sharing slide data over computer networks is a key benefit of automating pathology (“telepathology”).  Because virtual slides are too large to copy easily, the system must enable incremental transmission of slide data for remote access.

n      Database storage for metadata.  Each pathology specimen has critical metadata associated with it; patient information, case notes, preparation notes, etc.  These data must be stored in a database associated with the virtual slide images to enable rapid searching and maintenance.  Annotation capabilities are likewise essential; annotations become part of the medical record associated with an image and must be managed by the database.

Third, automating pathology entails automating slide analysis.  There are several important technical obstacles to doing so:

n      Processing time.  As noted, virtual slide images are very large.  Computer analysis of very large image files must be performed efficiently and in a distributed fashion.

n      Visualization of results.  Slide analysis results must be displayed in a fashion which facilitates interpretation by pathologists and aids their diagnosis.

n      Pattern recognition.  Sophisticated pattern recognition techniques are needed to identify “things which are ‘different’” as well as “things similar to things seen before”.  The usefulness of automated analysis depends directly on the accuracy of pattern matching.

Aperio’s Solutions

Aperio Technologies has developed solutions for each of the technical obstacles described above, enabling – for the first time – the automation of pathology.

Digitize slide data

Aperio has developed the ScanScope®, a revolutionary device which can digitize entire slides at high resolution in minutes.  It is based on patent-pending methods that combine a linear array detector with high-performance opto-mechanics.  The ScanScope uses the same type of camera used in satellite photography; the scanner essentially “flies over” the slide, acquiring linear stripes of image data.  The optical focus is automatically adjusted hundreds of times per second, yielding accurate focus over the “roughest” specimen terrain.   The ScanScope is much faster than “tiling” systems, and crucially the resulting images have no optical artifacts.

Manage “virtual slide” images

Aperio’s platform software is a patent-pending “operating system” for virtual microscopy.  It controls the ScanScope hardware, compresses virtual slides into a standard image file format, stores virtual slides in a standard database format, coordinates remote viewing of virtual slides, and supports virtual slide analysis.  A file format has been devised which supports JPEG2000 wavelet encoding of image data, yielding a 20:1 reduction in file size.  This format supports rapid panning and zooming to any portion of the virtual slide.  Aperio has created a network transport mechanism to incrementally transmit slide data efficiently over wide-area networks, enabling remote viewing and analysis of slide data.  A standard SQL database is used to store slide metadata, including annotations and automated analysis results.

Automate slide analysis

Aperio has developed a simple yet sophisticated architecture for automated analysis.  The “algorithm framework” includes facilities for incremental access to slide data at any level of zoom, parameter processing, progress and result reporting, and distributed processing (“grid computing” for slide analysis).  The results of algorithmic analysis are displayed as “overlays” on slide images, making interpretation straightforward and facilitating pathological diagnosis.

Aperio has developed several end-user applications which build on this framework to provide computer-aided-diagnosis:

  • TMALab - specialized software for the analysis of tissue microarrays (TMAs).
  • Rare event detection algorithms for finding metastasizing cancer cells in blood, and locating metaphase-spreads in amniocentesis and bone-marrow specimens.
  • Image analysis algorithms for quantitative analysis of immunohistochemistry (IHC) assays, including her-2 expression for breast cancer.
  • Novel pattern recognition algorithms based on featureless heuristics.  These algorithms support content-based image retrieval and can quickly detect “known” patterns as well as flag “new” patterns.

Each of these solutions overcomes serious technical obstacles in novel ways.  Automating pathology is a clear opportunity, and Aperio has the technology to make it possible.



Thursday,  04/03/03  11:03 PM

So, talking about lying; now Gerhard Schroeder thinks Saddam Hussein should be removed from power.  This man has no integrity.  Kind of like the [ex-]L.A.Times photographer who Photoshopped an image which appears on the LAT front page.  I think the photographer was just trying to make his images more interesting, but Schroeder is actually trying to have it both ways.  And of course the N.Y.Times is setting a new standard for dishonest reporting.

This is what is so great about blogs.  Not only are they a great source of original information, but the blogosphere relentlessly edits itself to prune falsehood (and edits "the media", too, of course).  You can't claim the U.S. is bombing civilians in Baghdad when there are satellite pics with 1m resolution posted which show otherwise...

Peter Arnett says "this war is not working".  (Of course, neither is he - anymore.)  Note date.  An April Fool if there ever was one!

SARS: Should you be worried?  I am...  It will take time for this lethal cold to mutate to a more benign form, and even longer to develop a vaccine.  This could get bad.  And no pre-celebrating, please, there could be silent carriers.

Did you know Charles Schwab is opening an online bank?  Hmmm....

Salon continues to live.  Yay.  They are way liberal (and kind of whiney), but I like them anyway.  I can really remember, in 1997, when people thought they would put newsmagazines out of business.

We now have a blogging VC.  Cool - welcome to the blogosphere!

Barry Bonds likes David Eckstein.  So do I.  And speaking of baseball (we were, right?) wasn't it nice to see Kevin Brown back in form?  (Maybe not if you're a Diamondback.)

Do you like squid?  I do.  Turns out a rare "colossus squid" was caught off New Zealand.  Cue Don Novello in Atlantis: "with that I would have a white wine".


One Note per Post?

Friday,  04/04/03  10:19 AM

I tend to post daily smorgasbords of comments on a variety of subjects.  A visitor suggested that I break each subject into a separate post.  What do you think?

One post per subject, please.

Keep doing what you're doing.

total votes = 20

  (ended 04/11/03)


Friday,  04/04/03  11:31 AM

Michael Steinberger in Slate: Wines that Can Start a Fight.  A nice discussion about French Burgundy.  But more important than the flavor or bouquet of a particular appallation, why buy French Burgundy?  There are plenty of great pinot noirs from California, Oregon, Washington, and New York, not to mention Britain (yes, they have some decent Pinots) and Australia.

Drinking French wine is like wearing real fur - politically unacceptable.


Friday,  04/04/03  11:35 PM

People can say what they like about the progress of the war, but after only two weeks the allies are in Baghdad.  Coalition forces have lost 84 people, and by Iraqi government estimates 453 Iraqi civilians have been killed.  This is a huge military success.  There has never been anything to compare with this in terms of the military achievement vs. the lives lost.

SARS is getting more serious.  The American Association for Cancer Research has canceled their annual meeting scheduled for next week in Toronto due to SARS.  (There have been 150 cases and seven confirmed deaths due to SARS in the Toronto area.)  That's 16,000 high-powered cancer researchers, not going to their most important conference.   { Aperio was planning to exhibit at this show. }

Wow.  Sony is developing a TV which will play video streams from home networks.  Of course they are.


On Blame

Sunday,  04/06/03  11:58 AM

Blame.  What a strange concept, right?

n.  The state of being responsible for [something].  Censure, condemnation.
v.  To hold responsible.  To find fault with, to censure.

ReginaldThis morning my kids left a yarn kit sitting on the floor of my office, and my cat turned it into the biggest mess you can imagine.  They blamed Reggie (pic at right).  Of course, I blamed them.  And if we hadn't cleaned up the mess, my wife would have blamed me (she's out of town).  But if we had friends over, they would probably have blamed her.  And so it goes...

A distinguishing feature of present-day Western society is the need to blame.  For every bad thing that happens someone must be blamed.  Just as with the yarn in my office, there is a hierarchy, a pachinko machine of responsibility.  If the responsibility isn't captured at one level, it falls to the next, then to the next, and so on - but it can't fall completely out the bottom, someone must be responsible for everything.

If you're reading this, you're most likely American, or European, and so you probably don't give this a second thought.  But if you're Indian, or Chinese, or Malaysian, or Japanese, this may strike you as a wacky feature of Westernism.  The Chinese have a great all-purpose word for the randomness of being, joss, which loosely translated means luck or fate.  To a Chinese person the bottom of the pachinko machine of life is joss; it is not necessary to blame someone for every bad thing that happens.  So the kids left the yarn out, and the cat played with it, and we have a mess.  Too bad.  So what.  Joss.

Religions have many purposes - codification of mores, explanation of mysteries, manipulation of congregations, etc.  They are successful memes which replicate freely in humans.  One of their benefits is to provide a bottom to the pachinko machine, a final source of responsibility - either God bounces the blame back (Christians can always blame "original sin") or God takes the blame (Muslims can always blame "the will of Allah"), or God says there is no blame (Zen Buddhists can always say "blame is irrelevant").

Blame involves causality.  One thing happens, which causes another, and the first thing is blamed for the effect of the second.  Reductionists feel each thing is the result of a small number of previous things, in a deterministic way.  Holists feel each thing is a result of all previous things, in a deterministic way.  Either way each thing has a cause.  Of course, stopping the chain at any point is arbitrary.  Could I blame Reggie for playing with yarn?  After all, he is a cat, and cats play with yarn.  Could I blame the kids for leaving the yarn out?  After all, they are kids, and kids leave stuff out.  Could my wife blame me?  Can anyone be blamed for being who they are?

I am especially struck by the Western need for blame in reading news reports about the war in Iraq.  With each minor setback, each negative things that happens, the media relentlessly search for someone to blame.  A civilian is killed by colateral damage?  A plane is brought down by "friendly fire"?  Who is to blame?  Do we blame the soldiers?  The military leadership?  The defense department?  The U.S. government (or the British)?  Or do we blame Western society?  Maybe we go back to root causes, like Baathism, or "Arabism"?  Or do we personalize it, and blame Donald Rumsfeld, or George Bush, (or Tony Blair)?  Or [again to root causes] Saddam Hussein?  They are all men, do we blame Y chromosomes?  They are all people, do we blame human nature?  Violence is a feature of all animal societies, so is the animal kingdom to blame?  What about nature itself, is war an inevitable part of nature?

To find the point of blame in this chain, we have to assign responsibility.  Which brings us to free will.  If everything is completely deterministic, then it is what it is, and nobody could have done anything to change things.  But if people have free will, they can make decisions, and take responsibility for those decisions.  Each decision is a potential point of blame.  The soldier who decided to pull the trigger.  The general who decided to order the soldier into battle.  The president who decided to attack Iraq.  The dictator who decided to defy the United Nations.

And we can blame the cat who decided to play with the yarn.  And the kids who left the yarn out.  And the dad who raised the kids.

I decided to take my kids to the beach.  Blame me :)


Monday,  04/07/03  02:15 AM

Daylight saving time - spring forward.  As Shirley says, losing an hour is "not helpful".

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf is daily exploring new territory in blatant lying.  While U.S. forces occupied the presidential palace in the center of Baghdad, al-Sahhaf denied his city had been stormed.  "Clouds of dust blew past and sirens could be heard as he spoke."  Why is he doing this?  His audience is the millions of people who are getting war news through corrupt and biased channels, like al-Jazeera.

Al-Jazeera is presently featuring a photograph of a U.S. tank which experienced mechanical trouble and was purposely destroyed by coalition forces.  According to Mr. al-Sahhaf, eight other U.S. tanks were also "captured" and the division they were a part of was "decimated".

Peking Duck posted an interesting note about how the war news is being carried in China.  Amazing.  From my own experience, there is a huge gap in understanding and perspective between sophisticated Chinese businesspeople and the average peasant.  My guess is that reactions to the CCTV "spin" range from unblinking acceptance to total rejection.

Christopher Albritton tells the fascinating story about his reentry into Iraq.  You'll remember he's the former AP reporter who raised money from his blog readers to send him into Northern Iraq; you can follow his reports at Back in Iraq 2.0.

The Nando Times is shutting its online doors; it was one of the very first online news and information sites.  With virtually every print publication now updating their websites 24x7, there is no longer demand for a distinct online-only news source.  I can definitely remember when Nando had everything first.  { In addition to the increased competition, I think a contributing factor in their demise might have been a too-strict registration system. }

Steven Pinker is moving from MIT to Harvard!  Here's his MIT website, visit it while you can.  (Steven is the author of The Blank Slate, and one of very few real authors who have deigned to give me advice on my book.)

Adobe updates Acrobat for the XML Era.  This seems important; I don't know anything about it yet, but I'll learn more - stay tuned!

Nerds with too much time dept: the floppy drive RAID.  Why?  Why not?  { After you get tired of waiting for your floppy RAID to seek, turn it into the starship enterprise. }


Monday,  04/07/03  09:44 PM

Our big apes are in big trouble.  "In just 20 years, poaching and the Ebola virus have cut in half the ape population of western equatorial Africa".  Not good.

C|Net reports Microsoft is rebranding Office 2003 as "Office System", and including SharePoint.  I would be more excited if I understood SharePoint.  Why does Microsoft create these products which defy simple description?  Must just be me...

Forbes: the 25 fastest growing technology companies.  Aperio is not one of them.  Yet :)

The RIAA continues their madness - now they're suing four college students who shared music online for $150,000 per song.  Yep, that's going to boost music sales, all right.

An urban fable: AccordionGuy and The Girl Who Cried Webmaster.  { Moral: if you're going to pretend you're a webmistriss, learn HTTP. }

Just got the new issue of Wired magazine.  It came with a supplement called UnWired which was the same size as the magazine - all about WiFi, handhelds, applicances, etc.  Very cool.  (Not online yet, so I can't post a link.)


Blog Roulette

Monday,  04/07/03  09:56 PM

Introducing a new Critical Section feature - Blog Roulette.  There are all these great blogs out there, and I want to share them with you!  (I've discovered many of them by clicking back up from my referer log.)  Each time you visit two blogs will be selected at random from my "extended blogroll" and displayed at the upper right.  If you want, click "spin" to get two more.  Two blogs a day keep the boredom away...

There's also a link to my extended blogroll at the bottom of the navigation bar - if you want to see the whole universe at once.  As you're checking these sites out, if you have comments, suggestions for other sites, or find broken links please tell me!


Tuesday,  04/08/03  10:35 PM

Watching Iraq, China begins to lean on North Korea.  The CSM analyzes the beneficial effect of coalition military action in Iraq on the situation in the Far East...

If you're a regular visitor, you know I don't like RSS aggregators.  I've been reading such much good stuff about SharpReader I'm tempted to give it a try.  (e.g. See this WP article.)  If nothing else, it would show me how Critical Section appears when "viewed" in this way.  Stay tuned...

Introducing Googlephone!  Look up phone numbers, do reverse lookups, the works.  Google is amazing!  [And thanks, Wolf, for putting this togther...]

This Honda ad is so cool.  Isn't it nice when ads ... are ... entertaining?
(click pic to watch)

Honda ad - Isn't it nice when things work?

Do you hate telemarketer calls as much as I do?  You can now pre-register for the national Do Not Call program.  Awesome.

Announcing - ta da! - Tivo desktop.  Part of their Home Media strategy, as previously announced.  You need a Series 2 to use it, though...  I might have to upgrade :)

Larry Ellison in WSJ:  "The next big thing ain't computers."  Instead, he says, it's biotechnology.  Cool.

Stephen Den Beste thinks Bill Walton and Shaq would make great reporters in Iraq.  If that sounds bizarre, read about it...

Finally - The "all your base" meme is baack...


Feeling Proud

Wednesday,  04/09/03  03:40 PM

American FlagI was just reading the news reports from Baghdad.  Today I am really proud to be an American.  Really, really, proud.  We do things nobody else can do, and we do them in ways nobody else will do them, because they're the right things to do.  And in so doing, we set an example for everyone.

I know the war's not over yet.  There is much work to do, in some ways the hard part has just begun.  Winning the peace may be harder than winning the war.  But it seems like the Tipping Point has been reached.  The Iraqi people themselves will take over and finish the job. 

I want to express my heartfelt thanks and appreciation to each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women "over there".  You've done us all very proud.


Wednesday,  04/09/03  10:33 PM

The smoking gun?  Marines hold nuclear site.  Not surprising, but in a weird way, gratifying.  Imagine what might have happened if M.Chirac had his way.  Note that this site had been inspected several times!

Salon has this fascinating story about CRACK, an organization that pays drug-addicted women to get sterilized.  Quote from the mother of a drug-addicted woman:  "People shouldn't bring children in this world if they can't take care of them."  Yep.

Philip Greenspun, ex of Ars Digita, starts his new weblog with this post: The Life of a Public School Teacher.  Sobering.  { This article tells Philip's story. }

Geek alert: The programming language Whitespace, in which the only significant lexical tokens are <space>, <tab>, and <linefeed>.  "The language was designed by two people who shouldn't have had so much to drink, Edwin Brady and Chris Morris."

The 2003 Webby Awards Nominees have been posted.  Curiously Critical Section was not nominated!  Oh well, maybe next year...  Especially fascinating is that there is no weblog catagory.  How 1999.

The 29th Canival of the Vanities is up.  In case you don't know, the Carnival is a moveable feast; each week a new blogger hosts the carnival, which consists of links to representative posts from other bloggers' sites.  Following the Carnival is a great way to meet new blogs.  For example, I really like Smell the Blog.

The new Mazda RX8.  Wow.  (My mom is going to want one - really.)  { Have you noticed that car sites have the coolest flash? }

Wireless providers have until November 24 to implement portable numbers.  That means you could switch cell providers and keep your number.  Yippee.

New Reality Show to Feature Tycoon Trump.  I am not making this up.  Sigh.

Tonight I put my site on a diet.  There are 15 images in the frameset which have been shrunk from 52K to only 29K, thanks to Photoshop's "save for the web" function.  Those of you on dial-up, you've probably noticed this already :)


Thursday,  04/10/03  09:52 PM

France hails 'fall of Saddam'.  What a bunch of disgusting front-runners.  The subtext is "we really want TotalElfFina to continue their lucrative oil contracts".  I hope they get what they deserve: nothing.

Cloudsoup quotes Shelley: "... And on the pedestal these words appear: "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. ..."

Timbu has a great post: Parachuting Cats - Unintended Consequences.  This is blogging at its finest.

Nick Denton has a wonderful conversation with a sceptic.  Notice how much more effective sarcasm is when done with a light touch?

NRO has rerun "Freedom", an article on Iraqi Regime Change written by Abd al-Majid al-Khoei, the Shiite leader who was assassinated in Najaf.

A withering look at the Bizarro Broadcasting Company (BBC), courtesy of DuckSeason.  You knew there was a problem when the H.M.S.Ark Royal switched them off...  (Actually if you read BBC stories at all you knew there was a problem!)

ConcordeWell, the Concorde is grounded for good.  I suppose this is the right thing to do, economically, but it is too bad.  The Concorde is a mechanical marvel, a beautiful example of form following function.  All the more amazing in that it is over 30 years old.

I found a great new blog - Arguing with signposts - added to the roulette blogroll but check it out.  I love the comparison between Iraqi Information Minister Mohammad Said Sahhaf and Groucho Marx.

With all the news from Iraq this has been under-reported: Scientists identify virus behind deadly SARS:

"SARS, which was spread around the world by travelers, has killed an estimated 110 people and infected more than 3,000. But authorities in the United States and other countries believe they have the infection under control."  [italics are mine]

This feels to me like pre-celebrating; I'm betting right now that SARS kills more people than the war in Iraq.  And the problems will be with us much longer.  Remember, AIDS is a venereal disease, it only spreads through sexual contact.  SARS spreads through the air.  Not good.

This is fascinating: the Miniature Earth.  Really thought provoking.  I think this type of analogy will be great for illustrating concepts in Unnatural Selection.  People can relate to 100 objects much more easily than 10 billion.  [via Solonor's Groovy Groove]

Have you noticed that the use of "www" seems to be declining?  More and more sites have URLs without a leading "www".  And many more make it optional (it is on my site, works just as well as  Saves typing, but even more important it makes them easier to say; "double-you double-you double-you dot" just wasn't efficient.  And "triple-dub" never caught on.  Just wondering.

Apple in talks to buy Universal Music Group.  I am not making this up.  And - I don't get it.  Universal is the largest music label - 25% of worldwide sales, and they are struggling, like all of "big music".  This would make Apple "more like Sony", but in a bad way; I don't think Sony's acquisition of CBS (aka Columbia/Epic) is regarded as a success.  { For what its worth - Universal is presently owned by Vivendi, a French media conglomerate. }

Do you think the Martha Burk -led protest of the Masters golf tournament is as stupid as I do?  I see where they are comparing themselves to Martin Luther King.  Excuse me, but I think the civil rights movement of the 1960s was a teeny bit more substantial.


Friday,  04/11/03  10:45 PM

Eason Jordon, Chief News Executive at CNN, describes The News We Kept to Ourselves.  Wow.  That should finish off whatever credibility CNN has left...  They're being pilloried all over the blogosphere.

I'll be the two millionth blogger to link  "I now inform you that you are too far from reality."

Stephen Den Beste: The Grinch Who Stole Quagmire.  Hilarious.  Another "Clueless" post destined for the top of Daypop!

I just discovered One Hand Clapping.  I like that sound.  Check it out.

The Red PillTake the red pill - the Matrix Reloaded trailer is out.  For a really cool trailer-viewing experience, download this one (100MB) and play it full screen.  The movie looks awesome, they seems to have pushed the special effects envelope once more.

Wired has a pretty wild story about the infamous tracking boards.  It is a fun read but a little exaggerated; please divide everything by three.

Remember my little survey about whether Apple was going to Intel or IBM?  Most of you thought IBM, and insiders seem to back you up (hey, maybe most of you are insiders).  Anyway John Dvorak disagrees; his latest is How MacIntel Will Change the Market.  Maybe John likes to stir the pot, but he makes good points.

Chris Pirillo has a new project up - the Windows File of the Day.  Lots of cool utils.

If you don't like the price of something, why not change it?  See Steal this Barcode for details...  "Wal-mart is not amused."  Yeah, I can understand that, these people are stealing.

The Tivo Home Media Option has been out for what, a week?  People are already hacking up a storm.  Here's a great post by a guy who programmed his Tivo to display his email.  Why?  Why not!

Here's some amazing paper art - Quadros.  Very, very, cool.

Please join me in welcoming VentureBlog to my blogroll.  I visit it every day and I like it, so there.

Finally - more site dieting - tonight I implemented mod_gzip.  This causes all text output to be compressed, reducing page sizes by 50%.  More speed for you dial-uppers...


Saturday,  04/12/03  10:26 PM

A little war perspective for a mid-day Sunday...

We need a new word - sort of perpedicular to schadenfreude - to describe the feeling many of us have about the anti-war left's gloom and doom warnings about the war in Iraq.  I take the New Yorker and the latest issue (April 14) is a prime example of how wrong the naysayers really were.  I know things haven't gone perfectly in Iraq; there is much left to do, and many chances for things to go wrong.  But it surely hasn't gone anywhere near as badly as the left feared.

The New Yorker is a marvelous magazine, by the way, notable for its great cartoons as well as great writing.  But it definitely leans left...

[ Update: Andrew Sullivan is handing out "Van Hoffman" awards to anti-war prognosticators who missed badly. ]

Where was the BBC news?  An interesting survey of the Beeb's problems with its Iraqi war coverage, from the Telegraph.  Interesting especially when considered next to CNN's similar problems.

Looks like the results in Iraq are continuing to have a beneficial effect on the situation in North Korea.  Fox reports North Korea Hints it Would Accept Multilateral Talks Over Nuclear Dispute.  Maybe the Bush administration's foreign policy team isn't quite as incompetent as some would have you believe, eh?

Finally - Gut Rumbles notes: "Every 90 seconds, a child is killed or injured in a motor vehicle in the U.S.  In 2000, 2,343 children under 15 were killed in motor vehicle crashes."  We all abhor any deaths, of course, but this helps put the 146 coalition causualties from the Iraqi war in perspective.  IraqiBodyCount - a strongly anti-war website - lists a maximum of 1620 Iraqi civilian war deaths.


Site Optimization

Sunday,  04/13/03  05:29 PM

Recently I systematically optimized this little site.  By way of documentation and in case it is of public interest, here's what I did...

  1. Conform to standards.  Make more people and robots able to "view" the site.
  2. Reduce file sizes.  Increase speed loading pages.
  3. Serve a special home page to "robots".  Help them find everything easily.

Conform to Standards

HTML is a "loose" language.  Just about anything goes.  The popular browsers like Internet Explorer and Mozilla will "do the right thing" with all kinds of weird errors.  But for maximum compatibility it is best to have pages which are "correct".

The easiest way to make sure your pages are correct is to use an HTML validator.  I like Doctor HTML, but there are a bunch out there.  You point Doctor HTML at a page, and it tells you what (if anything) is wrong with it.  This is a great way to pick up unclosed tags, invalid syntax, etc. - it also verifies links and even checks spelling.

Most browsers and programs don't care about content-encoding, but some do.  (The ones that don't pretty much assume U.S. ASCII is in use.)  The easiest way to take care of this is simply specify the encoding in a META tag:

    <META HTTP-EQUIV="Content-type" CONTENT="text/HTML; charset=US-ASCII">

If you have templates for your pages, put this in the template and you're done.

Finally, if you're a heavy user of CSS, be sure to test the CSS you're using on all the browsers with which you want to be compatible.  I test with Internet Explorer, Mozilla, and Opera (Windows), Internet Explorer, Mozilla, and Safari (Mac), and Mozilla (Linux).  Even though your CSS may be "valid", it may not be interpreted the way you want by all browsers.  This is one reason I've stuck to frames and tables, they've been around so long pretty much all browsers treat them the same way.

Reduce File Sizes

Everyone's browsing experience will improve if you can reduce file sizes, especially people with slower connections to the Internet.  It will also enable your site to serve more people concurrently with the same amount of bandwidth.  There is nothing you can do which is better for your visitors (except give them interesting content!)

Reducing file sizes bifurcates into two kinds of activities: reducing image sizes, and reducing page sizes.

Reducing Image Sizes

Image sizes are a function of three things - the pixel dimensions of the image, the type of image, and the compression ratio.  You should never make images any bigger than they have to be.  If you have a really big image which just must be big, then put a thumbnail for it in the page's content which links to a new window with the big image.  Any image bigger than 200 x 200 pixels is a candidate for shrinkage or thumbnailing.

There are two kinds of images in wide use on the web: GIFs and JPEGs.  GIFs are best for images with a small number of colors and well-defined borders - cartoons, diagrams, flow charts, etc.  JPEGs are best for images with gradients of colors and smooth transitions - mainly photographs.  The coolest tool for shrinking images is Adobe Photoshop's "Save for the Web" feature.  This allows you to take any image and try "what if" scenarios with file format and compression ratio.  In addition, when Photoshop saves for the web it optimizes image headers, storing only the minimum information required, and enables progressive rendering, allowing larger images to be displayed incrementally as the browser receives data.  There are other tools which have similar capabilities, but Photoshop is the leader.

Reducing File Sizes

HTML pages are plain text; making them smaller is pretty tough.  Of course it is always better to use less words if you can, "brevity is the soul of wit" and all that.  But that won't really make your pages smaller.

The best thing to do for reducing HTML page sizes is to implement GZIP compression.  This means each page will be compressed before sending it out over the network, and decompressed by the browser.  Typically this reduces file sizes by about 50%.  All modern browsers say they support compression and do, but many robots do not.  If the client does not support compression the server will automatically send an uncompressed page.  There is really no downside to implementing this - do it!

If you're using Apache, the way to implement compression is via mod_gzip.  There are many parameters for mod_gzip; I found this page to be very helpful.  I use the following directives in my HTTPD.CONF file:

LoadModule gzip_module modules/   in LoadModule section, should be last
AddModule mod_gzip.c   in AddModule section, should be last
<IfModule mod_gzip.c>    
mod_gzip_on Yes   enable mod_gzip
mod_gzip_command_version '/mod_gzip_status'   status URL
mod_gzip_minimum_file_size 500   minimum file size to compress
mod_gzip_maximum_file_size 500000   maximum file size to compress
mod_gzip_maximum_inmem_size 100000   maximum file size to compress in memory
mod_gzip_min_http 1000   require HTTP/1.0 for compression
mod_gzip_handle_methods GET POST   use compression for GET or POST
mod_gzip_item_include file \.html$   compress HTML files
mod_gzip_item_include file \.cgi$   compress CGI output
mod_gzip_item_exclude file nph-.*\.cgi$   don't compress nph CGI output
mod_gzip_item_exclude file \.css$   don't compress CSS files
mod_gzip_item_include mime ^text/   compress any text types
mod_gzip_item_exclude mime ^image/   don't compress any image types
mod_gzip_add_header_count Yes   include header size in statistics
mod_gzip_dechunk Yes   correctly handle chunked output
mod_gzip_send_vary Yes   correctly handle incremental output

If you're using IIS, the way to implement compression is via the Web Service property sheet.  Microsoft has a good description of how to do this on their website.  They are cautious about recommending page compression for CPU utilization reasons, but in my experience it is always beneficial; most of the time your webserver runs out of bandwidth long before it runs out of CPU cycles.  This page also has good information about configuring IIS for compression.

After you get compression configured, you can test it using this site.  Very handy.

Serve a Special Home Page to "Robots"

I don't know about you, but I've found that "robots" make up a good deal of the traffic to my site.  These robots can be search engine spiders, various indexing tools like technorati, or analysis tools.  There are also tons of RSS aggregators out there, and although they load your site's RSS feed first, many of them come back and get page data, too.

So - I have my website setup to look for the HTTP_USER_AGENT, and if the client is a robot I serve a different home page.  This serves several purposes:

  • Robots are not interested in visual presentation, so you can eliminate images, tables, styles, etc.  (And if you're using them, you can eliminate frames, too!)  This makes the page smaller and also avoids confusing the robot.
  • Robots are interested in your links.  My "normal" home page has links as part of the articles posted there, but all the navigation links are on a separate page served as the navigation bar.  And this doesn't have all the links, either, because I have an "extended blogroll" of sites I like.  So for robots I serve a page which has the home page content, all the navigation bar links, and the extended blogroll.  This gives them all the links in one place.

How do you tell if you're dealing with a robot?  Well, if the agent string doesn't start with "Mozilla" or "Opera", it's a robot.  (For historical reasons all versions of Netscape and Internet Explorer have always used "Mozilla" in their user agent strings.)  If it starts with "Mozilla" it might still be a robot pretending to be a browser; I check for two common cases, "Slurp" (Inktomi's spider) and "Teoma" (Ask Jeeves / Teoma's spider).  There are others, but this will get you 99% of the robots.

Some handheld browsers report a non-Mozilla user agent, like Handspring's Blazer and AvantGo.  This is a good thing; the robot version of the home page is perfect for a handheld (no graphics, straightforward layout, all links present, etc.).  For this reason it is better to put links at the bottom than the top; nobody wants to see your blogroll before your content.

Here's the robot version of my home page, in case you're interested...  It was a little more work, but it's nice to keep the robots happy :)



Sunday,  04/13/03  09:17 PM

Bruce Tognazzini, longtime UI guru, has written a terrific piece about Apple Squandering the Advantage.  I like his thoughts about how UI design isn't moving, and some of his suggestions for innovation (a return key on the left side of the keyboard so you don't have to drop the mouse, "piles" on the desktop, people as objects, etc.).

Paul Graham considers the Hundred-Year Language.  In 100 years "we know that everyone will drive flying cars...  What kind of programming language will they use to write the software controlling those flying cars?"  I say it won't be Java.  He says it will be Lisp.  { I don't know what it will be, but I bet the compiler for it will be written in C. }

Andrew Sullivan, writing in Salon, notes the best reasons for supporting the war were liberal, humanitarian ones in Swinging Left.  I am as confused about the left's strange opposition to the war to liberate Iraq as I am about a similar phenomenon: environmentalists' strange opposition to nuclear power.  Sometimes you must choose the lesser evil.

New Scientist reports that the human genome is being published, and observes that the total number of human genes is now estimated somewhere between 27,000 and 40,000; significantly less than past estimates which ranges as high as 140,000.  So that's it, an equation with 40,000 parameters...  [via slashdot]

I think this is important: Slate reviews Mail Fraud; yet another shortsighted plan to bail out the Postal Service.  This pseudo-private corporation with a public monopoly is one of the most inept and poorly run businesses around, and it is time for them to put their house in order.  If they had public shareholders, the problems would solve themselves...

Two notes on the Masters: Tiger Woods didn't win (Canadian Mike Weir did), and the protests against Augusta National for not having women members died in a sea of silliness.  Read the story - it is pretty amusing.

Wired notes software that turns your cell phone into a sex toy.  Please.


Monday,  04/14/03  05:16 AM

Ever wanted to translate a web page from one language to another?  Then check out AltaVista's BabelFish!  This morning I noticed that several visitors from Spain were following a link on Barrapunto, a Castilian portal, to my Tyranny of Email article.   Being Castilian-challenged, despite three years of high-school Spanish, I "Babelfish-ed" the page.  It probably lost something in the translation, but it is quite readable (see for yourself).  What can I say - this is so cool...


Monday,  04/14/03  09:56 PM

Steven Landsburg makes The Case for Looting, in Slate.  A fascinating analysis which convincingly challenges conventional wisdom.

John Howard, the Prime Minister of Australia, is daily competing with Donald Rumsfeld for the title of straightest shooter.  Very refreshing.  The Age notes his suggestion to demote France as a permanent member of the U.N. security council!  He'd like Japan and India to be represented, along with a country from South America (presumably Brazil, although they have to put their economic house in order first...)  I hope everyone stays aware of Australia's role in the coalition effort in Iraq; not only were they 100% supportive but they had troops on the ground and in the air.

Steven Den Beste has an interesting analysis of the developing situation in North Korea...  In which we see that doing the right things in one area (Iraq) is helpful in another (North Korea).

Peking Duck writes about AIDS in China.  Amazing and scary.  After you read this, please scroll through this well-written blog to see how the Chinese authorities are covering up SARS.  I tell you, this will get much worse before it gets better, regardless of what the World Health Organization says.

[ Later - looks like the Chinese are starting to admit they have a 'Grave" Crisis. ]

For many April 14 is "the day before tax day"; not pleasant.  But it is also the anniversary of Black Friday, the April 14 in 2000 when the Dow and the Nasdaq suffered their largest daily drops ever (6% and 10%, respectively).  This was indeed the tip of the iceberg poking through the bubble.  I remember it well, and not fondly.  Who then would have thought that the "recovery" would still be three years away?

Someday soon LEDs will replace incandescent bulbs.  Remember, "The future is already here, it just isn't evenly distributed" - William Gibson.

Cheshire CatIn response to some great feedback and suggestions from visitors, I went back and revised my How to Write C++ Classes article.  (Not a major rewrite, but some good solid tweaking.)  The central technique is called a "Cheshire Cat" class.

This is amazing!  Remember the Honda ad I linked a few days ago?  Turns out the whole thing was real.  I assumed (like you probably did) that this was computer graphics at its finest, but no - it just took 606 takes.  According to this Slashdot thread there is only one computer graphic element.  Can you spot it?


Tuesday,  04/15/03  06:09 AM

Good morning, welcome to Tax Day!

I just had to try this, I'm blogging from my car, driving from L.A. to San Diego.  I tell you, I just love my little Treo...


Wednesday,  04/16/03  11:50 PM

Daniel Pipes writes about War's New Face.  Really great stuff.  "The outcome of war used to be the overriding question.  Nowadays... attention focuses on very different matters, such as the duration of hostilities and the number of casualties."

The French are starting to whine; the WP notes the U.S. Boycott is being felt.  And the same article says Germany is not being affected as much.  "It could be that France's position is considered to be fundamental, and Germany's is considered to be more or less an accident, in connection with the elections last autumn."  Yep.  Steven Den Beste has more on the political ramifications of France's anti-U.S. stance.

June Thomas in Slate: SARS: The New Enemy.

Several people have asked about my interest in SARS.  It isn't just that I work for a medical diagnostics company, or that I care about human health.  SARS is interesting because it is a simple, common virus which has apparently mutated to become fatal.  This isn't suppose to happen, "the successful parasite doesn't kill the host".  But of course who is to say SARS is "successful" - time will tell.  It just doesn't seem that enough people will die fast enough to force the virus to mutate.

Om Malik in Salon discusses the late great Red Herring in Death of a Cheerleader.  A little dated, but apropos, Red Herring founder Tony Perkins discusses the Next Ten Years.

God Bless AmericaNot a crop circle - but the same technology.  Check out this picture - a farmer did this using GPS (click on pic for larger view).  Interesting application of the technology :)

Strongbad email.  Strongbad ha ha ha.  [ Thanks, Keith ]

This one is for all you Michael Moore fans...  Atomic hairsplitting for Fatboy.

Robert Scoble has swallowed the red pill.  So, how deep is the rabbit hole in Redmond?

Halley ponders May 1993.  Ten years ago.  Seems like, what, a hundred?  I'm going to bet that this has been the most eventful ten years in human history.  If you disagree, pick another and tell me why.

Michael JordanMichael Jordan played his last game tonight.  I'm a BIG Lakers fan, as you know, but for my money he was the best ever.  Yeah, you've got Wilt, and Magic, and Larry, and Bill, and Doc, and Jerry, and Kareem.  Someday you might consider Shaq or Kobe.  (Lots of Lakers on this list, eh?)  But you can't seriously claim any of them was better than Michael.

The Lakers are on a roll, they won again tonight, clinching the fifth seed in the Western division.  Kobe scored 44 to finish the season with an average of 30 per game, and Shaq had his 47th double-double.  The other teams should be worried, after cruising for much of the season the Lakers are peaking at just the right time.


Thursday,  04/17/03  10:52 PM

Wow.  New blogroll entry.  American Empire - a "Command Post" about SARS.  Not only is this really great information, but isn't it excellent that the blogosphere responds to emergencies in this way?  You cannot get this type of information from the media (especially if you live in Hong Kong, but also not if you live in L.A.).  { P.S. Anyone know or can guess why they called it "American Empire"? }

Speaking of Command Post, what happened over there?  They did this redesign and now it looks like some kind of portal.  I no like.  It is especially worse trying to pull it up on my Treo.  I do believe they've jumped the shark.

Peking Duck continues to blog away about SARS in China.  Very scary - there is now a rumor that two students at Bejing university have the virus.  "They live in dorm rooms with as many as eight guys, jammed in like cattle. It's the perfect breeding ground for disease."

The Duck is moving to Singapore...  I look forward to his reports from there.  A thoughtful expat as mole in Eastern societies, what a perfect blogging angle.  For more on Singapore see The Gweilo Diaries, from another expat.  You can't make this stuff up - isn't blogsurfing fun!

James Schlesinger in WSJ: Political Shock and Awe.  The fallout from the coalition's military success in Iraq continues.

Please check out this great webcast of a talk given at Berkeley by Max Boot, "Does America Need An Empire".  Interesting, balanced, and well-reasoned thinking.  [ Thanks Ralph Lee ]

Remember when webcasts were iffy?  Teeny windows, uneven audio, constant interruptions and restarts, server errors?  Now - they actually work.  I watched this like I was watching TV.  (Like watching TV with Tivo, I should say; pause, rewind, no commercials, etc.!)

Brad Choate loves his Tivo.  And makes interesting points about the technology and future business opportunities.  [ via Luke Hutteman, author of SharpReader ]

You knew it was going to happen: Mark Pilgrim is selling space on his blogroll in exchange for BlogShares.  Where will it end?

By the way, Critical Section "went public"; current market cap is $3,265.32.  You can buy shares for $1.16.  (When you sign up, you get $500.  All money is virtual.)

I, Cringley has a rambly article out; skip past the pet psychology and there are some interesting factoids.  I love the discussion of Google's 10,000 servers and what they do when one goes down: Nothing.  Also some good stuff about Microsoft's Tivo ambitions.

Dell is back on top - in the first quarter of 2003 they shipped more PCs than anyone else, pushing HP back down into second.  Looks like the Compaq acquisition is not working the way Carly hoped.

Finally - a Wall Street trader accused of insider trading offers an unusual defense: he claims to be a time traveler from 2256.  I am not making this up.


Friday,  04/18/03  05:36 PM

This is great!  Please check out "The Rootless Root, The Unix Koans of Master Foo", by Eric Raymond.  Each one is funnier than the last.  I've been laughing for ten minutes and I can't stop.  If you don't have time to read them all, read Master Foo discourses on the Graphical User Interface.  { Warning, if you think these are funny, you might be a nerd... }

Dr. Dobbs mentions a new micro-payment scheme called Peppercoin.  Interesting idea, you throw away 99 out of 100 microtransactions at random, and send through the 100th with 100X the value.  Reduces the processing overhead by a factor of 100.  Seems like a great idea, but [as with all such schemes] the devil is in the details...

The same article by Jonathan Erickson mentions Tibanna, which I had heard about before.  A unique approach to digital rights protection, it rewards people for sharing content.  This is the right approach; when people are clearly going to share, take advantage of it instead of fighting it.

The 30th Carnival of the Vanities is up, please make a meal of it (er, check it out).  My favorite is the lettuce, er, the Queen City Soapbox.


Saturday,  04/19/03  10:40 PM

Dustin Nolte, chief blogger at American Empire, directed me to this post, in which he explains the blog's name.  "The American Empire I think of as being the focus of this weblog is an empire of ideas that starts at one shore and ends at another".  So be it.

Dustin is also a contributor to the Command Post, and suggests that the redesign is not a repositioning.  Time will tell, but I think I was hasty in declaring a shark jump; I owe it to them and the great work they've done to give them time before passing judgement.  They also have a PDA version of their Iraq blog which looks great on my Treo.  So - sorry!

And speaking of SARS (we were, really; that's what drew my attention to American Empire); here's an interesting article in the NYTimes about how China's response to SARS has undermined their efforts to appear progressive.

Philip Greenspun: The Death of the Media Lab?

Matt Webb (Interconnected) and Tom Coates (Plastic Bag) are visiting San Francisco (they're both English), and blogging about it.  They seem to regard the U.S. much as we might regard Mars.  Visit both their sites for some interesting perspectives...

Easter BunnyWant to know what Playboy's Playmate of the Month looked like the month you were born?  Aha, I thought so.  Here you go...

Okay, this is funny.  Yeah, it is a Japanese page, but let the pictures load...



Sunday,  04/20/03  09:26 PM

Okay, I finally bit the bullet and tried Luke Hutteman's SharpReader.  Very cool.  (For an RSS aggregator, that is...)  It does preserve the "look" of posts; I was pleasantly surprised to find that with no changes Critical Section looked great.  Loading a post even loads the frameset.  If you are at all inclined to mess around with an aggregator, check this one out...

Sterling Hughes comments about HTML 4, XHTML 2, CSS, and all the alphabet soup: Isn't it supposed to get easier?  Yeah, what happened?

Speaking of the alphabet soup, Sam Ruby hosted a great pissing contest, featuring Mark Pilgrim, Don Box, Dave Winer, Simon Fell and of course Sam himself.  More heat than light, IMHO, but funny...

Jason Kottke shares a horrible thought: What if books had advertising?  Yuk!  Don't even think such throughts...

I'm rereading Nevil Shute's classic novel In the Wet.  What a terrific book.  I wish I could write that well, such economy of words.  And the ideas are excellent, very thought-provoking...

Steven Den Beste wonders: Why is Nato?

How much would you pay for a really great website?  Would you consider $4M?  I didn't think so.  Well, apparently the Austrialian IT minister would...  Must have used gold pixels.

Please check out my extended blogroll from time to time.  I keep adding new sites.  Two of these are chosen at random and linked in the Blog Roulette box at the top of the home page.  Lots of great blogs out there - check 'em out!


Tuesday,  04/22/03  12:00 AM

A busy day in the blogosphere...  enjoy!

John Tabin picked up the April 5 issue of le figaro, a French newsmagazine; the cover asks "Iraq, the next Vietnam?"  Talk about crummy timing...

L.T.Smash: Desert Bloom.  "After Friday prayers, a large group of men protested the US military presence.  No one was arrested, tortured, or executed afterwards."

Here's a cool site: How Americans can buy American.  Including extensive lists of French and German companies to boycott...

Ask Jeeves follows Alta Vista and Yahoo and does a search engine redesign.  Competition is good!  But, with Google as the clear leader, the others have to differentiate...  Why would I use Ask Jeeves?  I don't know.

Another terrific day-by-day today.  Becoming a daily habit for me...

Mitch Kapor of Lotus fame has released Chandler, an Open Source PIM.  Can it compete with Outlook?  Who knows, there was a time I didn't think Mozilla could compete with IE, but now I use it all the time...

A busy day for online music:

This is really cool.  Slashdot describes Synapse: "Students at Caltech and Harvard have developed a system that analyzes playlists and learns people's listening patterns.  It then channels its knowledge into generating streams of music that the people themselves would like to listen to."

Speaking of music, MacCentral reports Apple will hold a special event April 28 featuring "announcements that will be music to your ears".  Probably not the rumored acquisition of Universal Music Group, more likely the rumored debut of Apple's online music service.  BTW, Motley Fool has an interesting analysis: American Idle - about the state of the music industry and why Apple and Universal would be a good fit.

NapsterAnd - remember Napster?  Of course you do.  Well, Salon reviews a new book about the rise and fall of Napster, "A file-trading ship of fools".  My brief personal experience with their engineering team confirms - they had a great idea and a great application, but a terrible business.

Real buys  Yep.  $36M for a service (Rhapsody) which took $150M in investment to get started, not a bad deal.

Motorola takes Wi-Fi to the living room.  So does everyone else :)

In a former life I was GM of Intuit's online billpay service...  at the time, consumer adoption was lower than analysts expected, and we said consumer adoption would not really begin until online billpay was "better than free".  Well, C|Net reports Banks are offering sweetners to paying bills online.  This could do it.  And this is why: Banks cash in as more bills are paid online.  We all know someday all bills will be paid online, but will it be in five years, ten, or fifty?

{ I've been paying bills online with Quicken for ten years.  Writing checks is so 1900s. }

Discover reports you can turn anything into oil.  But Steven Den Beste says nope.

Tim Blair thinks the Mac needs one more key.  I agree.  Although the MacOS has better usability than Windows in many ways, the lack of consistent keyboard shortcuts is a defect.  After that, he goes on beyond Zebra!

Robert Scoble keeps describing joining Microsoft as "taking the Red pill".  I don't know.  Microsoft is a great company, no question, but with Windows and Office they are the Matrix.  I actually think joining Microsoft might be "taking the Blue pill".  And I think part of taking the Blue pill is that it makes you think you took the Red pill...



Tuesday,  04/22/03  05:07 PM

As you know, I've been looking for a word which means "a malicious satisfaction in the mispredictions of others".  And here it is:

Fehlervorhersagefreude (fail-or-vor-hair-sock-froid-uh)

The derivation: schadenfreude is a German word made from two German words, schaden ("damage") and freude ("delight").  Schadenfreude means damage-delight.  After consultation with my Mom we decided to start with fehlervorhersage, which means "failure prediction".  Tacking on freude ("delight"), we get fehlervorhersagefreude, or failure-prediction-delight.  Perfect.

I was a reluctant supporter of invading Iraq; I was conflicted by the potential for disaster in not doing anything, vs. the potential for disaster in doing the wrong thing.  Once America began the process, I became a supporter; it seems like you have to pull together in these things.  And I am pleased beyond any expectation that we triumphed militarily so quickly, and at such a low cost in lives.  (H.D.Miller concludes that the war killed fewer Iraqis in a month than Saddam's regime did...)  Of course there are still many ways to fail, but so far so good.  Certainly the dire predictions of some anti-war pundits have not come to pass, and they look downright embarrassing in the rear view mirror:

I just read "Soaking the Rich", a column by Geoffrey Colvin in Fortune about what the war will cost in dollars, and how that cost will be borne.  This column was published on March 31, nine days before the fall of Baghdad, and it estimates that the war would last six months, and cost the average American $260.

Yesterday I relayed John Tabin's note about the April 5 cover of le figaro, which asks, "Iraq, the next Vietnam?"  The San Francisco Bay Guardian asked the same question on April 2.

It isn't important to rub it in (although it may be fun), but what is important is to keep a sense of perspective.  The common mistake of all mispredictions was drawing conclusions too soon.  It was entirely plausible that coalition military action in Iraq could have become a quagmire, but to declare it so after two weeks, as the San Francisco Chronicle did, was hasty.  Similarly, The Statesman has declared the peace to be a quagmire, after only a week.  (The interval for quagmire declaration seems to be diminishing...  time was, a good quagmire took several years to develop...)

I'll try to remember, as I indulge in Fehlervorhersagefreude, that history is written over decades and centuries, not weeks and months.  The mis-prognosticators could still be right.  Nah!


Tuesday,  04/22/03  07:06 PM

Man, is eBay a money machine, or what?  They again beat their numbers, easily, and raised guidance.  Of all the business models to emerge from the dot-com era, theirs is one of the most novel, and clearly the best.  I used to think they couldn't keep up their growth, but it is hard to bet against their track record...

New monitor: SARSWatch.  The graphs on the home page pretty much tell the story.  Nobody can say this virus is under control or even understood yet.  The BBC is reporting the SARS virus is mutating rapidly.  Bad news for would-be vaccine developers, but could be good news for the rest of us; perhaps the virus will become less virulent.  The CDC confirms "we are not out of the woods yet".  They know that in Bejing, they've closed all schools for two weeks.  Scary.

Ralph Peters considers Palestinian Reality in the NYTimes.  "The Arab world is as addicted to blame as any junkie was ever addicted to heroin."  [ via LGF ]

Ken Layne revives the fascinating tale of "that photograph" of the space shuttle Columbia (remember the purple corkscrew?)  Yeah, why haven't we seen it?

VodkaPundit: Hit the road, Jacque.  No more French wine and cheese for him.  (Nor for me, either.  You see how useful the blogosphere can be - I found an American Camembert in the comments.)

Remember the great Wither Apple debate?  Well, John Gruber pretty much nails it in this article; he makes great points about why it would be hard and stupid for Apple to go to Intel, and in the process explains Apple's positioning and strategy.  So be it.  [via No Signal, who also links the cautionary tale of Next, a Steve Jobs company which tried the transition from proprietary to commodity hardware, and failed.]

Speaking of processors architectures (we were, sort of); it's hammer time!  Today AMD released the Opteron.  Of course Tom's Hardware has conducted benchmarks, and finds a dual-Operton dusts a dual-Xeon.  IBM has noticed; these babies will really cook with Linux.  Yeah, if I were Intel I would not enjoy this; the Itaniums live in a different world.  And Microsoft can't be thrilled either - Windows can't take advantage of their 64-bit architecture...

More Napster stuff - Universal and EMI have sued Hummer Winblad, John Hummer, and Hank Barry, alleging that their investment in Napster contributed to widespread Internet piracy.  I totally disagree with the premise and the idea that investors can be sued for investing, but I must say it couldn't happen to a nicer group of VCs :)

Finally - have you noticed how many commercials are widescreen?  Is the programming starting to go that way, too?  Maybe 16:9 is the future of TV.  It sure makes sense for viewing movies.  Although PCs are going to stay 4:3, I would guess...


Wednesday,  04/23/03  11:16 PM

Lego BrickI took my daughter Megan and her friend Ally to Legoland today; nothing like spending the day with two cute little five-year-olds.  Really fun.

The great thing about Legoland is that the target demographic is little kids.  So you have millions of little kids and their parents.  The teen thing is missing - no rap, no tattoos, no piercings, no rudeness.  Just people having fun with their kids.  I enjoyed being around other people, which is kind of odd for me.

I would link to Legoland's site, but it sucks.  Hard.  First, it only works in Windows IE.  I mean, really.  Next, it requires flash.  The pages are heavy and overdesigned.  And the information / fluff ratio approaches zero.  There are some Quicktime 3D movies, but they don't really work and they open in teeny un-resizeable windows.  A usability "don't".

I did have a brief thought - hmmm... this is a tourist place.  Wonder if there are any visitors from China or Hong Kong?  I didn't see any masks.  That could still happen, though.

Check out Peking Duck - lots of great posting.  Man, China is really flipped upside down by SARS.  They've even quarantined a hospital in Bejing...  Today's SARSWatch: 4288 cases, and 251 deaths.

CNN reports North Korea says 'War any moment'.  This is while trilateral talks between the U.S., North Korea, and China are taking place.  Their style of negotiation is a little unconventional - threaten disaster, and hope this gives them leverage.  I don't think it will work.  As usual, Cox & Forkum illustrate beautifully...

From Jason Kottke:

Scene: The Open Source Cafe.

Man: Waiter, there's a fly in my soup.

Waiter: Sir, it's not a bug, it's a feature.

Pretty hard to argue with this list, from Acidman.  Well, I do kind of like soccer, and I am conflicted about gun control.

This is really old, but I just tripped over it: Steve Sailer interviews Steven Pinker.  I love it that the hereditability of human nature can be discussed in a UPI press release.  Of course, I'm sure both were accused of racism or political incorrectness, or something.  Read it and decide for yourself!

Darwin FishJesus FishFinally, I direct your attention to The Fish Wars.  Be sure to see the Complete Fish Taxonomy.  My favorite is the Far Side Fish :)


Thursday,  04/24/03  06:31 PM

Mao with maskThe Economist: SARS: China's Chernobyl?  The latest issue has several great articles about the virus.

FuturePundit: What should be done about SARS.  Really excellent analysis.

CNN reports North Korea admits having nukes.  "North Korea's representative Li Gun pulled aside U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly on Wednesday and told him 'blatantly and boldly' that the country has at least one nuclear weapon, one official said.  Gun asked, 'Now what are you going to do about it?'"  Very interesting.  They must be quite frustrated with the U.S.' calm and restrained reaction to their bleating.

Steven Den Beste thinks this puts pressure on China, not the U.S...  Interesting.

From Cory Doctorow: Metacrap.  Cory is one of those people who consistently says things I'm thinking myself, only better.  The problems with metadata:

  1. People lie.
  2. People are lazy.
  3. People are stupid.
  4. People don't know themselves.
  5. Schemas aren't neutral.
  6. Metrics influence results.
  7. There's more than one way to describe something.

Take that, all you people who think XML and SOAP will make interconnectivity painless.

I can't wait until Dave understands trackback.  Hopefully he'll explain it and then I can finally get it, too.  { Yeah, you know me, I always assume if I don't get something, there's nothing to get... }

Russell Beattie edits the seven habits of the anti-blogger.  Cool.

Karlin Livingston reports William Gibson is ending his blog.  Interestingly, he feels blogging is incompatible with writing novels.  Meanwhile I've been under the delusion that blogging was helpful for writing nonfiction, although I must admit my progress on Unnatural Selection so far is a counter-example.

The Onion is back in form: New Fox Reality Show to Determine Ruler of Iraq.  They are much funnier when they're, uh, trying to be funny.

It isn't often that a website name makes me laugh out loud, but this one did: The Prime Number Shitting Bear.  Or, in its native Finnish: Alkulukuja Paskova Karhu.  Don't you just love the Internet?  I am not making this up.


Friday,  04/25/03  08:29 AM

Well, after about a week of using SharpReader, I'm giving it up.  It is a fine application, I didn't have any problems with it.  I just don't like viewing websites this way - it is like reading Reader's Digest, or something.  Plus, it creates pressure for me to read "everything".  I don't want to read everything, I just want to surf around and find interesting stuff.  The best way for me to interact with the blogosphere is to make a pass through my blogroll, picking sites I feel like looking at and clicking around...

The weekly Carnival of the Vanities is up.  This is a good way to find new blogs, check it out.

Solonor comments on, well, comments:  "The main way we introduce ourselves in the blogosphere is by commenting on someone's writing.  It seems a little rude at times.  We walk in the door of a stranger's house, criticize the furniture (even if it's a good comment), and invite ourselves back over whenever we feel like it."

Congratulations to Lee Hood, the smartest person I ever met, for winning the 2003 Lemelson-MIT Prize.  (Dr. Hood was my pre-med advisor at Caltech, in 1979, two or three lifetimes ago.)  "No single person has done more to create the genomics era than Leroy Hood."

C|Net has a feature on "the cars of tomorrow".  But they totally miss the most important feature - the ability for cars to spontaneously organize themselves into caravans, speeding traffic flow.  A few high-end cars have this technology now - some Mercedes have it, and some Lexus' - but it is positioned as a safety feature ("smart cruise control") rather than a traffic optimizer.

Just in case you thought the dumb "throw money at anything" attitude of the late 90s was gone forever, Shazam Entertainment just closed a $6M funding round.  What they do: if you're walking around and you hear a song you like, you dial Shazam from your cell phone, and their music recognition service will tell you what the song is.  Now that is a terrific business, isn't it?  (Almost like automating pathology, but different.)



Friday,  04/25/03  09:08 AM

The idea: Caravans

I thought about this a bit on my drive home, in traffic.  I was trying to think, what could I do, by myself in my car, to make traffic move along faster.  I think the best thing you can do is tailgate as closely as possible, without actually risking hitting the car in front of you, and track your accelerations and braking as closely as possible to the car in front of you.  A virtual towing rig, essentially.  This minimizes the space your vehicle uses on the road, minimizes air resistance, and maximizes your speed for the cars behind you (by yourself, you can't do anything to speed up the car in front of you). 

I've discussed this with a few friends, and they all have the same reaction.  Paraphrasing, their reaction is "when I get in traffic, I just relax and slow down, and try to drive along smoothly without tailgating".  This is what I do, too.  I don't want to get too close, because then I have to pay attention, and do a lot of stopping and starting.  But this strategy minimizes traffic efficiency!  It allows large gaps to open in front of you, "wasting" freeway space, and all the cars behind you can go no faster than you are going, regardless of the speed at which the cars ahead of you are traveling.

Okay, so what if you built a feature on a car that automatically kept you as close as "safe" to the car in front of you?  {"Safe" would be determined by your current speed and your car's braking ability, and assuming the car in front of you has really good brakes.}  Call this "caravan mode".

How it would work

It seems like this would be technically possible, with a radar or some sort of distance sensor in the front, and a tight feedback loop with your accelerator and brake. 

SO, you merge onto the freeway just like always, get into the lane you want, and hit a switch to enter "caravan mode".  Your car goes into a sort of autopilot, accelerating and braking to keep you as close as possible to the car in front of you.  You are not prevented from accelerating and braking normally (doing so automatically disengages caravan mode, as with cruise control), or from changing lanes, or anything else.  You are not restricted to a particular lane, and you are not dependant upon support from the road or other cars to make this work.  If there is only one car in the whole world with this feature, you still benefit.  For one thing, you don't have to pay attention (!), you won't hit the car in front of you. 

NEXT imagine several cars in a row each with "caravan mode" enabled.  They would travel more efficiently than without caravan mode.  The lead car would set the pace, subject to traffic, road conditions, other traffic, etc.  The other cars would be "towed" along at the same speed, very efficiently.  A long caravan of 100 cards would be WAY better than 100 cards acting independently.  (Interesting to try to model this in a spreadsheet or something.)

Some possible problems and solutions:

  1. What if the lead car travels too fast for one of the other cars?  The solution is simply to have an adjustment for the maximum speed you're willing to go.  Just like a cruise control, essentially.  If the car in front goes faster than this, you fall back and leave caravan mode.  As soon as you get close enough to a car in front, you reenter caravan mode.
  2. What if you follow too close?  As with the maximum speed, there would be an adjustment for this - turn the knob to select.  Some people are more comfortable being further back - the driver decides.  Leaving a bigger gap is safer and less aggresive, but also less efficient.
  3. How do other cars merge into a caravan?  This is a tough problem, because each car in the caravan is automatically trying to minimize the gap to the next car.  In the early days of this feature few cars would have it, so caravans of more than a few cars in a row would be rare and merging would not be too hard.  If the feature is successful and many cars have it, long caravans would form, and merging would become difficult.
    A couple of possibilities for this:
    1. The human driver could notice that a car wants to merge (blinker, etc.) and touch their brake to slow down.  This would open a gap, and the car could merge in.  Once the merge is complete, the driver re-engages caravan mode, and life goes on.
    2. If the human driver doesn't slow down, and a car "sticks their nose in" anyway, so be it; the caravan sensor notices the new car, slows down (to maintain a safe gap), and the newcomer joins the caravan.  If the new car doesn't have caravan technology it becomes a new lead car.
    3. If the car merging in was equipped with the caravan feature, it could electronically signal the cars in the caravan.  This would cause the nearest car to slow down automatically to make room.  In the coolest case the merge would happen automatically with no human intervention required by the driver making room, but perhaps s/he has to reengage caravan mode manually after the car has merged.  {One pleasant attribute of this solution is that it creates additional incentive for people to add caravan mode to their car, so they could merge into existing caravans...}
  4. What happens when the lead car exits the highway?  Nothing!  This is a not a system for steering, it is only a system for controlling speed.  The lead car changes lanes, exits the highway, etc.; so the second car becomes a new lead car.  It will speed up to the maximum level set in its cruise control until it gets close to another car, at which point the car in front becomes the new lead car.  {An interesting attribute of this approach is that lead cars will most likely not have this technology.  So cars which have caravan technology will "draft" cars which don't...}


This solution has some pretty properties (W=UH):

  • No road modifications are required.
  • It appears technically feasible at a reasonable cost per car.
  • Cars with the feature can coexist with cars that don't have the feature.
  • Cars with the feature benefit even if very few other cars have the feature, but the more cars have the feature, the valuable the feature becomes.  (Leading to a classic "network effect".)
  • It is a safety feature.  Really!  You will not be able to hit anything in front of you while in caravan mode...  At the very least it is safer than cruise control, which is installed in just about every modern car.

More complexity

Here's a v2 feature:  Cars in a caravan “communicate” with each other, via a wireless network (802.11, anyone?).

The primary benefit of the caravan is that it eliminates the “lag” in human reaction from the time the car ahead of you changes speed to the time that you do.  However, there is another lag caused by the inherent momentum of the car.  Even if the caravan electronics instantly detected a change of speed in the car ahead and instantly changes your car’s acceleration or braking, your speed would not change instantly.  Sure, eliminating the human lag is great – by far the main part of the overall lag – but eliminating the “acceleration lag” would be even better.

If the car ahead could signal that it is braking or accelerating before it actually does so, your car could anticipate the change and compensate automatically.  The next level of improvement would be a signal from the car ahead of the car ahead – anticipating adjustments by the car ahead before it actually makes them.  Perhaps the added complexity of this solution would not be worth the limited benefit.

Another idea – have predictive software in the car which anticipates acceleration changes.  This could be a learning algorithm, so your car gradually becomes more familiar with the behavior of the car ahead.  This has the advantage of simplicity (no communication with other cars required) and can also be done in “what if” mode, without actually changing acceleration, to see if it would help.

Even more complexity

Here's a v3 feature:  Regional networks.  Cars with caravan technology could "subscribe" to a service which helps them locate caravans to join.  This network could also signal weather, accident information, and traffic conditions.  {In addition to being useful, this is also a recurring revenue opportunity...}

A little off subject:  I have a little GPS map unit in my car, I love it.  The one thing it lacks which would make it totally great is information about traffic conditions.  It will pick a route it feels is optimal but which I know involves the Sepulveda Pass at 8:00 in the morning.  I’ve often thought it would be cool if all people who had such a unit were connected through a two-way network, probably piggybacked on the two-way paging networks.  Each car would contribute its own traffic conditions (just its location and speed, otherwise anonymous) in exchange for realtime traffic information from other cars in the vicinity.  There are enough people driving around with GPS units that a reasonable picture of realtime traffic on major streets would result.  Something I would gladly pay monthly for…

Your comments and suggestions are eagerly solicited...

[ This article was originally an email thread; Greg Crandall, Chris Prajzner, Kevin Schantz, Nick DeNicholas, Russell Bailinson, and Ramon Kurkchubasche each contributed to these ideas. ]

[ Later: the Caravan Fallacy... ]

[ Even Later: Caravans Revisited - the future is here! ]

[ Much Later: Caravans cont. - back to the future ]


Friday,  04/25/03  10:25 AM

There are few things I really hate, but one of them is applications whose uninstallers don't work.  I recently tried Synapse, a new music player which supposedly "learns" the music you like and suggests playlists.  I didn't like it - too much of a beta, I think - so I tried to uninstall it.  Well, the uninstaller didn't work, so I ended up using Explorer and Regedit to find "everything" and clean it up.  What a pain.  Why don't developers just use a standard installer like InstallShield or Wyse so they get working uninstallation for free?

Actually one of the things which turned me off about Synapse was the smugness of the GUI.  "Like, we're so cool, and we know we're cool, don't you think we're cool?"  No, I don't think you're cool; your app is sucky and your uninstaller is broken.  Back to coding, please.

Back in Iraq is back!  Back in the U.S., that is.  Christopher Allbritton is the reporter / blogger whose readers raised enough money to send him to Iraq.  He has come back and the experiement is ending.  Overall I enjoyed his writing but I didn't find it dramatically different or better or unusual compared to "the media".  In the end he was one guy in one place, and could only reports things he saw from where he was.  The advantage of the media is they have many people in many places, and can report from all over, giving some perspective.  Of course each media outlet has a spin, so then you have meta-media like the Command Post which integrate over all sources (including independents like Christopher) to give the big picture...DNA Helix

Today is the 50th anniversary of the discovery by James Watson and Francis Crick of the double-helix structure of DNA.  This comes only days after the publication of the first human genome.  Dr. Watson: "The pace of discovery is going unbelievably fast."  Dr. Crick: "Did we appreciate how important DNA was? Yes we did."

It is interesting the way memes replicate through the blogosphere.  I have been thoughtful about this all along, but it was really borne in on me when my Tyranny of Email article crested a wave.  Now, more recently, the silly "Fehlervorhersagefreude" meme is making a wave of its own.  I recently found a great post by John Hilar called The Tipping Blog, which relates blogospheric meme propogation to The Tipping Point, Malcom Gladwell's terrific book about how ideas propogate in the real world.

I'm not going to do Malcom's book justice, but essentially he observes that ideas are spread by people, and that all people are not the same.  Certain people behave in ways that cause them to be especially important in the spread of ideas:

  • Connectors - People who know lots of other people, and spread ideas rapidly.  They are important because they connect different groups of people together.  In the real world these are people like stockbrokers, tennis pros, and hairdressers.  In the blogosphere they are people like Glenn Reynolds and Chris Pirillo.
  • Mavens - People who are subject matter experts.  They are important because their opinion is respected.  In the real world these are people like technical experts, religious leaders, and media columnists.  In the blogosphere they are people like Dave Winer and Steven Den Beste.
  • Salespeople - People who persuade other people.  They are important because they reinforce a point of view about something: "this is cool", "this is bad", "this is important".  In the real world these are people like politicians and newscasters.  In the blogosphere everyone is a salesperson!

There are a relatively small number of connectors, mavens, and salesmen, but they are the gatekeepers for ideas.  The rest of us are simply the consumers.


My Awesome Sharp DVD Recorder

Sunday,  04/27/03  11:52 PM

Sharp DVD recorder (DV-RW2U)Here's my review of the Sharp DV-RW2U, a home entertainment DVD recorder.  The bottom line: It is awesome!

Why would anyone want one?

So what exactly is a DVD recorder?  Why would anyone want one?

Essentially a DVD recorder is exactly like a VCR, except it uses DVD discs instead of VHS tapes.  You can record any video or audio onto a DVD disc, and play it back later.  Here are the advantages of a DVD recorder over a VCR:

  • Digital image quality.  Like, way better.
  • Digital audio quality.  Like, way better.
  • Random access.  With a DVD you can easily jump around on the disc and access any of the content; pause, back-up, etc.  And no rewinding...
  • Editability.  DVD discs can be edited easily to remove or rearrange content, VHS tapes cannot.
  • Media format.  DVD discs are easier to store and carry, and more durable.
  • Compatibility with computers.  See below for more on this, but essentially a DVD disc recorded by a DVD recorder can be displayed on a computer with a DVD drive.  And vice-versa.
  • Coolness.  Well, you knew that, right?

Here are the disadvantages of a DVD recorder compared to a VCR:

  • Price.  VCRs are around $100, DVD recorders are now around $600.
  • Media cost.  Blank VHS tapes are about $1, and blank DVD-R media is about $4.

So essentially a DVD recorder is better and cooler than a VCR, and also more expensive, as benefits a new technology.  But it fills the same niche.

It is worth mentioning, a DVD recorder is also a player.  The Sharp in particular is a jack of all discs, it can play:

  • prerecorded DVDs (duh)
  • DVD-Rs discs made on any machine
  • DVD-RW discs made according to the DVD-RW 1.1 standard
  • prerecorded audio CDs
  • CD-R/RW discs containing audio tracks
  • CD-R/RW discs containing MP3 music files
  • prerecorded video CDs
  • CD-R/RW discs containing MPEG-2 video files

I want to dwell on the quality factor once more.  Because of the price point and intended audience, DVD recorders are also the best quality DVD players you can find, with progressive scan video capability, component and SVideo output, fiberoptic digital audio, and full support for multichannel audio like Dolby Digital and DTS.  You don't have to spend $600 to get a top-of-the-line DVD player, but if you spend that much to get a DVD recorder, it's nice to know you get a great player as part of the deal.

Before I leave the "why would anyone want one" answer, let me tell you why I wanted one.  Just one reason - to back up video I'd recorded on my Tivo.  I'm a big-time Tivo user, and I record sports events and movies all the time.  I've expanded my Tivo's recording capacity to 130 hours by adding a hard drive (about 40 hours at top quality), but that's still finite.  I wanted a way to back-up video I'd previously recorded without suffering the poor quality of VHS.  Recording to DVD fills the bill perfectly.

Aren't there a bunch of recordable DVD standards "out there"?

Well, no.  There's really only one.  Okay, okay, there are really two.  Here's the story.

There are two goals of recording DVDs: 1) to be able to play them back on the machine you recorded them on, and 2) to be able to play them back on a "garden variety" DVD player, like all your friends have.  There are two DVD standards and they both do (1) and (2).  The only thing they don't do is play on each other's recorders.  The two standards are called DVD-R and DVD+R.  That's right, the difference is that one has a dash between DVD and R, and one has a plus.  { Who thinks of these things, anyway? }

So, to recap, if you have a DVD-R recorder, your discs can be played on any DVD-R recorder and they can be played on "garden variety" DVD players.  If you have a DVD+R recorder, your discs can be played on any DVD+R recorder and on any "garden variety" DVD player.  You cannot play DVD-R discs on a DVD+R recorder, nor DVD+R discs on a DVD-R recorder.  Okay, got that?  Excellent!

I should also mention that both standards support two kinds of discs.  The first kind of disc can only be written once - after that it is read-only.  These discs are called DVD-R or DVD+R.  The second kind of disc can be erased and rewritten as many times as you like.  These discs are called DVD-RW or DVD+RW.  Why use the read-once versions?  Well, the media for DVD-R / DVD+R are slightly less expensive than the media for DVD-RW / DVD+RW, about $4 per disc instead of $5 per disc.  And, sometimes you really don't want something to be erased, so with DVD-R / DVD+R you can be sure that it can't be overwritten.

The Sharp recorder is a DVD-R type device.  They seem to be slightly more popular than the DVD+R devices, but as noted above it really doesn't matter.  Perhaps someday one of the standards will "win", or there will be a new third standard which incorporates both, but that day seems pretty far off at the moment.

Both standards allow you to record 4.7GB of data on a disc.  This is enough for 2 hours of really high-quality video ("DVD quality"), or 4 hours of very good quality video ("SVideo quality"), or 6 hours of okay but not great video ("broadcast quality").

In my experiments the 4-hour mode was good enough for everything, including high-motion stuff like basketball.  The 2-hour mode was terrific for movies which are only about 2 hours long anyway.  The 6-hour mode was a little sketchy with the high-motion stuff; the digital artifacts of the DVD compression began to show.  It would be fine for 6 episodes of Sex in the City, but not good for Lakers vs. Kings.

A cool feature of the Sharp is that it uses a technique called VBR, or Variable Bit Encoding, which lets you specify how much video you want to record, and it adjusts the quality accordingly.  { For example, I set the machine to 2-hour mode and then told it I wanted to record a movie which took 2½ hours.  It adjusted the quality downward slightly and filled the disc with the movie. }

There are basically two ways to record video on a DVD.  First, you can record it the same way as prerecorded DVDs, a format known as "V" (for video).  If you record this way your discs will be 100% compatible with all DVD players.  V-mode discs can have new data appended, but you cannot delete anything already on the disc.  This is the only format supported by DVD-R media.  If you have DVD-RW media you can erase the whole thing and start over.

Second, if you have DVD-RW media you can record video in a format known as "VR".  This format is much like a computer disc, you can add, edit, and delete content at will.  However, VR-mode discs cannot be played back in "garden variety" DVD players, they can only be played back by your recorder (or another DVD-R recorder).  So you trade the flexibility of editing with incompatibility.

Here's a table which summarizes things...

media type






cost per blank disc



can be erased?



video format

V-mode (only)



compatible with DVD players?




can append to disc?




can add, edit, delete from disc?




As mentioned, the main reason I wanted a DVD recorder was to back up shows from my Tivo.  I am going to be backing them up onto DVD-R media in V-mode, so they can be watched on any DVD player anywhere...

Okay I want one.  Tell me about the Sharp.

You got it.  I've been checking out DVD recorders from Philips and Panasonic, and Sony is rumored to be hatching one.  But when Sharp announced their recorder it seemed to combine all the features of all the others with a better price, so I jumped on it.  By the way, this is definitely the leading edge of a new consumer product category, and prices are going to keep falling.  So if $600 seems like too much, just wait.

One thing I didn't know about the Sharp before I bought it but really appreciate now that I did is that it has an excellent manual.  Really.  It does not appear to be written in Japanese with English words, or use funky tables, or have diagrams that don't make sense.  It just takes you right through using the device.  And it starts simple and works up, so if all you want to do is put in a disc and press RECORD, you can.  On the other hand if you want to fully edit your recorded video, you can do that too, and the manual explains how.

Like most consumer electronics, the machine is driven by a remote control.  A front-panel display tells you what's going on, but this is basically fluff; the machine has a great on-TV display which is what you'll find yourself using all the time.  The remote is well organized and reasonably easy to use.  Crucially, the battery door is solidly attached and doesn't seem like it will fall off any time soon.  { If you don't think this is important, you obviously don't have as many remote controls as I do - or as many unattached battery doors. }

Connecting the device is reasonably straightforward.  It works like a VCR; you put it between your broadcast signal source (cable, satellite, etc.) and your TV.  If you have a Dolby Digital receiver, you put the DVD recorder after the source and before the receiver, which in turn drives your TV and your speakers.  The Sharp has a fiberoptic digital link for audio if you have a receiver which support this.  I have to say the sound was excellent; I tried The Matrix (of course, the standard system-test DVD!), and also some audio CDs as well as some CDs with MP3s, and it sounded great.

All the inputs and outputs support SVideo as well as Video.  If you have SVideo sources (satellite or cable) you should use them, it really makes a difference.  I could even see the difference SVideo makes when hooking up my Tivo, even though all the video on the Tivo originally came from my cable box via a standard [non-SVideo] connection.

The Sharp also supports "component output" for TVs which support it.  Basically this is a higher-quality signal than SVideo where the brightness and color information is encoded on separate cables.  I have a Sony TV which supports component output, but I could not see the difference.  Your mileage may vary.

Another nice feature of the Sharp is a front-panel connection for a video camera.  The Sharp accepts standard coaxial video input, but it also supports DV input directly.  if you have a camera with a DV output this is a terrific way to capture the video from the camera and put it on a DVD.  The DVD recorder can even control the camera through the DV link, which makes editing even cooler.  I don't have a camera with DV output (yet!) so I didn't try this, but if you do this might be worth the price of admission all by itself.

I tested the front-panel inputs by hooking up a PlayStation 2.  Yep, I recorded my kids playing SpongeBob SquarePants.  Not a DVD I will save forever, but it is nice to know it can be done :)

Like a VCR, the Sharp DVD recorder can be programmed to record particular channels at particular times.  It supports VCR+ codes if you are a fan of them; I guess it does make recording easier.  { I do all my recording on the Tivo, of course, so I am not going to use the DVD recorder's timer at all, but for many people this will be quite important. }

I mentioned editing video earlier, and this brings me to the most complex feature of the recorder which many people may never use.  The editing feature is only available with DVD-RW media recorded in the VR-mode.  (If you record in V-mode you can append new titles to a disc and do some really limited editing like setting title names, but that's about it.)  If you're in VR-mode you can create "playlists", which are essentially like the menus you see on prerecorded DVDs.   You can edit start and stop points, rearrange and rename titles, pick the still image you want to be displayed for a title, and so on.  All using pretty intuitive commands from the remote.

As a test case for this I transferred You've Got Mail from my Tivo to the recorder.  First I just recorded the whole thing, which was then a single title with a length of 2½ hours.  Then I broke the movie into separate chapters at each commercial break, editing out the commercials, picking a still frame, and naming each chapter.  This took about an hour.  I now have a DVD which can play the movie from beginning to end without interruption (2 hours), or you can bring up a menu with chapters about 5-10 minutes in length and pick the starting point, just like a prerecorded DVD.  Very, very cool.

As a final test, I transferred a basketball game; the Lakers beating the Timberwolves.  { Great game, by the way. }  I simply recorded it as I watched the game using the Tivo.  Since I routinely fast-forward through the commercials, the DVD recording has the fast-forwarding on it.  When I paused the Tivo I paused the recorder as well.  In this mode it is possible to end up with a commercial-less recording without doing any editing; just record as you watch the first time.

So that's the scoop.  I'm pretty happy with the Sharp DVD recorder, so far it is exceeding all my expectations.  Of course, someday someone will build a Tivo with a DVD recorder in the same box...



Sunday,  04/27/03  11:53 PM

The WSJ's Opinion Journal engages in Fehlervorhersagefreude: "They said what?"

Did you see this]  C|Net reports:  "A federal judge in Los Angeles has handed a stunning court victory to file-swapping services Streamcast Networks and Grokster, dismissing much of the record industry and movie studios' lawsuit against the two companies."  Wow.  Kazaa was not part of the suit, but by extension they would be exonerated as well.  I'm sure there will be an appeal, but this is the biggest defeat for record labels in their battle against file sharing so far.

I read a story in Business 2.0 (May issue) suggesting that Apple should buy Tivo.  That just doesn't make sense to me.  There is a loose analogy to the iPod business - a media device which adds value to the computer as the "digital hub" - but I really don't see it.  Apple is announcing their online music service tomorrow, that should be quite interesting.

Want to see something really cool?  Check out one pixel per meter.  Ever wonder how the Eiffel Tower compares to a Klingon Battlecruiser?  Well, now you know.

Yippee.  Dave Winer to the rescue; he explains trackbacks.  Someday in my virtual spare time I'll implement them - maybe - in the meantime it is nice to know how they work...  Essentially what they enable is that as you are reading a post or article online, you can see links to posts and articles on other sites which reference it.

I saw something really lame today, and have to share it.  Lexus is running print ads which look like the cover of a magazine called Über Auto.  The cover has the headline "Wilkommen Zu Der Wunderbar Wagen", and features excerpts from a story by Mätthias Muench: "...the World has been put on notice, again..."  At the bottom of the page in small letters, you find "Über Auto and Mätthias Muench are fictional, but you already knew that, didn't you?"

Well, I didn't already know that.  I hate the smugness of this.  They think it is so cool to pretend to be a German magazine praising a Japanese car, and then they're going to let us in on the joke, but do it in such a way as to imply we should have known anyway.  Look, if you can't find an actual magazine to praise your car, don't make one up.  This is bogus.  And please don't imply that Germans know more about cars than Americans.  Sheesh.

{ I own a Lexus and I love it.  What happened to "the relentless pursuit of perfection?" }

The Webbys are dead!  Well, not dead, but the ceremony has been cancelled.  Between the war in Iraq and SARS and airlines going bankrupt, they decided people would not want to travel to San Francisco, so they're going to do the awards online.  So be it, but I always thought the accounts of the ceremony were better than the awards themselves...

The cover story of the latest issue of Wired is now online; Re-Enter the Matrix.  I can't wait - just three more weeks!  Interestingly, in order to make this movie the filmmakers created a digital replica of "the real world" inside a computer, completely modeling everything including actors Keanu Reaves (Neo) and Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith).  You'll recall the Matrix is a simulation of Earth used to pacify humans being used as batteries.  So in order to film the Matrix, they essentially created a matrix.  Very interesting.  I wonder if I'm just a battery?


iTunes Music Store

Monday,  04/28/03  10:22 PM

iTunes Music Store
(click for fullsize screenshot)
iTunes Music Store

So, I'm sure you heard, Apple announced their new online music service, the iTunes Music Store. 

They are charging $1/track, and they have deals with all the major labels.  Crucially, downloaded tracks can be downloaded to iPods and burned onto CDs, with no restrictions.  The service is integrated right into iTunes, Apple's free music player.  { By the way, this means it is Mac-only, at least for the time being... }

It looks really, really nice.  $1/track might be too much - I think $.50 is the right price point - but they're definitely on the right track [sorry].  You can preview 30 seconds of any song right in iTunes.  Buy the track, download it, listen to it, copy it to your MP3 player, and burn it onto a CD, all within one app.  The response time using a cable modem was instant.  And the content was there - in my unscientific sampling they seemed to have every artist I could think of, except the Rolling Stones.  { What's up with that? }

It took no time to get setup for buying tracks (they obviously subscribe to the PayPal school of "ask no questions you don't have to").  I downloaded Dead Man's Party by Oingo Boingo in ten seconds, and poof; it was sitting on my hard drive and I could play it (I'm listening to it now).  I downloaded the whole album, it has nine tracks so it cost $9.  I copied it to my iPod, and then burned it to a CD.  So easy...

Time will tell if people really are willing to pay for music this way.  I think people will pay for a great experience (consider Starbucks).  The price might still be slightly too high, but they're getting close.  It sure beats any other online music service hands down (I've tried them all).

As soon as you see it, you'll say "this is the way online music should work".


Monday,  04/28/03  11:48 PM

L.T.Smash verbally spanks Chirac, while at the same time reminding us of the long alliance between the U.S. and France.  So we see that Chirac has not only messed up the present relationship, but also sullied the past and placed the future in jeopardy.  Le fool!

Economist Steven Levitt has won the prestigious John Bates Clark medal in economics.  Levitt's most famous co-written paper is The impact of legalised abortion on crime.  [ thanks, Jason ]  GNXP also links this 1999 article in Slate by Levitt and Steve Sailor: Does abortion prevent crime?

In addition to Apple's iTunes Music Store, they announced a new 30GB iPod.  Looks really nice.  I have a 5GB iPod and only recently filled it up.  This one is thinner, lighter, cooler, and holds six times more music.  Hmmm...

Salon likes the iTunes Music Store, too...

So does Fortune...  Dr.Dre: "Man, somebody finally got it right".

C|Net reports: XM satellite radio comes to the PC.  A service with 101 channels which costs $10/month.  On the surface, it would appear price-competitive with iTunes Music Store, eh?  So when is someone going to make a Tivo for radio?

So, do you think Apple is going to do this with movies, too?  I bet they are.  Look for a Quicktime-related service with a similar user model; you preview movies for free (Quicktime is already the largest movie trailer site), download them for a reasonable price, play them, and burn them to DVD all from one application.  The already have an application called iMovie, but it is a movie editor.  How about iVideo?

Salon reports baseball attendence is on the decline, 5% over last year, apparently.  Does this mean people have lost interest?  Is this an economic effect?  War hangover?  Interesting...  Personally, I become an avid Dodger fan right after the Lakers win the NBA championship.


Tuesday,  04/29/03  10:39 PM

President Bush is planning a speech tomorrow from the deck of the U.S.S.Lincoln, an aircraft carrier which is returning to San Diego after participating in the war to liberate Iraq.  Salon says he will announce the war is over.  Apparently the ship is too far at sea to reach by helicopter, so he'll be making a carrier landing in a 'plane.  Cool.

I'm as pleased as everyone by the results in Iraq and the relatively low cost in human life required to achieve them, but I am troubled as many others by the fact that we haven't found any WMDs so far.  Not that the war wasn't worth waging anyway, but the administration clearly stated the rationale for the war was the threat of WMDs from Iraq.  I always thought they knew more than they were saying, but now it is beginning to look like they were just guessing (not good), or being outright deceitful (worse).

LGF has a great post and picture of a statue made out of Iraqi army boots which has replaced a statue of Saddam in Baghdad.  Somehow this really touched me...

Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, has a blog (!), and shares some interesting thoughts about BlogShares.

Is it just me, or is DayPop going haywire?  Seems like on any given day the results don't make sense (like this morning), or the site is down, or the links don't work...  Too bad, because when it is working, it is awesome!

The great kinetic sculpture race.  Yep, that is a human-powered pink poodle.  I am not making this up.

Finally - did you catch the Lakers tonight?  They absolutely steamrolled the Timberwolves.  The final score was 120-95 and it wasn't that close.  When they play like that, they can beat anyone.  And they did it without Rick Fox.


Wednesday,  04/30/03  08:43 PM

Wow, end of April!  The first third of 2003 is gone!  And what an eventful year it has been, so far...

A little blog vanity: In those 120 days I have made 152 posts and written 23 articles.  We have served 30,968 visitors, of whom 2,992 have come back at least three times.  That is so cool.  Thank you all for coming by...

The bad news - I am way behind where I was hoping to be with Unnatural Selection.  I guess being an author and a CTO of a startup are incompatible.  I'm not giving up - I still think the problem is severe, and needs to be discussed - but my expectations have shifted.  I just have to start writing and we'll see how it all falls out.

(click for fullsize screenshot)
In my ongoing quest to check out RSS aggregators, today I decided to try NewGator.  This works a little differently from other aggregators in that it is an Outlook plug-in.  It integrates right into Outlook and RSS feed items are treated much like emails.  Each feed becomes a separate folder.  It is really nice, so far so good and no problems.  And as with SharpReader I was pleasantly surprised to find Critical Section works and the posts look just fine.  The only thing is - I still like surfing websites much better than receiving RSS feeds.  So I'm trying a combination; I'm only receiving feeds for a few major sites - this way I'll be notified when "something happens", and I'll be surfing to the others from my blogroll.  I'll keep you posted...  stay tuned.

An under-reported attribute of the new iTunes is its ability to "share" music with "your friends".  Read all about it on Macintouch.  See how smart Apple was with this; instead of fighting file sharing, they are facilitating it, but in the context of buying music instead of stealing it.  This is how you win - give people what they want, and figure out how to charge for it.

If you're a connoisseur of Steve Jobs' presentations [as I am], here's a C|Net video of the iPod and iTunes Music Store introductions.

Of course people are already poking at the edges; Too Much News reports how to link to items within the iTunes Music Store.

Update: Walt Mossberg likes it, too...

This is so cool!  Check out GeoBlog, the world as a blog...


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About Me

Greatest Hits
Correlation vs. Causality
The Tyranny of Email
Unnatural Selection
On Blame
Try, or Try Not
Books and Wine
Emergent Properties
God and Beauty
Moving Mount Fuji
The Nest
Rock 'n Roll
IQ and Populations
Are You a Bright?
Adding Value
The Joy of Craftsmanship
The Emperor's New Code
Toy Story
The Return of the King
Religion vs IQ
In the Wet
solving bongard problems
visiting Titan
unintelligent design
the nuclear option
estimating in meatspace
second gear
On the Persistence of Bad Design...
Texas chili cookoff
almost famous design and stochastic debugging
may I take your order?
universal healthcare
triple double
New Yorker covers
Death Rider! (da da dum)
how did I get here (Mt.Whitney)?
the Law of Significance
Holiday Inn
Daniel Jacoby's photographs
the first bird
Gödel Escher Bach: Birthday Cantatatata
Father's Day (in pictures)
your cat for my car
Jobsnotes of note
world population map
no joy in Baker
vote smart
exact nonsense
introducing eyesFinder
to space
where are the desktop apps?
still the first bird
electoral fail
progress ratches
2020 explained