Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday photo

There's apparently a rule of blogging that states that you have to offer some kind of serial post on Fridays - photographs, music compilations, cephalopods, whatever. Hitherto, I have been in blatant violation of this statute.

So, to get back on the right side of the law, here's a random photograph from my collection:

Snoozing otters

In 1995 I was working as the controller at the Bridge Bay marina, a pretty soft and cushy job, if you want to know the truth. Maybe I should have kept it. Anyway, there was a family of otters living in the marina, but you didn't often see them during the height of the summer, they being the skittish creatures that they are.
By September, though, the crowds were getting thin, the weather less reliable, and you might have a very slow day with almost no tourists in the marina. On one of these days, the whole otter family came out to snooze in the sun and I could leave the office to shoot some photos.

As the Flickr caption states, these guys could not lie still for more than a few seconds, so the scene was constantly changing and the biggest challenge was to avoid knocking over the tripod while giggling at this little comedy troupe. A flopping otter looks comic enough, with that elongated body, but when they're lying all over each other in a pile, it couldn't be funnier. I didn't have a reload of film available, but I did shoot off the remainder of what was in the camera.

Unfortunately, I don't have all of those slides any more. Living in dorm rooms and moving twice a year kept storage space at a premium and I developed the habit of weeding my photographs ruthlessly. If I had two dozen photographs of an animal, I would keep only the best two or three and pitch the rest. That means I don't have much in the way of 'record' shots, those photos you take just to help recall the time and place. I kept only those photos that struck me as having some artistic merit. One of the advantages of digital images is their easy storage demands; a 100-GB external hard drive takes up less space than even one of the binders that I kept full of slides. Most of these new digital images are rather boring, if not outright crappy, but there's a place for that sort of thing, too. In twenty years, I'll be glad I still have them.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Just when I was getting better

What did Nixon say?

Remember the infamous missing 18 minutes on the Nixon tapes? They're commonly presumed to have contained recordings of Nixon ordering the cover-up of the Watergate break in, and to have been erased deliberately. Of course, no one can prove that.

But a researcher (and former NSA analyst) thinks we can now find out the gist of the conversation. It seems that H.R. Haldeman's notes from that conversation are uncharacteristically light, and there's physical evidence to suggest that they were unstapled and restapled - perhaps to remove some pages? Hmmm?

So the idea is that maybe, just maybe, Haldeman pressed hard enough with his pen to leave very faint impressions on the papers beneath the one he was writing on, and perhaps we now have the technology to read those impressions? Then we would at least have Haldeman's (presumed) missing notes, if not the actual words.

Stay tuned.

[via the archives listserv]

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How to tell you missed the big time

Donald Rumsfeld got an opera singer. Sarah Palin gets William Shatner:

Why the President's advisors don't tweet

Google News offered me this little article, which is a nice explanation of why working in the White House is different from sitting in chem lab.

Firstly and most obviously, in a sensitive environment such as the White House, controlling the flow of information to the outside world is extremely important. Secondly, Twitter is not immune to malware, viruses, and scams. Then there is the Presidential Records Act, which requires all White House communications to be saved. Abiding by these rules would prove difficult on an external service such as Twitter.

O'Brien also explains why switching to free Firefox would actually be rather expensive.

Monday, July 27, 2009

I might have figured that much by myself

In the needless explanation department comes this headline from

Man Gored by Yellowstone Bison -- At Close Range

Nice to know that those horns haven't become projectile weapons yet! Oh, you say you only meant to point out that the man had approached the bison at close range before the goring? Oddly enough, I might have guessed that, too.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Talent in unexpected places

This video, besides being entertaining, just might make you want to treat that fast food worker with more respect - he could be smarter and more talented than you suspect.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The costs of single-payer health insurance

Here is today's required reading. In 1995, Taiwan began providing government-run health insurance for everyone; by the end of the year, almost everyone in the country had enrolled and abandoned their US-style system of mixed private and public hospitals and free market insurance. What happened to health care costs? In the first seven years they ... stayed about the same.

That's right. They went from 57% insured to 97% insured without increasing overall spending on health care. People liked it, used it, remained healthy, and it was just as affordable as the private system that had insured not much more than half the population. And that's in a country that had a GDP of $13,000/person in 1995.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Stumbled upon

Did you know there's a province of Thailand called Phuket? And do you suppose everyone knows that the "Ph" is pronounced as a "p", not as an "f"?

[Via Fun Times Had]

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Stumbled upon

Saturday, July 18, 2009

What happened to the Yellowstone elk

Ever since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, elk populations have been declining and everyone had an opinion as to why. Local hunters say it's simple: wolves are voracious, Godless killing machines and they've been eating them all. Biologists don't think wolves can eat enough elk to account for this level of decline, and wolf advocates have pointed at the long drought period that began in the 1990's and hasn't really ended.

Scott Creel, a Montana State researcher believes he has the answer: it's the wolves, but not because of how many elk they eat. It's the way the elk have to behave in order to avoid being eaten. His study indicates that elk nutrition levels are low in late winter, which is reducing the reproduction rate. The calves aren't all being eaten; they're not being born in the first place.

Creel believes that without wolves, the elk could spend their winters in open meadows that supplied plenty of healthy grass. Now it's too dangerous to graze in the open, so they're spending more time higher up in the forests, where the browse is less nutritious. If this is the case, then the lower populations levels may represent a new equilibrium and even an improvement in the weather is unlikely to restore the higher elk numbers.

[via Ralph Maughan's Wildlife News]

Freedom demands censorship

I just noticed that one of my friends from high school has joined a Facebook group called "Petition to remove 'Soldiers are not heroes' from facebook." It turns out there is a group called "Soldiers are not heroes," whose description contains statements like this:

This group is intended to point out the absurdity of the many groups on Facebook that portray all soldiers to be heroes and shower the armed forces with unconditional praise.

Putting on a soldiers uniform does not make you a hero.

Supporters of the group generally agree that the wars that our armed forces are participating in at the present time and in recent years are unnecessary and unjust. Therefore we don't feel that we should be pressured into offering "support" to people fighting and killing innocent people for causes that we don't believe in.

I agree, at least as far as that goes (there is also some sentiment that soldiers are always positive villains, which I don't necessarily endorse). Not everyone who is in the military deserves to be called a hero, and there's a straight path between loving soldiery and loving war, a path that too many Americans have rushed down without a glance to either side.

Now, some pro-military people have decided this is "hate speech" and they want Facebook to ban the group. You can probably guess the argument: you shouldn't be allowed to criticize soldiers because they're defending your right to speak freely. Or, as one punctuationally-challenged caps-locker put it:

I call bullshit. No soldier since the American Revolution has fought to keep this country from being occupied by a foreign power (technically, not even then). No soldier has fought against anyone who had the power to curtail my civil liberties. Not now, not ever in the last 200 years.

Even Nazi Germany, certainly the worst enemy we've ever fought, was no threat to occupy the US and establish a dictatorship here. It would have hurt us to have Europe so enslaved, but the Germans could not have imposed their system on us. Only Americans have or had the power to do it.

Keeping a large nuclear arsenal and a powerful army in Europe did much to deter Communist expansion, but Communism wasn't defeated by warfare. Korea was a draw and we lost in Vietnam. If remaining free depended on our soldiers winning wars - well, let's thank God it didn't.

Saddam Hussein posed no threat to American liberties. Neither does Osama bin Laden. The latter had the ability to very occasionally kill some of us, but his most spectacular success killed fewer Americans than our own actions in Afghanistan and Iraq have. If defending freedom is the goal, we needn't do anything; if saving lives is the goal, we'd have done better just hunkering down.

Do we need soldiers? Sure, we need a few. But we don't need as many as we have, all over the world, killing tens of thousands in foreign countries that pose only modest threats to ourselves. We would be just as free today, without a huge omnipresent military, as Switzerland. If we keep censoring unpopular opinion, we'll be as free as Iran.

PS. Favorite quote from the rant discussion board:
A true soldier is one that seeks to serve their country, not to destroy others.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Got answers? Got questions!

Appearing down the street:

Okay, here are my questions:

* How do we craft highly-efficient solar power cells that can produce cheap, abundant, inexhaustible electricity?

* How can we cure cancer as reliably as we cure tonsillitis?

* How were the pyramids built?

* What is the location and orbit of the next large asteroid or comet due to strike Earth?

That'll do for starters.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Missionaries have it rough

The director of Michigan Atheists reports on the group's very first foray into the Wyandotte Street Fair. Many people were friendly and reacted favorably to their presence. Others ... not so much:

Stalkers visited us frequently or stood close at hand watching and waiting for an opportunity to catch us off guard. One woman seized the moment and rushed to our table, gathered up every book on our table (new books donated by two authors) and tossed them into a filthy trash can. A few hours later she returned and kept reaching over our table attempting to provoke us into physical (hand) contact. Several other taunting visitors, when asked to leave, got seriously in our faces saying, “make me,” while still others would pick up a book or literature, look us straight in the eye and tear it up while laughing and jeering.

If you grew up in an evangelical church, as I did, you have heard these stories many many many times. Except, in those versions, it's always the Christian missionary patiently suffering persecution from the crude, hateful, fearful agents of Satan. We were supposed to take home the message that disbelief in God leads to fearful, hateful, obnoxious behavior like this; it's God's power can allow you to suffer patiently.

Funny thing, but patience** turns out to be available to all sorts of people, if they believe they'll score more points by looking cool and controlled. And, when the tables are turned, a certain type of Christian can be exactly the same sort of crude, hateful, fearful bully that I was taught was the hallmark of the non-believer.

* I might point to these folks, who probably tell tales of the abuse they receive from the godless. However, I was an eyewitness to this event and I can testify that, while the evangelists were good at ignoring the hostile reaction, they very much provoked it with verbal attacks on pretty much everyone they saw.

** Taking the account at face value, as I wasn't there. It's easy to overestimate one's own patience, but I'm ready to believe the booth attendants displayed less anger than they received. The point is, neither religion nor lack of religion automatically instills this kind of control - it takes a situation where a person believes they win by displaying this kind of control.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

IP and OLD technology meeting a changed culture

James asked for a post on the pending legislation that would require radio stations to compensate performers for playing their music on the air. So here goes.

The crux of the issue is this: when a radio station broadcasts a song, they have to pay royalties. But those royalties are due only to the composer of the song, not the performer. I'm not sure entirely why, other than that this arrangement dates back to the early 1920's when it was more common to identify a song by the composer than by the performer. Few composers would ever sing their own tunes and, for example, a Gershwin tune would remain a Gershwin tune regardless of who sang it. The notion of a "cover," have to acknowledge the fact that you're not the first to sing this song, would have generally been a redundancy.*

Well, times have changed and people care more about who sang the song than they do about who wrote it (if they're not the same person). A lot of folk won't recognize the names Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, but they can't help but think of Elvis Presley if they hear "Hound Dog" (most won't know that he didn't sing the real lyrics, either). Does it make a difference to heavy metal fans whether "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" is performed by Judas Priest or Pat Boone? You better believe it. Performers have eclipsed composers in the public's mind when they think of musical creativity.

So, if radio stations have to pay the composers when they broadcast music, why shouldn't they have to pay performers, too? Indeed, why not? I can't think of any good reason at all.**

Of course, the broadcasters can think up one really good reason why they don't want to, and plenty of weaker reasons why they shouldn't. To my mind, almost none of them fly.

First off, let's dispense with the BS about royalty fees representing a "tax." Royalties aren't taxes; people just hate the word more. That's just faster-than-78-rpm spin.

Nor will it drive radio stations out of business, or force them all to become talk radio stations (surely that market is already saturated!). We've heard it all before, every time the minimum wage goes up or automobile fuel efficiency standards are raised. "Can't be done! We'll all go out of business!" Nonsense. Remember how you used to see McDonald's and Burger King on every street corner, until they raised the minimum wage in 1993? And now you just can't find a fast food res - yeah, right.

You have to try to pass the cost on to your customers, but so do all your competitors. Unless the customers stop patronizing all of you, they end up paying the cost and everything goes on as before. Unless advertisers desert radio altogether, they'll just have to make their contribution to paying those royalties.***

The broadcasters do have one true argument. It's not really a legal argument, but they simply point out how much musicians benefit from having their music on the radio. And indeed they do. The payola scandals of the 1950's prove it - it was considered cheating for a record label to pay the radio stations to play certain artists. This wouldn't make any sense if they thought of that broadcast as a rip-off, but is perfectly sensible if they viewed it as advertising that boosted their overall revenue. Follow the money, if you want to know what they really believe.

Here's my take. Demanding revenues for the performers is perfectly fair and justified. However, it might be short sighted, especially if the fees are too hefty. So let's do this: let's let someone muscular, like Clear Channel, refuse to broadcast any music unless the performers pay for the advertisement. The market can be the referee and we'll see who really had whom by the balls all along.

[PS. The ringtone post was already getting long, or I would have discussed the performance-as-advertising aspect of that case. There should certainly be some awareness that selling ringtones has increased the market for popular music, to the artists' advantage. They deserve their cut, but trying to milk it that hard just shows a certain lack of respect for how little they directly contributed to expanding their own market.]

[PPS. It occurs to me (soemtime later) that composers for theater still enjoy preeminence over the performers. For example, Andrew Lloyd Weber enjoys a tighter association with his music more than any singer ever will, not even Sarah Brightman. I presume this reflects the difference between a transitory stage performance vs. the "imperishable" recorded performance.]

* This may have much to do with the relative infancy of the recording business, too. In the age of live music, the performance was transitory and only the composition could have any permanence.

** In fact, internet radio - under more recent legislation - is already doing just that and would like to see the playing field leveled.

*** The broadcasters do point out that advertising receipts are down, but that can mean one of only two things: everything will be fine once the economy improves, or else radio is a failing industry anyway. Either way, special protections don't make long term sense.

Can't argue with this

Monday, July 13, 2009

DNA archives

Endangered species' DNA to be stored at NYC museum

[O]fficials of the American Museum of Natural History and the U.S. National Park Service signed an agreement for samples from endangered species in America's parks to be added to the museum's existing DNA collection.

Via Global Museum

Saturday, July 11, 2009

IP and technology - the neverending story

So you may have seen these news items about the latest move from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). Those pop-song ringtones you buy for you cellphone, so that you sound all funky to the world and id your ex-girlfriend's call before you answer? Those are public performances and your phone provider should be charged accordingly!

This has led to a fair amount of outrage and – as seems typical of ASCAP legal ploys (see footnote below) – almost seems designed to elicit giggles. A phone ring is a public musical performance? How about your neighbor's stereo? What if I roll down the windows of my car and someone hears my stereo? How about little girls singing at girl scout camp?* Are all of these public performances?

Everyone seems to be talking about this potential threat to the owners of the phone, but as I read the documents, that's exactly the line of thinking that ASCAP is hoping to avoid. That's because casual, non-commercial performance of a song or recitation of a text are pretty clearly exempted by section 110(4) of the Copyright Code. If I perform a song for money, or play a recording because it draws more people to my business, then I owe ASCAP money. If I'm just playing my stereo or singing a song, and other people happen to hear it, then I don't. ASCAP doesn't want anything to do with section 110.

Here's what happened: ASCAP was charging performing rights fees to cell phone service provicers. But they were also getting a cut of the sales revenue from the ringtone purchase. When the court ruled, a couple years ago, that a downloaded music file should be treated as a record sale, while a streamed audio file counted as a broadcast performance, Verizon and AT&T decided the money off the sales was all they owed, and they quit paying for performing rights.

ASCAP doesn't like this and they're suing. But here's what they have to do to win their case: they have to first convince the court that a downloaded file triggered by a remote signal is really a form of streaming audio, and then they have to establish that the responsibility for the playing of music lies with the folks who notify you of a call, rather than the person who buys the music and sets it to play when his phone rings.

To argue the first part, ASCAP is grasping onto language in the definition which includes the words “designed for” or “capable of” contemporaneous playback. “Hey! It's exactly the same type of digital file, no matter how you deliver it! It could be played contemporaneously when it's downloaded, so this can treated as streaming audio! Triggering a downloaded file is just a tricky techno-dodge to get around their obligations.**”

If they pull that off, then they still have to establish that the ringing phone constitutes a public performance, and that it is a public performance by the phone company. That's critical, because 110(4) is ASCAP's third rail: if their case touches on it, they're probably fried. So they're trying hard to redefine the core issue. It's not about you playing your phone's ringtone; it's about AT&T or Verizon playing your ringtone for you.

ASCAP argues that, because the phone company can cancel your contract, has elected to sell you the ringtone, owns the network, and sends the signal to your phone, they are controlling the performance. Never mind that Verizon only sends the signal to my phone and I'm the one who decides what, if any, ringtone plays to announce it. ASCAP claims Verizon is playing music for me and they have "complete control" over the performance.

Just to cover all the bases, and make sure bloggers get a good laugh at their expense, ASCAP points out that an airwaves broadcast is always considered a performance, whether or not you can prove anyone had their radio or television turned on. So ditto with phones, right? They say the ringing is “public, regardless of whether some customers' phones may be sometimes switched to vibrate, turned off or located in the home. For a ring tone performance ... to be a public performance, it need not be received by the public every time." By this reasoning, it appears to be a performance, even if I had set the phone to vibrate, dropped it in the woods a week ago, and the battery has run dead. It might even still be a performance if I had dropped the phone into a volcano and neither it nor the digital file even exists any more.

If they were arguing this case before my court, they'd have a pretty slim chance of success. But judges are known to hang a decision on some very technical, literal, and counterintuitive reading of a text. We'll see how this one plays out.

My favorite part is this line from ASCAP's response to AT&T's motion for summary judgement:

“It is difficult to imagine how AT&T could more actively induce the unlicensed performance of ASCAP work than it already does.”

Oh, come on, ASCAP. I know your lawyers have more imagination than that!

* This example isn't chosen at random. Some dozen years ago, ASCAP leaped into a huge pile of PR manure by threatening girl scout camps to either pay up or shut up. I find it ironic that such tone-deaf people are entrusted with protecting the interests of musicians.

** In fact, downloading is the only efficient way to deliver ringtones without wasting bandwidth with every call.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

On insularity

It takes a special level of cluelessness to allow a multinational corporation to publish ads of a Hindu goddess eating hamburgers. And Burger King has achieved it.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Song, memory, and DON'T be still, my beating heart

One of our staff members emailed this article from CNN:

"Disco Tune Saves Man's Life"

A couple are out hiking, the man suddenly drops to the ground without a heartbeat, and his wife recalls hearing an American Heart Association public service announcement about giving chest compressions to the beat of the Bee Gees song, "Stayin' Alive." She does, and her husband lives.

What's special about the song? Just the fact that it's sung at about 100 beats per minute, which happens to be just how frequently you want to apply your chest compressions. The article quotes another doctor who states that Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" works just as well, but for some reason the AHA preferred the other title.

The magic here, of course, is that incredible power that music has to be memorable. Anyone who knows the Bee Gees song will readily remember the correct tempo. Songs are so memorable that most people would probably notice if the same band sang it in a different key, even if they couldn't quite place what was different. Lesson for today - if you need to remember something, set it to music.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Stumbled upon