Archive for October, 2004

Not the point in democracy

October 27th, 2004

Sure, at their best democracy is not as good as a dictatorship. But this does not imply that democracy is a worse solution.

Apart from very extreme liberals, I don’t think anyone really believes democracy can work as well, or as efficient, as a small group (or one person) calling the shots. In an ideal world, we’d all be living under one global king, and happy about it. But it’s the wrong way to look at things.

The reason for a democracy is not that it’s better, it’s that it’s not as bad. Because in real life you won’t find this perfect monarch that makes sure everything runs well and all the people are happy. And if you happen to find one, it won’t last when he’s dead and you need to find another one.

In a democracy, it’s a lot harder to royally (pun certainly intended) screw things up. Let’s take the exact same example:


Coming home the other day, I came to an intersection whose lights were not functioning—they were blinking red. I observed that people had a very hard time trying to figure out who went next. As a result, it took a long time to get through that intersection. Contrast that with a controlled intersection: the light turns green and you go. No thinking, no decisions. Just go. When the light turns red, you stop.

That’s comparing things when they work.

In the democratic condition, suppose it doesn’t work. Suppose some idiot decides she needs to cross NOW, and the rest of the people be damned. First of all, unless she’s really really drunk (or on drugs, or raging, or whatever), she just won’t do it, because she knows she might crash into someone, which won’t help her at all. Assuming she does go roaring in, she might make it, or she might not. If not, we’ll have two crashed cars in the middle of the intersection. Bad. But people can still drive around them. It will slow things down, but everyone will pass. People can even drag the ruined cars to the side, and then go on.

Now suppose the authoritarian traffic light brakes down. All the lights are red at the same time. If you prefer, it’s just stuck in the same position, so for some it’s always green, but some are stuck for good. What can the people do here? Nothing. As long as the light holds authority, they should stand there and wait. Starvation and thirst will probably finish them off in a few of days.



Unless they decide to ignore the light, or to take it down. This brings us back to the democratic condition. It has a name – revolution. That’s exactly why we have revolutions. Because while good autocracy is better than good democracy, bad democracy is far far better than bad theocracy.



And that’s why most people, even though it’s easier for them to just follow orders, prefer to be able to have a say on matters. In the long time, in real life, democracy is far superior.

Right rant, wrong ranter

October 26th, 2004

[Update: Got a reply from Charlie]



In an article in the Inquirer a certain Charlie Demerjian rants about how stupid and greedy are the MPAA and RIAA in their effort to insert DRM to use.

He is of course absolutely right, even if he sometimes uses overly strong and excited language (it IS labeled as a rant after all). This is a bad idea, bad for consumers, and on the medium to long run bad for the main players in the music and movie industries themselves.

Worth reading.



He does however state at one point:


Let me put a personal spin on this. I have not bought a CD since 1998. When the record companies sued Napster, I sat back and said ‘this is wrong’. I thought I would wait it out, and not give them my money until a decision was reached. If the record companies prevailed, I would never buy another CD or give any RIAA member my money. If Napster won, I would go back to buying more than the CD or two I bought every week.



Fast forward. The RIAA won and lost. They spent Napster into the ground, and while I think the fight is far from over, Napster is gone. Sticking to my morals, I have not bought a CD since then, and I have the dubious honor of being able to say the last CD I ever bought was Kid Rock’s Devil Without a Cause. The sad part is that I downloaded most of the album from Napster before I bought it, and said ‘hey, this isn’t bad’. I then bought the album. God, I need to bathe.

Hmm…

Not buying CDs at all, although the resolution was “I would never buy another CD or give any RIAA member my money“. There are plenty of CDs by labels and artists not members in the RIAA. What gives?



So I sent him an email:

Overall I, and probably most other people, agree with
almost everything you wrote in this article.



What I have a problem about is that part of your
personal solution was to stop buying CDs completly.

Not buying copy-protected CDs I get, I actually do
that myself.

Not buying CDs from any RIAA associated company, that
I can get as well, and have noticeably reduced the
amount I buy myself. I haven’t stopped completely,
since the artists deserve something even if they are
stupid enough to stay signed with the RIAA, and even
if they get extremely little, but I can understand.



There are however labels which are not associated with
the RIAA. And artist that choose to work with
independent labels. Yet you don’t buy these either…
This should imply that you are:

A. A consumer by the RIAA model, who stopped buying
music because he can download it, end ergo should not
go around attacking the RIAA for their practices.

B. Only like mainstream RIAA artists. In which case
you should admit they provide a good service by
screening all the music you like, and they do deserve
to get paid for sorting the wheat from the chaff for
you. And ergo you should not go around attacking the
RIAA for their practices.

C. Do buy CDs, and falsely make this statement to help
make your point in the rant article. Which tends to
drastically lower the reliability of everything else
you say, and hurt the causes you try to promote. And
Ergo you should not go around attacking the RIAA for
their practices.

D. Are not even aware of independent labels and
artists, and never noticed that someone releases CDs
without being a RIAA member. This is the best option
here, but it’s quite sad. In which case you should try
resources like the RIAA Radar (
http://www.magnetbox.com/riaa/ ) to help you find
which CDs are probably not RIAA, or go to stores that
deal only in independent labels, like for example
CDBaby ( http://www.cdbaby.com ). Or just run a
search, I’m sure you’ll find more. This does however
mean that you haven’t got a clue what is going on in
the music industry, and ergo you should not go around
attacking the RIAA for their practices.



Although the RIAA practices do deserve all the
criticism and attack they get, of course.

I wonder what, and if, I’ll get in reply…



Charlie replies:

Actually, I do promote non-riaa music. My record company of choice is
Go-Kart. :)

So he’s familiar with the concept of Indie music (Though, as a totally irrelevant side note, maybe not so much on indie publishing).

He even likes Go-Kart. A shame he thinks that “All record companies are evil, when they dry up and blow away, I will celebrate. Well, all except one.“, since there are actually one or two (or much more) additional record labels which are not associated with the RIAA, but hey, it’s a start.

And from Go-Kart he gets MP3 files, not audio CDs, so he was honest when he claimed he didn’t buy any CDs. The quality differences are noticeable IMNSHO, but maybe he’s not that discriminating, considering he didn’t hear an actual CD in years.

By the same reasoning, however, he won’t buy CDs even if the RIAA change their ways, but rather buy compressed audio files from them too. Which means claiming that he no longer buys CDs is pretty much empty and hollow. The issue is the purchase of music, not purchase of CDs. So why didn’t he just state that he stoppedt buying music from the RIAA? It would have made a much stronger case for his article…

Well, I’m not the one with the publishing and writing experience…

Explosives lost

October 26th, 2004

Apparently about 377 tons of high explosives were lost in Iraq.

That’s a lot of explosives. Enough to blow up lots and lots of things, and still have much to spare. Probably enough to wage a small war.

And the US apparently knew those explosives are missing since about April 2003… The story of course broke out only now. Good to know.

I assume it means someone got all those high explosives and is just sitting on them and waiting…



I think, however, that the best part of the Reuters article, for many different reasons, is this reply by someone in US asked why the us military didn’t do something like guard this small pile of cherry-bombs:


“You just can’t leave a guard force at all these places you find. If you leave a squad at all 10,000 places that are known so far, then there’s 50,000 (troops) out of action,” said another U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Certainly you can’t leave a force to guard “all those places“, if you’re talking about small empty buildings. But a pile of nearly 380 tons of explosive?! I do sincerely think you should even put a large force to guard that! Unless of course he implies that each on of the 10,000 sites he mentions contains that amount of explosives… That’s a very very scary thought. Which I hope, and believe, to be false. But if that’s the case, then I agree guarding them all is not practical. Which means they should have been either concentrated or destroyed, not left alone to get “lost”.

It is at least understandable why the half-wit chose to remain anonymous.



And then there’s the small numerical/linguistical issue there, though I assume the parentheses mean it’s the reporter’s/editor’s fault, and not the official half-wit’s… Troops does not mean soldiers! Really! If a squad consists of five soldiers, you may need 50,000 soldiers to watch 10,000 sites, but NOT 50,000 troops.

Really Widescreen HDTV

October 24th, 2004

HDTV on cellular phones ?!

Yes, with current huge screen sizes on cellphone, surely the higher resolution of HDTV is the main reason the technology still didn’t catch up. The displays themselves are already extremely high quality, and regular TV movies would just look incredibly granular. No doubt.

How high a resolution do you need on 1″-4″ screens for crying out loud?! Seeing regular TV shows on a computer screen (Only old and public domain shows, of course), if I stretch squeeze the display small enough, they look perfectly fine. Higher resolution lets you see better on larger screens, but is totally wasted on tiny ones.



Nuts.



Hat tip to Mike on Techdirt.

Safe storage

October 24th, 2004

A woman went on a 2.5 weeks vacation and came back to find out a squatter has moved in her house and even started redecorating.

Somewhat bizarre, but the fact that there are strange people out there should come as a surprise to no one. This is not altogether interesting by itself (Hat tip to Common Knowledge for the reference anyway).



What I find really strange is that the police found $23,000 worth of jewelry belonging to the homeowner in the squatter’s car.

This sounds to me like either expensive jewelry, or just a lot of jewelry. Perhaps both. Which the homeowner did not place in a safe, and kept in a house that did not even have an alarm system (Inferred by me, not specifically stated. It’s just that the squatter supposedly broke in with a shovel, and was not otherwise portrayed in the article as particularly sophisticated).

I wonder if the insurance company (Another interesting point, was there any insurance?) would have paid assuming the jewels were just plain stolen, and not kept on the street in a nearby car for over two weeks…



It also raises serious questions regarding the squatter. From all indications she was not entirely the coherent type, and acted as if she moved in to stay. She transferred electrical bills to her name (WTF?! You live in someone else’s house illegally, but insist to pay for the electricity yourself?!). She moved in her own washer and drier (I assume the house didn’t have those… maybe the previous owner couldn’t afford any? Too many jewels??). She started redecorating.

And yet while believing she is there to stay, she took all the jewelry out and put it in her car. Why? It doesn’t even make sense given the strange fantasy she was living under… Not to mention the fact that she placed $23,000 worth of jewels in an unguarded car in the street.

Although the car probably had an alarm, it’s pretty standard these days, so maybe this actually was intended to make them more secure…. Hmm….

Human accident

October 24th, 2004

The story itself is a couple of months old, but since the issue has just now came to a conclusion, this would be a legitimate time to post about it. And I do expect, and hope, that this ends whatever I have to post about my car for the foreseeable future.



I was standing at a red traffic light. The car has automatic gear, and my foot was pressing the brake pedal. There were about 2 or 3 cars ahead of me. This was a four-lanes road, the single leftmost used to turn left, the other three to keep going straight, I was standing at the third from the right (that’s second from the left).

Several cars started to queue up behind me, standing.

Then I feel a light bump from the rear.

After muttering some choice profanities to myself, I pulled the handbrake, set the gear to Park, shut down the engine, and got out of the car too take a look at the idiot that crashed into me.

Which turned out to be a 50+ years old women in a blue minivan. She opens the door, come out, look at me and at the two cars, and starts with a “What the hell are you doing driving in reverse, you idiot?!

Riiight. Somehow I kept my temper, and toldl the nice lady that I was not in reverse, but was rather standing, and she moved her car forward and bumped into me.

(I assume her car was automatic, she didn’t pay attention, took her foot of the brakes, and the car moved. If I had done the same, I would have of course not bumped backwards into her. And it’s quite impossible to switch gears to reverse by mistake.)

So the nice lady uttered a lovely skeptical “ha!”, stepped forward, and inspected both cars. My rear bumper was twisted in, her front bumper looked alright. Different materials, different ages. She looked at me and said “Well, this is of course old damage! right? Not from now! this was just a small touch!”

To which I reply that my rear bumper was in a perfectly good condition half an hour ago when I entered my car, so the damage is certainly from this crash.
And I of course got as a reply an “We’ll see. I’ll have my insurance company check that. I won’t be having you fixing your old damages on my account”. Which is quite fair, and naturally to be expected. There are some unscrupulous people out there. Having the insurance company check the claim is fine, and I said so.



So I asked to see her license and insurance details, and offered mine. To which she replied that of course she’ll want my details, but since we are blocking a main road (The traffic light has changed to green, of course, and the ever civil and polite people around where violently blowing their horns) we should perhaps cross the intersection and stop at the side of the road.

Sensible, really. As long as you don’t pay attention to the fact that there are some unscrupulous people out there. Which to my chagrin I didn’t. I said fine, entered into my car, started it, crossed the intersection, moved to the side of the road, stopped, and watched the nice lady cruising past.

Not being entirely naive, however, I did try to memorize her car’s license plate before leaving. So I promptly wrote it down, uttering some more choice expletives, only having an uncertainty about one digit which might have been either a 6 or an 8.



I kept on driving home, planning to stop by the local police station to place a complaint. About 15-20 minutes afterward, a bit before a large traffic circle, I suddenly spot a familiar looking car. I take a look at the license plate, and it matches nicely. Except the plate is somewhat smudged, so I also cannot ascertain if it’s an 8 or a 6. I switch lanes, and manipulate myself directly to the left of the car. And who is sitting behind the wheel, if not a surprising lookalike of my nice lady, one hand on a cellular phone, and another hand holding a cigarette and the steering wheel at the same time?

I honked. She looked to the side and saw me. We both opened our car windows. She had the nerve to ask me what I wanted. I replied that I wanted her registration and insurance details, which she forgot to give me after our little incident earlier. And received as a response an “I haven’t a clue who you are and what you’re talking about. I never saw you before“. She didn’t look particularly convincing, though. But then the cars ahead of us started to move, and she sped away and turned. Not in the direction I was supposed to go.

I considered doing something idiotic like crashing into her, and just following her, but decided it isn’t worth the bother. I can be too civilized sometimes, I suppose. So I kept on driving back to my city, and into the small police station.



There was a cop manning the front desk, talking with a couple of non-cop friends (well, they were not in uniform, and on the reception side of the desk). I came over, and after waiting a minutes, getting bored, and clearing my throat loudly a few times, he asked me what I wanted. I started to tell the story, at which point he stopped me, handed me a large form, and told me to fill it up.

The form did not actually have enough lines for the whole story, but I tried to be as accurate as possible. I also made sure to specify both options for the license plate number, assuming the police actually have the resources to check. The rest of the form was full of fields asking for a lot of not really relevant info, so I left most empty. I went back to the cop and returned the form. He looked at it, and informed me that I need to feel in all the info. Fine, seems pointless but mostly I could.

Except for things like “Draw the area where the incident occurred exactly and accurately“. Sure. Almost 40 minutes after the event, from a rather large junction, given my amazing photographic memory (which unfortunately I don’t have) and cartographic skill (which I also don’t have). I did know the street names, and specified in the text the lane I was in and the name of both streets in the junction. The police and municipal authorities should be able to figure out where they put all the traffic lights at, even without my help. But not according to the friendly cop. So I had to take the form home, go over a map while poring at my memory, and make a nice drawing. Stupid. Since it was late, it also meant I only came back to submit the form a day later.

I did however also contacted my insurance agency, which also said they’ll try to locate the car and owner.



Pass a little time, and my insurance agency found their insurance agency. Which promptly replied that they are not willing to take responsibility and pay for the car repairs.

I got the phone number of the nice lady’s insurance agent, and called him on the phone.

He started by telling me that she is indeed a very nice lady, and that they are insured by him for years now without any problems. I failed to see how this touches on her crashing into me.

then proceeded to tell me that:


  1. Her car didn’t touch my car

  2. We only touched because I reverse

  3. OK, my car is automatic so maybe I didn’t reverse

  4. She didn’t touch my car

  5. We only touched lightly so it must have been previous damage

  6. Despite me sounding to him like a nice person, she’s the client, and she thinks I’m trying to get her to pay to correct previous damages

  7. Yes, it’s unlikely I’ll go on for a long time with an unopenable trunk, hoping someone will crash into me

  8. I’m just trying to get them to pay for old damages

  9. If it’s a small amount they won’t mind paying as long as I don’t go to my insurance agency, and don’t make anything official


We finally agreed to disagree, that I’ll get full appraisal for the damages, that my insurance company will go to them with all the papers, that they will probably refuse to pay, and that we’ll then go to court.

Joy.



Then started the long waiting period while the two insurance companies talked to each other. As an amusing (well, tragic actually, since they’re the police force I have to live with, but still) side note, I got back a reply from the police. They found the car owner! They gave me the details, which turned out to be the wrong people and the wrong car. The license plate they found was not even similar to the real one. Don’t have a clue where they got it from. Very strange. If the insurance hadn’t found the right people, I might have tried to follow up on the police’s finding, which could have turned out to be quite interesting.



And now we finally got the word that the insurance company agreed to pay.

About time, and saves everyone a hassle.

We don’t use it, whatever it is

October 22nd, 2004

During the last few years it has become a well known fact that trans fats (aka trans fatty acids) are evil. Nowadays, out of the long list of things you really shouldn’t be eating, trans fats probably take first place. Shocking news to all the people who replaced butter with margarine because they thought it was healthier, but that’s scientific progress for you. (While we’re at it, I’ll also take the opportunity to comment that eggs are healthy as well, so long as you don’t eat more than about 3 per day)



Knowledge about the dangers of trans fats is so well spread, that almost everyone have heard by now. Including the owners of a certain large bakery here. Only they must have heard it in conversation, not writing, and didn’t quite make the effort to check what all the fuss is about.

The one important thing they did notice is that it’s considered bad, so customers must be told they don’t get trans fats in their foods, or they’ll stop buying, and the bakery will lose revenue.

Ergo, I recently saw this label on bread packaging:



This bread does not contain the fatty acid “Trans”



They got the name right. Only it’s not a name, but a type.

Not sure if this label is really reassuring. Since they don’t know what they’re talking about, how reliable is their claim that they don’t use it?

Can I be sure it’s not just that the owner asked the baker “Say, are you using any acid fats by “Trans” company?”, got a reply that “We’re not putting in any acids at all in our fat, just plain margarine”, and decided everything is alright then?

Disaster recovery at the Bank of Israel

October 21st, 2004

The Bank of Israel has published a new press release (Hebrew only I’m afraid), announcing the completion of a project to backup it’s data systems in case of an emergency.

They built equivalent computer systems to their main site. On two different remote sites, one against their central computer, and a second against their networking and servers. I assume that the central server would be actual banking and monetary data, and the network servers are all the other documents, mail, files, and so on.



They talk about continuous data mirroring to the remote sites. So if they have continuous data mirroring, and identical/compatible computers at both ends, they probably mean they run Clustering.

Which is good. Properly arranged Clustering allows very rapid recovery in case something happens and a site goes down.

In this case, the rate of recovery seems to be 6 hours for the critical systems, and 3 days for the non-critical ones.

Hmmm… Is it just me, or is that way way way too much for this? If they just made remote backups of files and databases, I could understand the time it takes to install everything and get it online. But they have full high availability clustering. Or at least they should, since otherwise making “continuous data mirroring” to “equivalent computer arrays” (rough literal translation) is just a total and colossal waste of money, and bad design. Assuming of course that everything in the press release is accurate, and not phrased specifically to give wrong impressions.



Oh, well. So the recovery times suck. It’s not as if this is the central bank of the country, that all other banks depends on, and that is in charge of all the monetary policy of the country… Oh, wait, it is.



Well, that’s the way it is. Me bitching about it won’t help much. At least they did all the project remarkably fast. It only took them 10 months… To purchase and install computers and EMC data storage devices, network the sites, buy and install proper clustering/backup software. I can see how it would take a month. Two, this being the public sector. More than that? Working with two outside contractors, which should be able to work fast once they get the purchase order? I’m not impressed. At all.



The project is reported to have been finished on March 2004. After an “intense” 10 months efforts. What’s the hurry, you ask? Well, it seems that this is the result of lessons learned from September 11th 2001. Let me see, finished 3/2004, means it started in 5/2003. So getting “one of the most important lessons from…” took only… err… slightly more than a year and a half? Cool. Good to know we have some fast thinkers there.

That is, assuming it has anything to do with it. Which I’d suspect not. But since everyone in the US now blames everything they do on September 11th, they must have felt they can too. I mean, it obvious you need a good excuse in order to create backups of critical infrastructure. Nobody does it otherwise. That is, if you expect people to ask why you decided to do it all out of a sudden, instead of expecting people to ask why the heck didn’t you do it year and years ago? The technology has been available from a lot earlier. I know it was. I used some of it, and it was still the 199Xs then.



They also claim they ran an experiment, simulating a disaster, and switching to work on the remote systems. They don’t quite specify which systems, but the sense is that it wasn’t an all-out case. This sense being supported by the fact that the recovery times I stated here are not measured, but rather estimated based on “mapping all the systems in the Bank of Israel in an attempt to determine the time duration requires for their recovery in case of a disaster, and the scope of the data that needs to be restored”. So they don’t know how long it would really take. And apparently are not restoring everything, even after those 6 hours or 3 days. Good to know. That’s exactly what experiments are for, people. Run a full one, and get an actual and reliable idea about recovery! Do they even know that recovery works?!



Well, at least now I can sleep safe at night.

Timing is everything

October 20th, 2004

A very good friend of mine has received wedding invitation from relatives living in Florida.

They seem to have spared little expenses. The place where the wedding will be held at is quite pricey. The events will go on for three days, with food and celebrations both on the day before and on the day after the actual wedding ceremony.

The invitation themselves were very elegantly printed on quality paper. And it was not just an invite. It also contained a larger note talking a bit about both families, and an RSVP note and (pre-stamped) envelope that can be used to confirm attendance and food preferance.

And of course the invitation itself, detailing the events of the three days (I changed the dates a I write here from the originals to the 12-14, to prevent the unlikely case that someone will make a connection. The actual selection I made is not entirely coincidental either <g>)

It talk about how on the 12th of November, the day before the ceremony, there will be a big lunch, and so on.

It states that on the 14th of November there will be a large celebratory breakfast.

And it mentiones that the ceremony itself will be held in the evening of the 13th of October.





Did you catch that? I did.

Unfortunately, before printing all those invitations, the happy couple didn’t.

Which naturally left my friend no alternative to returning the RSVP envelope with a note saying that they regret not being able to attend an event that took place before the invitation arrived (OK, so not, this friend have a much nicer sense of humor than I have. a pity).



I’d practically pay good money to see the look the happy couple had (will have? Surely someone must have told them by now?) on their faces when they found out… And no, I’m not being very mean. It’s terribly embarrassing, but not actually damaging. So it’s alright to enjoy it.

Those were really <chuckle> really very invested and expensive invitations…

Owner’s ID for that?!

October 20th, 2004

I took my car for the yearly test, required for the car license renewal.

The car isn’t actually mine, but is rather my father’s. He’s the official owner, and my mother is listed in the license as co-owner. I’m not. I just use it, fuel it, take it for repairs, and so on.

So after paying the exorbitant fee required for the new year’s license, I went to pass the car through the test.

To start with, I had to go to the admission counter, show the paid license, pay a bit more for the test, and get the form where the nice testers/mechanics list whatever is wrong during the test.

The nice lady at the counter looks at the new car license, and asks me for my ID / Driver’s-license. I show it to her, and she notices I’m not actually listed on the car license as the owner. To her credit she does notice the similarity in surnames.


Is the car under your father’s name?

“Yes”

Have you brought his ID with you?

“No”

Did you perhaps bring your… mothers? ID?

“No, I don’t have that either”

You should have brought them, you know. You need the ID card of the car’s owner

“I know, sorry. I didn’t bring it”

<sigh> Oh, alright. I’ll accept it This time. But don’t come without their ID next time. Understand?

“Sure. OK. Thanks”

That is, assuming that in one whole year:

  1. I’ll still use the same old car

  2. I’ll go to the same place to do the test in

  3. She’ll still be working there

  4. She’ll be the one sitting at the counter when I arrive

  5. She’ll remember she told me all this one year, and thousand of clients, ago


Sure. That’s so going to happen. I just know it.



It took a lot of self control not to ask her what she needs the ID for, though. Had I remembered to bring it, I probably would have asked. But not being kicked away to come another day (or go someplace else) later, I decided not to push my luck by aggravating the lady. She probably couldn’t have given me a better answer than it’s the procedure anyway.

What is the owner’s ID good for? What should it symbolize? That I’m not taking someone else’s car, without their consent, paying the fee, and having it tested and licensed for another year?

I try to imagine someone stealing a car, and then going through the time and expense to do that… That would be some thief. Boggles the mind, actually. Seems like a totally ridiculous idea. So what can they be worried about?

The other option is that it’s done with the owner’s consent. Like in my case. Is there a problem with that? Do I need to bother carrying someone else’s ID back and forth, when it’s clear they’re in agreement?



I can’t come up with one problem that the requirement to present the owner’s ID would solve… And this time I don’t think it’s my lack of imagination…

Happy Birthday (TM) ?!

October 18th, 2004

I know that companies need, and like, to trademark things. But this is too much. Shouldn’t there be some law against trademarking phrases like “Happy Birthday” ?!

From the article:


The words “happy birthday” can no longer be legally used if the words are pinned to any other products, since a private Chinese company registered it as its trademark this month in 25 countries including the United States, Japan and European Union members


Totally absurd. Ridiculous. Insane. Preposterous. Ludicrous



Or at least that’s what I thought until I checked a bit. There is actually a rather large number of trademarks awarded for “Happy Birthday” according to a brief search in the USPTO. This specific one is only granted for

Goods and Services: IC 035. US 100 101 102. G & S: Retail store services featuring toys; chain of department stores services featuring a variety of goods

Mark Drawing Code: (5) WORDS, LETTERS, AND/OR NUMBERS IN STYLIZED FORM

[Update: I checked a bit more, and the same company also has one for "Toys for Animals". But then there are other ones, for other companies, on leather good, rings and bracelets, toilet water and perfumes, and so on.]

So there’s nothing too much to worry about. Unless of course you sell toys that come with Happy Birthday printed on them in stylized form during manufacturing.

I don’t. And it’s not listed in Israel as of now (unless of course our published government’s trademark list isn’t kept up to date… Naaa).



Not that I think it’s less silly, of course, but it’s not as bad as it could be.

So Mike, you can calm down a bit. And do more research next time, you usually do.


too close to see

October 16th, 2004

This clinic, doing various eye surgeries for visual disturbances, have come up with a nice promotional material. They sent many ophthalmologists (Possibly other people as well, but I’ll stick to what I know) this small folded page to show clients/customers. On the outside a text instructs to Open the page, hold it in front of you with a stretched arm (about 40cm), and check your visual acuity. If you open the page, the inside have an almost standard visual acuity test page, with lines of text in decreasing sizes, each line marked by the visual acuity level matching the ability to see it clearly.

So far so good. You can look what is the smallest line you see clearly, and check if it’s the standard vision, or if you have a problem. And hopefully (from their POV), if you have a problem you’d notice their company logo and consider contacting them for treatment instead of buying glasses.

As a nice touch, it’s been the Jewish New Year recently, so the lines consist not of random numbers but of a text telling you to have a happy and successful (and so on and so forth) new year. Not good for a proper professional examination, but cute for this crude check.



If you go to an optometrist, or a doctor, to have your vision checked, you’d notice that there are two different checks. One is for distance vision, where you’ll usually sit in a chair a few meters from the test patterns you’ll need to try and read. The second is near vision, where you’d be given some card to hold in your hand at reading distance (about 20cm officially). The near vision of course you’ll only get if you’re over 40 years old, unless there’s a specific medical reason to consider a problem earlier. The important thing here is that there are two different systems, measuring two different problems. Well, not entirely separate of course, you’re using the same optical system after all. But the optical problems that glasses or laser surgeries address are commonly the result of different problems.

When looking to the distance (Infinity officially, but a couple of meters are close enough) you don’t focus your eyes, that is the lenses in the eyes are relaxed and stretched. The common optical problems are caused when light passing through the lens doesn’t focus on the retina, but either in front of it (Myopia – Nearsightedness. More common) or after it (Hypermetropia). This tend to change with age, since as you grow your eyes grow, resulting in light focusing in a larger distance from the front of the retina. That’s why usually glass numbers tend to grow, you need more correction to offset the distance. At about 24 years old, the body stops growing, and you no longer need to change your glasses.

Near vision, or reading, problems start at about the age of 40. In order to look at close objects the muscles around the lens need to push it. The closer the object, the more force needs to be applied in order to allow you to focus. With age the tissue of the lens becomes less flexible and it becomes harder to apply enough force. Then you need reading glasses to provide some of the optical correction. And unlike distance, using reading glasses increases the pace in which the problem grows, since the muscles become less exercised and weaken faster.

There are of course more problems, some also corrected by glasses, contact lenses, or these surgeries, but that’s not the issue here, so I won’t go into them.



Why the long explanations? To emphasize the point that checking near vision and checking distance vision are two different things.

And 40cm has a lot to do with near vision. Not entirely, that’s true, but enough. What you see from 40cm is not very relevant to your visual acuity for distance.

I tried to check myself with their test page. It was very interesting to see I get to 20/15. That’s wonderful! I didn’t see that well for more than 10 years… What an amazing improvement. Nowadays I’m actually more at the 20/20 or 20/30 range. Which is also good, but is normal good, not above normal good like 20/15 would be.



Which brings us to another alight problem with this test page, beside it being irrelevant and showing a clear lack of understanding about how visual acuity is checked (And I’m supposed to let these guys operate on my eyes after that?!). They had the Ft. scale and the 20/x scale. Would have been very nice for most Americans for example, that probably heard someplace you want to see 20/20. But around here the used system is 6/x mostly. Conversion is extremely trivial, but still it’s hard to believe someone around here would have come up with it. Which means they probably stole the idea from some American clinic doing the same thing…



These Y/X scales, if anyone wonders, are not at all complicated. The numbers say that what you see from Y meters an average person would see from X meters. So 20/20 means that you see from 20 meters what an average person would see from 20 meters. 20/40 would mean that what you see from 20 meters, an average person could see just as well from 40 meters. What matters is the ratio, so 20/20 is 6/6 is 5/5, and 20/40 is 6/12 is 5/10.

And these averages were measured a long while ago, and not extremely accurately. And they’re only averages, so seeing 6/7.5 (20/25) is perfectly fine and not reason to go buy glasses (or do some other things like this clinic sells).

Though IMNSHO the law here is a bit extreme, allowing people to drive if they see 6/12 in one eye. Putting a person with one blind eye (so having no stereoscopic vision, depth perception, at all), and another eye that needs to get to half the distance a normal person would in order to see a problem on the road, behind the wheel of a car, strikes me as not particularly safe. But maybe it’s just me, other people probably don’t need to see anything in order to drive safely.



Anyway, to get back on track, these people are using a scale which is rarely used in this country, and employ a meaningless method to do the check. And all that in a promotional material which is meant to attract customers who will pay them a lot of money to perform precise medical procedures on them.

I can’t see that happening.

I Don’t think I’ll “Yelp!”

October 14th, 2004

The nice people at The Register (Well, it’s very hard to catch them actually being nice, but in this specific case either they are, or their sarcasm is much subtler than usual) have published an article covering a new social-networking thingy called Yelp!.

The idea behind Yelp! seems to be that it lets you ask your friends for recommendations about places. And (This is the social-networking part, I suppose) then for them to go on asking their friends for you. All with less work and hassle, at least according to Yelp!.

Let’s look at the workflow, by the nice how-it-works from Yelp!’s site. Step one:


Ask Your Friends

When you want to find good local businesses you ask the people you trust. Yelp! makes that easy.

To get started, just enter what you’re looking for, together with your friends’ email addresses.

Quite amazing so far. I only need to write what I’m looking for, and my friends’ email addresses. Let’s compare to the other option, sending an email (since “Friends” here are more “people that won’t be too bothered by a query” than actually friends. Otherwise I might have been tempted to use the phone).



If I want to ask my friends something by email, I’ll need to enter all their email addresses, or pick them from the address-book.

Through Yelp! it’s pretty much the same things, except I don’t see an address book. Maybe once you register you get one with all the addresses you previously used.

If I want to ask in my email about something, I have to laboriously write it down in free text, having to come up with all that grammar and syntax needed to make my question sensible. I can’t just write someone with a line like “restaurant Foo city can’t cook” and have them understand. I’ll need to make a whole paragraph like “Hi. Listen, you know I can’t cook, and I’m getting hungry. So I was wondering if perhaps you know of a good restaurant someplace in the city of Foo? Thanks a bundle. Oh, and if you don’t know of any, mind asking around for me?“. That’s work, work, work. Very difficult. (I can BTW. Cook, I mean. And very well too. This is just a theoretical example. OK?)

With Yelp! on the other hand, you just fill in three boxes on a form, one for what you’re looking for, one for the city, and one for extra info. Then they can spare you all that sentence-building. No reason for you to actually want or need anything more when asking a friend for a recommendation.

OK, onward to step two:


Friends Make Recommendations

Friends will receive your request by email. Then, they recommend a business using Yelp! (sign up is not required).

If they can’t help, they can forward your request to one of their friends.

My friends will receive the request by email, and can recommend a business. If they don’t have a clue, they can forward it onward.

Differences? If I send them an email, my friends have the burden of replying and writing a whole reply, and sending it back to me.

If on the other hand I use Yelp!, instead of the onerous task of pressing the reply button, they can easily click a Yelp! link. And put the reply there. Better yet, my dear friends could then fill in a form with all the required details in the proper fields, not being forced to do this whole free-text routine themselves. Heck, using Yelp! they don’t even have to register! (Oh, wait, same for replying to an email…)

Seems obvious I’ll get more replies if replying requires less work. All the hurdles of writing a line in an email is sure to discourage some people that would be perfectly happy to go to a website and fill up a proper form with fields and everything.

Stating they can reply to one of their friends is also quite wonderful. Prevents all that avalanche of chain letters I usually see when friends forward my questions to hundreds of people without any semblance of control… (OK, I’m probably just being petty here, I’m sure they didn’t really mean one. But I can’t be certain, can I?)

What’s next?

Return to Yelp!

When your friends respond, you get an email. Just return to Yelp! to see their recommendations.

Each recommendation includes contact details for the business, a map and your friend’s opinion.

If there are any replies, I get an email. Fine.

If I was just emailing my friends, this email would contain the address and details. And that would be that. Is it really fair to finish the fun so quickly? What will I do with the rest of my free time?!

Since I’m using Yelp!, however, there’s more for me to do. I can go to their website and see the reply, that my friend sent me, there. With whatever pretty colors they can put in their design, and not the dreary email text. Much better.

Ah, but I’m ignoring the really useful part. I’ll get:


  • My friend’s opinion. What a novel idea to send me that. How did they think of that?

  • Full contact details for the business. That’s good. If I want to call them and ask something I don’t need to open the phone book. And I get the exact business name instead of some sounds-like that my friend would have sent me from memory on the email.

  • Map. So I know exactly what it is and how to get there, instead of opening one myself (or going to a mapping site and deciphering the location from the vague “one turn after the big tree” sort of things that my friend would have probably sent me on the email).


Just a slight problem with the last two items here. You might have noticed. The details have to come from someplace. Now, I won’t claim that there are only two options, but the number is limited:


  1. The friend enters all the contact details, and exact address for their mapping service to find. This does spare me the work of finding these out. From my friend’s side, however, it forces him/her to do all the hard work. I’m getting a small favour, and require more instead of saying thanks.

  2. Yelp! connect to external comprehensive maps and contact details providers. The friend use these and partial info to find the exact data. Potentially this can require less work from my friend. It’s still work that I’m the one who is supposed to be doing, since I’m the interested party. And I likely won’t need all the info, so it’s needless work. Incomplete date in their database for some possible businesses is of course not an option worth mentioning. Oops, I just did.


And that’s about it. Even Yelp! agree:

That’s It!

You’ve found what you were looking for. Best of all, recommendations are saved so you can share them with friends.

With Yelp! you’ll always be able to find the best local businesses.

Asking my friends about the best local businesses can sure help me find them. And yes, Yelp! is a way to do that. I’m not so sure about that always bit, and I’m not so sure Yelp! will help me more than plain old email or phone (IM too. I can ask my friends about local businesses on IM as well).

I’m also not so sure it won’t help me less, overall and all things considered.



Sharing is probably the main advantage, social-networking and all that, you know. They are not too detailed (read: doesn’t say anything last time I checked) on their website about the sharing part, and only slightly more about the questions forwarding part. So I’ll just go on assuming. They’re probably more imaginative than me over there, so I could be wrong, but then again I could be very wrong.

Suppose I ran a search about a business in a city. Suppose I even got an answer. Suppose the system even let me rank the answer (or answers) I get. Now a friend of mine runs the same search. Will it help him? Not likely, he may be using slightly different words, and that’s that. Just read their about page and you’ll see what I mean. Their CEO will run a search for cheap eats (at least you know they’re not spending money on salaries) and their CTO for high-end Mexican cuisine (or maybe they do, but on the IT people, as they should). If I were friends with them, this won’t help me at all, if for example I just want a “nice restaurant”.

And reliability is a major problem. Sure, friends won’t lie to me (Though the kind of “friends” that won’t find it strange I’m using some web service to talk to them instead of a phone or email, those might). But taste varies. A lot. Some questions I’ll ask certain friends just to know where to stay away from. On the first step, that’s not a problem, I just won’t list them. But on automatic searches to deeper levels of connections? The system can’t know who I trust and who is compatible with me on a new search.

Maybe it asks for any forwarding level. But in this case, it doesn’t help on networking. Choosing manually which people to forward a query to… is exactly what people would do if they got a regular email with the query.

One can only hope that even if it picks old recommendations automatically, it doesn’t automatically send queries to people. That could get very annoying very fast. Especially as you get further away from people you know.

And there is the privacy issue. Some people (myself included) don’t like their friends giving their name and address (email or other) to some company and websites. Doesn’t even matter if you agree, as long as you notice that some of your friends may. So you can’t use those friends when searching through Yelp! or they will send you back a scathing and not too helpful reply. They may know some good places too, though. So you have to send them an email. Well, while you’re sending emails anyway… You can just add some more names to the BCC line and be done with it.



Plus, I don’t like the name. Before today, if someone asked me to name five web sites that put an exclamation mark in their name, I would have very quickly answered “Yahoo!”. Then it would have taken me a lot longer to pick up another. And I probably would have broken down pretty quickly and picked “Yahoo! Mail” and the likes.

And now we have another highly self excited service, with an exclamation mark. And more, the name starts with a Y. Might be nice if they have a gigantic success. People may decide to shorten the name to Y!… Then the lawyers get it, and the fun really start.



Which reminds me, on an unrelated side note, some search engine really have to start indexing punctuation. I can’t run a search to find all places with a “!” character in the title!

Hebrew character encoding

October 13th, 2004

Google AdWords ad using Heb text showing only as ?s
This AdWord is in Hebrew. Since that doesn’t quite make it a world-wide seller, and the site I was seeing this on, The Register, did not have anything else relating to Hebrew or Israel on the page, I assume it means the ad was selected by IP geolocating and not just by matching words…



Regardless of this, As you might have noticed, it didn’t come out particularly readable (Yes, there are other characters in Hebrew beside “?“. Honestly). Not that I’m surprised or anything. But even when I tried to manually change the page encoding to various Hebrew and Unicode formats, the ad retained its original appearance (Well, I shouldn’t expect these changes to propagate like that, should I ?).

Which made me wonder why bother? Someone paid good money to place that ad. Newsflash : Unintelligible text doesn’t sell, fellas. No one will click on the link out of idle curiosity.



Yes, the text is there. Yes, it’s just an encoding problem. But I need to work and waste time in order to read it, and quite frankly ads are meant for people that don’t already feel strongly enough about you to waste time and effort.



Hmm… Maybe it looks alright under some defaults with some versions of IE? I hope it at least looked alright on the computer of the marketing guy (or gal, I don’t discriminate. Idiotism is a cross-gender issue) that wrote the ad and bought it. I wonder how tweaked their system was for this.



English can be read everywhere in every browser on every Internet connected computer (I’m ignoring whatever modifications China may require, of course). Even if you look for a targeted audience, do stick to English. I probably won’t click on your ad anyway, but at least it will be because I know it doesn’t interest me, not because I’m not curious enough to waste time finding out if it does…

We don’t use it, but you should

October 12th, 2004

I followed a link to a news story on some AsiaOne site.

At the side of the page there was a very large flash ad, published by AsiaOne, for… Google AdWords.



Oh, I admit they couldn’t replace it with an AdWords ad, since they want a specific ad on their own site, and that’s not what AdWords does.

Still, I find the whole concept of placing one ad in one medium, in order to publish another ad service using a different medium, to be very amusing.

I mean, OK, you can’t use AdWords to publish AdWords on your site, but you can at least place a text ad and not a flash one. You are after all trying to convince viewers that text ads work, no?



Needless to say, their website contain many other adds. All I saw were either by themselves, or by DoubleClick. Not an AdWord in sight on any page.

I wonder if it’s because they think it’s good enough for their viewers but not for them, or if it’s because Google didn’t want them…