Wednesday, June 30, 2004

HOWTO: Make a Flamethrower from PVC tubing

From Something Awful: If the concept of heading on down to the local Home Depot and transforming $100 worth of random pipe bits into a killing machine doesn’t appeal to you, you’re a goddamn pansy. Also, you’re probably sane and will live significantly longer than I will. Nonetheless you disgust me...

EFF Patent Busters

The EFF has setup a project to bust up lousy patents which is an idea I fully support. The Patent Office (which as you may recall, is supposed to be doing this) has basically reinvented itself into a money factory akin to a rubber stamp diploma mill. Send whatever obvious idea you want and they will dutifully search through all the other patents. If it's not there -- bam! you're a winner. Consequently, large companies are playing Hungry Hungry Hippos trying to snarf up as many "innovations" as they can. The Patent office institutionally avoids looking at anything other than patents (and some journals) when considering prior art so if it's flipping obvious or has been in products for 20 years, that doesn't hold much water with them. Getting a bad patent invalidated is a huge amount of expense/work (and legally risky) so most people don't bother - they just pay. This usually ends up bankrolling the next patent lawsuit against a bigger fish. I'm glad to see that the EFF is taking a stand and publicizing the issue.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

MYTH: You can't link to PDFs

It seems to be a widely held myth that you can't link to PDFs in the same way you can in HTML. To review, HTML allows linking to a named destination but the author has to put an anchor in the HTML (which most people don't do). PDFs (or at least Adobe Reader / Acrobat) do have link accessibity which is more powerful than HTML:
  • You can link to a named destination (e.g. http://mydocs/doc.pdf#nameddest=Chapter6)
  • You can link to a specific page in a PDF (e.g. http://mydocs/doc.pdf#page=3)
  • You can link to a specific view of a page (e.g. http://mydocs/doc.pdf#page=3&zoom=200,250,100)
More info is available here and here.

Friday, June 18, 2004

FRONTLINE: the Plea

Very scary episode of Frontline on the Plea barganing system in the US. Basically 95% of guilty verdicts are the result of plea bargains due to the low quality / high cost of a jury trial. This is not so good because a plea bargain (as the name suggests) is about barganing and not about innocence. It also makes it much harder to correct problems down the road because the person has pled guilty to the crime even if they were railroaded into it - the scariest parts of the episode was cases where the judge and the prosecutor gang up to get someone to take a plea. You would think this is grounds for an automatic appeal (the judge isn't supposed to care who wins, remember) but you cannot (or at least it's much harder) to appeal a guilty plea rather than a guily verdict. One thing that wasn't mentioned is why the judicial system has had to revert to this system - volume. The war on drugs has given the US the highest incarceration rates in the world. Given all of this, you can't really be suprised the quality of justice for everyone has gone down the toilet.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Joel on Longhorn

Joel on Software has a length article on the sea change at Microsoft that is culminating with Longhorn. Joel was a programmer at Microsoft but now does server side programming and thinks that MS is losing their API monopoly not another company but to the web. A brief synopsis:
  • Backwards compatibility of Window Applications is being sacrificed for wholesale new technologies (.NET, WinFX) that require developers to scrap everything they have done before. To use some aspects of Longhorn (Winforms, .NET remoting) will require rewriting applications which were rewritten for .NET just a few years ago.
  • Most new developers find writing Browser based applications much easier and a better return on investment
  • Most users a fine with using Browser based applications (I kind of disagree with this one - browser based applictations, particularily the ones which really should be client / server or desktop applications tend to be horrible, unusable hacks. OTOH, people do use them, usually because they are forced to as part of an enterprise solution...)
  • In the 1980 / 90s the number of computers was growing at such a high rate that new computers were the rule rather than the exception because new computer sales were larger than the installed base). In this environment, developers could afford to target new machines / OS but now you can't get away with that because many people are still using Windows 98. How many people have the .NET runtime or can run the .NET runtime? (Again browser-based software is not a panacea here - many web sites are pretty choosy about which browser they will work with - usually the aforementioned "enterprise applications" but installing a current browser is seen as less of an issue than installing an OS / OS Component)
For Joel, it seems like upgrading to Longhorn as a development platform is not a compelling deal in terms of what can be done versus the cost of doing things. The Mac is a good case study for this - how many people have switched to OS X? I'm fairly sure it's not a high number of total mac users (although Apple has told developers that "we don't care and you shouldn't either). There is another issue though because as an ISV you don't care about the total # of users but the total # who are going to buy software at all - in that case the people who upgrade OS are also the people more likely to buy your software so the numbers are skewed somewhat. But upgrading Windows is hard. Really hard. So I think it's far to say there are significant #s of people who are several revs behind on Windows OS who still buy software.

Futurama on the nature of being god...


Comedy Central aired the Godfellas episode of Futurama the other day.
Bender: It was awful. I tried helping them. I tried not helping them but in the end I couldn't do them any good. Do you think what I did was wrong?

God: Right and wrong are just words. What matters is what you do.

Bender: Yeah I know, that's why I asked if what I did - forget it.

God: Bender, being God isn't easy, if you do too much, people get dependent. And if you do nothing, they lose hope. You have to use a light touch, like a safecracker or a pickpocket.

Bender: Or a guy who burns down the bar for the insurance money.

God: Yes, if you make it look like an electrical thing. When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all.

The Weblogs.com thing...

Seems like it's a slow week because everyone is bitching about Dave Winer pulling the plug on Weblogs.com. The funny thing is that the people bitching don't seem to be affected in any real way - they just think it's wrong for some reason and want to stand up for the "little guy". Anyone who seriously expects cradle to grave free hosting is probably stuck in 1999 if you ask me... It seems to me that if you are affected by this you should write a note to Dave, thanking him for 5 !?!&$!?!? years of free hosting, find yourself a hosting company and pay them.
In somwhat related news, Dave is sick. Hope it's not serious - get well soon.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Capsule Review: Moneyball

Moneyball details how creative management of the Oakland A's was able to turn one of the poorest teams in Baseball into a team capable of winning (but in the end, did not) the world series. I'm not really a baseball fan (the only real sport is World Rally Championship!) but there had been a lot of "buzz" around the book as an example of exploiting market inefficiencies in order to get a good return on investment. The book delivers - it calls out the use of the heuristic "rules of thumb" which all industries seem to operate on, in this case, how major league players are scouted. By having a better model for what makes a player good, the A's are able to exploit market inefficiences and pick up players cheap. Once people realize what the players can do, the A's would resell them to other teams as a way of getting new talent. One question I had while reading the book was why the A's let Michael Lewis write it! It seems like the other teams in baseball were becoming wary of dealing with the A's once they had been fooled several times and two teams (Toronto and Boston) were actively putting in place the same sort of systems. It seems likely that the advantage that the A's have had will quickly reverse itself when everyone is using similar metrics and the current market inefficiences are a holdover from decades of baseball history. My overwhelming sense while reading the book was that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be ahead of the curve but only for so long. On the other hand, the methods the A's used will probably change baseball in the long term. In terms of larger lessons to be learned, it's a mixed bag. Everyone is applying efficient markets to everything these days (the Terror market, the Hollywood stock exchange, etc). The thing that makes baseball unique is that alot of objective (and not so objective) statistics about the game have been collected and these things can be judged very objectively (wins, runs). There are other less objective aspects (like optimizing for the short versus long term) which are similar, but most enterprises don't have good statistics about the way business is run and maybe that should be the real point of the book.

Capsule Review: I Am Legend

I finally managed to read Richard Matheson's I am legend. The book is a collection of short stories (principally "I am legend" with some other "oooo, isn't that ironic" type short stories tacked on the end). "I am legend" is about the last man left alive in the world when everyone else turns into a vampire - he has to survive the night and scavenge for food and gas by day as he tries to discover the rules by which the vampires live and die. Eventually vampire society progresses and he discovers that he is the abnormal one. Capsule review: A chilling tale of conformity gone mad. It was so so but (SPOILERS!) once the vampires get organzied, the protaganist pretty much just gives up. It seems like the point was how societies norms changed rather than realism. The book was made into an even more so-so movie - The Omega Man - and a hi-larious Simpsons spoof "The Homega Man".

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Hypernova and Gamma Ray Bursts


Nova last night was on Hypernovae (the web site is here but is only so so). A hypernova is a supernova for a specific type of star (a "Wolf-Rayet") that is very hot and massive. When it dies, the core of the star doesn't just burn but collapses in on itself creating a blackhole at the center of the star. In a matter of minutes the black hole absorbes the rest of the star. From here is gets really wierd - the black hole has to conserve the angular momentum of the star but can only spin so fast so it must emit a set of gamma ray jets to get rid of some of the angular momentum (it's not really clear why the energy is emitted in this way). The gamma ray burst produced lasts from seconds to an hour and can be observed on earth. Gamma rays have been observed for a long time but only recently has their production been tied to the death of stars.

Expensing Stock Options

Everyone in Silicon valley has an opinion on whether Stock Options should be expensed. Usually this is purely a function of whether you have options which are "in the money" or not. My own feeling is that they should not but I try to make this determination independent of any finanacial impact it might have. Instead (and this is novel), I try to use logical arguments - lamentably, logic is not the coin of the realm when you are talking about accounting rules. Essentially the thesis is that stock options are issued to employees (some to executives, some to employees, some to others / V.C.s) but are not accounted for as an expense. The theory then is that companies should account for the stock when it is issued - the problem is, you don't know what the options will be worth when / if they are exercised. For example, the person getting the options could quit before they vest or the options could be "under water" and never be exercised. To solve this conundrum, we blindly use the Black-Scholes equation which is used to price options. Whether it actually works for stock options which have more constraints on them is debatable but basically, it's the best thing we have... In theory this is all just a paper tiger since the options don't actually cost the companies any cash. Rather the issuing of new shares to grant options dilutes the value of current shares - it's like your a country and you just keep printing money. Here is why I think expensing is a bad idea:
  • I fear what will happen (and to a large extent has happened) is that stock options will be considered to "expensive" and companies will have to find other methods of compensation (like Microsoft switching to allocation shares or cash) which will impact the bottom line because these things cost real money (a.k.a. cash).
  • The reality is that in the long term, most options are accounted for when the company does a stock buy back (which costs real cash). Granted some companies just keep issuing new shares but that effects the earnings per share anyway.
  • The black-scholes model that everyone is so high on using to guestimate the future value of the option seems arbitrary - I don't know why (if options must be expensed) they don't expense the options when they are excised.
The motivation for expensing options is primarily driven by peoples "outrage" over the fatcats at Worldcom / Enron who issued themselves millions and millions of options and then cooked the books to key the stock price high so they could sell out. The problem with expensing all options is that those same executives will continue to grant themselves options, at the expense of the employee stock options. Things like this are to the long term detrement of the company, but as we know, nobody cares about the long term.