Monday, August 26, 2013

Duocracy vs Coalition Government

From time to time, the question of whether or not American style democracy is really working comes up in political discourse. Many Americans maintain that we should have a two party system and that it really works because we can actually get things done. Defenders of the two party system will often compare our system to Europe and tell us, "Look at Europe. They have so many political parties, they can't get anything done."

So let's put that to the test with one example. In Japan and Europe, we find that they are far more efficient with their transportation system. Japan and Europe both enjoy very advanced, very efficient public transportation systems. Japan is famous for its high speed rail system, the Bullet Train. The Bullet Train has moved far beyond what I knew it to be as an adolescent both in terms of speed and technology. Both Japan and Europe have had excellent public rail systems for decades.

My mom has been to Europe many times over the last few decades and tells me first hand that the rail system in Europe is convenient, easy to use, and picks you up and drops you off where you need to be. She says it's great to be able to get on a train at the airport and take it to a stop that is within walking distance or a short cab ride to where she wants to go in Germany.

Both Japan and Europe have coalition governments. You know, the kind of government that never gets anything done because there are too many parties? Yeah, that style of government.

The rail systems in Europe and Japan were built with the consent of coalition governments, multiple parties, each vying for their voice to be heard, and they were heard. All of them. In contrast, the United States is plagued by a two-party system in gridlock. This system is backed by enormous sums of money and safe seats in Congress. The gridlock is exacerbated by the infamous Tea Party and other ultraconservatives who don't seem to want government to work. At least not while Obama is in office.

The coalition government has us beat beyond transportation, too. Europe and Japan both have universal health care with a single payer system, despite a coalition government. Europe has a thriving space program that is continually making new discoveries. Europe has the Large Hadron Collider, the largest particle accelerator in the world and Europe beat us to the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Europe has a much higher rate of union membership than we do. Japan and Europe both have excellent worker benefits instituted by law, that treat workers more like humans. All of this was achieved with a coalition government.

Our political system is locked in duocracy, a two party system, claimed to be far more efficient than other political systems. But upon casual inspection of the facts, comparing the differences between the two styles of governments, such a claim cannot be supported. Besides, in a true democracy, two parties would not rule the country to the exclusion of all other parties. A choice of two is not really a choice.

The duocracy enjoyed by the Democrats and Republicans excludes many other political parties who cannot get free air time on any local stations in the US. Third parties have been effectively blacked out of national news reporting. Meanwhile, the duocracy gets free air time any time they want it, from the four major networks, Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC.

If we really want to get things done in this country, we need to break the duocracy, a monopoly on political power. In any country, no two political parties should have a monopoly on power and still be called a democracy. Remove that monopoly and you'll find politicians more accustomed to compromise for all rather than exclusion for the benefit of a mere few.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A note on the causes of obesity

I just read this fascinating blog post about what appears to be the onset of a world-wide obesity pandemic. I think that David Berreby is spot on in his blog post. There is no single, super simple answer to the problem of worldwide obesity.

This trend has been going on for decades. I can attest to this from personal experience. Years ago, I rented "Herbie the Love Bug", you know, with that adorable Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of his own? The movie? Great for the kids. The extras on the DVD? Mind blowing. One of the extras was a documentary on the making of the movie and that documentary included a very interesting segment.

The making of the The Love Bug movie included a segment with a contest for the best decorated VW Bug. The winner would receive a life-sized replica of car #53, Herbie. The documentary was made in 1969 and what was most striking is that the crowds of people shown competing for the prize were all thin. There were only a couple of people who were overweight that I could see and I felt a sadness at having watched my country become overweight over the years.

One factor that is often overlooked when determining the cause of obesity? Capitalism. Capitalism encourages us to eat more and to live in a soup of industrial chemicals that alter our response to hunger and to food. Capitalism also encourages us to sleep in rooms with little blinking lights throughout the night.

Berreby's blog post also notes that this obesity trend is not just with humans. The weights of eight species of lab animals were tracked over decades and all of them consistently gained weight over the last few decades.

While personal responsibility certainly plays a significant role in obesity, world-wide, everywhere we happen to be, there are many other forces at work contributing to our girth. These forces are not easily discerned and once political discussions begin, at least a few people are going to be thinking about how to protect their bottom line before they take an interest in solving the problem.

Hopefully, we can all work peacefully together to solve it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review: Nexus 4

I'm an Android fan. I bought the first Android phone, the G1 with a slide-out keyboard, when it came out years ago. Then when upgrade time came, I bought an HTC One and that was miles ahead of the G1. A few weeks ago, I purchased an unlocked Nexus 4 from Google Play. I've been playing with it now for more than a week and compared to my old HTC One phone, this new phone is a blast.

The Nexus 4 is quick and nimble on its feet. It responds quickly to gesture commands and loads programs just as quickly. It's a miser when it comes to battery use and it has some new apps I did not expect to find on the phone.

When I got the phone, I tried to transfer the SIM card from the old phone to the new one, but the old SIM card was much too big. I trudged on down to the local T-Mobile shop and got a new SIM. With the new SIM in place, I was ready to roll.

I ran through the setup on the phone and logged into my Gmail account. Soon enough, my email and my contacts were loading. I headed home from the T-Mobile shop and when I got home, I found that an update was waiting and ready to run. This update would upgrade my phone to Android 4.3, Jelly Bean.

The update was quick and clean. On reboot, I had a slightly newer operating system, so there didn't appear to be much more to see. The boot times were much better than my old phone, too. On the old phone, I waited about 3-4 minutes for everything to load. On the new phone, I was up and running in much less than a minute. This was a very welcome change.

I enjoy playing a little game called Bejeweled Blitz. On the old phone, this took quite some time to load and often, it would hang while loading. On the new phone, it loads quick and is ready to run in a couple of seconds.

The larger screen provides ample real estate to work with. Icons on the home and other screens are easy to customize and locate as I want them to be. There is a bottom row of icons that appear on every screen so that I can get easy access to the programs I want from any screen.

There is the usual assortment of wallpapers, where you can use pictures, animations and the like. The new themes are very pretty, too.

The most significant new feature on the Nexus 4 is Google Now. Google Now is an intelligent personal assistant that uses your searches and email data to find information that is timely and relevant to your day. Just tap the Google search bar at the top of the home screen and Google Now appears. Google Now organizes items as a series of cards that appear on the screen. There's a card for the weather, a card for your appointments, news and other events around town.

With Google Now, I get the weather, my stock quotes to see where I'm at, and a few other things I didn't expect. For example, I ordered an item from Amazon and received a confirmation email. When I opened Google Now, I get the status on the latest package and within that card, I get a link to track the package. This is something that I wasn't expecting at all, but found it to be a very useful feature. When I was done with the card, i could just swipe it to the right to remove it.

My mom came out to visit us last weekend. A couple weeks prior to visiting us, she sent us her itinerary by email. On the day of the flight, Google Now used the information in that email to create a new card that provided me with the flight status, departure and landing times, gate and terminal number and a link to the original source email. This card made it easy for me to track the status of the flight without having to go to a website to look it up. When I was done with the card, I could just swipe it to the right to discard it. On the day that my mom was departing, a new card appeared for the flight home.

There are some minor and major advances with the Nexus 4 over my old phone. The biggest advance to me is the software update schedule. With phones that are sold by a carrier, the updates are often held back by the carrier. That means many phones are vulnerable to security problems that have been fixed in newer releases, but don't get fixed because the phone company refuses to let the updates through.

Not so with the Nexus line of devices, including the Nexus 4. With the Nexus phone, Google handles all updates independent of the carrier's desires. One question in my mind about this setup is whether or not a Nexus phone sold by the carrier has the same freedom as an unlocked phone from Google. I don't know but I will check that out, too.

Here's a little side note about photos on the phone. With the old HTC One phone, I could just plug in the phone and the file system in the phone would be mounted by my computer. I could select three different options for connecting to a computer: Charging Only, Disk Drive and Tethering. I've never tried tethering, but my Ubuntu Linux machine had no problem recognizing the disk in the HTC One.

But with the new phone, things get a bit tricky. I did some research and found that Jelly Bean exposes the photo directory for mounting, but to set that up, the USB cable must be connected to the phone. I found this rather confusing. Upon connecting the phone to the USB cable I had somewhat confusing choices to make regarding the settings.

I could connect to my computer as a media device using the Media Transfer Protocol (MTP), but that is for Windows and Mac. Or I could use Photo Transfer Protocol (PTP) to connect to my computer as a camera, this is for computers that don't support MTP. My Linux computer falls into this category. This option doesn't show up until I connect the phone to the computer with a USB cable.

Once connected though, Shotwell, a Linux photo catalog program, recognizes the camera and will sync the photos to the disk. This was a concern for me before I bought the phone, so I'm glad it worked out.

I'm really enjoying my new phone. It's quick, efficient and fun to use. If you're in the market for a phone, the Nexus 4 is a great option to consider at $300, a price much lower than you'd pay for Samsung, LG or Motorola from the carrier. For me, it was money well spent.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Takers: Obamacare Opponents

On Facebook, I follow Senator Mike Lee, a man completely obsessed with the goal of defunding and repealing Obamacare. As you may see from his Facebook page, he goes on and on with posts about defunding and repealing Obamacare. But he seems to have a blind spot: protection for the healthcare industry, particularly for doctors.

In a normal economy, when supply gets low, prices rise and the suppliers increase the supply to meet the demand. This dynamic tends to normalize or even drop prices for the resource in demand. We see this with commodities like wheat, coffee, electronics and other items that are mass produced. Demand has often been met with imports.

But that is not happening with healthcare. In the United States, we pay double what many other industrialized countries pay for healthcare as a percentage of GDP. Yet, there is no policy effort underway to increase the supply of doctors. US Doctors make twice as much per year as their counterparts in other industrialized countries, yet, no one seems to mind.

If we were to cut our healthcare costs in half, we'd be seeing federal budget surpluses for years ahead rather than deficits. But Mike Lee won't tell you that. He has an important job: protecting the healthcare constituency.

The New York Times has an interesting piece identifying all the ways that the American healthcare system discriminates against foreign competition. The path to becoming a doctor in the United States is already expensive and confusing. But the barriers to entry to the market for foreign doctors can take far longer than American entrants to the field. The barriers to foreign doctors are not just protectionist beyond what is necessary to ensure quality doctors, they contribute healthcare inequality by raising the costs beyond what many Americans can afford. The high cost of health insurance has suppressed wages and that has dampened the economy.

The most important bottleneck to remove is to increase the number of residency positions available that are subsidized by Medicare. The number of residency positions supported by Medicare has been capped by Congress since 1997. Maybe Mike Lee doesn't understand economic theory, and that healthcare costs are a matter of supply and demand. You know, increase the supply of doctors and the cost of healthcare will drop.

But that's not what we're hearing from Mike Lee. No, what we're hearing is that he wants to defund and repeal Obamacare without offering any concrete or specific alternatives. It is also notable that we don't hear the American Medical Association chiming in about increasing supplies, either.

I think that the AMA is quite a bit like the US Chamber of Commerce. They are loathe to suggest real solutions that would help everyone. Rather, they want to help others so long as the earning power of doctors is not diminished in any way. Introducing foreign competition, increasing the number of slots available for residency at hospitals or harmonizing regulations with other countries in the healthcare industry never even make it to the conversation.

Until Mike Lee and his cohorts are ready to address the doctor shortage with meaningful solutions that include foreign competition for our domestic healthcare industry, we can only assume that they are just posturing for political points. What other logical conclusion is there to draw?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A New Machine

I like to make things last. The last time I bought a computer was in late 2008. I booted my computer one morning to find that the boot drive could not be found. It was an old Dell Dimension machine and the disk controller hosting the boot drive had failed. As soon as a break in work came along, I went to Best Buy to get a new machine.

That machine lasted for 5 years with no electronic or mechanical failures. It is slated to become an entertainment machine in the near future. It was an HP Pavillion machine and it ran Ubuntu just fine, but was getting a bit chunky with Gnome Shell since the machine had only 3GB of RAM. I know, I know, that's an odd number, but it worked pretty well for a long time.

Christmas came a bit early this year as I had the good fortune to be able to buy a new Dell XPS 8700. It had all the goodies. 4th generation Core i7 CPU, 12 GB of memory, 1 TB hard drive, 1 GB Radeon 7570 graphics card (a supercomputer on a card with 624 Gflops of computing power) and, well, Windows 8. This machine has a CPU that is about 8 times faster than the old machine, 4x the memory and almost 3x the disk space and the disk speed is double what it used to be on the old machine.

So that's enough to last at least 5 years of abuse from Ubuntu Linux. I can hear some of you now..."Linux? You're going to install Linux on that rig?" Sorry, bub. I run a Linux home. No Windows will run here again. Ever. Well, maybe I will run a virtual machine with Windows if I need it because some web resource requires Windows. But that's it.

To safely make use of this new computer with Linux, I had to take several precautions. First, I needed to be sure that Linux would run as expected on the machine. I started by disabling the Windows boot environment. I turned off secure boot. I turned off UEFI boot and relied instead on the legacy boot system. I made sure that the setup for Windows would never happen so that I could capture the disk in it's pristine condition.

Once I was sure that I had the BIOS set to run properly, I proceeded to image the hard disk. I started with Clonezilla on CD. But that wouldn't boot. I tried Parted Magic, but that wouldn't work either. I was going to use one of those tools to record an image of the hard disk before installing Ubuntu. This way, if something goes wrong, no problem. I can lay the original factory image back on the disk and ship it back.

For some reason, the live CD imaging tools were not working. Apparently, they were not able to find working space with the Windows 8 file system, an apparently newer version of NTFS. Or maybe it was vFAT. I don't know. Didn't need to know, either.

I used a nearby laptop to turn a USB drive into a Clonezilla boot disk and I was on my way. After about an hour of waiting for the image to complete, I was good to go. Happily, the new machine has more USB 3.0 ports that move data at 5 Gb/s than the USB 2.0 ports that poke along at 480 Mb/s. During the imaging process, I was moving data from the boot disk to the external hard disk I connected to the machine at rates up to 7 GB per minute. That saved a lot of time.

Whew. Once I had a good image of the disk, I was ready for the next step. I booted up Ubuntu Gnome on CD and started installing a new operating system. The option I chose was "Erase disk and install Ubuntu", and that is exactly what happened. Once the install process starts, I just wait about 15 minutes for it to complete. This is much, much faster than Windows.

Once Ubuntu was installed, I ran updates until there were no more. I also added the repository for Gnome 3.8 and installed that, too. I have a script that I run that will install what I want so that every new machine is approximately the same. See, the vast majority of programs in Linux are installed through repositories. I don't go to any websites to download and install them. This system makes scripted installs easy and much more secure.

Finally, I restored my data from backup. I have a few main folders that I need: Documents, Music, Pictures and Videos. I believe in backup, so I backup my data every day to an external USB drive. I do this because hard drives fail. It is not a question of if, but of when.

To restore my backups, I just right-click on the folder, select "Revert to previous version", and point to the latest backup on the external drive. Then I click Next and let the restore begin. Documents went fairly quickly, but the music folder took the longest. Once all of my personal files were restored, I am ready to roll.

Now I have a spiffy new machine that is clean and smooth running Ubuntu Gnome. If you'd like to learn more about Ubuntu Linux and how to migrate from Windows, let me know. I'm happy to point out the way.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

What good is an advantage over another?

I see it all the time. People seeking an advantage over others. Every competitor vying for the top spot, edging out the other guy, excluding others from the arena or, in some cases, destroying the competition so that they never return. It is folly to imagine that securing an advantage over others will make your life better, bring happiness or security. it will do the opposite.

I like to drive. I have a style and manner of driving that is fairly consistent. On the freeway, I drive so that I rarely have to use the brakes except for exiting, stop and go traffic, and the occasional slow driver who happens to change lanes without proper notice in front of me. For me, any use of the brakes on the freeway is wasted gas.

So I measure my inputs and distance between me and the next car. I let the friction working against the car to act as a natural brake. When approaching other cars in front of me, I try to estimate when to left off the gas so as to allow friction to slow the car down enough to match the speed of the car in front of me. This way I don't have to use the brakes to match the speed of the car ahead of me. In this manner, I made a set of brake pads last 60,000 miles.

I give trucks a wide berth and let them merge to be polite and to save fuel. I let people change lanes and often, they are off on their merry way. I move in ways that facilitate movement on the freeway because we share the road and there is plenty of room for all. I leave early to give plenty of time for a leisurely drive to my destination. I don't have to race to my destination.

I have had my share of speeding to get ahead of another guy. I know what it's like when someone gets ahead of me. With age, I began to realize that in a minute or two, I will have forgotten the other guy. Proving superiority to another guy on the freeway is about as useless as winning an argument with a drunk man. There is no point. But there is lost time. Time that could have been used to plan for better things.

In technology, I see one company pitting its resources against another to win. Microsoft is a great example. They have a "take no prisoners" philosophy. They structured their company so that even divisions within the company were competing against each other. They structured their review process so that someone was always pegged as the top guy and the bottom guy, with the bottom guy almost certainly dismissed. How are they doing now? Their stock has been going sideways for about ten years now. They have been overwhelmed by competitors because they do not play nice with others.

In politics I see one political faction pitting their resources against other factions, seeking an advantage over the other, with the intention of imposing its will upon the other. When one faction wins, the will of that faction will almost certainly be imposed upon others. Does this make anyone happier?

I don't think so. I've never seen it work. If a man works hard to build a business and finds a way to get employees to work for less money, fewer benefits, and that increases the company profits, does that make anyone happier? Anyone at all?

It is obvious that employees will be no happier. We would think that the employer would be happier. For a time, he may be happier, but only for a short time. His brain may be momentarily satisfied. But now, he has elicited resentments from his employees, so he seeks comfort from other employers to justify what he has done. He seeks comfort from the shareholders to approve what he has done. He insists that he is cutting back to save the jobs.

The painful reality is that his brain just wants more of something and money seems to provide temporary relief from that pain. Never mind that this executive has the force of law, contracts and the political support of his government to assert his advantage over others. That isn't enough. Whatever he's got, he wants more to settle the voice in his brain, to secure an advantage so that it will never be taken away.

This is the "wealth incumbency" that Jon Stewart talks about. People go into business to make their lives better. But for some business owners, it's "a battle", "a war", "a struggle" or some other euphemism to demonstrate a conflict. It is, to them, a contest of wills. If you see running a business as a contest of wills, you're probably not going to be happy running the business.

The Reagan Revolution, on its face, promised prosperity for all. The tax cuts to the wealthiest among us were held out to all as a carrot on a stick to encourage us to grow rich. But not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. Not everyone has the desire or inclination to run a business. Most of us just want to work at a job we enjoy and take a middle class paycheck home to the family.

The tax cuts were not used to spread the prosperity around. They were used instead to build, secure and assert an advantage for the business owners over the rest of us. For example, the trend over the last 30 years has seen business investments move from labor to capital. This means that instead of paying employees to do the work, more automation is in use or, labor has been moved offshore. This resulted in exploding profits for the largest corporations. This is a tremendous advantage.

What will employers do with this advantage? They will use it to buy homes in gated communities, private security services, power generators for their homes, private schooling for their kids. They will seek distance from the middle class, both in economic and social terms to ensure that they no longer have to compete directly with the middle class or even have contact with them.

This isn't the culture imagined by the Founders of this country. They saw the problems with the aristocracy in England. They intended not to make the same mistake again, to create a level playing field for all. But their legacy has been subverted into yet another aristocracy.

It is not nice to build a ladder, climb it, and take it with you so that others cannot follow you. This is what the 1% have been doing for the last 30 years. They built an advantage over the 99% and then took the ladder away. Is anyone happy for this? I doubt it.

Friday, August 09, 2013

A new feature I discovered for YouTube

My wife Alice and I like to watch educational YouTube videos with Emily, our daughter. Alice has been checking out videos to find simple educational videos with numbers, letters and nursery rhymes and there are plenty. Among them, I strongly recommend Hoopla Kidz and Super Simple Learning. Navigating YouTube to play them is a snap on our phones and computers. We like to watch YouTube with our DVD player, too.

However, the YouTube app on our Samsung DVD player is incredibly dim-witted. It takes a couple of seconds for the cursor to advance with each press of the direction buttons. This makes for some arduous navigation to find videos we want to watch in YouTube. I've tried connecting a wireless keyboard to the DVD player, but it didn't much like that, preferring instead to make us navigate with a remote control to select characters, one character at a time to search.

While navigating the YouTube menus one day to get videos started for Emily, I went too far, unable to compensate for the speed of the cursor and landed on the Settings menu. Therein, I saw a box that said, "Pair With Device". I was aware that this could be done, but thought that only applied to the latest version of Android. My phone has Android 2.3 and the latest version is 4.3, so I didn't give it another thought until yesterday.

Yesterday, I paused at the Settings menu once more and reflected, "What if this works?" I pressed the right arrow key and selected Pair With Device. The screen presented me with a URL, a numeric code, and a barcode, I just love those barcodes. So I scanned the barcode with my phone and the phone prompted me with a URL. I tap on the URL and a web browser opens presenting me with a form is already populated with the number code entered. I scrolled down and tapped Add.

Then I open YouTube on my phone and notice a new icon at the top of the screen, a little rectangle with a wireless icon next to it, called "Send to TV". Now I can select a video with my phone and tell my DVD player to play it. Of course, the DVD player has to be running YouTube while my phone is running YouTube, but you get the idea.

To direct the DVD player running YouTube to play a video from my phone, I open the YouTube application on my phone. Then I select a video I want to play. This could be from play history, search results or a playlist. When I tap the video I want from my phone, the page for that video loads in the phone and I can tap Send to TV. Then the DVD player loads the selected video and plays it. Cool, huh?

YouTube navigation with my phone is far easier than with the DVD player. I also have a usable keyboard with the phone whereas the DVD player makes me work through a ridiculous onscreen keyboard which is also slow.

After making this discovery, I played around a bit with the new feature. I learned that I can select a video and play it, then send it to the TV in midstream. I can even manage the start point of a video from my phone and tell the TV to play from that start point. I also learned that I can select a playlist from my phone and there is a button called "Play On TV" so that I can send the entire playlist to the TV. Very interesting.

It's not exactly like the recently released Chromecast dongle, which streams from your phone or tablet to the Chromecast dongle, but it seems to work like that. I would think that streaming from your phone or tablet would run down the battery pretty fast. I haven't used Chromecast yet, but if I do, I'll let you know how that works.

The device pairing feature doesn't seem to stream from the phone when playing videos. Instead, it seems to direct the YouTube app on the DVD player to stream the video of choice. This conserves battery power on the phone as the wireless radio on the phone munches on battery power like potato chips. Sending directions to the YouTube app from the phone to play videos makes a lot more sense. With a little experimentation, I might figure out how to play entire playlists without further intervention once the playlist is started.

It's important to note that on the TV side, the device could be a Smart TV, DVD player or streaming device such as a Roku streaming player. On the other side, the device could be your phone, your tablet or even your computer. As long as you can get to the Add Device form from a browser and enter the numeric code, you should be able to direct the action of the target device on the TV side with no problems.

The Pair With Device feature for YouTube is a very cool innovation. It is not really an invention, as it is just an obvious extension of what the YouTube app on the phone and the DVD player can already do. I'm glad to find more freedom from the user interface in the DVD player and be able to use other devices to control YouTube on my TV. You might want to give it a try.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

The Waves

I have a certain fascination with gravity. I like to see how things orbit, fall and roll. Waves are one of those things that roll. Today, I'd like to talk about the really big waves. You know, like Mavericks.

After seeing Strapped: The Origins Of Tow-in Surfing, I have a newfound respect for surfers. I am not a surfer, but I have always respected surfers as people who are intimately connected to the Earth. They understand the rhythm of the Earth, much like the farmers do, but in an entirely different context. Strapped raises my respect for surfers in new ways and provides ample eye candy in form of giant waves and the surreal contrast in scale. Imagine a wave that looks normal in every way, but nothing gives it scale until you see this tiny guy on a surfboard, on a gigantic wave. That's what we see in Strapped.

I have known a few surfers throughout my life and have found them to be calm, relaxed, and generally at ease with themselves. The only thing that seems to matter to them is current surf conditions. I know this because years ago, I was working a construction job in Newport Beach. I had to meet with the building engineer who happened to be a surfer. After we exchanged greetings for the morning, he took a deep draw of air through his nose, exhaled and said, "Hmmm. Smells like the wind is offshore today. I think I'll go surfing after work."

Strapped, shows us how the technology of the day has been adapted for use at places where big waves crest. At Mavericks, for example, waves often crest at 25 feet or more and waves as big as 80 feet have been witnessed. Strapped teaches us how they adapted the hydrofoil to the surfboard, creating a nearly frictionless glider that can keep up with the large waves.

The pioneers who figured out how to surf the really big waves learned how to adapt the hydrofoil to the surf board. The foilboard allows a surfer to glide on the wave with much less friction than a typical surf board because at certain speeds, the hydrofoil lifts the surfboard out of the water. With the board out of the water, surface contact between the board and the water is about a tenth of what it would be if the board were in contact with the water while riding.

Strapped also illustrates how jet skis can be used to rescue surfers in peril, quickly. With a 25 foot wave coming, getting in to rescue a downed surfer and getting out quick is not easy swimming by hand. A jet ski makes short work of this effort.

Strapped reminds me of the power of gravity, the weakest force of the four known forces of the universe (the others are the weak, strong and electromagnetic forces). The tidal forces at work to create the waves on the water don't seem like much at waters edge. But two miles out at Mavericks, the waves easily demonstrates how much power is at work as the Earth and the moon do their dance.

So if you're looking for a good surf movie, with some mechanics and science behind the craft, Strapped is a great film to watch.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

A patent reversal for Apple

It is interesting to see the patent fight going on between Samsung and Apple. Since about 2010, these two giant companies have been sparring over patent rights in an effort to assert dominance in a very competitive cell phone handset market.

Very simply put, Apple started it. Steve Jobs declared that Android, the operating system running on Samsung phones, steals from Apple. From that point forward, Jobs pointed his legal army at Samsung to stifle competition from Samsung.

Samsung now has a very comfortable lead in handset market share over Apple, worldwide. But at home, Apple is still doing very well. But you wouldn't know it based on the latest news that President Obama stepped in to help Apple.

Samsung has been asserting standard essential patents against Apple at the International Trade Commission. Apple has been unwilling to negotiate fairly, claiming that Samsung is asking for royalties that are too high. Never mind that Apple has been demanding $30 per handset from Samsung to license Apple patents. Apple would surely like to put Samsung out of the cell phone business, but they cannot in a free market. Apple would also prefer to skate on Samsung's patents and if they could, still get $30 per phone from Samsung.

Ultimately, Samsung prevailed at the ITC and was awarded an exclusion order that would prevent some older model iPhones and iPads from being imported into the United States. To prevent the ugly spectacle of an American company being unable to import it's own products into the United States, President Obama has stepped in and vetoed the ITC's decision. Samsung will not get the exclusion order.

While President Obama talks highly of the innovators, he is clearly biased towards *domestic* innovators. It no secret that he would prefer that Apple prevail against foreign companies like Samsung. But to pick winners and losers like this is so unbecoming of him. Or maybe not. Maybe he had a debt to pay to Apple.

Had the exclusion order been upheld, Samsung could negotiate with Apple in good faith as Apple was unwilling to do so. Obama says that the parties can still fight it out in the courts. Maybe so, maybe not. I don't know. But watching what is going on with Microsoft vs Motorola suggests that it's going to be tough sledding for Samsung.

In Microsoft vs. Motorola, we have a similar argument over standards essential patents. Microsoft is asking a court in their backyard of Redmond, to rule against Motorola. Microsoft is asking the court to impose upon Motorola, a very, very low license fee for Microsoft to pay for standard essential patents. This is despite the fact that Microsoft is unwilling to negotiate in good faith. This idea that we can forum shop or assert home rules against a non-local entity is not in the spirit of free trade.

If Obama wants American patents to be honored abroad, he needs to rescind the veto of the ITCs decision and let the exclusion order stand. If not, then this decision could be the start of an entirely different patent war. A war where patents are not honored across borders. Is that what you want, Mr. President?

I want that. That would free up trade. That would prevent the continuation of the war on free software maintained by the patent owners of the software world, namely Microsoft. In some ways, what President Obama did is good. But if he's going to do it for Apple, he needs to do it for foreign companies when he thinks that patent owners are overreaching.

Treat everyone equally, Mr. President. Don't just act in favor of the home team.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Music on a quiet Sunday afternoon

I spent part of this afternoon, listening to one of my all time favorite CDs, Gymnopedies Gnossien, by the Jaques Loussier Trio. It is an amazing adaptation of classical music to jazz. The piano play is precision in music. The drums and the bass simply weave a background of music that literally twirls the ears around in some wild fantasy of simple sounds in a way that brings peace to my brain. It is by far, one of the best compilations of jazz I have ever heard.

I would not have taken an interest in it had I not been listening to public radio years ago and my father had not introduced me to jazz. It was my father who had also introduced me to Herbie Mann's classic album, Turtle Bay.

While these compilations are no doubt fantastic works of art, they leave something to be desired as they are only replicas. With every copy, there is some information lost due to the process of recording and replicating the recording. Like a copy machine with paper, with each succeeding copy, the resulting image or reproduction loses a little something from the original.

It was Neil Young whom I first heard complaining that the 44khz sample rate of CDs was not enough, not even close to what we get on vinyl disks. For a man who has toured the world and played on stage to large audiences, with giant amps behind him, I am surprised that he can hear so well as to find fault with CDs.

I remember my first CD player. I brought it to my friend Jerry's apartment to play Sgt. Pepper and he was astounded at the bright clarity of the playback. I thought CDs were cool because CDs were easy to care for, last for decades (I know, still I have CDs that I bought in 1988). The fact that they were compact, easy to store and wouldn't warp like vinyl had me sold.

Most of us these days, rarely handle CDs, though. I rip CDs soon after I buy them and play them on my computer, my phone or a computer at work if convenient. For the most part, I leave the CDs alone and let them rest for the day that I might need to rip them again in the next digital music format.

I am partially deaf in one ear and profoundly deaf in the other ear, yet I still find joy in music. I am aware of the iPod syndrome - deafness through iPod. The previous generation had Walkmans, but almost all of them have hearing aids now. I wear a hearing aid, too. I have long wondered what the brain does with the slight delay of the amplified sound through the hearing aid and from the hole in the mold that lets sound straight through. I suspect that the brain cannot tell the difference and if it does, well...the brain probably interpolates the sound just fine.

In some quarters, vinyl or analog music is making a comeback. Even vacuum tubes are being used in new electronics to give music that warm fuzzy sound we had with our old audio gear is coming back, too. There is something to be said about analog music, too. It just feels more natural to some.

But nothing can compare with listening to it live. Oh, how I would have loved to have been behind the glass in the control room while Jaques Loussier and his band were recording the Gnossiens. The magic in the room must have been mesmerizing.

For now, I can enjoy a quiet Sunday afternoon with this music playing as the clouds pass between me and the sun, changing the light in the room, and reminding me that this season soon will pass.

Friday, August 02, 2013

The hole in the tech news

Over the years, I've noticed a sort of hole in the tech news. Here's an example: Airports' passport controls SHUT DOWN by 'malware' - report. Reading this report, we only know that the passport control system at the airport in the city of Istanbul was shut down by malware. There is simply no mention of the operating systems used on the servers or the client machines that were used to host and manage the passport control system. Does the reporter assume that we know they're running Windows? Maybe. Maybe not.

What OS were they running? That is the first question I ask myself when I read articles such as these, yet, that is the piece of the story that is almost always missing.

Whenever I read "malware" stories, I think of Microsoft Windows. But reading through this short article, there is no mention of Windows whatsoever. This omission is not an isolated example.

Let's take one of the most interesting examples, the London Stock Exchange the first business day after the Federal Reserve announced that it would rescue Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That day was September 8th, 2008. On that day, the LSE was down for more than 7 hours while the rest of the world was trading on the news that the Fed was going to save the largest holders of mortgages in the US from certain doom.

Every report I read about this event waxed eloquent about the failure of the stock exchange that day, with one major detail omitted: what operating system was running at the time. As it turns out, the LSE was running their trading system on a .NET application platform on top of Windows servers. I didn't learn which operating system was running the trading floor at the LSE until I found this article more than two years later.

I venture to guess that Microsoft took great pains to keep those details out of the news. I suspect that Microsoft makes a monumental effort with every major failure of Windows Servers to keep that one detail out of the news. It would seem that they have had a great deal of success because it is mentioned in only very rare cases. I can easily see Microsoft threatening reports with the loss of access to key personnel for scoops if they should happen to let that detail get out.

It is sad to see that Microsoft, so eager to stomp on the faults of others, is so shy about monumental failures on their part, failures that cost others millions. Needless to say, the Windows trading system at the LSE was eventually replaced by a more reliable system running on Linux.

Microsoft is no longer dominant in the computing space as Windows is unable to dominate over free Linux and even non-free UNIX. Yes, there are still plenty of shops that run Windows, but the biggest shops are not using Windows Servers. Google, eBay and Amazon to name a few, don't use Windows on their servers. If they tried, Microsoft would simply raise their license fees to squelch a potential competitor out of business.

Microsoft is also no longer dominant in consumer computing devices and has been losing relevance since about 1995. The PC market is shrinking in favor of tablets and smartphones. Android, which also runs on Linux, owns 80% of the smartphone market. As a result of the shifts in the market, it is now estimated that Windows runs on a mere 20% of all network connected devices.

Perhaps reporters will find fewer inhibitions to reporting the failures of Windows in major service interruption events now that Microsoft no longer dominates over everyone else. Honest and complete reporting will allow businesses and consumers to make more informed choices about the software they wish to run on their computers.