Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The new iPhone

Looks like Apple are leaking details of the new iPhone with plenty of time before the launch (Fortune).

According to Fortune the significant tech specs are it does have GPS in addition to the 3G and it is going to be slightly thinner (9.2mm rather then 11.7mm). And AT&T will be chipping in an additional $200 rebate.

But the strange thing here is that the article is talking about the AT&T strategy and in terms that are somewhat odd. The discounted iPhones will be locked to ensure that people don't use them with another carrier. Well that was the plan the first time round. Why the need to mention locking? Why the need for AT&T to give an additional discount at all?

One explanation would be that maybe Apple has crunched the numbers and concluded that with over a million unlocked iPhones being used on other networks, many in countries that Apple does not have any agreement with, the time has come to start selling the phone unlocked.

If this was the case, now would be the time for AT&T to start setting appropriate expectations with the financial community.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Louisiana Purchase mk II

When Jefferson 'bought' almost a million square miles of land from the French, few Americans objected that the land was occupied by native Americans and had never been France's to sell. It is therefore unsurprising that the Washington Post sees no similar objection when reporting on an alleged secret agreement between the Bush administration and Israel to 'permit' continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

US liberals will of course denounce the agreement and claim that Bush has neither the authority nor the ability to bind future Presidents. Unfortunately this is not quite true, Bush does have the power to permanently and absolutely disqualify the US as an honest broker in any future peace process that may take place under the next administration or its successor. And issuing a secret codicil telling Israel that it is not expected to keep its part in any agreement is probably the best way to achieve that.

At the current time there are approximately 5.3 million Jews living within the borders controlled by Israel and 4.7 million non-Jews. Absent a new wave of Jewish immigration or genocide (advocated by the Israeli far right under the euphemism 'transfer') it is now inevitable that non-Jews will be the majority within the next ten years. This fact is not lost on Hamas which has made plain that it has absolutely no interest in the two state solution and will use precisely the level of violence necessary to disrupt any process with the goal of establishing one. In terms of terror capability, Hamas vastly outstrips Al Qaeda with at least ten and possibly as many as a hundred the number of active members. Hamas is also considerably better armed and funded.

A question seldom asked in US policy circles is why Hamas has neither performed nor even attempted an operation on the scale of 9/11. They certainly have the capability. But it is so much easier to avoid making the concessions described in the Bush letter as 'impractical' when you deny the possibility that the other side might have a rational strategy.

The insistence on the two-state solution amongst US liberals is thus part of the same thinking that underlies the Bush letter, the idea that the US has the right and/or duty to decide and impose a peace settlement on the situation that neither side is willing to accept.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Book Review in Processor Magazine


Sunday, April 20, 2008

Why was Malthus wrong

Matthew Yglesias comments on a Krugman piece in which he points out that Malthus was not wrong, he was in fact right for all of economic history up to his time. Despite advances in technology there had been no real improvement in living standards (except at the very top).

I think they are mis-framing the question. There are really two questions here, first why did anyone notice, second why did his observation attract widespread attention?

I suspect that the true answer to the first would be that Malthus was not in fact the first person to notice that economic conditions were not improving for the poor. It occurs in the new testament 'the poor will always be with you'. The difference was the expectation that progress would eliminate poverty.

And this difference is also the explanation for the reason why Malthus attracted so much attention. At a time when the wealthiest of the wealthy were getting richer at an astonishing rate due to the early advances of the Industrial revolution, Malthus provided an excuse for their greed. Sharing the wealth would make no difference. Such excuses only become necessary when the aristocracy are coming under pressure to share the wealth.

Such class based analysis is unpopular these days, not least with the elite class. But Malthus lived in a society where class not only mattered, it was what mattered most. A similar observation may be made with respect to Marx and class. Marx created a theory of politics based on class at precisely the moment that the importance of class would diminish.

We might speculate that at least part of the reason Marx and Malthus got it wrong was that so many people with the ability to make a change believed that they might be right. Marx is in some ways the anti-Malthus. The message of Marx for the aristocracy was 'even if you don't think sharing the wealth will help the condition of the poor, failing to address poverty is going to lead to revolution and the guillotine'.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Usability: The Ford Model T

Jeremy Clarkson is always good to watch, he is wrong on many things but wrong with style. On a recent Top Gear they looked at how the modern car control layout was developed which is an interesting story in itself.

But what is interesting is how the development of the car so closely matches that of the computer as far as usability is concerned. Complete with documentation in badly translated English and the most bizarre control systems you can imagine.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Security and piracy

Bruce Blogeth a CSO article comparing cyberattacks to piracy in the 1800s.

There are certainly some points of comparison today, but the real news is that they are getting closer to the 1650 model where privateers operated under government license. This is now very clearly the case with certain Russian gangs whose activities are tolerated as long as they make themselves useful to the Putin regime when a spot of deniable low intensity warfare is desired.

I think they will regret it in the end. The privateer era only lasted a few decades. The Royal Navy then spent the next two centuries fighting their successors.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The CBS Couric disaster

There has been much talk of the rating performance of Katie Couric in the wake of Dan Rather's departure. Rather himself was recently interviewed on this.

But maybe the problem here has nothing to with Couric at all but the support infrastructure. Rather hints that this may be a contributing factor but I suspect it might be more central.

The US network anchors emerged as the face of their stations gradually over time. Rather made his name with his tough coverage of Nixon during Watergate. CNN's anchors made their name during the first Gulf war. As the prominence of the anchors increased the presenter became a substitute for investing in the news itself. Foreign reporting was cut back and the network news descended into its present role of pumping out fluff. Even with the country engaged in two wars, a recession and a Presidential campaign the network news organizations are saying nothing of significance. They no longer contribute to, let alone drive the political agenda.

Like the restaurant that kept on gradually watering its soup every day, the network news found that the customers didn't notice as long as they were greeted by the same familiar face. But the day the face changed the customers suddenly realized that they were no longer satisfied. The networks might think that the problem is with the face but the real problem is the product.

The nightly television news is never going to play the role it did in the 60s, 70s and 80s. The arrival of CNN made the network news a secondary resource for many viewers. The Web has eclipsed both.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Jucy Campus and security Theatre

Ars Technica reports Threat on Juicy Campus gossip site lands student in jail

In fact what was posted does not appear to be a threat, the statement was in fact "I wonder if i could shut down the school by saying I'm going to shoot as many people as i can in my second class tomorrow. I hope I get more than 50,"

I cannot see why a person of reasonable intelligence would believe that the rest of the message consitutes a threat, on the contrary the poster was clearly pointing out that an anonymous site such as Juicy.Campus is going to cause all sorts of problems with false alarms.

But I can see how the proprietors of Juicy.Campus might have thought that the message might well inspire others to follow the suggestion leading to their ridiculous site being shuttered in short measure. So even though they have refused to provide IP details when the poster threatened to rape another student, they responded in this particular case.

Past performance is no indication of future returns

Pat Buchanan's statement that there is a 'fifty-fifty chance we bomb Iran by fall' is possibly but not definitely an overstatement. Certainly Buchanan is not a cheer leader for the neo-con vision of perpetual war, oderint dum metuant.

The problem with such notions is that the recent US experience of picking fights with fourth (Iraq) or fifth (Serbia) rank military powers is probably not a good guide to decision making when facing a regional superpower such as Iran. Moreover, there is a huge difference between making such an attack when the army has no other active conflict (Serbia), a relatively small conflict that the administration is uninterested in (i.e. abandoning the hunt for Bin Laden to attack Saddam) and beginning a third full scale war while on the brink of defeat in two more.

This is how great empires collapse. Napoleon and Hitler just had to attack Russia before securing the occupation of Western Europe. The Roman Republic collapsed in the aftermath of the conquest of Gaul and the empire might well have collapsed under Augustus had he not had the good sense to cease further expansion north of the Rhine.

Before the invasion of Iraq I predicted that the occupation would follow the pattern of the British occupation in the 30s: continuous civil unrest and 50,000 civilian casualties. If you adjust for the fact that the Iraqi population is roughly ten times larger today that prediction looks fairly accurate.

If the US does attack Iran we will get the answer to a question that the Chinese have been much interested in recent years: Are their missiles good enough to sink a US capital ship? They already know that they can take out smaller craft thanks to the Hezbollah attack on an Israeli frigate. If the answer is yes the supercarrier is obsolete and so is the US claim to be a superpower.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The idiocy of the Mass dept of revenue

The Mass Department of revenue insists that payments of over $5000 with an extension request be paid via the Web. Unfortunately the instructions developed in Automatic Extensions on the Web show that their IT dept has no idea about Web standards.

The form M-4868 that the taxpayer is provided to fill in is not a Web form but a PDF form. But no problem, 'Appropriate browsers are available at no charge from the Microsoft and Netscape Web sites.'

Apparently the IT dept of Mass department of revenue is not aware that Netscape has been defunct for some time and that neither browser has native support for PDF. And even with the reader plugin it is not possible to fill in a form - that requires the expensive paid product ($650).

Of course there might be an online HTML form, but the Mass dept of Revenue does not tell you where it is. The only information provided is:

Filing Your Online Application
  • Use Tab key or mouse pointer to navigate through the form. Do not use the Enter key after typing information – use Tab or place the mouse pointer over the next field in which you wish to enter information.
  • This sort of thing is unfortunately rather common when paper oriented process people try to use the Web. They insist on reifying everything as printable paper forms and ignore the fact that this is not how the Web standards are designed.

    "Online Form M-4868" is not listed on the 'E-File Forms and Publications' page. The form M-4868 itself says "Call (617) 660-2222 to file your extension by telephone or visit to file via the Web or to obtain Form M-4868"

    So the instructions are thus precisely circular. And probably nobody has told the Mass dept of revenue yet because nobody is going to file an extension till the very last minute.