Friday, May 10, 2002

Slashdot is echoing a Matt Drudge report that bootlegs of Star Wars episode II are already circulating on the Internet.

Expect shrill cries from Hollywood pleading that this shows that digital consumer electronics need strong copy prevention even though the copies could be (and, I have no doubt, are being) just as easily distributed via VHS, and even though they certainly were not originally made with consumer electronics, since the movie has never been made available in consumer media.

Which actually brings up one of the more sublime pieces of nonsense in the generally ridiculous Digital Millenium Copyright Act, 17 USC 1201(k)(3)(B). Section 1201(k) of the copyright act generally requires analog VCRs to implement Macrovision copy prevention, but subsection (3)(B) specifically exempts "professional" equipment, where that term is defined right below in 1201(k)(4)(D) like so:

The term ''professional analog video cassette recorder'' means an analog video cassette recorder that is designed, manufactured, marketed, and intended for use by a person who regularly employs such a device for a lawful business or industrial use, including making, performing, displaying, distributing, or transmitting copies of motion pictures on a commercial scale.

So, making or selling a gizmo which is able to copy rented VHS videos is against the law, unless the gizmo can copy them in bulk.

Remember, this law was approved by the World's Greatest Deliberative Body. It must make sense.

(Update: And, as predicted, here come the nitwits; the Seattle Times suggests that the attack of the clones of Attack of the Clones provides an argument for legislation even as it acknowledges that:

Many industry observers do not expect it to cut into box-office receipts, but some worry about the impact on videotape and DVD revenues that make up a significant portion of a studio's profits.

Oh, they're worried. Obviously, the only thing we can do is put copy-censors in every PC and electronic device. Otherwise they might need a little milk in their tea to get to sleep at night.

via Boing Boing).

If you're a dog owner who would like to have more meaningful conversations with your dog, but just can't tell a happy yip from an annoyed one, a Japanese toy maker has the solution to your problem.

Thursday, May 09, 2002

The Manchester Guardian is wondering whether the prominence of revanchist cold warriors in the Bush administration had something to do with its apparent support for the abortive Venezuelan coup. So is the perhaps more respectable Brad DeLong.

But the official line from the Bush administration, you'll recall, was that they didn't support the coup at all. They acknowledge that members of the administration were talking to the coup plotters and well-informed of their activities (to the point of knowing of, for instance, $100,000 payments from obscure sources in Florida), but claim that they were always careful to say that the United States supported democratic institutions and was opposed to any irregularity, particularly a coup.

So, evidently, these months of conversations were necessary in order to explain exactly how the United States would disapprove of a coup, and convey all the subtle nuances which would have been drowned out by a simple, final, "No". Wouldn't it be fun to have been a fly on the wall during these conversations?

"We're really sick of Chavez."

"So are we, but we can't support a coup."

"Oh, come on. A good old-fashioned junta would really clean things up."

"No, no, no. We can't support that at all. Very bad publicity."

"Ah, so publicity is the issue."

"Well, we can't be seen to support people who reject democratic institutions."

"Ah, so if we promised to hold elections in a year or two, that would be all right, then?"

"Well, that sort of promise has certainly helped our relations with our guy Musharraf, even if he is just promising a rigged plebiscite to justify his continued suspension of the constitution."

"So, if we staged a coup..."

"We cannot support a coup."

"What was that about Musharraf?"

"Well, he's the guy in power, so he's who we have to deal with."

"And if we were in power?"

"We'd deal with you, of course. But we cannot support a coup."

"You know, not everyone has the same scruples you do."

"Of course not. Plenty of my friends would love to get rid of Chavez, and they're not fussy at all. My pal Antonio was telling me just the other day he'd be happy to write a big fat check to anyone with a chance of pulling it off..."

"Yeah, right. I talk to blowhards like that all day."

"No, really, this guy has real money."

"What's his phone number?"

"305-555-1617. But remember, that's his position, not mine. As an official of the United States government, I cannot support a coup."

"So, let me get this straight. First off, you cannot support a coup."


"But if a coup happens, you are willing to deal with those in power."

"Depending on how they behave. It helps if they show some support for the restoration of democratic institutions."

"You mean the whole constitutional thing, or ..."

"I guess that's kind of a drag. But it certainly helps, particularly in your part of the world. After all that hairshirt stuff from the Clinton crowd which we have to live down, it plays much better in the OAS."

"So, if we stage a coup..."

"As an official of the United States government, I cannot support a coup."

"But your friend Antonio..."

"... is not an official of the United States government."

"And you wouldn't necessarily oppose a coup."

"We have to deal with the people we find in power. Reality isn't always as we would ideally like it."

"Well thanks. I'm glad we had this little chat."

Wednesday, May 08, 2002

A few days ago, FERC released reports from Enron's own lawyers describing the involvement of Enron traders in creating and exacerbating the shortages which resulted in the artificial California energy crisis. It's been widely covered; see, for instance, this New York Times piece, including the truly priceless quote that one of Enron's gimmicks

appears not to present any problems, other than a public relations risk arising from the fact that [spurious Enron trading] may have contributed to California's declaration of a Stage 2 Emergency yesterday.

So much for the role of trading activity in promoting a stable supply.

Enron's own current management describes these Enron trading tactics as "very offensive". I've been waiting to see how Enron's apologists would react. The closest I've seen is this argument from Megan McArdle --- who, to her credit, has been critical of Enron's ancien regime in the past. She's responding to a correspondant, and straining a bit; at one point, her correspondant cites Charles Murray as a conservative critic of libertarianism, and she reacts as if he were claiming that Murray is a libertarian.

But back to Enron. Her basic reaction is that:

...the fact that California did a half-assed job of regulation is no more an indictment of free markets than Thomas Kincade is an indictment of painting.

A valid point, except that the critical flaws in California's regulations were basically put there by Enron (as I've discussed before at greater length). But Megan has an answer for that too:

I am relentlessly unsurprised that businesses seek advantage by lobbying; only that there is anyone out there silly enough to think that when the government has the power to decide whether a company will live or die, that company won't try to affect the process.

So the corporations are buying the laws they want. Isn't that how the free market is supposed to work? (That's what all the anarcho-libertarian fans of medieval Iceland --- one of the few known societies that actually put seats in the legislature up for sale --- seem to believe. That society developed feuds between ruling clans so violent that they had to submit to rule by the King of Norway to clean up the mess, but don't let that bother you).

Getting back to modern America, some of us actually do subscribe to the naive idea that whatever blandishments they're subjected to, legislators ought to at least consider the public interest. From which perspective neither major party has a great deal to be proud of. The Democrats have Fritz "the Mouse" Hollings and Robert Byrd to their discredit as towering princes of pork, and the Republicans have... well, for starters, Enron.

(And then there are the critics who, I'm sure, don't see the news as having any significance at all. After all, to return to my favorite whipping boy, someone claiming that there is no evidence of serious accounting fraud at Enron months after the release of a report commissioned by the board of directors describing serious fraud and millions of dollars worth of embezzlement is not going to change their mind on the basis of a report by Enron's outside counsel. He also says that the charges against Andersen aren't serious, even though Andersen itself described the prospect of indictment (let alone conviction) as a "corporate death sentence", and due in large measure to its legal troubles, Andersen is indeed dissolving into a puddle of bubbling green goo, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of the Wicked Witch of the West. Glenn Reynolds pronounced this argument interesting, which tells you more about Reynolds than it does about the case).

(Update: Dan Gillmor misses the same point as McArdle. via the aforementioned Glenn Reynolds).

Tuesday, May 07, 2002

The Red Sox are off to a 21-7 start, for a .750 winning percentage. What does it mean? Not a damn thing.
And now for a tale of big government run amok on an international scale; biologists who advocated a biodiversity treaty are now paralyzed by its red tape, complaining that "in many tropical regions, it is easier to cut a forest than to study it."

The situation the article describes, with scientists held up for months or years just trying to figure out what the relevant bureaucratic procedures are, is ridiculous --- but the Times gives the advocates of hidebound bureaucracy and statist regulation less credit than they deserve for trying to solve a legitimate problem. It points out that medical exploitation of third-world flora has been a disappointment, but doesn't say much about agriculture, where "biopiracy" has been more of a practical concern; in 1997, a U.S. company, Ricetec, obtained a patent on Indian Basmati rice, originally including the Basmati name and even native varieties developed through centuries of breeding by Indian farmers. (In 2001, the PTO cancelled all patent claims except those related to strains specifically developed by RiceTec).

Does anyone still think that Colin Powell's recent mideast trip was meant to clear the decks for alternatives to Arafat? He sure is taking his time about it...
So, the other day, I ran across a Salvation Army collection truck brightly decorated with pictures of their wares --- bikes, clothes, furniture, and books.

Intrigued, I stepped up closer to see what was on the reading list. Along with a Living Bible, two copies of Chicken Soup for the Soul, and a self-help success guide by Zig Ziglar, were no fewer than three separate volumes of the Left Behind series by LaHaye and Jenkins, a literal and lurid retelling of the Book of Revelation with a little sci-fi glitz.

The Left Behind comic books didn't seem to be featured...

Monday, May 06, 2002

Even the arch-conservative Washington Times is unimpressed with the piggish farm bill currently flying through the Senate:

The law will enrich each full-time farmer by an average of $1 million in subsidies and inflated food prices over the next decade.... These soon-to-be Mercedes drivers already "earn" $64,347 annually from their agrarian estates, which have an average net worth of $564,000.

That's small potatoes to the top ten percent of big farmers and agribusinesses, who received three-quarters of farm subsidies last year. Fortune 500 companies with subsidy-fattened bottom lines included John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance ($134,318), Chevron ($80,637) and Archer Daniels Midland ($9,728). Men of the soil who reaped similar subsidies (despite their dubious ability to distinguish between dogs and donkeys) included rancher Ted Turner ($134,556), NBA star Scottie Pippen ($26,315), former Enron CEO Ken Lay ($6,019) and 15 members of Congress.

To which we may add the effect of the protectionist subsidy regime on third-world agriculture, not to mention the consumers inconvenienced or worse. (I suspect that most of my readers won't even notice, but there are plenty of people in this country poor enough to have it make a real difference to their diets).

But the WashTimes doesn't know what to do about it. May I respectfully suggest that the Republican farm state Congresscritters largely responsible for this exercise in pork ranching should be put out to pasture?

via Tapped.

(Update: Paul Krugman shows his partisan stripes by going after Democrats pushing the bill in the Senate)

Sunday, May 05, 2002

In 1770, Boston was under occupation by about 700 British regulars, who had been brought in by the lawful government of the time to maintain order. On March 5, outside the Customs House, a soldier got into a scuffle with an apprentice, who ran off --- and returned with a mob. The soldier called for relief. As it arrived, the mob got increasingly threatening, pelting the soldiers with whatever was handy, mostly snow and ice, and daring them to fire back, which they did (perhaps not hearing the orders of their commander, who was shouting "Don't fire! Don't fire!" in the tumult). Three colonials died immediately, two later on.

By public demand, stoked by radical propaganda, the soldiers were put on trial --- but under the circumstances, even a jury of colonials would not convict. First the commander, then most of the soldiers, were acquitted on all charges; the radicals got only two token convictions for manslaughter, for which the soldiers were branded on the thumbs and released. Some credit for that is probably due to the able work of the defense attorney, John Adams (yes, that John Adams), but much of it reflects the simple fact that the soldiers, at the time of the confrontation, were under attack.

The event has gone down in history as "the Boston Massacre".

Just a thought on the use of the M-word --- and on how it will continue to be used by those with an axe to grind. Palestinian casualty estimates now more or less agree with initial reports from the Israelis, which means only that for Palestinian propagandists and their partisans, fifty-odd deaths are enough. No need to be fussy about the details.

Anyone who thinks the Palestinians haven't scored a propaganda victory here isn't looking outside their own corner.

(Which isn't to say that things are going entirely well for the Palestinians. Take the Nightline interviews with Arafat and Sharon. I've seen Koppel knocked for making Arafat look good. Arafat looked terrible --- and if Ted wanted to make him look worse, he should have asked fewer questions, not tougher ones; every moment that Koppel was speaking was a moment in which the wild-eyed, drooling Arafat wasn't making a fool of himself).

In 1997, the once-great Boston Celtics were on the rocks, with pretty much the worst record in the league, playing in the muffled, funereal air of a cavernous, half-empty new arena, divorced from the spirit and history of the old Boston Garden, which was sitting vacant next door. Desperate to revive the team, management fixed on Rick Pitino as their salvation --- and gave him everything he wanted, which was just about everything. Pitino was coach, general manager, president. At the event now known in Boston sports circles as the coronation, he was alone on the dais, refusing to share the spotlight with even Red Auerbach.

Last year, dismayed by his team's continual failure to even make the playoffs, much less contend for a championship, Pitino quit --- announcing his resignation in Florida, though he promised to fly back to Boston for a press conference. Conventional wisdom at the time was that Pitino the coach (and self-proclaimed master motivator; "Success", quoth the title of his book, "is a choice") had been failed by Pitino the GM, who had made several ill-advised trades trying to win immediately, at all costs, and saddling the team with overpaid players who he couldn't motivate, who would be a boat anchor on the teams' performance for years to come.

When Pitino quit, the team went on a quick winning streak, and defied expectations by at least contending for the playoffs. This year, the same basic team, augmented by a few excellent trades, is in (so far) the second round of the playoffs. The crowd in the New Boston GardenFleetCenter is loud and wild.

We're still waiting for that press conference. Rick, are you ready for your close-up?