Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Making Room At The Top

Every libertarian seems to have his blind spots, mine very well may be stem cell research, Coyote's seems to be Ivy League Schools.

Which leads me to my main point -- the Ivy League needs to find a way to increase capacity. The number of kids that are "ivy-ready" has exploded over the last decades, but the class sizes at Ivy schools have remained flat. For years I have been campaigning at Princeton for this, and I am happy to see they are increasing the class size, but only by a small amount.

This argument makes little sense to me. The value in Ivy League schools is that they are the top schools, not that they provide the best education - though that may be a by-product.

If this top tier of schools accepts 1% of the students then expanding admissions to the top 2% of students only diffuses the benefits that the top students would have otherwise had. If there really are more people that are "Ivy League ready" then the market will produce a tier of colleges that are perceived as nearly Ivy League in quality. Its fine if Yale, Princeton and others want to accept more students to make more money or provide other benefits to their students it isn't going to produce any value to society as a whole.

Its the same for secondary education as a whole, it was perceived that you had to go to college to succeed so we started sending everyone to college. Now that the signal is gone - college is no longer a signal of excellence - the very ambitious need to get advanced degrees to differentiate themselves.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Lost My Lunch

There are dangers to reading blogs while on a lunch break - sometimes you read stuff like this:

one can use Bayes theorem to evaluate the conditional election prospects of various Presidential candidates for 2008.
Based on the most recent transaction prices, here is what you learn about the conditional probabilities:

Obama 88 percent
The market suggests that Obama would be the strongest candidate if nominated.
If you have read my blog for any amount of time you would realize that I'm not much of an Obama fan. Though, to be fair, he is one of the better Democratic politicians currently in Congress.

He is a hack that will sell out any ideal in order to get elected, which, again to be fair, is what all politicians do. Unfortunately, he plays the populist card a bit too strong for my tastes.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Help Fill My Stocking

If anyone has any of those worthless shares of Google floating around you can send them to me. I love giving my kids gag gifts at Christmas.

A Rose By Any Other Name

Microsoft is so afraid of pissing people off that they resort to all kinds of naming shenanigans to attempt to hide the truth.
As reporters discovered yesterday, a Microsoft Knowledgebase article updated just last week described RFM for Office 2007 as disabling a user's ability to create new documents, edit existing documents or to save documents edited within the suite, though the user can open existing documents and print them. Reports have stated this updated document is evidence that Microsoft, contrary to prior statements, is building a "kill switch" into Office, and perhaps into Windows Vista as well.

Microsoft yesterday afternoon rejected the characterization of RFM as a "kill switch," citing that RFM does not completely disable Office. But reporters have counter-argued, if you can't save and you can't edit, that's as good as killing it, isn't it? The ensuing argument is starting to take on the characteristics of Monty Python's classic "Dead Parrot Sketch." Is Office dead, or is it just resting?

Call it a freaking kill-switch - who cares? It's your product, if people do not want to activate it you are fully within your rights to turn off functionality.

This is not going to work though; the people that this is supposed to really affect - software pirates - will find hacks to kill the kill switch. Which leaves you with legitimate users irritated by "features" that are only intended to irritate. Meanwhile, Microsoft has to staff up help desks to deal with this nuisance.

Fortunately, this type of shenanigan is going to be short-lived. Software installed on computers isn't long for this world. Just look at the gaming industry - the big games all have an online component which is (nearly) impossible to pirate. The software industry will follow-suit - you only have to look as far as Microsoft's aquisition of Softricity to see where the future is heading.

You will buy software that only installs some of the bits on your computer - the rest will be online somewhere and you will have to log into the application to turn it on. This is good for all sorts of reasons that I may blog about later, but the good news for now is DRM/copy protection and all the headaches it involves, isn't long for this world.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Where is the Bias

Commenting on a study that looks at gender differences in tenure Matt Yglesias is pretty confident on where the bias lies.

You say the gap is explained by "fertility decisions" I say it's explained by "structural sexism." Here, as in much of life, women and men are now allowed to compete on "equal" terms. The terms, however, were set up long ago -- by men -- before that was the case, operating under the implicit assumption that the competitors would be men who, if they had children, would have wives at home to take care of the children.
I don't get it though. If men and women are, essentially, equal until one of them decides to work less in order to take care of kids then the bias is clearly not in the work place. The bias is in the home.

From a policy stand point things look pretty good. It is no business of the government whether or not women choose to emphasize family over profession - and don't let them fool you, it is a choice. The only solution would be to forbid people to work hard and that doesn't seem like a terribly efficient solution to me.

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Indispensable Stuff You Didn't Know You Needed

Our kids are going to look at pictures of all of our wires and wonder how we ever managed it all.
US researchers have outlined a relatively simple system that could deliver power to devices such as laptop computers or MP3 players without wires.
The concept exploits century-old physics and could work over distances of many metres, the researchers said.

Coming up with the coolest idea that no one ever thought of before is the simplest way to become filthy, stinking rich. And for those of you keeping score at home - no government body would ever approve of research funding for this unless it was attached to a bomb or some device that could kill bad guys.

I love capitalism!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Boy That Cried Wolf

Accusing someone of censorship is a serious charge. It's probably a good idea to make sure that someone is actually engaging in censorship before accusing them of it.

In October, a U.S. vigilante group asked Verizon to cut off Net access to Epifora, a Canadian ISP that hosts a number of (entirely legal) web sites offering support to minor-attracted adults. Shortly thereafter, Verizon gave 30 days notice to Epifora, ending a 5 year relationship.
Private companies deciding to terminate business relationships, regardless of the reasons, is not censorship.

Verizon customers can still get to the websites in question, Verizon has just decided they do not want to enter into business with this particular customer.

Whether you think their reasons are justified or not, this is not censorship and the net neutrality crowd needs to get its story straight.

Who Would Have Thought?

Back in September chicken little was concerned about Wal-Mart throwing its weight around.

several weeks ago, in the midst of rumors that Apple was close to announcing a deal with Disney, Wal-Mart's David Porter - the executive responsible for stocking the retailer's shelves with DVDs and CDs and whose influence is so immense in Tinseltown that he's been named to Premiere magazine's annual power list - made the rounds of Hollywood studios.
I claimed that the concern was just so much hooey. Wal-Mart only has as power over suppliers as they have ability to make said suppliers money. Let's fast forward and see who was right.

Disney continues to have success in selling movies through the iTunes Music Store, saying Thursday it had now sold about 500,000 films in just the first two months of operation. Consumers are downloading movies at rate of about 9,000 per day, generating about $4 million in revenue.
Expect stories, any day now, about how Wal-Mart is 'putting it to' Disney by shipping unsold merchandise back.


I think I've finally recovered from my 100 hour work week from hell (and I swear I'm not exagerating) and should return to something resembling a regular posting schedule.

And in my absense I picked up a co-blogging spot at Degress of Freedom. If I like it there and they like me I may move over full time, we'll just have to wait and see. But, for now I'll be posting in both locations.


Saturday, November 11, 2006

Sorry For The Quiet

I've basically been at work for 5 days - I have a ton of things that I would like to say about the election, DRM, ADA, global warming, government monopolies and all kinds of other fun stuff.

Please be patient and hopefully I can share my thoughts soon.

On another note, I've been considering joining a group blog. It would accommodate the sporadic blogging that my new job has imposed on me. If you have a group blog or know of one that is looking for a contributor leave me a note in the comments.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Flip Side of Privacy

Surprise, I'm skeptical of government mandated privacy rules. for as bad as privacy is perceived to be in the US, just remember that it can get much, much worse.

The Brazilian senate is considering a bill that will make it a crime to join a chat, blog, or download from the Internet without fully identifying oneself first. Privacy groups and Internet providers are very concerned, and are trying to lobby against the bill, but it seems they won't have much success.

I Love the US Reason #544

The press is still free.

Diebold Inc. insisted that cable network HBO cancel a documentary that questions the integrity of its voting machines, calling the program inaccurate and unfair.

The program, "Hacking Democracy," is scheduled to debut Thursday, , five days before the 2006 U.S. midterm elections. The film claims that Diebold voting machines aren't tamper-proof and can be manipulated to change voting results.

If the press was not free Diebold could simply petition the government to stop the program. Under US law they either have to prove, in a court of law, that the program is slanderous (or is it libel? or do neither apply?) Or they have to convince the American public that their machines are safe.

This is an important conversation - we shouldn't trust Diebold just because they say so, the accusations, even if false, are important to maintaining trust in the process.

There are plenty of reasons to not trust the process, adding to them simply isn't an option.

Broadcast TV Is Dead

It is only a matter of time.

Microsoft Corp. today announced agreements with CBS, MTV Networks, Paramount Pictures, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. (TBS Inc.), Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment to bring an initial lineup of over 1,000 hours of hit TV shows and movies to Xbox 360™ gamers in the U.S. by the end of the year. Furthermore, Xbox 360 will be the first gaming console to bring standard and high-definition TV shows and movies via digital distribution over the Internet directly to the consumer.

At first each show will be a pay-per-download. It won't take long for advertisers to realize that "Heroes - brought to you free by DC Comics" will be a far more effective marketing tool than spending millions on commercials that nobody watches.

It is fascinating to watch the world change right before my eyes.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Why Privacy Doesn't Matter

Or How I Learned To Quit Worrying and Love Total Information Access

The truth is that privacy does matter, but we don't really understand to what extent. Microsoft doesn't really care what I do online. They don't care what I buy, they don't care about what I listen to or what my favorite porn site is.

What they care about is how much my actions fit into a pattern of behavior. The more information that they gather, the more accurate their pattern matching will be. The reason that I trust Microsoft to gather that data is they can't really do anything with it.

Think about it, who is going to pay money to find out what book I bought at Amazon or who I chat with while I'm supposed to be working on my budget? The answer is no one, even if private enterprise wanted to abuse this information gathering, I'm not sure that it could if it wanted to. We just aren't that interesting, you and I.

That isn't to say that all information gathering is harmless. When the gatherer collects information against our will and can use it to arrest us, prevent us from traveling, steal our money or other such nonsense I am deeply distrustful.

"But I don't want them tracking my internet browsing!" I hear you say. But, since you know that its happening and you choose to buy stuff online anyway that is an implicit agreement to be tracked. Its not perfect, but no one is forcing you to perform business online.

We don't know what that loss of "privacy" really costs us, but I can tell you that it isn't zero. Retailers become more efficient by being able to offer us things that it thinks we want which reduce its total costs. Financial institutions gain a much higher level of confidence in our credit worthiness which allows us to gain instant credit with lower interest rates.

If government steps in and prevents all of this information sharing I can't tell you precisely what the consequences will be, but people will complain about it. Especially the credit. Creditors will be accused of gouging customers. Those libertarians amongst us will proclaim "You ask for it you morons! We told that restricting the exchange of 'private' information will have costs."

"Feh" they will say, "You free-marketers and all of your bizarre notions of incentives and costs. You think that everything resolves around money, can you see that we are talking about something more important than economics!"

Fortunately, I have my explanation detailed well in advance so that I can say "I told you so."

Sunday, November 05, 2006

My World View

I seem to be taking heat for rejecting anything that doesn't meet my worldview and not negotiating and "meeting in the middle."

The truth is that I change my mind frequently and am constantly shifting my policy stances on all sorts of issues. The problem is that no one on these boards ever frames their arguments to shift my point of view because they ignore the foundation of my opinions.

That foundation can be summed up in two words"

Incentives Matter.

I am rather agnostic on all sorts of issues because I don't have enough information to form an opinion or US policy is so far removed from reality that forming an opinion is irrelevant.

Should something be done about Global Warming? Not sure, but I can tell you that all of the policy recommendations being made by the left are wrong because they ignore a simple fact - incentives matter.

Should government be providing education? Probably not, but I'm willing to concede that maybe governmetn should fund education. Public education is wrong because it ignores a simple fact - incentives matter.

Should government help the poor? I don't think its necessary, but I'm willing to concede that we, as a nation, are wealthy enough that the costs are minor. I can tell you that welfare is the wrong approach because it ignores a simple fact - incentives matter.

The list goes on and on and on. Social security is the wrong approach, immigration "reform" is the wrong policy, FDA governance is misguided, energy policy is archaic. Universal medicine is a pipe dream. All of these I view as true because they all ignore the incentives involved.

If you want to try and pursued me that X is the right approach because it shapes the incentives involved in a way that provides outcome Y.

Good intentions are all fine and good, but unless they actually achieve the desired ends then those good intentions are worthless.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

More On Privacy

Yesterday I asked:

Shouldn't they have to show that the data collection is harmful before they file complaints

BetaNews has a great take on the petition:
The petition omits mention of tactics of salespeople in retail settings, who for decades have been trained to observe shoppers' behavior, even when -- or especially when -- they're wandering around. Retailers collect information from their customers every day in order to communicate better with those customers and to close a sale, and the very existence of shopping malls stands as proof that many customers prefer to conduct transactions in places where their privacy cannot possibly be guaranteed.

But also omitted from the citation -- 44 pages of which are devoted to citations from marketing brochures and Web sites, as well as Microsoft's privacy policy -- is any direct connection between the concept of collecting any user's behavior data, and that of gleaning from that data any personal information about that user to which a retailer or other service might not otherwise be entitled were he or she to enter that service's own physical retail storefront

The idea that we are only facing privacy invasion on the 'net is an illusion. From coupons to loyalty discounts to stopping to look at the latest Tool CD, retailers are watching what we do and trying to figure out how to offer us something that we just can't live without.
Everyday users, the industry groups contend, are generally unaware of the amount of behavioral investigations that Web sites conduct, and may thus be unaware of how their privacy may be invaded. For one non-Microsoft example, the petition cites a service offered by marketing technologies firm JumpTap, which keeps track of media purchases consumers make through their cell phones, and by way of alliances through carriers, make recommendations to customers about what they might like to purchase next.

So which experience would consumers rather have? The one where they get spammed about every crap CD that they play on Top 40 radio? Or advertisements about a hot but obscure jazz pianist that you would never have discovered on your own?

If the nanny-staters would just shut up long enough consumers will answer that question without being "protected" by people that think they know better.

Carrots and Sticks

...are probably the most effective way to deal with Chinese censorship. I'm glad to see that Microsoft may start using that approach as well.
The Associated Press cited Microsoft's Tipson as adding the following: "It is a point at which point you decide the Chinese people are worse off for having this service in their country...We have to discuss at what point censorship or persecution of bloggers has reached a point, or monitoring e-mail has reached a point...where it's simply unacceptable to continue to do business there. We try to define those levels and the trends are not good at the moment. And not just in China."

Tipson was reportedly being grilled by reporters and other questioners about allegations by human rights groups such as Amnesty International, that producers of Chinese search engines such as Microsoft were actively colluding with the Chinese government to propagate that country's policy of censorship to its own citizens. He denied Microsoft was in any such collusion, arguing that instead, Microsoft's efforts there are actively increasing citizens' access to information, although he conceded any company that does business in China must abide by its own local laws

Get China hooked on high tech investment then offer some quid pro quo. Sounds like a winning strategy to me. Greed is a powerful motivator, but the person has to know, exactly, what they are missing for it to be effective.

Dept of Homeland Stupidity

US-CERT, the government's computer security arm, is responding to news that a Microsoft application may be exploitable.

Until an official update, patch, or more information becomes available, we recommend the following actions to help mitigate the security risks:

* Review the workarounds described in Microsoft Security Advisory 927709.
* Disable ActiveX as specified in the Securing Your Web Browser document and the Malicious Web Scripts FAQ.
* Do not follow unsolicited links.
* Review the steps described in Microsoft's document to improve the safety of your browser.
What terrible, terrible advice; you might as well ask consumers to unplug their computers from the internet for as useful as this is.
  1. Asking a user to read technical documents is just asinine. I don't even understand most of them and I do this full time!
  2. If users are following unsolicited web links in 2006 then they probably aren't reading alerts from US-CERT anyway.
  3. Providing users instructions on how to break their browser without providing an explanation of what the consequences are really just takes the cake.
If this is a legitimate government function, they would be much more effective by explaining what exploits are available in the wild or some other education services. Recommending a bunch of counter-productive, destructive nonsense isn't providing anyone any value.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Where's the Harm?

Two consumer advocacy groups have filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), saying Microsoft Corp. and other Web-based companies are using "unfair and deceptive" business practices to collect data about their customers.
The FTC next week is hosting a three-day forum on protecting consumers online, called "Protecting Consumers in the Next Tech-ade," but the agency needs to go beyond a series of presentations by Web companies and take a hard look at data collection, Chester said.
"The time for show and tell is long past," he said."There's increasingly sophisticated ways of tracking people's information online, and there are no safeguards."
Shouldn't they have to show that the data collection is harmful before they file complaints? Hell, this sounds like a positive benefit for consumers. Instead of getting bombarded by advertisements for little blue pills I can see something that I might actually want to buy?

This habit of "protecting me" from imaginary harms is really getting a bit trite. The risks online are way overblown and it well past time for someone to call these so called consumer groups on it.