Today, in the four hours that I played pool with Shannon’s dad, the cellphone of the teenage guy at the table next to us rang somewhere in the vicinity of thirty times. He probably spent two of the four hours on the phone. At some point during the time I spent there, a young lady friend came to join him; we only saw them speak to each other twice, but at least four times, he and she were on their cellphones at the same time, wedging them between their ears and shoulders while shooting.

I wonder which will happen first: (a) cellphones will cease to be so damn annoying; (b) society will relegate cellphones to the status held by cigarettes a decade ago, wherein some places ban them outright, others accept them, and yet others give patrons a choice. Personally, I can’t wait for a restaurant to ask me: “Would you like cellphones or no cellphones, sir?”

This weekend, after spending some time drooling over most of Adrian Holovaty’s site (a site that’s run by a custom publishing system he wrote), I decided to buckle down and write a reliable search term highlighting system like the one kicking ass over in his world. (I got most of the way there on my own; Adrian was kind enough to help me get past the one major problem I found.) Now, visitors from Google will be greeted with both a custom header and all their search terms highlighted, as well as an option to use the engine here to perform their search. Check it out — follow this link to search Google for “incredible day,” and then click through the first return.

New York City’s supposed to get its first snowstorm of the year tonight, further reinforcing the complete absence of the season of autumn this year. It should prove to be an enormous pain in the ass for anyone travelling through the tri-state area over the Thanksgiving holiday, but on the flip side, there’s almost nothing as awe-inspiring as New York City with its first blanket of snow of the season. (Feel free to watch a less awe-inspiring picture of any snowfall over at the webcam; since I’ll be at work through midnight or one in the morning, if you see any cool images, please send them along to me!)

If you haven’t heard yet, Linksys is making yet another aggressive move in the wireless marketplace by promising “Wireless-G” equipment by Christmas that supports the draft 802.11g standard. (That’s the wireless networking standard that supports the speeds of 802.11a in the frequency band of 802.11b.) In reading the press release and product pages closely, though, I noticed that Linksys never promises that the equipment will be able to be upgraded to the final 802.11g standard once it’s ratified. Interested, I emailed them about this, and after a few attempts at avoiding answering the question, I was able to get the sales representative to state specifically that owners will be able to flash the gear up to the final standard once it exists.

Just thought you’d like to know; if you’re thinking about buying a wireless access point for someone for the holidays, you may want to consider one of these puppies, because with that information, they look great.

It’s been about 24 hours now that I’ve had my iPod, and I’m pleased as punch with it. Despite putting a lot of effort into getting a Windows-specific unit, I wound up with a 10 gigabyte iPod for the Mac; because of that, I have put some serious web time in over the past day, looking for information that would help me understand exactly how this iPod is different from the one that I wanted, and what I’d have to do to easily use it. All the information’s out there, and now I figure it’s my turn to sum up how to use your Mac iPod with your Windows machine.

my new iPod!

My brother and I walked into an electronics store today to investigate MP3 players for him, and while he didn’t get anything, I ended up with a new iPod. (I particularly love Steve Jobs’ poignant message emblazoned on the cellophane wrapper.) Time to play…

I’ve always found that the only way I learn a new programming language is by starting little projects and tweaking them to perfection. Small Visual Basic playthings gave me a window into the Windows API, PL/SQL applications helped me learn Oracle database design and implementation, and Manila plug-ins gave me a handle on UserTalk. I used to be able to devote good chunks of time to just starting in on a project and wading through until I triumphantly surfaced; it’s one of the things that I miss most in my currently-busy existence, and it’s probably the biggest reason that I still cling to the computer-related aspects of my life (like this site, and my other job) so dearly.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve really enjoyed living vicariously through a few people who seem to play with programming the same way. Andre has been toying with Windows programming; his apps remind me of my own single-function little doodads, aiming to take a problem and write a little app to solve it, learning all the necessary functions along the way. Dean has been writing PHP apps that enhance his website, giving him the ability to display his photos and find out who’s sending people his way. Brent has been programming up a storm for MacOS X, from RSS aggregators to application launchers, and from what I understand, his applications have reflected the maturation in his code-writing skills. All three people make me wish that I could just take a month off and start playing with programming again.

(It’s funny, but this is all probably the reason that I like using Movable Type so much. It started out as the a website publishing tool written by Ben and Mena for their own personal use, and after much interest from the community, was released for public consumption. It’s the ultimate example of a project written to solve a personal need, and just happens to now be in use by thousands of people.)

It must just be me, but I can’t see how loosening pollution restrictions on energy producers encourages emissions reductions. Of course, I’ve come to expect this of the current administration; what’s more disappointing, though, is that every story I’ve read on these new EPA rules just repeats that quote, without ever questioning how it could possibly be true. What happened to hard journalism?

If there’s anyone out there who wants to send along a Christmas present, I’d be happy to find one of these under the tree next month. It looks like the first mainstream computer to be built on Shuttle Computer’s X PC chassis, and it’s a doozy. As Anil said, they finally got the PC right.

One of the things I love about TiVo is that there’s always been a strong hacker community; hell, it’s why I got my TiVo in the first place (the ability to use the fruits of their labor to quadruple my storage capacity). This community has also spent a lot of time discovering a group of “backdoor” codes, sequences that a TiVo user can punch into the remote control to enable special features (like a 30-second skip mode); all these codes require that a master backdoor password be entered first, enabling them to be used. Each version of the operating system has had a different password, and discovering each password has been an important part of maintaining access to the special features.

Alas, the latest version of the TiVo operating system introduced a few new barriers to getting the master backdoor password. Unfazed, though, the community rallied, and now have a distributed computing project running to try to crack the code; they’ve already ripped through an unbelievable number of possibilities, and (as with all distributed computing projects) offer anyone the ability to download a client to contribute to the effort.


Traditional spam-catching systems work by predicting the likelihood of a piece of email being an unsolicited ad. The task of prediction isn’t easy, though, and as a result, users still have to deal both with unwanted mail that gets through the filters and with legitimate mail that’s caught and filtered away. As a result, there are a few ideas floating around out there about alternate approaches to the unsolicited email problem, approaches that try to achieve lower false-positive and false-negative rates. Two that caught my eye today are IronPort’s Bonded Sender Program and Habeas’ Sender Warranted Email.

The Bonded Sender Program turns the traditional approach around, aiming to guarantee that a specific piece of mail is not spam. It’s able to do this because companies contract with, and pay, IronPort to list their outgoing mail servers in a database of machines guaranteed not to send spam. Then, when your mail server accepts a piece of mail from a machine, it checks to see if that machine is listed in IronPort’s database, and if it is, the mail flows through any spam filters and into your inbox. This seems like a great way for companies that operate legitimate, double-opt-in email lists to make sure that their sales missives reach the intended audience — it appears to be poison-proof (meaning that spammers can’t fake the system into thinking that they’re legitimate), and at least one of the big spam filter providers, SpamAssassin, is on board.

Sender Warranted Email works in another way, and one that I can’t imagine will be able to sustain itself. Senders “warrant” that their email isn’t spam by including a “trademarked, copyrighted” set of headers that they’ve paid for the right to use; it’s these headers that filters look for to decide that the mail is legitimate. Habeas promises to aggressively sue anyone who uses the headers without the right to do so, providing the teeth behind the system. (Wired News wrote about this back in August.) Unfortunately, I envision that almost every piece of unsolicited email will soon include the headers, in an effort to overwhelm Habeas and make the company unable to go after everyone who is circumventing the rules. (You know the signature block that still graces the bottom of mail unsolicited emails, claiming to be acceptable under some obscure Senate rule? Same thing.)

Despite the questionable long-term effectiveness of Habeas’ approach, I applaud both companies for coming up with new ways of attacking the problem. With spam making up an estimated one third of email sent daily, someone’s got to tackle this problem before it takes the entire mode of communication down with it.

Another intrepid urban adventurer, David F. Gallagher, took a trip along the High Line and brought back some damn fine pictures. (Proving that there isn’t always a concrete divide between word people and picture people, you might recognize David’s name from the pages of the New York Times and Slate; don’t mistake him for Simon from 7th Heaven, though!)

This weekend, Neil Swidey of the Boston Globe published a pretty good article describing the ways that big pharmaceutical companies keep their profits high at the expense of the American public. The centerpiece of the article was AstraZeneca’s push to get people to move from the anti-ulcer medicine omeprazole (Prilosec) to its close cousin esomeprazole (Nexium), a push that’s being made both in the doctor’s office and via direct-to-consumer advertising. The relatively obvious reason for AstraZeneca’s efforts is that the patent on omeprazole is expiring, an event which will have predictible effects on the $4.6 billion in Prilosec sales the company experienced last year. By working hard to get people to ask for Nexium, and to get doctors to preferentially prescribe it, AstraZeneca can help build another profitmaker for itself.

If Nexium is an effective anti-ulcer medication, why do I have such a problem with this? Easy — because while it’s effective, it appears to be no more effective than omeprazole, or even than lansoprazole (Prevacid, made by another pharm company). AstraZeneca’s efforts to make it appear more effective even provide a textbook lesson in why scientists should look at published studies closely for false comparisons; the study performed by AstraZeneca showing an apparent benefit compared 40mg of esomeprazole with 20mg of omeprazole, which is akin to saying that the V6 Subaru Outback sedan is faster than the V4 wagon. (If you look closely on the second page of the package insert for the drug, you’ll even see this disclaimer: “There are no comparisons of 40 mg of NEXIUM with 40 mg of omeprazole in clinical trials assessing either healing or symptomatic relief of erosive esophagitis.”) And when the comparison in cost to consumers and insurance companies is as great as around $4 a pill versus a small fraction of that for a generic version of omeprazole, it’s a real issue.

Probably the most disappointing aspect of all this to me is how physicians are just rolling over and doing exactly what the pharm companies ask them to do. There are way too many doctors who either don’t know or don’t care about the scientific evidence involved, who’ve lost sight of the bigger picture of cost to the American healthcare system, and who are way too susceptible to the free lunches, nights on the town, and junkets to “conferences” at warm beach resorts. These are usually the same doctors who complain the most about new insurance industry constructs like pre-approval for nonstandard medicines, when the only reason such constructs exist is the overprescription of medicines like Nexium. All in all, it makes me sad to watch the nobility of medicine take such a big hit from pure profit greed.

The best part of Salon’s review of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the description of Gilderoy Lockhart as “the Cornel West of Hogwarts” — “the fellow who’s happy to sign copies of his books for his adoring admirers, but who doesn’t know (or care) enough about his specialty subject to be any good at teaching it to his students.” (Incidentally, contrary to the general tenor of the review, I really enjoyed the movie and recommend it unreservedly.)

In all honesty, if I go the rest of my life without seeing another close-up of Michael Jackson’s surgically-mangled face, I’ll be just fine. Really.

One of the Achilles’ heels of weblog software has always been formatting. For the most part, people use their web browsers to update their sites, typing their words into little text boxes. These text boxes don’t provide much flexibility in terms of showing authors any character formatting that they add to their posts, nor do they provide much lattitude for determining line breaks or other paragraph-based formatting that we’ve all grown so accustomed to controlling in modern-day word processors.

The first problem is the easier of the two to manage; so long as you’re running Internet Explorer, most weblog software deals with it by providing a formatting bar allowing at least for bold and italic text. While this suffers from a few problems — it doesn’t let authors actually see their formatted text, and it obligates authors to use presentational tags rather than logical ones — it does show them a crude derivative version of their formatted documents, and that’s a step in the right direction.

The second problem is tougher, though, mainly because software has to employ a predictive algorithm in order to figure out how authors want to break the lines in their text. Should the software adhere to the strict meaning of whitespace in HTML, and ignore it? On the other hand, should it carry the word processing paradigm over to HTML, and translate carriage returns and double carriage returns into line breaks and line spaces? Manila never has handled this right, offering no choice to the author and using terrible HTML markup which makes compliance with XHTML standards or proper use of CSS an absolute impossibility.[*] Many of the other popular weblog software provides a “convert line breaks” option, but ends up stomping on an author’s occasional attempts to explicitly control a paragraph’s formatting.

One thing I love about Movable Type, however, is that programmers can extend its functionality with plugins, and one of the more prolific plugin authors, Brad Choate, has done so in a way that allows a great deal more paragraph formatting flexibility for authors. Today, I installed the plugin, and using the “smart_xhtml_p” mode, I’m able to combine MT’s ability to format a post for me with the ability to override the formatting on certain elements. Now, I can maintain XHTML compliance while still being able to apply alternate block-level styles, and that’s a good thing.

[*] And while Manila can do plug-ins, too, they can’t fix its paragraph formatting problem. The way that the relevant code is written, there’s no way to override the auto-paragraph thing without doing some serious modification of Userland code, something that’s generally met with the personal wrath of the software’s author.

I don’t know about you, but I love getting spam like this:

I can just imagine the newbie spammer sitting at his computer, thinking about the millions of work-from-home dollars he was promised as the disc he paid $45 for spins in the CD-ROM drive. “I can’t wait for people to start sending me money for my eBay secrets! Wait… what am I supposed to put into this ‘Subject’ field again?”

There’s an article in the past weekend’s New York Times Magazine that’s pretty disappointing, both because of its sensationalism and because I feel it puts enough baseless doubt in the minds of parents to cause actual harm to their kids.

The article, “The Not-So-Crackpot Autism Theory”, drags out the question of a link between neurologic damage and thimerosal, a preservative that used to be used in vaccines. This isn’t the sensationalism; there is a real question of the safety of thimerosal due to its organic mercury content. Rather, the sensationalism is represented by the baseless leap that the Times author makes between the generic notion of neurologic damage and the specific entity of autism. (To his credit, it’s the same baseless leap made by countless of people in web discussion groups, not to mention thousands of personal injury lawyers.) The idea of vaccine-related autism has only ever been raised as a consequence of one single vaccine (the MMR), and even that has been debunked with the only actual clinical data that’s been gathered on the topic. And the data supporting thimerosal-preserved vaccines as a cause of neurologic damage in infants is weak at best (many vaccinologists feel that it was the need for public confidence in vaccines and the strength of the fear of lawsuits, rather than the strength of any data, that led to its removal from all the routine childhood vaccines).

The most concerning part of this is that the article makes nothing but a single, tangential reference to the fact that thimerosal has been removed from all routine infant vaccines in the United States. Without knowing that there’s no thimerosal in routine use, parents who become concerned by what they read in the article are going to withhold vaccines from their children; that means more morbidity and mortality from H. flu meningitis and invasive pneumococcal disease, not to mention diseases like tetanus and hepatitis. The return of preventable diseases as a consequence of overt conjecture would be a real tragedy.

Wow — someone who sees an entire legal framework in the songs of Bob Dylan. (Thanks to Howard Bashman for the link, and for a generally tremendous legal weblog.)

The 2003 SXSW blog is up and running, thanks to PB and Matt. It appears to be running on the MetaFilter codebase, which is another great demonstration of the versatility of Matt’s work. (And of course, as a former Texan, I love the Shiner Bock theme of the sidebar.) A reminder, though; for those planning to go to next year’s SXSW, this Friday is the deadline for the current registration rates, which will go up by between $20 and $75 on Saturday.

In what I can’t even fathom was a fair trade, my sister gave me her old (and now unused) ThinkPad 600E for my old Sony Clie PDA, and I’ve been a happy little puppy setting it up to be my new machine-away-from-home. One annoying thing, though, is that IBM doesn’t believe in putting the Windows keys on the keyboard, and as a result, all the shortcuts my fingers have been trained to use aren’t available. After a bit of searching, I tracked down an excellent utility, RemapKey, that’s part of the Windows 2000 Resource Kit. It lets me remap any key to another, and now my righthand CTRL key is standing in as the Windows key. Mucho mejor! (If you’re interested, there appears to be a copy that’s one version out of current available on a German tech support site.)

Belated happy birthday wishes to Jill and Lisa, both 28 years young.

I find it interesting that VeriSign moved one of its root DNS servers this week; I only find it interesting, though, because VeriSign moved it in order to correct a glaring error in its network planning that had existed for years. VeriSign controls both the A and the J root servers (two of the machines that allow you and me to type “” into our web browsers rather than “”), but both of the servers were under the same roof and on the same connection to the Internet — totally defeating the purpose of the distributed design of the Internet’s name resolution system. Of course, it’s not all that surprising that the company is just now playing catch-up… it has a tendency to do the right thing only after its competitors make it a business necessity.

Today’s entry in the category of incoherent ramblings of the day: George Brody. (Note that the author isn’t really named George Brody, but rather, Gyongyi Gaal; nobody has a clue what’s motivating her freakish behavior, now or in the past.)

I have to admit that I’m pretty pleased with how the voting process went today in New York City. It took about 20 seconds for the volunteer to verify that I belonged at my (new) voting place; I had to wait another two minutes for the person ahead of me to vote, and then about 60 seconds later, I had exercised my civic duty.

The question is: is there a bulge in the middle of this picture, or is your brain just playing tricks on you? Damn, I love the blurry areas that lurk between what we know and what we think we know.

(Thanks to Akiyoshi Kitaoka for the image.)

Dahlia Lithwick examines a few of the potential legal issues centered around today’s midterm elections; she predicts that the Supreme Court may have learned its lesson with Bush v. Gore, and won’t be quick to step into the fray even if the control of the Senate hangs in the balance.

vj and the angels

I swear, you have no idea how much this picture warms my heart. The guy in the middle (being drowned with champagne) is V.J. Lovero, the team photographer for the Anaheim Angels and a staff photographer for Sports Illustrated Magazine. Just under three years ago, he had a grand mal seizure in his grocery store and was quickly diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. Out of the blue, V.J.’s doctors gave him six months to live. After taking stock of his life, he decided to fight the cancer aggressively, and now he has the last three years to show for it. Early on, V.J. told me that he wanted to get to the next World Series; I think that it’s poetic that this year brought the World Series to him.

Go New York, go New York, go!

Thanks to a TLC special today, I learned a bit about Colonel Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., a man who actually jumped out of an open helium balloon at 102,800 feet (that’s 19 and a half miles) above the surface of Earth.

As part of military research into the best ways to secure the safety of pilots who had to eject at high altitude, Kittinger made a series of jumps from balloons, testing parachutes meant to stabilize a pilot against flat spin during the freefall part of descent. On August 16th, 1960, the project Excelsior III got underway, as Kittinger’s twenty-story tall balloon sprung skyward from the White Sands Missile Range at 1,200 feet a minute. It took an hour and a half to settle into the float altitude of over 19 miles above sea level; twelve minutes later, Kittinger started the cameras pointing down from the gondola and stepped off. He plummeted 16 miles in total freefall before his main parachute opened, reaching a top speed of 714 mph. To this day, it marks the first time that man exceeded the speed of sound without the aid of engines, as well as the longest duration of freefall. (It was the highest to date that anyone had gone in unpowered flight, broken by the current recordholders one year later.)

For some good reading on Kittinger’s legacy, check out his own description of Excelsior III in the National Geographic article “The Long, Lonely Leap”, as well as the Airman article “Leap of Faith.”

This past week’s Slate Diary was a great one. It was written by Zac Unger, a Californian firefighter who is the father of a 27-week preemie; he’s done a pretty damn great job of capturing the day-to-day medical issues that the tiniest of preemies face. He also focuses a bit on the issues that I rarely deal with (and thus don’t think about that much), like difficulties with insurance coverage and interactions between parents on a medical ward. And the most interesting twist to Zac’s story: his daughter was carried by a surrogate mother.