Interesting — while I certainly had a good experience with my iPod replacement over the weekend, it turns out that the iPod warranty would have allowed Apple to charge me $30 to get me back in business, ostensibly for “shipping and handling.” (Note that the Genius didn’t attempt to charge me, nor did he attempt to charge any of the other people who replaced their iPods while I was in the store.) I agree with the person who mailed the info into Macintouch — the notion of a warranty that adds some sort of service charge halfway through the warranty term feels dirty, and certainly makes the warranty a lot less valuable. Also, the charge means that adding an extended warranty to your iPod isn’t $59, it’s actually a minimum of $89 — you have to pay the $59, and then each time you need to send your iPod in for service, you’ll have to pay another $30. Bleah.

(By the way, is this the right place to beg Macintouch’s Ric Ford to create permanent links to entries of his? The link above will only work until the item leaves the front page of Macintouch; then, I’ll have to dig through his search engine and archives to find a link that might continue to work.)

Shannon and I came to Sacramento last night for a wedding reception, and on the plane, my iPod went from happily letting me navigate its menus to sadly showing me a graphic of a frowning iPod and a URL for iPod support. So when we hit our hotel last night, I immediately went online and made an appointment with the Genius Bar at the Apple Store across the street, hoping to at least get the repair process started. Today, I walked in, the guy immediately determined that the hard disk was dead, and offered to replace the iPod on the spot — a decision that was only made difficult by the fact that Shannon had the iPod engraved when she gave it to me as a Christmas/engagement present. (The alternative I was offered was to mail it back into Apple, where they’d fix it and return it to me with the engraving intact.) My desire to have the little guy back in shape ASAP motivated me to choose the on-the-spot replacement, and I’m sitting here at the Genius Bar (using the free Apple Store WiFi) while the new machine syncs up with my Powerbook.

There is one thing that’s more amazing to me than the quick, efficient service I got here, though — it’s the number of other people who’ve sat down beside me, broken iPod in hand, and had their players replaced on-the-spot too. In the last half-hour, the Genius has replaced six different iPods, ordered warrantly replacements for another two, and he tells me that he has a half-dozen other iPod-related appointments on the calendar for the remainder of the day. It makes me pretty happy to see that Apple’s willing to do fast warranty service on a walk-in basis, something that keeps its customers coming back.

I’ve spent most of the last week amazed by the story of Harriet, the giant Galápagos land tortoise whose 175th birthday was celebrated this week. She’s an animal who is said to have been brought back from Ecuador by Charles Darwin himself in 1835; she was born the same year as Emily Dickinson, the year that Greece gained independence, and, incidentally, the year that her native country of Ecuador separated from the Republic of Colombia. Biologists claim that Harriet is the oldest known living animal on the planet; thinking about how long Harriet has lived leaves me in awe, both as a scientist and as a fellow inhabitant of Earth.

Talking about Harriet also led Shannon to tell me about Lonesome George (or, in his native tongue, Jorge Solitario), another tortoise whose name tells a sad story. All giant Galápagos land tortoises are thought to belong to a single species, Geochelone elephantopus, but there are either fourteen or fifteen recognized “races,” or subspecies, of G. elephantopus. (In all actuality, the question if whether they’re subspecies or bona fide species is just that, a question.) Of that number, only eleven remain, and Jorge Solitario is the very last known member of his subspecies, G. elephantopus abingdoni. Despite efforts to either find a female member of the subspecies or mate him with a female from another, closely-related subspecies, George has resisted efforts to carry forward his genetic lineage, so with him might die his entire subspecies of giant tortoise. He’s currently estimated to be around 75 years old (making him middle-aged!), and lives at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galápagos Islands. (Shannon’s actually visited him there!) It’s incredible to me that we know we’re likely to be (slowly) watching the end of a genetic line, and can’t really do anything about it.

I stopped off at a local drugstore today to pick up a supply of loratidine (the generic name of Claritin) for Shannon and myself, the allergy duo, and the labels on the shelves reminded me of the power of marketing and brand recognition. All the products had a label below them, on the front edge of the shelf, that had both the price of the product and the unit price; in the case of loratadine, the unit price was the price per 100 pills. And looking at all the different options, between the number of loratadine pills in a bottle (five, 10, 20, etc.) and the various brands (Claritin and Alavert being the two most well-known names, Nuprin and Dimetapp getting in on the mix with their own offering, and the ever-present store brand), the price per 100 pills ranged from $25 (the store brand, 120 tablets for $29.99) to $119.80 (Claritin brand, five tablets for $5.99). Even just looking at what I would pay for a bottle of 30 pills, the unit price ranged from $47 to $77 — making it nearly two-thirds more expensive to buy the brand-name than it is to buy the store-brand. In an age when a ten-percent gas price rise provokes fear that the end is nigh, people seem perfectly willing to spend 60 to a couple hundred percent more for the exact same product sold under a different name. That, to me, is interesting.

I’ve been deep in the thick of web development on a few projects I have going in my research lab, and tonight I stumbled across a tool that I’m not sure how I lived without, the Mouseover DOM Inspector (or MODI). It’s a bookmarklet that creates a detailed inspector window for the currently-open web page, showing pretty much everything you could need to know if you’re the one programming that web page. Seriously, it’s the lightweight tool I need for the times when the Mozilla DOM Inspector is overkill; the only negative is that it doesn’t work in Safari. (Although that may change soon, since it appears that the latest version of Safari fixes the problem that prevents it from working.) This is definitely on my list of necessary tools in the toolbox of any web developer.

Yesterday, the GAO released the report from their investigation into how the Food and Drug Administration went about rejecting the application requesting over-the-counter status for the morning-after pill, and it’s even more damning than most thought it’d be. The GAO went through all 68 applications filed between 1994 and 2004 for conversion of a drug to over-the-counter status, and found that the FDA used entirely different criteria in its determinations on emergency contraception than it had on the other 67 applications. Likewise, the FDA had never before ignored the recommendations that came from its own internal scientific review committee, and top management had never before involved itself to the extent it did in the Plan B decision. And then, there’s my favorite part: there’s good evidence that the rejection decision was made by the same high-level management officials even before the scientific review committee concluded its work. It’s a shining example of politics getting in the way of healthcare; while the FDA has issued a statement questioning the integrity of the GAO’s investigative process, it’s pretty clear that that’s just the agency’s way of expressing its anger about being caught cheating. Sad.

In a combination of what seems to be a weird quirk and a slew of not-so-bright internet users, MSN’s most recent search engine update has brought a little bit of unanticipated fun to my email inbox.

About two weeks ago, I noticed that I was starting to get quite a few odd emails sent my way via my send-me-an-email webpage. I couldn’t really find a common thread running through the emails; the topics were diverse, the people sending the emails were spread all over the map, and none of it looked very spam-like. (Oddly, I do get the occasional spam manually submitted through that webpage, something that always both confuses and amuses me.) I figured that the page had ended up linked somewhere and that things would die down, but the frequency of the emails just accelerated over the past week. Finally, I modified the script that runs behind that webpage so that it passes along to me the webpage that referred the sender to my contact form, and learned something interesting: all of the senders were coming from an MSN Search result page for the phrase “send mail”. Going to that page, I see that my contact form is the sixth hit, and is the first hit with a title that might imply that it’s a generic email interface. Apparently, users of MSN’s search engine are following those clues, clicking through to my contact form, and sending their emails straight to my inbox. Today alone, I’ve received two resumes, best wishes and prayers on my upcoming exams, and an attempt to submit a late sociology assignment, and the day’s only half-over.

What’s totally baffling to me is why the senders don’t notice that they’re never asked for the recipient of their email, and in the case of that last sender today, how the obvious lack of a facility to upload documents failed to warn him that his “attached” late assignment wasn’t really going to work out so well. I started figuring out how I should modify the page to convey to viewers that it’s only a way to contact me, but then decided that I’m having way too much fun seeing all these emails pop in. We’ll see how long I keep getting misdirected notes, and how long the page stays in that first tier of MSN Search hits.

I know I’m hardly alone in saying this, but Senator (and Dr.) Bill Frist is a total buffoon. Yesterday, His Buffoonery publicly stated that he’s actually less interested in what our government is doing inside secret prisons than he is in the fact that the public now knows about the existence of those prisons; he then went on to clarify that he’s entirely uninterested in what goes on behind the doors of the prisons, and worries that now that the secret’s out, our nation’s security is in even graver danger. (You know, because all the other bad shit our government is now known to have done to detainees wasn’t enough to drive people to hate us, and the secret prisons really are the tipping point.) Given that the second-in-charge of his party recently lobbied John McCain — the man who was tortured as a prisoner of war for the better part of a half-decade in Vietnam — to give up on his bill calling for a universal ban on the torture of people in U.S. custody, it’s not hard to see where Frist’s ethical roots get their nourishment. It makes me nauseated; I can only hope that it disgusts enough other people to bring about real change in the government of this country.

Update: oh, great, our Senate yesterday voted to strip detainees at Guantánamo Bay of their right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts, a right which was upheld by the Supreme Court in Rasul v. Bush last year. So not only does our government want the right to toture the shit out of the people we’re detaining in the war on terror, it also wants to remove their right to question their detention in the first place. How far can this country stray from its founding principles before the voting public decides to notice?

I’m heartened to see that yesterday’s elections swept eight anti-evolution candidates off of the Dover Area School Board, the board in Dover, Pennsylvania that mandated the inclusion of “intelligent design” (read: creationism) in the biology curriculum. That school board is made up of nine members, and eight of the seats were up for election yesterday; all eight were contested by candidates on each side of the evolution debate, with the eight evolution advocates (and election victors) banded together into a group named Dover C.A.R.E.S.. (Interestingly, Dover is in York County, a county that threw 64% of its votes to George Bush in the 2004 election.) As a scientist, it makes me happy to see that the Dover voters seem to want to keep religion and politics out of the classroom; as a citizen, it makes me even happier to see that the backlash I hoped for against religious conservatism in government might be taking place, and taking place at the more local, grassroots level.

Congrats to Matt for launching the latest member of the MetaFilter family, MeFi Projects. The main MetaFilter site has a longstanding rule banning members from self-linking (writing posts which link to anything in which they’ve had a hand); the new site is specifically designed to allow those kinds of links, and let members put their projects up on display for everyone else to see. Based on the amazing creativity that’s been displayed by MetaFilter members in the past, I’m interested in seeing what comes of this.

At first I thought it was an aberration, a slip up on the part of a Crate and Barrel store manager this past Sunday; I put it out of my mind as quickly as it found its way in there. But tonight, at the Container Store, I knew it was more than that when Shannon pointed it out: Christmas music, dripping out of the ceiling speakers, wafting from aisle to aisle. I mean, seriously, is the first weekend of November really time to start assaulting your customers with silver bells and dreams of white Christmases? Might this be a bit premature?

It looks like TiVo is starting off a partnership with Yahoo today by adding the ability to record shows to your TiVo from the Yahoo TV listings pages. (To use the new feature, you need to log into your Yahoo account, go to the TV listings page, register to link up your Yahoo! and TiVo accounts, and then you’ll see “Record to my TiVo box” links on all the individual program pages.) I’m pretty stoked about this, if only because I find TiVo’s own online recording interface (TiVo Central Online) to be painful to use, replete with functionality buried underneath needless layers of links and verification steps. The only thing I can see missing from the Yahoo interface is the ability to set up season passes; otherwise, I’m sold on the new partnership. (PVRblog has more on the deal, including info about future services Yahoo plans to bring to the TiVo platform.)

A ruling came out of the Florida courts yesterday that’s managed to pique my interest a bit. In the case, a group of accused drunk drivers requested access to the program code for the breathalyzer that was used to document their blood alcohol levels; the court agreed with their request, and ordered the state to provide them with the code. The kicker is that the manufacturer of the breathalyzer claims the source code as a trade secret and is refusing to surrender it to the state, meaning that all of the drunk driving convictions obtained by using the device can now be called into question (and potentially overturned).

To me, this makes perfect sense. If a tool is going to be used to document some fact that’s used to make decisions about right and wrong — criminal and legal — then that tool better be as transparent as possible so that experts can be sure it works the way it’s advertised. In medicine, we would never make clinical decisions based on experimental or unverified test results; in fact, there’s an entire certification process through which new laboratory tests must be put before they can be used to make clinical decisions, and that process forces the people who develop and manufacture the tests to open their processes up to independent experts for verification. Why should the criminal justice system treat tools used to gather evidence in a different manner? (This is all the more important in the Florida case, as the breathalyzer in question has a questionable accuracy record (PDF), and was even subject to a recent software recall.) Conversely, why would a police department feel comfortable using a tool that operates in a completely hidden, unverifiable way?

It makes me happy when rigorous scientific standards find their way into places they logically belong.

If it weren’t so sad, it’d be funny: Tim Iacono, a southern California software engineer, and two coworkers spotted a row of new Hummers behind a local hotel, and (having read how hard it’s been selling SUVs in the current economy) decided to investigate. What they found was around three hundred unsold Hummers being stored in two offsite parking lots; the pictures tell the story way better that I can.

Holy crap, is the new Yahoo! Maps beta sweet. It looks quite a bit like Google Maps — which makes sense, since they both get their data from the same vendor — but it has a few features that go well beyond Google’s offering. My favorite is the interactive zooming and positioning tool that floats above the upper righthand corner of the map, which reminds me of a hopped-up-on-steroids version of the Navigator window in Photoshop and makes it a cinch to drill down to specific areas of a city you’re viewing. There’s also a checkbox for overlaying local traffic conditions onto the map, and the local search function is implemented incredibly well, with reasonably unintrusive tags overlying the map that can be opened and closed for a few different levels of information detail. The web programmer geek in me also loves that it’s an Ajax application implemented with full back-button and bookmarking support, and that there’s what appears to be a well-documented API available for people to use in integrating maps into their own websites. The only issues I can see are that there’s no satellite view (which Google Maps has made me come to rely on), and the “Printable Version” link throws a Javascript error for me in Firefox.

Update: I appear to have been a bit quick to assume; the new Yahoo! Maps beta is a Flash application, not an Ajax one, which makes a little more sense to this web geek. Note that this doesn’t make me have less respect for its designers, but rather explains how they were able to integrate all the cool features into one display interface… it’s still nicely done.

Digital photography maven Rob Galbraith has written a good quasi-review for Aperture, the professional photo workflow app announced by Apple early last month. I’ve been reading a ton about Aperture over the past few weeks, both because of the weblog world’s jittery excitement about the product (as is usually the case with anything manufactured or authored by Apple) and because I’m becoming more and more frustrated with the shortcomings of Apple’s consumer-level entry in the arena, iPhoto. Aperture looks like, in some respects, it’ll be the Real Deal — version control for any photo imported into its library, internal handling of each camera’s RAW files, management of embedded caption information, reasonable color management, and a workflow which acknowledges that many people will continue to use external photo editing apps (e.g., Photoshop) to work on files that are managed by Aperture. I agree with a few of the downsides mentioned by Galbraith, though, like that Aperture doesn’t have the ability to manage photos that aren’t on a currently-accessible disc and that it’s reasonably clear you’ll need a pretty fast, dual-processor Mac (with a huge hard disk!) to take advantage of Aperture in the first place. Looking at how far iTunes and iPhoto have come from their version 1.0 days, though, I’m still excited to see with Aperture 1.0 (if I can corral a Mac that’s up to spec) and put it through its paces a bit.