paulmurray.net
Paul Murray's weblog, with news you may have missed and my $0.02 worth on a number of topics.

"You can't make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire. All you're doing is recording it."
- Art Buchwald

I bet you don't have a friend who's an acupuncturist

E-mail me: pmurray [at] despammed.com

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Monday, August 27, 2001
Oh, the symbolism! This sounds made up, it's so perfect. It seems that viewers of the HBO series "Six Feet Under" were speculating about the symbolism when an African woman tribeswoman appeared, holding a basketball, for a fraction of a second during the season finale. There was an explanation...



Movie trivia: Identify the movie building allegedly inspired by painter Edward Hopper's House by the Railroad. (I think it's pretty easy... I just find the purported origin fascinating. Plus I like Hopper.) Answer.



So let me see if I have this straight:
1. The missile defense system is intended to defend us from "rogue nations" such as North Korea, Iraq, etc., not relative superpowers like China and Russia.
2. These rogue nations would have relatively unsophisticated missile systems.
3. Missile defense has the most difficulty hitting wobbling or tumbling warheads launched by unsophisticated missile systems.
Umm... does anyone else see a flaw in this?



Thursday, August 23, 2001
More Microsoft sleaze. Microsoft has been secretly funding a deceptive "grass roots" letter-writing campaign to state attorneys general to drop their antitrust lawsuits. (Original LA Times article | AP story) Some of the letters even came from dead people. MS appears completely unrepentant about their actions.

The front group coordinating this is Americans for Technology Leadership. Their web site reproduces copyrighted news stories and commentaries favorable to Microsoft, such as this one by Detroit's own Mike Wendland. (And yet they did not post this column of Wendland's. Gosh, what a surprise.) I strongly suspect, but do not know for a fact, that they did this without permission from the copyright holders. That's theft, pure and simple, to support a multibillion dollar corporation that ironically is fighting tooth and nail to keep people from infringing upon their copyrighted software.

Another reportedly MS-supported group is Citizens Against Government Waste, who appears to have a broader agenda than just MS.

I think that any lobbying organization that takes support from corporations should be required to publicly disclose that information where it can be easily found. Too many companies with profit agendas are hiding behind groups with noble-sounding names.



Whither Saturn? NYT piece (free registration required) on Saturn (the car company), which is becoming a lot more like the rest of GM. There are differing opinions about whether this is a good idea or not.



Wednesday, August 22, 2001
Ask not what you can do for NASA... Lest there be any doubt that JFK regarded getting to the moon before the Russians as a cold war political move (and I don't think there is), a newly released audiotape proves it. In it, Kennedy and NASA Administrator James Webb haggle over its importance. Webb says that it's a priority; Kennedy argues that it's the priority. Listen to a clip (Real Audio format).



DOH! While it's not up there with the all-time business blunders, it's significant. Montana Power had a great idea in March 2000: get out of the power business completely and into broadband. Stop and think about that strategy and its timing, and you can guess that so far it's turned out to be a disaster for customers and shareholders.

Credit where credit is due. Perhaps the first intriguing idea I've heard from the Bush Administration: in an effort to reduce air travel congestion, they may charge airlines (and thus their customers) more to fly at peak hours to/from crowded airports, to encourage people to travel at non-peak hours. Seems worth a try.

If Jesse Ventura can do it... Have you seen who's running for Mayor of New York City? Bernhard Goetz (the subway vigilante) and Kenny Kramer (the inspiration for the Seinfeld character). If only the Detroit mayoral race was this entertaining. (Related: All Detroit candidates.)



Cool picture. North America at night.



Let's be careful out there. From the opening of "How to Become a Victim of Identity Theft, a Step by Step Guide":
So you want to become a victim of identity theft? Congratulations! It's never been easier. Last year, approximately 500,000 people had their identity stolen. This year, that number will increase to 750,000 cases and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

(From Interesting People)



Maybe its part of their fiscal survival plan. Petswarehouse.com (note the plural form; petwarehouse.com is not involved) is suing for $15 million from the operator of a mailing list and several participants who dared to criticize their service. Heaven forbid they put this time and energy into improving their service; just sue anyone who complains. (Imagine if other companies adopted this philosophy!) Find out more, including the complete text of the complaint, here.



What a great idea. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D - NY) has introduced a bill that would force wireless phone companies to publish information about dead spots in their coverage. Naturally, business is whining that its unnecessary. Let me call in to support their stand -- oh darn, my Sprint PCS phone doesn't work here!



You can't handle the truth! Ernst & Young raised doubts about client ExciteAtHome's ability to stay afloat. And what does Ernst & Young get for officially stating what many people already suspected? ExciteAtHome dismisses them and hires PricewaterhouseCoopers. I can't wait to see what PWC has to say; will they try and put a happy face on the ugly financials? Of course, my real question here is, why the hell do I still own stock in ExciteAtHome? (Short answer: there isn't much more to lose.)



Useful privacy information. You know how you can block your Caller Name/Number ID (CNID, as it's known) from being displayed by pressing a certain key combination before dialing? (With Ameritech, it's *67.) That trick doesn't work when you're calling a business using its toll-free number, because it uses a different system (Automatic Name/Number Identification, or ANI). They know who you are... or at least where you're calling from...



Tuesday, August 21, 2001
Lotteries are a tax on people who aren't good at math. That's a favorite saying I picked up from someone on the net. I find it interesting how many people refuse to grasp the odds that are against them. Here's how it was expressed in today's USA Today:
Mike Orkin, author of What Are the Odds? Chance in Everyday Life, explains the difficulty of winning the big prize this way: If you drove 10 miles to buy a Powerball ticket, you would be 16 times more likely to die in an auto accident than to pick the correct six numbers.

(From rc3.org)



Is this a five-minute argument or the full half hour? In an interview, John Cleese says that American tv comedies are now funnier than British shows. Hmm... there's a scary thought.



Sunday, August 19, 2001
Blinded by orthodoxy. I have this love/hate relationship with The Wall Street Journal. (It's a pay site, so there's no point linking to it.) I am consistently impressed with their skill at gathering and writing the news... but their editorial beliefs make me want to throw up. They are rabidly conservative to the point of intellectual dishonesty; in this column at their Opinion Journal web site, they take a brave stand against Sen. Hillary Clinton and for... cockfighting. Seriously. As if that's not absurd enough, they misrepresent the facts just so that they can snottily attack Sen. Clinton, as explained here. I'm no fan of Sen. Clinton, but it appears that the WSJ is swinging from the floor here.

The WSJ editorial page editor will soon be handing over the reins to Paul Gigot, but don't expect anything to change. As noted in this Slate article, while Gigot appears soothing and reasonable on Sunday morning TV talk shows, when it comes to print he spews bile.

Hmm. The WSJ news site costs money to read, while Opinion Journal is free. Looks to me like the market has assessed their respective worth. (Although you still read Walt Mossberg's superb technology columns for free; maybe it's the exception that proves the rule.)



Friday, August 17, 2001
What next? I find it utterly amazing that an American-Mongolian expedition may have found the grave of Genghis Khan. NYT article (free registration required)



More big phone company sleaze. Brian Livingston reports that Verizon is telling its Internet customers they can't send e-mail with anything other than a Verizon return address; unless, of course, they would like to have Verizon host their web site. Verizon claims it's an antispam tactic, but it has nothing to do with spam and everything to do with ruthless, deceitful marketing.



Trivia. Name the only state in the US with not one but two state fairs. Answer. (From Lake Effect)



More dirty Gator tricks. The "Gator" software (see 8/7/2001 entry) may not only display an ad for the competitor of a site you're visiting... it can also cover up a company's banner ad with a competitor's ad. As someone quoted in this article puts it, "It's like getting Time magazine in the mailbox and somebody has pulled it out and pasted their own ad over the ones inside." Prediction: these guys will be looking at lawsuits Real Soon Now.



Thursday, August 16, 2001
Bwaaahahahahaha. Director Tim Burton insists there will be no sequel to his remake -- excuse me, his reimagination -- of Planet of the Apes. Wanna bet? Wanna ask Rupert Murdoch? That was the whole point, to restart the franchise! (Of course, maybe the Reuters story is misquoting the original newspaper story, and Burton is only saying that he'll never do a sequel. But I have to take the wire service at their word.)



Wednesday, August 15, 2001
MS: The attitude comes from the top. In an illuminating excerpt from his new book Breaking Windows, Wall Street Journal reporter David Bank describes how Microsoft came to an infamous decision. Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson had issued an order stating that MS had to allow computer makers to ship Windows 95 without Internet Explorer 3.0. The MS response was to offer either a) a version of Win95 that, due to missing IE code, did not work or b) a two-year-old version of Win95. The chief proponent of this juvenile response, which went a long way in forming Judge Jackson's distrust of the company, was none other than Bill Gates himself.



Good TV and food for thought. In general I think that NBC's Dateline is a poor excuse for a news program. They milk stories to fill airtime, focus on too much true crime, and clutter it with trivia. However, every now and then they make some compelling television, and Tuesday night was one example. Dennis Murphy told the story of Three Mile Island, the Pennsylvania nuclear power plant that came closer than you think (within 30 minutes) to a meltdown, or equally horrifying scenarios, in March 1979. While it's admittedly less compelling than seeing the interviews and period footage, you can read the script.

(Brief pause for nostalgia: I was a paper boy -- er, newspaper carrier -- at the time, and I remember delivering newspapers with the story on the front page. I vaguely followed it, but wasn't as much of a news junkie back then as I am now.)

If you're thinking this is irrelevant history, know that the Bush Administration wants to pursue nuclear power once again. I'm not saying that's necessarly a bad idea, but we need to proceed with caution and learn from the past or be condemned to repeat it.

Bonus low-rent interactive feature! Go here and you'll see a map with all of the reactors in this country. If there's one near you, click on it to learn things. For example, here's the evacuation map if the Fermi II reactor (located maybe 30 miles from me) goes kerflooey.



Tuesday, August 14, 2001
The annoying Rev. Wildmon strikes again. Rev. Donald Wildmon is one of those self-appointed crusading "family values" religious types who can be very annoying to the public at large, and he's at it again. Now he's using a loophole in FCC regulations to replace National Public Radio (NPR) stations with his own American Family Radio (AFR) stations... and running to court and Sen. Trent Lott when it appears that loophole may be closed. (And just so that we're clear, I don't begrudge the man the right to spread his opinions; I do resent that he's gleefully blocking NPR in order to do it.)



The dirty little secret about ethanol. Years ago, I asked a Chrysler engineer why they weren't including ethanol in their alternative-fuel vehicle plans. He explained to me what he called its "dirty little secret": it takes more energy to produce ethanol then you get from it (unlike say, gasoline). Take a moment to think about that and you'll realize that pouring resources into ethanol production is a waste. However, when you have giant corporations like Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and shill organizations like the American Coalition for Ethanol hard at work pushing ethanol, spreading the naive assertion that we can grow our way out of our energy problems and help our farmers at the same time, it's no surprise that our federal and state governments push ethanol, too. While ethanol may have many virtues (including being healthier than MTBE as a clean-air additive), it is not the solution to our energy needs.



Monday, August 13, 2001
Life imitates art imitates life. Apparently many tourists are disappointed when they visit the Bull & Finch pub in Boston, because they expect to find the bar from TV's Cheers. (The Bull & Finch was used for the exterior shots only.) So the owner is building a new bar in Faneuil Hall that is a replica of that fictional establishment. (Does Viacom know about this?) Boston purists are irritated. The only thing I don't care for is that they're planning to change the sign from the Bull & Finch to Cheers; it seems to me that creating a new location modeled after a fictional one is one thing, but altering a pre-existing site is another. (From Jim Romanesko's Obscure Store)

Now that's salesmanship. You go to a movie preview, and the director is there to personally introduce it. He admits that his films never live up to his expectations, and explains "I can't vouch for this film, in all honesty. I hope that you like it, but I can't guarantee that you will.'' That's what happens when the director is Woody Allen. (Allen begged his studio not to release Manhattan because he thought it was so bad; he ultimately won an Academy Award for co-writing the screenplay.)




Sunday, August 12, 2001
Cartoon break. Some recent favorites: Toles on election reform. Rall on voter apathy (I think). Tom Tomorrow on defending the US.



That wacky Taliban, at it again. My brother wrote to point out this story about Western aid workers being held by the Taliban in Afghanstan. As he put it, "It gives a sense of unease to know that there is at least one place in the world where somebody can go to jail for being convicted of 'propagating Christianity.'"



Saturday, August 11, 2001
What Alfred Hitchcock could have done with this! This NYT story tells how, for 18 months, the FBI investigated an undercover CIA officer they suspected of being a Russian mole (who ultimately turned out to be the FBI's own Robert Hanssen). Why? The CIA guy was about the same age, lived down the street from Hanssen, jogged in the same park where Hanssen dropped off information, traveled with Hanssen once, and at one time even attended the same Latin mass. It appears that the investigators started baiting the guy to nab him, but he never bit, because he wasn't the one.

Skip this movie. Don't let the marketing fool you, The Mexican can't decide if it wants to be cute and funny or a thriller. The cast is okay, but the story is very choppy and erratic. I was quite exasperated with it by the end.



Friday, August 10, 2001
Another DSL provider folds. First it was NorthPoint (taking our DSL line at work with them). Now it's Rhythms (we never used them, but seriously considered it). Covad (our current DSL provider) isn't too healthy, either. Basically, the Baby Bells have won by dragging their feet about complying with the 1996 Telecom Reform Act. Maybe the only answer is to break them up. In the meantime, the smart investment is (alas) the Baby Bells.



Thursday, August 09, 2001
A big Bronx cheer for AOL & MSN. Consumer Reports readers say they are less satisfied with AOL and MSN than with traditional ISPs such as EarthLink, Prodigy, BellSouth and AT&T WorldNet. I have two reactions:
1. Well, duh.
2. It's about time some mainstream media outlet picked up on this.



The Megahertz Myth. That's how Apple describes the tendency for people to believe that a higher processor clock speed translates into a faster computer. But it ain't necessarily so, as Apple's Jon Rubenstein explains. AMD will now have to deal with this same issue; its Athlon runs faster than Intel's Pentium 4 at any given clock speed. Now AMD will have to explain that its upcoming 1.5 GHz Athlon provides equal or better performance than the upcoming 2.0 GHz Pentium 4.

By the way, DRAM is selling below cost at the moment; it's a great time to load up on it. (A guy at my office just bought himself 1.5 GB of RAM for $67.)




Tuesday, August 07, 2001
Another CD copy-protection update. According to CNET, the news reports of CDs that sacrifice sound quality in order to make them effectively uncopyable are kicking off several frenzies. Customers who are so outrageous as to expect fine audio quality are fuming. Hackers are racing to beat the system (one group says it has, as noted earlier). Yet here's the funny thing: no one has identified a single disc that is actually protected.

"Gatoring." You may have heard of "Gator," which is designed to store your web site passwords and fill out forms for you. The software is free; the price is that you have to look at ads (hence the term "adware"). It turns out they're not just any ads -- they're often ads for the competitors of the site you happen to be visiting. It's already becoming a verb among marketing types: "gatoring." I avoid adware like the plague, and I recommend you do the same. (To check your computer for spyware that reports your web surfing activities to someone, and remove it if desired, get Ad-Aware from LavaSoft for free.)

Who watches the watchdogs? Speaking of privacy, here's some Detroit Free Press articles about police looking up info for personal reasons, and how lightly they're punished for it.

Sporting a Woody. Maybe this is why Woody Allen became a filmmaker.

Multitasking is counterproductive. People who are multitasking are actually being less efficient, according to a study. Switching tasks takes time, whether we like to admit it or not.




Sunday, August 05, 2001
Go see "Memento." Now. I finally went out to see a (cheap) movie tonight -- my first in a theatre since whatever that Star Wars prequel was called -- and it's a winner. The movie is "Memento." It came out this spring. It is deservedly rated R. It's a very unusual film noir kind of story that demands you pay full attention; I think I want to see it again on tape. After you've seen it -- not before -- you may want to read this article at Slate. I'm not sure how much I should say; I think the less you know, the better. Pay close attention at the very beginning so that you catch on quickly to the film's unique structure. And that's all I'll say.

Oh, as I write this, it is ranked #12 of all time at the IMDB based on user votes (part of that is due to the fact that it's current; it will drop) and #1 (with a 94% rating) at RottenTomatoes, which collects movie critic reviews and provides an overall score. But don't read any reviews, because like I say, this is a movie where the less you know, the better it is.

Watch the trailer (Real format).



Saturday, August 04, 2001
Lambs to the slaughter? "Nearly 85 percent of U.S. investors surveyed failed to correctly answer five basic questions designed to measure awareness of what to do in turbulent stock markets or when confronted with other financial problems." While low scores on some of the questions didn't surprise me, here's the scary one: "Fewer than one in five people knew there is no insurance for stock market losses." And some people seriously want to put Social Security money into the stock market!



Coming soon to a dealership near you. Automotive News has this handy chart summarizing what vehicles are in the works from American, European and Asian automakers through 2004/05. Cool!



How George came to be "dying." Salon tells how Beatles producer George Martin's words were rewritten to produce the news story that George Harrison was dying. Another glorious moment for journalism, this time of the English variety. As the article observes, "The tale of how the specious story came to be is considerably more interesting than the story itself." (From Jim Romanesko's Media News)

Update on anti-piracy audio CD's. I noted previously that some audio CDs are being shipped with deliberate noise that will become more prominent when copied. Now someone has found a way around it. Big surprise -- these systems are always being defeated. Meanwhile, Sony is reportedly working on a system that produces even more noise when copied -- noise so bad that it can blow speakers.

I almost lost another provider. I was half-seriously toying with getting the Ricochet wireless Internet service offered by Metricom once EarthLink offered it; 128k service that even worked in a moving vehicle. At ~$75 a month (if I remember correctly), it wasn't that much more expensive than DSL (which I can't get), and I could use it anywhere in Metro Detroit. Incredibly, I read news articles about how good (if a little pricey) it was, even articles quoting ecstatic customers saying that they sometimes got even double the promised speed. But now Metricom is going out of business, taking a cool billion dollars' worth of investment money with it. They couldn't find anyone interested in buying them. Too bad. I think they had the right idea.



Friday, August 03, 2001
No deep commentary, just humor. Bob Levey of The Washington Post lists his annual best t-shirts. Update: Here's Part Two.

Copyright cops or just sleazy marketing? The Business Software Alliance (MS, Adobe, Apple, etc.) sends out ominous letters to small businesses implying that they're about to knock on the door and conduct a search. Not likely when you consider that they're sending out 700,000 letters. It's basically just a way to sell more software. Of course, those radio ads that encourage disgruntled employees to turn in their employers are a nice touch. As is demanding that IT managers conduct audits.




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