FCC Actually Does Its Job (Kinda)

If you don't read slashdot or ars-tech or other nerdy sites, you probably haven't heard of LightSquared, the company whose business plan was to develop a 4G network that ohbytheway infringed on GPS frequencies to the point that the GPS system might well fail... but (with good reason) they seemed to figure that the FCC was so gutless that they'd get away with it.

So in a move that was widely denounced by fellowly-eunuched federal organizations, the FDA and EPA, the FCC actually said "hang on a minute". If you care you can read lots about this, or just enjoy a chuckle via the Onion.
GPS via NIST

  

The Difficulty of Signs and Non-English Speakers

I realize that there are entire websites devoted to mistranslation, with great examples like

from Engrish Funny.

I've been noticing it in daily life though too. I posted this picture

to facebook a while ago because I was surprised to see a car shop offering to add both "Remot Start" and "Seat Weamers", especially at such a low price. There's an Indian restaurant near my house that has a similar grammatical/spelling error in their large banner sign. So the question is "How do these large public errors get made?"
Continue reading The Difficulty of Signs and Non-English Speakers

  

Oooh, shiney!

So, about a month ago K decided that she really needed to get a new laptop, after a few months of shopping around and pondering different options. I lobbied for the soon-to-be updated MacBook Pro, and so last Thursday or whenever it was (two weeks ago? wow), we went over to our friendly Apple store to pick one up.

For future reference, if you ever need to receive immediate help from multiple Geniuses, half an hour before close on a random weeknight is a great option. I counted 12 employees to three customers, counting the two of us. Anyway, it was pretty exciting to buy something the first day it was released... I felt very tall and Nathaniel-like.

Oh, and the MBP itself? sa-weet. Even the low-end 13" has two i5's and is nice and speedy, and while we don't yet have anything to plug into the make-USB3-look-slow "Thunderbolt" port, I feel like my efficiency jumps just by being near the thing.

  

Bing?

So, Microsoft has spent a bunch of $$ on TV adverts for Bing during sports broadcasts... and I've read/heard several positive opinions both on it's own and in comparison to Google.

My question is, what makes a good search engine? My social media friends could provide one kind of answer, but I'm not sure that's the kind of answer I'm looking for. Back in the day, search engine choice really mattered - you had to know that AltaVista was good for certain kinds of searches (music and images I think, but less-so news) while yahoo could be counted on to return popular subjects, etc.

Back then, I would often search for an unknown, in contrast to these days when I have a pretty good idea of what I want, but am too lazy to hunt through my bookmarks or type in the URL correctly. This laziness is made possible by connection/search speed... but what am I missing? Is Bing better, and why, and is this a legit question or the uneducated ponderings of a old person?

  

Death of Democracy

Last week a St Thomas cabbie laughed at me when I was moaning about having to go home to California, and he had a good point - there are many nice things about SoCal, and the Golden State in general. We have great weather, a stunning coastline with equally majestic mountain ranges, inspiring Redwood groves, fertile soil, the global center of technology (Silicon Valley) and entertainment (Hollywood), and the best public university system in the world.

So why then is CA's state budget in the crapper? I think there are a couple reasons, both of which are legislatively self-inflicted, and both of which sound like good ideas on the surface but instead serve to destroy democratic representation. Firstly, a two-thirds majority is required to pass state legislation. Sounds like a good idea, right? Well, instead it means that small group legislators can hold the entire state hostage, a tyranny of the minority where a budget supported by a majority is held in limbo.

This is bad, but pales in comparison the what I view as the main problem: ballot initiatives. Again, allowing the people of California to be directly involved in governance is a great idea - that's pure democracy, right? Instead, it's a mess, and one reason why our founding fathers went with representative democracy.

There are two big problems with ballot initiatives. First, the referenda are confusing and necessitate the reduction of complex issues down to a simple yes/no vote. In order to make an educated decision, each individual citizen must attempt to be an expert on the subject at hand, be it clean energy technology, education reform, tax law reform, etc. Would we want all Americans to vote on which design NASA should adopt for the new Shuttle replacement, or to decide our foreign policy towards North Korea? Could we trust the entire American voting populace to educate themselves on the ramifications of a change to affirmative action? No, we elect people to study an issue and then make an informed decision.

The second, and to my mind more insidious problem with ballot initiatives is that they completely circumvent any kind of campaign finance regulation. There's no point in trying to limit the degree to which lobbyists can pay/influence a particular legislator if they can just pay for their own ballot initiative - why both buying a legislator when you can buy a law directly? We had two examples of this in last week's election, Props 16 and 17 (luckily they both failed), which were very clear power grabs by PG&E and Mercury Insurance, the kind of which could never be achieved if the companies had to lobby the entire legislature. Technically there are limits as to how advertising for a ballot initiative can be paid for, and you're not supposed to pay people to collect the requisite signatures to get an initiative on the ballot, but these have not been adequately enforced. So, in the end, it's not "one person, one vote", it's "one million dollars, one vote".

There are other problems with the system, clearly, but the two items above I think have served to put California its current broke/indebted position. When California's economy was humming along happily, the uber-rich were able to slowly chip away at the state tax system, and so slowly the margin for error was eroded. Then whenever it was evident that some kind of reform or visionary legislation might be needed, a 1/3 minority of state senators was able to hamstring the process. Thus, progress was halted, even as special interests were able to buy specific ballot initiatives. Combine this with the foolishly-short term limits (a lifetime limit of 6 years in the General Assembly and 8 years in state Senate), by the time a legislature finally figures out how to actually govern, he's kicked out, and a new greenhorn has to learn the ropes all over again. I can't imagine the same policy catching on in corporate America, for example Steve Jobs being booted from AAPL after 8 years? Not happening.

Clearly the state (and nation) are increasingly polarized and reluctant to even engage in legitimate debate, but that's all the more reason to allow our legislators to actually do their job.

  

Why Brick & Mortar Retail Is Dead

I'll start with the clarification that K and I make a strong effort to buy locally when possible, to see if a local retail store has a comparable price on a given product that we're looking at. We subscribe to a weekly CSA box, partly for the health benefits of non-poisoned (organic) fresh fruit and veggies, and partly to support local & small-scale agriculture.

In light of this, it was rather frustrating this past week when I tried to buy a new HDMI cable. I stopped by a RadioShack while on a grocery run, I tried Sears & another electronics store, then another Radioshack yesterday while going to the post office. Nowhere could I find an HDMI cable for under $35 (at Sears), and at RadioShack the options were $44, $65, or $79.

Now, that'd be fine, except that HDMI cable markups are one of the biggest retail scams out there. Multiple well-respected reviews (cnet, Popular Mechanics, more) say that you should never pay more than $10 on an HDMI cable.

In the end, I got a high-quality DVI Gear cable from Amazon.com for $2.50 (with free shipping). One one hand, I kinda can't blame retail stores for not stocking reasonably-priced cables, since it's probably not cost effective. For one, selling a cable that cheaply would probably result in a negative profit margin, given stocking and other labor costs. Plus, HDMI cable varieties are confusing, and if you present people with a false choice between Monster ($70 to $100) and an "on sale but still good" $40 option, and since they've probably just dropped $500+ on a new TV, they'll happily take the value (or spend the extrar $$ for perceived extra quality). So, yeah, I can't really blame them... but it's frustrating, and also kinda sad in a "I understand where the right-wing conservative I-miss-the-good-old-days obstructionists are coming from" way. I don't mind paying a 5% premium for healthy food, or for locally/US-made products, but I'm not going to pay a 1000% markup - and I'm bummed I have to make that choice.