December 21, 2003

The world's biggest book

It measures 5x7 feet and weighs 120 pounds. It'll also set you back $10,000. Read more here. And if you have some loose change handy then buy it here.

(Via AWAD)

Posted by timo at 11:16 AM in category: Culture | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

November 29, 2003

America takes the moral lowground

A sober British judge opines on Gunatanamo Bay:

As a lawyer brought up to admire the ideals of American democracy and justice, I would have to say that I regard this as a monstrous failure of justice.

The question is whether the quality of justice envisaged for the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay complies with minimum international standards for the conduct of fair trials. The answer can be given quite shortly: It is a resounding No.

The term kangaroo court springs to mind. It conveys the idea of a preordained, arbitrary rush to judgment by an irregular tribunal which makes a mockery of justice. Trials of the type contemplated by the United States government would be a stain on United States justice. The only thing that could be worse is simply to leave the prisoners in their black hole indefinitely.

Looking at the hard realities of the situation, one wonders what effect it may have on the treatment of United States soldiers captured in future armed conflicts. It would have been prudent, for the sake of American soldiers, to respect humanitarian law.

Second, what must authoritarian regimes, or countries with dubious human rights records, make of the example set by the most powerful of all democracies?

Third, the type of justice meted out at Guantanamo Bay is likely to make martyrs of the prisoners in the moderate Muslim world with whom the West must work to ensure world peace and stability.

See also this BBC report.

(Via Dan Gillmor)

Posted by timo at 08:39 PM in category: Culture | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Two steps forward, one step back for free trade

Here's a nice piece by Declan McCullagh (via O'Reilly News) describing the crass protectionism to which the American administration is willing to descend in exchange for small amounts of cash, even when such policies clearly run against the interests of US consumers. After all the recent offshoring hysteria coming out of the US, it's nice to see at least some people in the tech world defend the principles of free trade. As if this weren't enough, no less a source of wrongheaded offshoring angst than the Interesting People mailing list has just published a link to this very fine article on why protectionism makes losers of us all.

Then, just when you think the battle might be turning in your favour, word arrives (to subscribers of The Economist only) that Dell — one company that you think really ought to get this stuff — is considering shifting call centre jobs from India to the US, and for no better reason than political pressure. A sad day indeed if it's true.

Posted by timo at 08:25 PM in category: Economics | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Shock report: GM is neither good nor bad

Another drop of good sense in the ocean of ignorance and hype that is the GM debate in Britain:

To generalize and declare 'all GM is bad' or 'all GM is good' for the environment as a result of these [UK farm scale evaluation] experiments is a gross oversimplification, but statements from both sides in the GM propaganda war have claimed 'victory' based on these findings.

So says Robert May, president of the Royal Society. Someone should give him a newspaper column and a TV show.

Posted by timo at 08:17 PM in category: Science | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

November 15, 2003

GM: The real organic option

Conrad Lichtenstein (who, as it happens, used to lecture me when I was a biochemistry undergraduate) has provided a welcome dose of sense and wisdom in the otherwise hysterical and ignorant world that is GM in the UK today.

Writing about the farm-scale evaluation (FSE) results that were widely (mis)reported in the British press a month ago, he says:

That the evaluation involved GM crops is not relevant: herbicide-tolerant crops can also be, and indeed have been, developed by conventional methods. GM is a process not a product - and, as demonstrated by this study, each new product (whether it is GM, conventional or organic) needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis using rational evidence-based science.

Thank you — at last someone's talking sense. Contrary to press reports, which led people to believe that these experiments cast further doubt on the safety of GM technology, they were really investigations into different herbicide treatment regimes and only indirectly relevant to the GM debate.

This confusion arises from a profound misunderstading that has infected the debate in Britain: GM technology is just a tool and, as such, is intrinsically neither good nor bad. It can be put to both kinds of use and it's our job to pick the good ones in as rigourous and dispassionate a way as we can. Instead the British media (backed up, it must be said, by most of the country's population) chooses to misrepresent and denouce GM technology through deep prejudice and ignorance. If we'd done the same to mechanical and electronic engineering as we're now doing to genetic engineering we'd have no cars and no computers, among many other good things.

Lichtenstein also goes on to point out that GM is a truly organic technology, and that it can provide us with plants that are less damaging to the environment than the chemical-laced "organic" stuff that we're forced to put up with today. For example, did you know that, to protect them from late blight, "organic" potatos come laced with copper sulphate-based chemicals? No, thought not — the organic lobby don't tend to dwell on facts like that. GM is currently the only realistic hope of creating disease- and copper sulphate-free potatoes. Do we really want to stop our kids from enjoying them for dinner one day?

Posted by timo at 09:10 PM in category: Science | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

November 02, 2003

Why (this) innovation (book) fails

I've just finished reading Why Innovation Fails by Carl Franklin. Top-line summary: A bit of a waste of time and money. You're much better off reading Clay Christensen.

The good: It deals with an important, and perhaps unrepresented, subject. It also debunks the most ridiculous forms of futurology reasonably effectively.

The bad: The case studies and insights are veneer-deep. It feels like it was written in a hurry and there's very little that's noteworthy or original in the 200-plus pages.

The ugly: For a journalist, Franklin's writing is very poor. The text is full of cliches and throwaway phrases. It's also got far, far too many exclamation marks! What was Franklin's editor doing through all this, sleeping?!

There are a few useful checklists to help you assess your own innovations and their chances of success, but they're pretty obvious. You could probably come up with lists of your own that are equally good in less time that it takes you to get through this book.

Posted by timo at 08:22 PM in category: Culture | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

October 28, 2003

Capitalism and communism converge online

The ability to quickly compare prices online is leading to price convergence, right? Wrong. To explain why, Andrew Odlyzko has written a very interesting report (also covered in The Economist) about online privacy and price discrimination. His main conclusions:

  • The internet gives companies unprecedented information on which to base discriminative pricing policies. Economically speaking, this is a good thing because more efficient pricing results in greater output.
  • Based on an analogy with the 19th century railroads, he foresees a huge public backlash due to percieved unfairness. He also thinks that the threat of price discrimination is a primary reason why people like to protect their online privacy.
  • Based on the same rail analogy, he expects legislation to control the extent and types of permissable price discrimination. Ironically, this will tend to act in favour of companies and against consumers because it will ultimately reduce competition.

Along the way, there are lots of interesting snippets, from descriptions of the inhuman way in which third-class rail passengers used to be treated to examples of legal forms of disrimination (including, apparently, against lawyers — yeah!). There's also an interesting observation on the fact that price discrimination is where communism and capitalism converge. Plenty of food for thought. Read it.

Posted by timo at 08:51 AM in category: Web | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

October 26, 2003

Why exporting jobs is good

I've posted a couple of rants recently (1|2) about some of the stupider things people have said on the subjects of trade and 'offshoring' (among which, this is my current all-time favourite). So I figured, why not go for a hat-trick?

What these economically illeterate comments fail to acknowledge is that trade is not a zero-sum game. That's why everyone stands to gain from it. But don't take my word for it. According to McKinsey's conservative estimates (also reported on CNET), for every $1 of spending sent to India, the US gains at least $1.12 (in addition to the $0.33 that India gains). The US gains come from:

  • Cost savings ($0.58): This is the one everybody understands. It's cheaper to get things done in India, which leads to higher profits and/or lower prices.
  • New revenues ($0.05): As Indians become richer, they buy more from the US.
  • Repatriated earnings ($0.04): Many Indian operations are in fact US-owned.
  • Redeployed labour ($0.45): Freed from the need to do what's just been outsourced to Inida, US workers can move to higher-value tasks.

That last point is crucial, of course. The US economy has proved very flexible and its workforce is highly educated, which means that it's well equipped to move up the value scale. This is exactly what it has always done — to even greater effect than Europe and Japan. But at the indivudual level these wrenching changes are often extremely painful and people do get left behind. Governments and companies therefore have a geat responsibility to use some of the 'offshoring dividend' to support and retrain those directly affected.

But the overall long-term benefits to the world are so large that no one should seriously be arguing against global outsourcing. Yet quite a few otherwise intelligent people do. Sad isn't the word. It's closer to being tragic.

Posted by timo at 06:20 PM in category: Economics | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Why not?

Why don't fuel stations sell car insurance by the mile? Why don't mortgages automatically give customers the benefits of refinancing when interest rates fall? Why don't public libraries have coffee shops? Why can't you rent the cleaned-up airline versions of movies?

These and lots of other thought-provoking ideas at

(Via The Economist — subscribers only)

Posted by timo at 10:14 AM in category: Culture | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

October 17, 2003

WIPO criticises open source but uses Linux

Larry Lessig has written a great piece about the recent spat in which the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) criticised open-source software as running counter to its mission and open source advocates rose up in anger. The article is less hot-under-the-collar than Lessig's (understandably) irrate first posting on this topic. He's come to the conclusion, correctly I think, that if anyone's to blame it's the politicians, who listen more closely to Microsoft's lobbyists than their own consciences. The WIPO are, at worst, just being weak and clueless.

But I think the WIPO are also guilty of oraganisational hypocrisy. Maybe I just missed it, but I haven't seen anyone comment on this point yet, hence this post.

The WIPO, which not only uses open-source software itself, but also sings its praises in meetings. This, for example, in March 2002 on IBIS, their international patent classification system:

It is worthwhile to mention that this is one of the first initiatives to use open source software in WIPO IT projects; the publishing framework called Cocoon comes from the Apache Foundation, and it is available free of charge. The system runs on LINUX.

(A little ironically, this new system was built to replace a nine-year-old DOS-based one.)

And this in February 2003 on the PCT-SAFE (Patent Cooperation Treaty - Secure Applications Filed Electronically) system:

The Secretariat also reminded delegates that the software will be made available free to Member States and applicants; the editor and the Client will be available free of charge and downloadable via the PCT-SAFE website; the receiving server software will be made available to any Receiving Office under the PCT who requests it; and a low level certificate will be obtainable via a WIPO website and it is planned via WIPONET. In addition, the Secretariat also expressed interest to participate in some form of open source, and was already working with the EPO [European Patent Organisation] towards such an arrangement... the Delagation of the EPO took to the floor to comment upon the strength of cooperation and harmonisation with WIPO... In respect of open source, the EPO had decided to go to open source for its full epoline software with respect to electronic-filing... In response to a question from the Del[e]gation of the United Kingdom about the future developments of the online filing system and their inclusion within the MOU [memo of understanding] between WIPO and the EPO, the Secretariat was pleased to report that the move, by the EPO to open source, would mean that future cooperation would be assured and would take place in a more rich dev[e]leopment environoment... With regard to the IPC tutorials track, open source software had been used for development and had proved cost effective.

Mm, not much sign of open source-bashing there. As a friend has pointed out to me, it makes sense for the WIPO to go for open source and open standards because they have to ensure that people on any platform and in any country can upload to their servers. A shame, then, that they they don't think so much about people who are downloading and that they chose to publish the above documents as Word files. They also managed to leave out any mention of open source from their press release on PCT-SAFE. A conspiracy? Na! Don't assign to malevolence what can just as easily be explained by ignorance and carelessness.

Posted by timo at 10:48 PM in category: Computing | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Last updated March 28 2006 07:14 AM