A Secret of the Economics of Manufacturing

I saw this quote in an article on E-Ink:

If you ever want to make a billion of anything cheaply, you print it. 

What an interesting observation! With such interesting far reaching consequences:

  • Nano Solar is on the right track, crystaline solar is not.
  • Diamond Age-style nano-assembly is not quite a sure bet, and mass-customization by table-top fabs will clearly never be able to compete on price with items that are printed. Though another way of looking at nano-assembly is to recognize that nature manufactures far more, far cheaper, than all the printing presses in the world…
  • Things that are flat, flexible, and where the complexity is expressed in 2D will always be cheaper than their competitors which violate one of those constraints of printing presses.

It also further informs my day dreaming about clay tablets: a system for preserving data needs to be flat, flexible, and 2D. My “dots on ceramic” design might still be able to fit the bill, but the kind of uber-cheap ceramic I was thinking of (i.e. the same stuff in the 20 cent porcelin plates at Ikea) won’t be the material, something else will be. But what? What can go roll-to-roll in a printing press environment, but has the chemical stability of ceramics? I’m feeling like I really wish there was a layman’s introduction to ceramics on my reading list right now. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

PS: On Tuesday, I was at the British Museum, and I saw some nice presses there. Across town at the London Museum of Science I saw some really great steam engines. Some day I want make my own table-top steam engine and have my own printing press (and a good collection of moveable type) in the garage. And just for super-geek status, I was thinking it would be interesting to find some semi-automated way to convert OpenType fonts into metal type for my press. All the idle dreams of a retro computist, I suppose.

PPS: Major disappointment at the London Science Museum: the Clock of the Long Now is locked up in an exhibit that’s under construction and is thus not on display. I hope it’s still running at least! I was really looking forward to seeing it after reading Anathem. Another disappointment: I got so wrapped up in the steam engines, I didn’t have time to see the working Difference Engine, just Babbage’s malfunctioning model. (The story of my life… I get distracted and miss the working computer for the broken one…)

Two things I like about England

I’ve been known to complain a bit, now and then, about my current hosts, the English. I reserve the right to continue complaining, to be sure, but I’d like to take a moment to point out two things I like about England:

  • ICICI Bank UK: This is one of the largest banks in India. In England, they are a very little fish in a very big nasty pond. English banks are incredibly expensive, arrogant, rude, and customer unfriendly. But because ICICI is tiny, and because it is focused on a small niche (immigrants who are sending remittances home), it gives excellent service. Go ICICI! I love you!
  • Muffins: The English make very nice muffins. The chocolate/chocolate-chip ones are totally decadent, so when you want to take it easy, go for the ones which merely have lemon curd inside and crystalized sugar on top.

PS: The English also display enormous muffin tops, but they are not really something you want to have…

Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy (or a nicer country)

Carl Malamud + the Government Printing Office is a match made in heaven.

Please, President Obama, make it happen. This guy is one of us, one of the good guys who cares about transparency, about good government, about the freedom to know, to learn, to discuss and to criticize. He’s a person who speaks not with words, but with actions. I’ve followed his career and his dreams for years, always being pleasantly surprised when something I wanted to know or find had become available to me because of his tireless work.

This is a critical time for America: we’re climbing out of a hole of neglect for the public space, and for fundamental American freedoms. President Obama, you’ve set the right direction, and Carl Malamud has heard your call and stepped forward. The last step is for you to recognize what this great American has already done for freedom of information and give him the mandate to move your ideal of transparency forward in the GPO.

Go Carl, go!

Silverlight on Linux

Microsoft, what’s your problem? Why are you so stupid?

My current irritation is with Silverlight. First, it’s a redundant technology. Bringing .Net into browsers is not a compelling argument for redoing everything that Adobe Flash already does better than Silverlight. But fine, I’m not a shareholder anymore, you can waste their money all you want.

I wanted to see how well Moonlight (the Linux version of Silverlight) works. It’s partly because I’m compelled to poke my nose into the train crash that is Linux + Firefox + plugins + video + audio. It’s one of those things… so horrific, you can’t stop watching.

And the amazing thing is that it works, sort of. The install process for Moonlight is no more braindead than all the other plugins I’ve played with. The one dumb hangup is that Novell (sponsors of Mono/Moonlight) did not manage to get their code-signing XPI foo right, and so Firefox warns you the XPI is a scary dangerous virus ready to destroy your computer. Why couldn’t someone just GO SIT in Mozilla headquarters and FIND OUT how to make this work? I just don’t understand how companies like Novell think.

So then I head over to silverlight.net to see how it works. And it doesn’t. Over and over, in 10 different ways and places, Microsoft tries to get me to install their windows plugin. But I’m on Linux! Why are you pestering me? My silverlight support works, stop hassling me! This is the kind of crap that Flash managed to solve YEARS ago. This is why techno-redundancy sucks: the users have to suffer the SAME EXACT BUGS years later.

So I finally get through all the warnings, I don’t even know how, and I get to the showcase. I want to go see some Silverlight apps, find out if this thing works in any other situation then the Mono website (which damn well ought to work). And EVERY SINGLE ONE has the same bug, which is that it’s browser sniffing is not detecting that I have Moonlight and tells me in 12 different ways that I’m not allowed to see their content. Many of them send me back to Microsoft to “upgrade” my Silverlight, and then Microsoft sends me into an infinite hell of “you have to have Windows, you don’t have Windows, click here to upgrade to Silverlight 2 for Windows, you have to have windows, you don’t have windows…”

So, I’m here to tell you that Moonlight works. But that no one will let you use it. So don’t bother installing it, there’s nothing to see anyway.

And the traincrash continues… and I just can’t stop looking. Why do I do this to myself?


I’ve finished Anathem, and I’m happy to report that it’s not just Hogwarts with math. There’s a whole lot of other stuff going on in there, and it’s fun. You have to like Stephenson’s style, and you have to enjoy learning and thinking about a whole new planet. Luckily, the planet is based on principles of cultural evolution familiar to anyone who has studied the history of technology, media, and religion on planet Earth. So it’s not too hard to understand what’s happening.

Another fun thing about the book is that it plays with language, introducing Orth (the language of the characters). Instead of forcing the reader to learn Orth, Stephenson chooses words from Latin, French, and English roots. There is a fair amount of wordplay at play, which is fun for someone like me who enjoys words.

Finally, I’m pleased to tell you that Neil Stephenson has finally solved his “ending like a crash test” problem. The end of the book ties up enough and sets up enough of a future for the characters that you feel satisfied. The love interests even manage to get married, which might be taking things too far. I mean, Neil, come on, really… were you just trying to cynically give the critics everything they asked for, just to mess with their minds?

As I mentioned before, Anathem is a book that panders to its audience. If you are not in it’s audience, it will turn you off. If you are in it’s audience, you’re REALLY in it. I’m in it. Are you?

PS: Here’s a nifty marketing thing from the book’s publishers:

Bad Passwords – problem or opportunity?

This article includes some interesting analysis of passwords found in the wild. A reasonable first impression would be, “good god, those people are sure stupid”. But I had another idea… isn’t it interesting that a lot of people prefer pattern-based passwords, i.e. pressing the buttons in a certain order, without respect to the semantic meaning of the password. That means they are thinking visually, storing their password as a picture of the keys, and a mental model of the shape and direction their fingers will go to enter the code.

So why not take advatage of that? Here’s how it would work: anyplace there is a “enter password” box, the UI would say, “or, if you prefer remembering shapes, click here and we’ll generate a shape for you”. When you click on it, the password generator chooses a password based on a markov chain of key adjacency. It would be trivial for a cryptographer to figure out how much entropy is in a given shape (IANAC, so don’t ask me). You adjust the length of the key-path to the desired entropy. You show the user a little diagram of their new “password” to help them see the shape in it and program it into their memory.

There are some gotchas, of course. First, you have to give the user a chance to practice the password a few times, perhaps best done with some kind of highly visual Flash app (think Guitar Hero — Password Hero!). Second, the key-adjacency info is keyboard specific, as anyone who has ever left the United States will tell you (hello? French people? You really like AZERTY? Are you crazy?)

I have no intention of actually doing anything like this. I have a system for picking my passwords, and it works for me. Frankly, I don’t care about people too stupid to understand entropy and pick good passwords. This is why they don’t let me do UI: Left to my own devices, I’d just give everyone a PDP-11 console and let the UI itself weed out the idiots. 🙂

But, patent trolls: beware. This is prior art. I thought of shape passwords first, don’t bother patenting them suckers. I’ll open a can of patent-busting whoopass on you.

Stop reading this right now: Go read 512 Words!

My friend Curtis writes 512 Words of fiction every week, then posts both the story and a reading of the story every Friday. Today’s story was his best ever, even better than Ghosts of Earth my previous favorite (though hard to choose, really…)

Be sure to listen to the reading of this week’s story, entitled “Better”. Today’s story really profits from the ambiance of the great music Curtis chose and his deep voice.

Go. Listen. Think.

The (confusing) State of Streaming Video in England

Something really amazing happened to me the other night. Marina was brain-fried from a long day at school, and she said, “I wish I could just sit in front of the TV and zone out to TSI1 (Italian Switzerland’s public TV station)”. I said, let me see what I can find…

I searched on the net, and struck out pretty thouroughly finding a live stream for TSI1, but I did find some British TV on Zattoo. My laptop was booted in Linux at the time, so as I was grumbling about rebooting, I noticed they have a Linux player. So then I grumbled about how nothing ever works right in Linux while it downloaded and installed. It told me it wanted some more codecs, so I grumbled about how the state of video encoding is so complicated that nothing ever works without 1000 plugins while they automatically downloaded and installed with no intervention from me (save the grumbling).

Then it just worked.

I’m going to repeat that, since I don’t even believe it myself: We watched 1 hour of straming video on Linux (via wifi, no less) and it just worked. Even the commercials came through just fine. Thank you Zattoo!

Marina asked, “Why are there so many commercials? It’s not like this on Swiss TV.” And that made me start thinking about public TV, private TV, and TV licenses. When the threatening TV license renewal form came in the mail and accused me of commiting a serious crime (punishable but a GBP 1000 fine, no less) because I’d failed to renew my TV license, I just threw it away. The only BBC that Marina and I ever consume is BBC Leeds by FM radio, and a page or two on the Intarweb from time to time. I fail to see how I could possibly need a TV license for that.

But then I got paranoid. We were watching a TV stream that shall remain nameless, lest I incriminate myself. But I went and searched to find out if all those commercials Marina was complaining about meant that I didn’t need a TV license to watch this stream. And the answer that came back was completely nonsensical and useless. Go ahead, you go try and figure out the rules for watching streams in England.

What it boils down to is this… a TV license is required if you are watching a live stream (i.e. you cannot choose what’s on it when it starts). If you watch only video on demand, you don’t need a TV license. But the place I found that was on the BBC’s website. And it is not clear at all if that applies only to BBC content or to all British media. I used to think the TV license was simply a fee-based tax supporting the BBC. But it’s not. Because private broadcasters in England are subsidised using a part of the TV licensing revenue. Which means that probably the rules BBC clarified on their website apply to the commercial infested dreck we watched the other night. We won’t be doing that anymore… the commercials sucked, and I can’t afford the GBP 150 TV license, let alone the GBP 1000 fine.

What’s interesting is that, once again, I am on the forefront of lifestyle change caused by technology. I have not willingly* owned a land line since 2001. Now I haven’t had a TV since 2005. But the BBC’s website hilariously indicates that you don’t really need to worry about the specifics of licensing for online video since your home TV license (which you undoubtedly have) covers it anyway. When you walk through our poor neighborhood (poorest in Leeds!) and see a satellite dish on every single house, you realize that it really is true that everyone (else) must have a TV license.

Bread and circuses, indeed. All it takes to keep British subjects, er, subjugated, is an endless supply of chips and satellite TV 24×7.

* I have a phone line right now because England’s broadband market is so fucked up you cannot get cable Internet without having a BT land line. Let me repeat that: you cannot buy cable Internet unless your cable company pays the telephone monopoly for the right to not use their network. And of course, the cable company passes the fee right on to you. When I think about it, it makes me so pissed off, I want to leave the phone off hook (thereby consuming a port on the switch) just to spite BT. But then I would need to make a special curcuit to defeat the dialtone timeout they use to protect their switch from people like me.