Friday, December 30, 2011



On NPR’s Morning Edition today was an item about a cable television channel called OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network. It seems that Oprah doesn’t have her usual golden touch on this one: the channel is almost a year old, and it hasn’t established much of a presence and following (yet?). I haven’t watched it, so I haven’t anything to say about its content. But, while OWN is a cute acronym and all that, I want to talk a bit about what a TV network is, and why this isn’t one. For younger readers, this will be a bit of history; for others, perhaps a trip through time and memories.

When I was small (and Christmas trees were tall)[1], television programs were broadcast over the airwaves, as FM radio signals. They had their own frequency bands, and the spectrum was divided into twelve channels: 2 through 6 on one frequency band, and 7 through 13 on another — for historical reasons, there was no channel 1. The allocations were made such that each channel had enough bandwidth to carry the audio and video at the desired quality, with enough extra at the edges to minimize interference between adjacent channels. And the television set had a dial to select the channel — a large-ish, round, twelve-position switch that adjusted the tuner to receive the desired one of the twelve channels.

A service area with a moderate population might have had only one or two active channels broadcasting within its range, back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Larger areas, such as New York City, would have four or five, or even as many as six. The programs were all in black and white (actually many shades of grey), just like the old movies, though modern movies had long been in colour, of course.

Content was expensive to produce. Local stations would produce their own programming, but the budgets were necessarily low. So television took the network idea from radio: a network was a content provider that would distribute programming to its affiliates. The network would sign up stations, one per area, to take its content (including much of its advertising), and during certain times of the day those affiliate stations would air the network’s content. That way, everyone could get I Love Lucy, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Car 54, Where Are You?, and they knew when their favourite shows would be on.

And they knew what channels to find them on. Everyone in the New York City area knew that channel 2 was CBS, channel 4 was NBC, and channel 7 was ABC, and those were the three networks that existed at the time. The station affiliations and channels were different in different cities, but if you moved to Miami, you’d learn that CBS was on channel 4 instead of channel 2, and you could still find Ed Sullivan without trouble.

Each TV station still aired non-network programming — local news, locally produced shows (such as children’s shows, where local kids were in the audience and sometimes on stage), and so on. Also, they didn’t operate 24 hours a day. They would sign on in the morning and sign off at night, and would sometimes have off periods during the day. During the off times, if you tuned to the channel you would see either a test pattern (a fixed image broadcast by the station) or snow (random, changing black and white dots, the result of the television’s attempt to interpret the background noise as a signal; TV sets nowadays detect the lack of signal and show a solid blue or black screen).

Those twelve channels, 2 through 13, were in the VHF bands. In the 1950s, stations started broadcasting on 70 new channels, 14 through 83, in the new UHF band... only, they had a serious problem: most television sets couldn’t receive their signals. And there was little incentive for people in large markets to worry about this: they already had all the television they could want in New York City, for example, on the VHF channels. The UHF channels were mostly inhabited by local-only, non-network stations, which generally failed. But in 1961, a new law required that by 1965, all new televisions have UHF tuners. Most accomplished this by adding a second tuning dial; the first had thirteen positions — channels 2 through 13, and UHF — and the second would tune 14 through 83 in seventy very tiny clicks.

The new channels opened the path for new networks, such as expanded educational and public TV networks (in the 1970s), and Fox and spanish-language networks (in the 1980s). But there was still the concept of local stations that were affiliated with content-distribution networks.

People got used to the term network, and with the idea that a network is big, with broader, better content... while a station or channel is a small, local thing, with little content of interest. With the cable television boom came hundreds of channels with direct content — no local stations, no affiliates. Some of them are called channels, but some are called networks, though they really aren’t. The Oprah Winfrey Network certainly isn’t the only one. The Food Network is another example, and there are others.

The distinction mostly doesn’t matter, and it’s really only of historical interest. But the NPR item makes one significant point in this regard:

Gerbrandt says cable is such a different animal than broadcast. For starters, people can’t find OWN.

Indeed: with the real networks, we all knew where the broadcast stations were on the dial. Now, with cable, those same affiliate stations have their old places, with low channel numbers. If you want CBS, NBC, and ABC, look in those low numbers — they’re still 2, 4, and 7 in the New York City area. But where’s the Food Network? The Discovery Channel? Sy-Fy? OWN? You have to learn where they are, which means that you have to want them in the first place. And with hundreds of channels available, it’s not so likely that we’ll stumble across them as we go from channel to channel.

It’s tough to develop a following.

[1] Extra points if you know the reference.

Friday, December 23, 2011


Family values

I don’t refer often enough to the excellent blog Halfway There, by the pseudonymous Zeno, a community-college math teacher in California. Apart from having picked an amusing combination of names (a reference, of course, to Zeno’s Paradox), blogger Zeno writes interesting things about socio-political news, frequently calling the right-wingers on their bullshit.

Today’s entry is a perfect example, where he lampoons a feigned Think about the children! argument against running a front-page photo of lesbian sailors kissing. In response to a letter to the editor in the Sacramento Bee, which said, in part, this:

Did anyone consider that young children might be confused by the display on the front page?

The Bee has selfishly and disrespectfully usurped the rights of parents to choose where and when to have a thoughtful discussion, with their children, about homosexuality. Believe it or not, there are still some families whose values are not reflected in the type of photo that The Bee published; and they are neither intolerant nor filled with hate.

...Zeno has this to say:

I can’t help wondering how Jane’s children managed to grow old enough to be confused without Mommie Dearest having had that thoughtful discussion she values so highly. It’s not as though most toddlers spend any time perusing the pages of the newspaper. And why should even older children be upset by a glimpse of a same-sex couple kissing on the Bee’s front page? Have they not seen plenty of same-sex kissing among family members and close friends? Doesn’t grandma kiss mommy? Doesn’t mommy have BFFs from high school or college who hug her and smooch her whenever they meet?


She wants us to believe that people who object to displays of same-sex affection are neither intolerant nor filled with hate. But I don’t believe that. Not filled with hate? Maybe, but that’s not self-evident. Filled with intolerance? Definitely.

Indeed. But let’s be even more direct about showing the bigotry behind that letter. Let’s suppose that the photo had not been of two women kissing, but of a black man kissing a white woman. And let’s look at the letter with that shading:

Did anyone consider that young children might be confused by the display on the front page?

The Bee has selfishly and disrespectfully usurped the rights of parents to choose where and when to have a thoughtful discussion, with their children, about interracial couples. Believe it or not, there are still some families whose values are not reflected in the type of photo that The Bee published; and they are neither intolerant nor filled with hate.

Would anyone seriously believe her claim of tolerance and love in that case?

Believe it or not, there are still some families whose values are not reflected in images of warmth and affection. How sad for them.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Highway 61 revisited

As I sit here with a Cesária Évora CD on in the house, I have an update to the car AV system issue, wherein it couldn’t stop playing Bob Dylan. That is, I found out why it’s playing a disproportionate amount of Dylan.

I noticed, as it played more songs, that it was not just playing a lot of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, but that it wasn’t playing anything beyond C in the alphabet. I have the files on the microSD organized in folders (directories) based on the artists and albums, so at the root level there’s a Bob Dylan folder, and that has sub-folders called Blonde On Blonde, Blood On the Tracks, Desire, and so on. In those folders are the MP3 files for the songs. I used the touch-screen interface to look in the folder of the current song, then went up to the artist level, and then to the root. I scrolled the list of artists, which should have gone from 10,000 Maniacs to Youssou N’Dour. But the list stopped somewhere near the end of the Cs.

Ha! There appears to be a limit to the number of directories. And with only around 1000 songs active, instead of the 4000 on the chip, the chances of Dylan had been multiplied by 4 for each play. No wonder I was getting so much! OK, I can work around that limit.

I took the chip into the house, put it in my computer, and wrote a script to pull all the files out to the root level, so there are no directories/folders. /Bob Dylan/Desire/03 Mozambique.mp3 became /Bob Dylan-Desire-03 Mozambique.mp3, and now I have 3984 files in the root directory, and no folders. Pop the chip back into the car system, and try it out.

Great! There’s a D... now an L... a G. Much better!

But it didn’t take too long to notice that it never played anything beyond L. I went to the list and scrolled again (and was happy that one can scroll backward, and it wraps around).

This time, it was easy to tell exactly: the files in each directory are numbered sequentially by the system, and with everything in the root directory I could see what the actual limit is: 2500 files, exactly. That’s horrid!

2500 files might be a reasonable limit when microSD chips only went up to 2 GB. But that was a while ago, and it’s perfectly easy to have 8000 files or more now, and higher-capacity chips are coming out all the time. It’s absolutely ridiculous to build in limits like this, considering how the technology is moving forward. Any reasonable file system has tossed such limits away long ago.

I’m trying to delete 1500 files from the microSD card, but it’s tough: the music on my computer is already selected from my far more extensive CD collection, and represents my favourites. How do I pick 1500 favourites to eliminate? The first 500 went gradually, but it wasn’t too awful. The second 500 were a real challenge. I’m still working on the last 500, and it’s very tough!

I’ll be writing to Pioneer, to express my displeasure and to see if there’s anything that can be done. And I guess I’ll go back to streaming the music from my BlackBerry, which still has all the songs, and for which there’s no such limitation.

Update, 4 p.m.: Pioneer's customer service gave me a prompt response, which confirms what I saw:

The maximum number of files on USB or SD that this unit will support is 2500. Currently there are no plans to change that specification. Your feedback is appreciated and will be passed along to product planning.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Patterns in randomness: the Bob Dylan edition

The human brain is very good — quite excellent, really — at finding patterns. We delight in puzzles that involve pattern recognition... consider word-search puzzles, the Where’s Waldo stuff, and the game Set. We’re also great at giving patterns amusing interpretations, as we do when we fancy that clouds look like ducks or castles — or when we claim to see images of Jesus in Irish hillsides, pieces of wood, paper towels, and store receipts. Remember the cheese sandwich with the Virgin Mary on it, which sold on eBay for $28,000 in 2004? Miraculous, indeed.

It’s with the knowledge that we find apparent patterns in randomness that I approach this puzzling aspect of the random play feature of my car stereo. I’ve stuck in a microSD card that has about 4000 songs on it. I’ve put it on random play. And it appears to be playing songs in random order.

But it sure seems to be playing a lot of Dylan.

Bob, not Thomas. I like Bob Dylan, of course; that’s why I have quite a bit of him on the microSD card. But, for instance, on one set of local errands, it played two Dylan songs, something else, another Dylan, two other songs, then another Dylan. Four out of seven? Seems a bit odd.

Now, I know that if you ask a typical person which sequence is more likely to come up in a lottery drawing, 1-2-3-4-5, or 57-12-31-46-9, he will say not only that the latter is more likely, but that if the former came up he’d be sure something was amiss. In fact, they’re equally likely, and are as likely as any other pre-determined five-number sequence, but the one that looks like a pattern is one we think can’t be random. Similarly, it’s certainly possible to randomly pick four Dylan songs out of seven — or even four in a row, for that matter. And if there’s a bug in the algorithm that the audio system uses, why would it opt for Dylan, and not, say, Eric Clapton or the Beatles, both of which I also have plenty of on the chip?

So I played around with some numbers. Let’s make some simplifying assumptions, just to test the general question. Assume I have 20 songs from each artist, and a total of 4000 songs (and, so, 200 artists). If I play seven songs, how likely is it that two will be by the same artist?

It’s easier to figure out how likely it is that there won’t be repetitions. The first song can be anything. The likelihood that the second will be of a different artist than the first is (4000-20)/3999, about 99.5%. The likelihood that the third will differ from both of those is (4000-40)/3998. Repeat that four more times and multiply the probabilities: there’s a 90.4% chance of seven different artists in seven songs... meaning that there’s about a 9.6% chance of at least one repetition. Probably more likely than we might think.

Let’s look at Dylan, specifically. I have about 120 of his songs on there (3% of the total; maybe I should delete some, but that’s a separate question). What are the chances of having no Dylan in seven songs? No Dylan for the first is 3880/4000, 97% (makes sense: 3% chance of Dylan in any one selection). Continuing, no Dylan, still, for the second is 3879/3999. Repeat five more times and multiply: 71.3% chance of no Dylan, so there’s a 28.7% chance of at least one Dylan song if we play seven.

What about the chances of at least two Bob Dylan songs... a repetition of Dylan? Well, we figured out no Dylan above. Let’s figure out exactly one, and then add them. For the first to be Dylan and none of the others, we have 120/4000 * 3880/3999 * 3879/3998 * 3878/3997 * 3877/3996 * 3876/3995 * 3875/3994. About 2.5%. It’s the same for one Dylan in any other position — the numerators and denominators can be mixed about. So the chances of exactly one Dylan song out of seven is 2.5 * 7, or 17.5%. Add that to the chances of zero, 71.3 + 17.5 = 88.8%, so there’s an 11.2% chance of at least two Dylan songs in a mix of seven songs.

In other words, it’s a better than one in four chance that I’ll hear at least one Bob Dylan song, and a better than one in ten chance that I’ll hear at least two of them every time I take a 20- or 30-minute ride. Thrown in some confirmation bias, where I forget about the trips that had Clapton and the Beatles and Billy Joel and Carole King, but no Dylan, and I guess the system is working the way it’s supposed to.

But, damn, it plays a lot of Bob Dylan!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Hands-free is not enough

The other day, we heard that the U.S. NTSB would be proposing a nationwide ban on mobile phone use, and people were speculating that it’d increase sales and use of hands-free calling. I thought that would be odd, since a number of studies have made it clear that it’s mostly talking on your mobile phone that’s dangerous, whether it’s hands-free or not. There’s cognitive interference when you talk to someone who isn’t in the car with you, and having the device be hands-free only helps with the mechanical aspects, not with the cognitive ones, and those appear to be more important from a safety point of view.

And, as I expected, the proposed ban includes hands-free devices. Quoting from their news release of yesterday:

No call, no text, no update behind the wheel: NTSB calls for nationwide ban on PEDs while driving

December 13, 2011

Following today’s Board meeting on the 2010 multi-vehicle highway accident in Gray Summit, Missouri, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) called for the first-ever nationwide ban on driver use of personal electronic devices (PEDs) while operating a motor vehicle.

The safety recommendation specifically calls for the 50 states and the District of Columbia to ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers. The safety recommendation also urges use of the NHTSA model of high-visibility enforcement to support these bans and implementation of targeted communication campaigns to inform motorists of the new law and heightened enforcement.

According to NHTSA, more than 3,000 people lost their lives last year in distraction-related accidents, said Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving.

No call, no text, no update, is worth a human life.

Note nonemergency use and other than those designed to support the driving task. There is no exception for hands-free devices in their recommendation.

The NTSB has no standing to force this; in the United States, the states make their own traffic rules. But Congress can back the recommendation with funding incentives, as they did with the now-defunct 55 MPH speed limit, and as they have done for laws requiring seat-belt use.

Friday, December 09, 2011


Rick Perry: stupid is as stupid does

In case you haven’t been following the current Intervents over the past few days, let me call your attention to a Rick Perry campaign ad that was posted to YouTube on Tuesday. It’s called Strong, and it features a confident and concerned Rick Perry, bringing a very important point to his voters. Copying the copy from Governor Perry’s YouTube page:

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian, but you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.

As President, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion. And I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage. Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again.

I’m Rick Perry and I approve this message.

As I look at it now, it has 2,711,916 views, 10,401 likes, and 428,954 dislikes (as you might expect, comments are disabled). The numbers are increasing all the time, of course, but the dislikes are doing so very rapidly, making it, as one blogger notes, the most hated video on YouTube. It has well surpassed that horrid Friday, Friday thing, which only has 256,752 dislikes, and has taken almost three months to accumulate them, not just three days.

There are also, of course, many parodies popping up (I’ll let you have the fun of searching for them), most beginning, I’m not ashamed to admit than I’m an atheist, but some getting rather sillier (I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a dinosaur.?). And many are pointing out that the Gov’s jacket bears a close resemblance to the one Heath Ledger wore in Brokeback Mountain, adding ironic silliness to the mix.

(The dislikes are up to 430,321 now....)

The parodies and the silliness are great fun, but let’s not forget that this is meant to be a serious campaign video by a serious candidate for President of the United States. Mr Perry is waning in the polls; still, he’s not a long shot or a dark horse. He was the front-runner for a while. (Have I worn out the horse-racing metaphors yet?)

Where on Earth does he come up with the idea that there’s some sort of war on religion going on, when the religious asshats have been strangling the rest of us for years? One would have to be completely in a land of fantasy to think that atheists are running things. The notion that our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school is just ridiculous on its face, and any quick look around us will easily expose that as the lie it is.

What’s more, few of us would even want to stop kids from doing those things on their own. What we want is not to have public schools and other public, tax-funded institutions promote religion and prayer. No one’s closing down private schools and churches, and no one’s telling kids they can’t say a personal prayer or wish Merry Christmas to their friends.

And the idea that President Obama, a professed church-going Christian, is leading such a war is simply beyond stupid.


I want to move to a country where you have to take an intelligence test to get in, even on a tourist visa.

Thursday, December 08, 2011


Car navigation and audio system

I have a new car (as of October), a Subaru Legacy. The new car has a Pioneer AVIC-X930BT navigation/audio system (I mentioned its anti-theft mechanism last week). After years of using maps and printed directions, or relying on my BlackBerry for the GPS task — it’s effective, but small and hard to use while one is driving — it’s good to have the nav system, with a nice, large touch-screen (the next model up also does voice-command activation).

I’m mostly happy with it, and only find two annoying quirks in the navigation system. The more irritating of the two is that there’s a safety disclaimer that I have to touch OK to dismiss every time I start up the system:


This Navi product is intended solely as a driving aid. Review instruction manual and select route before driving. Navi is not a substitute for your attentiveness, judgement, and care while driving or moving your vehicle. Always observe safe driving rules and driving laws, and follow road signs even if they contradict Navi’s instructions. By pressing OK key, you accept the license agreement in the instruction manual.

I get the issue here: there are a good many documented cases of people driving onto railroad tracks, going the wrong way on one-way roads, and other such because they blindly and stupidly followed (what they thought were) their GPS systems’ instructions. But, really, I ought to be able to accept that safety and license-agreement message once, and be done with it. Or if they must remind me periodically, how about once a month? Even weekly would be better than having to deal with it every time I start the car.

The other annoyance is that the positioning system doesn’t seem to understand reverse gear. When I pull up my driveway and into my garage, the system doesn’t know where I am with respect to the roads. When I start up again, back out, and head up the road, it thinks I’m on the next block, and remains confused about that for a few minutes, while it acquires the GPS satellites and sorts out its actual location. That’s mostly comical, because I don’t need the GPS location to be accurate when I’m near home. Still, it’s rather goofy.

The most interesting thing about the system is that it replaces the audio system in the car, and includes AM and FM radio, CD and DVD player (including video), bluetooth audio streaming from your smartphone, playing your iPod, playing Pandora or Aha from the Inernet via an iPhone app, and playing music or video files from a USB device or microSD card. It makes for quite the music system.

I had been streaming music from my BlackBerry, but there’s not really a need — microSD cards are very cheap these days. I got a new card and copied all my music onto it. Thousands of music files live with the car. Very nice.

But there’s a problem, caused by a combination of an odd software choice in the Pioneer system and what happens to the microSD card on my MacBook. When I first plugged the microSD card into the audio system and turned on random play, it played the first song, gave me a popup message saying that unplayable files would be skipped, picked a random next song, and turned the random-play feature off.

Unplayable files?

I investigated. There turn out to be three things causing this, all related to hidden files (files whose names begin with ., which are hidden by the Unix file system that’s used on the Mac):

  1. iTunes, which manages my music library on the Mac (and whence I copied the files), keeps a hidden file associated with each song, to keep track of metadata. When I copied the music directories, I copied all those as well.
  2. Spotlight, a Mac feature that helps you search for things, creates a hidden directory structure called .Spotlight-V100 when it indexes the drive. This happens just because you plugged the microSD card into the Mac.
  3. The operating system and the MacOS Finder create various hidden files and directories, both in the root of the drive and in its subdirectories: .Trashes, .fseventsd, and .DS_Store (that last exists in every subdirectory that’s been touched by the Finder).

I configured Spotlight not to index the microSD drive (which you can only conveniently do after it’s already done it), and then wrote a shell script to delete every file and directory whose name begins with . (and one had best be very careful about writing and running such a script). Every time I plug it into my Mac, I have to run the script on it just before I eject it when I’m done.

Now everything works great. The audio system no longer complains about unplayable files, and the random-play feature doesn’t get turned off. I find that truly an odd programming choice: not only to display the message (which is odd enough), but then to stop random play. But it’s also bad that MacOS treats removable media that way... it should assume that removable media formatted with FAT(32) will be used on non-Mac platforms, and not pollute it with Mac-specific stuff.

Monday, December 05, 2011


Subjunctively moody

In his After Deadline column last week, New York Times editor Philip Corbett criticizes some overly complex sentences, reminding Times writers that, while Times readers needn’t be coddled, meanings need to be clear. One of his suggested corrections refers to this: [...] and Ms. King, who said she would ensure that the program be smart and entertaining. Mr Corbett has this to say:

At the end, there’s no need for the subjunctive be. The original assertion was something like, I will ensure that the program is [or will be] smart and entertaining. So, with proper sequence of tenses, make it was or would be.

He’s right, but this is a tricky one. We don’t use the subjunctive mood[1] very often, so we’re not well versed in its use. Except for some common phrases, such as, So be it, and If I were king, the subjunctive has all but died out in speech and informal writing, and it’s uncommon even in formal writing nowadays. Spanish still uses it extensively (the rules for its use there aren’t the same as in English, though some are similar), but English, not so much.

And to top it all off, even when it is used we usually don’t notice: with notable exception of to be, most verbs use the same form for subjunctive and indicative in all but the third person singular. We may be using subjunctives, but we can’t tell.

A simple rule that many people remember is to use subjunctive with something that’s contrary to fact (as in the if I were king situation), but that only goes so far. In fact, it’s generally used not just for such conditionals, but also for demands, wishes, and desires. And that’s what makes it tricky with ensure.

A writer would correctly use subjunctive were he to say, Ms King said she would insist that the program be smart and entertaining. Be (subjunctive), not is (indicative), because of the demand. Ensure seems similar here: she insists that it be entertaining, so she will ensure that it be so. But no: she will ensure that it is so, or that it will be so. Assurance is not one of the situations where we use subjunctive mood. Why? Well, it just isn’t. Someone made these rules up a long time ago, and that’s that.

On the other hand, that should give us a clue as to why the rule is vanishing, n’est-ce pas?

[1] Yes, mood. Subjunctive is a mood, not a tense, nor a case, nor an aspect. The other grammatical moods in English are indicative and imperative.

Sunday, December 04, 2011


Metro Transit

Misspelled ad for Whole FoodsThe photo on the right (click it to enlarge it) is a shot of a Whole Foods advertisement on a Metro-North train. Their unriveled commitment to quality clearly doesn’t extend to spelling.

In other New York City transit news, on a Manhattan-bound L-train from Brooklyn last night, there was a fake pile of poop on one of the benches. Passengers all speculated on whether it was fake (no smell, too neat and regular), with assured pronouncements that it was. Still, no one tested it, and no one would sit within four feet of it.

Only in New York.

Friday, December 02, 2011


National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill that provides for continued operation of the U.S. military. But this year’s 680-page bill includes yet more civil rights violations sanctioned by our legislature. Here’s NPR’s Steve Inskeep introducing their report:

The senate last night passed a defense bill that includes controversial provisions for handling terrorism suspects. The bill would send most detainees into military custody, not into the hands of the FBI, and it would allow the U.S. government to hold some suspects indefinitely, without charge, without trial. Those ideas ran into strong opposition from national security experts across the Obama administration, setting the stage for a possible veto by the president.

About halfway through the NPR report is this:

Carrie Johnson (NPR): But some Democrats and civil liberties groups said that left up in the air whether U.S. citizens could be detained in this country indefinitely without charges. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, says there’s nothing wrong with taking a hard line against American terrorists.

Senator Graham: I’m just saying to any American citizen, if you wanna help Al Qaeda, you do so at your own peril. You can get killed in the process, you can get detained indefinitely, and when you’re being questioned and you say to the interrogator, I want my lawyer, the interrogator will say you don’t have a right to a lawyer, ’cause you’re a military threat.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: what Senator Graham and those who spout the same rhetoric are missing is that we’re dealing here not with adjudicated cases, but with accusations. The rights they’re threatening were put in place to protect Americans from improper accusations — unfair, unwarranted, trumped up, perhaps specifically intended to put away someone who’s turned out to be inconvenient.

Back in the old days of tyrannical rule, the king would accuse anyone of anything, and the accusation alone would be cause to lock the accused in a dungeon indefinitely, with no hope of help or justice. When we formed this country, we put together a system of rights and guarantees to prevent such abuse and to protect our people from that sort of thing.

And yet that’s exactly what Senator Graham and others want to put us back into: a situation wherein a government that wants to silence someone and make him disappear need only make an unsubstantiated accusation of working with terrorists, and that person can be whisked away by the military, held in secret forever, and denied access to anyone — no family, no lawyers, no advocates of any kind to help him refute what may well be false accusations. No charge of an actual crime and no evidence are necessary.

I agree with Senator Graham that we should take a hard line against people who wanna help Al Qaeda. I’m just not willing to take accusations as fact and throw away the protections we have against abuse, and neither should anyone who supports the tenets this country was founded on be willing to do so. By all means, arrest people suspected of working with terrorists. Then give them access to legal support, tell them what crimes they’re charged with, and have fair and public trials, just as we do with people accused of murder, rape, arson, and all other horrible crimes.

These provisions need to be removed from the bill, and President Obama must veto it until they are removed.

Thursday, December 01, 2011


Web-page mistakes

I don’t understand, sometimes, how people put together their web pages. Who really thinks that, say, pink text on a red background looks good? Seventeen different typefaces on one page? A background image that makes people’s eyes cross?

One can argue that those are all matters of taste, and, after all, à chacun, son goût. And anyway, those things are easy enough to fix: one can apply a custom style sheet right in the browser, and override all those size and color and font and background things that were specified in the web page. There are instructions and bookmarklets floating around on the web... just stick one in your browser’s bookmark bar, and then click it when you encounter a retch-inducing or simply unreadable web page.

But there are lots of web-page problems you can’t fix up in your browser, because it’s the people who put together their web pages who don’t understand, and it’s not just in matters of personal taste. Perhaps one of the most annoying of these is what I call the lazy thumbnail error.

You’ve encountered these, surely: you’ll be looking at a web site for a business or organization, and you’ll click on a page labelled The Christmas Party, or Our Staff... and the page will take forever to load. You can’t see why, though: the Our Staff page shows maybe 20 people, from the company president to the secretarial staff, each with a small photo, a name, and a short paragraph by way of a bio. No big deal here. The photos are all tiny, something on the order of 100 by 120 pixels, like my mug at the top of these pages. What’s the problem?

The problem is that the photos aren’t as small as they look, because the webmaster was lazy about creating thumbnails for the staff pics. She asked everyone to send her a snapshot, and she put them all up on the web page with HTML like this:

<img src="staffPics/jane.jpg" height=200 alt="Jane Smith">

There... that makes all the photos the same height, 200 pixels. If someone sent a larger one, it gets scaled down, nice and small. Makes for a uniform look, and the page looks great.

What the webmaster doesn’t understand is that the scaling is not done at the server, but in the user’s browser. When the browser loads the page, it sees all these IMG tags, and it requests each image URL (such as staffPics/jane.jpg, in the example above). But it has no way to tell the server that it’s only going to display it 200 pixels high, and the server has no way to know. If Jane sent a high-res portrait, eight megapixels huge, the whole thing gets sent to the browser. And then the browser has to do the scaling itself, when it renders the page.

If ten of the twenty staffies have sent large photos, that simple Our Staff page can wind up being tens or hundreds of megabytes in size, despite how tiny the headshots look in the browser. Plus, there’s a load on the browser, which has to store the full-sized images and resize them for rendering — you can sometimes see that effect when scrolling the page is sluggish.

The solution is for the webmaster to take the time to create images of the right size (or close to it) from the start. If someone sends you a 2400 x 3200 portrait, scale it down to 150 x 200 yourself, and just put that image on the web page (there are programs available for this, which make it easier to handle a lot of photos). If you want to make the larger one available for clicking, something like this will do:

<a href="staffPics/full/jane.jpg"><img src="staffPics/thumbs/jane.jpg" height=200 alt="Jane Smith"></a>

The height=200 still ensures that they’ll all be the same height, in case the thumbnails aren’t all exactly the same size (there’s no harm in letting the browser do a small amount of re-scaling). But now people won’t have to grab all those high-resolution photos unless they actually want to.