Monthly Archives: April 2005

Memoirs of a Sith Lord

The official unofficial blog of DARTH VADER

News from Holland

The Dutch government is considering a law that will put a tax on MP3 players based on their storage capacity. The tax can amount to over $200 on a top-end iPod.

Of course the implication is clear – if you own an MP3 player then everything on it is illegal. I resent that assumption.

The money will go to the music business, who are now presumably strapped for cash after spending all of their profits on lobbyists and lawyers.

And they have the nerve to call file-swappers thieves.

Opinion: eBay RIP

I have been buying and selling through eBay since 1998. You might say I was an early adopter. However, over the past few years I have seen a lot of changes among both the buyers and the sellers; changes that have left me feeling like I am mourning the loss of an old friend. There has been a change in culture at eBay. The "world's biggest garage sale" has grown up… or blown up. I'm still not sure which.

As a seller I am encountering too many buyers who are "jokers" – deadbeat bidders who bid on an item and then try to get out of their obligation to buy it. Others are problem buyers, who do not understand how eBay works.

As a buyer I am encountering fewer ordinary people and more "big boyz". Who are they? Here are some of the identifying traits.

  • They are usually bulk sellers who have many listings at any given time.
  • New shop-quality commodities at just below shop prices.
  • Second-hand "UNTESTED-AS-IS-NO-WARRANTY-NO-RETURN" items (also a hallmark of a dumpster-diver).
  • Lack of flexibility ("no local pick-up, no combined shipping")
  • Loads of "small print" on every listing.
  • Automated and cumbersome non-standard check-out procedure.
  • A business name that includes one or more of the following: Bargain, Clearance, Warehouse, Clearout, Selloff, Clearinghouse, Liquidation
  • Feedback hostage ("we will post feedback on you when you post feedback on us")
  • Tiny Bid amounts, exorbitant "Shipping" (while this is a good way to minimize eBay fees, $0.01 for the goods and $15 for shipping is about as clear a case of fee evasion as you can get).

I go to eBay to do business with people; eBay used to be a place where I could buy something I needed from someone else who was not using that item and had it just lying around. Now when I go looking for those items I have fight my way through dozens of "big boyz" clogging up the works.

Perhaps I'm just getting old, but dealing with some of them is like dealing with a corporation – poor service, slow communication and lots of rules & regulations. If I wanted that I would do business directly with a corporation!

It is clear that eBay has abandoned its roots, and has embraced megalithic corporate culture – the little guys are slowly being squeezed out by fee hikes that make it prohibitively expensive to sell household items there.

I'm not quitting eBay, but I will be cutting back on what I sell. I am sure other small sellers will do the same.

One day, there will be an alternative to eBay – and when it arrives, eBay will fall – and fall hard. Until then, here is my guide to eBay – Enjoy!

When does the movie really start?

Ken "Caesar" Fisher muses on pre-movie advertising.

One problem with such advertising is that it encourages people to show up late, marring or ruining the experience for everyone else.He also notes that one State Representative is proposing Legislation to force movie houses to "post the actual starting time of a movie" (like the ad-boys will actually let that happen).
Personally I don't think that we need another law – whatever happened to truth in advertising?

What is a Software Patent?

Before answering that question, you have to ask a simpler one: What is a Patent? A patent is a device that allows an inventor exclusive rights to commercially exploit their inventions for a limited period of time.Before patents came about, the only way to ensure that an invention was not stolen was to keep it secret. Patents were "invented" to allow inventors to release their inventions into the world without fear of plagiarism or theft.

The key word there is "invention". Patents were designed to protect physical mechanisms. A computer program is not a mechanism, it is an idea, an expression of thought. Other expressions of thought include music, movies and literature. These are already protected by copyright laws, and rightly so.
What's the different between copyright and a patent? Simply put, you can infringe a patent without being aware of its existence, while copyright is explicit.
So the question is a trick one – there is no such thing as a software patent.

The only exception that comes to mind is a mechanism to perform a task – such as encryption. In which case it is the encryption mechanism that is patentable, not the software implementation.

I am a software developer by trade; have been for many years. While large Corporations with trained attack Lawyers might like the idea, those who make a living in the industry generally do not – and anything that makes the lawyers happy at the expense of everyone else is a bad thing.

So you think you are a geek?

Take this fun quiz and find out.

I scored 75 points, which makes me a "Techno-ninja".

I like the sound of that.

Why a National ID card will not work

Bruce Schneier is the designer of the Blowfish and Twofish encryption algorithms and the author of "Secrets and Lies", one of the best books on Security that I have read. He is, in my opinion, one of the few people out there who really understands security. Here he explains in easy-to-understand terms why a National ID card is a bad idea.

My favorite quote: "There is more security in alert guards paying attention to subtle social cues than bored minimum-wage guards blindly checking IDs"

Bankruptcy bill becomes law

Today, the President signed the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005. It becomes law in 180 days.

As an outsider, the bankruptcy laws in this country astound me. It seems to me that every seven years Americans can file bankruptcy and get out from under their debts. Of course it is more complicated than that, but that is how it appears to the rest of the world.

So it seems right and proper that the laws should be reformed to make it more difficult to do this; that people should live within their means and pay their debts.

This bill has an interesting history behind it. Written by those wonderful folks in the Credit Card industry in 1997, it has been pushed by lobbyists ever since. This is an industry that is presumably sick of people legally avoiding their debts. These are the same folks who are continually saturation-bombing us with Credit-card solicitations when we have no money.

The first question to be asked is a simple one: Why do people declare bankruptcy? Most of us have images of profligate spenders who run up huge bills that they cannot possibly pay, then file for bankruptcy and hide behind the law instead of paying their debts. While there are undoubtedly people like that out there, the fact is that they are in the minority – most of the bankruptcies are due to medical bills, divorce or job loss.

Some Bankruptcy facts

  • Fewer than four percent of filings are by people who could actually pay their debts.
  • Many debtors put off declaring bankruptcy until they have lost their telephone service (40 percent), gone without necessary medicine (43 percent), or been too poor to buy food (19 percent) at least once.
  • Married couples with children and single mothers are respectively two and three times more likely to go bankrupt, respectively, than their childless counterparts.
  • Divorced mothers face an additional risk, because they often lose health coverage linked to their ex-husbands' jobs.
  • Three out of five can't afford to visit a doctor or dentist when they needed to, at least once during the two years before filing for bankruptcy.
  • Almost 40 percent of patients with terminal illnesses report having to cope with financial problems as they prepare to die.
  • Over half of bankruptcies are a result of medical emergency.
  • About half of all debtors file bankruptcy because of medical bills, even though three-quarters have health insurance during all or part of their illness (PDF).

Here's an examination of the bill (albeit in a democratic blog), along with the amendments that were shot down with extreme prejudice by every Republican senator and many Democrats."Let me tell my colleagues about Mary Bobbit. Mary Bobbit is a 70-year-old widow who lives in North Carolina, where the homestead exemption is only $10,000. According to a local news story, she recently lost her husband to cancer, a battle that left her with more than $175,000 in unpaid medical bills. Her only remaining asset is the home that her family built themselves 26 years ago, a home that she paid off just last year. And now she is faced with a horrible dilemma, because if she files for bankruptcy in North Carolina, she will lose the home that she and her husband worked so hard to build and pay for". That's what Senator Feingold said in defense of one of the proposed amendments… before it was tossed out.

"This is the same bill that has been considered each session for the past eight years. It was written by the credit industry and supported by huge donations to politicians. While it preaches "individual responsibility" and "reform", it is really designed to severely limit bankruptcy relief to consumers and to chase competent bankruptcy attorneys from the field." Says a Bankruptcy law firm.

Years ago, Bill Clinton Vetoed the bill as "unfair to consumers"

Under the new bill…

  • People who earn more than their state's average income might not be allowed to file for Chapter 7, regardless of their actual expenses. This will hurt those who dwell in cities, where salaries and expenses are far higher than state averages.
  • Judges would no longer be able to take individual circumstances into account, as they do now.
  • Wealthy debtors retain major loopholes under the new bill, such as the right to keep valuable homes and retain assets in special trusts.

Backers in Congress and the financial services industry argue that bankruptcy frequently is "the last refuge of gamblers, impulsive shoppers, divorced or separated fathers avoiding child support, and multimillionaires – often celebrities – who buy mansions in states with liberal homestead exemptions to shelter assets from creditors."

However, this does not really solve the problem. "Florida, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota and Texas have unlimited homestead exemptions that allow wealthy people to file for bankruptcy and keep their mansions in those states sheltered from creditors."

In addition, the bill does nothing to address the growing use of "asset protection trusts," used by rich people to shield income from bankruptcy proceedings, or to rein in the unlimited use of the homestead exemption, which allows them to shield multimillion dollar homes from bankruptcy courts.

My other major objection to this bill is that it makes no exceptions for irresponsible lenders – rapacious businesses who lend to borrowers without checking them out first. I wonder if the bill makes any provision for predatory lenders that do not do their due diligence. I am willing to bet money that it does not. A lender who offer money to someone that they know is unlikely to repay the debt should share in the risk rather than pushing for legislation to eliminate their risks and increase their profit margins.

"The bill simply doesn't balance responsibility between families in debt trouble and the creditors whose practices have contributed to the rise in bankruptcies" said Travis Plunkett of the Consumer Federation of America in a written statement.

Amazingly, there is nothing to stop your Credit-card lender from raising your interest rate whenever they like – as some of us have found out – and to whatever level they want. If they decided to raise the interest rate to 35% there is nothing you can do beside take your business elsewhere.

It's easy for us to say "caveat emptor" and that "These people knew what they were getting into". I agree – I personally believe that it is not the Government's job to pass laws to protect people from their own stupidity. However, they do have a duty to prevent a rapacious financial industry from taking advantage of those that they are supposed to be representing.

There was a time when banking was a people business – when your local bank manager knew you personally – or knew your family. He knew your character, and knew how good a risk you were. He was empowered to, and responsible for, granting a loan. These days, the bank manager does not know you from Adam, and even if he does, he has no power to actually do anything. I would like to see a bill that put the banks back in the banking business and took them out of the junk mailing business. Like that's going to happen.

The more I read about this bill, the less I like it.

  • The bill is an exercise in unintended consequences.
  • This is a bill that puts corporations before families.
  • This is a bill that puts lobbyists' interests ahead of voters'.
  • This is a bill that makes life harder for single parents.
  • This is a bill that puts car payments before child support.
  • This is a bill that catches the small fish, but lets many of the big ones – and all of the sharks – go free.

Indeed, doing a quick Google search on "Bankruptcy Bill", it is difficult to find anyone speaking in favor of it… except for the Credit-Card industry, who stands to make an extra billion or so per year.

I am with the Democrats on this one. Not because I oppose bankruptcy reform, but because I object in principle to a law that is written by – and for – its chief beneficiaries. In that respect, this act resembles the DMCA, Check21 and the PATRIOT act.

The act is badly named… it does NOT protect consumers, it protects Credit Card companies – and their profits.

The moral to this story is simple: When a loved one is lying in a hospital bed, think hard about whether or not you can afford to pay for that lifesaving operation. Because if you can't, Bankruptcy as you have known it will no longer be an option and you will most likely lose your home.

The big question here is how did such a draconian bill get through both houses? The answer is sadly obvious; "…a lot of people don't realize that the industry that gave the most money to Washington over the past few years was not the oil industry, was not pharmaceuticals. It was consumer credit products. Those are the people. The credit card companies have been giving money, and they have influence." (Elizabeth Warren)

Good news, bad news…

It's ten years to the day since the Oklahoma City bombing.

A new Pope was elected. One of the longest papacies (which succeeded one of the shortest) is succeeded by one of the longest-serving and oldest cardinals to ever assume the papacy.

If you are an Oklahoma City Catholic you probably don't know whether to laugh or cry.

How to ask questions the smart way

As an IT professional, I often have to use online fora (well, ok, forums, if you insist) to find answers to my questions. One of the things that has always amused and sometimes frustrated me, however, is how some people using these resources are averse to doing even the most basic research before asking for help. Often such people do not understand why they are subsequently ignored or treated with sarcasm – or even hostility – by those who are more knowledgeable.

I came across this article on the subject by Eric Raymond – a big name in the computer industry – that says it better than I ever could. Note, however, that he uses the word “hacker” correctly – “a knowledgeable technical person” rather than the media “techno-vandal” definition that the media have foisted upon us.Here are some quotes:

The first thing to understand is that hackers actually like hard problems and good, thought-provoking questions about them. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here. If you give us an interesting question to chew on we’ll be grateful to you; good questions are a stimulus and a gift. Good questions help us develop our understanding, and often reveal problems we might not have noticed or thought about otherwise. Among hackers, “Good question!” is a strong and sincere compliment.

Despite this, hackers have a reputation for meeting simple questions with what looks like hostility or arrogance. It sometimes looks like we’re reflexively rude to newbies and the ignorant. But this isn’t really true.
What we are, unapologetically, is hostile to people who seem to be unwilling to think or to do their own homework before asking questions. People like that are time sinks – they take without giving back, they waste time we could have spent on another question more interesting and another person more worthy of an answer. We call people like this “losers” (and for historical reasons we sometimes spell it “lusers”).

If you decide to come to us for help, you don’t want to be one of the losers. You don’t want to seem like one, either. The best way to get a rapid and responsive answer is to ask it like a person with smarts, confidence, and clues who just happens to need help on one particular problem.

Never assume you are entitled to an answer. You are not; you aren’t, after all, paying for the service. You will earn an answer, if you earn it, by asking a question that is substantial, interesting, and thought-provoking – one that implicitly contributes to the experience of the community rather than merely passively demanding knowledge from others.

Spell, punctuate, and capitalize correctly. Don’t confuse “its” with “it’s”, “loose” with “lose”, or “discrete” with “discreet”. Don’t TYPE IN ALL CAPS, this is read as shouting and considered rude. (All-smalls is only slightly less annoying, as it’s difficult to read. Alan Cox can get away with it, but you can’t.)

More generally, if you write like a semi-literate boob you will very likely be ignored. Writing like a l33t script kiddie hax0r is the absolute kiss of death and guarantees you will receive nothing but stony silence (or, at best, a heaping helping of scorn and sarcasm) in return.

If you are asking questions in a forum that does not use your native language, you will get a limited amount of slack for spelling and grammar errors – but no extra slack at all for laziness (and yes, we can usually spot that difference). Also, unless you know what your respondent’s languages are, write in English. Busy hackers tend to simply flush questions in languages they don’t understand, and English is the working language of the Internet. By writing in English you minimize your chances that your question will be discarded unread.

Highly recommended reading.