Monthly Archives: April 2006

Elvis impersonators under threat

No impersonating Elvis without a permit

Now pay up.

Thank you very much.

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Big Oil: Lies, damned lies and gas shortages.

As the debate over gas prices rages, I am consistently amazed at two things:

  1. The Left, who apparently believe that the problem can be solved by raising taxes, and
  2. The Right, who keep on blathering on about the free market, supply and demand, etc.

I am not even going to dignify the left with a reply, except to say that one of the reasons that gas is so expensive is that Federal and State Governments are already taxing the living daylights out of it! Both make more money on a gallon of gas than the oil companies. Stupid, stupid stupid.

As for the right, let’s take a look at this alleged free market, shall we?

  • Shortages? What shortages? There is either enough to go round or there isn’t, and yet every Summer, Thanksgiving, Christmas and whenever the circus comes to town, there is a spike in demand. Year after year, the oil industry somehow fails to spot this coming… then they cry “shortage” and spike the price. Moral: Unless filling stations or pumps are closing there are no “shortages”!
  • Where is the free market when all of the filling stations in the land are owned, run or controlled by a handful of companies?
  • Why are gas stations bouncing the price around as frequently as several times a day? Are they selling the fuel they have in their tanks, or are they speculating on oil futures? Are we paying for today’s petrol or next week’s?
  • Where is the free market when every gas station in town spikes to the same price at the same time?
  • Why is it that gas goes up in 25c jumps, but than comes down pennies at a time?
  • If there is no gouging going on, why is that gas prices drop at the pump whenever there is a threat of a Government-level investigation?
  • Why is gas cheaper in poor parts of town, and near the local Sam’s Club? Is the law of supply and demand somehow different there?
  • Do ANY of the major oil companies EVER post a quarterly loss (a real one – not a manufactured tax dodge)? If not, again where is the competition?

I am against Government regulation, but it is also true that companies enjoying a monopoly or oligopoly cannot be trusted not to rape the public. This is why power, heating and Telcos are regulated – why should fuel not be? Can you function without it? I am playing Devil’s advocate here, but I suspect that the mere threat of Government regulation WILL bring prices down… which means that Big Oil can do better, and we all know it.

Not long ago, I asked a fuel station worker why the price had spiked. The conversation went something like this…

The station down the road put their price up, so we had to put ours up too.
Then you’d better call 911
Why?
If you had to raise the price than they must have put a gun to your head or threaten you, right?
Well…
What you mean is “we raised the price because we can
Uh… yeah.

What we are seeing at the moment is NOT competition – it is a lack if it.

Coming soon: DMCA2, the Sequel

Assaulting a police officer: 5 years.
Assault and battery: 6 years.
Downloading Child Pornography: 7 Years.
Trying to copy a music CD: 10 Years.
Turning misdemeanors into felonies: Priceless.

Big Content (Big Music + Big Movie) is pushing for with a beefed-up version of the draconian and much-reviled Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). It also shows that they value their profits more than either the safety of Police Officers or the innocence of children.

Memo to Big Content: Stop trying to criminalize your customers. Give us what we want, when, where and how we what it. Stop telling us what to do with our stuff after we have bought it. And stop trying to sell us the same thing again and again.

The media corporations’ plan to get the criminal justice system to do their dirty work for them is now in its final stages. By buying the votes and souls or OUR elected representatives they are now on the verge of succeeding in replacing the DMCA with something even worse.

WGA Gets Worse … and the Geeks figure out how to disable it.

Microsoft is beefing up Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) in an attempt to cut down on piracy. Nothing wrong with that… except that like all forms of DRM, it forces legitimate users to jump through hoops to run software that they have paid for.

This is one of the reasons that I refused to upgrade from Windows 2000 to Windows XP. The latter forced users to go through Product Activation – a process that involves sending information about your system away to Microsoft. This is all quick and easy… until you upgrade your system – which I do quite often – in which case you could very easily find yourself phoning up Microsoft and begging them for the right to to use your own software. If you bought a brand-name machine like a Dell, HP or e-machines it gets even worse. If the motherboard goes and you cannot get an identical one, your Windows license dies. Ask me how I know.

Interestingly, the Corporate editions of Windows XP are not subject to this restriction… I wonder why?

Never one to miss out on a potential cash cow, Microsoft subsequently retrofitted WGA into Windows 2000. I thought that this was exceptionally sneaky, but since it was optional (not needed for security updates) I wasn’t bothered. Now they are making WGA a little more proactive by making it nag refuseniks like myself into submission.

Naturally, the Geek community found a way to disable WGA within a matter of days.

Meanwhile, in China, street vendors are selling copies of Windows for $2. What is MS do about them?

How many times do I have to say it? DRM does not work.

Memo to Microsoft: If you have to implement DRM, make it seamless and painless – or users will refuse to upgrade.

Or worse, migrate to Linux.

A vision of the future?

Microsoft. Google. Amazon. The New York Times?
Disturbing, and yet.. believable

Copyright or Copywrong?

Imagine a world where every work of art, every piece of music, every idea is owned by some corporation who will allow you to enjoy it in return for a fee.

Imagine a world where the image of the Mona Lisa was owned by a faceless corporation who controlled the right to reproduce it.

This is not science fiction – it has already happened.

The rights to the image of the Mona Lisa is owned by a company named Corbis. Ever heard of them? Most people haven’t… but Corbis is owned by a certain William H Gates III. Yes, that Bill Gates – the richest man in the world.

Like middlemen everywhere, it was only a matter of time before the publishers soon got ideas above their station and became what today is know as the music business – a handful of media conglomerates who have become big and arrogant that they actually succeeded in changing the law so that they, and not the artists, owned the rights to the music forever. They did this by sneaking four crucial words into the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act of 1999 – a law that had nothing to with copyright. This amendment was done surreptitiously by a staffer named Mitch Glazer who now, curiously enough, works for the RIAA.

Fortunately the musicians did not sit still – they went to Congress. During the hearings that ensued, the music business maintained that they “never intended to use this law to steal music from musicians”.

The musicians did not believe them – time and time again the music business has proved that they will stop at nothing to protect their bottom line, even if it means “forgetting” to pay artists such as Dolly Parton millions that they were owed and suing customers as young as twelve years old and quietly pocketing the proceeds (the money belongs to them, and not to the musicians).

The protestations of the music business rank right up there alongside “the check’s in the mail” and OJ’s “search for the real killers” (on every golf course in America) as the great lies of our time. Fortunately Congress did not believe them either, and the law was changed to remove the clause retroactively.

The music business does not have a monopoly on changing laws for convenience and profit. The copyright laws in America were recently amended to raise the limit for certain types of work from seventy-five to one hundred years. The main beneficiary of this change was the Walt Disney corporation, whose flagship product – Mickey Mouse – was about to turn 75 and pass into the public domain. Rather than let go of Mickey, they successfully lobbied Congress into changing the rules of the game.

That Disney should be the benefactors of such a change is doubly ironic; they owe much of their wealth and success to characters such as Winnie the Pooh, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Little Mermaid, etc… all of which were “out of copyright” and in the Public Domain when Disney picked them up and turned them into moneymaking franchises. It would not surprise me if Disney had a department dedicated to tracking down out-of-copyright stories that they could grab. For Disney to refuse to play by the same rules is tantamount to saying “What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is mine”.

I don’t blame Disney for this – they were acting in their own best interest and that of their shareholders – I blame the bought-and-paid-for legislators who allowed them to effectively buy their own laws. Once again big business has been allowed to dictate legislation and John and Joan Public have been denied a seat at the table. Once again our representatives have proved that when push comes to shove they do not represent us.

Copyright laws were originally written to protect the public domain from private interests – to grant Authors a limited exclusive right to the fruits of their labor before giving it up and letting it pass into the public domain. Now they mean precisely the opposite, and are used, not to benefit authors but to provide guaranteed income streams for Media Conglomerates.

This taking from the well of the public domain cannot go on forever – eventually the cultural well will dry up.

Where will we be then?

Newsflash: Sexy women distract men!

This just in from the “woo-hoo!” department

According to The University of Leuven (wherever that is), who expended considerable time, money and academic brainpower to reach a conclusion that salesmen, marketers and advertisers have known for literally hundreds of years.

My personal suspicion is that it was an excuse for a bunch of geeks to gawk at pretty women and get paid for it.

Nice work if you can get it!

How To Become A Hacker

How To Become A Hacker

Not the modern hysterical-media definition of the word (“Cyber-Burglar”), but the original, correct meaning – a “Guru” who has earned the respect of the programming community.

Opinion: Here we go again

Now that petrol prices are heading skywards, it is only a matter of time before Mr. and Mrs. America take a look at that monstrous SUV in the driveway and realize that the right to buy cheap petrol is written nowhere in the Constitution.

Each year vehicles get bigger and bigger – the latest evolution of the Ford Explorer is substantially bigger than the same vehicle ten years ago. Cars are still marketed on size and horsepower – economy is barely given lip-service by the automobile marketing juggernaut (how many TV spots have boasted about good fuel economy?)

In Europe, where petrol is still more expensive ($8/gallon in Britain, which is a net exporter of oil) and roads are smaller, vehicles are comparatively tiny… but also frugal. I have mentioned the smart car in the past. Even though the company that makes them is owned by Daimler Chrysler, the vehicles are still not approved here in the States. I wonder why not?

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that America has not yet ended her long-running affair with the SUV. People like the feeling of safety and security of big vehicles (particularly small women who like BIG trucks – we all know at least one). As a result, small vehicles are viewed with derision.

In the mid-70s, everyone laughed at those little Japanese econoboxes, while tooling around in their two-ton “Yank-Tanks” (as us Brits called them at the time). Then the price of petrol tripled from 25c/gal to 75c/gal. There was much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, but those little cheap cars started looking like a good idea. The rest, as they say, was history.

Since then, there has been a lot of progress in engine design. Fuel-injection, multi-valve technology, lean-burn engines and emissions controls have come a long way… but it seems like every advance in technology has simply allowed smaller and smaller engines to be used in bigger and bigger vehicles. So here we are, thirty years later, once again tooling around in our two-ton-tanks (or, if you can afford a Hummer, FOUR!)… and the price of petrol goes up again.

So what will we do now? While the Europeans are busy designing cars with names like Smart and Clever, too many of us will cry and kick and scream and march and protest and write to their representatives before we buy a smaller car,
We never learn, do we?

Airport Thoughts

I have a love-hate relationship with Louisville International Airport.

It is said that if you ask an Irishman for directions, for the reply would be something like: “If I were tryin’ to get there, I wouldn’t be startin’ from here“. London. Paris. Milan. Tokyo. Amsterdam. Berlin. Just some of the places you cannot get to from here. The middle name of this airport was obviously someone’s idea of a joke. For this reason I have come to refer to it, with tongue firmly in cheek, by its initials – LIA.

It’s not all bad news, though, and I have to give credit where credit is due. Most airports are designed around the requirements of baggage and the dictates of the security services. If the passengers have to walk a mile to get to their gate, tough. With the possible exception of Orlando, LIA is one of the best laid-out airports that I have ever encountered – or at least it used to be. When I arrived in this town ten years ago, it was possible to park next to the main building, and if you could in and out in thirty minutes or less, parking was free. That was a wonderful thing that had to be destroyed to make room for parking for Airport Employees.

Picking up someone from the airport is a hassle if his or her plane has been delayed. The cops won’t let you wait in front of the arrivals building. Why? “Terrorism”, say those who make such policy. For some reason terrorists have become associated with airports. I don’t know why. Vehicles parked in front of airports have never been identified as a security risk. Not only is the building fairly robust, but your typical airport has far more armed security personnel than most other places. Not an especially attractive target for your average terrorist methinks – particularly when you consider the large contingent of National Guard on the other side of the airport.

So if you can’t wait outside the terminal, where can you wait? Well, the powers that be have thoughtfully provided a waiting area. To get there you have to…

  1. Leave the terminal.
  2. Drive around the airport.
  3. Enter through departures (huh? Why would someone dropping off need a waiting area?).
  4. Go out the other side.
  5. Drive half a mile through poorly marked and confusing roads to the waiting area.

The waiting area is for just that – waiting. No restrooms, no arrival annunciators, no nuthin’. And I hope you have a phone, and the battery is not flat. To get back, you have to head back towards the airport, and drive all the way round again (wha..?) before entering arrivals once again.

Whatever happened to the Skywalk?
Some years ago, when the parking garage was being built, there were plans to construct a “Skywalk”; presumably a place from where plane-spotters and small boys could watch planes take off and land. Like all truly brilliant ideas, this one was apparently scrapped. For years, the main elevators had buttons for four levels – . Parking, Baggage, Ticketing, and “Skywalk”. What a shame – think of the fun I could have had with the words “Come with me, Skywalker”…

Just as Jeddah International Airport is built to handle the vast influx of pilgrims bound for Mecca every hear, LIA has to handle its own herd of the faithful on the annual Derby pilgrimage. Seems like a lot of fuss over two minutes of horse race, but every town needs something to celebrate, and that can’t be a bad thing.

And remember folks, “Security is at a high level