Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Is Four One Leg Too Many?

Roger Ebert, in his review of War of the Worlds today, complains about the aliens' use of a three-legged contraption:
And, for that matter, why balance these towering machines on ill-designed supports? If evolution has taught us anything, it is that limbs of living things, from men to dinosaurs to spiders to centipedes, tend to come in numbers divisible by four. Three legs are inherently not stable, as Ray demonstrates when he damages one leg of a giant tripod, and it falls helplessly to the ground.
I think I'll have to take issue with the above argument. Three legs, I think, are a better idea than four when it comes to building a stable structure, which is why chemists and cameramen both use tripods. The reason is pretty simple: three points always form a plane, which means the three tips of a tripod are guaranteed to sit stably on the ground. On the other hand, with four legs, you need them all to be exactly the same length to achieve stability on all surfaces. True, a tripod will collapse if one of its legs is hacked out from underneath but, in all likelihood, four legs won't help that much more.

Having said that, I started wondering about why so few animals are three-legged. I could conjecture two alternative explanations:
  1. Quadrangular body shapes are more desirable than triangular shapes, leading naturally to four-legged animals in preference to tripeds.
  2. When walking, animals would like to pull up a foot and still balance on the remaining three. Being a triped would complicate the situation somewhat.
Does anyone have better guesses?

Monday, June 27, 2005

Grokking the Grokster Ruling

(via Freedom To Tinker) SCOTUSblog has an interesting and insightful discussion of the Supreme Court ruling on Grokster. I can't really comment on the legal wisdom or foundation of the court's arguments, but it is about as good as we could have hoped for from a policy standpoint.

It was clear that a balance had to be struck between the rights of the copyright holders (MGM) and the freedom for technological innovation. The worst that could have happened would have been for (a) the Supremes to rule in favor of Grokster, which would have set Congress off to draft a crazy piece of over-broad legislation that doomed technology; or (b) to have a ruling against the Grokster technology declaring it to be direct contributory infringement.

The court carefully sidestepped option (b), and focused on Grokster's business side in suggesting that there was enough evidence of inducement to warrant a trial. Some of those arguments don't really make sense as Ed Felten points out, but the ruling does have the effect of both staving off legislative action and clarifying the legality of the underlying technology.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Open the pod bay doors, blogger!

Blogger has gone psycho on me, modifying the HTML in my posts in an insidious way that screws up its presentation. The worst part is that I have no control at all over the changes it's been making to my posts. So, if you see a large gap between the end of the first post and the beginning of its footer, you know whom to blame.

(For the curious among you, there is this nasty property clear:both that can be set to flush a division below any previous floats described in the HTML. For some reason, blogger has decided to insert this stuff at the end of each post. Trouble is, the set of links on the left side of the page is a float, causing the footer of my post to get flushed below the end of this float. And I don't know a non-float-based solution for creating two columns, if I wanted a fixed-pixel-width left column and a right column that takes up all that's left of the screen real estate no matter the screen resolution.)

UPDATE 6/27/05 12:00pm: I've now figured out a workaround to restore order and sidestep evil Blogger. I've discovered the joys of absolute positioning, with a little z-ordering and margin trick to make sure the left column can display on top of the main post column. Interested souls can look at the HTML source of this page.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

How to lose credibility in scientific discourse

Dan Burton, Representative from Indiana, is a champion of the alleged link between thimerosal -- a mercury-based preservative used in vaccines -- and autism in children. His first mistake was to call a series of hearings to test a theory that had zero scientific backing and has, in fact, been flatly contradicted by pretty much every reputable scientific institution. I'll let the New York Times describe his second mistake without a trace of irony:
In a series of House hearings held from 2000 through 2004, Mr. Burton called the leading experts who assert that vaccines cause autism to testify. They included a chemistry professor at the University of Kentucky who says that dental fillings cause or exacerbate autism and other diseases and a doctor from Baton Rouge, La., who says that God spoke to her through an 87-year-old priest and told her that vaccines caused autism.
For more on the whole autism story, see here.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Has Katie been brainwashed?

Back in the tabloid world, Fox News is reporting on the mystery surrounding Katie Holmes' sudden romance with Tom Cruise. To me, the facts hint at the possibility of Holmes being brainwashed while held captive at the headquarters of the Church of Scientology. And the kicker: I am half-inclined to believe that theory.

Perhaps the Cruise-Holmes romance can serve as the basis of the next Batman movie. Exhausted from working long shifts to torture the meek inhabitants of Gotham City with their lousy acting, evil super-villian Cruise and up-and-coming villianess Holmes decide to get hitched in a diabolic plot to unleash their progeny on the unsuspecting masses and take over the world. Can the Dark Knight break them up in time?

Pentagon Humor

(Via Slashdot) Yet another story in the Government's fascination with databases. Maybe they should just outsource the work to the Direct Marketing Association and save themselves the headache.
"The Washington Post is reporting that the Pentagon is working with a marketing firm to create a database of students ages 16 through college to help them identify recruits. A little chuckle from the Pentagon in the article: '...anyone can opt out of the system by providing detailed personal information that will be kept in a separate suppression file. That file will be matched with the full database regularly to ensure that those who do not wish to be contacted are not, according to the Pentagon.'"

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

What's the deal with Web ads?

Today, for the first time ever, I let the New York Times play back an entire ad to me without trying to skip it to get to the article I was trying to read. I was struck by the fact that the ad played out for at least 8 seconds before I was led to my destination page. Does anyone seriously think that a web user would sit around staring at an ad for that long? Or am I just uncommonly impatient?

The Final Nail in the Coffin

The NY Times reports on on the murder trial of former Ku Klux Klan member Edgar Ray Killen, accused of masterminding the killing of 3 voter-registration workers working for civil rights in 1964. He escaped conviction on a 11-1 jury split back then when one juror refused to convict a preacher. Ironically, what could seal his fate this time is the last witness called by the defense. From the Times:
The final witness for the defense was a former mayor of the rural town of Philadelphia, Harlan Majure, who testified before a packed courtroom today that the Ku Klux Klan was a "peaceful organization that "did a lot of good up here."
Update 10:40PM: Killen has now been convicted. Edited to clear up the facts on the victims.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Formula One Fiasco

The Formula One U.S. Grand Prix race in Indy was thrown into chaos today with seven of the ten teams -- all running Michelin tyres -- deciding to withdraw due to safety concerns about the tyres. It turned out that the Michelins were ill-equipped to deal with a banked turn on the speedway, and a couple of cars experienced blow-outs in practice sessions. While Michelin had a different tyre compound that would've solved the problem, F-1 regulations prohibited teams from switching compounds during the race weekend.

The seven Michelin teams then demanded that either (a) the regulations be removed and the teams be permitted to switch to different tyres, or (b) a chicane be installed on the banked turn to lower speeds and make the circuit safe again. When the FIA rejected both these options, the teams chose to withdraw and released this statement explaining why they had no other option.

The statement conveniently and hypocritically ignores one perfectly viable option that they had, which was even pointed out to them by the FIA: they could just have instructed their drivers to slow down on the banked turn! The chicane wasn't needed to slow down their drivers and make the circuit safer. It was only needed to slow down their competitors racing on Bridgestone tyres. All in all, it was a disastrous weekend for F-1 and its future in the United States remains in peril.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Wacky Idea of the Week: The Cordless PC

As I have been looking around to upgrade my home computing infrastructure, I've come to the conclusion that nothing out in the marketplace today satisfies my needs. The raw computing power and functionality I can get out of a desktop PC is really good but there's no way in the world I can live without internet access right next to me. After all, how am I going to be able to Google something that pops into my head when watching TV, or check e-mail every 5 minutes, if I have to walk all the way across to my desktop?

Laptops are very good in terms of portability (my laptop habitually sits on the coffee table in my living room) but what about all my functionality then? I don't really want to lug around a big fat machine with a DVD writer, a giant hard disk and the works. Moreover, a high-end laptop is likely to set me back by far more than I'm willing to spend.

I've decided the right solution is actually a combination of the above two: a heavyweight desktop "server" combined with a "thin client" laptop. (Drawing an analogy with telephones, I've chosen to call it the cordless PC.) The desktop piece will simply be a regular, powerful CPU with all the accessories, which can be stashed away in a corner of my bedroom. The thin client is a laptop-like device but with only an LCD screen, a keyboard, trackpoint, battery and a wireless card/chip. No processors or hard disks. (Well, we'll throw in a graphics processor to drive the display.) We also add a "charging" station to the desktop where the thin client is occasionally recharged.

All the processing happens back at the desktop with the wireless card transmitting all keyboard and mouse events across, and getting the screen data back in return. Such a solution comes with many advantages:
  • I get all the fancy functionality I want (CPU power, big hard disk, DVD and CD burners) without having to lug all of that around in a heavy laptop.
  • I get an extremely lightweight laptop that is super quiet (no fans or mechanical parts) and doesn't generate any heat.
  • I get great battery life (again, no processor or hard disk) assuming that the wireless transmissions can be optimized well enough with the right graphics primitives.
  • It shouldn't be that much more expensive than a regular desktop. I should be able to get one of those thin clients for under $200, a premium I'm perfectly happy to pay.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Steve Jobs Commencement Address

In keeping with my habit of reporting on old news, here's a transcript of Steve Jobs's address at Stanford's Commencement ceremony on Sunday. No references to the Intel switch and only one potshot at Microsoft, but it was an inspirational talk anyway.

(Funny story behind the link. I'd, of course, listened to the talk live but had no idea that it was up on the web, until Dave Patterson pointed it out on a mailing list at Berkeley, from where it got forwarded to me via Karthik.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

A Letter to the Public Editor, New York Times

Dear Public Editor,

As I was reading the New York Times today, I found the rather captivating headline "Studies Rebut Earlier Report on Pledges of Virginity" and was enticed into reading the associated article. Imagine my bemusement then, when I discover that the so-called "studies" were (a) undertaken by that conservative bastion of independence The Heritage Foundation with an obvious conflict of interest, (b) were not peer-reviewed by any members of the academic community, (c) flatly contradicted results published in a reputable journal, and (d) indulged in laughable calumny against the authors of the earlier study.

I suppose even The New York Times cannot always resist the tabloid urge to go after sensational headlines -- never mind the credibility of the facts -- but what I found mindblowing was that the article failed to provide even the slightest background on the funding source for the "research", The Heritage Foundation. Perhaps The Times expects its readers to have read the previous day's editorial "Next Generation of Conservatives (By the Dormful)" that supplied the aforementioned background?

Sincerely,
Prasanna Ganesan.

Full Metal Jacket blooper, etc.

As I was catching a rerun of Full Metal Jacket today, I observed one sign betraying(?) the fact that the Parris Island Marine boot camp scenes were actually shot in London: the toilets all had black seats on them, something I've never encountered in the US.

The film itself is perhaps Kubrick's most complex creation, with a strange formal structure that relates in surprising ways to the actual thematic content of the story. Bill Krohn's article, archived at The Kubrick Site, probably sheds the most light on Kubrick's intentions with regard to structure. Contentwise, what distinguishes Full Metal Jacket from other, inferior Vietnam films is its studied neutrality and refusal to manipulate emotions, forcing the audience to make up its own mind on each of the characters.

I've always had difficulty fully comprehending the depth of information that the movie attempts to convey and, to date, I haven't quite figured out what the ending really means. The film is about the Jungian conflict between the individual and the collective unconscious, but who triumphs at the end? (See Michael Herr's essay and this newsgroup discussion.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Graduation for Dummies

How to Graduate from Stanford with a Ph.D.:
  1. Join Stanford.
  2. Write a thesis and defend it. Or vice versa.
  3. Get reading committee to sign it.
  4. Spend last day at the movies, utilizing student discount for the final time. (BTW, Mr. and Mrs. Smith was a surprisingly enjoyable Hollywood blockbuster.)
  5. Wake up early in the am to show up at commencement in ceremonial attire.
  6. If feeling bold, abandon ceremonial attire. (Wasn't feeling bold.)
  7. If even bolder, nearly all attire. (Or bolder.)
  8. Tuck into refreshments offered by non-CS depts. on the way to CS ceremony. (I wish I had.)
  9. Wait to be called up, while acting as a blackbody seated in direct sunlight. (Sunscreen is a good idea.)
  10. Wear sunglasses when picking up degree, enhancing coolness factor.
  11. Freeze-frame the moment.
  12. Pity lack of foresight of hungry mates staring in disbelief at the food lines.
  13. Celebrate, but don't lose the degree in a barfight.

Monday, June 13, 2005

RFID Tags and Privacy

Ted Koppel, in his NY Times op-ed today, writes about the threats to personal privacy from various technologies of convenience. One of his major concerns is the liberal use of RFID tags for various applications -- tags on cars to collect tolls, passport tags for remote reading and tags on pets to track them down when lost.

While some of his concerns are well-founded, I find that the threat of others is exaggerated. Personally, I see no reason to worry that much about RFID tags on cars that help track toll-bridge crossings. True, the toll collectors could find out which car was where when by looking at the logs, but it's not like all that is fundamentally private information otherwise. For example, I make liberal use of my credit card, thus allowing my bank to know exactly where I was when spending all that money throughout the month. That doesn't make me start buying things with cash instead. Moreover, I could always purchase "pre-paid" RFID tags anonymously by paying cash and use such a tag in my car. So, the tracker cannot link the tag ID to my name (although he could correlate multiple trips of mine).

On the other hand, RFID in passports seems like a bad idea. The only possible advantage of RFID over barcodes is that RFID doesn't require physical contact to be read. But there is probably no added convenience since people will still want to physically see my passport and verify that the photo on it looks like me. Worse still, there is a security headache of how to prevent snoopers from reading my RFID passport remotely. There is talk about how to cripple the set-up so that the passport is only readable at very short distances (see Ed Felten's old post here). But all this smacks of a NASA solution to a simple problem, as they might say in Primer. (The story goes that NASA did considerable R&D to develop a pen that could write in zero gravity. The Russians simply used a pencil.)

Saturday, June 11, 2005

A Primer on Primer

I organized a screening of Primer (Winner, 2004 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance) at our little Movie Club this week. The movie is prime fodder for all the geeks of the world with its exciting, relatively rigorous and novel take on time travel as well as its realistic portrayal of technological innovation. It also carries the honor of being the only film that has required me to draw on a whiteboard to explain its story.

Perhaps as intriguing as the movie itself is the story of how it was made by Shane Carruth, an engineer by trade, on a meager budget of $6500. The film effectively transforms its budgetary limitations into a stylistic advantage. Too expensive to shoot all the expository scenes? Skip them and make the narrative disjointed. Cameras and lighting too expensive? Use handhelds and go with a grainy look. Can't shoot multiple takes? We could just live with that first take, even if the actors do look a little confused. After all, time travel does confuse people, doesn't it? And the key to pulling it all off is the carefully crafted, special-effects-free sci-fi story that oozes just the right amount of disoriented confusion.

All of this is not to say that Primer is completely blemish-free, or even that it's a classic. But it is one of those rare movies that excite us by pushing the envelope of artistic possibility.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Google and the Prisoner's Dilemma, Redux

A while ago, I talked about how easy it was to walk in relatively late into Google's midnight show of Star Wars at AMC Theatres and still find good seats, although the show was sold out. I speculated that the explanation must lie in Googlers being smart enough to cooperate in a game of Prisoner's Dilemma. (See here for the details.) I have since received a number of questions requesting further investigation, as well as some interesting comments proposing alternative explanations.

Anand suggested that the explanation might lie in central coordination, with all the Googlers being told to get there at a certain time, or perhaps through a carpool. A very plausible explanation (I am ashamed I did not suggest it myself) but I have now verified that this wasn't what happened.

Sriram suggested it might have something to do with parking difficulty, but that only makes my case stronger. First of all, everyone should have equal difficulty parking, whether they are from Google or not. Second, when I got to the theater at 11:15, the lot was brimming with more cars than I'd ever seen there before, suggesting that all the non-Google screens were already filling up. Moreover, we have evidence that many people turned up as early as 9pm and filled up these screens as you can see from this photo-journal of Merrie Ringel Morris.

Finally, I contacted a Google insider -- whom I shall only refer to as Sore Throat -- and asked her for her theories. Here is [a slightly edited version of] what she had to say:
First, this is a group of people who knew each other, so it is possible that some of them came early and reserved seats for others. Second, the composition of Googlers who came to the midnight show is different from that of non-Googlers. Googlers had easy access to the tickets and hence needed less activation energy than a non-Googler who had to reserve tickets to come to the movie. So Googlers who came for the midnight show were probably, on average, less interested in the movie than a non-Googler who came for the midnight show, hence coming late.
Both explanations sound interesting and plausible, although I like mine better. :-)

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Two Rights make an....alliance?

Those of you who have been following Indian politics know the big hue-and-cry raised by the right-wing leader L.K. Advani's remarks in Pakistan praising Muhammad Ali Jinnah -- the prime mover behind the Indian partition and father of independent Pakistan -- as "secular". (An early story on his remarks can be found here.) It's possible that Advani was merely being diplomatic and didn't really believe what he said. It's also possible that Jinnah was really a secularist at heart and his fight for Pakistan was a political game in religious clothing.

But the most interesting theory is that, by calling Jinnah secular, Advani has redefined the word enough to call himself secular as well! If I tell you that the other extreme right is really a centrist philosophy, then I must be centrist as well. No? Curiously, Advani's party is, I think, being short-sighted in its vitriolic reaction to his remarks (mostly fueled by silly delusions of a "united India") instead of embracing them as the canny political move they are.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Tired of the same old sports cliches?

I've always held that all sports interviews should be combined with a game of Taboo to make life interesting. (The one exception would be to let Rasheed Wallace say "Both teams played hard.") But there are the occasional oddballs who make it worthwhile to hear them talk. First of all, I'm sure most people are familiar with Charles Barkley's musings but this fantastic site is a veritable treasure trove of the Chuckster's choice quotes that you can drown in for hours. (via the Bill Simmons intern)

The other thing is, y'all probably never heard of Christian Bimes, head of the French Tennis Federation, but you shoulda listened to his press conference at the French Open. From Jon Wertheim's column in SI:
In a de facto State of the Union address, Bimes -- how to put this?-- julienned few words. Assessing the play of the French players, he noted, "I would like to end by saying that we were disappointed by what Amelie Mauresmo did because, once again, she was not able to face the pressure." [...] Bimes also noted referee Stefan Fransson "is extraordinary because he's cold like a Nordic person, but he's friendly like a Frenchman or a Spanish man."

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Why a coupon is like a Doomsday machine...

I was buying posters at AllPosters.com yesterday when I got to the checkout page and noticed a field for coupons and promotion codes. So I immediately fired up a new tab and did a Google search for "allposters.com coupon". The first result was from a site called Cheap Stingy Bastard and told me that I merely had to type in "DADGRAD" to get 20% off on my entire order.

Now, there are many reasons a store offers coupons for its products. Often, the coupon is used to entice (a targeted set of) customers and get them to buy other stuff, to promote the sale of a particular product, or simply to build brand value for the store. But in all cases, the objective is to attract customer sales by advertising the great deals on offer.

So, why does AllPosters.com hide its coupon away instead of promoting the 20% off special on its home page? I suppose they could hope that regular visitors to their site would be happy to pay full price while the smart bargain hunters (or some limited market of targeted consumers) would be enticed by the coupons. But that strategy backfires spectacularly in the internet era where it takes only seconds to find the coupon once I've decided to make the buy. So, you might as well offer the discount prominently and tempt people to shop on the site!

As Dr. Strangelove might say, "A coupon is like a Doomsday machine. The whole point of it is lost if you decide to keep it a secret." The same law holds even more strongly for rebates, but that's a whole another story.

Gore: From Bore to Man du Jour

(From the NY Times) Al Gore won the Lifetime Achievement award at the Webbys yesterday, and was limited to five words for his acceptance speech, as were all the other award recipients. So what did he say? "Please don't recount this vote."

An Intent to Cause Fear of Violence

From the Strange-But-True Department at IMDB:
Two men have been charged with stealing copies of the next Harry Potter novel by police in Northamptonshire, England. Arun Lambert, 19, and a 37-year-old man appeared in court yesterday to respond to Friday's charges over theft and firearm offences. Author JK Rowling was granted a High Court injunction last week to stop the two men leaking details of Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince ahead of its official July release. Lambert is accused of theft and possession of an imitation firearm with intent to cause fear of violence, while his accomplice has been charged with possession of an offensive weapon and handling a stolen book. The men, from Kettering, Northamptonshire, are free on bail.
Isn't it enough to simply charge the guy with theft rather than "posssession of an imitation firearm with intent to cause fear of violence"? I understand why "threatening to shoot with an imitation firearm" might be considered a crime -- you could probably induce a heart attack that way -- but an "intent to cause fear of violence" is two steps removed from violence itself. The phrase also brings to mind the educational video in "A Clockwork Orange" -- that had an intent to cause fear of violence as well.

Monday, June 06, 2005

On the dangers of in-flight communication

There has recently been a big discussion around the FCC's plans to allow cell-phone use on flights. The FBI, DoJ and DHS think there is a security threat with phone use, since terrorists could potentially coordinate action with them. See here and here for a good analysis (from Educated Guesswork) debunking that theory.

But at the same time, no one seems too concerned about internet access on the planes which, if anything, should be even more dangerous, since the FBI can't snoop on encrypted IP packets like they can with voice calls. The NY Times reports today on United's plans (registration reqd.) to roll out Wi-Fi. And nary a peep on "security" issues.

Traffic Shaping, Literally

(Via Ananthan) The BBC is reporting on an ambitious British government plan to track all vehicles via a black box, and charge them for road usage based on when and how long they drive. Rush-hour travel on congested roads would be charged premium prices while rides on barely used country roads would come really cheap. While the charging of differential prices to shape traffic is a pretty common idea (think telephone networks), it seems a little strange -- to say the least -- to apply it to the government's road network.

First of all, this vehicle toll is supposed to replace the fuel tax, which had been a major driver in encouraging the use of fuel-efficient cars. (The fuel tax effectively internalized the social cost of pollution.) Second, it is not clear to me that the economic goals of road networks are the same as that of private telephone nets. Telcos aim to maximize profit and would therefore like to charge a premium for daytime minutes, which are in much greater demand than night minutes.

Governments, on the other hand, aren't laying roads for profit. If the aim of the tax is to generate revenue for road maintenance, it makes little sense to charge by congestion. In fact, you could argue that the cost of maintenance is amortized by the number of vehicles that use it -- therefore, the more congested a road is, the less people ought to pay. (This is assuming road quality declines as a linear function of usage and monotonically with time; while more use does make the road worse, seasonal rains also have a big impact, due to which the road maintenance cost still declines with congestion.)

Which leads us to the theory/fact that the tax is aimed simply at reducing congestion. While this purpose would probably be served, I wonder why it's important to reduce congestion. Those people who don't like congestion should simply stop driving! (I'm assuming they know beforehand how nasty it's going to be on the road.) All the tax does is to give preferential access to the rich instead of to those bravest in defying traffic.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Sideways with Alexander Payne

I finally got around to watching Sideways, thanks to a special Stanford screening with director and Stanford alumnus Alexander Payne in attendance. The movie itself was generally fun in its own harmless way although I agreed with Jonathan Rosenbaum that it was hardly the brilliant film it was often made out to be, my primary complaint being the intensely stereotypical and one-dimensional characterization.

Although Alexander Payne is not one of my favorite directors (I wasn't a fan of his earlier "About Schmidt" either), I came away impressed by the keen wit and overall articulateness that he demonstrated in the ensuing Q&A session. For example, when quizzed about his use of "The Grapes of Wrath" in a motel scene in the movie, he confessed that the main driver was that Fox owned the rights to "Grapes of Wrath" and he liked "the cheap symbolism". His unpretentiousness was extremely refreshing and a welcome break from the annoying, pseudo-sophisticated blathering that one is used to from the prototypical Hollywood filmmaker.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Why can't I turn off my computer?

It has always bugged me that it takes nearly a minute for my PC to shut down. Why can't I simply power the machine off like I would with any other appliance in the home? On Windows, the main culprit I've found is that the OS decides it needs to save a bunch of user settings and flush all kinds of things to the file system only when I actually decide to shut down the machine. My question: why on earth isn't all that stuff already flushed to disk, given that my PC is completely idle most of the time and was, in fact, doing nothing at all for five full minutes before I decided to shut it down!? This practically cries out for smart, adaptive programs that can exploit system load information.

The second reason I've found for slow shutdowns is that the OS sends an explicit kill signal to all the processes, giving them a chance to perform a graceful shutdown. But in this modern era of complex, P2P applications running on unreliable networks, it should be possible to write most of these processes in a way that they can often be terminated with no adverse consequences (especially given that they should not be very write-intensive).

For example, the only time I need my browser to die gracefully is if it is saving some file to disk for me. But, most of the time, it is simply downloading something off the web, loading data in memory or storing it in temp space; I should be able to happily kill the browser during these times. Perhaps it would help if we partitioned our storage into two: a regular file system where consistency checks are performed, and a scratch space where temporary files are written and consistency checks can be skipped. Can anyone with more expertise comment?