Sunday, August 28, 2005

Update on Airport Shoe Checks

I have been travelling quite a bit in the last week and came across the following incongruity: LAX appears to have stopped requiring passengers to take their shoes off to clear security. TSA staff in San Jose, on the other hand, still insist on it despite the friendly instructional video insisting that removal of shoes is only "recommended". So, yesterday, as I was flying out of San Jose, I decided to ask the staff why they needed to keep putting us through this hassle when LAX was not doing so. The answer I got: "Welcome to San Jose."

Of course, from a security standpoint, it is a dumb idea to have inconsistent rules in place. A "shoe attacker" could simply enter the airport system via the most lax checkpoint and is then free to roam wherever he wants via connections without ever having to go through security again.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Movie Review: Broken Flowers

Last weekend, I got around to watching Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, starring Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Julie Delpy and a host of others. The film is pretty much dominated by Bill Murray who pulls off yet another performance rooted in a combination of deep melancholy and amused disinterest, playing a semi-retired Don Juan(-ston) stirred into action revisiting his former girlfriends thanks to an anonymous letter that implies he has a nineteen-year-old son. Jeffrey Wright plays Murray's amateur-detective neighbor who goads him into action to investigate the source of the letter. Everybody else makes little more than a cameo appearance while Murray drives around from place to place checking on his former girlfriends' choice of stationery and their color preferences.

The movie is rather funny in its own off-beat way and may even be Jim Jarmusch's most accessible film to date. I wasn't particularly happy with the ending which seemed more ambiguous than it had any reason to be. Overall, I would certainly recommend it as an interesting movie worth watching although I'd rate it a notch below Jarmusch's superior Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Islamic Law in Iraq?

The irony is simply overwhelming. The U.S. invades a bastion of secularism in the Middle East and successfully enables an Islamic constitution in its "global struggle against Muslim fundamentalism".

Twenty 20

The latest cricketing rage Twenty20 -- a three-hour version of the game in which each side plays out just 20 overs -- is making its debut in India this week. In this article on Yahoo India, a correspondent quizzes a sixteen-year-old spectator on what he found attractive about the game. He says, "It's like buy one (ticket) and take two free! In other words, we get to see two more matches for a single ticket of Rs.50 on the same day."

I don't know whether this is an example of the general Indian attitude or just a case of bad reporting of non-mainstream opinion, but I thought the whole idea of Twenty20 was to create a game short enough to attract spectator interest, not to squeeze multiple games into a day!

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Infatuation with the Neighborhood Store

Since time immemorial, the Mom & Pop neighborhood store has been venerated as symbolic of all that's good, with the big bad chain-store retailers painted as the villains. (The most recent, and weird, example is I Heart Huckabees.) To a certain degree, the logic is understandable: people may dislike the impersonal nature of large stores, and everyone likes rooting for the underdog anyway.

It'd be perfectly reasonable for people to put their money where their mouth is and let supply and demand do the rest: if enough people wanted to shop at a neighborhood store, it would continue to survive and hold off the evil megastores. However, people often take this argument to the next level, advocating the weighting of the scales towards the neighborhood store. (Think politicians or activists crying out shrilly about local businesses being destroyed.) It is far less clear to me that there is an economic or social justification for this (unless there is a danger of monopolization and a destruction of choice). After all, we do want society to evolve to a more efficient state.

What is even worse is when people start arguing for what they consider a utopian world where online shopping becomes deprecated in favor of the local store. Personally, I prefer shopping online because I find it a more attractive and convenient proposition. If someone doesn't feel that way, they have the option of not shopping online. Arguing that a measure is good because it discriminates against online shopping is a rather unreasonable stance to take.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Hypocrisy and Political Correctness

Followers of Giants baseball might have heard about the recent controversy stirred up by KNBR talk-show host Larry Krueger's intemperate remarks criticizing San Francisco's "brain-dead Caribbean hitters hacking at slop nightly". The remarks understandably touched off a storm with Felipe Alou, the Giants' manager of Caribbean origin, going so far as to condemn Krueger as "the messenger of Satan" and refusing to accept Krueger's apology.

Krueger originally received a one week suspension from KNBR, but now comes news that the radio station has now decided to fire him. The action was apparently precipitated by a morning program that parodied Alou's Satan remark -- two other people associated with the program were fired as well -- although Krueger himself had nothing to do with it.

I'd have no issues with the firings had they been motivated by KNBR's ethical stance, but politics appears to have played a much larger part than principle in the whole story. As early as Sunday, Ray Ratto pointed out that KNBR did not find Krueger's remarks particularly bothersome and suggested the likelihood of a power struggle breaking out between the Giants and KNBR. That seems to be exactly what has transpired.

Where does KNBR get off with its holier-than-thou attitude when it was perfectly content to defend Krueger just a week earlier? (Quote from SVP Tony Salvadore: "Larry's been a terrific employee here for eight-plus years. This is a severe financial penalty and a blow to his professionalism. If this had been a repeat offence, it would be different.") Now they want to make the public swallow the idea that the suspension was to help them "weigh[..] the gravity of his offense"?

Monday, August 08, 2005

Eliminating (?) Discrimination in News Coverage

From the IMDB today:
NBC News President Neal Shapiro on Friday appeared to agree with minority activists who have accused the news media of focusing their attention on missing white, attractive women while ignoring missing black, attractive women. Appearing on NBC's Dateline, Shapiro, who is rumored to be leaving the network, remarked, "Our mission is to try to cover America. And that means all facets of America. And when our coverage doesn't reflect that, it distresses me. That said, I think it's important that people in the industry talk about it. I think the fact that I'm talking about it, I think the fact that Dateline NBC is devoting airtime to it, means we take it seriously. And we have to do better." Shapiro's remarks came as Fox News personality Greta Van Susteren returned to Aruba for additional coverage of her ratings-grabbing investigation of missing teenager Natalee Holloway. She told the Associated Press: "I obviously don't program for the people in the newsroom or my friends or the people I went to law school with. I program for the viewers." Asked about Dateline's report, Van Susteren commented: "I wish we did more on missing minorities. But I'm not going to be bothered by the critics."

Anyone else notice something funny about the first sentence?

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Cricket Updates

  1. England managed to squeak by Australia in the second Ashes test, thanks to a dubious caught-behind decision that ended the match with Australia two runs short of the target. While England strove hard to be credited with the biggest collapse in Ashes history, the tendency of the Australian batsmen to commit hara-kiri eventually proved to be too much. With Glenn McGrath in doubt for the third test, and the once-overpraised Matthew Hayden revealing his feet of clay, England ought to fancy their chances of giving Australia a run for their money.
  2. India squeezed by West Indies in an elimination match at yet another no-name triangular one-day tournament in Sri Lanka. I happened to follow the match live on Cricinfo towards the end and remain completely puzzled by Rahul Dravid's captaincy, which is usually impeccable. What was he thinking bowling the expensive Ashish Nehra in the death when he could have turned to his strike bowler, Irfan Pathan, who appeared to be bowling brilliantly (at least as far as I could make out from the text commentary)? Was he trying to boost Nehra's confidence by showing some trust in him, or was Pathan injured? Anyone have any ideas?

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Return of the Thin Client

(Via Zoo Station) It looks like a number of start-ups in India are looking at building a sub-$100 PC, targeted at making a computer accessible to the masses. Prominent among these is Novatium, a thin client running Linux, built on a DSP with flash memory substituting for DRAM, and with no hard drive. The idea is that the client will, for the most part, act as a dumb terminal with all the heavy lifting being done at back-end servers. The target price is about $100 -- if you can lay your hands on a used monitor for about $25.

While I must admit that the idea does have some potential deployment advantages -- ease of maintenance and potentially cheaper software being the most prominent among them -- I can't help thinking that the whole project is rather misguided and doomed to fail. After all, $225 will buy you a full-fledged PC in India today -- complete with a 1GHz Via processor, 40GB hard disk, a CD-ROM drive and a decent new monitor!

If the aim is to take computing to villages, wouldn't we be much better off setting up cheap community PCs time-shared across the populace, instead of getting everyone a thin client? It's not like anybody require a machine to themselves all the time, especially if the primary intent is to provide people access to information on the internet. Not to mention the fact that even thin clients requires fancy infrastructure -- both a back-end and networking -- and we all know how hard it is to get any kind of infrastructure working reliably in India. True, it may be far trickier to divide the cost of community PCs across the populace than to simply sell thin clients to each interested family, but I wouldn't think the problem is insurmountable given the cost savings that ought to result from time sharing, not to mention the savings from using commodity software on commodity hardware, instead of having to rely on some complicated, specialized Linux kernel running on a DSP.

If, on the other hand, the goal of thin clients was to target cottage industries that couldn't afford a PC, I'd think it's a non-starter. Who wants their business data to be stored on a shared computer for any hacker (or the government) to get hold of?

Perhaps the aim is to sell a full client-server solution to small businesses as an alternative to using PCs. But something tells me we've been down that path before. Isn't this the same as Sun's thin-client disaster?

What Google Maps really needs!

A list of features I wish Google Maps would implement:
  1. Driving directions that actually make sense.
  2. Time estimates that are within a factor 1.5 of realistic.
  3. Allow me to set start and end points for driving directions by clicking on the map.