central planning: better for technical standards than for economies

Ryan responds to my last post. I appreciate the thoughtful attention, but I can’t say that I agree with much of his post.

I understand what Tom’s saying, but I think he’s missing some key points. He wants to judge a technology in a “pure” world, outside the presence of the market conditions in which it will be sold and used, but you can’t do that. The utility of a technology is inextricably connected to the market conditions in which it will be sold and used. A Beta videotape might clearly be superior on most quality variables, but if a VHS tape is long enough to hold a full-length movie and Beta isn’t, well that’s important. Saying that length shouldn’t be as important as other variables is pointless; the market didn’t just want “Quality,” it wanted a certain quality.

I was careful not to mention Beta/VHS before because Ryan’s exactly right: length vs. quality is reasonable decision to have to make, and one that the market is better positioned to make than I am.

But his larger point is wrong. Yes, the utility of a technology can only be judged in relation to the world at large — more precisely, the world as it currently exists. But a technology absolutely can be judged apart from that, in its own timeless, rarified world. Every engineering discipline develops principles and design patterns by which work can be judged. Technical elegance is a real thing, and it really matters. Something designed well will be reusable, will be extensible, will be, as we sometimes say, “futureproof”.

And the difference between a good and a bad design does not always come with tradeoffs. The components in a DAT cassette deck and a high-end analog cassette deck are pretty similar. DAT has been much less commercially successful. But it is the superior technology. There’s just no getting around that. In that case the cost of finding the better solution was time; in other cases it’s as simple as giving a damn.

>The fact is that in many cases it would be better if those factors were weighted differently.


Emphasis mine. To this, economists will say, “Says who?” But the broader point is this. Tom believes that he can look at a technology and say it’s better or worse than another technology. Economists say he can’t, because Tom doesn’t actually know what the great mass of consumers wants.

I’ll bite: why do I feel so confident saying it would be better if the weighting were different? Well, consider the reason why MS-DOS was successful: it was selected for inclusion on IBM’s soon-to-be-blockbuster line of microcomputers. There were a number of similar technologies at the time, and it was up to IBM to choose one. Why MS-DOS? Well, depending on which version of the story you subscribe to, it was because Bill Gates’ main competitor was late to a meeting, or his wife wouldn’t sign an NDA, or, ironically, because the competing system was too successful in the marketplace and its owner — not realizing how valuable or market-changing the IBM deal would be — didn’t want to sign over his business for what IBM was offering.

This all made perfect sense at the time. But now, decades later, what has the result been? It would be wrong to assign all of Microsoft’s sins to MS-DOS, but the fact remains that the system was unequivocally technically inferior to other operating systems of the day, as judged by those aforementioned engineering principles. And those principles won out, as they almost always do: limitations of MS-DOS that may not have been immediately apparent became evident as technology advanced, and countless amounts of money and effort had to be expended to come up with workarounds, fixes and kludges. In a word: externalities!

How much did that all cost? I have no idea, but it clearly dwarfs the amounts that were being weighed and judged against one another during the IBM-CP/M-MSDOS deal. There’s every reason to believe that, had a superficially similar but fundamentally superior technology to MS-DOS been selected, we would all be better off.

Now of course I can’t say that definitively. Maybe the productivity gains of an all-Unix world would have been so great that we’d have accidentally opened an interdimensional portal to Dinosaur World by now and all been devoured. Or something. But I can say that the selection of an engineered product carries costs that may not be apparent for years — costs that non-experts are in no position to estimate until they occur. And even experts can generally only say “this was built well” or “this was built poorly”. But in many cases that’s enough, and it would save us all a lot of money if we listened to those pronouncements more carefully.

Oh, and one more thing: it’s probably worth noting that one of the greatest technical (and economic) triumphs in recent memory — TCP/IP and the suite of other protocols and standards that powers the internet — was designed by having a bunch of really smart engineers get together, execute an RFC process and then issue an ISO standard more or less by fiat. This is not to say that markets can’t help us arrive at good solutions — cable vs. DSL vs. FiOS is a good example of such a market working (or would be if the regulatory picture weren’t so complicated). But it ought to be acknowledged that markets are not always an optimal tool for making technical decisions. In fact there are now pseudo-centralized organizations that take responsibility for many of the technical standards that power our world, and nearly all engineers agree that we’re vastly better off for it.

UPDATE: Tim, who knows considerably more about this than I do, corrects my history and explains that TCP/IP did triumph through competition with other protocols. Fair enough! But I think the point stands: even when there is a “competition” stage in drafting a net technology spec — and this is an important function of the RFC process, so there ought to be — it’s still true that the selection of the winning ideas/specs is largely isolated from the consumer economy, and with good reason. In cases where the consumer economy inserts itself in the process — e.g. when Microsoft uses its marketshare to undercut the W3C — most people agree that the end result is detrimental. Openness and the winnowing of ideas is important, but when the decisions involve infrastructure the process needs to be restricted to those with some expertise.

resignation is not a technical opinion

It was very nice of Megan to link to me yesterday (even if the commenters that came along with it proved to be huge pains in the ass). So I hope I won’t seem ungrateful if I take issue with this post about Blu-Ray’s eventual triumph over HD-DVD.

Megan’s right that I and a lot of my fellow nerds aren’t very happy about this outcome, but she’s wrong to say that “[e]very time there’s a format war, the losers complain that the inferior product won through nefarious methods.” I’m not sure that’s a fair characterization. In this case I can admit that Blu-Ray is the technically superior standard. Many technologists didn’t like it because it seemed a bit more DRM-laden, because it didn’t seem worth the price premium, and because Sony has behaved very badly with respect to proprietary media formats in the past (Redbook/CD excepted, but of course that was a joint venture with Philips). I should say that I don’t really have a dog in this fight — I don’t own a drive from either camp, and tend to think that we’ll only get halfway through this generation of tech before network delivery of video consigns Blu-Ray to a CD-like role (except less useful due to the aforementioned DRM). But that doesn’t mean I’m happy with the way things turned out for HD-DVD.

It’s not so much that I think there were dirty tricks involved (although there may have been). It’s just that it’s frustratingly obvious that the factors determining a technology’s success frequently have little to do with its capabilities, price, performance or other innate attributes. Rather, they’re the result of quirks of the business environment into which the technology is born.

The Reason article that Megan links to irks me much more than her own post, as it consistently fails to understand this. “MS-DOS wasn’t an inferior technology that succeeded because of the market landscape and consumers’ path dependence,” it says (more or less). “It’s just that the licensing environment surrounding IBM PC clones made them cheap, and once consumers started using DOS the costs involved in switching made doing so impractical. So you see, it was the superior technology after all.”

The article does this again and again, most egregiously in the case of Dvorak vs. QWERTY*, where the author desperately tries to establish that actually in all cases the market selects for the optimum technology, always and in perpetuity throughout the universe. I know, I know — if you’re a home-row typist you’re probably laughing so hard right now that your pinky fell right off the semicolon key. But the argument proceeds anyway, tirelessly pointing out that geek-favored technologies have some downsides, maligned market winners have some upsides, and the way the path-dependent public ultimately chose is proof that the winning tech trumps the former on the merits.

Well, if you define “the merits” as “the sum of all factors facing the public” then yes, that’s true. But this amounts to merely asserting that we live in an at least semi-rational universe, which isn’t a very useful or original conclusion. The fact is that in many cases it would be better if those factors were weighted differently. As things stand, they’re generally configured to serve the interests of the businessmen at the beginning of the process more than the consumers at the end of it, and that’s a shame.

I suppose I shouldn’t get too upset; this is just a variant on the Libertarian tendency to perpetually declare ours the best of all possible worlds (except for the parts they don’t like). But it’s still frustrating to read stuff like that Reason article. You just know that the author doesn’t use a command line.

* Special bonus sophistry: pointing out methodological errors in pro-Dvorak studies, then buttressing the point with pro-QWERTY studies… full of methodological errors. Unless you really think it’s fair to compare the marginal benefit of training to a group of experienced QWERTY typists and newly-trained Dvorak typists.

it’s actually 70 love songs, but one of them is about gum

Charles just sent me this link which contains the following commercial, over which he and I have been scratching our heads for the past week or so:

After watching it a few more times, I’m convinced: that’s Stephen fucking Merritt (dammit).

The fascinating thing about this ad is that it’s almost exactly as good as any Magnetic Fields song. And I don’t mean that as a compliment. Stephen Merritt gets a lot of disgustingly adulatory press. I think there are three reasons for this:

  • He always sounds bored, which is widely regarded as a sign of sophistication.
  • His love songs are about dudes, which is considered to be even more sophisticated.
  • He spends a lot of time talking about how smart he is, which for a variety of reasons is not something that a given music press interviewer is in a position to challenge.

But I don’t buy it. To me his songs have always seemed long on wit and short on genuine emotion, full of calculated revelations of self-loathing but devoid of actual vulnerability. They’re beautiful, cold constructions. They’re satirical poems from the Victorian Era, they’re the chess column in the paper hummed aloud, they’re New Yorker cartoons adapted for Broadway. They might as well be about gum.

tautologous, but highly patentable

From Derek Lowe’s blog:

The actual mechanism of the placebo effect is a field of great interest and potentially great importance.

That’s right: someday soon scientists may be working to develop a pill that can mimic the placebo effect.

Personally, I find this immensely cheering. I think I love this universe the most when it’s operating at maximum ridiculousness.

music

  • New Hold Steady coming soon! I guess Pitchfork had the news on Friday, but I just came across this live track today. Man. That sounds pretty promising, right?
  • That Once song from the oscars sure was purty, huh? Oscar version here; fuller HBO promo-music-style arrangement here.
  • The guys in Hot Chip really seem like a bunch of wieners (increasingly in a bad way).

to say nothing of the mummy threat

Sure, harvesting the organs of executed criminals sounds like pleasant and morally unproblematic work. But Matt is ignoring the lessons of John Carpenter Presents Body Bags, Treehouse of Horror IX, and, in a somewhat broader sense, Nightmare on Elm Street, Idle Hands, Jessica Alba’s upcoming movie The Eye and any number of other supernaturally-themed transplant films (some of them no doubt inspired by real events).

In general postmortem recidivism is a topic that’s too often left unacknowledged by the prison reform movement.

UPDATE: The Nabob reminds me of Body Parts, an argument for my thesis that I had inexplicably ignored. If the Q. wasn’t already E.D.-ed, surely it must now be considered so.

investment opportunity

From this page:

The Harlem Globetrotters are owned by Shamrock Capital Growth Fund.

Where are the forms to change my 401(k) allocation?!

nothing happened

Yup, still sick, although not as deliriously so as I was over the last four days — this is some bad stuff. Mostly I’ve been confined to lying on the couch feeling sorry for myself. But Saturday’s activities did also include an unexpected win at Scrabble and confirmation of Philadelphia’s banh mi supremacy — Emily and I checked out Song Que and Nhu Lan, and though the latter has definitely got something to offer in terms of mayo & bread, both offered insultingly small portions of jalapeno and cilantro. It was still pretty delicious, though. And it’s always good to be reminded of how stupid an idea bubble tea is.

I’m still producing much more snot than ideas, so for now I’ll just ask: anybody want to go to Dorkbot tomorrow night? Alberto Gaitan is presenting the second half of his talk on Remembrancer. It should be pretty interesting. Also on the docket: MIDI goodness and a chat about NASA’s newest Mercury probe by someone who helped write its software. Tomorrow, 7pm, GW, free.

sick again

God dammit. I was feeling good about my prospects this year. Yes, I spent two and a half weeks sick. But so did everyone else! I was just trying to fit in! Besides, that length of time isn’t that bad by my historical standards. Generally speaking I spend about every twelfth day of the year coughing or sneezing or otherwise being unpleasant to be around, and doing so in an extremely biological manner. I thought this year’s stats would be an improvement.

But this morning I woke up with a 101 degree fever. My eyes stung. My lungs felt like burlap covered with cat hair, and my spine felt like a tube of pantyhose crammed full of pointy garbage. I took a sick day and lord was it ever a good idea.

The afternoon’s been filled with cranberry juice and bad science fiction movies (when Henry Rollins and Dolph Lundgren are by far the best actors in a production you know you’re looking at a quality piece of cinema). Tomorrow? Well, we’ll see.

busted

Whoops! We got a DMCA notice at work today from our ISP, and I’m to blame. It was an accident, honest! I had (allegedly!) been downloading episode five of The Wire’s current season and neglected to shut off my Bittorrent app before leaving home. Apparently HBO took notice and didn’t take kindly to it.

First: I’m currently an HBO subscriber, so I’m feeling pretty karmically okay about all of this.

Second: I may have been downloading a bunch of other season 6 eps at the same time (I had a plane ride ahead of me and catching up to do!) but HBO apparently only noticed the torrent for episode 5 — a lousy torrent made from an HBO screener DVD, incidentally, with horribly clipping audio throughout. It wasn’t even the good stuff! It makes me wonder if they’re particularly sensitive to leaked screeners.

Third: although I’m being flip, this is still an embarrassing and stupid mistake. The last thing I want to do was expose the company to liability so that I can timeshift my preferred crime dramas. The odds of dire consequences arising from this particular incident seem to be fairly nonexistent, but it’s certainly something I want to avoid in the future. Having no faith in myself, I turn to technology.

OS X maintains an app called Kicker that does various things when network events occur — things like changing wifi access points. It also has an XML configuration file you can modify that’ll allow you to run your own scripts. Scripts like this one:

#!/bin/sh
#get the ssid of the network
ssid=`ioreg -l -n AirPortDriver | grep APCurrentSSID | sed 's/^.*= "\(.*\)".*$/\1/; s/ /_/g'`
#fill in your own values for ssid and location below
if [ $ssid = "YourWirelessNetwork" -o $ssid = "YourOtherWirelessNetwork" ]
then
`killall Transmission`
fi
exit 0

Transmission is the name of the app I use for Bittorrent. You’ll want to change that and the wifi network placeholders (capitalization matters!). Then you’ll want to save that file somewhere safe and `chmod +x whatever_you_called_it`. Then follow these directions for editing Kicker.xml so that it’ll run your script. Voila! The script will run whenever you change networks. It’ll check the name of the network and, if there’s a match, terminate the Transmission application (potentially messily, I should add — this may be bad for your downloads in progress).

All in all, a pretty clever way to avoid my own stupidity. Hopefully someone else will find it useful, too.

UPDATE: Hmm. After installing this setup I began to experience some pretty weird system blocking errors — most noticeably Terminal.app freezing, but other weirdness, too. You may want to hold off on it for now. I’m giving it another go using a Ruby script that forks immediately in the hopes that this will prevent anything from sticking:

#!/usr/bin/ruby
pid = fork do
#get the ssid of the network
ssid = `ioreg -l -n AirPortDriver | grep APCurrentSSID | sed 's/^.*= "\(.*\)".*$/\1/; s/ /_/g'`
#fill in your own values for ssid and location below
if ((ssid =~ /YourWirelessNetwork/i) || (ssid =~ /YourOtherWirelessNetwork/i))
`killall Transmission&`
end
end