the quality of mercy these days

This Roman Polanski business is bothering me. Not that he’s been arrested — I meant what I said in the morning roundup: arresting him was the right thing to do, and I’m glad it happened.

But I’m bothered by those who are on my side (if I have to have a side). There are quite a lot of people expressing the sentiment that “RT @someguy: Polanski is a rapist and he belongs in prison. FULL STOP.” I think they’re basically right. But they’re making a terrible error by being so self-satisfied about it. When we punish people, it’s nothing to celebrate. We should perhaps make allowances for those personally affected by the misdeeds of the party that is to be punished. But when the rest of us glory in it, 140 smug characters at a time, we have no excuse. God, but it’s bloodthirsty. This is an old man who will be punished for an old crime, and it’s not going to do anybody any good, not really. It’s just that it has to be done.

When I was writing that roundup I came across the story of a teenager who had just been sentenced for the murder of two people. The young man went into a house to steal and came across a gun. He loaded it, and it appears that he then discharged it into the head of a teenage boy who was sleeping on the living room couch. He then fled, but returned to collect a jacket he had lost. He encountered the boy’s mother, who was on the phone with the police, and he shot her in the ear at close range.

I left that out of the roundup — I take pride in omitting crime stories with a sensationally terrifying element. But can you imagine a crime more casually horrible? Still, how could anyone picture the coming decades of that boy’s life in prison and feel anything but crushing sadness?

By saying this I don’t imply that I’m above what I’m decrying — in that morning roundup I took the Polanski case and spun it into a framing device that traded on crass moralism, and I did it simply because I wanted a punchy intro that would let me get to bed on time. But I, and everyone else, should probably show a little more restraint before reveling in the misfortune of the guilty. I hope that we punish people because it serves a larger purpose; it’s the means by which we recommit ourselves to a system that has just failed us. For that reason it’s a hopeful but fundamentally melancholy act. If it feels otherwise, something is wrong.

another day, another bad WaPo op-ed

It’s hardly worth noting, but this is a lousy editorial.  A couple of points, one of which I buried in the last post about net neutrality:

  • Comcast’s reversal of its decision to fiddle with Bittorrent seems to be getting bandied about as an example of the market taking care of things. People should be less sanguine: it was not market pressure from clients but rather PR pressure from activists that forced Comcast to back down.  And if the net neutrality issue hadn’t been looming at the time, the outcome could easily have been different.  Mustering that level of coordinated outrage is not a sustainable model for policing ISP behavior.  Other ISPs offer evidence of gloomier scenarios: in Canada, Rogers has been throttling Bittorrent — and, in fact, all encrypted traffic, since it can’t distinguish encrypted BT from encrypted anything-else — since at least 2005.  Similar difficulties face customers of some Australian ISPs.  And there are other policies that have been in place so long that people have stopped complaining: unless something has changed, I’m still prohibited from running a server for personal use off my home connection (in principle a server of any type; in practice, port 80 is the only one that will be caught). And it was years — years! — before Comcast disclosed or even acknowledged the existence of its secret bandwidth caps.  Neutrality opponents are mistaking a single victorious battle for the absence of a war.
  • The Post piece refers to the broadband market as “a vibrant and well-functioning marketplace”. In truth, it’s stagnated: in North America, prices remain steady — at a rate above what much of the developed world pays — while ongoing improvements in speed show little hope for of catching up with the networks of countries significantly poorer than the US.  If the Post wants to argue that net neutrality will make the situation even worse, fine. But they don’t even seem to realize that by global standards our domestic broadband marketplace is an underperformer.

Gunsmoke!

Probably the greatest part of the intersection between the late Sunday Chinatown bus and iPhone ownership is the ability to listen to WAMU’s weekly installment of The Big Broadcast without any distractions or even alternatives (thanks, non-functioning reading lights!).  Tonight’s episode of Gunsmoke was particularly strong.  Not because of any particularly great plot twists or character work.  But man, that is how you write a death scene.  Also: Matt Dillon makes a compelling case for preventive detention!

I’m pretty sure that this is the same recording of the episode, though admittedly the radio station seems to have some tape hiss-eliminating filters that make the all-important moments of silence actually silent.  Still, worth a listen — just scour iTunes for the “Dolby B” switch; I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.

You can find a 40M version here, and a hissier (but smaller) version here.

selecting a compression standard for arbitrary data: also arbitrary!

In keeping with this site’s new ambition to become a J. Sanchez metablog:

Randomly wondered when/why RAR supplanted ZIP as the default compression scheme. Internet knows: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/000798.html – @normative, 9/25/2009

The Coding Horror writeup is characteristically excellent, but the story is actually a little more complicated than it implies.  It provides good reasons why RAR is superior to ZIP.  But why hasn’t RAR been beaten by something else?

As with many technologies, the answer lies in the balance between the advantages of the new technology and the costs of sacrificing the incumbent technology’s network effects — that, and simple timing.  To wit: 7Zip is a format that, in most situations, is as good or better than RAR*.  It’s also an open standard, unlike RAR.

So why isn’t 7Zip in use instead of RAR?  I think it comes down to timing.  The standardization of large-file trading on Usenet demanded a format that could be broken into chunks, as a single post can only carry a limited amount of binary data**.  ZIP can handle this sort of operation — I have fond memories of spreading friends’ EGA games across innumerable bitrot-ridden 1.44M floppies — but it’s a feature that had been ignored or intentionally dropped by many Windows 95-era ZIP clients.  RARs were also typically a few percentage points smaller than ZIPs at a time when the average home user’s internet connection was several orders of magnitude slower than it is today.

There was a moment when piracy became professionalized, and at that moment RAR was the best thing going.  And it’s still pretty good!  The situation is quite similar to that of the MP3 format: it’s been beaten by better audio compression schemes like Ogg Vorbis and AAC, but MP3 is good enough — and popular enough — that it’s not worthwhile to tear out out the infrastructure that’s been built around it.

Admittedly, I doubt that RAR will remain in vogue as long as MP3 will.  A shift in audio codec means buying hardware players with new chipsets — and, not infrequently, acquiescing to the DRM gimmicks of whatever corporation is pushing the new format.  Archive formats can be counted on to only matter in a flexible general-purpose computing environment, where those concerns don’t really apply.  Also, archive formats can be selected in an ad-hoc manner by release groups made of technical users that are largely immune to network effects — the popularity or usability of their release is much less important in their insular prestige economy them than is its timing.  For these reasons it’s not at all uncommon to run across 7Zip torrents.

So RAR might fall out of fashion some day. But it owes more of its popularity to being the right technology at the right time than it does to its current technical merits.

* This comparison asserts that RAR’s dominance has to do with its “repair archive” functionality.  I disagree; I’ve never found that feature to be reliable enough to be worthwhile.  Usenet file-traders agree with me, and instead rely on a checksum metafile standard called SFV which helps both to correct errors and, in some situations, to replace missing files.

** Torrents are presumably still broken into volumes because the releases have been plucked from Usenet, which remains the font of nearly all piracy. It’s also handy to be able to download a single volume and run a checksum on it to look for malware before grabbing the whole archive, but this is a relatively uncommon thing for casual users to do.

net neutrality, forever and ever

Well, the FCC has announced its net neutrality guidelines, which means it’s time for those with institutional or philosophical obligations to oppose net neutrality to express some disappointment and/or outrage.  This process will reach its apotheosis in a day or two, when the sysadmin familiars are summoned to spin some exotic technical fables about neutrality regulation sending the internet and Western civilization spiraling toward jitter-mediated destruction.  Then they will be rebutted, then they will respond, then they will be re-rebutted — at this point we’ll be talking about something entirely different than what we meant to discuss — and they’ll proceed to cudgel their interlocutors with references to network RFCs that can only be viewed if you have a key to the CERN sub-basement.  At that point we’ll all drop it until the next time the FCC holds forth.

But for now my combatants are far more  reasonable, and pleasant, and include my friend Julian Sanchez, who  starts things off with this post over at Cato (full disclosure: I still have some comic books that I need to return to him).  But bristling at today’s announcement is  a surprisingly hard job, and I’m not completely convinced that Julian’s heart is in it. It’s not that he doesn’t have the strength of his convictions; it’s just that the FCC said very little today, and even less that’s plausibly objectionable.  Arguing against transparency is tough, and the only other new guideline remains too vague to really engage with.

But Julian does his duty:

[T]hey’ll do their best to flesh out the definition of “reasonable,” but in general they’ll “evaluate alleged violations…on a case-by-case basis.” Insofar as any more rigid rule would probably be obsolete before the ink dried, I guess that’s somewhat reassuring, but it absolutely reeks of the sort of ad hoc “I know it when I see it” standard that leaves telecoms wondering whether some innovative practice will bring down the Wrath of Comms only after resources have been sunk into rolling it out.

I read this and see just the opposite: the FCC is essentially saying that if ISP, Inc. is interested in undertaking some network monkey business, it would behoove them to get on the phone with Washington before they get on the phone with Cisco.  This is a burden, I suppose, but network-wide changes are a big enough deal and pursued at a sufficiently careful pace that I don’t think it’s likely to be a particularly onerous one.

To my mind the alternative is for the ISPs to roll out an expensive network upgrade, then say “Whoops!” when the FCC comes calling — they’ll have some plausible excuse why they can’t go back, and perhaps they could just pay a fine or better yet be grandfathered in instead?

Julian would rather wait and see what happens.  I feel as though we’ve seen enough — and heard enough executives saying very stupid things about what they’re owed by their customers and online businesses — that adding some clarity to the regulatory situation is probably worthwhile.

I think that this is ultimately a cultural difference, though.  It’s just as in Tim‘s net neutrality paper – which is well worth a read, incidentally.  At the risk of boiling it down to an insultingly oversimplified nut, he’s generally skeptical of regulation and generally optimistic about the market’s capacity for providing incentives for being non-evil.  He makes a good case, but ultimately I don’t find it convincing; just as I’m sure he doesn’t find convincing my complementarily chipper attitude toward regulation and somber concern about looming corporate malfeasance.

What I am relatively sure of, though, is that everyone is overstating what’s at stake.  “Innovation” is unlikely to be hampered — small, agile ISPs typically sell themselves by virtue of their openness (see Speakeasy), and the lumbering behemoths still have a profit motive to push them toward clever new ways of overselling a given pipe*.  Similarly, there’s something to Tim’s argument that network discrimination is unlikely to be lucrative — for now, at least, it’s hard to imagine many companies playing ball with an ISP’s extortionary tactics so long as online video remains a money-losing enterprise.

Anyway, if you really want a properly impassioned response to this FCC business, I recommend Jim Harper’s post.  He points out that consumer pressure means that no ISP would be able to, say, interfere with bittorrent for long; that utility deregulation is an obviously great idea; and that in a net-neutral world, interacting with your ISP might become more like your dealings with the water company and less, well, Comcastic**. That last one is meant as a criticism, apparently.

More seriously, though, I will say that I’m encouraged to find that this debate has advanced beyond the stage where people are constantly saying dumb or dishonest things.  Proponents no longer picture Rosa Parks whenever they hear about subjecting packets to Quality of Service measures; opponents have mostly given up pretending that the FCC is likely to enact rules so transparently stupid that they’d bring the internet to a grinding halt.  Now it’s just about the level of philosophical gloominess you’re naturally predisposed to feel toward government intervention.  I doubt that the conversation will head anywhere productive from here, but at least we’ve been here before — it’s unlikely to be particularly infuriating.

* Besides which, we already know the bounds of what can ever be wrung out of a connection thanks to Claude Shannon.  Practical improvements are possible! But this shouldn’t be thought of as a field of inquiry that’s amenable to bold, game-changing breakthroughs if only the heavy hand of government is kept at bay.

** Becks told a story about seeing someone at the gym wearing a t-shirt identifying herself as a part of Comcast’s support staff.  “That’s like wearing a confederate flag t-shirt,” was her quip, which sounded about right to me.


Over Twitter, Julian says this, which I think is a much better criticism:

I’d b comfier w/ #netneutrality if seemed boosters were thinking as much about incentive effects of specific rules as gen value of openness

This is fair. You do occasionally see some thoughtless hippie nonsense coming from neutrality-boosters.  But actually, changing incentives is exactly why I support this stuff.  I want my ISP options to compete on price, reliability, speed and nothing else.  I’m not interested in continuing to pay for the clever MBA who had all those “SpeedBoost” posters printed up.

Nor do I think that synergistic cross-subsidization schemes are likely to be helpful to the public.  The example that tends to come to mind is those “you can only use Visa at the Olympics” ads.  I guess we’re supposed to think that the Olympics have only bothered to support the best or most important card.  Or maybe that Visa’s exclusive arrangement means that they’re going to make ticket-buying easier by paying for some more kiosks that wouldn’t be affordable in an open market? Whatever.  In reality the setup is almost certainly this: Visa has taken some money from me and merchants I do business with in order to make life slightly less convenient for people attending the Olympics, then taken a bunch more money and spent it on telling me all about this bold innovation.  Because they’d rather do this than be forced to compete by offering more favorable terms on their lending.

That’s the sort of innovation I expect to see if we allow inventively-tiered pricing and partnerships.  It’s an unfortunately blunt mechanism, but if regulation is what it takes to convince Verizon that it’s selling a commodity, that’s fine by me.  The market that’s going to grow up on top of that system is more important than the principle of avoiding any imposition on the ISPs.  Put another way: it may be that the drab, regulated water system has cheated me of consumer-facing innovations like leased rootbeer faucets, or additives that would save me from cleaning the tub as often.  But I don’t care about that: those gimmicks — any water utility gimmicks — are of miniscule importance compared to having a water system that works safely, predictably and efficiently.  If Comcast needs to become a more boring place to work and a slightly less exciting business than it otherwise might be, it’s not going to bother me even a little bit.

that was quick

I think that this is great: an aspiring lunch vendor has cleverly dodged the city’s licensing limits on food carts by selling his product to existing hotdoggerias, whose licenses allow them to vend it.  More lunchtime variety on the streets of DC is a good thing!

But I also find it kind of infuriating that these incumbent vendors are able to impose rents on the entrepreneur behind this effort.  Sure, maybe he’s glad to not have to finance or run a cart.  But it’s equally likely that he just isn’t being allowed to compete because the city is artificially constraining the ability of food carts to compete.  Instead some petrified halfsmoke purveyor gets some fraction of every dollar that this guy’s ingenuity deserves.  Why?!

Admittedly, my outrage at this probably has something to do with my own socioeconomic destiny.  As a white guy who’s getting older, fatter and more prosperous, it’s only natural that I begin to feel increasingly outraged by insults to the burrito-selling Randian supermen that the market, freed from the clutches of incompetent District bureaucrats, would naturally elevate.  To imply otherwise would threaten the legitimacy of my own relatively anointed status!  And that’s ridiculous: I am, after all, a valuable member of society, deserving of the respect and flat-panel TVs that come with my extraordinary and carefully-cultivated skills (ask me about the brilliant system I’ve devised for making sure I respond to email properly).

periodic existential assertion

I’m waiting for Windows to finish installing some IE8 debugging software, so perhaps now is a good time to take a breath, open WordPress and note that I am not dead.  I’m just busy.  We’re perilously close to a major launch on the Subsidyscope project.  At the same time, Clay’s taken a month off to get married (see also: awww), leaving me to mind the store at Sunlight in his absence.  It’s flattering and exciting, but hasn’t left a lot of time for bloggy diversions.

But to catch you up briefly: I bought a netbook; Emily and I remain enthralled by Avatar; Halloween preparation is picking up speed*; I am in perpetually-worse shape; Emily’s cat is officially back in Philadelphia as of this morning, and her brother is in DC; and I still can’t reliably listen to the football game from the bus.

The next month is going to include a bunch of travel (Boston! Vermont!) and hopefully a slight becalming of my work life.  And if that happens, perhaps I’ll write more here!  I do miss it, and appreciate those of you who have bothered to keep my humble blog in your RSS reader.

* coffin construction is going well, I have multiple agents investigating sources of animal skulls, and when I leave to pick up lunch in a moment I’m going to see if the corner florist can’t be cajoled into giving me a good rate on dead flowers

making Redskins Radio usably portable

Surely any Redskins fan will agree that foremost among Dan Snyder’s sins is his selection of a broadcast outlet that only provides its audio stream in Flash.

See, I’m going to be heading back from Philly this Sunday, and many Sundays besides, and I’d rather not miss the whole goddamn football season.  If WTEM provided an MP3 stream this would be no problem — the FStream iPhone app would let me listen to the game on stretches of I-95 well beyond the anemic reach of 980 AM.

That’s not the case, though.  WTEM uses a Flash-based streaming system, apparently through a vendor called streamtheworld.com.  That’s fine for the web browser, but the iPhone’s too stupid to deal with Flash.

So I set out to provide an alternate stream.  Amazon offers on-demand virtual servers through its EC2 service, and my first thought was to fire one of those up for each game.  At ten cents an hour it would be affordable, and I could use the more-competent server to transcode the Flash stream into a more iPhone-compatible MP3 stream.

I got far enough along this path that I might as well share my work.  Here’s a quick recipe for setting up a VLC-transcoding-capable server on EC2:

  1. Launch the following Ubuntu AMI: ami-ed46a784
  2. Make sure that you’ve opened port 8080 in the relevant security settings.
  3. Execute these commands:

    apt-get -y update
    apt-get -y install libmp3lame-dev
    apt-get -y install ffmpeg libavcodec-unstripped-52
    apt-get -y install vlc vlc-plugin-esd mozilla-plugin-vlc

  4. Execute something similar to, but not quite this:

    sudo -u nobody vlc -vvv “http://208.80.52.80/WTEMAM” –sout ‘#transcode{acodec=mp3,ab=64}:standard{access=http,mux=asf,dst=}’

This is close.  It’s really close.  If you run this and then load up VLC — the amazingly useful media player — and connect to the AMI on port 8080, you’ll get a 64 kbps transcoded MP3 stream of the WTEM flash audio stream.  It works well!

Unfortunately, I don’t know the specific incantation that makes this MP3 stream compatible with FStream on the iPhone.  I tried various playlist formats.  I tried various audio formats.  I tried various container formats.  There doesn’t seem to be any decent documentation on the internet telling me what to do.  It just says it’s connecting, forever.

But while searching for a solution I discovered something interesting: there’s an iPhone version of VLC!  True, it’s 13 megs, and yeah, it’s only available on jailbroken phones (via the Cydia package manager).  But it works great!  I pointed it at http://208.80.52.80/WTEMAM and it started spitting out incomprehensible sports radio babble almost immediately.  Admittedly, that was over wifi.  But I see no reason to expect it to perform any worse over 3G than an equivalent MP3 stream would.  I’ll be giving it a shot on Sunday during the Giants game. And while I’m sorry to not be providing an MP3 stream for other fans, I’m glad to offer another reason to jailbreak your phone.

the next big thing: artisanal coffin production

Emily and I have been building a coffin.  This is nominally for Halloween, though I realized partway through the process that “he was buried in a novelty coffin he constructed himself” would make a pretty awesome kicker for an obituary.  Of course, that assumes that in the future people still get buried in coffins instead of being cremated to reduce A) crowding on the space-ark or B) the odds of reanimation.  Frankly, that seems unlikely.  But while the coffin’s ultimate fate remains uncertain, it should at least be a workable bar come October 31st.

The process is going pretty well.  We’re using these plans, and while the quoted $25 cost is pretty optimistic, it is relatively affordable as these things go.  At this point we’ve got the boards completely cut; we could assemble it immediately if we wanted.

First, though, I’d like to distress the wood.  There are a lot of techniques for doing this, and we’ve tried several of them on scraps left from the cutting.  I’d like to produce an impossibly-weathered sort of gray plank.  The internet says the lye in oven cleaner ought to manage this, but so far it seems to have done nothing — maybe we have the wrong oven cleaner, or perhaps the board’s pressure-treated nature is interfering with the deadly chemical reaction.  Emily found a method involving vinegar and steel wool, and claims that it shows promise (I remain skeptical).

The only methods that have proven to work are more physical in nature.  First, the wire brush: using a drill and an appropriate abrasive wheel allows one to scrape away the weaker portions of  the wood’s surface, leaving raised ridges and producing a more fibrous, soft sort of finish.  It looks good.

The other method is to char the surface with a propane torch.  It doesn’t produce the gray color I wanted, but the effect is sort of cool, particularly when applied after the wire brush.

Both techniques are fairly labor-intensive, though (particularly the brushing when using only a hand drill).  If anyone has access to an angle grinder or feels like joining me in my garage for some beer, fire and power tools, drop me a line.