The Choice To Not Vote

Civics Department
On election day, I wrote:
It's election day in the United States. If you understand and care about the issues and candidates on your local ballot, remember to vote. If, on the other hand, you don't particularly understand or care about matters being polled, then please don't vote! Your vote is important, but not so important that it must be cast, even randomly/arbitrarily/superficially, if your actual interests lie elsewhere. Choosing not to vote on particular questions, or not to vote at all, is a perfectly legitimate decision, and don't let any "more civic than thou" ninnies tell you otherwise.
Do you disagree? In a democracy, should we feel an obligation to vote, even when we know or care little about the issues on the ballot, or when we believe our vote to be irrelevant?

Take issue or contribute your opinion at this QuickTopic discussion.

eBay Tweaking Bezos?

Celebrity CEO Impersonations
You may have seen the new "Do It eBay" TV commercial: it features a middle-aged balding fellow, with a cherubic smile, who sings and dances to an eBay jingle which follows the tune of "My Way." More about the ad campaign, and a streamed version of the 1-minute TV spot, is available at this AdAge story.

Am I taking crazy pills here, or does the star of this commercial bear at least a passing resemblance to Jeff Bezos, CEO/Founder of eBay's arch-competitor Amazon.com?

Sure, the "Do It eBay" guy is shorter, balder, and chubby -- but from a distance, with that cheeky smile, that hair pattern, and that blue-and-khaki clothing, the first couple of times I saw this commercial out of the corner of my eye I thought it was Bezos singing and dancing for Amazon.com.

Look for yourself:

Amazon.com CEO
Jeff Bezos
Singing Dancing
"Do It eBay" Guy

Was someone at eBay or their ad agency being impish with this casting choice? Is it a coincidental resemblance? (Or am I just imagining things?)

(Images captured from streamed commercial with SnagIt, which has a DirectX mode which grabs images in Windows Media Player other screen-capture facilities miss.)

When Robots Attack...

Department of Defense
I'm pretty far out there when it comes to speculation about the future. Still, some recent bet offerings at the Long Bets website strike me as peculiar. Bet #88 is a rather transparent marketing effort for an upcoming (but vaguely-described) product. (You can't fault this spammer's grandiose ambition: he expects that 3 billion people will use software conforming to his product's UI metaphor by 2025.)

My wacky favorite is Bet #86, where a fellow by the name of Alex K. Rubin posits:

By the year 2150, over 50% of schools in the USA or Western Europe will require classes in defending against robot attacks.
Rubin offers further details in his "pro" argument:
I predict robots with AI will inevitably be uncontrollable and over power their human masters. Schooling and education is what the children of the future need to fend off these super human robots. Therefore, many schools will offer if not require training in robot fighting. The first wave of these schools to offer the class will be around 2120.
The charm of this prediction is how it combines the fantastic (super robots overpower mankind...) with the mundane (...thus kids in the US and Western Europe will have to take a class in anti-robot warfare). I guess that makes it the four R's: readin', 'ritin', 'rithmetic, and repellin' robots.

If Rubin were simply to predict that robots overrun the planet or gracefully succeed/replace humans in the same timeframe, I'd just think, "well, yeah, interesting idea, might happen with runaway technological progress, ok." But instead Rubin's focus on curriculum has me picturing Jimmy, the star quarterback, struggling to pull his grade in 5th-period Robot-Defense up to passing so he can start in the 2124 Homecoming Game.

Of course, if you suspect the robots are already a threat, and you're over the age of 50, Old Glory Insurance offers Robot Attack Insurance for as little as $4 a month!

Robo-rats and Rat-bots

Rat Racetrack
"You've got circuitry in my rat brains!"

"No, you've got rat brains in my circuitry!"

Two great tastes that go great together: rat brains and computer circuitry. Scientists at SUNY-Brooklyn have wired a computer into a live rat's brain, allowing the researchers to remotely "steer" the rat, while a researcher at Georgia Tech has grafted rat neurons into a robot, allowing the rat brain remnants to steer the robot.

No word yet on when Comedy Central will televise a Rat-bot versus Robo-rat battle-to-the-death.

SUNY's Robo-rat (photo by Catherine Chalmers in NYTimes) versus GaTech's Rat-bot (photo by GATech Neuroengineering Lab in Technology Review)

Rattus norvegicus seems to have pulled far ahead of us homo sapiens in the race toward intimate mammal-machine symbiosis. We'd better rally, lest we find ourselves ferrying cheese to and fro for our new cybernetically-enhanced rat overlords.

Dewey for President, 1948

Retroactive Endorsements Division
If Trent Lott was going to endorse anyone in the 1948 presidential election, he should have at least feigned loyalty to his current party. In 1948, Republicans nominated New York Governor Thomas Dewey for President. Dewey had supported, in 1945, the first-ever state law against racial and religious employment discrimination.

I want to say this about my party: When Thomas Dewey ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if Trent Lott had followed our lead, he wouldn't have had all these problems over all these days, either.

The Trojan Laptop?

Criminal Cutting Edge
"Technological self-help" against criminals risks liability beyond a certain point. If you fear your laptop will be stolen, you might add a mechanism where it occasionally prompts for a valid password. It's probably alright in the eyes of the law to disable the laptop if the proper password is not given. It's definitely not alright for the laptop to explode, injuring the user.

But how about a more subtle countermeasure where the unauthorized user's activity is monitored, and perhaps exploited to recover the value of the laptop in cash? Crafty, but still illegal.

Now what if you are yourself a technically sophisticated criminal, and want to let "your" laptop be stolen, so as to steal a greater amount from whoever eventually possesses it -- whether that person is a laptop thief or merely the final recipient of stolen goods? You might try the following:

  1. Outfit a laptop with custom trojan software which spies on its user, collecting passwords, personal information, credit card and social security numbers, etc. Install this software in a manner which makes it likely to survive even a hard disk wipe and OS reinstall. (For example, put it in the BIOS or use HD boot-sector trickery.)
  2. Leave this laptop somewhere that a opportunistic thief will snatch it.
  3. Wait.
  4. When the trojan software has collected enough data, and furthermore detects an internet connection, have it post the harvested data -- in encrypted form -- to some public net forum. (This could be a website, USENET, whatever.)
  5. Collect the data.
  6. Use the data to steal from the laptop's current user.
Many laptops so planted would never report back, nor provide much in the way of exploitable info... but if only some did, it could repay the initial criminal investment. Trojan laptops.

Per-Band Subscription Services?

Facing the Music
Tim O'Reilly: Piracy is Progressive Taxation, and Other Thoughts on the Evolution of Online Distribution

Robert X. Cringely: Curtain Call: Finally, a Business Model for Music in the Internet Age, and Why the Music Industry Probably Won't Go for It

O'Reilly's observations, together with Cringely's suggestions for a scrappy, long-haul new model for musical artists, make me wonder: why aren't individual bands/acts yet offering subscription services to their entire artistic output?

A yearly subscription might be just $30 and include:

  • unlimited access to downloadable back-catalog
  • unlimited access to downloadable new releases
  • online newsletter
  • access to special online events
  • priority access to concert tickets
  • a once-yearly collectible trinket confirming membership
  • automatic annual rebilling until cancelled
After all, fans identify with artists rather than labels or the nascent aggregation services. Such per-artist subscriptions would give fans the exact guaranteed-quality music they want, plus the warm fuzzy feeling that they're doing the right thing, and in such a way that less money goes to middlemen.

Possible objections:

  • Bands lack the expertise to set up such a system and back-end billing. But a service company could easily offer a turnkey solution. PayPal offers a super-easy system for recurring billing.
  • Serving costs would exceed revenues. But a P2P distribution scheme could allow the service site to merely serve as the fallback source iof rich media tracks -- with 99% of transfers going direct between fan machines
  • Some people will just sign up, grab everything, and not renew. I'm not sure this is even a bad thing. Some of these people would renew each time new material becomes available. Tweaking the renewal pricing and trickling out new releases year-round could discourage such ins-and-outs.
I suppose Prince's NPG music club was (is?) a little like this. Kelli Richards points out that David Bowie, Elton John, and Todd Rundgren all offer paid fan services of various forms. However, I find that each of these artist websites are crippled by atrocious, awkward, loud, flash-drenched user interfaces -- and so I can't tell if any of them actually offer the artist's oeuvre in any practical form.

(My tip to any acts that want to try a individualized subscription service: drop the garish designs, pop-ups, flash, tiny type, and sluggish captioning. Just say in big clear letters, "For $X a year you get access to all my music and additional benefits A, B, C. Click here to sign up. Thanks!")

Time Has Come Today

Subtextual Analysis
A friend recently called my attention to the fact that clocks and watches in advertising displays -- at least analog clock faces -- usually show the time 10:10. I suppose the reason is the nice -- although not *too* perfect/perpendicular -- symmetry. However, 10:10 even seems preferred to its mirror time, 2:50. Is this merely a tradition among time merchants?

More variety appears on advertised digital timepieces. A recent TV advertisement for a fast-food Simpsons watch giveaway shows all watches with the time 12:22 -- which fills all digit places and as an added benefit, suggests lunchtime.

On a recent flight, perusing the Skymall catalog, I saw the following digital clock ad and had to wonder, "What are they trying to say with their choice of display time?" When I then read the first line of descriptive copy -- "This full-function clock radio has a secret" -- I chuckled out loud. See for yourself:

Skymall Late Spring 2002 p. 151 (111K JPG)
(Image via catalogs.google.com.)

Chronocentrics Anonymous

Citizen Koan
Everything that is inevitable has already happened.