Archive for July, 2013


Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013
Crown Jewels

Crown jewels.

I’ve never been to Detroit, nor Michigan, unless you count transferring at the airport in the suburbs a couple times.

That surely qualifies me to come up with bandages for Detroit’s woes.

Establish a hereditary monarchy. It’ll boost tourism and non-crime media coverage. Whow? A lottery. Ticket sales will salve financial problems. There are some castle-like buildings available.

But a royal family is just the band. For the ages, turn the whole city into a museum. The top floor of the City Museum in Saint Louis has an intriguing collection of building adornments saved from demolitions in that city (which by the way lost 63% of its population from 1950-2010; Detroit lost only 61%). Detroit could improve on that by making the whole city a museum, with the royal castle and other estates and jewels as the main attractions. I expected to eventually immodestly propose that at least Jerusalem, probably all of Israel-Palestine, possibly a greater Holy Land encompassing the sites of major monotheistic religions (Utah would have to be an exclave/branch) be designated a museum to the worship of vengeful conceptions of god and the achievement of relative world peace, but hey, Detroit won.

I’ve already provided a complete set of bandages for Detroit, but in the spirit of folks proposing various regulatory holidays for Detroit, here’s a complimentary bonus that complements the above: prospectively eliminate all professional sports team liability for player injuries, suicides, and any other outcome, for 99 years. This will establish a sustainable revenue stream for the royal city/family/museum for a few generations as visitors pay handsomely to witness the NFL®-style American football they remember before it was driven to bankruptcy and banned.

Off with the crowns on their heads!

Exit skype loyalty

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

Why Doesn’t Skype Include Stronger Protections Against Eavesdropping?

At the EFF blog Seth Schoen speculates that Microsoft could be under continuous secret court orders which could possibly be interpreted to not allow it to add privacy protecting features to Skype. Maybe, but this can’t explain why Skype did not protect users prior to acquisition by Microsoft.

Schoen’s post closes with (emphasis in original):

That’s certainly not the case today, legally or technically—today, different kinds of calls offer drastically different levels of privacy and security. On some mobile networks, calls aren’t encrypted at all and hence are even broadcast over the air. Some Internet calls are encrypted in a way that protects users against some kinds of interception and not others. Some calls are encrypted with tools that include privacy and security features that Skype is lacking. Users deserve to understand exactly how the communications technologies they use do or don’t protect them. If Microsoft has reasons to think this situation is going to change, we need to know what those reasons are.

I’ll throw out some definite reasons users aren’t getting the protection and information deserved (secret court orders may be additional reasons):

  • Features have costs (engineering, UX, support); why should a developer bother with any feature when:
  • Few users have expressed demand for such features through either exit or voice;
  • Advocates who believe users deserve protection and information have failed to adequately increase actual user and policy demand for such;
  • Advocates and would-be providers of tools giving users what they deserve have failed to adequately deliver (especially to market! few users know about these tools) such.

In short Skype has not protected users or informed them about lack of protection because they face near zero threat (regulatory or competitive product) which would interest them in doing so.

EFF is doing as well and as much as any entity at generally informing users who probably already care a little bit (they’re reached by the EFF’s messages) and a whole lot more deserving of support. Keep that voice up but please always include exit instructions. Name “tools that include privacy and security features”; I see a screenshot of Pidgin in the EFF post, give them some love! Or better, Jitsi, the most feasible complete Skype replacement for all platforms. Otherwise your good efforts will be swamped by Skype user loyaltynetwork effect lockin.

Related argument: Realize Document Freedom Day; on topic: Free, open, secure and convenient communications: Can we finally replace Skype, Viber, Twitter and Facebook?

Do we have any scrap of evidence that [the Chinese Exclusion Act] made us better off?

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Michael Clemens, about 70 minutes into a podcast interview says no. I’d have liked to hear more, but this was just a passing mention in a somewhat abstract conversation about Clemens’ paper Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk? which I wrote about last year (and similarly used a pull quote headline). I recommend the podcast and paper.

A Skeleton in His Closet

Unhelpful hypocrisy, 1912 as now.

I suspect that most people, if they are aware of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) at all, might consider it with some combination of shame, historical distance, and ignorance.

The Act’s precise method (explicitly race-based exclusion) may seem anachronistic (the distant view), its shameful rationale and effects are the same as the slightly less bald, but much more extensive contemporary international apartheid regime.

Neither the Act nor contemporary restrictions are only to be mourned for their shameful anti-humanitarian effects and their suppression of huge amounts of measured economic activity, but for their making of a qualitatively less interesting world. The U.S. Chinese population was essentially frozen between 1880 and 1940 and most Chinese neighborhoods in the western part of the country, of which there were many, disappeared. I speculate that the western US in particular would have had a much more rich history and contemporary institutions, and the US and China a much richer relationship, than we have now, had the interregnum created by the Act had not occurred.

I recently noticed a group blog called Open Borders. I’d like to read all their posts and write a summary review, but please beat me to it.

88% of the US urban population is in NYC

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

The greatest concentration of the highest densities is in New York, which has 88 percent of the national population living at more than 25,000 per square mile (approximately 10,000 per square kilometer). Los Angeles ranked second at 3.5 percent and San Francisco ranks third at 3.2 percent (Figure 4).

This explains why everyplace in the US other than New York City feels a bit like a rural outpost.

No one, however, rationally believes that densities approximating anything 25,000 per square mile or above will occur, no matter how radical urban plans become.

The writer, Wendell Cox, must mean in the US, as far higher densities are being built elsewhere.

But why shouldn’t there be at least one other real city in the US? Before discarding as an irrational thought, consider how it could happen:

  1. Massive densification of an existing near-city. This does seem rather unlikely. As I’ve noted before, the population of San Francisco and Oakland would have to quadruple to be as dense as Manhattan and Brooklyn. Even with likely continued semi-dense infill development, and plausible recovery of lots of space for people via freeway demolition and robot cars, they would continue to be semi-urban.
  2. Massively dense near-greenfield (probably in an existing metro area) development. I gather this is happening all over China, but to happen in the US costs would have to go way down or demand unexpectedly go way up. The first could well occur through robot and other construction technology improvements, the second is not likely but ought to occur through the destruction of international apartheid.
  3. Mix of the first two: increased demand and decreased construction costs and space dedicated to cars allow at least one US city that isn’t NYC to do a huge amount of really dense infill development.

If there were to be a dense new city within an existing US metro area, where is most likely?

Which US city is the best candidate for achieving the third, mixed scenario?

(I very selectively quoted from the Cox post, which mostly focuses on 10,000 per square mile density. There are lots of comments on the post at Urbanophile, including those stating the obvious that 10k is not very dense at all.)

Speedy Firefox video

Monday, July 1st, 2013

Firefox 22, as of last week the general release which the vast majority of Firefox users will auto-upgrade to, includes the “change HTML5 audio/video playback rate” feature that I submitted a feature request for a few months ago. Yay!

It’s a fairly obscure feature (right-click on HTML5 audio/video, if site hasn’t evil-y overwritten default user actions) but hopefully knowledge of it will spread and millions of users will save a huge amount of time listening to lectures and the like, and also come to expect this degree of control over their experience of media on the web.

The next feature request that I really want Firefox developers to address rapidly is Implement VP9 video decoder in Firefox. The next generation of the WebM royalty-free video format uses the VP9 and Opus video and audio codecs, each a large improvement over the currently used VP8 and Vorbis codecs. (For the possible next-next generation free/open video codec, see Daala.)

To date the free/open world has fared very poorly in getting adoption of free/open formats (audio/video as well as document formats), even when they’re clearly technically superior to the encumbered competition (eg Vorbis vs MP3).

(Credit where due, the availability of competitive free/open formats and whatever adoption they’ve gained has probably had large unseen positive effects on consumer welfare by restraining the pricing power of patent monopolists. Similarly the “Linux desktop” has probably invisibly but very significantly increased consumer welfare. I’d love to see an academic analysis.)

If free/open formats are important, all concerned ought to take a close look at why we have failed thus far, and how we can increase our chances going forward. Yes, adoption is hard, network effects of existing formats a very powerful, and commercial relationships needed to gain massive default adoption are hard to break into. The last is one reason we need more billion dollar open source organizations.

But I think we’ve done a poor job of coordinating the free/open/nearby entities that are already large (in terms of presence, if not dollars) to push for adoption of free/open formats, especially at the critical juncture of the release of a new format, during which time there’s some excitement, and also a period of technical superiority (for audio/video anyway, each generation leapfrogs previous capabilities).

The obvious entities I have in mind in addition to Mozilla are Wikimedia sites and the Internet Archive. It took over 2 years for Wikimedia Commons to support WebM uploads (maybe the first) and though the Internet Archive accepts WebM uploads, it still transcodes to the far older Theora format, and for audio doesn’t support Opus at all.

Granted none of these entities have supporting free/open formats as their top priority, and supporting a new format is work, and these are just the highest profile relevant entities in the free/open/nearby world. Can we overcome this collective action problem for the benefit of all?

Very tangentially related, I just noticed the first failure in my video hosting longevity experiment. seems to have moved to serving files from a CDN, without setting up redirects such that old embeds still work.