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September 29, 2003

Current Status in Halifax

Kerry's here chatting on Yahoo and doing schoolwork. I'm catching up on email and listening to Evanescence.

The RCMP and metro police are requesting people to stay at home, via radio announcements, to keep roads clear for repair crews and emergency vehicles.

By late morning, the south end of Halifax was swarming with tourists, students, and citizens walking and driving around to see the damage. The radio reported that at the peak of the outage nearly 300,000 people were without power, and 100,000 still are. Parts of the city are back on, but the metro area won't be completely restored until late tomorrow. Outlying areas are expected to take 3 or 4 days.

The fishing village of Herring Cove, just outside Halifax, is reported to have suffered major damage to fishing boats and wharves.

We're lucky here, I guess, since we've had power all day. Phone, cable and internet service was restored around 4:45. The only stores open now are convenience stores (some open without power) and a few restaurants downtown. Actually, most of downtown seems to be recovering ok, except for a few roads blocked off until debris is removed and broken glass cleared from the upper stories of damaged buildings.

So, it looks like tonight will be staying at home, reading books or watching TV.

Juan's Aftermath

Here's a little bit that I wrote earlier today, before I got back phone and cable.

First of all, Kerry and I are fine, our building is fine, and as far I can tell
there's no major damage in our area of the city.

There doesn't seem to be much major damage in our area of the city, but there's lots of minor damage. Many streets downtown were closed this morning and this afternoon. In residential areas, lots of streets look like their lined with hedges, but really it's just the broken branches from trees on the ground. There are a fair number of large trees uprooted, especially in parks and cemetaries. Office buildings here and there may have a window broken, or damage to roofs and siding.

Around midnight last night the hurricane winds were a little stronger than I had anticipated. Kerry said it was really impressive when she was out on her balcony, but I like being dry, so I didn't join her.

This morning power in our building came on around 9:15, but it wasn't until later when I heard the news on Kerry's radio did I realize that most of the city was (and still is) without power. That explains why Eastlink is offline, depriving us of cable, internet and telephone service.

When I went to bed last night, there was a fairly substantial glow still over
the city, so I assumed that it was only our area that had lost power, but it
seems now that the rest of the city was hard hit as well.

Quite a few smaller power, telephone and cable lines were taken down by broken trees and tree branches. I imagine that there will be pockets of utility outages for a few days.

At about 4:40 this afternoon the phone/cable/internet connection briefly came
back on -- I saw the lights come on on the cable modem, and it was on long
enough for me to call Kerry's apartment and load my mail program, but it died
again while Kerry and I were on the phone. Oh well.

September 28, 2003

Hi Juan

So, right now we're nearing the middle of Hurricane Juan. Evidently the center of the storm is going to pass almost directly over Halifax. It's only a small storm, I imagine, on the scale of storms, still it's a little windier outside that I expected. Of course, where does Kerry want to be right now? On my fourth floor balcony, enjoying a free shower. Yes, she's nuts.

Well, the lights are flickering every-so-slightly here, so I'd better hurry and save this. I'll archive some weather imagery here, too, just for fun: recent radar image and east coast IR satellite image. The satellite animation on Environment Canada's website (from NOAA) is quite interesting too, but I don't want to bother to copy the javascript animation or stitch the images together into some sort of stand alone animation.

Update Monday evening the power failed last night as I was writing this. I'm posting this now and I'll upload the weather images shortly.

Second update the radar and satellite pics should be working now.

Sky High Airlines

Parody websites are cool (we'll just overlook the somewhat subtle plugs for Alaskan Airlines).

September 26, 2003

Wierd Google Queries

...also known as "I'm glad I changed apartments in June".

Apparently the student rush on apartments in September was so great that the phrase "nova scotia furnished rental" made number 2 on the list of "unusual queries" on Google Zietgeist for August 2003. After the end of September, I am guessing that the August 2003 zietgeist will be archived here.

September 25, 2003

Cool Clock

Check this out

Oh, and the travelzoo top 20 web travel deals makes me itch to take another trip every wednesday. This week the 7-day Rome package ($459 USD incl airfare) and the $379 7-night Bermuda cruise look good. Last week there was a 10-day Bejing/Shanghai tour (including airfare) for under $600 USD.

September 18, 2003

Dessert

Banana bread, dipped in banana yogurt, topped with sliced fresh bananas. Yes, I'm insane.

September 17, 2003

The future of mass storage

An interesting interview with a veteran CS researcher, in which he discusses lots of interesting things, including the future directions of disk storage, databases, and computer architectures. Recommended. (via slashdot)

The Italian Job

Kerry watched The Italian Job while she was in Newfoundland earlier this year without me. So, last night I watched it without her.

It was an ok action movie, but it was pretty predictable. No big plot twists. Well, one plot twist, but you see it coming a mile away. Actually, all the major plot elements are in the trailer. That's a trend that I don't really like, but I guess it worked. I paid my money to go see the movie, even though I knew basically the whole story.

Skype Hype

Steve askes What's The Hype Over Skype? I have never used Skype, but I have to say that I find the idea of P2P telephony, and VOIP stuff in general very interesting.

I was first exposed to it when I worked at Newbridge Networks in 1996-7, when they were making a big deal about phone switches built to route traffic over packetized networks instead of dedicated circuits. However, recently, my interest in using the computer as a telephone peaks, just about every time Kerry and I discuss a situation in which we'd be living apart temporarily for work or school reasons.

I'm already paying for high-speed net access. Kerry always has dedicated connections at school. Why pay a monthly long-distance bill, when we could both buy cheap USB webcams and be able to videophone each other as much as we want, for no extra money?

Makes sense to me. I'm even tempted to get the equipment to do all this just to say hi in the middle of the day, when I'm goofing off here at home, and Kerry's in her lab at school, just up the road.

September 07, 2003

Air Show

This weekend boasts the Nova Scotia International Air Show here in Shearwater, at the old air force base. This year they tried a new add-on to the show - Bruce Guthro in concert, in the afternoon during the breaks in the performances.

I was lucky enough to be on the ABI crew for the concert. We brought 48k of lighting, but because of the low tent, we only used 24k upstage and 2 bars of 6 on Manfrottos down front. Because it was a daylight show, Steve handled most of the lighting work once we were done setup, so I helped a bit with audio, which was fun.

I was really looking forward to the air displays, since I really enjoyed the air show last year. Unfortunately, the main runway is VFR only, so the fog we've had most of the week prevented all of the static display aircraft from landing before Saturday. This disrupted the planned air demonstrations. It was still kind of neat to see the static display planes landing throughout the day, but I think the organizers did the right thing in dropping the tickets from $15 to $5. Even so, having the concert probably saved the day for lots of people who otherwise would have been bored.

Deep Space

Got this from Asa's recent blog entry: a Hubble picture of NGC 3370, a spiral galaxy not too far from here. As Asa points out, the really neat thing is to look at the high res version, and notice all the other galaxies in the background. Wow. (Warming: that high res version is a 2.6MB jpeg)

September 03, 2003

Major Record Label to Slash Prices

Does this mean that I'm prescient?

Music "Piracy"

I try to step back from the Slashdot groupthink on issues such as file sharing and music trading. However, I can't help but feel that the RIAA is being hypocritical and more than a little heavy-handed when it comes to copyright infringement.

I briefly read some stuff on the RIAA web site today, and on the surface it sounds plausible. I took a minute to remind myself why the tech-savvy crowd is pretty uniformly anti-RIAA and pro-file sharing. I think the core reasons are: fundamental differences of opinion regarding the application of copyright in the digital age, frustration with the slow adoption of more efficient methods of music distribution, and anger towards the record (and movie) industry because of high prices and the lack of truly creative new music.

The fundamental differences over copyright are probably the most important but hardest to explain. I'll pass this one over for now except to say that in the effort to buy new legislation and implement technological protections against copyright infringement, there has been a lot of collateral damage that has hindered innovation.

The frustration comes from the knowledge in the geek world that the technology exists to connect artists and musicians directly to their fans, by-passing the traditional distribution channels. The up-front costs of producing an album are large, but they actually make up only a tiny fraction of the cost of a CD at your local music store. I mean REALLY tiny. Those up-front costs could easily be borne by artists in other ways besides record deals. What is missing is the critical mass of people to use a new distribution method to show artists that it is feasible. Of course, it's coming slowly with things like Apple's iTunes web store, but it's years later than it needed to be. Honestly, I think most techo-types are sort-of holding a grudge, and would like to see the big companies profits cut out of the equation as vengence for their interference in the transition away from the old distribution channels.

Sure, eventually the digital distribution methods will take over, and if there is enough competition, prices might even come down. Over a few years or decades, the bloated corporations might be trimmed down until record execs only make a couple of times as much as the average musician, instead of orders of magnitude more...

Which leads to the anger. We all know, and have known for some time that most of the price of a store-bought CD is in the advertising, distribution markup, and record company profit. What's more, nearly all popular music goes through the big five or six record companies, who don't compete on price. There is no free market to drive competition. Maximizing profits for the record companies depends on the noteriety of their artists and large advertising budgets. The side effect of this is that companies pare their rosters down to a relatively small number of acts that appeal to the widest possible audience, to concentrate their advertising in a relatively small number of markets. This get maximum ROI for the corporate masters, but it leaves us, the citizen, in the musical wasteland we see today. A few newly-rich mediocre "musicians" with glitzy videos showing off sex and a rich-lifestyle, backed by multi-million dollar advertising events (I mean, award shows), inbred "entertainment" media programs, pay-for-play pop radio stations all owned by one company, mega-tours sponsored by Coke and Pepsi, and the average talented local musician and songwriter struggling for an independent record deal and some regional touring.

That last end of it is the part I see. Since I've been working in the live production business for the last 8 months, I hear how the old hands in the business seen the touring industry go from lots of different bands taking out good-sized shows, with decent crews and maybe owning their own equipment, to today, when even the big tours are on tighter and tighter production budgets. Only the mega-companies get the mega-business.

So the current state of the music and entertainment industry at large is like an overfed animal, grown fat on the profits of the last decades, and now using its weight to throw around lawsuit and buy laws to prevent changes that threaten it. The barrier for entry for new talent is incredibly high, but so is the barrier for entry for new record labels, new musical styles, and new businesses in the support industries surrounding music.

Okay, now put on your rosy-colored classes, I'm going to daydream a little...

Imagine, instead, a future where you and I could find music we liked through recommendations from friends or by searching for music similar to things we already liked, instead of being told what we should like today by repeatedly hearing it on the radio or seeing it on TV. There is no reason that there shouldn't be plenty of new, quality music being created in just about every style that the music industry has ever seen, and new styles being created all the time in addition. If you like disco, there are probably musicians out there right now who would gladly earn a modest living writing and playing new disco music. Even if most people wouldn't buy it, there are certainly more than enough that would.

The problem isn't that the musicians and writers around out there. The problem is that the record companies find it more profitable to promote only a few very popular items. Perhaps the mythical "average" person would be overwhelmed by too much variety, and they wouldn't want to have to find music that they liked for themselves.

However, I can't help thinking that with low-cost communication networks like the internet, something would self-organize. How about webboards or automated ratings systems that allow people to submit info on their listening habits in return for regular updates on what's popular world-wide. This could easily replace the current pop market, and it would certainly support parts of the existing entertainment media as some "musicians" would put great effort into driving up their popularity in order to become rich and famous.

However, there is no need for the traditional record companies in that picture. Smaller music labels can certainly afford to front the cost of producing top-grade albums, and the networks can make distribution affordable. If everybody knows that lots of music it "out there" then the barrier to entry is lowered. The small label doesn't have to sell their first-born to a mega-company to get their albums into the distribution channels to music stores world-wide.

This could allow a renaissance in music, opening up many small but steady niche markets for music in an endless variety of styles.

Eventually, I could even see a distribution model where local stores or even national chains produce hard-copy albums by downloading the music and cover art from record label servers online.

The problem then becomes convincing the stores to supply music from the small independent labels worldwide. However, if the cost of the end product is low, and the store has to pay the same (or similar fee) to get a song from a mega-label server or an indie-label server, then success is possible. The really tiny music store in your small community can now offer the same selection as the 10-storey Tower Records store in Boston or NYC.

Anyway, enough with the rose-colored glasses for now. I still sympathize the with anti-RIAA folks, though I try not to deprive any artists of royalty income myself. If it's something I want to regularly listen to, I'll buy it (eventually).

Oh, and piracy has nothing to do with copyright infringement. The popularization of the term has been largely by media companies, first in the context of unauthorized radio or television broadcasts, and later in the context of infringment of copyrights and patents in software and entertainment. It's a ploy to demonize their opponents by associating emotionally-charged terms with ethically debatable acts. Piracy to me is the taking of property from others on the open sea by open violence.

September 02, 2003

Website update

I've finally made a new template for the rest of my website, and transferred most of it over to whitt.ca. A lot of the stuff was old and broken before, and there are probably more broken links now, but it's all here. Maybe later I'll clean it all up right pretty.

Labor Day holiday

Last night Kerry and I watched The Recruit with a new friend, Lyn Tomc. Lyn invited us to watch the movie at her place and we had frozen pizza for supper. The movie was decent, and we had a nice evening. Thanks, Lyn.

September 01, 2003

A Society without Work

It was only a couple of days ago that I was thinking about why we haven't seen the reduced work week that a few decades ago was widely anticipated. What will happen when we do get the technology to eliminate most work? Who will own that technology, and how will the average person have their basic needs met?

I don't see an inevitable path from here to an everybody-is-on-permanent-vacation rosy future. More likely, the people who own the companies and the capital now will own the technology to grow food, make shelter and provide services in the future. And they'll still want to charge money for its use.

It's coincidental then, that just yesterday Slashdot ran a story about some essays by Marshall Brain on what might happen when robots replace the millions of minimum wage jobs in the service industry (think MacDonald's and WalMart employees).

In particular, his latest essay, Robotic Freedom discusses some potential solutions to the dilemma. His central suggestion is basically a guarantee annual income for every US citizen. This idea has been suggested before, in different forms.

Marshall goes off on a tangent imagining sources for his guaranteed income. Lots of them are a little odd, like selling advertising on $1 bills. Even if this generated $7.5 billion, that would only be $25 per American. Most of his other ideas also divert current government income, or else propose unlikely new revenue streams (read: taxes).

While he tries to couch his essay in terms that don't sound like "Tax the rich and put everyone on welfare", that is essentially what he proposes. I think he's also correct. Marshall wants to avoid the term welfare because it is distasteful, so fine, call it something else. The bottom line is that when technology allows us to replace most human labor in our society, we will need to force the owners of technology to fund everybody else's income, or else provide basic necessities to everybody at drastically reduced cost. After all, if robots allow WalMart to purchase goods for a fraction of their current wholesale cost, and simultaneously eliminate the huge sales force overhead required to staff the stores, then prices should drop dramatically.

In the Wal-Mart example, above, the drop in the cost of living by itself will not help those displaced by technology in minimum wage jobs (and there could be tens of millions of such unemployed persons eventually), if they have no money at all to buy goods and services. The effect will be to make richer those who are already rich, since their money now buys even more than before.

Now imagine increasing taxes on these hyper-wealthy. Ignoring for now the possibility that the wealthy could influence government legislation to avoid new taxes, it is likely that the wealthy will increasingly leave industrialized countries for tax havens. Faced with the prospect of a massive capital outflow, governments will eventually have to act to prevent serious economic problems.

So it seems to me it will be a very difficult transition from an economy based on the principle of "if you don't work you don't eat" to an economy where technology does most of the work, freeing people to work less and spend the majority of their time creatively. It could take decades of painful economic times, and some of the more pessimistic variations could even involve actual blood-spilling revolutions.

Let me imagine for a second the final form of an economy based on technologically-provided abundance. Robots perform most if not all of the work in gathering primary resources, manufacturing goods, providing services, and repairing the technology involved in all levels. Some humans no doubt would work in government, designing new technology, business, health care and a few other fields, although most of these fields will be dramatically different from today.

If the majority of society is unemployed in the traditional sense, then the technology owners will have to provide living neccessities to the whole world for nothing in return. The technologies owners will also have to pay for the services of the remaining working humans. So those humans that do work will form a middle class, with access to more goods and services. This will be an incentive to work, since anybody who can find something creative to do that others will pay for can become slightly more wealthy.

The incentive for the technology owners to supply the needs of the public at large would be simply greater access to the goods and services they provide, and the ability to barter with other technology owners. This will probably have to be regulated and enforced by government, however, so that the technology owners don't suddenly become selfish and hold the world's food and water hostage.

Some infrastructure technology that everybody needs may need to be publicly-owned. If a water supply company must provide water to everybody for free, what incentive remains for anybody to own and maintain the technology? Even self-repairing robots need power and raw materials, which would have to come from some other supplier. If the water supply company can trade water for power and spare parts, fine, but certainly there will be places where this won't be the case.

Well, I'm going to give up now. This is really long, and it's taxing my non-economically oriented mind (pardon the pun).