2006-12-29

Unsophistication of the iTunes UI

Larry O'Brien comments about the crashing problems and other strangeness he has experienced with iTunes.

I haven't had such problems with iTunes on the 3 or more computers I've used it on in past years. However, I think the iTunes interface is a lot less polished than what a Windows user is used to. The music library interface in particular is idiotic - things just don't work the way they're supposed to.

When you pick a different column for sorting, iTunes puts you at the top of the list instead of at the song that was previously selected, which means that if you have the library sorted by song and now you want to sort it by artist to get other songs by the same artist, you have to find the artist again after changing the sorting column. In better designed programs, such as Outlook, your selection is remembered and you don't have to do this.

This is just one example where the iTunes user interface is lame. If all Mac software is like this, I don't know how anyone can claim that Macs are easier to use, because this interface is amateurish compared to the level of user interface intricacy and detail in some of the better Microsoft products.

2006-12-27

The iron shirt of tax code

Referring to Joe Stiglitz's proposal of a reward system for new medicine discoveries, which I mentioned in my previous post, one spontaneous idea is that someone like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would be ideal to manage such rewards. I agree - if the tax system made it possible!

It is my understanding that the U.S. tax code requires non-profit foundations to give away at least 5% of their endowment every year to maintain their tax exemptions. The Gates Foundation already has trouble meeting this criterion, because they cannot find enough good projects fast enough. They probably could do rewards on the side, and I agree it would be a great idea, but the U.S. tax code makes it impossible for a foundation to exist that does this primarily. Given the government requirements, what happens if in one year there is no breakthrough and you don't spend the necessary 5%? You lose your tax exemption and pay a lot of money to the government in tax, that's what.

You probably already know how I think that income-based taxation is ridiculous. It and its associated fattening of bureaucracy are one of the greatest scourges that afflict modern society - it's right up there with prudery, self-serving interests in politics and the ineffectiveness of governments at doing anything against extinctions and global warming.

We should all be doing things to fix this.

Scrap the patent system entirely?

We know that patents are bad for the software business. The whole reason patents exist is because it is thought that giving a time-limited monopoly to people who invent things promotes progress by encouraging, well, people to invent things. This doesn't work in software because:
  • patented software ideas are generally obvious to practitioners of the area the patent is about;
  • the length of a patent monopoly (17 years) is way out of proportion with the speed things move in software;
  • barriers to innovation in software are intrinsically low to begin with - anyone can innovate and no incentive in the form of a time-limited monopoly is necessary to encourage people to do so;
  • arguably most potential innovators in software are individuals and small companies, who can hardly use the patent system because they can afford neither the time to file the patents, nor the money to fight infringements;
  • progress in software is intrinsically cultural and incremental, not epochal - people gradually improve on other people's ideas, nobody does (or has to do) research and testing for 10 years, like in the pharmaceutical business, before bringing an idea to the market.
All of these reasons combine to make the idea of patenting in software very, very harmful indeed. Instead of being used as an incentive, patents are used as:
  • weapons for big companies to fight each other with;
  • weapons for big companies to destroy potentially threatening small competitors before they grow;
  • leverage for patent sharks (like this bastard) who use sleeper patents that no one ever knew of to extort enormous sums of money that they did not even earn and which no one owes them.
So, at least as far as the software business is concerned, the patent system is more so a vehicle for power play and extortion than for anything good, and should be banned.

A valid question remains, though, whether the patent system is still good at solving problems in other businesses, such as pharmaceuticals. In medicine, it can take an outlay of a billion USD or more to bring to market a useful drug. Reasoning goes that no sensible pharmaceutical company would ever engage in this endeavor if it weren't for the patent system, which helps companies recoup the cost by keeping competition at bay for a few years. (The patent lasts longer than that, but it only prevents competitors from using the very same compound, not from using a similar one; and competitors generally need a few years to bring to market an alternative compound with similar effects.)

Joseph E. Stiglitz recently wrote this article listing some of the demerits of this use of the patent system in medicine, and proposing that the system be replaced with large (state-sponsored?) rewards for desirable medicines. I think this is a good proposal, its only fault being that the reward system would need to be competently administered, and I guess we know how competent administrations tend to be. Nevertheless, if the state was bold enough to offer really good rewards for developing valuable cures - e.g. on the order of $2-10 billion USD - I think the idea would work.

An optimal solution would be one that neither grants a monopoly, like patents, nor requires a central administrator, like the reward concept would. Something that's self-managing and yet not prone to abuse. That would be a trillion dollar idea. If someone has it.

Care to patent it?

2006-12-26

War on Terror: the board game

I don't usually play games or board games, but if I did, this is a game I would play. (Via Schneier)

2006-12-14

Secunia's Software Inspector

Do this now.

Secunia's Software Inspector is a browser-based Java application that scans your machine for vulnerable software based on their vulnerability info. Before I ran this, I thought all my bases were covered, but now, heh, guess again.

Edited to add: older versions of the Macromedia Flash Player can be very difficult to remove. They are not removed automatically when a new version of the Flash Player is installed, leaving your system potentially open to the vulnerabilities in the older versions. You might find this link of use - you actually have to download this uninstaller from the Macromedia site and run it to uninstall Flash. Talk about easy removal...

For one of the old Flash versions I had, not even this worked, so I eventually removed it by manually deleting the file.

2006-12-12

Losing weight

I'm not sure if it's really a common myth or if it's just my imagination, but it seems that there's a meme going around about how difficult it supposedly is to lose weight.

Well, it isn't difficult at all. It is easy. In a nutshell: you'll lose weight if you eat less. Or, like a doctor once said bluntly to a patient who kept complaining how she cannot lose her weight: Nobody was fat in Dachau.

The key to losing weight is really very simple. If you want to lose some weight in a given day, you have to eat less calories than your body burns during that day. If on a given day your body burns 2200 calories, and you eat 2000 calories, you will lose a bit of weight. If you eat 2400 calories, you will gain some. And 3500 calories (kcal) are about 0.5kg.

It is nearly impossible to eat in one day exactly the amount of calories that your body burns during that day. You are either going to eat more, or you are going to eat less. If you want to keep your weight level, you have to make sure that the days when you eat more than you burn are balanced by days when you eat less.

The real difficulty in losing weight is that most people have no idea of how many calories they're eating. But trying to lose weight without knowing how much you're eating is like driving in a dark night with no headlights.

All of the special kinds of diets that people try to sell you are misleading. They try to tell you that the key to losing weight is separating food, or avoiding carbohydrates, or whatever. That's all bollocks. The only reason any of that can work is if it tricks you into eating calories at a lower rate than your body burns. But as soon as you adapt to the new regime, you'll start exceeding your calorie input again and you won't be losing weight.

So here's how to lose weight the easy, sure-fire, denis way.
  1. Calculate your body's daily calorie consumption. There are calculators to help you do this on the web. Search for "calorie calculator men" or something similar. Use multiple of these calculators and average the results, because every calculator gives them slightly different.
  2. Keep a diary of what you eat. Most food has nutritional information on its packaging. For food that doesn't, look up its nutritional information on the web. Just try searching for "turkey breast kcal" or something, and you'll find sites with volumes of nutritional info. Don't eat anything unless you can get reliable nutritional information for it. Keep track of every tiniest speck you eat. 10 grams of oil have more than 90 calories. Keep track of everything.
  3. Now that you know how much you're eating and how much you need, it's easy to tell when to stop. Suppose you put your limit at 1600 kcal. When you exceed that, stop eating. That's it. That's how you lose weight. By stopping eating when you hit this limit.
  4. If you want to lose weight without losing muscle mass, you'll need to bump up your consumption of protein. Depending on the muscle mass you want to preserve and the sources you trust, you need to eat somewhere between 80 and 120+ grams of protein per day. Doing this while not exceeding a certain number of calories means you have to eat a lot of chicken, turkey, tuna, salmon, cod - things that pack protein and are low in fat. If you want to hit 120g of protein on a 1600 calorie diet, this might mean eating more meat than you might be comfortable with. That's life. If you want to keep the muscle, you need to do it.
  5. If you adhere to these rules, you can pretty much eat anything you want. Sweets are fine, McDonald's is fine. Just know that a single double cheeseburger is 460 calories, and it packs only 25 grams of protein. If you want to reach 120 grams in 1600 calories, that's not a good enough ratio - unless you stuff yourself with tuna (not in oil!) the rest of the day. Likewise, 100 grams of chocolate are 600 calories, and pretty much none of that is usable protein. Still want to eat that chocolate whole? It's your call.
Doctors say that merely eating less will cause you to lose weight in the wrong places. As far as a man's health is concerned, the most important place to lose weight is the belly and the internal fat around organs. Apparently, to lose this weight, you need to exercise as well. I'm using an elliptical trainer for that.

For the past two weeks, I've been on an exercise and diet regime as described above. So far I've lost 1kg each week. I'm going to continue this until I eliminate my abdominal fat, and then I'm probably just going to keep recording my calorie and protein consumption indefinitely. When I get fit, I want to keep fit, and not let the cycle repeat itself.

So far, I have found the above principles to be quite successful. :)