Tuesday, March 31, 2009

G1 Tethering, Terms of Service, and the Powers of Agents

As those who have read the comments on the previous post know, there is now an open source program that is supposed to let a laptop connect to the internet via the G1, using WiFi from the laptop to the G1, 3G (or EDGE or ...) from the G1 to the internet. As they also know, doing so appears to be forbidden by T-Mobile's terms of service. More precisely, reading the online TOS, it appears to be forbidden unless your plan specifically says you can do it. T-Mobile has, in fact, recently released Webconnect, a USB device to tether a laptop to the internet via the phone system. It does not provide ordinary phone service and costs $60 a month for up to 5 gigs of data.

I spend about a month each year traveling with my family, during which time tethering could be—in the past, with a different phone and carrier, has been—very convenient. I would be happy to pay extra for that month to be able to do so. It occurred to me that there might be such a plan that could be used with the G1 or, alternatively, some way of using my T-Mobile service mostly for the G1 but, when needed, for tethering via the USB device. If there is not such a plan—and there probably isn't—perhaps raising the issue with T-Mobile would get them interested in providing one.

Besides, I didn't have anything else to do this evening. So I got in touch with T-Mobile's online support, which takes the form of a chat window, and put my question.

The answer I got was that, if I download and use the open source tethering application, T-Mobile will not support it. If the result is to somehow damage the phone or its software, T-Mobile will not be responsible. But, according to both the agent I was chatting with and her supervisor, using it does not violate my agreement with T-Mobile, and T-Mobile does not forbid me to tether.

My guess is that they are wrong. So far as I could tell, neither of them really understood the issue despite my efforts to explain it; they were thinking in terms of the use of unsupported applications, not of the use of them to do things forbidden by the TOS. The supervisor may also have been thinking in terms not of what T-Mobile could prohibit but of what prohibition they could in practice enforce—he may not have taken seriously the possibility of a customer not doing something because he had agreed not to do it, even if he was sure he wouldn't be caught.

But both of them said I could do it, with the initial agent explicitly saying that since she was an agent of the company she was entitled to say I could; the supervisor supported her position. Where does that leave me, legally and morally speaking? Am I entitled to rely on what I am told by people who T-Mobile has provided to answer such questions—even if I think their answer is probably wrong?

If, by any chance, anyone from T-Mobile reads this post and is curious, I did save the chat sessions--after telling both agents that I would do so and receiving no objection.

Monday, March 30, 2009

G1 Apps: One Down, Two to Go

The three applications I've been most wanting for my G1 Android phone are a word processor that doesn't (like Google Docs) require an internet connection to work, a tethering application that I can use to connect my laptop to the web through the phone, and software to let me use an external bluetooth keyboard with the phone.

Thanks to Dataviz.com, my first wish has now been fulfilled. DocsToGo for the G1 cost me $20 to download, with a spreadsheet application thrown in for free. It feels a little clumsier than the version I had for my old Symbian smartphone but that may just be because I'm not yet used to it.

Friday, March 27, 2009

My Virtual Talks

This semester I have been recording my classes for the benefit both of enrolled students who miss a lecture or want to review one and unenrolled students who want to follow along at a distance. I use an Olympus WS-110, a tiny digital recorder that I can plug into my computer's USB port when I want to upload the recordings to the web. The recorder is on loan from my university, but I may eventually buy one; it's a useful gadget and not terribly expensive. The two classes I am teaching this semester are Economic Analysis of Law and Analytic Methods for Lawyers; the links are to the recordings and the photographs of the whiteboard that accompany them.

Since I have the recorder, I decided I should also record my public lectures, starting with two that I gave last week in Oregon.

Travel Expenses and Price Discrimination

Last week I gave two talks in Oregon for the Federalist Society; I now have to send them documentation for my expenses--a motel, a rental car, and airport parking. I have not done so yet, but it did start me wondering about why that particular arrangement, a fixed payment plus expenses, is so common.

The argument against it is obvious. Paying me a fixed sum instead would make it in my interest to minimize expenses—find an inexpensive motel, shop around online for the best available car rental deal. Billing them for a luxury hotel might have undesirable consequences—I have never tried the experiment. But short of that, it is much easier for me to monitor myself, make sure I am getting the best available deal, than it is for them to monitor me.

In other contexts, one argument against a lump sum contract is that it gives the recipient an incentive to reduce costs not only by careful shopping but also by producing a lower quality product, using low quality construction materials to build a house, for instance. Similarly, someone flying me to Europe to give a talk may be reasonably concerned that a lump sum payment instead of an honorarium plus expenses will result in my getting a cheap tourist class flight, perhaps even a red-eye. Buying me a business class ticket instead—a pleasant luxury, but one I have never purchased with my own money—may result in a more rested speaker and a better talk.

It is hard to see how that applies here. The inexpensive Motel 8 I actually stayed at—I approve of the Federalist Society and so am willing to make some effort to save them money even if they don't structure their contract with me to give me a financial incentive to do so—gave me as good a night's sleep as a more expensive motel or hotel would have. The rental car I located via Carrentals.com got me from the Portland airport to Eugene and back with no difficulty. So why is an honorarium plus expenses the usual arrangement for speaking fees?

To see one possible answer, imagine that the Federalist Society wants me to give two talks, one at Stanford and one at Harvard. I live in San Jose, so a lump sum payment sufficient to get me to Cambridge will have to be enough to not only buy my time but also pay the cost of a trip across the country. That same payment is considerably more than they need to get me to give a talk at Stanford, which is about a half hour drive from my house. By instead offering a fixed honorarium plus expenses they get what they pay closer to the minimum amount they have to offer me to get me to give each talk.

They are, in other words, engaging in price discrimination—by a buyer not, as in the usual textbook examples, a seller. They could do the same thing by offering a lump sum, but one that varied according to some estimate of transport costs, thus retaining the advantage of giving me an incentive to hold down expenses; perhaps I should suggest it to them. But if transport costs vary a good deal by where you are going, when you are going, how far in advance you buy your ticket, and the like, their method may be easier.

Monday, March 23, 2009

At Least a Crumb

The bonus debacle had prompted the approval of a bill by the US House of Representatives to impose a 90% tax on bonuses awarded by companies bailed out by the US government.

But President Barack Obama said such a measure would be unconstitutional.

Practically the only good thing I've been able to say about Obama since the election is that, for all we know, McCain would have been even worse. So it's nice to see that, on at least one small issue, he is on the right side. He is, of course, willing to demagogue, along with practically everyone else in Washington, over the financial crisis. He is also willing to use it as an opportunity to spend enormous amounts of borrowed or printed money doing things that he and his political supporters approve of. But at least he has enough honesty and sense to recognize the legal problems with using Congress to punish people for behaving in a way that is unpopular but not illegal.

Even if you call it a tax.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Little Moderation

I have been having a mild spam problem, "comments" with links in them that have nothing much to do with what they are supposed to be a comment on or are in a language, I think Chinese, that I cannot read. Removing them by hand is a pain, so I have just modified the blog settings to require any comment on a post made more than thirty days earlier to be approved by me before it is posted.

The reason for this post is to explain that, if you comment on an old post, it may be a day or two before I notice your comment, approve it, and it appears.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Dealing with Falsehood Online

You read a newspaper or magazine and notice that it says something that is not true. Unless the statement is libelous and you are the victim, your only practical recourse is to write a letter to the editor which they may or may not print. That means that when such publications publish falsehoods they can usually, if they choose, prevent their readers from discovering the fact. Convert the magazine to a blog and the letter to a moderated comment and things look very much the same.

But they are not—as I hope to demonstrate in this post.

Not long ago, browsing the web, I came across an article on a libertarian blog. The blog is called "Classically Liberal Student," the article was signed "CLS." Its subject was the Atlas Foundation which, CLS argued, had been becoming more conservative and less libertarian under pressure from a conservative source of funding. To support the claim, he offered examples of purportedly anti-libertarian organizations that Atlas had funded. One was an organization in New Zealand that received money from Atlas, about which CLS wrote:

Maxim was explicitly anti-free market and attacked Milton Friedman when he died. Maxim said Friedman was "simplistic" and said he ignored the "social good". They say that "the individualist view, espoused by Friedman" is just as wrong as the collectivist view mainly because it ignores the desire of theocrats like Maxim to impose Christian morality by the force of law.

For obvious reasons that caught my eye, so I clicked on the link—and discovered that what CLS said was not true. The article was not an attack, it did not contain the word "simplistic," and it did not say that the individualist view is just as wrong as the collectivist view. It also said nothing about the desirability of imposing Christian morality by the force of law. Its central argument was that while the individual freedom Milton Friedman had worked for was a good thing, it was not, by itself, sufficient to produce positive social outcomes—that also required free individuals to act with a conscience, concerned with the common good of society. That claim is not inconsistent with libertarianism.

In my judgment, it would require an extraordinarily biased reader to get from what the Maxim article said to what CLS claimed it said—readers are invited to check that claim for themselves. Whether or not that is true, a purported quote that is not in the text being quoted is not a misinterpretation. It is a falsehood. What the article actually said was not that Milton Friedman was "simplistic" but that "economists like Friedman invariably approach problems with a simplified view of the world… ." That, of course, is true--of economics and of many other sciences.

Checking some of the other claims CLS made, I found further misrepresentations, so posted a comment to the blog (scroll down to near the bottom of the comments) pointing them out. Eventually it appeared, as did a response by CLS. As best I could tell, he agreed that the text from Maxim that he had linked to did not entirely fit what he said it about it and speculated that perhaps it had been changed in the two years since it was written. He explained that "when the article was originally published I wrote an article about it and quoted from it. When I mentioned it, in an article about something far bigger, I quoted my original." He provided a link to what was apparently his original article, written some two years earlier.

Comparing quotes in the earlier CLS article with the text that the later one linked to led me to suspect that there were two different essays along similar lines published by Maxim, one in November of 2006 and one in December, a suspicion I have now confirmed. But unfortunately for the explanation CLS offered, the material I was complaining about was not quoted from his earlier article. Among other differences, his earlier article did not contain the (bogus) quote of the word "simplistic.".

I pointed that out and got a response asking why, if he misquoted Maxim, he linked to them and complaining that I was beating a dead horse.

It's possible that CLS wrote a description of the Maxim article based on his memory of something he had read more than two years earlier and posted it with a link to what was supposed to be the article he was attacking, after glancing at the article he was linking to in order to find something to quote from it; that would explain one real but out of context quote that is in the Maxim article and is in neither the earlier Maxim article nor the earlier CLS article. Alternatively, he read the later Maxim article, wildly misrepresented it, and then tried to defend his misrepresentation against my criticism by claiming—falsely—that it was quoted from his earlier article referring to a different Maxim article.

I wrote another comment. As of several days later, it has not appeared. Presumably CLS has decided that, so far as he is concerned, the argument is over.

{Since this was originally posted, additional comments by me and CLS have appeared on the CLS blog, in part in response to this post}

Posting an inaccurate description of something someone else wrote based on your memory of what you read two years ago is, to put it mildly, irresponsible journalism. That is especially true for an attack, since one's memory is likely to improve the evidence against the target over the intervening years.

Failing to correct a demonstrable falsehood after it is pointed out is more than irresponsible, it is dishonest.

The owner of a blog can control what appears on it, but he has much less control over the information reaching his readers than does the editor of a magazine or newspaper. Hence this post. Given that CLS and I are both libertarians, it is likely that some of his readers are also my readers. They should be warned that, on the evidence of this incident, he is careless about the truth of what he writes. Having discovered that he posted falsehoods he is reluctant to admit them and unwilling to correct them. Any facts he alleges should therefor be viewed with scepticism until they have been independently verified.

CLS is, of course, welcome to respond in the comment section of this blog—which, save for removing spam when I notice it, is not moderated.
-------------

For the convenience of anyone who wants to work through the tangle for himself, here are all the links:

"Friedman, freedom and the legacy of libertarianism," Nov 26 2006, Maxim Institute.

"Kiwi Christianists offer anti-eulogy to Friedman," CLS, Nov 23, 2006.

Friedman's take on freedom, Steve Thomas, 12 December 2006, Maxim Institute

"Conservative money corrupts libertarian thinking,"CLS, 19 Feb 2009

Comments on the above, including comments by me and responses by CLS.

The one confusing thing about the time sequence is that CLS seems to have responded to the first Maxim piece several days before it was published. It's clear, however, comparing the quotations in his Nov 23 piece with the text of the Maxim Nov 26 piece, that the latter is what is being quoted. My guess is that either one of the pieces got misdated or the Maxim piece was posted, slightly revised, and reposted with a later date.

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[Later note]

Presumably in reaction to my comments, CLS has now added at the bottom of the Feb 19 piece a note:

"For the full context of what we wrote about Maxim and their "eulogy" for Milton Friedman, go here."

The link is to the earlier CLS piece.

He has not, however, corrected any of the misstatements in the current piece. Nor has he informed current readers of his blog that a post they read several weeks ago contained assertions he now knows are false.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Airline Safety: Precautions or Placebo?

I've been reading an online discussion of the recent successful ditching of an airliner in the Hudson. If I am following it correctly, this is the first time anyone has succeeded in ditching a large passenger jet. Smaller planes and propeller planes have been ditched successfully but it sounds as though the closest anyone had come before with a full sized passenger jet was a crash landing which some passengers survived.

This raises an obvious question. Very nearly every time you take off in an airplane, even for a flight entirely over land, you get a lecture about life vests, flotation cushions, life rafts, and the like. Is it almost entirely bogus? If, prior to this incident, nobody had managed anything better than a crash landing, was there any significant chance that those precautions would save lives or were they there merely to make passengers feel better?

Monday, March 09, 2009

Wanted: A Good Footmouse

As any enthusiastic player of World of Warcraft—or other video games played on computers—knows, giving up the prehensile tail was a great mistake. Some things are best done from the keyboard, some with a mouse, and we only have two hands each. The problem exists for most things done on modern computers but is particularly serious when a delay of a few seconds as you switch from keyboard to mouse and back to keyboard may get you (virtually) killed.

One obvious solution is a foot mouse, a device that would let you control the mouse with your foot while leaving your hands on the keyboard. A little online searching located two such devices, the NoHands Mouse from Hunter and the Foot Mouse from Bili. Both are expensive, and the one comment I could find by someone who had actually used them both was that the better of the two, which costs about $300, had sufficiently bad quality control so that the user had gone through four of them in four years. I also found one other device which used the head instead of the foot, via the combination of an infrared camera attached to the computer and a dot visible to the camera that you could attach to your hat, glasses, forehead, ... . A detailed review of that one concluded that it was inadequate for computer gaming.

I'm not an engineer, but I don't see why one could not design a reasonably simple foot mouse—essentially a larger and sturdier version of a standard mouse built into something like a slipper—with a production cost not much more than that of an ordinary mouse. Such a product would be useful not only for those with physical handicaps, the market that the products I looked at seem mainly intended for, and gamers, but for anyone who routinely uses both mouse and keyboard and finds switching between them inconvenient.

Am I missing something? One possibility that occurs to me is that the foot may not be adequate for the purpose. We use our hands for tasks that involve considerably finer control that what we normally do with our feet. Perhaps the machinery of nerves, muscles, tendons controlling the food doesn't permit the sort of fine control needed.

But I would still like to try it. Perhaps a slipper, a mouse, and duct tape?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Technology, Economics, and What We Watch

Television is largely paid for by advertising. Many consumers—I suspect a majority in developed countries—have equipment that lets them record a program when it is broadcast and listen to it later, fast forwarding, if they wish, over the ads. The smaller the number of people who watch the ads, the less advertisers will be willing to pay broadcasters to run them.

Consider, however, a broadcast of a football game. Part of what the viewer is paying for is the excitement of seeing which team wins and how. That does not work very well if he knows the final score before he watches the game. So football fans are likely to have a strong preference for watching the game in real time, as it is played.

If they are watching it in real time, they don't get to fast forward over the ads. It follows that advertisements will get more viewers in that context, hence that advertisers will be willing to pay more for a minute of time in a football game, or anything else that television watchers prefer to watch live rather than recorded. From which it follows that the invention of the Tivo and similar devices can be expected to lead—very likely has already led—to a shift of resources away from made for TV movies and towards broadcasts of sporting events.

There are other implications as well. My wife suggests that the same change should lead to an increased effort to make ads entertaining and an increase in embedded advertising. It should also lead to an increased effort to make television drama more like football games, to create soap operas where the viewer is waiting on the edge of his seat to see whether she does or doesn't date/marry/divorce/sleep with him and wants to see it happen before hearing about it from another viewer.

This is one example of the indirect ways in which technological change changes the world we live in. A second and similar example, one that I have discussed before, is the effect of easy copying of digital intellectual property on what sorts of IP get produced.

A recorded movie is fully revealed in one viewing, so there is no adequate way of technologically protecting it; however good the encryption, the customer has physical possession of the machine it is playing on and so can arrange to record it as it is played. The same applies to any form of IP fully revealed in one use, such as a song or a novel. It does not apply to a database such as Lexis, since what the user gets is not a copy of the database but only the answer to a particular query. Nor does it apply to a massively multiplayer online game. What the user wants is not a video of my adventure in World of Warcraft but an opportunity to have his own—and he will have to pay Blizzard to get it.

Hence we would expect improvements in the technology for making and distributing copies—higher capacity storage, the increased availability of high bandwidth connections to the Internet—to result in a shift of artistic effort out of movies and into online games.