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Wednesday, 11/30/05

Though no one thought to inform me, the Seattle Public Library started offering patrons free access to O'Reilly's Safari Bookshelf service, apparently in September. This is a pretty big deal -- web-accessibly searchable, readable copies of nearly complete catalogs from O'Reilly and most other tech book publishers worth mentioning. Safari's pricing for the general public is reasonable but adds up.

I haven't found any clear documentation indicating what I can and can't expect from the SPL Safari license. I'm not sure if it recognizes me as an individual by my library number (required for access), or whether I'm lumped in with all other SPL patrons -- the site identifies me only as "remote access". I'm also puzzled at the moment by inconsistencies in the available titles.

For instance, searching for "Ruby" at the O'Reilly-hosted site comes back with four entries, though the same search through the SPL Safari gateway returns none. All four are in the list of titles that the SPL-licensed version claims to offer, so this may just be a short-lived glitch. In any case, even with a few rough edges, Safari access is a terrific benefit.

Less successful is the library's foray into ebooks and DRM-laden downloadable audiobooks. Some of the ebooks are PDF-based, which will work on Macs as well as Windows, as long as you let Acrobat dig its spurs into your sides and ride you around the room like a mean little girl renting a pony. Others are formatted for some Windows-only DRM system called Mobipocket.

All of the audiobooks, to my consternation, are Windows-only and iPod-hostile, though the vendor-hosted web site goes well out of its way to avoid stating that plainly.

Wackily, the "Overdrive Media Console" used on Windows to facilitate and constrain audiobook use appears designed solely to enforce an artificial scarcity, modeled on physical goods. If three people have already "checked out" 101 Habits Of Highly Effective Speakers you can only place a hold until one of them "returns" it. This is like paying extra for a Model T that poops and gets sick.

Still, one out of three ain't bad -- Safari Bookshelf is a unique, valuable resource, and audiobooks can still be checked out of the library in CD form (which I recommend for Lemony Snicket titles). Huzzahs all around. 08:50PM «

Monday, 11/28/05

The NYT ran a story about utility pole theft in Baltimore a few days ago, which shot up the most-emailed rankings for a few days. The practice of selling metal to scrap dealers is familiar enough to viewers of The Wire, but I wasn't clear on the dollar figures involved.

Each pole weighs about 250 lbs, and aluminum goes for 35 cents/lb, which means the thieves are making a little under $90 per pole. 130 poles have been stolen, for a total benefit of about $11,375. Replacing a pole costs the city $156,000, for a total cost of $20,280,000. That's $32 per Baltimore resident, going by the Census Bureau's 2004 estimate of 636,251 souls.

It's easy to envision this continuing until the per-capita cost exceeds to the ~$90 value of a pole to the thieves. It's the least efficient crime I've ever heard of not featuring Ken Lay -- and at least Kenny Boy got more than .0006 cents on the dollar for what he stole. Why not at least hold the poles for ransom? 10:30AM «

Monday, 11/21/05

The Tivo is still in Kentucky, where it will apparently remain. They sent me my first refurb exchange unit in late October, which failed out of the box -- overlaying buckets of static on all three audio outputs. The fellow on the phone that day indicated I was playing one of tech support's greatest hits. I boxed it up again and sent it on its way back to Louisville, after negotiating a credit that covered most of my expenses in shipping this second unit off to be exchanged. They swore up and down, unconvincingly, that they lacked the ability to cross-ship even under these self-inflicted circumstances.

Thanksgiving will mark four weeks since they received that defective unit, over which time I've been told a lot of lies. The shipping estimate climbed from "five days" to "seven to ten days" to "seven to ten business days" to "fourteen business days", and then they stopped offering estimates. I've been told their warehouse is in transition, and that they have no way to contact the warehouse except email, and that emails sent on my behalf go unanswered. Today is the third time in less than two weeks I've been patted on the head and told my query has now been sent in such a way that will get a response; my faith in this assertion has dropped to zero.

And here's the punchline: when I first called Tivo in early October about a new video hiccup, I was told it was the first sign of incipient hardware failure, precipitating all this drama. In the weeks since as I've knocked off novels left and right, I've told myself that at least the replacement machine won't be on death's door. But this original assertion turns out to be no more accurate than a Dick Cheney stump speech -- the hiccup was a software problem affecting a small number of models, and has already been corrected in the new 7.2.1 OS update, which started rolling out a week ago. Classy operation, TiVo. Thank you, I love you. 02:03PM «

Wednesday, 11/09/05

Among the generally good news from the election last night, the eight Dover, PA school board members pimping intelligent design (all Republicans) went down in defeat, replaced by eight challengers (all Democrats) on record against outcome-based science. That's excellent. Via Pharyngula, however, I was tickled by this candidate statement from Eric Riddle, one of the ousted torch-wielders (and apparently a fan of poll taxes):

I would support this case [to teach I.D.] as long as it takes to secure academic freedom. The ACLU should not be able to come in to a community and decide what can and cannot be taught. The majority of Dover taxpayers should decide what should be taught. That's not democracy.

Eric Riddle, this is your petard. There are many like it, but this one is yours. 10:56AM «

Sunday, 11/06/05

Patrick Healy's NYT story about weakening Democratic control of New York City, as exemplified by Freddy Ferrer's sacrificial campaign against Michael Bloomberg, strains itself trying to paint Bloomberg as a typical Republican, and would be laugh-out-loud funny if it were a little more self-aware. There's a bare paragraph of lip service to the fact that Bloomberg's rhetoric and track record are "pretty liberal", and there's this:

Mr. Bloomberg has effectively driven ideological wedges among Democrats: They split sharply over embracing him as a socially liberal mayor who reduces crime, maintains services without raising taxes too much, and keeps corruption and special interests out of City Hall.

Since when are high-profile Republican elected officials noted for their willingness to raise taxes at all? Bill Owens in Colorado just ended his political career for realizing he owed more to his oath of office than he did to Grover Norquist. Healy seems to be arguing that the modern dynamic is between nice reasonable Republicans who promise to raises taxes just enough, and nutty Democrats who pledge to raise them rather too much.

The story's full of vague fearmongering about the weakening of municipal Democratic institutions, but it asserts with nothing but conventional wisdom that Bloomberg's limitless personal fortune is the deciding factor, rather than the icing on his having governed as a dedicated, innovative, technocratic liberal.

Bloomberg was a registered Democrat until he decided to get into the race in 2001 and found the Democratic primary overly crowded. Was that opportunistic? Sure. But with Republicans like this, the need for Democrats is markedly diminished. To the best of my recollection I've voted for one Republican in my life, but on this votin' day, I'd take Bloomberg over Seattle's confused Democratic executive Greg Nickels in as much time as it takes to fill in a little oval. In my enthusiasm, I might even tear through the paper. 10:24PM «

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