Monthly Archives: July 2005

Closely Skyped

Bob Cringely has been looking into the likely sale of Skype. Good analysis, as usual.
Skype is “Revenue killer number one” according to a telecom executive friend of mine, and I could easily see Vodaphone pick them up. Actually, Microsoft or Intel could be candidates, too – imagine going IP and wireless with 20m customers.

A pleasant overdose

Peter Mayle: A year in Provence, Toujours Provence, and Encore Provence.
Frances Mayes: Under the Tuscan Sun.
Sarah Turnbull: Almost French.
These books are a little like James Herriot‘s stories from his days as a mid-20th centry Yorkshire vet: They praise the simple country life (except Turnbull’s, though the countryside features there, too) in the voice of an enchanted and formerly more or less uncultured (or, at least, uninformed) city dweller. I read (or re-read) them as a precursor to an Italian holiday – though, working on the theory that Provence is very like Italy (which it isn’t) I didn’t get through Mayes until after I was back. And Turnbull was read in two quick sittings because my daughter had promised it to a friend (and I got to blog it before her, so there).
The books are quite different, reflecting author background and goals of writing. Peter Mayle is a former ad man from London who has semi-retired to writing books and displays the laid-back (or, at least, wanting to seem laid-back) and self-disparaging tone of the English gentleman. His writing, despite numerous books to his credit, is studiously effortless and very relaxedly humoristic – reflecting, I think, the ideal of effortless and gifted amateurism as epitomized by Dorothy L. Sayer’s Parker’s Lord Peter Wimsey. Frances Mayes teaches creative writing and publishes poetry and cookery books, causing some delightful linguistic bulls-eyes and quite a few recipes. Sarah Turnbull is an investigative journalist and adds cultural analysis and self-reflection to what is a very personal journey (though not too personal).
All recommended, of course, as light-hearted reading in summer, but also as preparation for cultures which can be a bit harsh when experienced in the raw. Better then to have a little pre-cooking done by experienced, if ex-patriate, connoisseurs.

Moore to the rescue

I have just taken delivery of my new FujitsuSiemens Celsius workstation (3.4GHz, 1GRAM, 300+G disk, and a really nifty Nvidia card), and while I wait for installation of Office and other dreary usefulness, I have installed and played around with Google Earth. As Stefan Geens writes in his enthusiastic post, this is really a neat application and something I look forward to playing around with a lot more.
Nothing like decent horsepower, I say.

A scientific history lesson

This summer’s holiday was spent in Italy – some of it in Rome, where I stood in line for one hour and a half to get into the Musei Vaticani. It was worth the wait. This museum, mostly known for the Sistine Chapel and Rafael’s frescoes, is huge and has treasures on almost any wall. It is quite fascinating to watch the Athens School in the original, for instance.
The items most interesting to me, however, were these two unassuming monters found in the library section, opposite a stand selling postcards. They are mechanical demonstrations of two world systems – the heliocentric system of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton, and the geocentric system of Ptolemy and Aristoteles. (After writing this, I have to confess I am a little uncertain about the monter on the left – I am pretty sure it is Ptolemaic, with some modifications. Experts?)
Two world systems from the Vatican museum
The monters stand there, without sign or commentary, unmentioned on the audio guide that otherwise will tell you about each room in tedious detail. Yet they represent the Catholic church’s loss of scientific legitimacy: As the Church clung to the increasingly untenable position that the Earth was at the center of the universe, scientists increasingly ceased to see the church as a legitimate sponsor or even legitimate actor in scientific endeavors. Science and church split – and what science remained in the church was increasingly limited to increasinly obscure theological interpretation – while science went on to triumph based on what Leonardo da Vinci called “the addiction to experience.”
According to Richard Tarnas (in The Passion of the Western Mind,) a “unique and potent combination of circumstances” led the church to reject the heliocentric hypothesis. Quite a few of the high clerics were ready to accept Galileo’s proposition that the earth rotated and circled around the sun – the Pope was a friend of Galileo, and one cardinal wrote about the necessity to “proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true.” (p. 260ff.)
However, the church (already under pressure from the Reformation) had participated in the elaboration of the spherical theories of Aristoteles and Ptolemy, to the point of assigning responsibility for the movement of some of the planets to specific arch-angels. So, if Galileo (who wrote in vernacular Italian and was of the “vitriolic personality” so often found in innovators) was not necessarily contradicting the bible, he certainly was contradicting centries of increasingly refined theologically founded natural philosphy, and by accepting Galileo’s propositions, the church would have to admit being wrong – hard to do in a climate where the church was also battered by charges of corruption and with a decided lack of enthusiasm for the divine powerty espoused by increasingly numerous charismatic movements.
This rejection of heliocentrism failed, of course. Tarnas again:

That decision caused irreparable harm to the Chruch’s intellectual and spritual integrity. Catholicism’s formal commitment to a stationary Earth drastically undercut its status and influence among the European intelligentsia. The Church would retain much power and loyalty in the succeeding centuries, but it could no longer justifiably claim to represent the human aspiration toward full knowledge of the universe. […] In Galileo’s own forced recantation lay the Church’s own defeat and science’s victory.
And, quietly and unassumingly the little monters stand, silent witnesses to the dangers of believing theory in the face of evidence.

Dartmouth: Wireless IP grows up

Dartmouth logo

The Concours Group runs a semi-monthly teleconference series called the CIO Staff Meeting, where IT management groups can call in and participate in presentation on various topics of interest. One of my rather pleasant duties is to participate in some of these teleconferences, as moderator and “chief inquisitor”.
Brad NobletYesterday, our guest was Brad Noblet, Director of Computing Technical Services at Dartmouth College. Over the last three years, he has been responsible for implementing a complete renewal of the network services at the college, replacing three old networks (telephony, data and audio/video) with one unified IP infrastructure, both fixed and wireless.

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Rightsizing copyright

iPodding judgeI have been on holiday and missed my weekly Economist, so this may already have been wall-to-wall blogged. Anyway, in its editorial comments on June 30, the magazine takes a strong stand against extending copyright protection:

In America, the length of copyright protection has increased enormously over the past century, from around 28 years to as much as 95 years. The same trend can be seen in other countries. In June Britain signalled that it may extend its copyright term from 50 years to around 90 years.
This makes no sense. Copyright was originally intended to encourage publication by granting publishers a temporary monopoly on works so they could earn a return on their investment. But the internet and new digital technologies have made the publication and distribution of works much easier and cheaper. Publishers should therefore need fewer, not more, property rights to protect their investment. Technology has tipped the balance in favour of the public domain.
A first, useful step would be a drastic reduction of copyright back to its original terms ó 14 years, renewable once. This should provide media firms plenty of chance to earn profits, and consumers plenty of opportunity to rip, mix, burn their back catalogues without breaking the law. The Supreme Court has somewhat reluctantly clipped the wings of copyright pirates; it is time for Congress to do the same to the copyright incumbents.

Right on. And this from a magazine that knows economics, makes a comfortable living off intellectual property and makes quite few of its articles available for free.

Italy – land of the cut corner?

Some years ago, Norway’s then defense minister JÝrgen Kosmo made a rather glaring sartorial mistake when he appeared at a meeting of European defense ministers wearing a white dress coat. The resulting group picture made him stand out – and one of his political friends joked that he looked like “an Italian pick-pocket.”
At the time, I thought that a rather unfair statement on Italians. But I am now back after my first holiday in Italy, and unfortunately my chief impression is that more people in that country than in any other I have been are out to cheat their visitors.

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