“A Flag Has To Be Worth Torching”

Mark Steyn:

I’m a Canadian and one day, during the Kosovo war, I switched on the TV and there were some fellows jumping up and down in Belgrade burning the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack. Big deal, seen it a million times. But then to my astonishment, some of those excitable Serbs produced a Maple Leaf from somewhere and started torching that. Don’t ask me why — we had a small contribution to the Kosovo bombing campaign but evidently it was enough to arouse the ire of Slobo’s boys. I’ve never been so proud to be Canadian in years. I turned the sound up to see if they were yelling ”Death to the Little Satan!” But you can’t have everything.

I tend to oppose regulation against flag-burning. I understand why this issue trips some triggers; most people don’t, I think, outside of the ranks with military experience or an acquaintance with American history beyond what the public schools teach. And I can’t quite get beyond the hypocrisy: burning a flag is protected speech, but telling radio listeners why they should vote for you isn’t?

Still, I tend to prefer to err on the side of liberty on this issue. Mark’s essay highlights two advantages of legal flag-burning. First, it’s definitely an act which makes someone’s position on a lot of things clear; don’t you appreciate knowing? Second, being reviled by evil people is honorable, not shameful.

(Via Don Sensing.)

Property Rights and Judicial Activism

Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued its verdict in Kelo vs. City of New London, finding that the city had the right to condemn homes and force their sale so the land can be used by a private developer to build an office park, hotel, and health club.

I don’t think the Supreme Court has done anything in recent memory that is as universally reviled.

See Todd Zywicki, Cafe Hayek, and Don Sensing for typical reactions.

The case has even generated interesting discussions at work. Strong Democrats were singing the praises of Justices Scalia and Thomas, while more conservative types were advising moderation towards criticism of Justices Stevens and Ginsburg.

Personally, I agree with the critics. This is perhaps the worst Supreme Court act in recent memory.

UPDATE (2005-06-25): Ann Althouse has an interesting, well-argued dissenting view.

Don’t Get Mall Gift Cards

It seems that the site has become Consumer Alert Central recently. I hope this doesn’t become a trend; consumer watchdogs tend to get harassed, and I’d vastly prefer to have good consumer experiences.

Anyway, yesterday was Tami’s birthday. Among other things, I got her a Simon Mall gift card, something she had suggested herself. It was easy to get, and would enable an afternoon of hassle-free shopping for her. Of course, as you’ve probably figured out, this was not exactly the experience she had.

With most gift cards we’ve used, you can use up the card easily. At the final swipe, the available balance is subtracted from your total bill, and you’re given the opportunity to pay the rest some other way. With Simon’s cards, though, if the bill is greater than the available balance, the entire purchase is simply declined. To use the card up, you have to know the exact balance left on the card, and tell the cashier to charge only that amount to the card.

Most of the stores at the mall seemed to know this little dance well. They even offered to call in for Tami and check her balance–after warning her that the call came with a fee. This was too much for her, and she decided to complain after carefully spending every penny on the card. The mall representative denied that there was a fee, despite the reports from the stores. She, supposedly, had never heard of a fee. And, wouldn’t you know it, there doesn’t seem to be a fee at the present time, as this fee schedule makes clear.

This tripped Tami’s weirdness detector. Why would the stores lie about the fees? Something wasn’t right. A quick Web search confirmed that things, indeed, weren’t as they seemed.

The fees and expirations on Simon’s gift cards have earned it several lawsuits from state attorneys general, including Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. At least one online report about the lawsuits reveals the fee the store clerks were referring to: a 50 cent fee on checking the current balance. I won’t say that the mall rep was lying–she might just be new, and unaware–but it’s a bit shady on Simon’s part to imply that the store clerks were lying. And when vendors play such games, I don’t generally need direct evidence to conclude that something’s not right.

Now, to Simon’s credit, they aren’t hiding any of the fees they currently charge. I was aware of the fees that are the subject of the lawsuits when I bought the card. On the other hand, I wasn’t aware of the hassle associated with using the card, which seems designed to ensure that some available balance is left on the card. Combined with the expiration date and the other fees, that looks dishonest to me.

Really, I couldn’t care less about the fees by themselves. But the obstacles they erect to getting your money out of the card is a different matter. I won’t be buying any more of these cards, and I suggest you not buy them either–especially if you’re buying us a gift.

The Making of Another Criminal

A self-described music industry defender takes the plunge into illegal downloading, and explains exactly why:

If, with the resources of an entire industry of full-time workers and decades of catalogs and data and precedent, you serve music listeners less well than listeners and their hacked-together tech kludges serve each other, then you are defeated by your own market forces, and by your own market.

Father’s Day: Losing Kids and Music Hardware

So Father’s Day is almost over. For me, it’s been over; since the main task for today was to get rid of one of my kids (for the week at Scout camp), we decided to have our fun a day early.

The kids got me a nice present: a gift certificate to Fry’s Electronics, the legendary California geek shop, which recently opened a store a few miles away. (To my knowledge, it’s the only one in Indiana.) The gifts were immediately put to productive use: buying a digital music player and associated paraphernalia.

I’m a bit weird. So, in keeping, my top feature for a music player was support for the Ogg Vorbis audio format. (If you really want to know why, ask.) Of the piles of inexpensive flash players at Fry’s, only two player families could claim the feature: iRiver’s 700 series players and Samsung’s Yepp series. Based on a recommendation by a sales guy, I picked the Samsung YP-MT6V, a 256MB flash player that’s a little smaller than a salt shaker. Based on the weekend’s use, I highly recommend it.

Unfortunately, the Fry’s sales prowness didn’t extend to the little FM transmitter I bought so I could listen to the Samsung in the car. The Belkin TuneCast was recommended, and actually looks well-made. Unfortunately, it has trouble putting out a quality signal that can reach my standard car antenna from the front seat; contributing to the problem is that it only has four station settings within a very narrow band, making it difficult to avoid bleedover. This one’s going back tomorrow, along with the third-party ink cartridge that made my printer very unhappy.

A New Approach to the LSB (part 2)

For background, read part 1. This post is going to get a bit technical, so if the first part made your eyes gloss over, you might want to skip this part.

So our goal is to provide an LSB-compatible environment for LSB programs, and an environment compatible with Debian 3.1 for the rest. It seems that we can’t do this using the same system libraries and programs, so we need to use different ones. But how do we convince one environment or the other to load when we need them, and not to load when we don’t?

The key is the dynamic linker: that magic code that finds the shared libraries for the programs we run and puts them all together so the program can find them. It turns out that the LSB insists on having its own dynamic linker, separate from the rest of the system; runtime environments can’t be LSB-compliant without them, and programs can’t be LSB-compliant unless they use the special LSB linker. The linker doesn’t have to act any different from the normal one, so standard procedure is to symlink the regular dynamic linker to the name the LSB requires.

But the possibility has always been there to use an entirely different linker for LSB programs than for non-LSB programs, and even to use different linkers for different LSB versions. So, the solution is obvious: instead of symlinking the standard linker, we provide a slightly modified linker for LSB programs.

What do we mean by “slightly modified”? One possibility: cutting-edge versions of libraries could be stored in a separate location on the system, where no regular application will see them. Our LSB linker could then prefer libraries from the special paths to the normal ones. Another: programs which must run differently under the LSB can be compiled differently and live in their own special location, which are preferred to the normal location when run in the LSB context.

So far, this is vaporware. I’m still wrestling with the source code to glibc to see how difficult it would be to do this. Once done, however, LSB compliance and compatibility with Debian might no longer be conflicting goals.

A New Approach to the LSB

One of my responsibilities at work is the status of Debian (and Progeny’s Debian-derivative distributions, such as Componentized Linux) with regards to compliance with the Linux Standard Base (LSB). This has been very frustrating at times.

Many of the problems occur because the LSB has a less conservative position regarding core updates than Debian does. For example, the current LSB standard (2.0) pretty much requires version 2.3.3 of the standard core library (“glibc”), one better than the version shipped in Debian 3.1 last week. The prerelease standard (3.0) gives us whole new sets of problems; it requires glibc 2.3.4, the new tests for the C++ programming language standard seem to have problems with the standard C++ library, and the tests for the graphical system won’t even run in Debian.

While many of the particular problems are new, other problems have plagued previous Debian releases. Debian 3.0 was never able to achieve LSB compliance by itself, because of problems similar to these. Most of the problems from that era have been fixed in Debian 3.1, but new problems have arisen to take their places. And in some cases, the problems have persisted over a long time, such as the problem with international patches to some programs that have been rejected by upstream authors.

All of these problems have important implications for distributions that are based on Debian. Now that Debian 3.1 has been released, we want to use that as a baseline for compatibility between various distributions derived from Debian. But if we need to upgrade our distributions to comply with LSB requirements, we tend to break that compatibility. Will Progeny stuff work on Ubuntu, or Xandros stuff on regular Debian? It might not, if we don’t have some common ground. My boss has been giving Ubuntu a hard time over this already; it wouldn’t be good for us to criticize them and then follow their example.

So, my current research into the problem has focused not on making Debian adhere to the LSB standard, but on allowing Debian to provide a compatibility environment for LSB programs, without incorporating huge changes that would break compatibility with the current stable version of Debian.

Fortunately, the LSB provides us with a pretty big hook I think I can exploit. This post is already long enough, so I’ll describe it in a subsequent post.

Minivans, Toyota, and Reputations

Our family is now in the market for a new vehicle, preferably a minivan or something like it. Our current van has been having problems (as regular readers know well), and when we decided against a family reunion on the basis of the van’s reliability, we knew it was time for a change.

The reviewers seem to think there are three choices out there for new minivans: the Honda Odyssey, the Toyota Sienna, and lots of wrong choices. (See, for example, this typical review.) So, these two models were among the four test drives we had time for on Saturday. There are a few other brands we want to look at, and the brands we did see (Kia and Nissan) weren’t bad, but there’s no question that the best models we saw were by Toyota and Honda.

At least, that was the impression I had until Saturday night, when I settled in for an evening of online research. While the Honda search was about what I expected, the Toyota search was a different story.

The first really interesting review of the Toyota Sienna came from Phil Greenspun, a respected techie and dot-com gazillionaire. The review itself is mostly nit-picky, with some nostalgia for a simpler past thrown in for good measure, but the comments, over and over, complained of a serious problem with Siennas and Toyota’s heavy-handed treatment of the problem.

The claim was that Toyota V6 engines had a habit of causing oil breakdown much sooner than usual, causing sludge to build up in the oil. Oil breakdown and sludge are signs that the owner has been neglecting regular maintenance; Toyota was treating these cases as such, and refused to cover the resulting engine damage under the drivetrain warranty.

In and of itself, this isn’t all that strange. The Internet tends to magnify the message of motivated speakers, and people with $6000 repair bills have plenty of motivation. As a result, there isn’t a popular product made that doesn’t have some number of loud complaints. So what was different here? Quite a few comments, made over several years, contained the same basic story: relatively new van, often immaculately kept, develops engine problems, with the dealer accusing the owner of causing the problem. By contrast, Honda complaints seem to be fairly diverse: a transmission here, brakes there, a broken door handle there. This is more in line with a generally good manufacturer that occasionally makes mistakes.

A quick Google search confirmed the oil sludge problem. There is an online petition, with nearly a thousand signatures, organized by “Toyota Owners Unite For Resolution”, which has more information and many more cases, including photos. News reports from USA Today, Consumer Affairs, and two from the Center for Auto Safety (one, two) support the anecdotes further. The San Diego Union-Tribune reports on a possible class action lawsuit.

While Toyota has given ground to the complaints and no longer refuse to fix these problems, they continue to insist that the problem is caused by owner neglect, and that their new policies regarding sludge issues comes solely from the goodness of their hearts. In other words, they continue to blame the owners, even the ones with documented records. One wonders what evidence could possibly convince them to take some of the responsibility.

And this is why Toyota has effectively lost the ability to sell to me. Everyone makes mistakes; it doesn’t freak me out that Toyota has made bad engines in the past. And it’s only natural to assume customer neglect initially, since it’s the proper explanation for most cases. But now, they have nothing to gain by continuing to blame customers, since they’ve already provided an unlimited warranty against this specific problem, and the evidence is much stronger than it appeared at first. Yet they continue to insist on their own innocence. If they refuse to budge even with so little at stake and so much evidence against them, what will they do when there is more at stake, or less evidence, that some other problem I might encounter is their responsibility? Rarely do we consumers get such clear evidence of a company’s customer service performance; it seems foolish to disregard it when we do.

I am considering giving Toyota a last chance to explain themselves at the dealer, since their van is otherwise so good, and on the basis of a recommendation from someone I trust. But it’s not likely that they will be able to convince me to buy, regardless of what they say. After all, their edge over the Honda van is very slim; why should I take an extra risk with Toyota when I can get nearly as good without this risk?

UPDATE (2005-07-01): The choice is made!

UPDATE (2005-08-25): Comments are now disabled. It’s one thing to have a different opinion and argue for it; it’s quite another to impersonate people and lie about their work.

Debian 3.1 Released

Late on Monday, the happy news came through: Debian 3.1 (“sarge”) has been officially released.

(I’d have posted about it earlier, but I’ve been busy upgrading.)

Keeping Busy and Lamenting Progress

It’s been a long month, with lots going on.

Further, I think I have too high a threshold for posting, for whatever reason. This makes it difficult to maintain a high level of posts; if every post has to be carefully crafted, then the number of posts goes down.

So, with that, I’ll just pass on a link to a post on the downside of growth in Hamilton County, Indiana (which is where I live).

The article does a good job of portraying the drawbacks of living in a fast-growing area, and brings up a practice I despise: the overuse of eminent domain and the practice of condemning perfectly good property as a legal tactic. On the other hand, the article clearly sees growth as a bad thing (what with snide jabs at “urban sprawl” that portray it and its “proponents” as monsters selling the environment for development money), and seems unwilling to consider that, even given the unsettling tactics used by the city of Noblesville, the road might still be a good idea. Little to no consideration is given to the side of the city, apart from selective quotes and “straw man” caricatures.