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On Language

George Orwell said just about everything that needs to be said on the subject of language style in his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language." Even though he focuses on the political discussion of his day, the essay is timeless.

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

Fraud on Ebay

New York Times article about fraud on Ebay

"EBay's feedback system that allows buyers to post negative reviews of bad sellers is supposed to protect customers like Ms. Pollack. Yet all of the alleged counterfeiters had consistently positive ratings."

I've noticed this too. There's a simple economic reason: Ebay doesn't force the seller to give feedback. Because of this nearly all sellers on Ebay will only give buyers feedback after the buyer has given them a positive feedback. If the buyer gives them negative feedback, they reciprocate. Guess who gets hurt more, a seller with 5000 postives and 1 negative, or a buyer with 4 positives and 1 negative? Plus, once a buyer gives the seller a negative feedback (which can't be undone except under rare circumstances) the seller has nothing to lose by giving a dishonest negative feedback to the buyer. Until this situation changes, feedback on Ebay is a joke.

I never give feedback as a buyer until the seller gives feedback, just on principle. As a result, I have a low feedback rating despite several hundred buys over 7 years.

I have used Ebay quite a lot, and I've seen all kinds of scams. I pick up on most of them before they get me, but sometimes not. It is a cesspool, and I agree with the people in the article who say it severely drives down the price of legitimate goods. For example, I often bid a type of laptop that I know is worth $200, but I never bid more than $130 because I know about 1/3 of the time it's a scam or the laptop has serious flaws the buyer knows about but isn't telling. I eventually win one, because all the experienced buyers will only bid about 2/3 of what something's really worth on Ebay. The bids I lose (which is most of them) are nearly always to green Ebayers who don't realize the risk and bid a fair market price. It's still a place to find a bargain, but no more so than a street market in Bangkok. In other words, if you don't know what you're doing, you're sure to get fleeced, and even if you do know what you're doing you might.

Since a reasonable bid on Ebay means you will lose over 90% of your bids, you have to use an auction manager (sniping is an important feature here). I like JBidWatcher, a free and open source auction manager that runs on Java. Without an auction manager, you might as well go to or whatever and just buy it from a shop, you'll do better on the average. Of course you have to watch out for the low-end shops as well, but the merchant rating systems are much more accurate than Ebay feedback, so at least you have more to go on than intuition.

The most important person you've never heard of

Stanislav Petrov is responsible for preventing nuclear world war, among several other cases. What a strange world, that someone who made a decicion like this which affects every one of us personally is living as a pensioner.

BBC Science "Reporting"

The BBC has some of the best political reporting in the business.

On the other hand, their science reporting is straight out of Weekly World News. Here is an example:

To see an example of what science reporting is supposed to look like, this is a typical New York Times science piece on the same days as the "telepathic parrot" piece on the BBC.

The New York Times isn't perfect, but at least they have these elements:

In the BBC, you almost never read a contrary point of view from a mainstream scientist. In fact, you may be led to believe that the amazing stories are being promoted by mainstream scientists. Testimonial is apparently the same as evidence in the BBC's esteemed opinion, and there is always an answer to every question. This is not science, this is pseudoscientific entertainment.

On Fuel Cells and a Hydrogen Economy

I'm not impressed by fuel cell claims until I see a prototype running with the advertised performance. I worked in fuel cell research, and I can tell you: there is plenty of big talk that never pans out. The researchers I worked with only believe it when they see it, for good reason.

Currently, if you power fuel cells using hydrogen derived from natural gas, you will lose about 40% efficiency during "steam reformation" (which converts the methane into hydrogen and CO2), then the fuel cell will get about 50% overall efficiency (hydrogen -> electricity), for a total efficiency of 30%. A good diesel engine can get 40% efficiency, right now.

The real advantage of fuel cells is that you can take a very, very high density fuel (compressed hydrogen), and generate electricity with zero pollution at 50% efficiency (up to 70% efficiency, but 50% is more economical in the real world because it means your expensive fuel cell doesn't have to be as big). If you can't run an electrical cord to where you need the power, fuel cells can't be beat for energy density (energy per mass of total energy generating device).

Very high energy density is a niche market, though. We don't really care if our car weighs a few hundred pounds more. For these reasons, I don't see hydrogen becoming a realistic energy transportation method in the near future.

DNS private registration

If you own your own domain name, you probably know about "private" domain registration, where a third-party company puts their contact information in the public information slots for the domain. If you're thinking about using the largest of these (Domains By Proxy), save your money. Their legal agreement (as of February 2007) states:

"You understand and agree that DBP has the absolute right and power, in its sole discretion and without any liability to you whatsoever, <...> to "close accounts (or) reveal your name and personal information." (source)

the registrar states in their legal agreement:

You acknowledge and agree that 1and1 has the absolute right and power <...> to reveal to third parties the contact information provided by you <...> if any third party threatens legal action against 1and1 that is related in any way, directly or indirectly, to the domain name<...>

So all someone has to do is send a threatening letter and 1and1 will roll over.

Also, pick your registrar carefully if you might possibly make anyone mad for any reason. For example, the Godaddy and 1and1 both states in their legal agreement that they can cancel your domain at any time, for essentially any reason.

Although I haven't registered with them, Key Systems is the registrar for The Pirate Bay (a illegal file trading site), so you can be fairly sure they won't drop you based on content.