Oct 252007

I finally got my Ravelry invite today. I got on the waiting list about a month ago, so it didn’t take long. I spent a few minutes poking around, though I will have to be careful as it could prove to be an immense time-sink for me, with all the discussion about knitting and crochet. There’s even a group for KnitML there, which I hadn’t heard of before.

It’s interesting comparing Ravelry to Facebook, as well. Surface impressions: completely different crowd, they don’t ask for any information when you sign up except for an email address, username, and password. Of course, you can add info such as birthday or where you live to your profile, but it’s not needed. Lots of links to sites outside of Ravelry, thus the site feels much more open to the rest of the world than Facebook. And maybe because it’s more focussed, it will be more appealing long-term (there already seems to be quite a lot of Facebook ennui out there in the blogosphere).

If you’re a keen knitter or crocheter, don’t be put off by the fact you have to join a waiting list; it doesn’t take long to get the invite and it looks like a worthwhile resource. One neat item: the yarn listing includes people’s destash info.

Oct 252007

Here’s a fascinating piece discussing how fixed prices on books in Germany was actually pushing prices down (contrary to economic theory), while supporting a wide range of booksellers.

When I was last in Germany, apart from my usual beef about German booksellers not taking credit cards, I found no reason to complain about the range of books that was available. Children’s books are more expensive than I’m used to here, but a lot of that is also because most children’s books are only available in hardback and thus inherently more expensive. Paperbacks seemed reasonably priced in general, and of good typographical quality.

Peter Brantley has some questions at the end of his piece, which I think can be applied not only to books, but also television, news, indeed many aspects of what is commonly called “culture”. When the mass media and mass entertainment industry are desperately trying to increase ratings by catering to the fads and whims of the mass market, is this a “race to the bottom” as has been postulated? Is the long tail sufficient to enable people with diverse interests (and that’s all of us at some stage or another) to have those needs met, those itches scratched? How do people find those groups, if they don’t know what to look for?

Choice is important, knowing that you have choices is even more important. It’s a bit like free speech.

Oct 232007

If you have children, or an interest in privacy, spend the time and watch the video of Professor Valerie Steeves discussing how children’s web sites monitor their visits. It’s scary. [Link from Michael’s Geist’s blog.]

After seeing this, I wonder why the schools here don’t teach more about privacy. When we were last in Australia, visiting friends, I noticed that one friend, whose children are roughly the same age as mine, had two pieces of paper with handprints on the fridge. It turns out they are told about privacy in school, starting at age 5, and these handprints are reminders of that injunction about privacy. The wording on the paper was instructive.

Respect Privacy

Name ___ is special

Every handprint is unique. Personal information is worth taking care of. Keep this handprint in a safe place.

Find out more at www.privacy.vic.gov.au.

Simple, as befits young children, and the handprint with its tactile message and reminder of a child’s uniqueness struck me as a good idea. We need to be more aware of privacy and its importance in general, and especially for those not yet old enough to make their own informed decisions.

Oct 112007

In the midst of the U.S. housing crisis, Paul Kedrosky asks, quite reasonably, Why Do We Want People to Own Homes? I’ve been wondering that myself. Is it because people think houses are a good investment? Because they have sentimental attachments to the idea of owning the roof over their head? Because they want to be sure no-one can toss them out of their home? Because everyone else does?

I remember years ago in Australia (where almost everyone also wants to own their own home) talking to a German immigrant who complained bitterly that he couldn’t rent anywhere nice to live and so he had to buy a house. He would have been much happier renting, as people commonly do in Germany. Maybe the rental properties are better in Germany because so many people rent, or maybe part of it is because in Germany it’s common to make modifications to an apartment you rent, for example by renovating the kitchen (you own the appliances, the cabinets, etc, and take them with you if you move). People often rent the same apartment for 20 years or more, which is longer than many people in North America stay in houses they buy, so it’s worth their time and effort to make it a nice place to live.

Different countries, different ideas. For us ten years ago, there were a couple of reasons to buy rather than rent. We saw it as a reasonable investment, we wanted to live in a house with a garden, and I wanted a couple of cats. So buying made sense (many landlords don’t like pets).

As house prices climb to the extent that it’s questionable how good an investment they are (how high can they keep going?), it’ll be interesting to see what happens. Here in Vancouver house prices have been rising to the extent that many landlords are selling the rental houses to people who renovate and move in themselves, rather than renting them out. For families with children in local schools, having the landlord sell the house out from under them is extremely disruptive, especially when they can afford to rent, but can’t afford to buy, in the area they’re living in. From the landlord’s perspective, they’re cashing in on the capital gains rather than taking a rent that just can’t compare as a return on their investment. Either the house prices will have to come down, or the rents will have to go up, unless people are willing to continue to gamble on making their money from capital gains.

And in the U.S., owning the house doesn’t mean someone can’t turf you out if you default on a payment or two. The Economist has an article in this week’s magazine about the U.S. housing crisis, pointing out that foreclosure proceedings can take months in some states, but less than a month in Texas. Which makes me wonder even more why people buying houses they couldn’t afford didn’t rent instead.

Oct 102007

Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods is a good place to start in the pantheon of the Discworld books. That’s the reason we chose it, rather than one of the many others, to read in book club. There are a couple of places where having read some of the other books would give some additional depth (the librarian, or Death), but it’s not necessary for the enjoyment of the story. There are a lot of Discworld books. To get something of a picture of how they’re all related, try the Reading Order Guide (link from BoingBoing).

I remember reading Discworld books when I was studying physics, but then somehow got out of the habit (probably because they weren’t readily available in Germany where I was living at the time). So I was glad to be reminded of just how good a read they can be. Small Gods is a parody of religions, gods, and inquisitions. It tells the story of a small god (the definition being one that doesn’t have many followers and therefore doesn’t have much power) and his symbiosis with the one true believer. Along the way, Pratchett neatly pokes fun at organized religion, the Inquisition, philosophers, and lots of other things. It’s the sort of book you read for the snide asides as much as the storyline. It can be read at lots of levels; you can just read and enjoy the story or think about the deeper implications for comparative religions. We had fun discussing the relationship between Om and Brutha in terms of who needed whom the most. Both Om and Brutha change and learn during the book’s events; Om becoming less vengeful (although while he’s in tortoise form there’s not much he can do to carry out any vengeful actions) and more thoughtful through being maltreated (running gag: “there’s good eating on a tortoise” within earshot of him) and through Brutha’s bargaining power (he is, after all, the reason that Om is sentient although it takes him a while to figure that out).

All in all, worth trying if you haven’t already, even if you don’t usually read fantasy or science fiction. Just don’t blame me if you get hooked on the series.

Oct 072007

I know why it happened, but it still strikes me as odd, the fact that the goalposts kept moving, as it were, with copyright. And it’s weird no matter whether the copyright is there to give other people rights to use, copy and modify the work, or rights to the author to protect and profit from their work. In other areas of the law, the general rule is that what counts is the law at the time. It’s only illegal if it was illegal at the time the offence was committed, for example (the major exception being crimes against humanity). Even patents are valid for a set period of time, and companies know how long that will be when they apply for the patent (hence all the pharmaceutical tricks with minor modifications that they hope will be just enough to get a new patent on). Only in copyright, that I’m aware of, has it been the case that the period of validity has been so massively changed and applied retroactively. From 21 years (see History of Copyright to the death of the author plus 50-75 years, depending on the country you live in and some convoluted dependencies. And then there’s the famous extension by which Mickey Mouse would have been in the public domain by now, but won’t be for a while yet.

It just seems odd to me, the fact that copyright is the exception to the general rule. But maybe it just seems odd to me.

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