Pollen, Pollen Everywhere

Is there an unusually large amount of pollen in the Boston area this year and has pollen season been especially long?  After running errands yesterday morning I left my blue car in the driveway.  Two hours later it was coated with golden dust.  After this morning’s bike ride my eyes burned and felt gritty.  Every surface in my office is dusted with yellow powder.  It’s too much.

Belated Post on Pirate Bay Guilty Verdict

This post waited quietly at the end of the queue during the end-of-semester paper/exams/grading crush.  It’s no longer news that a Swedish court found Pirate Bay’s co-founders guilty of assisting the distribution of illegal content and sentenced them to one year in jail and a $3.6 million fine (which I assume is joint, not several).  One of the defendants put on a prototypical, insouciant cyber-attitude about the verdict: “Stay calm – nothing will happen to TPB, us personally or filesharing what so ever. This is just a theatre for the media. Really, it’s a bit LOL.”

A year in jail and 30 million kronor fine–just another day at the office. (Did he actually say “LOL?”)

As noted here and widely reported elsewhere the trial did not get off to a promising start for the recording industry when the court rejected the prosecution’s theory that Pirate Bay itself distributed copyright-protected content,  but the court decided that Pirate Bay’s hosting of links to third-party torrents for such content violated the prohibition on “assisting making available copyrighted content.” The defendant’s said they will appeal the verdict. It came out after the verdict that the presiding judge is a member of a pro-industry copyright-protection organization in Sweden, raising questions about his objectivity. Such a claim in the U.S. would raise an issue that the judge should have recused himself from the trial, but I don’t know how strong the recusal claim would be in the U.S. and know nothing about recusal under Swedish law.

Google and Orphan Books

Orphan books are books whose authors and publishers have effectively abandoned them. They are out of print but still covered by copyright law and not in the public domain. University and other library collections contain large numbers of orphan books. Google is scanning and converting these orphan books to digital form as part of its project to create a vast book database. Last year Google settled a copyright-infringement lawsuit with a number of U.S. book publishers, agreeing to share book database licensing revenue with publishers in exchange for “virtually exclusive rights to publish the books online and to profit from them.” (“Google’s Plan for Out-of-Print Books is Challenged,” The New York Times, 03-Apr-2009)   This concerns critics who fear that Google’s control over orphan books will limit the ability of others to develop competing databases, allowing Google to charge a premium for access to its database.

Google has scanned over 7 million books so far, at its own expense, and deserves financial reward for its investment and initiative. Publishing orphan books in digital form makes them available to a vastly larger audience than they enjoy today. Those two statements are incontestable, yet every silver lining has a cloud. When knowledge is power how much control over the world’s knowledge should one company have?

Seeing the Stars

Flipping channels last night I found the Bruce-Willis-saves-earth movie Armageddon, one of summer 1998’s two blockbuster hits featuring an asteroid threatening to End Life As We Know It. (The other is Deep Impact.) A few minutes viewing confirmed my recollection that Armageddon is one of the Ten Most Ridiculous Movies Ever Made. The reasons are many, not counting Willis’s blond hairpiece. Here’s a representative example of Hollywood screenwriting at its most inane: they bring a Gatling gun on their mission to the asteroid? Yeah, I know it’s supposed to be a visual comic book but I knew comic books and Armageddon, you are no comic book.

I switched off television and went outside.  The Maine night was clear and moonless and stars stretched from horizon to horizon.  I rarely notice the night sky at home–there is too much surface light, my head is down, I don’t go outside after dark, whatever–and I could not avoid staring at it here.  I lay back on the deck, eyes wide open, and absorbed the silent spectacle.  A meteor streaked by and disappeared, without the aid of gatling guns or hairpieces.  Glorious.

Brilliant

Last Sunday’s New York Times reported on captchas, the ubiquitous website security tests that require users to decipher and enter words or letters presented in squiggly type.  In theory deciphering the puzzle requires the application of human intelligence, frustrating automated programs that would access the site for malicious or mischievous purposes.  As the ability of automated programs to crack the puzzles becomes more sophisticated the captchas must evolve to outwit them.  Some captchas require a user to orient a “randomly rotated” image, for example. Most of us have experienced a captcha with indecipherable letters.  Is it an i?  A j?  A t? An f?  Sometimes I reach for stronger reading glasses and position my face inches from the screen, muttering “who created this chicken scratching?” in frustration.

I was inordinately pleased to learn that this frustration serves a greater cause than site access, at least for reCaptchas (which this blog uses for new-user registrations). reCaptcha uses non-machine-readable words from books that are being digitized.  If a scanned book page is wrinkled the scanner may return gibberish that requires human interpretation.  reCaptcha presents those words to users who parse the mangled letters in the course of logging into a site, then reports the results to those converting the books to digital form.  If 6,075 people decipher the word as “constabulary” then “constabulary” it must be.   reCaptcha’s clever efficiency will temper my frustration the next time I fail one of its tests for human intelligence.

Peat Bomb

After a day of gardening in the hot sun–turning over soil, spreading compost, pulling out weeds–I drove to Naples to buy four bales of peat moss.  I wanted 3.8 cubic foot bales, large, unwieldy and quite heavy it wet.  I paid inside the store, declined the clerk’s offer to “give you a hand with those”, and exited to the yard.  There was one stack of bales, taller than me, and they were stuck together from being wrapped tightly for shipping.  I could barely reach the nearest bale in the top row and couldn’t get purchase on the smooth plastic to lift or pull it towards me.  Maybe I could have walked behind the pile and pushed up on the bale to free it, but that would have required walking around all of the other piles of compost, top soil, and other bagged items that lined the edge of the yard.  I reached again, as far as I could, and grabbed a loose plastic flap on one side of the bale.  I pulled it and the bale moved a few inches.  I pulled again and angled the bale to the edge of the pile.  I pulled one more time, thinking the bale would slide off the pile into my waiting arms.  The flap gave, pulling its companion flaps with it.  The bale ripped open, spilling 1/4 of its contents–that would be .95 cubic feet–on my head, in my face, down my throat, in my shirt, on my arms, in my pants, down my legs, and into my shoes.   A cloud of superfine dried peat enveloped me, like Pig Pen from Charlie Brown.  I sputtered, coughed, wiped peat from my eyes, blew my nose, and shook out my shirt and pants.  I  turned around, expecting other customers to be laughing at my folly.  No one noticed.  Finally I wrestled four bales into the truck from the pile’s grip, started the truck, and drove away, unimaginably dirty and uncomfortable.