Cloud Drive: How Big Is Your MP3 Collection?

Update: Apple has now released their iTunes Match service, which also places a ridiculously small limit on the number of allowed songs. As with Amazon, music lovers with larger collections – the very customers most likely to pay for the service – are excluded.

Much hay is being made over Amazon’s new Cloud Drive music storage system, which lets you upload your music collection to the cloud so you can listen to it from almost anywhere without having to carry it with you or worry about backing it up. Most of the articles I’m seeing, including David Pogue’s NY Times piece, are calling the service “Almost Free” or “Very Cheap.”

Huh? After 30 seconds of surfing around their FAQs, I had already determined it was way too expensive. While most articles about Cloud Drive claim it costs $1/GB, the rate chart at the bottom of this page makes it clear that that’s not quite true. It’s a tiered pricing plan, which means that if you own 250GBs of music, you have to pay for the 500GB service plan, which costs $500/year!

Collection size polls follow after the break.
Continue reading “Cloud Drive: How Big Is Your MP3 Collection?”

DC’s Plastic Bag Tax

great_pacific_garbage_patch.jpg Residents of Washington D.C. started the new year with a shiny — albeit tiny — new tax. Shoppers who show up at stores without their own bags or boxes will need to start paying 5 cents each for them. In my view, this is an excellent idea, and long overdue. I’d love to see a tax like this applied nationally (even globally, if such a thing were possible).

We’ve known about the massive environmental problems caused by an excess of plastic in general, and of plastic bags in particular, for decades. See Salon’s excellent Plastic bags are killing us for details. We know that only a small fraction of plastic bags get recycled, and that the vast majority end up in landfills or in the ocean. As of 1992, 14 billion pounds of trash were dumped into ocean annually around the world. The world’s largest landfill is now officially the Pacific Ocean — as of a few years ago, 100 million tons of plastic were swirling in the Pacific Gyre.

The way I see it, anyone who had been watching this news would have started refusing to accept plastic bags (or any bags, ideally) from stores years ago. But for whatever reason, people haven’t. Stand in line at virtually any grocery store and count the percentage of patrons bringing their own bags. To me, the DC tax seems like too little too late, if anything.

The lack of willingness on the part of consumers to give up the smallest conveniences for the sake of the environment is a tragic reminder of our collective complacency. Since people won’t voluntarily step up and do the right thing without a carrot or a stick to guide them, DC has decided to use a stick (taxes).


I recently got into a discussion on Twitter with @vmarks and @russnelson about whether the tax was a reasonable response to the crisis. Apparently libertarians, their opinion is that taxes represent “force,” and that some form of reward system would be more effective than a tax. Stores should incentivize canvas bags by giving discounts to those who bring their own. I have a couple of responses to that line of reasoning.

First, many stores already do this. That’s excellent, but it puts the cost burden on the store, rather than on the consumer, where it belongs. And it effectively means that stores that don’t reward personal bags are financially disadvantaged compared to stores that don’t. That, in turn, means the overall financial incentive is to NOT reward use of personal bags.

Second, voluntary participation rates are pretty low. Go to a store where personal bags are incentivized and count the number of consumers who do bring their own. There are still tons of new paper and plastic bags walking out the door every day. Unfortunately, we’re not in a position where we can afford to leave this up to personal choice. Too many people will put the small convenience of not keeping a personal bag or two in the car above the massive environmental destruction that results from them not making that choice.


Third, let’s take it as a given that the crisis must be addressed effectively, and that urgent global solutions are required. If you want to use a carrot-based system rather than stick-based, you might be tempted to say “Just require stores to use an incentive program.” I’m sure the numbers would look better if incentives were required, but do you see the irony here? You would have traded the stick of taxes (force) with the stick of requiring stores to participate (force). You would not have escaped the fact that the direness of the situation, combined with the complacency of both stores and consumers, requires a force-based approach.

The tax is minor, and it’s not a blanket tax. No one who does what they should be doing anyway (bringing personal bags) will ever have to pay it. The tax is present because we can’t wait for carrots and volunteerism to do the job.

I find it unfortunate that certain cross-sections of the population have such a knee-jerk reaction to taxation in general that taxes are always seen as problematic, even when they’re inexpensive and sensible.

The free market is responsible for this problem to begin with. Free markets, left to their own devices, will seldom take care of their own side effects. The right thing to do would be for the U.S. to stand up and be a world leader on this, to simply make plastic bags at grocery stores illegal. It should not be a matter of “personal choice” to use products that hurt us all so profoundly (i.e. it’s not like the choice of whether to wear a motorcycle helmet – a purely personal choice). But that’s not going to happen. The very least we can do is to financially punish those who make choices that hurt us all.

Agree/disagree? Leave a comment, and vote in the poll.

Is a bag tax a sensible way to curb plastic bag use?

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Update 01/10: China leapfrogs enviromental policy of other countries by banning plastic bags outright. The country expects to save 37 million barrels of oil annually (on top of the immense environmental benefit).

Could You Work in Windows?

How much is your Mac – or rather your Mac lifestyle – worth to you?

Just so we have some standard of reference as to what constitutes a “killer” job offer, we’re defining it here as making 25% more than you make now, all other factors being equal (same commute, same quality of co-workers, same boss, etc.)

Obviously, people who already work all day in Windows shouldn’t vote (but feel free to comment).

If you got a killer job offer but found out you'd have to use Windows all day every day, would you take it?

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How Often Do You Shower?

I know that some people shower a lot, but was surprised by the results of this poll showing that 23% of people shower more than once a day, and that an additional 55% shower every day or almost every day. Several people in the comments on that page also mentioned wanting a clean towel for each shower! Even though I bike daily and hike on the weekends, and Amy works in the garden almost every day, we’re both light showerers – we average 2-3 showers/week each, and neither of us take showers lasting more than 10-15 minutes (how long does it take to lather up, shampoo, and shave anyway?) Miles gets one or two baths per week, depending on what he’s been up to. Neither of us have ever been accused of stinking, nor do we feel dirty. I can’t help but think that personal perceptions of cleanliness don’t correspond neatly to cultural standards of cleanliness (in other words, people don’t consider us “dirty” based on our appearance or smell, even if they think daily showering is necessary for cleanliness).

According to one person’s calculations, the average 10-minute shower costs $1.12 and uses 26 gallons of water – they don’t come free! If you’re using low-flow toilets, reducing your lawn watering, or taking other water-saving measures for environmental reasons, you could cancel out your efforts pretty quickly by taking long or frequent showers. YMMV.

Curious whether Birdhouse readers have similar showering habits to the population at large, so I’m reproducing the poll here. Votes are 100% anonymous.

How often do you shower?

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Links or Bookmarks?

Ignore this post if you’re not a WordPress user :)

There’s an interminable discussion going down on the WP-Hackers mailing list about one of those little semantic issues that snowballs perniciously into a major debate. WordPress’ back-end lets users manage URLs for inclusion in the sidebar. This area is usually used for the site’s blogroll, but many people use WordPress for non-bloggy purposes. The debate is over whether to title the administrative interface for this external URL manager “Links,” “Bookmarks,” or “Blogroll” (though “Blogroll” isn’t really on the table – that’s what it’s called now, and no one likes it).

There are a dozen good arguments on either side, but we’re trying to take the temperature of the WordPress user community. Helping out a bit by posting a poll here. Which term seems more intuitive / palatable / sensible to you?

Should WP's list of URLs be titled "Links" or "Bookmarks?"

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Spin Time

Catching up on some of the SXSW talks I missed via podcast, and happened on Alex Steffen’s Worldchanging conversation. Lots of good stuff, but was struck by one tidbit in particular. But before I reveal that, pop quiz:

If you own a power drill, how many total minutes would you estimate it’s been spinning since you bought it? Think hard. Be honest.

How much spin time is on your drill?

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According to Worldchanging (who admittedly provide no backup for their data), the average power drill “is used for somewhere between six and twenty minutes in its entire lifetime.”

And yet supposedly almost half of all American households own one. If you think of all the energy and materials it takes to make, store and then dispose of those drills — all the plastic and metal parts; all the trucks used to ship them and stores built to sell them; all the landfills they wind up in — the ecological cost of each minute of drilling can be seen to be absurdly large, and thus each hole we put in the wall comes with a chunk of planetary destruction already attached.

But what we want is the hole, not the drill. That is, most of us, most of the time, would be perfectly happy not owning the drill itself if we had the ability to make that hole in the wall in a reasonably convenient manner when the need arose. What if we could substitute, in other words, a hole-drilling service for owning a drill?

We can. Already there are tool libraries, tool-sharing services, and companies that will rent you a drill when you want one. Other models are possible as well, and such product-service systems are not limited to hand tools.

It’s a significant point. Which unfortunately ignores the fact that there’s an ecological footprint involved in driving to the tool-lending library when that rare picture-hanging time arrives. But still – if you step back and look at how much you own that you seldom use, multiplied by n zillion people, the impact is staggering. How do we change our own minds, our own ways of living? How much convenience are you willing to sacrifice for ecological gains?

Music: Akron/Family :: The Lightning Bolt of Compassion

The Purloined Sirloin

Quick: What’s the most commonly shoplifted item in America? Batteries? Makeup? Candy? According to the Food Marketing Institute, it’s meat. Didn’t used to be. A couple years ago, meat took a back seat to cough medicines, which were often stolen by meth chefs. But when those medicines went behind the counter, meat was promoted to first place. So who’s lifting rib-eye? The occasional kleptomaniac, starving student, or dude on a dare, sure, but the bulk of beef is pilfered by house mums. Slate:

Though men and women shoplift in equal numbers, such aspirational meatlifters are most likely to be gainfully employed women between 35 and 54, according to a 2005 University of Florida study.

So apparently the practice is not only more widespread than I would have thought, but apparently commonly practiced by a demographic I would never have suspected. Which got me thinking: What percentage of Birdhouse readers are clandestine meat poachers?

Have you ever stolen meat?

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Music: Ralph Carney :: Krelm

Evolution of Webmail

I’ve always regarded webmail as a “last resort” — something to use when you don’t have the option to configure a mail client. Even if I’ve only got 15 minutes of email to do on a strange machine, I’m more likely to spend the 30 seconds it takes to configure an IMAP account than I am to mess with webmail. I hate it that much. But one thing I’ve learned running a hosting business is that I don’t have a lot of company in this department. I keep encountering power users who depend on GMail, Yahoo, etc. It used to surprise me, but I’ve been paying more attention to the options lately.

Sure I can see the advantages of webmail systems, but in my mind, the downside outweighs the upside. I work with a lot of mail, and tend to flip it all over the place – grab 10 non-contiguous messages at a time and drag them to a folder or delete them. Sort via column headers. Forward entire threads as a single message. Mark with colored labels. Set up rules and filters for custom handling, etc. Most webmail systems either don’t support those activities or make them very cumbersome. I hate not having a preview pane, and I really hate that hitting reply always quotes the entire message, not just the bit I’ve selected. Webmail address books tend to suck, and lack integration with the OS. I could go on.

But webmail has changed a lot in the past few years. GMail’s integrated search — and accompanying dismissal of folder-ization — has a lot going for it. But more interesting to me is the Ajax-ification of webmail we’re seeing in webmail clients like Roundcube (which Birdhouse now provides). Suddenly it’s possible to select non-contiguous messages with Cmd-click or Shift-click and drag them into folders, or delete — a huge step forward for webmail. A few days ago, Apple released a new version of .Mac webmail, which takes some of the basic ideas of Roundcube and pushes them to the next level, emulating the experience almost completely (it even has a preview pane). However, .Mac webmail still insists on quoting the entirety of a message, rather than just the selected part (I wonder how much webmail as a whole contributes to gross over-quoting?) But webmail is definitely getting more usable than it used to be.

Ajax is quickly enabling web-based apps to emulate the full power of desktop applications. The responsiveness isn’t quite there, but the feature set is catching up. If the trend continues, I can imagine myself spending more time in webmail before long, though I still like the idea of having a master repository on a drive I control.

Webmail: Love it or hate it?

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Music: Clem Snide :: Joan Jett Of Arc

Carbon Fest

Didn’t get around to cleaning the grill at the end of last summer (I usually try to do it once every year or two), and we were treated to a conflagration last night. Actually the fire was relatively small, but thick black smoke was just billowing out — enough to result in neighbors running over to see if everything was OK. Which got me wondering: How often do most people deep-clean their grills? I don’t mean “wire brush the surface” — I mean remove all the pieces and get down and dirty, scraping the Flavorizer bars, catch basin, etc. Or do you just let it burn off from time to time? If you answer, please also leave a comment guesstimating how often your grill gets used.

How often do you clean your grill?

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Tabs or Spaces?

Mentioned yesterday that I’ve been enjoying being part of a team programming project for the first time. One of the interesting things that comes up in a cooperative environment are all the conversations about preferred coding style — it’s not just you anymore, Buck-o. We’re all going to have to find a way to make our code flow together nicely. Conditional style, case preferences, and something I never knew was a long-standing religious debate before: tabs vs. spaces. All have been part of the conversation over the past six weeks (and all resolved amicably, FWIW).

Now the WordPress Hackers mailing list is having a protracted debate over the tabs. vs. spaces issue (apparently the first time it’s come up in three years). Jeremy Zawinski has a famous piece in favor of spaces. Lots of good arguments go the other way. I know where I stand. You?

Tabs or Spaces?

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