Rain, Rain, Go Away

Rain all week for southwestern California It’s raining again in LA.

A significant storm system is forecast to move into southwestern California today. This system will bring rain to San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties thi morning…Then the precipitation should spread quickly South through Los Angeles county in the afternoon. gusty South winds will also accompany the storm system as it sweeps through the region. The rain will last into the night and then taper to showers for Tuesday. [National Weather Service via Yahoo! Weather]

Yucko. My sister-in-law is coming to visit tomorrow. I hope the weather clears up so we can actually do something fun.

Would you like clean underwear with your fries?

Men's Regular Full Cut Flannel Boxers After seeing Amazon suggest purchasing clean underwear with almost every item we put in our shopping carts, Ariella and I have wondered if the Internet superstore’s recommendation engine is broken.

Amazon.com Admits Concocting Some Recommendations, a TechWeb News story from a couple of weeks ago, reveals the truth:

“Amazon.com made the shocking admission that it doctors some of its product recommendations, which are supposedly compiled by objective software that compares each customer’s purchasing history with the histories of others who’ve made similar purchases.”

I think it’s great that the world’s biggest book seller is also selling clothes (and even electronics and kitchen stuff). However, while throwing in bogus recommendations might generate some more short-term sales, it is just going to dilute consumer confidence over the long term.

RIAA doesn’t get it, but O’Reilly does

Last night, I read Tim O’Reilly’s superb article on “piracy” and the evolution of online distribution. Brilliant.

Especially apropos was O’Reilly’s comparison of Internet access to television: most of use don’t use “free” TV from the airwaves, but instead get cable or satellite. And many people with subscriptions to TV services pay extra for premium content (such as extra sports channels or HBO). Similarly, most of us don’t use “free” Internet from Juno, but instead pay a monthly fee to an ISP like SBC or AOL.

But the analogy breaks down here. We should be able to get a “premium ISP” package from AOL that gives us online access to all of Time Warner’s music. But it’s not available. Not good enough. If we can’t pay for online access to quality music, we’re going to resort to the next best thing: free file-sharing networks.

Hebcal by Phone beta

speaker.gif Well, it turns out it wasn’t that hard. After just a couple of hours of playing around with VoiceXML, I managed to create a Tellme extension that works.

  1. Call Tellme at 1-800-555-TELL
  2. Say extensions
  3. Dial 00613
  4. Dial or say your 5-digit zipcode
  5. Listen to the candle-lighting times for your area

If you want to see my VoiceXML code, check out shabbat.vxml (the main voice menu) and see the CGI-generated results for 90210.

Next thing to do would be to write a Tellme extension that reads my email for me. Actually, looks like the guy who invented Bugzilla has already done that.

VoiceXML for Hebcal

voicexml.gif I just thought of a new project for my Jewish Calendar website. I want to create a Tellme extension so people can call an 800 number to get candle-lighting times.

Over the past 4 years, I have used my hebcal.com site as an experimental test-bed for various web technologies. It all started when I wanted to learn Perl CGI.pm, so I created a web interface to the hebcal for Unix command-line app. Then I decided to add hebrew text, so I had to study up on Unicode and UTF-8. I even decided to learn PHP by adding an email subscription feature (might’ve been a little easier if I had written it in Perl like the rest of the website, but I wanted to learn a new language).

One particularly useful part of the website is the Shabbat Candle Lighting Times section (which tells you when the Jewish Sabbath begins each week). In addition to the regular HTML output, I have created JavaScript, WML, and even RSS versions of the same content.

The next obvious format to support would be VoiceXML. It looks pretty easy to hook into Tellme Studio so people could get candle-lighting times by telephone when they’re travelling. Instructions could be as simple as:

  1. Call Tellme at 1-800-555-TELL
  2. Say extensions
  3. Dial 00613
  4. Dial or say your 5-digit zipcode
  5. Listen to the candle-lighting times for your area

No fancy WAP-enabled cellphone needed. No clumsy embedded browser interface. Just a normal 12-button telephone and your voice.

Just gotta find the time to code the thing. It’ll probably get done before other ten hebcal feature requests that are in the queue.

Jury Duty: Day 2

blind-justice.jpg It was over before it even had a chance to begin.

The judge dismissed the jury today with the thanks of the court. He gathered us all around, explained to us that the case had been resolved without the need for a trial, so we were all free to go.

He didn’t say it explicitly, but my inference is that a plea bargain was reached between the defense and prosecution. Apparently this happens quite a bit; the prosecutor needs to look tough, like they’re actually going to go through with a trial, and finally the defense attorney caves in and cops a plea, rather than risking a trial.

242004t.jpg I’m disappointed. I really wanted to serve my country. In some way, I suppose I did get that opportunity; the presence of a jury panel helped the criminal justice system work. But I didn’t get to see the actual courtroom drama (or lack thereof) unfold. I guess I really wanted to be involved in more of the process, to decide whether the guy was innocent or guilty. You know, all that good Law & Order kinda stuff.

So I’ve got the rest of the day off, courtesy of the U.S. Government. Ariella just finished the rest of her term papers, so we’re going to enjoy a mini half-day vacation. We’ll either go to Malibu to visit Cousin Diana at the yogurt store, or we’ll head down to The Happiest Place On Earth for some mindless entertainment.

Jury Duty: Day 1

jury1.gif I showed up for Jury Duty today at the criminal courthouse in Downtown LA. I’m completely filled with a sense of civic pride and good old-fashioned patriotism. As I mentioned yesterday, I think that serving on a jury is one of the major duties of a citizen, right up there with paying taxes. (Pop quiz: can you name 3 rights and 3 duties as a citizen? Something we do every November is both a right and a duty.)

Juror Waiting Room

After going through some airport-like metal detectors, I rode a packed elevator up to the 11th floor and reported to room 302. When I walked in, José (the Juror Waiting Room Guy) was in the middle of giving instructions to people who would like to get postponed from serving due to some upcoming vacation. About 50 people flooded out of the room, so I took one of the empty seats.

A judge came into the room and told us what an important job we were about to do, thanked all of us for being such devoted citizens, about how the system relied on our participation, etcetera.

The Juror Waiting Room Guy then showed the 200 or so of us a couple of videos which explained what Jury Duty was all about, described what happens in a criminal case, and even covered some administrative stuff. I learned that we’ll get paid a whopping $15 a day + 15 cents a mile (one way) for transportation. I also learned that they need something like 1,000 jurors each day for duty, but the term of service is usually less than 7 days. I think my employer pays for 10 days.

José took about 15 minutes of questions. People asked everything from “What happens if I run my own business and it’s a financial hardship?” to “Do we need permission to use the restroom?” to “Do you know if there are any phone jacks in this room so we can dial out for Internet access?”

We got a 20-minute break. I got a cup of coffee, an egg salad sandwich, and a pack of cinnamon hard candies. I read a little bit of my PC Magazine, then headed back to the room. They called a bunch of names for Panel 1, but mine wasn’t on the list. Then they called a bunch more names (I don’t know what for, maybe those folks had some hardship so they were excused?) and again I didn’t hear my name. Ariella called my cellphone and we had a brief chat. She mentioned that United Airlines filed for Chapter 11.

Assigned to Courtroom

About halfway through the list of names for Panel 2, I heard “Michael Radwin”. Whoo-hoo! I wasn’t going to have to wait around in the mind-numbing Jury Waiting Room all day! We were told to report to Floor 9, room 105. I seemed to recall from José’s instructions that this was the maximum security floor and that we’d need to go through a second set of metal detectors.

Sure enough, Floor 9 was for the Accused Really Bad Guys. We went through the metal detectors, and then waited in front of room 105 (lots of waiting when you’re serving jury duty). The court clerk took another roll call. We filed into the courtroom, the judge and attorneys introduced themselves, and then they started putting people in the jury box by calling out the last 4 digits of our juror id numbers (printed on our big red juror badges). I was assigned to seat number 15. About 25 of a total of about 45 prospective jurors were seated in the box. Once we were seated in the box, the judge read the charges out loud: felony kidnapping and something to do with discharging a firearm. He also noted that the case was expected to last until December 20th (but could finish as early as Tuesday or Wednesday of next week).

Lunch

It was almost noon at this point, so the judge declared a lunch recess until 1:30pm. I haven’t been on foot in Downtown since the LA Marathon a couple of years ago, so this was an opportunity for a 90-minute tourist trip. I went a couple of blocks away to the food court at the Los Angeles Mall and got a veggie burrito and a medium Horchata. I haven’t had Horchata in 2 years. Delicious! After lunch, I walked over to the recently-built Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and took a look around inside. They were doing Mass, so I tiptoed around the perimeter. I heard somewhere that this church was built to last 500 years. Sure looks it. It’s a pretty plain concrete exterior and interior, but the thing looks totally solid.

Jury Selection

I returned to room 9-105 (after a couple of more trips through metal detectors, another crowded elevator, and roll call) and took seat number 15. The judge spent the next hour asking jurors various questions about close relatives who work in the legal profession (civil & criminal attorneys, judges, police officers, corrections officers, etc.) and if they thought that if those relationships (or whatever we know about the penal system from them) would cause any bias in this particular case. He also asked about any prior experiences with the law (“Have you ever been a victim of a crime?” or “Have you ever been arrested?”) Of the 25 of of us in the jury box, about 15 answered yes to one or more of the questions, and the judge asked some follow-up questions. Up to this point, I didn’t have anything to say, so I kept quiet.

Next, each of the 25 potential-jurors were asked to state:

  1. Occupation
  2. City of Residence (and neighborhood if you live in LA proper)
  3. Marital Status (plus Spouse or ex-Spouse’s Occupation)
  4. Number of Adult Children (and their Occupations, and their Spouses’ Occupations, if any)
  5. Prior Experience Serving on a Jury (Civil or Criminal)

Finally, I got a chance to speak. My answers:

  1. Software Engineer
  2. Beverly Hills
  3. Married (Graduate Student)
  4. No Children
  5. No Prior Experience Serving on a Jury

The judge only asked me one question: “What is your wife’s field of study?” I answered “Near Eastern Languages and Cultures.” I should’ve answered “Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, Your Honor,” but I didn’t remember to throw that in there. Nobody seemed to notice.

After all 25 folks answered these five basic questions, the prosecutor and defense attorney then got an opportunity to ask prospective jurors some more questions about potential bias. I didn’t get asked any questions. Both attorneys waived their rights to excuse for cause. The attorneys then took turns issuing peremptory challenges, reducing the jury pool to 12. I moved into seat number 4.

The clerk called out another thirteen juror id numbers, bringing the number of folks in the box back up to 25 (and reducing the number of potential jurors in the “audience” section of the courtroom down to about 7). At this point, the judge dismissed us for the day, and we’re supposed to be back in court at 10am.

That was it. No opening arguments, no evidence, no testimony. Just jury selection. Apparently this part often takes more than one day.

Tomorrow, I plan to take the MTA Bus instead of driving.

Jury Duty

Clara-Shortridge-Foltz-Criminal-Justice-Center.gif I got a notice in the mail saying that I was summoned for jury duty at the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. So I called this weekend to see if they actually wanted group number 2 for court location 11, and sure enough, I’m actually scheduled to report at 7:45am tomorrow morning.

So it looks like I’ll be missing work tomorrow to go to the courtroom and wait around with the rest of the prospective jurors. We’ll see if I actually get selected for duty; I’ve heard that they often call a bunch of people to show up, but then dismiss you because the lawyers call for a continuance or something.

I really hope that I’ll actually get to serve. Aside from voting and paying taxes, I see this as one of my fundamental duties as a citizen.