Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Omnibus Post

1. I was watching some C*SPAN a couple weeks ago and a bunch of oil company execs were testifying before the House. A few of them, in their opening statements, expressed support for a carbon tax. What? How could that be? Then MIT just published a report predicting natural gas to be a winner under a carbon tax regime (see also NYT, Slashdot). And the oil companies mostly have big natural gas operations as well.

2. And natural gas is often touted as a clean fuel, so maybe that's not so bad. Except for fracking. Ah, to hell with NPOV, there's a film (and associated website) on the subject that takes a considerably bolder stance on the issue.

3. Usually when considering issues of politics and business I remind myself that it's unlikely any of the actors have evil intent. But sometimes the mining industry makes me wonder. With all the news that comes out of Appalachia about mountaintop removal and all the nasty pollution that comes from the mines there. With a giant oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, something that, we now know, will necessarily be repeated if a similar accident ever again occurs (and yet it's so important that we start deep-water drilling again! Immediately!). And now with this "fracking" stuff. And how they've infiltrated the government that's supposed to regulate them! Becoming exempt from the Clean Water Act and refusing to disclose the chemicals that are seeping into groundwater. These guys must have to shave their mustachios off every five minutes.

4. Wyoming has taken the first steps toward regulation of fracking. Way to go, Wyoming! Also, this reminds me of the story told by a friend a couple years ago about stopping for lunch in a small Wyoming town and finding the restaurant staff unable to concentrate when taking orders or remember requests... as if the whole town's water or air was bad. Maybe there's a connection.

5. I was going to write about more than just fracking, so here goes. It seems like during the peak of oil spill coverage the hot interview subjects were gulf-coast fishermen and seafood restaurateurs. It almost felt like if people wanted to report that the oil spill was indeed a big deal they had to show that it was killing the Gulf economy. But that's silly. Drilling is the Gulf economy — it dwarfs fishing, for one thing. BP is big enough and profitable enough to survive even after paying cleanup costs and damages — it would be big enough to survive even if it had to pay for the full economic impact of the spill over time, and it surely won't pay that much. But, environmentally, damage has been done that only time can heal, and lots of time at that. I think lots of people understand that part of the story, and the media seem almost afraid to mention it. That it's a tragedy, a tragedy because there's death at the end, and loss.

5a. #5 and #3. Of course, they really don't have evil intent. They can poison a few people, raise everyone else's standards of living, and make lots of money doing it. Mining execs probably care deeply for their own families, maybe even their own communities. If real decision-makers at mining companies (and also factory farms) lived and worked at the sites they designed and built, along with their families, our world would look a lot different.

6. Speaking of fishermen, I've never seen Deadliest Catch, but I've seen the ads, of course. It seems that the story could be turned around — Deadliest Swim, which follows and casts as heroes fish that find themselves in the paths of these enormous boats. But then every episode would have a sad ending. I did catch a bit of that show about loggers... don't remember what it was called... TREEFUCKERS!, perhaps? Anyway, it had this tense, evil-sounding music playing as it showed a grove of trees just standing in a swamp. You know, the music they'd play on a detective show as the prison guard announces that the murderer has escaped. Then the hero arrives on the scene, gets in his TF-9000 ULTIMATE TREE-FUCKING CONTRAPTION, and goes to town. Can he cut down every tree by nightfall? The music reaches a feverish pitch as the sun starts to set, then it climaxes as he plows through the last tree just as the sun sinks. Then a peaceful yet triumphant chord is held out across the scene of the devastated swamp. Now I feel great about using paper.

7. There is an intersection in Seattle between N. 45th St. and some side street west of I-5. It has a stoplight. But only for 45th St. The side street has stop signs. This light indeed turns red and stops the traffic on 45th, and I have no idea what cross traffic does at this point. How someone crossing knows when it's about to turn green and they should not go through. I must be missing something, right? But I've rode my bike through it twice in the last couple days, and I'm pretty sure that's what it is. WEIRD.

8. I just played at my first open mic in Seattle, at some little bar with couches on 45th in Wallingford. It was probably about the best atmosphere and crowd for my style I could have hoped for. I made lots of mistakes but didn't lose the beat, and I played with as much energy as I could fit through Dad's little old guitar. If I focus I can probably get all the energy I have through that guitar, but it will take a lot more practice. Or maybe I'll get a new guitar that's not so hard to tune and play.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Dear Seattle, you are very beautiful...

... but you are full of dicks on wheels. First there was Silver Prius, who ran a stop sign and nearly hit me, then gave me the finger. I explained that there was a stop sign, and that he'd have done well to have stopped at it, and he said, "I wish I had hit you, fuck off." Classy. Then tonight, White Accord, which got me drive-by style with a paintball gun. But it took 'em two passes. The first time they were going the opposite direction, shot five times across the road, and missed. Of course, they circled around and got me from behind. So they're bad shots and cowards.

It's too bad I couldn't get plate numbers. Or too bad that I don't believe in collective punishment. If anyone that believes in collective punishment sees a white Accord or silver Prius... well... you should probably fight your own battles :-).

Friday, June 18, 2010

I heard Seattle cops are cracking down on jaywaylking...

... and people are widely sympathetic to this. And here I thought I'd just moved to Seattle, not Singapore.

But, I tell you what, Seattle police. Feel free to try to ticket me for jaywalking. I hope you've been keeping up with your speedwork and hill training.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

subst weirdness with Windows Explorer

In my last post I mentioned that there are practical ways for users to work around the 260-character limit in many Win32 API functions that affect the operation of most Windows programs. One of them is the substr command built in to the cmd shell. I used substr to map Y: to my %USERPROFILE% (typically something like C:\Documents and Settings\username). And it all basically works.

Except for a couple things in Windows Explorer. First, the My Documents folder doesn't show up under Y: in Explorer. It shows up if I issue dir in cmd, and I can successfully browse to Y:\My Documents by typing that into the address bar in Explorer. It even auto-completes. It just doesn't show up. Second, and more seriously, Explorer treats this directory as if it's another drive when copying and moving files. So the default action dragging files between subdirectories of C: and Y: is copy, not move. And when you move the files it appears to re-write them instead of just re-writing the paths. Wack.

Monday, June 14, 2010

More mindless jerks that will be first against the wall when the revolution comes

1. Any mindless jerks that don't correctly account for possible spaces in variable expansions when building commands to be executed. This mostly applies to shell scripts and makefiles. And it especially holds on Windows, where the default home directory path has spaces in it (at least through XP). And it seems to be very often violated on Windows, to the extent that people get the strange idea that environment variables like PATH should contain quotes around paths with spaces (it should be obvious why this is wrong to anyone that's spent much time with shell and batch scripts).

2. The mindless jerks that keep perpetuating the Win32 API's 260-character path name limit. There are some ways around it, but they don't help people using Visual Studio, which was developed by mindless jerks that adhere to the limit. Such a short limit would suck on Unix, but it sucks doubly on, say, WinXP, where new VS projects are created in a directory looking something like C:\Documents and Settings\aldimond\My Documents\Visual Studio 20xx\Projects. You're already 75 characters in the hole, plus whatever you need for the solution and project directories; if you have verbose naming conventions you don't need to go many levels deep from there to get over 260 characters. I usually keep my sources in $HOME/src, as I would on Unix, but with some of the projects I use at work I have to cut path names down even further. There are tricks you can use if you're really repulsed by having your dev files live outside your home directory (as you should be); most people just put them straight under the C drive. Which means that the 260-character limit perpetuates people's unwillingness to run as unprivileged users on Windows, one of its significant real-world security weaknesses.


3. The mindless jerks behind, who don't have an option to require moderation on comments with links. As it stands I have to either subject honest commenters to moderation (which I don't want to do) or manually delete all spam comments (which is tedious and slow).

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Have you ever had an Internet connection installation go smoothly?

I sure haven't. In my post-dorm in college the Internet service was ordered by the building manager and we just had ethernet to our rooms. That worked OK, except that the building was behind NAT, they gouged us on price (after we'd been told it would be $30/month for the whole unit, which would have been basically fair for a NATted connection, the day we moved in we were told there had been a mistake, it was actually $30/month for each of us, and there was no way out), and there was a stupid bug that persisted for months where you couldn't connect to anything on some port... either 8080 or 8008. It happened this was the port used by some University service, and the ISP went on for months blaming the University for the problem even after I wrote them a few times with evidence that it affected any connection to that port. They had to bring in their “top tech from Virginia” to solve the problem. Fun times. But at least I didn't have any hassles with installation. I don't remember the name of the company. It was the major cable company in Champaign-Urbana. I think they've since joined the Comcast empire.

Since then... in California I had SBC either just before or just after their Oedipal merger with AT&T. Their setup process was Full of Fail. The only computer I had with me was a laptop running FreeBSD, so I couldn't run the setup disk. I was told by tech support of a web version (why not send that information with the modem?) that didn't work under Firefox or Opera because it was designed by some fancypants nincompoop that wanted to reimplement the hyperlink in Javascript but didn't want to test on anything but IE. Somehow I'm still bitter about that. I had to talk tech support through creating my account for me, which was hilarious.

I wound up having similar problems when I moved to my apartment in Uptown, but I knew what to expect and got it all taken care of pretty quickly. That apartment had no phone jack anywhere near where I wanted to put my computer, so I got a Wi-Fi card for my desktop box. It has served me well.

For some reason when I moved down to Pilsen I gave AT&T another chance. I had to completely redo my account and get a new phone number because Pilsen is 312 and Uptown is 773. This time the DSL modem couldn't connect upstream. They sent a tech out, but he couldn't access the phone box, because it was behind the neighbors' gate and they weren't home. So we had to schedule a second appointment, and coordinate with my neighbors. Since our building used to be split into two units per floor instead of one, the phone lines were wired accordingly, which was the cause of the problems (to this day AT&T's address on record for that apartment ends in “Floor 2—Front”). Also the previous tenant had been evicted after not paying his rent, or any of his bills, for half a year or so... maybe some of the lines had been disconnected because of that or something. Everyone was really good-natured about the whole thing, actually; I was sort of surprised that none of the utility companies even tried to get money out of me. They had the set-up pages fixed by this point, but for some reason I could never log in to my billing account on-line. I sent several support tickets about this that were never answered.

Unrelatedly, getting the billing switched to my roommates when I moved out was a horrible mess. Apparently AT&T's records got mixed up, and they thought they had transferred service (not just billing) on a 312 phone number to my address in Wyoming. If only — I'd love to take my 312 land-line number with me to Seattle. All I have to do is confuse AT&T enough to hook me up with an out-of-area-code number in a city they don't even service. Put that way, it sounds very possible.

In Wyoming we went with cable, not because of past DSL woes but because everyone said the DSL provider was terrible and Bresnan, the local cable company, was much better. Bresnan's connection was pretty fast, and it well should have been considering what we paid for it. As I recall, the cable modem didn't get a signal at first, and they had to send a dude out to calibrate some thinamajigger on some pole somewhere. It worked for a while, then uptime slowly deteriorated for a few months. I called and they had someone adjust some other thingy (which took a long time and a few trips back to the base for parts), and then a week later it went out again, and they had to fix their busted fix-job. So I was pretty frustrated with them. Not least because we relied on them for phone service, which didn't work at all without the Internet connection, and I was applying for jobs by phone at the time.

Now in Seattle I'm getting DSL through Qwest because cheaper than cable with Comcast (since I have no TV or land-line needs). The package with the modem arrived Monday but I didn't get it until Tuesday because the people in the building office that signed for it didn't tell me it came. I called the office Tuesday and someone found it lying around somewhere. No plan to notify me or anything. Then I plugged the modem in, and for the third straight move, got no upstream signal. A tech came out Wednesday and told my roommate (who was home at the time) that there was dust in the phone jacks. I'm a bit skeptical. He apparently didn't check the jack in my room, but when I got home it worked fine with no cleaning. And... seriously, dust caused a total lack of connection in two different jacks after several plug-unplug cycles? I'm searching the web for various permutations of dust and phone jacks and coming up with nothing. My apartment is not dusty at all. And if dust regularly causes outages, wouldn't it be more efficient for the phone company suggest that customers blow into the jacks, NES cartridge-style, as a standard troubleshooting step? At least as part of the tech support script, if not in the printed materials? You'd think they'd want to try anything that might plausibly save them an expensive tech visit. My guess is they flipped the wrong switch the first time out and didn't want to admit their error.

So, in total, since moving out of the dorms I have not once had Internet service go smoothly. Six attempts by four different companies, every time I've had to talk to tech support, in three cases I've needed physical visits from a tech, and in two I've needed multiple physical visits from a tech. This isn't a large enough sample size to draw conclusions, but if it's representative of the industry as a whole, it can't possibly be an efficient way to do business.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Google question

When I was interviewing at Google I decided to ask everyone I talked to what the point of Google's existence was, because it wasn't obvious to me, and I thought I'd get interesting answers. And it didn't work. All of them quoted from the mission statement: "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful".

So I should have read that before coming. The real issue, and I never really was able to ask the right questions to get at this, is that Google doesn't actually make money doing that. It spends money doing that, and makes money as an ad broker; thus the Wall Street Journal doesn't refer to "information organizing giant Google" or even "search giant Google" but rather "advertising giant Google". There's a trend that's been growing for decades, that people have defined themselves more by how and what they consume and less by how and what they produce; is Google perhaps the first corporation to follow this trend?

That last question is sort of a curiosity, but I think a serious issue for Google is this: as the people of the world, those people you're making information accessible to and useful for, are your products and not your customers, how do you manage conflicts of interests between your mission and your business? Obviously there have been many companies with similar models, but few that have remained public darlings for long. Consider the media's pandering, fear-mongering, and lack of substance — how seriously can we take its claims to journalistic responsibility? How does Google avoid becoming Facebook? Is it just that it doesn't have Mark Zuckerberg?

I think ultimately that's all it is. Google's people, right now, are more moral than Facebook's, and the company makes enough money that it can afford to be. It's similar to self-imposed limits of power in government: they're as good as the people (self-)imposing them. So as with just about any entity — governmental, corporate, social — the principles just don't matter. No principle can keep Google in check. Only people.

You are what you drive, or you drive what you are

WARNING: this post is kind of banal.

The other day I was talking to my brother John and a story about our dad came up. My dad has plenty of money but is notoriously frugal about some things. There's nothing wrong, or even contradictory about this. You don't get rich (as Bill Gates fictionally said to Homer Simpson) by writing big fat checks. That's a pretty straightforward statement of a the pretty common value of frugality. My dad has long admired Benjamin Franklin; like Franklin, he values frugality, pragmatism, hard work, and practical knowledge. The story was simply this: my dad recently bought a new car, and they didn't have the base model he wanted at the dealership, only one with a "Sport" package. So he waited a month for the dealership to get a base model.

John thought this was a pretty weird thing to do; it certainly doesn't seem very pragmatic at first glance. But it wasn't really anti-pragmatic either; his old car was still running. There was probably a little bit of ideology involved; I can see my dad, like me, finding the idea of a "Sport" package on a car silly (the public roads aren't there for sporting, particularly considering the risks of aggressive driving). As Dad doesn't drive all that much, and Hondas usually hold up pretty well, I wouldn't be surprised if he got 20 years out of it. As he's over 50, there's a chance it could be his last car. When you consider those time frames against a one-month wait, the picture changes considerably.

So I doubt that Dad's decision to wait a month for a cheaper car to come in had much to do with short-term economics at all. It probably had more to do with feeling comfortable with the purchase in the long run. This is the sort of thing I've thought about a lot, and talked with Jess about a bit, regarding moving to Seattle: not letting short-term considerations push us into decisions we'll be unhappy with down the road. Although just about everything feels temporary now, I have to be sure to keep the long term in mind.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A quick note on the Google magic

My last post got me thinking about how much I love Google Maps, and about Google's magic. People have talked a lot about Apple's magic: its ability to execute consumer products at a really high level and get people to accept or even embrace their limitations. Google's magic seemed to me a little more mysterious.

Google didn't invent online maps, but Google Maps was a revelation. Mapquest was a specific tool. You punched in your starting and destination addresses, and it gave you pretty good directions and a pretty good map. It ushered you through a few specific processes. Google Maps was an open book. Back then the start page for Mapquest didn't have a map on it. Google Maps opened to a map of the continental USA (from the US domain). And you could drag the map around, and zoom in to your location. You could view the whole world at once, look at the individual streets in your neighborhood, or any level in between (as long as you were OK with the Mercator projection). And above that was a text box that you could type anything into. It accepted text in specific formats, and really couldn't do anything Mapquest couldn't, but that wasn't the point. You'd never lose yourself in Mapquest. I did it routinely in Google Maps.

I think Maps is really the clearest example of the Google magic. Google wasn't the first search engine, wasn't the first web mail provider, wasn't the first to provide source code hosting, wasn't the first web ad broker. It's really changed the landscape in all these areas, but Maps seems to me the purest example of the magic. Where the reason for its superiority is so clear, and clearly a result of philosophy, not execution.

"What we've got here is a failure to communicate"

Google is now being sued for giving someone bad walking directions that contributed to her being hit by a car. I'll try to keep this brief, as I'm on a public computer with a QWERTY keyboard.

1. Unless there's some really extraordinary circumstance I absolutely hope she's successful in her suit against the driver. There's rarely a good excuse for hitting a pedestrian on the road.

2. Commenters on the story suggest there is a pedestrian path paralleling the roadway. Essentially functioning as a sidewalk. If that's the case, suing Google in this particular case is pretty silly. You need to have some basic situational awareness. You have to decide whether you can handle a situation, or whether you should turn back. As a runner and cyclist I've come down on both sides many times.

3. I think, as my title suggests that there's a communication problem here. I just (unsuccessfully) interviewed for a job at Google, and talked to a number of Google programmers. I think they see a world full of data, and that when they find a way to present it to people they've done the world a service. As I point out in my bike directions post, that might not always be the case. They certainly push the state of the art forward with beta-quality projects like these, but they also send people on bad routes quite often.

Among the geeks that have some understanding of the data Google's working with, the limitations of its route-finding ability are obvious. But among the general population it's not so obvious. Instead of a neat little application trying to squeeze something extra out of a data set, it's taken as authoritative. Perhaps Google needs to communicate the philosophy and spirit of how it presents data, and of the meaning of its projects, a little better.