Thursday, November 26, 2009

Sarah Palin vs. Newsweek vs. the flag

Sarah Palin denounced this Newsweek cover as "out-of-context" and "sexist." Out of context because the photo was originally taken for Runner's World and sexist because Newsweek wouldn't have used a photo of Obama like that on its cover (maybe not, but the Washingtonian would).

Newsweek defended itself saying they chose "the most interesting image." I think it was no coincidence that they chose a photo of Palin in a "running suit" given the speculation of whether or not she will run in 2012.

But what really strikes me about the photo is Palin disrespecting the US flag. I guess she's glad that there are no penalties for violating the US Flag Code. Darn that activist Supreme Court putting the First Amendment above the flag.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Meep that frindle!

The principal of Danvers (Massachusetts) High School has a discipline problem. According to the Salem News, the principal responded by banning the students from using the word "meep."

Meep? Yes, meep.

Clearly something's wrong when students use of a nonsense word can be seen as so disruptive that the word has to be banned. It reminds me of the book Frindle by Andrew Clements. The back cover of the book asks "Is Nick Allen a troublemaker?" because he decides that pens should be called "frindles."

I won't spoil the story, but I think it would be a good idea if everyone at Danvers High read the book.

I note that this news report came on the same day as Sesame Street's 40th anniversary? Just a coincidence? I think not.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Unlinked links

A little while ago, I wrote about web sites that have missing links and how that's breaking the web. There's another problem that might be even worse, nofollow links, exemplified by Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is without a doubt a cultural phenomenon. I frequently link to it in my blog posts. I suppose I could link to Encarta but in case you hadn't noticed, it's gone :-(. I haven't been linking to Encyclopædia Britannica because I just provide the links for background material not because you need to go read an encyclopedia to follow along, and most people don't have a Brittanica subscription. (However, I've just learned that you don't need a subscription to read linked articles, so I might be linking more to Britannica in the future.)

Anyway, since many people link to Wikipedia for the same reason I do, it's not surprising that Wikipedia pages often show up at the top of search results. That's just the way the web works.

Except when it doesn't. Wikipedia marks every link with a "nofollow" attribute instructing search engines that they should not follow the links. That's telling the search engines: "please notice who links to us but please ignore who we link to." When I link to Wikipedia, their ranking on the web goes up as they get some of my link juice. When they link to me with a nofollow attribute, they don't share the juice. This is a classic case of applying a big hammer to a small problem and breaking other things in the process.

You might wonder how this could happen on Wikipedia, which is all about sharing information and consensus, etc. etc. If you read the policy article, you'll see that the change was instituted unilaterally at the request of Jimbo Wales, one of the co-founders of Wikipedia, despite consensus from Wikipedians that this was not the right solution. In case you have doubts, Wikipedia is not a democracy. But I digress.

In order to understand what the right solution is, first we have to understand the problem. The problem is spam links, links added to Wikipedia (and other sites) in order to push the spammers' pages up in search engine rankings. A proper solution would make that infeasible. So all that's necessary is to apply the nofollow attribute for some length of time after the link is added. This gives time for the link to be removed by Wikipedia editors or for the spammer's website to be shut down, rendering the link moot. Obviously, there can be refinement to this idea, but the general concept is sound.

So, c'mon Wikipedia (that is, Jimbo), it's time to start following along with the rest of the web.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

A non-partison election fable

Once upon a time, Washington State had a blanket primary where voters could vote for anyone they wanted to in any party and the candidates receiving the most votes in each major party advanced to the general election.

The major parties challenged the system because they didn't want non-members choosing their candidates for them. Apparently, they were under some delusion that no logical person could ever honestly support a Republican for one office and a Democrat for another office.

The result: after lots of legal wrangling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court not once but twice, the parties won and lost. They succeeded in eliminating the blanket primary and voters replaced it with a "top two" primary, where the two candidates receiving the most votes advance to the general election. Of course, the two big parties are still upset about this because there's no guarantee that a candidate from each party will advance. Parties can, of course, be involved in recruiting candidates and endorsing and supporting them but not choosing who gets on the ballot.

Now here's where it gets silly: in retaliation for the parties still fighting the top two primary, voters in King County went one step further, making all elections "non-partisan." The truth is that elections are inherently political, and pretending that political parties are irrelevant is a sham. It's unreasonable to think that all candidates fit neatly into one of two boxes and all this does is keep the voters in the dark. In fact, the Seattle Times reports that in next week's race for King County Executive, the campaign contributions between the two candidates are divided overwhelmingly on party lines.

While writing this post, I stumbled across More Party Animals, "a lighthearted kick-start toward change in this country," founded by two guys who think we should have more diversity in our political spectrum. See the illustration above. Of course, in King County, the animals would all need disguises so no one would be able to identify them on the ballot.

UPDATE: Read Joni Balter's post-election column on partisanship in the King County Executive race.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Backup your life

The recent news about Sidekick users losing all of their data serves as a sharp reminder of the value of backups. Lots of people are wondering whose fault it wasT-Mobile or Microsoftsabotage or cloud computing in general. And there are now indications, that T-Mobile and Microsoft may be able to recover some of the data after all. I hope playing the blame game doesn't make people ignore the reminder.

It could be worse: In China, after the loss of a personal file (Dang'an), and the records of achievements it includes, it's as if those accomplishments never happened. Imagine losing not just the phone numbers of all your college friends, but your college degree and your high school diploma too.

So, now that you're paying attention, some advice you've probably heard before:
  • For data on your PC, back it up offsite, either using an online backup service or by burning CDs or DVDs and storing them somewhere else.
  • For data in the cloud, back it up on your PC or burn CDs or DVDs. Some companies, like Google, make it easy to get your data out. If the service you use doesn't make it easy, then let them know how important it is.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Eat your own dogfood

In the tech industry, when we say people eat their own dog food, it means they use their own products. It's funny that we have a special name for it because it seems pretty obvious: software developers should use their own software, cooks should eat the food they make, and auto companies should drive their own cars. It just makes sense.

I recently rented a Chevy Malibu, and discovered it has a stunningly bad design flaw. Take a look at the picture here and see if you can spot it.

The armrests for the front seats are split in two pieces: one part on the door and one part on the B-pillar (the post behind the front doors). The part on the B-pillar has a corner that jabbed me every time I got into the car.

The interesting thing about this photo from the Chevrolet web site is that the flaw is plainly visible. My guess is that the photographer pushed the seat all the way back to make the car look as roomy as possible. And apparently none of Chevy's test drivers did that. Or if they did, they didn't mind getting jabbed. And that's too bad, because other than this fundamental flaw, the Malibu seemed like a nice car.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Missing links

You might have noticed a new trend for some web sites: missing links. Here's an example from the article ‘Real Buzz’ welcomes Buzz Lightyear back as posted on MSNBC.
Seriously, though, Fincke said, Buzz Lightyear's flight represented an important education tool. On Friday, NASA launched a contest for children to design a mission patch for Buzz Lightyear; the winner will get a Kennedy Space Center tour and a trip to — where else? — Walt Disney World.
 Did you notice the prominent link to the Kennedy Space Center tour? Gotcha. That's an ad. One of those annoying ads that pops up a floating window when you move the mouse over it and is hard to dismiss. What about the link you were looking for, to the NASA page on the contest? You won't find that here.

This breaks the web in two ways. The first is that if ads are disguised as links, then people will start avoiding the links. Tricking people into seeing your ads might also make people avoid your web site.

The second problem is that the web works because of links. Search engines use the link structure to "crawl" the web and find pages. Without links, the web is a bunch of disconnected dead ends. No links = no structure. No structure = no search. No search = no web

I should point out that you shouldn't blame Marcia Dunn, the author of the article or the Associated Press. The link you're looking for <> was in the original article. MSNBC just chose to leave it out. And while this example is picking on MSNBC, the truth is that lots of other sites are breaking the web too.

P.S. Can't wait to see what kids come up with for Buzz Lightyear's mission patch.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Death by fire

David Grann's article "Trial by Fire" in The New Yorker bears the subtitle "Did Texas execute an innocent man?" It's a chilling story. After you read it, consider these numbers:
  • 1,173 = people executed in the United States since 1976.
  • 439 =  people executed in Texas since 1976.
  • 242 = people freed from death row after being exonerated by DNA evidence proving they were wrongly convicted.
  • 3,297 = people currently on death row.

In other words, in the United States:
  • five people executed = one person exonerated.
  • five people executed = two people executed in Texas.
Given that, the odds that Texas hasn't executed an innocent person seem pretty low.

Even all of that aside, if you're a get-tough, don't-let-the-facts-get-in-the-way, fiscal conservative there's one statistic in Grann's article that should turn you against the death penalty: it costs as much to execute someone as to keep them in prison for 120 years.**

Want to learn more? Check out the Innocence Project and the Death Penalty Information Center.

** UPDATE: Most of the increased cost is legal and trial costs. Check out this article on costs of the death penalty from the Death Penalty Information Center.

And one damning statistic from that article: defendants in federal capital cases with less than $320,000 in terms of representation costs had more than double the chance of receiving a death sentence at trial compared to those whose representation costs were higher than $320,000.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Try, try again

I hate software that's tries to pull one over on me. Microsoft Update (aka Windows Update) just did that to me. I prefer to choose which updates get installed because I don't like having to restart my computer when I don't want to.

Microsoft thinks that installing Internet Explorer 8 is "important." I don't think it is. I usually use  Chrome or Firefox 3.5. When I do have to use IE, I'd rather use the version I'm more familiar with. And I'd rather wait until it's clearly better and more stable than IE7.

So today I selected the updates I wanted and unchecked IE8 again. The updates failed because my network connection flaked out. I fixed that and clicked the convenient "Try Again" button. Hmm. Why is there one more update being downloaded? Answer: because Microsoft decided to throw IE8 back into the set of updates to install.

Thanks, but no thanks. While some would see this as a deliberate attempt to trick me into installing IE8, I know that one should never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence.

In other words, Microsoft, try again.

P.S. While I wrote this I was surprised to discover that linked to Guess that's one way to pump up the stats. But wouldn't it have been better to link to the right place:

Monday, July 20, 2009

Getting down to Earth

On the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, there's something humbling about the big news from space being the malfunctioning toilet.

When I think of space, there's one specific image that comes to mind. I used to have this picture on the wall of my windowless office so I could see the outside world. I always found that looking at that picture put whatever small problems I might have had in perspective.

I hope that the astronauts on the space station struggling with the plumbing are enjoying the view outside their window.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

And that's the way it was

Just adding another to the million-plus hits for the phrase "and that's the way it was." Apropos of yesterday's post, here's Walter Cronkite reflecting on the first moon landing.

Walter Cronkite ended every broadcast with the catchphrase "and that's the way it is" because the journalist's job was to synthesize the news and tell us what was really happening in the world. Sadly, newspapers are dying off and what passes for "news" on TV today frequently confuses opinions with fact, gossip with news, and fake reality with actual reality. I hope it's not too late for us.

Good night, Walter.

Update: I enjoyed reading Dan Dubno's remembrance.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

One giant leap

Next Monday is the 40th anniversary of the first landing on the moon. NASA has set up a special anniversary web site and has released new digitally enhanced video in commemoration of the event. If you didn't see it the first time around or you don't remember it very well, now's a good opportunity to watch it again and be amazed.

Unless of course it was all faked. Nah. Everyone knows it was the Mars landing that was faked. And that was such a success the Russians just did it again and Hollywood is doing a remake.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Some rights reserved

Today, I've added a Creative Commons license to this blog. The tag line for Creative Commons is "some rights reserved" a play on "all rights reserved" that frequently accompanies copyright notices.

You might notice that every post on this blog has an accompanying picture on it. Well, today, it just got easier for me to find pictures to use. Google image search just launched the ability to search images by usage rights. The image on the right comes to you courtesy of TylarX (thanks!) who put it on his Flickr album and licensed it for usage via Creative Commons so I could find it with Google. Just click on the image to be taken to the original image and license information.

In case you haven't heard of Creative Commons, it's a non-profit organization that solves one of the major problems people have with sharing their creations: we're not lawyers. The lawyers at Creative Commons have created a set of licenses that make it easy to share your work without giving up the copyright and without granting permission you didn't intend to.

If you want to add a license to your blog, here are the three easy steps:
  1. Use Creative Common's license selection tool to pick the right license.
  2. Copy the license and paste it into your blog template.
  3. Since a Creative Commons license works with a copyright, also include a standard copyright notice: ©<year><your name>.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Need a random number?

If you hate rolling dice, here's a handy alternative: A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates by, appropriately enough, the RAND Corporation. While I think the concept of a book of random numbers is a bit dated, the reviews of the book at Amazon are a good read. And if you click "Surprise Me!" on Amazon's "Look Inside" menu, it says "This is a random page from a small sample." Well, duh. Of course it's a random page.

It turns out that generating good random numbers is hard, unless you really want to roll lots of dice. People do a terrible job of faking randomness. Even if you have reasonably good random numbers, using them properly is also hard. Most computer games depend on computer-generated random numbers, but I would never play one that involved real money online. Read this if you can't imagine why not.

If you need to make a decision, check out the coin flipper on

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Why the Supreme Court matters

In case you were wondering if it really matters who the next Supreme Court justice is, the answer is yes. Today, the Court ruled that even 13 year olds are protected from unreasonable search and seizure.

It was an 8-1 decision with Clarence Thomas dissenting, again choosing that individual rights should defer to government rights. In his dissent, he rails against "deep intrusion into the administration of public schools" and argues that Judges and Courts are not "qualified" or "authorized" to "second-guess" school administrators.

That's exactly wrong. There will always (unfortunately) be over-zealous school administrators and other government officials. The Fourth Amendment protects us from them. Is this really that hard to understand?
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

No, you can't have my SSN either

In yesterday's post, I talked about why you shouldn't share passwords. Today, coincidentally, I had a related frustrating experience with T-Mobile. They insisted they couldn't access my account unless I told them the last 4 digits of my social security number (SSN) to "verify" my account. This being despite the fact that they don't actually know my SSN and therefore telling them the 4 digits would not serve to "verify" anything.

They claim to ask for this in order to protect me. But they don't know what they're doing. The poor understanding of security extends to their web site too. If I forget my password, I can reset it online by answering a few secret questions. But there are lots of people who aren't me who know where I was born, my mother's maiden name, my dog's name and Paris Hilton's dog's name. And, unfortunately, lots of people have access to my SSN too. So using "secrets" like these to secure my account either online or off makes no sense.

Even better, T-Mobile will send my password to me via text message! Um, they shouldn't store passwords in clear text, and they certainly should never tell anyone (not even me) what my password is.

So their account reps won't talk to me, but their web site will happily send my password to anyone I loan my phone to. Gee, thanks.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

No, you can't have my password

A friend of mine recently left their job and was asked to hand over the password that they had used to access company email, etc. As a sometimes security consultant, I advised against it.

I'll also be advising against applying for a job in Bozeman, Montana, where the city requires job applicants to divulge the passwords they use to log in to Facebook, Google, Yahoo, YouTube, MySpace, etc.

Sharing your password is a bad idea for a number of reasons.
  • Many people use the same password for multiple sites (don't do that!), so revealing the password to one site might also reveal a password to a bank web site.
  • A password to an email account will allow someone to use the password reset feature of other sites. Sure, banks typically require other information to reset a password. What are the odds that the Bozeman employment application doesn't also ask for some or all of that information?
  • Picking good passwords is hard. Many people use a strategy to pick passwords and the more passwords you have for that person, the easier it is to guess the strategy and possibly guess other passwords.
But what about the legitimate business needs here? In the first case, the system administrator can provide access to email to anyone that legitimately needs it or even do a password reset, in accordance with company policies that cover access to that information. In the second case, the city of Bozeman doesn't need passwords to access public information on those sites, and has no business accessing private information.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Return the Parthenon Marbles

Today is the opening day of the new Acropolis Museum. Congratulations!

The Parthenon Marbles (sometimes called the Elgin Marbles) have been in British hands for over 200 years. These valuable cultural artifacts were and remain the property of the people of Greece. As many in the UK agree, it's past time to return them to Greece.

In the early 1800s, in the words of the British Museum, Lord Elgin "acquired" these sculptures from the Parthenon, purportedly having permission of the Ottoman Empire that controlled Greece at the time. Even if he had permission, this is like Germany giving away the Eiffel Tower while they occupied France during World War II.

No private museum could get away with keeping stolen property. Neither should the British Museum. Let them know.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Recording industry lowers prices to $80,000/song

The standard price for downloading music has been $150,000 per song since 1988. Today, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was forced to lower the price by almost 50%. In what promises to be a landmark court case, a jury verdict awarded the RIAA a mere $80,000 per song. Yet another victory for common sense!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A math problem

"The principal at Venn Elementary took a survey of 110 fifth and sixth graders to see what they did over the summer. She found 20 who went to sports camp, 30 who went to summer school and 45 who went to science camp. Twelve students went only to sports camp, and 4 went to sports camp and science camp. How many of the students surveyed didn't do any of the three activities?"

to see the answer.

This is a real 6th grade math problem. Here's the real answer:

A + B + C + D + E + F = 110
A + B = 30
B + C + D = 20
D + E = 45
C = 12
D = 4

We can figure out the rest as follows:
E = 45 - 4 = 41
B = 20 - 12 - 4 = 4
A = 30 - 4 = 26
F = 110 - 26 - 4 - 12 - 4 - 41 = 23

Conclusion: 23 kids did not attend any camp.

Just one problem with this: while this is the real answer provided in the textbook, it's wrong.

for discussion.

Here's the correct Venn diagram:

The problem is that the "answer" makes an unwarranted assumption in "solving" the problem. As can be seen by the correct diagram, there are eight possible combinations of the three camps, and therefore eight variables. The assumption that A and E don't intersect is implicit in the wrong diagram and not supported by the problem statement. In fact, there are a total of 125 different solutions with 27 different possible values for F. Students shouldn't be asked to guess additional assumptions to solve a problem. And this problem could have easily been fixed with one sentence: "No students attended both summer school and science camp." (I'll come back to the problem with guessing in elementary school math in a future post.)

Here's the sad part: when I raised this issue with the teachers responsible for assigning that problem, they said that it was just a question of making different assumptions in solving the problem and that both answers were correct. Uh-huh.

In math, there are right and wrong answers. And when we make assumptions in math it's a big deal: mathematical axioms or postulates are the foundation of mathematics.

Mathematics should not be taught like history and literature, where the interpretation is a matter of opinion. And it shouldn't be taught like science where theories are confirmed by evidence, but are always subject to revision as new evidence is found. Mathematics is about theorems, not theories.

[Originally published in three parts.]

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Another sad day for rabbit ears

Yesterday, Six Flags (NYSE:SIX) announced that it was declaring chapter 11 bankruptcy. Six Flags parks will continue to operate during the bankruptcy, although there is no news yet whether Bugs Bunny, the official mascot of Six Flags, will still have a job.

Friday, June 12, 2009

A sad day for rabbit ears

Today's digital TV transition is another case where corporate interests trumped consumer interests. When the US transitioned to color TV, FM stereo, and margarine, the transition was done in a way that didn't force anyone to switch. But the money that could be made by auctioning off public airways was too hard to resist. For consumers, the choices boil down to spending money one way or another if they want to keep watching.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Say hi to Boomer

A new puppy, Boomer, just joined our family. He's a rescue dog that we adopted through Pacific Northwest Border Collie Rescue. His mom was a border collie but we don't know anything about the father. We think dalmatian, dachshund and doberman are somewhat unlikely. Any better guesses?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

English to get new letters soon

There have been a flurry of media reports about the "news" that English is getting it's one millionth word! The most disturbing issue with all these new words is that the average length of a word has increased from 5.1 around 1900 to 7.3 at the present time. To counter this, the Unicode consortium has announced plans to add 20 new letters to the English alphabet. It's predicted that these new letters will stabilize the average length of a word well into the 21st century.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Judicial activism?

Ilya Shapiro has Five questions for Sotomayor in a column in today's Christian Science Monitor. He starts off saying "The minority on the Senate Judiciary Committee has the opportunity – and the responsibility – to educate the public about the distinctions between judicial philosophies that limit judges to a judicial role, and those that demand they be super-legislators." OK, fair enough.

But four of his five questions are past Supreme Court cases that he disagrees with. In the guise of rejecting "judicial activism," he demands that Sotomayer should answer these "tough questions," by which he means agree that these cases were wrongly decided.

Sorry, Ilya, supporting a nominee for the Supreme Court based on whether or not they will overturn particular precedents you disagree with is judicial activism of the worst kind.

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