Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Timeout: Crime or Sickness?

Martin Langeland commented on my post, An Unfixable Law-Bug He said, "But why criminalize a health problem? Wrong approach all together. No way to turn that into a feature."

Before I continue my previous train of thought, I want to comment on this quote. I believe Martin is arguing that drug-related issues (marijuana at least) ought to be treated as health problems; if he's right, my implicit suggestion that the law should prescribe smaller penalties for these acts is just wrong.

I cited a small quantity of marijuana in my example (in the post). But there are many kinds of drug-related crimes, and I think that many of them should be treated as crimes. It's also possible that some drug-related recreation should not be criminalized at all. Criminalizing all drug use has actually produced the kind of law-flouting that alcohol prohibition generated in this country. A remarkable percentage of drug users swell our prison population, and drug-related profits fuel a lot of the worst violence in our towns and cities. It's amazing that, to us citizens in general, these two stories -- the prohibition of alcohol and the prohibition of drugs -- seem different enough to warrant different solutions. Wake up! They are remarkably similar, so why did the first one lead to decriminalizng, while the other does not?

I doubt that we worked out the ideal solution for alcohol either, after prohibition. We don't know how to moderate alcohol use, how to prevent drunk driving deaths, and how to prevent way-underage kids from drinking, to the detriment of society. Having said all this blather, I would like to share with you the insight I had, while serving on a grand jury:

Many of the crimes we voted to prosecute were against drug dealers. Sounds serious, doesn't it? But I'm talking about dealers who earn a hundred or two a week when they can get a supply. Tiny dealers serving customers with minuscule needs. The arresting officers told us how they identify a person as a dealer, and one of the things they look for is a small amount of cash (under a hundred), distributed among a person's pockets. I believe that arresting these dealers in a city tends to make the city a more lawful place, because it prevents dealers from staking out a part of the city and regularly working there, creating an area of lawlessness. But it does not cut off or slow the supply of drugs. The people who want these little regular hits always find another dealer. The USA has a terrible procedure for criminalizing drugs, and we make too many people go to jail and ruin their futures to keep the enormous drug business a little more tidy. Can't we think of some other way, and stop putting so many people in jail?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

An Unfixable Law-Bug:

Please read the last two posts before this one.
New Jersey has a law that greatly increases the punishment for drug-related offenses, if they are committed within 1,000 feet of a public school. If you flee from police because you have a marijuana cigarette in your car, and they chase you and catch you; and if – during your flight – you passed just within 1,000 feet of a school at 3 a.m. on a Sunday night in July, when there's nary a student in sight, your penalties are increased.

Now obviously, it was not the intent of the people who wrote that law to apply it to such a silly situation, but that's how the law was written (and of course: not debugged). There have been calls to fix the wording of this law, to make it apply to schools that are open, with children around. But the law cannot be fixed. Anyone who votes to modify it will be seen as “soft on drugs.” Legislators have already resisted requests to fix the law for this very reason. No can do. They should have debugged the law in the first place, before passing it.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Breed Apart (2): Computer Programmers:

Please read the previous blog post before this one.
I know that most of you are sick about the quality of the computer programs you have to use. They are riddled with bugs and bad behaviors, and sometimes you'd like to kill the programmers who created them. But you're only seeing those programs after they've been debugged. If they hadn't been properly tested, if they hadn't been designed for debugging, they would be a thousand times worse.

Programmers understand debugging. We know that a series of instructions to carry out a process, no matter how clear and obvious it looks, may be riddled with mistakes. We know how to find most of those mistakes. We know how to arrange the instructions to minimize bad mistakes. We know how to feed sets of prepared data into programs to determine whether they produce correct results.

Most of the rest of humanity hasn't a clue about debugging. And to us, that's a great tragedy, a disaster in the making, and there's nothing we can do about it. You can mix with us, but our skill won't rub off on you. Here are two awful examples:

Spreadsheets often rule businesses. Complex spreadsheets shot through with formulas. Executives bow to their spreadsheets and adjust their company priorities as the spreadsheet results demand. But how many of these damn things are debugged? Many of them have been created by businessmen with no software discipline in them. Those spreadsheets are more likely to be full of bugs than the programs you hate to run. But where a software bug may make you restart your computer, a spreadsheet bug may make a Fortune 1000 company restart its destiny.

Laws are largely signed without any debugging. They are usually modified in last minute compromises and then cast in concrete. Often, the bugs in a law cannot be corrected for political reasons, no matter how dumb they are. I'll give you an example in my next post.

I cringe every time I hear that a prosecutor, or a vendor, has found an imaginative, unexpected way to use a law. That generally means they have found a BUG, a mistake in the original intent. No one knows anything about testing laws before they are signed, designing them to minimize bugs, running test cases on them, applying beta tests to see what unexpected problems they can cause. Laws govern our lives even more than computers, and they are riddled with stupid errors. I'll give you a few favorite examples soon. Legislators may read the final draft and say, “Yes, that's what we mean,” but they don't apply real world tests to their laws before they are signed.

There's got to be a better way. And there isn't.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Breed Apart (1): Statistics, Probability.

A small subgroup of the human race understands statistics and probability. The rest of us don't, and most of the time we make terrible decisions based on our vague misunderstanding of what's more likely to happen. We can mix with those who understand better than we, but hardly anything of their knowledge rubs off on us. This elite subgroup seems a bit weird to us, but to them: we seem like noble idiots enacting a grand tragedy. They can hardly bear to notice how poorly we behave.

I have mentioned this subgroup because, in my next post, I want to tell you about a similar group, a subgroup to which I belong. Oh, the tragedy ...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The iPhone Key:

It's so easy to see this coming: you buy a new car, and you own an iPhone (probably a future iPhone, with some additional hardware). You download the Carkey application from the Apple app store. The car dealer gives you the code for your car, and you program that into the Carkey app. Now you can unlock and start your car from your iPhone, you don't need to buy an expensive metal “smart” key for your car. And as usual, this feature comes to Apple first; all the other phone manufacturers eat their hearts out for a year or two, before they are allowed to offer the Carkey app for their own phones.

Why not? This is just routine computer convergence.

Oops, I better call AAA; my iPhone needs a recharge.

Friday, February 13, 2009

'Dissing' Steve Post:

Steve Post used to produce a morning classical music progam on WNYC. It was a fine program. His choice of music was good, and his news-reading was incomparable. He would read bad news in a mordant tone, expressing remarkable doubt at every assurance given to us by those in the mainstream. You only had to hear Steve read, just once, that a reported accident had released no significant radiation into the environment, never to believe such assurances again.

Well, WNYC revamped its programming format, and Steve Posts's program disappeared. I found that very sad, but time has gone on, and now Steve Post has a program that really feels like a Podcast. (Some of the shows are available as podcast downloads.) It's called the No Show. Steve mixes music of many types, mostly not classical, to punctuate his reminiscences and reveries on life. He's allowed to talk a lot more now, and some of his extended musings are worth listening to.

I recently received an email notifying me that there will be eight more episodes of the No show this year. I am repeating this email in its entirety, because it seems to contain the worst insult that Steve Post has ever received. Here it is:

There's good news and there's bad news.

The good news is that The NO SHOW with Steve Post is returning to the air for an eight-week run.

The bad news is that The NO SHOW with Steve Post is returning to the air for an eight-week run.

(It all depends on your point of view.)

The NO SHOW will air on Saturdays at 4 PM on the following dates:
February 7, 14, 21, 28
March 7, 21, 28
April 4
Note that The NO SHOW will not be heard on March 14 in order to bring you a special program of much greater interest, to be determined.

In case you missed it, here's the insult:
"Note that The NO SHOW will not be heard on March 14 in order to bring you a special program of much greater interest, to be determined."

Evidently, Steve's show will not be heard on March 14 because the station already knows that they will broadcast something more important; but they do not know what that is yet. This plan makes sense, if WNYC has already determined that everything else in this world is more important than the No Show. Steve, say it isn't so!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

How to save the Newspapers:

I may have been intemperate in my previous post. I shouldn't have blamed us all for overcontemplating A-Rod and his steroids. I should place the blame where it belongs, on the great desire of newspapers to stay in print. They've got to entertain us now, even the New York Times, and they are trying hard.

I'm rooting for the papers, so I have a helpful suggestion: they should try to find some dirt on whether A-rod has paid social security taxes for all the people he's employed. Any mistake there should sell a few copies, especially if he decides to run for office as Sarah Palin's VP candidate (he'll be over 35). Maybe A-Rod and Madonna did something so weird that they needed baby sitters, who knows?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Assesslessness: and a Nation of Prudes:

The revelation that A-Rod tested positive for steroids in 2003 has set off so much over-analysis, handwringing and backfiling, that I will not even bother to link to a single instance of all the smugrage. Rodriguez was caught in preliminary tests that were supposed to be destroyed and not made public. He apparently used an illegal substance before baseball moved to make it formally illegal. And yet, somehow, he’s expected to grovel, very convincingly, if he desires not to shove his reputation down the tubes.

Meanwhile, our national leaders erase their disasters with stupid admissions like “mistakes were made." What's going on? A pattern is emerging, and it’s a very distressing one. We’ve invented side tests for important roles. A good politician, as I’m sure you know, is someone who has paid all possible taxes, and avoided all sexual kinks.

Why do we apply these side tests (side bets?) to our public figures? Here's what I think: we as a nation have given up our right to assess real quality; we prefer to substitute meaningless measures wherever we find them. By the year 2020, I expect the president of the United States, and also the highest paid player in American sports, to be people who have never eaten transfats. Or smoked. Or left a lightbulb on overnight.


Monday, February 09, 2009

The Yankees, very $$$$$$:

If you're wondering why the Yankee's recently bought yet another incredibly expensive baseball player, I can explain. They are trying to become too big to fail.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Up/Down Spin:

We recently stayed at a hotel that has a pair of toilet roll spindles in each bathroom. I've seen this arrangement in other places. The idea, as I'm sure you know, is that you keep using one roll until it's empty, and then housekeeping has plenty of time to replace that roll while you start on the other one.

But the toilet paper rolls in our bathroom were arranged to solve an entirely different problem. One roll dispensed paper from the top; the other dispensed from the bottom. Many people feel rather passionately that one of these arrangements is the only way to go. Well, whichever you prefer: we had that one.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

I fixed a hardware problem!

It rarely happens that a software guy fixes a hardware problem. I treasure these rare events, and, well, here's another one. It doesn't matter that I brought it on myself in the first place.

We have a nice Dell desktop computer. The first time I needed to open it, to install a board, I could not figure out how to get the box open. But – as you may have heard – the Internet is wonderful. I searched for the PC's model number and the words “open case”, and I got instructions on how to open it up to get at the computer's innards.

But ... before I searched the Internet, I had tried something simpler. I yanked the front panel off. I heard a small piece of plastic break, and there I was, holding the separated front panel, with no way to get at the inside of the computer. I replaced the front panel and attached it in place with – you know what I'm going to say, don't you – Duct Tape.

Okay, so now it's a year later, and occasionally my wife complains that the on/off button's not working. (And I should have listened to her, you know what I mean?) A few days ago, we came home from vacation and turned the computer on just fine. But now, it's off and it won't go on. Pushing the ON button doesn't even make the PC run its Power On Self Test.

I suspected a power supply problem, something I thought I could diagnose and fix. But I decided to check for the even simpler problem first. I undid the duct tape, ripped off the front panel again, and pressed the real ON switch. (When you press the ON switch on that front panel, it presses another switch beneath it; that's the real ON switch.) The computer came up just fine.

I fixed this problem with larger pieces of Duct Tape. Okay, I know you're going to complain that Duct Tape isn't really hardware. Let's call it: firmware.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Two Remarkable Mini-Computer Contracts:

In the 1970's, I worked at a company that sold specialized mini-computers and software for process control, mostly to refineries and power companies. I've already blogged many of my experiences at this company, but recently one more story popped into my mind. Here are two of the strangest contracts I have ever worked on.

We developed a process control computer for a small group at Westinghouse. One programmer at our company did the entire thing, and it was expected to be about a three month job. But the manager at Westinghouse kept finding fault and requesting changes. Some of these were bugs that our company had to fix. We made some of the changes free, for the goodwill we expected to get when the system was up and running. And the customer paid for a few of the changes, I believe.

After an entire year, the manager at Westinghouse accepted the system. Westinghouse immediately fired him and his entire group. Our directors ruefully post-mortemed with our customer. He explained that he had always known his group would be canned the moment the computer was delivered; he kept the project going as long as he could to save his job. If only we had known! We could have made the requested changes in a much more trivial fashion, if the computer system was never going to be used. (If this story doesn't make much sense to you ... well, it never made much sense to us, either.)

The second contract is even stranger. (I've updated this blog entry to make it clearer. I hope.) My company had a customizable product, a computer system that analyzed Electrocardiograms and sent reports back to cardiologists. Salesman 'A', who worked for a medical company I will not name, did a “middleman sale” for his company. That is, he sold our system to a customer, and hired our company to customize and deliver it. My company always worked on fixed price contracts. That means that we guesstimated all hardware and development costs, and made a bid we guessed we could profit from. We delivered this machine, and salesman A's company paid us for it. I think we made a modest profit on delivery. I'm sure that at this point, A's company also profited from what the customer paid them. Shortly thereafter, salesman A disappeared, and the medical company sent salesman B to talk to us.

Mr. B had a problem. Or rather, the customer who had bought the electrocardiogram analysis system had many problems. They wanted a lot of unpaid changes to the computer system, and the medical company was prepared to pay us to make every one of these unexpected changes. Mr. B explained that salesman A had nailed down this deal by adding a remarkable clause that should never have gotten past the company's lawyers. The contract said that the system would be modified in any way the customer desired, until they were entirely satisfied. I'm not making this up! Salesman B was not expecting to make money on this contract. He was just hoping the work would not go on forever. His company paid us for a lot of additional work, before the customer ran out of changes to request.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

No snow for old men:

If you're male and over forty, I hope you know that there's danger of heart attack and death if you shovel snow. Unfortunately, snow obeys Murphy's law, finding special ways to fall on your grounds such that you're the only person available to do something about it. Now I'm not a doctor, and I probably have no idea what I'm doing, but here's what I do:

I do not lift snow. I just push it out of the way. Lifting, especially with heavy snow, is just asking for trouble.

I use shovel snow barehanded. I want to do only a little at a time, and I come inside when my hands feel cold and awful. This is a graduated limiting maneuver, because my risk increases as the temperature drops, but my hands get cold faster, and send me inside sooner, when the temperature is low.

So far, so good. Comments? Advice? I'd appreciate advice.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A reference to Robert Musil (not completely unclever) is now credited forever to the wrong person:

Sorry about the long title, but I'm still chuckling over another example of how mistakes on the web run rampant forever.

Charlotte Roche's novel Wetlands (a questionable translation of the original German title: Feuchtgebiete) has finally been published in English. The British paper Observer published a review, and you can find the following quote all over the web:

Sophie Hannah's review provides this hilarious line about the book's protagonist:

The hilarious 'line' from the review is:

But mostly, she thinks, in the great German tradition. Where Musil had a Man Without Qualities, Roche brings us a Woman without Pants.

If you appreciate that quote, then you may share in Sophie Harrison's likely frustration at being misnamed. Here's Sophie Harrison's review. And if you're curious, here's a more balanced review.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Campbell's Vegetarian Vegetable Soup: no longer Kosher:

Look sharp, you may still find a few cans of Campbell's Vegveg soup that has a Kosher symbol. According to Arlene Mathes-Scharf, Campbell used to produce the VegVeg soup (and possibly a few other soups?) at a separate Kosher plant, but they are now making the soup in all their plants, due to the increased cost of shipping.

Update: I can't be sure about this, but it looks like my queries to the Kashruth Alert web page and the Webbe Rebbe led to more alerts about Campbell Soup. This is really sad, especially since shipping costs must be pretty low at this moment.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

43, 44 and counting:

We have our 44th president. We also have our 43rd Superbowl. Next year, I hope we will still have our 44th President, and our 44th Superbowl. During President Obama's term, the Superbowl count will pass the presidential count. (Oh, ... so what ...).