rant

A Confederacy of Dunces

One style of fiction I most enjoy is what is known as alternate history or, if presented academically, counterfactual history. This genre asks what might have been if such-and-such had happened. Sometimes the counterfactual is presented as a more pleasant, net positive, outcome than what actually is, but more often than not as less desirable than the present. Or, as Pangloss so sagely put it, "all is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds."

It's a genre with a long, storied tradition.

And some people have never heard of it before this week.

HBO announced the production of a new show, Confederate, whose not entirely novel premise is that the Confederate States of America still exists. The North did not win the War Between the States; the South did not lose. And slavery still exists. The uproar, as I understand it, has been outrage at HBO's conceit that they could make a show celebrating slavery when all know it is horribly wrong. No one has seen a script yet, much less filmed work, and the assumption is that the show glorifies slavery? Because any show with the Confederacy in it would obviously celebrate slavery? Or because slavery when depicted theatrically is always glamorous? Much as it was in Roots or Twelve Years a Slave, right? One can portray slavery without glamorizing it, after all. And it's not like slavery is dead even now.

Tonight I learned that Some Other People are in a similar snit over a planned series for Amazon called Black America, about a black nation, not unlike an Indian reservation, extracted from the United States after the Civil War. Haven't y'all heard of Liberia, the twitterati shriek, completely forgetting that Liberia is in Africa. Here's a map:

They seem to have confused the American Colonization Society with calls by the Nation of Islam for a separate country. One does begin to wonder why anyone pays attention to these sorts of tempests. Is their teapot so large as to scald us when it boils?

You know what kind of alternate history I'd like to watch? One where losers don't blame their mistakes on some other group of people. That would be a novelty.

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liberty, rant, Work

Who Forged These Chains?

For someone who works with computers, I have very little respect for them. Perhaps that’s left over from a programming class where the teacher reminded us that the computer only does what we tell it to do. It’s mindless. Or more likely it has been experience reinforcing this: the computer program is only as good as its author, and I’ve seen so many that aren’t. What this results in, however, is prejudicial treatment of the machines. I simply assume that my experiences with them will be even worse than experiences with human, so I despise voice mail jail (Press 0 for an operator.), interactive voice response systems (Hi, Siri!), time-sheets, and resume sifting by keyword. This disrespect is misplaced; it’s no fault of the computer’s own that it is incompetent and hard to deal with. It’s the fault of those humans who designed it. But they are anonymous and the computer sits there, refusing to take what I give it until I alter my behavior to suit its inflexibility. I’m not the one wrong; it is. Why? Because I am not the computer’s accessory. It is doing a task for me. Why does it end up being the other way ’round?

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economics, politics, rant

Against Full-Day Kindergarten

The Common Core State Standards website asks,

Q: Why do we need educational standards?

A: We need standards to ensure that all students, no matter where they live, are prepared for success in postsecondary education and the workforce.

Let’s assume for a moment that that is the goal of primary and secondary education. (Let’s also ignore the missing hyphen between post and secondary.) Will full-day Kindergarten help in achieving this goal?

No.

Why not?

Because extreme differences in academic ability collapse by the fourth grade. All of us, including children, learn at different rates. In general, those differences disappear on average by the time we are about ten years old, or fourth grade. I understand the difficulty of scientific experiments on humans, but we do what we can; and what we can do shows that there’s no evidence that learning a subject earlier makes a difference.

So, what exactly is the point of full-day Kindergarten?

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communication, rant

You’re Dead. Stop Kicking Me.

Interactive Television has always failed, and will always fail.

A lesson from the early days of telephony is significant. Early on it was thought that telephony would provide a subscriber with a way to listen to opera in the convenience of his own living room. And while that was sold for a while, it turns out that humans are social animals, and that the profit lies in enabling communication, not in delivering content. We want to talk to each other.

The ONLY reason that television has been around so long is that the cost of communicating with video was beyond the reach of all of us.

That is no longer the case.

Television as we’ve known it is dead. But like a chicken with its head cut off, it’s still running around.

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rant

Daylight Saving Tricks

Now that we’ve returned to Standard Time, let us pause for my annual rant on Daylight Saving Time (DST). Calling the boiling point of water 100 instead of 212 does not mean the water boils when it is colder.

We’re talking about a unit of measurement here, so people can agree to meet at a certain point in time, or so factory shifts can start precisely and predictably, or so polls can have a known start and end. My work hours are variable and cross all timezones, and have since I graduated college. I wake well after dawn and work well after dark, or wake well before dawn and work well after dark. I work generally apart from others; they are in Tokyo, Manila, Bangalore, Sarajevo, New York, St. Louis, Dallas, Sao Paolo, San Ramon. The people I must have real-time meetings live one to three hours west of me, and consistently schedule meetings during lunch or dinner.

What benefit does DST have? Most of the stores I visit are open all the time, because they are online or groceries. If I want to attend my daughter’s softball game, I don’t need the whole factory shift to let out earlier; I need the assholes in California to stop scheduling meetings when they’ve just returned from lunch.

The DST switch only coordinates activities with people local to me (e.g. the school district’s bus schedule), and only for people shoved into a tight schedule, and that could be just as easily done without bothering the rest of the world, or me for that matter. And the easiest way to do that would be to pick Daylight Time or Standard Time, or anything else for that matter, and stick to it.

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politics, rant

How Stupid is the Mass Media?

Check out the headline on this article: CNN Poll: Still no front-runner in the battle for the GOP nomination.

Of course not, you stupid shit. They just started campaigning. It’s a [expletive and a half] horse race. Did you see the 137th Kentucky Derby last weekend? That was a fun two minutes. Shackleford started off well in front of the pack and led into the final stretch. But he didn’t win, did he? The favorite? He lost too. Animal Kingdom came up from 13th place to win.

Who the fuck cares who the front-runner is? It means nothing except bullshit headlines and cheap stories for the likes of you.

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economics, politics, rant, transportation

Dear Amtrak: Learn How to Price Your Service

Apparently you neglected to read my last letter, but with the fast approach of National Train Day and the increase in oil prices making your services slightly more competitive, I thought it might be helpful to bring up the topic again.

Your pricing skills suck. Are you intentionally trying to lose money and ridership?

Suppose that a family of four — or six — wanted to travel to Disney World from New York. This is a not uncommon occurrence, and provides the basis for over 250 flights per day by many airlines from more than five airports in the New York metropolitan area. The cost of air travel is currently going up, up, up due to some small upset over in the oil-producing regions, so where a seat on JetBlue from JFK to MCO would once have cost $50, it’s now between $100 and $150. This is an opportunity! And you’re missing it!

And you’re missing it in a big way. Look, I understand that it takes capital to improve infrastructure, and that you’re hobbled by riding on tracks owned by others, but it’s almost like you’ve intentionally set your prices to encourage folks to drive. For me to take a family of six to Disney World by plane costs almost as much as staying in one of Disney’s “moderate” resorts and going to all of the parks every day of my visit, so I, and many others, might be looking for a slightly less wallet-reducing option. And the first thing that comes to mind is driving. But who wants to drive the first 24 hours of their vacation? Or, who wants to spend three days driving, two days there, and three days driving back? No one. But the other option is too expensive. Buses? Ha! That’s worse than driving, especially with little kids. How about the train?

This is where you’re completely missing the opportunity. The cost per seat from, for example, New York Penn Station to Orlando is $106 per person for a 21 hour trip. That’s slightly cheaper than the more expensive JetBlue seat, but you forget the time differential. Time is, after all, money, which is why travelers choose to fly on JetBlue for 2 hours for $150 instead of suffer on Amtrak for 21 hours for $106. You need to take your utter inability to get anywhere fast into account when pricing your service. And when you’re more expensive, even if only by $7, than the cheapest option, you completely lose. No one wants to pay more money for the privilege of getting somewhere slower.

Yet the cost of airfare gets worse as one moves away from hub airports. This is where you have an advantage. It costs less to feed from Poughkeepsie to New York and thence to Orlando than it does for JetBlue to fly direct from Newburgh to Orlando. In terms of convenience for me, I’d much rather leave from Poughkeepsie than from JFK. If you can get your prices down to something approaching the cost of gasoline plus a hotel room, you might have a fighting chance in earning my dollar. But then you totally destroy any opportunity you had with the sleeper options. $358 for a room for two people? $658 for a slightly larger one? What? You think you’re a hotel on Times Square? I’m just looking for a contained, flat place for my kids to lie down so that they don’t spend the night in the bar car.

You have two options: lower your prices, or build faster trains. Because we’re sure as Hell not going to pay $658 for two cots or $640 for uncomfortable seats when we could pay less than that on gas and a swank room at the Holiday Inn Express.

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economics, politics, rant, transportation

Dear Amtrak

You disappoint me.

You don’t understand pricing. Or perhaps you simply have no experience of buying things with your own money. In any case, what are you thinking?

I know that you stop in both cities, so I was hoping to take my family from Poughkeepsie to Montreal by train instead of by car. But then I checked your prices.

According to Google Maps, the trip is 5 hours 12 minutes by car, to travel 309 miles. Our van gets 25 miles per gallon on average, or 12 1/3 gallons from here to there. Let’s call it 13 gallons for imprecision. Gasoline currently costs roughly $3.00 per gallon. One way, the trip would cost, out of pocket, $39 plus lunch and dinner for six. If we eat at a restaurant, lunch or dinner tends to run between $50 and $60. Thus far, from here to there would be $159 by car.

But you? You want $241.50 to make the trip in 9 hours 30 minutes? Taking the train might be more relaxing than driving for six hours with four kids strapped into car seats, but trying to keep them in the same train car, much less the same seats, for ten hours would be well nigh impossible. They will have gone stir crazy before we reach Albany. And you and I both know that your timetables are a rough approximation: The last time I rode Amtrak you said the trip would take 8 hours; it took 12. For this you want me to pay almost six times as much as driving?

That was weekend pricing. Let’s look at the weekdays. Apparently there’s a deal if I take The Adirondack over the weekend, but I didn’t notice that in the price. Weekday prices drop the fare considerably, once this discount takes effect: $148.

BUT, it’s TEN HOURS.

And only a snack car on the train?

No, thank you.

Suppose that I were to travel alone. For that you ask $69. I could have a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes and a pair of sunglasses, and make it there by morning for less than that.

I like trains; I do. But at the rates you charge, your only customers are those with time to spare, those without travel options, the price-insensitive, or die-hard railfans such as Vice President Biden. That’s no way to make a profit.

Oh, I think I just realized how you’ve determined the prices. You’re charging by the hour. OK. Let’s see how that compares.

$148.5 divided by 9.5 hours is $15.63 per hour. That sounds cheap. How does my driving compare? $159 divided by 5.25 is $30.28 per hour. Wait, I forgot to factor in bathroom breaks and time for casual dining: $159/8.25 = $19.27/hour. Ah, I see now. That makes perfect sense. The trip length is also almost the same. Let’s stop at a park for some running around and exercise: $159/9.5 = $16.73/hour.

Are you going to throw in dinner while we’re on the train? I didn’t think so. Let’s remove that from the equation: $39/9.5 = $4.10/hour.

I suggest perusal of this article at Wikipedia. Meanwhile, I’ll enter the Toot & Puddle Read & Ride Sweepstakes.

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communication, rant

DirecTiVo, your return can not be too soon

Our DirecTiVo was dying. Every now and again, frequently at times, it stopped, hung. Maybe it waiting on a bad block on disk. Maybe it was just the heat. But the only option offered by DirecTV was a replacement with their dreaded DVR.

My first impression was positive. The guide responded quickly. The on-screen display is unobtrusive.

But on closer inspection, this was designed by a committee of retarded monkeys with no sense for how the ability to control the television changes how we use it.

The remote is cluttered. Do I really need three power buttons?

Why are you starting from sleep at the Game Lobby? I have never willingly selected that, so don’t even bother showing it to me.

Speaking of sleep, what’s the deal with the screen saver? Trying to keep my cathode ray tube from burning in the Game Lobby?

But now that I have a chance to sit down and completely reprogram all of the shows I’ve chosen to record over the past eight years when there is absolutely no reason why I should have to do that, I wonder WHY THE FUCK DirecTV can’t make a searchable version of the TV guide so that I can find the shows I want to record you fucking incompetent pieces of shit.

How about making one that displays the show that’s actually playing on my TV?

This is why all efforts at interactive television have failed miserably.

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rant

Against the Time Change

Really it’s not the shift in noon that I’m against — though there is a certain rightness to being able to look up at the sun and say, “ah, yes, it’s mid-day” — but that there’s a change at all. Just pick one and stick with it. This business of switching the clock around in order to alter behavior has been driving me nuts since 1971.

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rant, transportation

The Impact of the Daylight Saving Time Change on Traffic Accidents

It seems to me that accidents would increase during the transitional period surrounding the switch between Standard Time and Daylight Saving Time. And apparently others have asked this question, and looked at the data to see if what effect the transition has. The paper Daylight Savings Time and Traffic Accidents, with related discussion of the results, is, unfortunately, behind the New England Journal of Medicine‘s paywall. Fortunately, Stanley Coren presented on the subject at INABIS 98, and so the work is available online at McMaster University.

Other studies argue that, overall, DST reduces traffic fatalities because more driving is done in daylight. No shit, Sherlock; the day is longer because of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, not because the clock changed. However, it just boggles the mind why the arguments proffered for DST are considered sufficient. Why not impose a curfew and forbid driving at night, then? Or remove headlamps from cars so that night driving becomes more hazardous and is thus avoided?

Worried about energy consumption and think it saves energy? Why not increase the price of candles, or kerosene, or whale oil, or electricity? Or, if you must compel the rest of us to do something, then forbid the use of electricity when it is dark. That will surely reduce consumption.

You want to use more of the daylight? Wake up when the sun rises, or leave the office earlier. Hell, work from home or live closer to your work location. But don’t move the clocks back and forth and pretend that you have more time. We may as well as call an inch a foot and pretend like penis enlargement pills work.

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rant, Work

Newlines

What do the text utilities on AIX have against following the manual and manipulating newlines properly? Is it just that AIX is from IBM, and IBM software is half-assed?

$ uname -a
AIX myhost 3 5 00C2D2804C00
$ echo " 1 2 3 4   5 2 1" | tr -s [:space:] '\n'
 1 2 3 4   5 2 1
$ echo " 1 2 3 4   5 2 1" | tr -s [:space:] '\012'
 1 2 3 4   5 2 1

$ echo " 1 2 3 4   5 2 1" | sed 's/ /\n/g'
n1n2n3n4nnn5n2n1

By properly, I of course mean “How GNU does it.”

$ uname -a
Linux myhost 2.6.9-55.ELsmp #1 SMP Fri Apr 20 17:03:35 EDT 2007 i686 i686 i386 GNU/Linux
$ echo " 1 2 3 4   5 2 1" | tr -s [:space:] '\n                                                                             '

1
2
3
4
5
2
1

$ echo " 1 2 3 4   5 2 1" | tr -s [:space:] '\012'

1
2
3
4
5
2
1
$ echo " 1 2 3 4   5 2 1" | sed 's/ /\n/g'

1
2
3
4


5
2
1

Turns out that tr(5) was not matching the class [:space:] or the class [:blank:], but would match and transform the single character ' ' (space). Still not sure WTF is up with sed(5). The simple solution to this problem, of course, is to avoid AIX.

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rant

Commenters

I tend to be very happy with reading websites through their syndicated feeds rather than directly. Recently, with all the political and economic ferment, I’ve become even happier. It’s a cesspool out there. If the original author of the piece is not an idiot, then at least 90% of the people who comment on the piece are. You see the same thing on USENET or IRC or any of the other older Internet media. But at least on IRC you can /kick them in the ass. There’s something about the level of discourse that makes you want to reach out and punch someone.

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rant

Maybe I should read things as fast as put them in the pile

Either I accidentally clicked the close box instead of the minimize box, or Google Chrome crashed a whole set of tabs. I suspect the former. Kudos to the idiot who put those two functions next to each other: You’re a moron and then some.

Meanwhile, Google, to recover from this idiot’s complete failure to understand the effects of clicking, could you please add a “recently closed tabs and windows” feature, not unlike the one that Firefox has? Thanks.

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rant

Adobe, You Owe Me Money

I was wondering why my laptop was not idle when I wasn’t using it, because when I picked it up I burned my hand.

Using the handy-dandy Task Manager, I saw that Mozilla Firefox was using 25% of this 1.8GHz Intel Centrino Duo. Why would it be doing that? I’m not browsing the web, nor did I leave one of my tabs open to a new-fangled Web 2.0 site that thinks I need it to update itself every 30 seconds. I was idle. And by idle I mean that I was outside trimming the shrubs, not sitting in front of my computer.

Well, turns it that some advertisement or other written in Adobe Flash was eating that CPU time. Since I didn’t identify the advertisement, and since Adobe either provides a means for the author to disable my ability to stop the movies from playing, or simply does not provide a means for me to stop the movies from playing, I figure that Adobe owes me the cost of the energy drained by 25% of two 1.8GHz processors over the course of the 12 hours between the time I installed the Flash player to watch some idiot video on YouTube, then enjoyed my Father’s Day offline, and the time when I disabled the Flash player because I had first degree burns on my thighs.

Oh, by the way, Google, now that you’ve bought DoubleClick, if wouldn’t mind simply discontinuing the use of Flash advertisements because they’re evil, we’d love you for it. Thanks.

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rant, Work

Tired

One of Rick Klau’s shared items in Google Reader suggested that journalists today will need to know Photoshop, HTML, and a bunch of other crap to get a job. That may be so, but remember that computers are just a tool, and any time the tool gets in the way of the Real Work, discard it.

I used to find working with computers and learning their ins-and-outs to be interesting. Now it’s just dull, boring, and a drain on my life.

Maybe if I worked reasonable hours, got enough sleep, and saw my family for more than a few minutes each day, I’d feel differently, but right now I just want to take my time machine back and murder the sons-of-bitches who invented the things.

So, no, I don’t want a job “working with computers.” I want something rewarding, preferably with Oz hours:

Get up at noon, and then to work at one / take an hour for lunch, and then at two we’re done.

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