We can answer on question what is VPS? and what is cheap dedicated servers?


Which way?

Do you believe the world is (a) getting better, or (b) getting worse?

Please explain. Please, no more "both/neither" answers: choose just one


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“Something Must Be Done”

Listening to Tavis Smiley’s show tonight, and the segment My America where they talked about gun violence. At one point they quote a man who lost his brother to gun violence:

You can be in a club and bump into somebody on accident, a little of your liquor, a little of your water spill on their coat, now, you go outside, he got five or six people out their because you spilled your damn drink. Which, a person should be able to say, "man, my fault dog, I apologize, you know how it is." You got people that just ain’t gonna be right, man.

Tavis Smiley: So you take that, you put guns into the equation, that changes mediation efforts dramatically.

Several times they talk about how small matters of respect lead to violence. The conclusion is that guns are the problem.

I don’t really know what to do with this. In my life (and I suspect all of your lives) issues of respect do not lead to violence. As a result I have a hard time thinking of this as a gun problem.

OK, so it’s a violence problem. The other thing that gets me is there’s this strong undertone to this conversation that "we aren’t doing enough." This attitude is of course the norm for an NPR show. But it’s not we — I, and everyone I know is not part of this we. My "we" does not resort to violence. My "we" does not project respect into minor social interactions. When I say it’s not "we", I don’t think it’s just that I tuned into the wrong radio show — am I being recruited into this "we"? Do they really think listeners are part of this "we"?

There is no reflection in these shows about why this (whatever the issue of the show) is a general problem. Of course most talk shows tend to generalize wildly, to turn every anecdote into a sign of some change in culture, some disease of our society, something more than just an anecdote. (Though some good NPR shows do not attempt to generalize anecdotes at all.)

There’s a strong attitude, in this show and others, that this is a problem for us all to solve. Why exactly is this a problem for me to solve? Why is this a problem for government to solve? (I’m not a conservative, but I feel it’s unfair that only conservatives seem to be able to ask that question: why should government solve this?)

I don’t ask these questions rhetorically (and maybe that makes me different from the conservatives, who tend to only ask questions rhetorically). There may be a good answer to these questions. But it’s far too easy to say "we must do something about this" without saying who and why. We (especially those of us who listen to NPR) are all far too fatigued with the constant admonitions that not enough is being done, and something has to change. This kind of approach is not an effective call to action.

And it’s yet another thing trying to make me feel bad for something that’s not my fault. And dammit, it really isn’t my fault!


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The Mundane Nature Of Programming

So, I was at a university the other day, talking with some people about a sprint project, and there was a student there. He was somewhat eager to write "algorithms". I’m not sure what that means exactly, but I was reminded of him because I was just about to write a function to make an absolute path relative and this somehow felt like an "algorithm". That’s not how I’d describe most of the coding I do.

But I digress… this student seemed to be excited about his ability. Well, okay, young programmers tend to be very eager, and often overestimate their ability (or the difficulty of the task). For students in this position I think it’s good to let them take on large projects, so they can get a better concept of their ability. This student seemed to take to heart the idea that a typical programmer produces 10 lines of working code a day. People who hear this are inclined to think "damn, I can write way more than 10 lines of code a day!"

I suspect a more fair way of thinking about this is that on average a programmer gets 50 lines of code into production a week, or 200 lines a month. Sure, lots of people are more productive than this, but the actual lines of code that go into production are usually way smaller than it feels like during the process that goes into getting that code there. That student had probably never gotten a single line of code into production. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have appreciated what that getting code into production is different than just hacking out some code.

The kid didn’t end up hanging around. I don’t think we had any algorithms for him. That’s too bad, maybe he could have seen what programming really looks like.

Another what-is-programming-really-like story… Emily was working on her blog and editing some templates to change the feed URL. It didn’t work, and I took a look at it and showed her that somehow a space had gotten into the URL, so she had to go back and correct them all. She found this frustrating. I pointed out to her that this is exactly what I spend my days doing.

Some people seem angered when people call writing HTML "programming". Personally I do not. Most programming is a lot more like writing HTML than it’s like writing a compiler. I bet writing a compiler is a lot more like writing HTML than what most programmers think it’s like to write a compiler.


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Environmental Guilt

I was offhandedly reading this post, which talked about Earth Hour, and about hating on SUVs:

Also thinking of a nice, simple mass-action for discouraging the SUV-ites. Simple, direct; when you see someone driving an SUV, slowly shake your head in disappointment and disgust at the stupidity of the driver. Throw in a disgusted sneer and snort if you like. It’s not necessarily the driver that you’re targeting, the people around you are probably more likely to affect purchasing decisions.

Well, a rather pedestrian level of hate as environmental discussions go.

I hate SUVs too. There’s a very small number of people who have good reason to own an SUV. Everyone else should own a normal car or a minivan (more practical in all the ways that matter, it just doesn’t look as cool). OK, the irony is that the minivan isn’t going to be much more efficient, it’s just that I’ll trust you have good reason to own a big vehicle, because you’ll have weighed the utility against the supreme uncoolness of a minivan. And anyway, four people barreling down the highway in a minivan is more efficient than one person in a Prius. With an SUV I’ll always suspect vanity. And what’s worse, I won’t think less of you just because of the resources you take up (not just carbon, but street space, visual, impact, etc)… I’ll also think less of you because I’ll have you pegged as a dumb consumer. And don’t give me any bullshit about getting around in the snow — then I’ll just peg you as a lousy driver, because I’ve been driving out of snow drifts in crappy low-clearance underpowered cars all my life without much trouble.

But I digress. Yeah, SUVs are shit. So what does it matter if I think so? I can only not buy an SUV so many times. If I don’t buy a million SUVs will I have saved the world? No. So, like Mike I wish I could get other people not to buy SUVs. I’ve considered tagging SUVs with these bumper stickers, but I dunno. Will I do anything more than piss some people off? If I make some soccer-mom type feel guilty, will I have actually accomplished anything? I think she’s a stupid consumer, and probably self-centered in her choice, but do I actually want that person to feel bad, or mad, or unjustly accused? The only outcome I can think of is some negative reaction, and maybe that reaction could be productive. But probably not.

The idea really fell apart as I reflected on all the Hispanic people in their SUVs going to the Catholic church next door, and realized that if I tagged one of their SUVs it would probably be even more pointless. This was their symbol of success, and you certainly can’t fault them for getting a big vehicle if they are filling it up, even if their particular choice of SUV was just a reflection of cowboy dreams — but when they bought the SUV instead of the minivan they only wasted some money, they didn’t really do any worse for the world.

But getting beyond the particulars of SUVs, I feel environmentalism has a real problem. It is built on guilt. A NIMBY action, or maybe land conservation, can actually be explained as rational direct action. Personal effort can result in the improvement of your personal space. But global warming? Personal action doesn’t do anything, it can’t do anything. All we have is guilt, a sense of collective responsibility, fear over some collective doom.

Guilt is a crappy foundation for a movement. One thing our commercial and consumerist world has going for it: there’s no guilt. The salesman won’t question why you are buying something. It’s always "thank you sir, have a nice day!" And even though sophisticated people will mock the insincerity of the expression, we’re still human and a kind word and a smile still makes us feel better, no matter how our rational mind rejects it.

But environmentalism? The most common reactions to guilt are avoidance, procrastination, resentment. Guilt is a horrible way to achieve action. Judgment can be a way to build group identity, and environmentalism has achieved this. It means something to be an "environmentalist". But that’s hardly the goal, is it?

People want to do the right thing for the world. They want to stop global warming, they want to reduce pollution, save wildlife, all that stuff. All the surveys show this. We’re not going to get any closer to consensus (on goals) than we are already. If we, collectively and individually, are still not doing what we need to, then it is not for lack of a collective desire, or even a lack of education.

So how do we turn desire into action? I don’t think guilt is a good way to do it. I’m not sure I like that path anyway. Is it an irrational reaction to guilt that we try to avoid judgment? Is it irrational that people are drawn to an environment where they are told they are good, where they are accepted, where they can act to achieve clear goals (even if that is just a purchase), where they can succeed? Consumerism may only draw people to an unimpressive local maximum of happiness, but it always makes the pursuit clear, consumerism draws you forward, consumerism offers a clear path.

And even if you choose to accept and respond to the guilt of environmentalism, it won’t stop. First you turn the water off while you are brushing your teeth. Then you get rid of the SUV. You replace your bulbs with CFLs. Are you ready to get rid of your drier? Put your thermostat at 60F? Eat organic? Stop eating meat? Join or start a co-op? Get a composting toilet? Go off the grid? There’s always more to be done, there’s always another thing to feel guilty about not doing. It’s disheartening.

Is there a way environmentalism can be less depressing? Less guilt-driven? Less accusing and judgmental? Can environmentalism be less dismal, more happy? Environmentalism is trying to drive a wedge between what people want and what they do. Putting aside moral arguments, is this an effective way to make change?

Considering my carbon footprint has only made this worse. Every action is negative. Everything I do has a cost. Pursuing carbon neutrality feels like a pursuit of non-existence. People are questioning the growth imperative, but at least growth has a certain excitement to it. Do we step into the future with confidence or fear? Do we take each step with trepidation and dread? What a horrible way to come into contact with our future selves! I want to meet all of our future selves with arms open. Buying shit is a poor substitute for that optimism. But dammit, I want to be optimistic. I don’t want to just be guilty.


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So, today is 9/11. I almost missed it. It’s not like it catches you by surprise, you’re not going to forget the date. But it’s just been slipping by for a few years now without much notice.

As an event it is still very important. History flowed from that day. But it doesn’t mean anything anymore.

Remember how everyone was saying, on those days after 9/11/2001, that they thought about life differently, about the things that really mattered and the things that didn’t? A couple years ago I felt frustrated by how quickly that seemed to disappear, how quickly genuine sentiment turned into empty rhetoric. A few years ago that transition was frustrating, now the whole thing seems laughable. The death of irony? No… after 9/11 our modern cynicism was down but it wasn’t out. It came back fighting, and a National Sense Of Grief was no match.

Whatever. I’m tired of it anyway. You win Whatever, you’re the champ.


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Reflection and Description Of Meaning

After writing my last post I thought I might follow up with a bit of cognitive speculation. Since the first comment was exactly about the issue I was thinking about writing on, I might as well follow up quickly.

Jeff Snell replied:

You parse semantic markup in rich text all the time. When formatting changes, you apply a reason. RFC’s don’t capitalize MUST and SHOULD because the author is thinking in upper-case versus lower-case. They’re putting a strong emphasis on those words. As a reader, you take special notice of those words being formatted that way and immediately recognize that they contain a special importance. So I think that readers do parse writing into semantic markup inside their brains.

Emphasis not added. Wait, bold isn’t emphasis, it’s strong! So sorry, STRONG not added.

I think the reasoning here is flawed, in that it supposes that reflection on how we think is an accurate way of describing how we think.

A few years ago I got interested in cognition for a while and particularly some of the new theories on consciousness. One of the parts that really stuck with me was the difference in how we think about thinking, and how thinking really works (as revealed with timing experiments). That is, our conscious thought (the thinking-about-thinking) happened after the actual thought; we make up reasons for our actions when we’re challenged, but if we aren’t challenged to explain our actions there’s no consciousness at all (of course, you can challenge yourself to explain your reasoning — but you usually won’t). And then we revise history so that our reasoning precedes our decision, but that’s not always very accurate. This gets around the infinite-loop problem, where either there’s always another level of meta-consciousness reasoning about the lower level of consciousness, or there’s a potentially infinite sequence of whys that have to be answered for every decision. And of course sometimes we really do make rational decisions and there are several levels of why answered before we commit. But this is not the most common case, and there’s always a limit to how much reflection we can do. There are always decisions made without conscious consideration — if only to free ourselves to focus on the important decisions.

And so as both a reader and a writer, I think in terms of italic and bold. As a reader and a writer there is of course translation from one form to another. There’s some idea inside of me that I want to get out in my writing, there’s some idea outside of me that I want to understand as a reader. But just because I can describe some intermediate form of semantic meaning, it doesn’t mean that that meaning is actually there. Instead I invent things like "strong" and "emphasis" when I’m asked to decide why I chose a particular text style. But the real decision is intuitive — I map directly from my ideas to words on the page, or vice versa for reading.

Obviously this is not true for all markup. But my intuition as both a reader and a writer about bold and italic is strong enough that I feel confident there’s no intermediary representation. This is not unlike the fact I don’t consider the phonetics of most words (though admittedly I did when trying to spell "phonetics"); common words are opaque tokens that I read in their entirety without consideration of their component letters. And a good reader reads text words without consideration of their vocal equivalents (though as a writer I read my own writing out loud… is that typical? I’m guessing it is). A good reader can of course vocalize if asked, but that doesn’t mean the vocalization is an accurate representation of their original reading experience.

Though it’s kind of an aside, I think the use of MUST and SHOULD in RFCs fits with this theory. By using all caps they emphasize the word over the prose, they make the reader see the words as tokens unique from "must" and "should", with special meanings that are related to but also much more strict than their usual English meaning. The caps are a way of disturbing our natural way of determining meaning because they need a more exact language.


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Zonbu & S3

I read Edd Dumbill’s post on the Zonbu computer with interest. The Zonbu is a small and inexpensive computer, reminiscent of the Mac Mini but running Linux. The disk is fairly small (4Gb flash) and is intended to serve more as a cache for your network storage than as your primary store.

The network store is a frontend on Amazon S3. This is interesting but confusing, because Zonbu is selling the computer at a price of $99 if you agree to a two year contract for storage at $12.95 a month (about $300 over two years).

The underlying S3 storage is pretty cheap: $0.15 per Gb-month, and $0.10/$0.18 per Gb-upload/download (discounts for higher quantities, which probably Zonbu can get but an individual user couldn’t). So if you are storing, say, 10Gb of data, and retrieving about 10Gb per month (including all the syncing, cache misses, etc), that comes to about $3 per month. Zonbu costs between $0.50 and $0.20 per Gb-month, depending on the plan, and you pay for capacity, not what you actually use (S3 only charges for what you really use). I assume there are bandwidth limits but they aren’t published.

As an aside, I was looking for backup systems for my dad a few months ago, and looked at some of the backup systems that included network storage. They were often in the range of $10-20 per month, and weren’t very high capacity. I came upon S3 Backup, which is a fairly simple Windows program to upload to S3. The price of S3 is way better than any of the other commercial solutions. The billing and account setup isn’t as simple as other systems (since it’s not intended to be), but this seems like something that should be fixed. There should be a consumer version of S3. It could make it easier for software developers to make services for people without actually having to maintain infrastructure. Or maybe more accurately, it would make this possible for open source developers, since we have no interest in being the intermediary for anything as that’s all liability with no payoff. (Or maybe it’s the opposite — only by being an intermediary can you get payoff? The economics of open source get confusing.)

Zonbu, as a device and company, appeals to me. But I can’t help but feel frustrated about the network storage pricing, even though those prices are completely reasonable (and it seems without draconian cancellation fees like mobile phones). Still there’s something about the equation that I just hate — loss leaders, unnecessarily intermediated transactions, hidden costs, and a price structure that depends on people not fully utilizing what they pay for. And I really like the S3 pricing — you pay for what you use and the pricing is completely transparent. What I like about it is that at no point is Amazon expecting you to act irrationally, and for Amazon to profit from your irrational choices. They aren’t expecting you to reserve more than you need. They aren’t going to punish you if you don’t reserve enough.

Another part of why I like S3′s structure is that Amazon (well, Amazon Web Services) owns this particular space in terms of services, and it’s not because of advertising or because they cornered the market or used proprietary anything to restrict choices or made secret business deals with anyone. They simply are providing a service with enough quality and efficiency that no one else can compete (at least at the moment). When quality and efficiency drives market choices it makes me feel all fuzzy and capitalist. This happens infrequently enough that perhaps I get a little overly excitable about resellers with different price structures.


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Environmental Theater

If you read Bruce Schneier, as any good geek should, you probably are familiar with the term "security theater": measures that provide the feeling of security while doing little or nothing to actually provide security.

OK, digression. We had this recycling program in Chicago where we put our recyclables in blue bags into the trash, and they pick the blue bags out of the trash. One imagines fancy computerized systems. In reality I think there’s just some people who watch trash go by on a
conveyor belt.

This all seemed fishy, but I hate waste on principle so I would dutifully recycled my trash, washed out containers, all that stuff. You’d sometimes hear an environmentalist criticize the program because there was little perceived benefit, and so people didn’t actually recycle much. The system seemed a little improbable to me too, but then I also realized that recycling is a balance and it’s easy to put more effort into recycling programs than is saved through the recycling itself. So maybe this was efficient, all things considered.

Then I learned that actually only 8% of recycling in blue bags is recovered. 92% of the time when I clean things out and put them carefully in their own container, I might as well have just thrown them away. This really pissed me off, because it made it obvious that there never was an honest attempt to reduce waste through recycling. Blue bags were just what they would give people to make them stop complaining about recycling.

The irony is that the environmentalists didn’t complain about the recovery rates (which always were estimated at a low amount). They complained about how many people were recycling. Of course with a recovery rate that low it didn’t matter how many people were recycling. The entire program was a total farce. Now that the program is going away there doesn’t seem to be much anger about how deceptive the program was, and I don’t know if anyone is paying attention to the actual environmental impact of the new program.

Even if they recover the recycling it might still just be a game. Recycling is filled with farce. Metal recycling is great. That’s why there’s trucks that roam the alleys around Chicago looking for scrap metal. There’s a market and someone is willing to pay for the results. There’s not much of a market for anything else; maybe some glass, maybe a little plastic.

People actually get angry when recycling programs restrict the plastics they will take. It doesn’t occur to them that some plastics are simply garbage. They are worthless, and moving them around in special recycling containers just wastes everyone’s time. They are angry because they want to pretend they aren’t being wasteful. They aren’t getting enough environmental theater.

A more concerning kind of environmental theater is ethanol. With an EROI (energy invested vs. energy produced) that hovers just above one, it’s not helping the environment. Biofuels on the whole seem quite questionable. Brazil has more efficient ethanol, but it’s paired with deforestation. A similar thing happens when trees for palm oil replace natural forests. And of course in all these cases, if plants weren’t grown for fuel then plants would be grown for some other purpose. So I can’t really see any advantage in terms of CO2 emissions — and when you consider the relative inefficiency compared to attaining fossil fuels, the net effect of biofuels is probably worse.

Now that environmental concern is mainstream I think we need to be on the watch for environmental theater. Many of the people who play their parts in this theater are well meaning, which can make it awkward. These are people who believe that The Important Thing Is To Raise Awareness. But awareness has been raised, so the time for that kind of bullshit is past. Lying about solutions, exaggerating specific problems, being fuzzy about facts — that’s always been bullshit, and I’ve never found it acceptable. But it’s unfortunately become the norm among advocates of all sorts in these times. The irony is that the advocacy has been done, the case has been made, enough people are convinced, but it may be hard to move beyond the theater to meaningful action. Especially as the well-meaning people are replaced with cynics out to make money.


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New Blog Software

I’ve switched my software over to WordPress. This was long overdue, as anyone who ever wanted to read anything at all on this site probably knows. Sometime I should really write an article reflecting on the failures of my previous blog software. Lets just say that flat files aren’t so hot either.

Now that my software doesn’t suck, I have lots of posts I have been embarrassed to write because every new post potentially introduced new people to my crappy site.

Hopefully everything is setup correctly, redirects, archives, and the new feed.

My one worry is WordPress comments, which suck a bit. They shouldn’t collect the horrible quantity of spam that the old site has, so that’s good, but I hate disconnected streams of comments. I’ve tried to modify the theme on this site to be more roomy, with less of the excessive whitespace that has become the norm. I hope this whitespace kick goes the way of Creating Killer Websites Using Table Based Layout. I.e., it’ll soon look dated and everyone will move on. So I hope you’ll have more than two inches of width to comment in. Honestly I wonder if I should just ditch WordPress comments and use something else entirely, like some kind of forum software and rig in some way of including the comments in the theme. I wanted to install threaded comments, but the installation process is rather invasive.

For editing I turned TinyMCE off (ugh), and installed a restructured text plugin. It took a while to figure out, since I have to include .. -*- mode: rst -*- in the header of each post. Oh well, a minor inconvenience. I used Text Control to enable Markdown in comments, but I had to replace the actual markdown.php it used, which was broken.


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