Bye, Newegg. We liked you when you were still good.

(GeekStuff, Spam)

2010-08-30 16:48
Comment

So, Newegg started sending spam.

Yeah, real spam. As in “we bought lists from third parties and sent junk to them”. And when they got complaints, they said oh, that’s okay, Newegg’s spam is compliant with CAN-SPAM.

Well, that’s nice for them, I guess they’re not illegal or anything. They’re still not a company I’ll ever do business with again. This is not rocket science, people! The decision table looks like this:

Did you get that address from its owner, who gave you permission to send mail to it? If yes, that’s good. If no, that’s spam. Seriously. It’s that easy. This does not require fancy database activities, it does not require a genius programmer to configure or build. All you do is not buy addresses and send spam to them. Seriously. It’s that simple. You don’t have to do anything hard, you just have to not do something obviously sleazy.

Opt-in or gtfo. Newegg’s choice was not “opt-in”.

Peter Seebach

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Comment

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How to respond to software "piracy"

(GeekStuff)

2010-08-27 21:55
Comment

A software developer sent an unusual copyright-related demand to The Pirate Bay — he feels that the attempted crack of his shareware application was of poor quality and ultimately mockable.

A very interesting response. It’s a little saner than the usual variety.

Peter Seebach

Comment

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Hearing music is so very, very, weird.

(Personal, Autism)

2010-08-24 10:38
Comment [2]

So, they’re still messing around with ADHD drugs and dosage. Currently, the experiment is bupropion (aka wellbutrin and about 6 other brand names), which tends to increase availability of dopamine and norepinephrine.

This one has a really, really, weird effect. When it starts working, I can suddenly hear music. I’m not sure how to explain this. Most music has more than one component; say, two or more instruments. Normally I can hear an instrument, or I can hear harmonies. I cannot hear two instruments, or hear relationships between them. When this stuff is working, suddenly I can hear two or three things at once and experience the relationship between them.

This. Is. Amazing.

I normally like music because an external beat tends to make my head a little less full of static — computer geeks will recognize the notion of a clock signal. But when this stuff is working, I like music because it’s beautiful and full of depth and complexity I normally can’t hear.

I think I’m gonna use this as my benchmark for whether medication is working. There’s some issues with trying to find a dosage where my meds work well. One of the problems is that it’s extremely hard to measure cognitive functionality of the sort I have trouble with. How would I know whether I remembered things? I can’t usually tell until I’m reminded of them. And even when things are working well, I still forget stuff.

But ultimately, the purpose of medication is to achieve quality-of-life. And I think that hearing music is a quality-of-life issue.

Peter Seebach

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Comment [2]

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Might have to start doing this again...

(Personal, GeekStuff)

2010-08-22 15:40
Comment

So, I recently read an interesting book (Pragmatic Thinking & Learning), and it’s gotten me to thinking about the whole blog thing. I have a hard time remembering to do things that don’t call themselves to my attention, but I really enjoy the sort of thinking-out-loud that a blog provides, so I think I’m going to start trying to remember to post more often, possibly even setting up reminders so that this happens automatically.

FWIW, my current topic of thinking is mostly MMOs, as I recently switched from World of Warcraft to City of Heroes. On the whole, CoH is a lot more fun in many ways — and I’m trying to sort out what they are, because I think that gets pretty strongly into the question of why I find these games as a category fun. Activision’s recent behavior is also a stunning example of how completely you can create disaffected ex-customers by showing only a little bit of total contempt for them. I refer, of course, to the Real ID thing. As people are quick to point out, they backed down… But consider this:

1. They said, during the outcry, that they were aware that a lot of people would leave, but they felt that this would improve the community. Keep in mind, the people who were leaving were law enforcement officials, people with “real jobs” that are picky about internet presence, women who don’t like being harassed online, transgendered people, and so on… Not the forum trolls, who were all big fans of the proposed scheme. So Blizzard’s clear message: If you’re an adult with a real job and family to think about, you’re not welcome here. We want kids who have nothing to lose.
2. When they backed down, they made it pretty clear that they were backing down, not due to the substance of the complaints, but due to the quantity. There has been no acknowledgement or recognition that some of the complaints might have real merit.
3. In a later interview with Eurogamer, a Blizzard rep said they are not moving in that direction “for the time being”. That’s a phrase which consistently connotes an already-established plan to do something later, just not yet. In other words, they have only temporarily backed down; they already plan to resume the stupid scheme later.
4. Even ignoring all of the above, I cannot take seriously a company so badly run that a scheme so obviously and catastrophically dumb ever saw the light of day.

That said, all of the above pales in comparsion to the discovery that CoH’s servers are actually maintained — people who consistently act out get made to stop. Blizzard’s never been able to effectively keep up with their work load. And yes, you can reasonably argue that they have a ridiculous number of customers. Those customers pay them a ridiculous amount of money. It should not be that hard to hire, if necessary, a ridiculous number of support staff to keep up with the ridiculous number of trouble tickets filed for overt in-game harassment… But they don’t.

I’ve been playing City of Heroes a bit over a month. I have seen, once, someone openly make a comment that attempted to denigrate someone else by implying that the target was gay. In WoW, that was something I’d typically see every half hour to an hour. CoH’s community and staff care about harassment in-game; WoW’s don’t.

Peter Seebach

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So long, and thanks for all the fishing dailies...

(GeekStuff, Personal)

2010-07-07 12:16
Comment [5]

A few years back, I decided that I wanted to try one of these Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs). After some poking around, and research, I settled on World of Warcraft. My reasons at the time were simple; Blizzard had a stellar track record of doing their best to make every game solid, well-considered, well-planned, and so on.

It was a great game. I had a blast playing it. The continual improvements and design tweaks kept making the game better and more fun. They really did a great job.

A while back, they announced a new feature, in conjunction with a Facebook marketing deal of some sort. The new feature was “Real ID”, and the idea was that you would be able to identify yourself to some other players using your real name (meaning the name associated with your account). That name pretty much has to be the name on your government ID — that’s what would be used to recover the account if it got compromised, for instance. Well, this was pretty unpopular as a concept in many ways, because a lot of people have real names that they don’t like to go by, or which identify their ethnicity or gender. In some cases, their “real names” would misidentify their gender.

But hey, the feature’s optional. Blizzard reps said that you should use the feature only with people you know and trust in real life. Now, they didn’t do this quite right — there’s a friends-of-friends feature, which is not optional and cannot be disabled or avoided, so that if you have two friends, they see each others’ real names. You’d think that just seeing the name wouldn’t matter much, but it does; someone who sees a name he doesn’t know can, for instance, decide to harass that person. This really does happen; a kid friended his sister and his guild leader (WoW players tend to form groups called “guilds”), and the guild leader turned out to think it was really funny to post the sister’s name so that other players could look her up, post her phone number in the game, and so on.

Whoops.

It doesn’t end there. Yesterday, Blizzard announced a great new idea. They’re going to make it so that their official game discussion forums use Real ID. As in, if you want to post, you will post under your “real name”. No exceptions. No way out. Their explanation is that their forums are a cesspit (they are), and that this will create “accountability” for the trolls.

One of the Blizzard reps pointed out that real names don’t matter too much; his name was Micah Whipple and he didn’t see the big deal. Within about half an hour, someone named Micah Whipple who lived sort of near one of Blizzard’s main operating centers was getting harassed pretty badly, to the point where he had to shut down his Facebook page and so on. Was he the same guy? We actually don’t know. Since then, rumor has it, the company has decided that staff will not participate in the Real ID forum thing “for security reasons”.

Customers, of course, still participate in that, because customers don’t need security.

The problem is this. As noted, Blizzard’s forums are a cesspit. They are full of trolls. They are full of people who think it is their mission in life to mock the weak, by which they mean anyone who can be hurt by being mocked. Now, Blizzard feels that making trolls post under their real names creates “accountability”.

Does it? Most of the trolls probably don’t care — indeed, most of them are posting on their parents’ accounts anyway (minors can’t have WoW accounts, they can only play on accounts associated with their legal guardians). But insofar as it does, it creates that accountability because, posting under their real names, they’re subject to consequences. So what do you think they’ll do? I think they’ll stop posting, true. I think they’ll keep reading the forums and harassing the other posters, though. In the past, the trolls harassed people in the forums and in the game because that was the only avenue they had for harassing people. Now, they’ll be able to harass people in real life. Especially people with unusual names. Especially women.

I normally don’t like to use the phrase, but this is a brilliant example of the much-talked-about “white male privilege”. If I were to post on those forums, I’d show up as “Peter Seebach”. Okay, sure, people could find me easily enough, but what of it? I’m a pretty public person to begin with. My name doesn’t stand out too much.

The racists who populate the forums will be pretty happy to be able to quickly identify people who are probably Chinese, or Mexican, or of some sort of Arabic descent, or at least named as though they are. The potential stalkers will be given a free guide to which posters are male or female, with a full name they can search on to determine whether a given poster is in their area.

Meanwhile, people whose jobs or fields of work frown on MMO gamers won’t be able to post to the forums at all. People whose jobs require them not to post on the internet under their own names (there are many such jobs) won’t be able to post to the forums at all. The official response from Blizzard is that they’re aware that many people won’t be willing to post, and they are fine with this because they think it will make the forums better. Only… The people who aren’t posting are all the best and the brightest. The people who got identified as Most Valuable Posters (MVPs) are by and large planning to stop posting. The developers who wrote addon software to improve the game are more likely than other people to have real professional jobs which would compel them to stop posting. In short, the more serious and thoughtful you are, the more likely it is that you have too much to lose to risk posting under your real name on a forum dominated by trolls.

So I’m out. I cancelled my subscriptions, and so have, so far as I know, all the other people I know in real life who played WoW. Whether the forums will be improved by the loss, I don’t know, but I know that I’ll miss what was a truly awesome game, and I’m pretty bummed about not getting to see the work they’re doing on the next expansion pack, which looked like a great deal of fun.

Fundamentally, though, I just don’t trust them anymore.

Peter Seebach

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Comment [5]

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Hey, Google: Being evil is not just doing evil

(Personal, GeekStuff)

2010-02-12 20:16
Comment [4]

Google’s corporate motto is, officially, “don’t be evil”.

Let’s look at how that’s playing out. Their recent buzz launch included Making it easier for an abusive ex-husband to find someone.

Oops.

Here’s the thing. Google is now powerful enough to argue with, and possibly threaten, governments. That’s a lot of power. And they have a lot of information. And they don’t seem to understand that, when you are that powerful, mere carelessness is evil.

See, Google’s been thinking “don’t do evil” — don’t act in malicious or destructive ways. But that’s not enough when you’re powerful; you have to actively think through the consequences of your actions. You have to consider how they’ll play out, and what the risks are. And perhaps most importantly, you have to make sure you accept the high costs of doing things right.

But “being evil” doesn’t mean only actively seeking to do harmful or destructive things. It also means not caring enough to avoid doing them. Example: I have cats. It’s not enough that I don’t specifically try to kick them; I have to exercise some sort of caution not to inadvertantly step on them (which ain’t easy!).

Google has a ton of private information and the capacity to expose that information to various people. It isn’t enough that Google isn’t actively seeking to hook people up with their stalkers. They have to exercise some sort of care to make sure they don’t inadvertantly do so.

Privacy is a real thing. It is a thing which matters. Google reps keep saying stupid stuff about how people shouldn’t do things they need hidden, but that’s just, well, stupid. People like privacy; it’s emotionally important to many of them. Even if there’s no other harm from loss of privacy, it undermines a key component of what allows most people to be emotionally stable. Privacy needs to be more important to Google. If the people in charge want to live open lives without privacy, they can… although oddly they don’t. (You never see the people who advocate this posting detailed comments about their sex lives — perhaps they do know about privacy, and just don’t realize it can apply to other people?)

If Google were to treat privacy as a real thing of intrinsic value, they could avoid some of these screwups. They could have made buzz a service to which you opted in. Then, they could have offered you a list of the people who might automatically start seeing your Google Reader posts and the like, and asked “Would you like to make this information available to these people?”

And then, people who were trying to hide from rapists with a grudge wouldn’t have to go out of their way and fight with a computer for several hours to try to keep from automatically exposing their location, while people who live pretty open lives could add all their friends.

If Google did this, their social networking service would grow much more slowly, because it wouldn’t automatically start out with a huge user base, many of whom hadn’t even heard of it and had no idea they were part of it. That would slow down the rate at which Google could grow, but that would be the price of not being evil. Instead, Google went for the fast, unconsidered, solution, and for all we know, someone could die as a result. That’s evil.

Google people: Please. Take it seriously. “Don’t be evil” requires you to be careful, not just innocent of actual malice. Go pay Bruce Schneier a few million dollars to explain privacy to your senior staff until they understand it — I promise you, the public return on that investment would beat the return on any other investment you’ve made in years. If you don’t agree with him, stop and ask this: Has Bruce Schneier ever signed a rapist up for instant real-time updates on the location and status of a person he was stalking? No? Then maybe, just maybe, he knows a bit more about how to “not be evil” than you do.

Stop thinking you know everything. You don’t. You’ve got some very smart people, but you don’t have anything near a majority of the smart people in the world, or a majority of the domain knowledge or expertise. You need a lot more focus on thinking about what to do, not just about how to do it.

Also, I would strongly recommend that you, right now, go and turn buzz completely off for all users, apologize to the ones who had actively turned it on, and explain that you’re going to be making the choices clearer, and letting them choose how to participate. Otherwise, there are going to be more of these, and not all of them will notice before someone ends up raped, dead, or both. And that will be because of something you did even though you had the information available to avoid it. And that will you, being evil.

Peter Seebach

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Comment [4]

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The No Asshole Rule

(Personal, GeekStuff)

2010-02-01 17:45
Comment [1]

I recently picked up a copy of Robert Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule.

It’s pretty interesting. The basic thesis: People who are demeaning, hostile, and basically bullies, make work less pleasant and overall harm performance. The widespread belief that such people are worth it if they perform better than other people is, it turns out, not particularly justified.

This resonates with things I’ve experienced. One of my first jobs had a tendency for derision, bullying, and hostility. People who screwed up had fast food job apps left in their inboxes. I was doing testing, and one of my bug reports (a program crashed if you clicked a button too often) got posted in someone’s cube with “QA Hard At Work!” on it. Well, let me tell you, that sure wasn’t motivational in any positive sense. I didn’t help by being pretty blunt with criticisms — but then, how was I supposed to know better? It’s not as if I had a lot of prior work environments to compare them with. I do remember being particularly frustrated that, although I did get admonished once for being too critical:

1. Nothing was done about the bugs. Not much point to having testing if you ignore the bugs the testers find, right?
2. So far as I can tell, the problem wasn’t “being too critical” but “being too critical while a junior employee”.

Fastforward a while. I’m now pretty good at this stuff, and I have reputation and experience. I have a fair amount of room to pick what I want out of a job. I’m working with people I like, in a corporate culture I like. Some thoughts on that.

I don’t think we explicitly have a “no-asshole” rule; if we do, I’ve not been told of it. We do, however, have a corporate culture which undermines the things that are essential for bullying. There’s a total lack of interest in blame, so far as I can tell. People certainly can, and do, try to figure out how something went wrong — but not for the purpose of assigning blame, just for the purpose of fixing it. No one expects that people won’t make mistakes, or yells at them for making mistakes. As a result, people are more comfortable than they might otherwise be coming forward with information about problems which were caused by their mistakes. Net result: Less time trying to shift blame, less time before the problem is fixed.

Beyond that, openness about the existence of mistakes and problems makes it easier to fix things. Try to correct a mistake you can’t admit that you made, and watch how hard it is. Now look what happens when you can admit that you made a mistake; you have a much easier time addressing it and correcting it.

One of the things I found most fascinating in this book is the discussion of how bullies and status relationships go together. I’m mostly status-blind; I’m aware of the concept, but I don’t seem to process it. Life at Wind River has been a good fit for me. No one cares whether I’m junior or senior. If someone asks me a question, I try to give a good answer. If I ask someone a question, they try to give me a good answer.

When I was at that job long ago, and I said something looked wrong, it was treated as a violation of protocol, because I was wasting the time of people who were better paid. Well, at Wind River, some of my coworkers are fresh out of college… and live in China. I dunno what they get paid, but it’s a lot less, I suspect, than we get over hear in North America. (Both because of cost of living and because they’re relatively inexperienced.) But no one expects them to refrain from questioning us. They do, and sometimes they’re right. If we were gonna be bottom-line focused, that would be enough. It only takes me a few minutes to answer a question from someone who thinks I’ve made a mistake; the one time they caught something that would have cost a week’s work for the whole testing team, which I’d (incorrectly) dismissed, that more than paid for the next twenty or thirty times.

But, ultimately, that’s not the right question. The question is not whether my time is worth more than their time; it’s whether my time is worth more than their dignity as human beings. And it frankly isn’t. Once you understand that, the rest falls into place.

It’s not that there’s no teasing at work. It’s that the teasing is friendly. If people are actually upset, they don’t tease, they criticize calmly, politely, and usually in private. Public criticisms are carefully directed away from the person who happened to do something, to the general pattern of the action, or the reason for which it was a problem. We have a relaxed and informal culture, where people are encouraged to speak their minds without regard to nominal status, or some perception of the “value” of different peoples’ time. It works; we have a good time, and we get stuff done.

This book is awesome, not because the conclusion is particularly surprising or unexpected, but because Sutton did a great job of finding statistics, studies, and evidence to show that the conclusion is good even if you don’t care about people. In other words, even if you don’t care about people, just about the bottom line, the way to success is to learn to care about people. Not hugely surprising, but nice to have stronger evidence for it.

Peter Seebach

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Comment [1]

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Las Vegas: Initial impressions

(Personal)

2010-01-09 19:20
Comment [3]

This place is crazy.

Never mind the gambling all over. This place is deeply confusing to me. Jesse wanted a smoking room, so we asked for one. The hotel said that they were out, so the clerk said “just smoke in the bathroom”.

I got a coke with dinner. If you’ve ever filled a cup of pop from a fountain machine, you’ll be aware that the cup fills up with foam before it’s full of liquid. Elsewhere, normally, I see people wait two or three seconds, then pour in more liquid. Here, the lady running the fountain just tilted the cup and kept running the coke into it, with the foam pouring down the drain, until the cup was full of liquid. No problem. It’s not like they’re wasting drinkable water in a desert… oh, wait.

The whole thing is built on sand, in more ways than one. The hotel has beautiful polished marble floors, and none of the lights ever seem to be burned out. On the other hand, the buttons to push for a walk signal are decrepit and shoddy-looking. The roads and sidewalks don’t seem well-maintained. The convenience store doesn’t even take credit cards — only debit cards (for which they charge extra) and cash.

It’s fascinating to be someplace where there are places to have weddings all over the place, but not a single depiction in sight of any kind of connection between any kind of sexual activity and any kind of affection. There’s a wedding chapel in the hotel, right next to the casino you have to walk through to get from the checkin desk to the elevators to your rooms. My room has a 42” LCD color TV — but the bathtub doesn’t drain right, and the tub faucet is sorta broken. There’s a safe in the room, but no coffeemaker or fridge.

Las Vegas is clearly designed for people who aren’t paying for their stay, or who could easily be made to feel guilty about counting the money. Motel 6 has free internet most of the time; here, it’s $13.99 per day… per computer. You can only hook up one computer for that $13.99 charge.

The place feels barren and empty. All those lights are so shiny and pretty, but the people seem to have no hope, and they just don’t care. It’s sorta weird. Interesting to have been here, wouldn’t probably come here for anything but a convention or meeting or somesuch. The marketers make an impressive pitch about how Las Vegas is free and “sinful” (I would, having seen it, actually grant that I suppose). They tell a story of a place of freedom and excitement, drama and adventure. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Peter Seebach

Comment [3]

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The Asparagus Letter

(Personal)

2010-01-04 22:45
Comment [4]

This is a bit of family history, uncovered while sorting through boxes of paperwork.

My grandfather wrote this letter, to which he actually stapled a piece of asparagus. We have a copy of the letter. I don’t recall the outcome, but I think it was positive.

                             January 22nd, 1946
E. Pritchard Inc.
Bridgeton, N. J.
Gentleman:
        We had your cut spears asparagus for dinner tonight and they are
so incredible that I know you could not believe a description of them with-
out a sample before you, and so you may know I do not exaggerate, one of
these faggots is enclosed.
        It seems that these must have been especially bred for toughness,
for even ordinary uncooked asparagus does not approximate this in tensile
strength and indestructability.  I have never eaten bamboo, but I imagine
it could only be as tough as this if sufficiently aged.
        Seriously, we have enjoyed your catsup for years and am taking the
trouble to write you since I am convinced that you must be unaware of this
product which masquerades as a food under your brand name.  One can of the
stuff could undo $1000. in good advertising.
                              Yours very truly,
                              (name/address)

(This letter was written when the notion of a “faggot” as a strong piece of wood was not an innuendo.)

Peter Seebach

Comment [4]

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Doing something about hoarding

(GeekStuff)

2009-12-31 19:11
Comment

Okay, so, one of the problems I have is that with all this stuff, I can’t find stuff, so I can’t even tell if I already have something.

Solution: A database. Since I sprained my ankle, I’ve been sitting around without much to do, so I decided to implement this. This is pretty much the polar opposite of most inventory-management programs I’ve seen, because it’s built about a particular use case. I’m not looking for a database which can have multiple photographs of every item, serial numbers, warranty information, and so on. I want something where if I type in a list of things really quickly, just banging out short descriptions, I don’t have to stop typing or click or do anything else — I can just fill out a list of things for a box and move onto the next box.

I’ve put the source up at:

http://www.seebs.net/boxes-0.01.tgz

This is a rails app. I make no promises that it’ll work for anyone else, or that I included everything you need, or that it’ll work without hassle. All I did on top of a basic rails installation (I’m using phusion passenger, because it makes life easy) is add will_paginate. That seems to be enough. It’s a pretty lightweight app. It’s not particularly well-written, secure, robust, or anything like that — the goal is that I can have the netbook next to me, pick a box, put stuff in it, type up what I put in it, close the box, hit save, and then the computer remembers what’s in the box, and if I type “sharpie” it says that the sharpie markers are in Box #4 (plastic tub on black rack in basement), Box #8 (banker’s box on wire rack in garage), Box #11 (banker’s box by radiator in bedroom), and Box #26 (plastic tub on chrome rack in basement).

Once I have that, I can do a few things. One is I can start packing more freely. Another is that, if I think “didn’t I just see one of those recently”, I’ll be able to find out where. Finally, and this is the cool part, once I realize that I have four sets of sharpies, I could maybe consolidate them, get them all in one place — and then not feel that I need to buy more because I’m not sure I have any.

I hope.

We’ll see.

Peter Seebach

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