Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog
Tuesday 25 November 2014

I'm dealing with two instances of developer laziness (or stupidity).

The proximate cause of my annoyance this morning comes from les espèces d'idiots at Eurostar who included local references to images in a confirmation email template. In non-technical terms, they put the images they want displayed on an email behind their own firewall, so they only show up when you look at the email behind their own firewall. So, some idiot developer, tasked with creating a confirmation email, put images on it that worked for him (because he was inside the firewall) but didn't have the mental faculties to predict that no one else would see them. Somehow this got past Eurostar's QA as well—presumably because they, too, are behind the firewall.

This set up a flaw in Microsoft Outlook that will render the program mostly unusable until I get rid of the email using my phone. Because Outlook is too stupid to realize that, if it can't download an image from a particular local path because the path is not mappable, then it should still try all the other images on that path one at a time, blocking the UI thread as it goes. This means, for each image on the Eurostar email, I see something like this:

See how the URL doesn't begin with "http://" but instead begins with a double backslash ("\\")? Yeah, that's a local path to some server at the company who designed the email. Great work, guys. And great work, Outlook, for forcing users to wait for all the images to download before returning control of the UI. Because why wouldn't we want to stop everything in order to see the Eurostar corporate logo?

Tuesday 25 November 2014 09:37:17 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Software | Travel | Work#
Monday 24 November 2014

This morning I commuted to work in drizzle, wind, and 9°C temperatures. In the five hours since then, the rain has turned to snow, the wind has turned to gale, and the temperature has dropped 10°C.

Welcome to Chicago in November.

The biggest casualty of this in my life may be my FitBit. I've hit my goal of 10,000 steps every day for the last nine, and gotten close (>= 9,000 steps) every day this month except one. Today, I may hit 10,000 steps, but only if I really push myself. In the cold. And snow. And win.

Could happen, though. I'm already past 5,000, and my car is parked more than 2 km from my office. So if the wind isn't blasting ice pellets into my face this evening, I'll walk to rehearsal and possibly hit 10,000 steps on the way.

Monday 24 November 2014 13:30:28 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Kitchen Sink | Weather | Work#
Sunday 23 November 2014

A couple days ago I reviewed three logical fallacies that had come up with unusual frequency in my life over the preceding weeks. I wanted to add a few to the list.

An argument from authority (argumentum ad verecundiam) relies on the source's reputation rather than on evidence relevant to the argument:

  • "Mike Ditka recommends this product, so I should buy it too." (Mike Ditka knows a lot about how to coach a football team, but there is no evidence that he has any particular expertise around the product he's endorsing.)
  • "This class is valuable because business leaders believe it's valuable." (Even if the business leaders in question have specific knowledge about the class and may even have evidence that, in general, it's useful, they may not have information about you that obviates the class or renders it less valuable.)
  • "The President eats pork rinds, so they must be good for you.” (The speaker presents evidence only of the President's snack choices, not that pork rinds have any value in themselves.)

Also common is the (correct definition of) begging the question (petitio principii), in which an argument relies on itself instead of evidence:

Moe: "I always vote wisely."
Joe: "Why?"
Moe: "Because I always vote Republican."
Joe: "Why is voting Republican the wiser choice?"
Moe: "Because it just is."

Finally, the classic material fallacy of after this, therefore because of this (post hoc ergo propter hoc, also known as "correlation is not causation"):

  • "I know that breaking a mirror brings bad luck, because my cousin broke a mirror one day and had a car accident the next." (There is no clear causal chain between the events; they are essentially random.)
  • Superstitions are often manifestations of this fallacy.

The teaching materials I put together back in the day got a little more advanced, but I'm proud to report that the juniors and seniors who went through the lessons understood it and were able to apply it to the rest of the history class I assisted with. I may post more of them in the next few days.

Sunday 23 November 2014 10:57:49 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink#

Only a little, it turns out. I'm in the second of three weeks without travel, but I'm back on the road for the first two weeks in December. I even have to miss a concert, which is a bad thing, but it's because I'll be doing a technical diligence in freakin' Paris, which est pas mal. I'm also going to see about taking a quick side-trip to London, which, given the agenda for the diligence and flight schedules back to the U.S., might not make a difference as far as my work schedule goes.

I've also noticed that I keep missing posts on Saturdays. Not sure why; possibly because I've had a lot going on during the week, and Saturdays have been a little more vegetative than expected.

Sunday 23 November 2014 10:33:51 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Blogs | Travel | Work#
Friday 21 November 2014

Chicago's temperature dropped below freezing last Wednesday morning and has stayed there since. It's -13°C now, the coldest it's been during this period.

Fortunately some warmer, wetter air is pushing in from the south, and should arrive after midnight. The forecast calls for sustained 9°C temperatures (and non-stop rain) from Saturday morning through Monday afternoon, when another cool air mass will slide into the region and freeze us out again.

Welcome to winter in Chicago. Warm rain and frigid dryness, for three months.

Friday 21 November 2014 07:09:47 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#

Via the Illinois State Climatologist, the NOAA Climate Prediction Center has released the latest outlook for December through February:

First, there are two important notes about the winter forecast. One is that El Niño has not arrived yet, and if it does, it is expected to be mild.

The other point is that the current conditions are not always a reliable predictor of future conditions. In other words, just because we are having a cold November (9 degrees below average), that does not doom us to another cold winter. To give a recent example, November of 2012 was 1.3 degrees below average, while the following winter of 2012-13 was 3.0 degrees above average.

The first panel shows the temperature odds for December-February, our core winter months. Southern Illinois has a slightly elevated chance of colder-than-average temperatures as does most of the southern states. There is a stronger chance that temperatures will be above-average on the West Coast and Alaska.

The El Niño was earlier forecast to be slightly stronger than the current forecast has it, which is disappointing. We're still experiencing frigid temperatures here, and it's not even December yet. El Niño can mitigate the cold in Chicago if it's strong enough. Now it looks like we're going to have the usual amount of chill. Fie.

Thursday 20 November 2014 18:55:58 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#
Thursday 20 November 2014

Yes, I'm actually in training this week that is required of everyone at my level. This morning we did an exercise on meeting planning. Our table came up with the following responses to the "Meeting Expectations/First Five Minutes" part:

  • Show appreciation for the meeting: "Mr. Wirtz, thank you for taking some time to meet with me today."
  • Confirm available time for meeting: "You mentioned you had about 15 minutes this morning. Is that still the case?"
  • Offer a look back...how did we get here? "As you will recall, yesterday we discussed releasing my godson from the personal service contract he has with you, in exchange for $10,000 in cash."
  • Briefly state the goals / objectives for the meeting: "I was hoping that we could revisit that conversation today, and that you would reconsider your position."
  • Agenda: "To help us meet these goals, I thought the following agenda might help us. First, I will make you an offer you can't refuse, and second, you will sign the release my attorney has prepared."
  • What other areas to be covered? "I assure you, if you do not consider my offer, you will cover the release in a personal and compelling way."
  • Brief introductions of...
    • Your firm's capabilities: "I am not sure you know about my organization, but perhaps I could provide a brief overview."
    • Your team/colleagues in the meeting: "Let me introduce you to my colleague, Luca Brasi."
  • Have a few "Killer Questions" that initiate dialogue: "Now that you understand Luca's role in this meeting, would you please sign this release now?"
  • Listen, be present, and probe; be "sincerely curious" in your follow-up questions: "I insist that this is the best offer you will ever receive from me, and I am eager to learn your position on it immediately."
  • Begin to wrap up with a few minutes remaining: "Thank you for your time. I am pleased that we were able to come to an agreement so quickly."
  • Summarize what you have heard: "I understand that you are also pleased with the outcome, and that $2,000 is a sufficient release fee, as we have just agreed."
  • Define specific next steps and, if appropriate, schedule follow-up meeting: "You will very likely not see me again, but I assure you, if a subsequent meeting is needed, perhaps because you have discussed this meeting with your colleagues or the Attorney General, Mr. Brasi will follow up with you in a timely and decisive fashion."

The other scenarios we batted around the table were more, ah, risqué, to say the least.

Thursday 20 November 2014 10:35:07 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Jokes | Kitchen Sink | Work#

Mayor William Ogden inaugurated the Galena & Chicago Union R.R. on this date in 1848:

In the fall of 1848, the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad began laying track. On November 20, a group of distinguished citizens boarded Chicago’s first train. They sat on wooden benches in a pair of crude baggage cars, pulled by a wood-burning steam engine. Ogden gave the signal, and they chugged off at a breath-taking fifteen miles-per-hour. In a half-hour they reached the end of track, eight miles out on the prairie, in what is now Oak Park.

Ogden had provided the rides for free, as a publicity stunt. And it worked–the riders were enthusiastic. On the way back to the city, two of the passengers spotted a farmer driving a load of wheat and hides behind a pair of oxen. The passengers were merchants. They had the train stopped, bought the wheat and hides, and hauled in the railroad’s first load of freight.

The railroad evolved into the Chicago & North Western, and then got absorbed into Union Pacific in the 1990s. But it still runs down the same track along Lake Street—the right-of-way first laid out 166 years ago.

Thursday 20 November 2014 10:00:32 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Geography | Kitchen Sink#
Wednesday 19 November 2014

Since we can't really see it in the middle of November in Chicago, here's what we're missing, sped up 58 times:

Wednesday 19 November 2014 06:56:34 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | Astronomy#
Tuesday 18 November 2014

A couple of incidents recently got me to look up some teaching materials I created just after college to teach high-school students the basics of logical argument. Specifically, I wanted them to learn the names of basic logical fallacies to arm them against irrational persuasion (e.g., religion, politics, and advertisements).

The two most egregious arguments made in my presence within the past few days used arguments to pity and to the people, and in one case someone made an argument that a prima facie argument to force was, in fact, a meaningful choice. Here is what those terms mean, and how the arguments were made.

An argument to pity (argumentum ad misericordiam) is an appeal to your compassion rather than to your logic. It looks like this:

  • "These children are suffering; give us money to help them." (Giving the person money may not do anything to help the children; the appeal is trying to short-circuit your bullshit detector by making you feel bad for the kids.)
  • "Please don't give me a bad grade for this assignment, because bad grades will trigger my depression." (It's unfortunate that the student will feel down because of the grade; but that's not an argument in favor of a higher grade.)

An argument to the people (argumentum ad populi) is an appeal to your sense of belonging, or not wanting to be left out:

  • "Buy our product because all the cool kids have one." (The merits of the product and the cool kids' decision to buy it are completely separate concepts.)
  • "Four out of five people agree our gum tastes better." (Whether you find the gum tasty has nothing to do with anyone else's opinion.)

An argument to force (argumentum ad baculum) is an appeal to your self-preservation; it's a threat, not an argument:

  • "Clean your room or you're grounded." (There is no evidence about the benefits of cleaning your room, only a threat if you fail to clean it. The kids liked this example the best, I'm told.)
  • "Use our product if you don't want morning breath." (The advertiser shows a link between something he calls “morning breath” and the mouthwash, but does not define “morning breath.” Instead, he plays on the audience’s fear that “morning breath” will harm their social standing. Fear, in this case, is a force.)
  • Your grandmother says, "Eat this or I'll kill you." (She has not made an argument about the value of eating her food; she has made a threat, which is irrational. Also, if she were Jewish, she would have said "Eat this or I'll kill myself," which is also a threat of force.)

So, the person I overheard said, "Even if someone holds a gun to your head, that's still a choice." No, it's not; it's a mortal threat, which completely removes the possibility of choice.

I don't expect that people will refuse to make decisions based on these fallacies, but I have a fantasy that people will at least recognize that they are not rational arguments. Doing something on the basis of an irrational argument is, it follows, irrational. And people who learn to recognize these fallacies have a better chance of making rational choices instead.

Tuesday 18 November 2014 17:41:31 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink#

We're joking in Chicago right now that we've skipped November and December and gone straight through to mid-January. Only, it's not really a joke, as temperatures early this morning got down to -12°C, almost 11°C below normal for November 18th—and, in fact, 3°C below normal for January 18th.

Moreover, the Northern Hemisphere today has greater snow cover this early than at any time since 1966. Fully 50% of the Continental U.S. is covered by snow, which is more than 3 times average.

Does this mean we'll have a colder-than-average winter? No. Chicago's forecast calls for above-normal temperatures this weekend followed by seasonal (read: above-freezing) temperatures through the first week of December. That will make Apollo's next performance, the wreath-laying ceremony at the Art Institute the day after Thanksgiving, more bearable.

This week has been barely bearable, though. But we press on; we persevere; we get our FitBit numbers in, even though bits of our bodies have frozen off.

Tuesday 18 November 2014 13:55:53 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#
Monday 17 November 2014

A pretty Dutch village outside Amsterdam is really a nursing home for dementia patients:

Today, the isolated village of Hogewey lies on the outskirts of Amsterdam in the small town of Wheesp. Dubbed “Dementia Village” by CNN, Hogewey is a cutting-edge elderly-care facility—roughly the size of 10 football fields—where residents are given the chance to live seemingly normal lives. With only 152 inhabitants, it’s run like a more benevolent version of The Truman Show, if The Truman Show were about dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Like most small villages, it has its own town square, theater, garden, and post office. Unlike typical villages, however, this one has cameras monitoring residents every hour of every day, caretakers posing in street clothes, and only one door in and out of town, all part of a security system designed to keep the community safe. Friends and family are encouraged to visit. Some come every day. Last year, CNN reported that residents at Hogewey require fewer medications, eat better, live longer, and appear more joyful than those in standard elderly-care facilities.

There are no wards, long hallways, or corridors at the facility. Residents live in groups of six or seven to a house, with one or two caretakers. Perhaps the most unique element of the facility—apart from the stealthy “gardener” caretakers—is its approach toward housing. Hogeway features 23 uniquely stylized homes, furnished around the time period when residents’ short-term memories stopped properly functioning. There are homes resembling the 1950s, 1970s, and 2000s, accurate down to the tablecloths, because it helps residents feel as if they’re home. Residents are cared for by 250 full- and part-time geriatric nurses and specialists, who wander the town and hold a myriad of occupations in the village, like cashiers, grocery-store attendees, and post-office clerks. Finances are often one of the trickier life skills for dementia or Alzheimer’s patients to retain, which is why Hogewey takes it out of the equation; everything is included with the family’s payment plan, and there is no currency exchanged within the confines of the village.

What are the odds that something like that could happen in the U.S. health-care system? When they're ringing my curtain down, I want to move to the Netherlands.

Monday 17 November 2014 11:58:37 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | US | World#

And no, I didn't lose a bet.

Monday 17 November 2014 09:26:10 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | Work#
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David Braverman and Parker
David Braverman is a software developer in Chicago, and the creator of Weather Now. Parker is the most adorable dog on the planet, 80% of the time.
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