The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

I wish stuff just worked

Despite my enthusiasm for Microsoft Windows Azure, in some ways it suffers from the same problem all Microsoft version 1 products have: incomplete debugging tools.

I've spent the last three hours trying to add an SSL certificate to an existing Azure Web application. In previous attempts with different applications, this has taken me about 30 minutes, start to finish.

Right now, however, the site won't launch at all in my Azure emulator, presenting a generic "Internal server error - 500" when I try to start the application. The emulator isn't hitting any of my code, however, nor is it logging anything to the Windows System or Application logs. So I have no idea why it's failing.

I've checked the code into source control and built it on another machine, where it had exactly the same problem. So I know it's something under source control. I just don't know what.

I hate very little in this world, but lazy developers who fail to provide debugging information bring me near to violence. A simple error stack would probably lead me to the answer in seconds.

Update: The problem was in the web.config file.

Earlier, I copied a connection string element from a transformation file into the master web.config file, but I forgot to remove the transformation attributes xdt:Transform="Replace" and xdt:Locator="Match(name)". This prevented the IIS emulator from parsing the configuration file, which caused the 500 error.

I must reiterate, however, that some lazy developer neglected to provide this simple piece of debugging information, and my afternoon was wasted as a result.

It reminds me of a scene in Terry Pratchett's and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens (one of the funniest books ever written). Three demons are comparing notes on how they have worked corruption on the souls of men. The first two have each spent years tempting a priest and corrupting a politician. Crowley's turn:

"I tied up every portable telephone system in Central London for forty-five minutes at lunchtime," he said.

"Yes?" said Hastur. "And then what?"

"Look, it wasn't easy," said Crowley.

"That's all?" said Ligur.

"Look, people—"

"And exactly what has that done to secure souls for our master?" said Hastur.

Crowley pulled himself together.

What could he tell them? That twenty thousand people got bloody furious? That you could hear the arteries clanging shut all around the city? And that then they went back and took it out on their secretaries or traffic wardens or whatever, and they took it out on other people? In all kinds of vindictive little ways which, and here was the good bit, they thought up themselves. The pass-along effects were incalculable. Thousands and thousands of souls all got a faint patina of tarnish, and you hardly have to lift a finger.

Somehow, debugging the Azure emulator made me think of Crowley, who no doubt helped Microsoft write the thing.

How Google builds its maps

This month's Atlantic explains:

"So you want to make a map," [former NASA engineer Michael] Weiss-Malik tells me as we sit down in front of a massive monitor. "There are a couple of steps. You acquire data through partners. You do a bunch of engineering on that data to get it into the right format and conflate it with other sources of data, and then you do a bunch of operations, which is what this tool is about, to hand massage the data. And out the other end pops something that is higher quality than the sum of its parts."

The sheer amount of human effort that goes into Google's maps is just mind-boggling. Every road that you see slightly askew in the top image has been hand-massaged by a human. The most telling moment for me came when we looked at couple of the several thousand user reports of problems with Google Maps that come in every day. The Geo team tries to address the majority of fixable problems within minutes. One complaint reported that Google did not show a new roundabout that had been built in a rural part of the country. The satellite imagery did not show the change, but a Street View car had recently driven down the street and its tracks showed the new road perfectly.

I've always been a map geek (which drove my Weather Now demo/application). The idea that Google will have a complete digital map of the entire world, and will presumably continue to maintain this map over the next several decades, warms my geeky heart. I wish some of this data had existed 50 years ago—or, alternately, that Google can integrate some of the existing photos and maps from earlier eras.

More Google Earth imagery released

They just launched high-resolution aerial photos of another batch of cities:

Improving the availability of more high quality imagery is one of the many ways we’re continuing to bring you the most comprehensive and accurate maps of the world. In this month’s update, you’ll find another extensive refresh to our high resolution aerial and satellite imagery (viewable in both Google Maps and Google Earth), as well as new 45 degree imagery in Google Maps spanning 30 new cities.

Google Maps and Earth now feature updated aerial imagery for more than 20 locations, and updated satellite imagery for more than 60 regions. Here are a few interesting locations included in our latest release.

Below is imagery of Mecca, Saudi Arabia where each year more than 15 million Muslims visit this important religious site. Here you can see Abraj Al Bait, one of the world largest clock towers, visible even from space!

Pretty soon they'll have photos of every square meter of the planet—at 10-cm resolution. I find it both really cool and really creepy. As long as they don't have near-real-time photos...

Not junk after all

Apparently all that junk DNA in your cells isn't junk after all:

Now scientists have discovered a vital clue to unraveling these riddles. The human genome is packed with at least four million gene switches that reside in bits of DNA that once were dismissed as “junk” but that turn out to play critical roles in controlling how cells, organs and other tissues behave. The discovery, considered a major medical and scientific breakthrough, has enormous implications for human health because many complex diseases appear to be caused by tiny changes in hundreds of gene switches.

As scientists delved into the “junk” — parts of the DNA that are not actual genes containing instructions for proteins — they discovered a complex system that controls genes. At least 80 percent of this DNA is active and needed. The result of the work is an annotated road map of much of this DNA, noting what it is doing and how. It includes the system of switches that, acting like dimmer switches for lights, control which genes are used in a cell and when they are used, and determine, for instance, whether a cell becomes a liver cell or a neuron.

In one of the Nature papers, researchers link the gene switches to a range of human diseases — multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease — and even to traits like height. In large studies over the past decade, scientists found that minor changes in human DNA sequences increase the risk that a person will get those diseases. But those changes were in the junk, now often referred to as the dark matter — they were not changes in genes — and their significance was not clear. The new analysis reveals that a great many of those changes alter gene switches and are highly significant.

By the way, this is consistent with natural selection theory, and resolves a problem biologists had reconciling the two. It's difficult to explain how useless genes would remain in the genome, because organisms that got the same results from fewer base-pairs should have an advantage. The new evidence agrees with the theory.

This is why I love science: it's only wrong until we learn new things.

Message in a bottle...from 1915


Within the bottle, a postcard written in June 1914 by Captain CH Brown of the Glasgow School of Navigation promised the finder a reward of 6 pence. It had been part of a scientific experiment in which 1,890 such bottles were released, in a bid to chart currents around Scotland.

Even odder, the person who found this 98-year-old message worked on the same boat as a man who found a 93-year-old message back in 2006. The bottles were part of an early-20th-century research project to map Scotland's sea currents.

My boss in a video podcast

We're doing some very cool things at 10th Magnitude. Here's my boss, CEO Alex Brown, explaining:

Notice, by the way, how often I have mentioned an employer on this blog. I'd discuss the company more right now, but I have to get back to writing some pretty cool Azure code...

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

I've just finished Jane Jacobs' foundational work on urban planning. I first came across the book in 2010, started reading it in May, then put it down and picked it up a few times.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published 51 years ago, Jacobs demolished the philosophy of urban planning that had prevailed since the 1920s. The Cabrini Green housing projects, massively disruptive road-building like the Dan Ryan and Congress Expressways, and a way of top-down analysis that looked at thriving neighborhoods like Boston's North End as slums, all exemplified post-war urban planning; Jacobs tried to reverse it.

Some things that stood out:

[One] category of uses is conventionally considered, by planners and zoners, to be harmful, especially if these uses are mingled into residential areas. This category includes bars, theaters, clinics, businesses and manufacturing. It is a category which is not harful; the arguments that these uses are to be tightly controlled derive from their effects in suburbs and in dull, inherently dangerous gray areas, not from their effects in lively city districts.

For example: a shopping mall surrounded by parking lots has a few restaurants attached to it. Who wants to walk to these restaurants? How likely are people to linger there, or to happen upon a previously-unknown, independent night spot? Contrast that with, say, North Clark Street in Chicago, where a person can walk for almost 30 blocks, from Lincoln Avenue (1800 N) up to Irving Park Road (4000 N), and never be more than a few meters from a restaurant, a bar, an interesting shop, or a three-flat. In fact, the restaurants and shops often occupy the ground floors of the three-flats. As Jacobs writes, along a street like that, people are always around, throughout the day, living their lives—unlike in the suburbs, where shops close and the area is deserted.

Or this, in the chapter "Gradual money and cataclysmic money," in which she takes on blacklisting and slum clearing:

The immense new suburban sprawls of American cities have not come about by accident—and still less by the myth of free choice between cities and suburbs. Endless suburban sprawl was made practical (and for many families was actually mandatory) through the creation of something the United States lacked until the mid-1930s: a national morgage market specifically calculated to encourage suburban home building. ...

City people finance the building of suburbs. To be sure, one of the historic missions of cities, those marvelously productive and efficient places, is to finance colonization.

But you can run anything into the ground.

Fortunately, over the past 50 years, communities and their planners have listened to Jacobs. She herself worked tirelessly (and successfully) to prevent Robert Moses from destroying SoHo and Chinatown with the Lower Manhattan Expressway.

I should note, I put the book down several times because it made me mad—not at Jacobs, but at people like Le Corbusier and Robert Moses. I'm about to put Robert Caro's The Power Broker on my reading stack*, as I put Jane Jacobs next to Suburban Nation in my bookshelves.

More about the Mindset List

Beloit College's Mindset List has me thinking: what will future lists look like? Some ideas:

The 2024 List

  • The Class of 2024 were born in 2002.
  • They never saw Captain Kangaroo or Mr. Rogers on live TV.
  • The World Trade Center has never existed.
  • There has always been an American military presence in Afghanistan.
  • Monica Lewinsky means as much to them as Christine Keeler meant to their parents.

The 2034 List

  • The Class of 2034 were born in 2012.
  • Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, John Hughes, and Brittany Murphy died before they were born.
  • The President has always been black, Latino, or a woman.
  • They have never heard their parents worry about providing health insurance.
  • Their classmates could include Samuel Affleck and Blue Ivy Knowles.

The 2059 List

  • The Class of 2059 were born in 2037.
  • The Mississippi River has always flowed through Morgan City, Louisiana.
  • Scotland, Catalunya, Kurdistan, and Wallonia have always been independent countries; West Sahara, Nepal, and North Korea have never been.
  • To them, an iPad seems as quaint as a Selectric was to their parents.

The 2102 List

  • The Class of 2102 were born in 2079.
  • They are the 100th class to have their own List.
  • Incoming first-year classes have always spent the previous year in the military or in public service.
  • Beloit College's campus has always had palm trees, and the surrounding area has always had orange groves.
  • New York City has always had a seawall; New Orleans and Miami have always been islands; Greenland has always been green.
  • Trains from Chicago to New York, Atlanta, and Kansas City have always been faster and less expensive than airplanes.
  • They have always needed a passport to visit Dallas, and never needed one to visit Toronto.
  • People have always walked on Mars, and there has always been a permanent base on the moon.

Any other ideas?