Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog
Thursday 20 December 2012

As I've noted before, only one Web application still lives in my living room the Inner Drive Technology Worldwide Data Center: Weather Now. In the last few days, it's showing one more good reason that it needs to get to Windows Azure pronto.

Take a look at my Google Analytics view of incoming visitors:

What is going on? How do I go from 300 daily unique visitors to 1,800 in two days? Take a look at where they're coming from:

Yes, that's right. Close to 40% of Weather Now's traffic came from the Yukon Territory yesterday. And another 40% came from Alaska. And they're all going to this page for some reason. This might be why:

So how does Azure enter into it? Simply, if you have a Web application running on your own server, and you get a 750% increase in traffic, your server may not be able to handle it. Or, worse in a way, you might have been running the server capable of handling the peak load all the time, at great expense in electricity and hardware.

With Azure, you can simply bring another instance online, or increase the size of your running instance, or do any number of things to adapt quickly to the increased load, without having to buy or move the hardware. Then, when the load returns to normal, you can spin down the idle capacity. The trick is, you only pay for the capacity you're actually using.

I'm getting a lot closer to moving Weather Now, but a deadline looming at my paying job tomorrow has my attention at the moment. So more on this stuff later. Meanwhile, if you're in the Yukon or in central Alaska, stay warm, folks!

Thursday 20 December 2012 08:59:17 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Cloud | Weather | Windows Azure#
Wednesday 19 December 2012

Florida's pathological "Stand Your Ground" law is working about as you'd expect:

Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law has been cited in hundreds of cases. People have used it to justify shooting, stabbing, killing and maiming would-be intruders, romantic competitors and rival gang members.

And on Sunday, at a pizza joint in St. Petersburg, a man tried to use it as justification for shooting another customer who was yelling at workers because he wasn't getting his order fast enough.

Police said the incident unfolded about 4 p.m. inside the Little Caesars, 3463 Fourth St. N, after Randall White, 49, got mad about his service.

Another man in line, Michael Jock, 52, of St. Petersburg admonished White. That "prompted them to exchange words and it became a shoving match," said police spokesman Mike Puetz.

White raised a fist. Jock, a concealed-weapons permit holder, pulled out a .38 Taurus Ultralight Special Revolver.

So obviously we need more guns around. And we need to pull them out any time someone gets uppity. That'll make for a safe, modern, civilized country.

At least this story ended reasonably: "Police arrested Jock on charges of aggravated battery with a weapon and shooting within a building. He was released from jail on $20,000 bail."

Wednesday 19 December 2012 13:09:48 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#

Coincident with last week's release of Chasing Ice, a documentary about how climate change is affecting the polar regions, this month's Scientific American looks at how sea ice loss causes extreme weather.

In the article—unfortunately behind a tall paywall—Charles Greene demonstrates how the loss of Arctic sea ice allows large loops in the mid-latitude jet stream to form, and to persist. Last winter, a negative Arctic oscillation combined with a positive North Atlantic oscillation (which controls weather in Europe) to keep most of the U.S. warm and most of Europe cold.

(If I can figure out how to connect my print subscription to their digital offer, I'll quote more extensively.)

Wednesday 19 December 2012 12:09:14 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Weather#

Three unrelated stories drew my notice this evening:

PATH service has resumed to Hoboken. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—I lived in Hoboken, N.J., the birthplace of Frank Sinatra (really) and baseball (not really). I took the Port Authority Trans-Hudson train almost every day when I worked in SoHo, and about every third day when I worked in Midtown. Having experienced other ways of commuting to New York—in fact, the switch up to 53rd and Park finally got me to return to Chicago, after my commute stretched to an hour and 15 minutes and required three transit changes—I have a lot of sympathy for the people living in Hoboken and Jersey City who have had to make their ways across the Hudson without the PATH.

In the first days after 9/11, both the PATH and the MTA worried that the Twin Towers' collapse would breach the "bathtub" (the Towers' foundation) and flood both the PATH and the New York subway. No one knew how bad the damage would be, and were thankful when it didn't happen. Eleven years later, Hurricane Sandy showed everyone.

So reading today that the PATH Hoboken to 33rd St. line reopened after seven weeks made me smile. Not as much, I expect, as the thousands of people whose commutes can now return to tolerable lengths.

I'm visiting New York in a few weeks; I'll make sure to post a few photos in homage of the PATH.

Facebook's change to Instagram's terms of service has rightly outraged everyone paying attention. Instagram, a photo-sharing service that Facebook bought recently for $1 bn, this week published new terms of service that allow them to use posted photos any way they want, any time they want. Their goal, not surprisingly, is to make money. The people who use Instagram just want to share their photos with their friends.

The Times quoted Santa Clara University Law Professor Eric Goldman saying, "The interest of the site is never 100 percent aligned with the users, and the divergence inevitably leads to friction. It’s unavoidable." Well, yes, because Instagram's users are not Instagram's customers, as they are just discovering, because the customer is the one who pays you. If you use a service that is free to you, you are not the customer and therefore have nothing to say to the service's owners. I find the flap about Instagram's TOS so interesting because it seems as if none of their users has realized this key point yet.

Instagram swears up and down that the users continue to own their own photos. Of course they do. And of course you keep ownership. But if you post on Instagram, "you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, worldwide, limited license to use, modify, delete from, add to, publicly perform, publicly display, reproduce and translate such Content, including without limitation distributing part or all of the Site in any media formats through any media channel...." So they don't own your photos, exactly, but they can act as if they do.

Under U.S. copyright law, the creator of a work owns it, unless he has signed away the creation right explicitly. (Example: I work for a great software company. I write software for them, under a work-for-hire agreement. Therefore, except for some explicit, written exceptions, all the software I produce that has commercial value is owned by my employer. If I write code in one of my employer's client's applications that makes 10th Magnitude a billion dollars, I don't own it, 10th Magnitude does. That's the deal I made when I took this job. I trust, however, that if I made my boss a billion dollars, he'd share.)

So if you take a photo on your phone, you own it. It's your photo. And Instagram's new TOS says, yes, of course you own it, but we can sell it if we want and pay you nothing.

Now, I've experienced a variety of contractual arrangements in my life as a creative person, so I'm not shocked when someone wants a piece of my income as a fee for finding the income-producing gig. As a software contractor, I've routinely signed away 25% or 30% of my earnings off the top, in exchange for someone else doing the legwork to find the income-producing gig on my behalf. (It's really hard to find gigs while you're working full time on one, it turns out.) And, as someone who hires software contractors now, I expect they'll agree, too. We call this a "commission," as have people in other professions for millennia.

Instagram, effectively, demands a 100% commission off your work. Not only that, but if Instagram finds that one of your photos makes Ansel Adams weep, they can market the crap out of it. You'll never see a dime. Why would someone license the rights from you, when Instagram is selling them cheap? And you can't stop Instagram from destroying the market for your work, because you consented to it by posting your photo.

Let me put it another way. Instagram is saying, "You own your car, of course. But if you park it in our garage, we get to use it as a taxi, without paying you a dime."

To sum up: the people railing against Instagram's new TOS are exactly right. It sucks. And I will never, ever post any of my intellectual property there, even if they change the TOS in response to the approbation they've received, because (repeat after me) I am not their customer.

Finally—and I assure you, this is not related to Instagram—I recoiled in horror at the latest religious stupidity, that the Taliban have started killing anti-polio workers in Afghanistan.

Full disclosure: I was a member of Rotary International for a few years, and I wholly support the organization's amazingly-successful efforts to destroy polio the way we destroyed smallpox. Polio is a sufficiently complex organism that it can't evolve as quickly as we can kill it, making it an ideal target for eradication (like smallpox). But you have to get immunized, and sufficient numbers of your neighbors do, too, or it will keep spreading.

So, these idiot religious fundies, who subscribe to any number of irrational fantasies already, have apparently decided that the people trying to keep their babies from dying of an entirely preventable disease are, in fact, American spies. As the Times reports, "the killings were a serious reversal for the multi-billion-dollar global polio immunization effort, which over the past quarter century has reduced the number of endemic countries from 120 to just three: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria."

Does anyone else see a coincidence between the three last outposts of a crippling, preventable disease and religious nuttery? Part of Rotary's success, by the way, has been in reassuring local populations that eradicating polio is no more and no less than it seems: a humanitarian effort to end a horrible disease forever. Wars have stopped to allow Rotary and the Gates Foundation to conduct immunizations. But the Taliban do not believe in reason. They would rather have hundreds of their children dead or crippled than accept the possibility that some American- (and British- and French- and Japanese- and South-African- and Namibian- and Saudi- and...) funded organization wants to prevent their children dying or becoming crippled.

Three countries still have polio. They also have air travel. Not everyone in the OECD has polio vaccinations today. So, if I can mention the self-interest of everyone able to read this blog post, who must therefore speak English and have an Internet connection, the religious nutters killing health workers who, but for being shot, would have eradicated a disease that has crippled millions, have made your life more perilous.

</ rant>

All right. Time to walk the dog.

PS: You may need to subscribe to the New York Times to read the linked stories. I apologize if this inconveniences you, but I recommend subscribing anyway. For $15 a month you not only get the entire newspaper online (and on any tablets you own), but you get to feel good about yourself. You also get to live Kant's categorical imperative, by behaving in such a way that the behavior could be universal. Isn't $15 an incentive worth aligning?

Tuesday 18 December 2012 22:04:18 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US | Religion | Business#
Tuesday 18 December 2012

Microsoft veteran Raymond Chen explains:

The 64-bit version of Pinball had a pretty nasty bug where the ball would simply pass through other objects like a ghost. In particular, when you started the game, the ball would be delivered to the launcher, and then it would slowly fall towards the bottom of the screen, through the plunger, and out the bottom of the table.

Games tended to be really short.

Two of us tried to debug the program to figure out what was going on, but given that this was code written several years earlier by an outside company, and that nobody at Microsoft ever understood how the code worked (much less still understood it), and that most of the code was completely uncommented, we simply couldn't figure out why the collision detector was not working.

We had several million lines of code still to port, so we couldn't afford to spend days studying the code trying to figure out what obscure floating point rounding error was causing collision detection to fail. We just made the executive decision right there to drop Pinball from the product.

Chen's blog often goes into technical detail that many people might find off-putting, but he's a good person to read if you want to know more about how Microsoft works.

Tuesday 18 December 2012 15:00:27 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Business#
Monday 17 December 2012

Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams finds a comparison for Congress:

I've never wanted to run for Congress until now. The job looks boring, but I'm attracted to a system that punishes total strangers for my bad performance. I assume this is some sort of "best practice" that our government is borrowing from a successful system elsewhere. So starting today, if you tell me you don't like my blog, I will pay a stranger to kick another stranger in the nads. If Congress is right about the trigger concept, you should see a big improvement in my blogging performance. I'm all about incentives.

There's a Wally-esque genius to this budget trigger concept. It actually solves Congress' biggest problem, namely that doing anything that is balanced and appropriate for the country renders a politician unelectable. Republicans can't vote for tax increases and get reelected while Democrats can't cut social services and keep their jobs. But don't cry for Congress because this isn't the sort of problem that can thwart a building full of lawyers. They put their snouts together and cleverly invented a concept - called a trigger - to take the blame for them. This way, both sides can screw their supporters while still blaming the other side. No one has to take responsibility for anything.

He might have a point.

Monday 17 December 2012 14:34:48 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Jokes | US#

Japan has thrown out its government and restored the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (yes, that's right) to power:

the dominant view of Sunday’s vote was that it was not so much a weakening of Japan’s desire for drastic change, or a swing to an anti-Chinese right, as a rebuke of the incumbent Democrats. They swept aside the Liberal Democrats with bold vows to overhaul Japan’s sclerotic postwar order, only to disappoint voters by failing to deliver on economic improvements. Mr. Abe acknowledged as much, saying that his party had simply ridden a wave of public disgust in the failures of his opponents.

“We recognize that this was not a restoration of confidence in the Liberal Democratic Party, but a rejection of three years of incompetent rule by the Democratic Party,” Mr. Abe, 58, told reporters. Now, his party will be left to address deepening public frustration on a host of issues, including a contracting economy and a teetering pension system.

In the powerful lower house, the Liberal Democrats held a commanding lead with 294 of the 480 seats up for grabs. That would be almost a mirror image of the results in 2009, when the [incumbent center-left] Democrats won 308 seats.

And while the President leads a vigil in Connecticut tonight, House Speaker John Boehner appears to have relented to the facts and is conceding that income taxes have to rise on the rich:

Public opinion strongly favors it. President Obama just won re-election campaigning more strongly on the tax issue than on any other. Federal revenue as a share of the economy is near a 60-year low. Washington faces a $1 trillion annual deficit.

Yet even as some party leaders and intellectuals urge them to concede the point, most rank-and-file House Republicans refuse. That is why Speaker John A. Boehner has moved so gingerly, finally offering late last week to raise rates only on incomes of $1 million or more, despite calls from Senate Republicans for a deeper concession.

What Mr. Boehner has proposed is allowing the top rate to revert to 39.6 percent for income of $1 million and above, and to raise his total for new revenue over 10 years to $1 trillion from $800 billion, according to a person familiar with his latest offer. That rate increase would raise far less revenue than Mr. Obama’s plan, which would affect many more taxpayers.

I believe the White House response to that will still be "go fish," but it's a good start.

Sunday 16 December 2012 19:43:41 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US | World#
Saturday 15 December 2012

Like James Fallows, I'm a member of the Airplane Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), which has a rigid, give-no-ground policy against aviation user fees. Fallows draws a parallel to the NRA, and notes the key difference:

The merits of the user fee debate are not my point right now. (Summary of the AOPA side: non-airline aviation activity already "pays its way" through the quite hefty tax imposed on each gallon of airplane fuel, plus providing all kinds of ancillary benefits to the country. I agree about the benefits and that the American aviation scene is the envy of the world.) Rather it is to introduce a comparison between AOPA and the real NRA. This comes from my friend Garrett Gruener, a successful Bay Area entrepreneur and venture capitalist who is also a longtime pilot. In the 1990s he even took an around-the-world trip, with his wife and daughter, in their turboprop airplane. He writes:

The difference is the overwhelming focus on safety. I feel that AOPA is the FAA's partner in trying to reduce the number of fatalities in aviation, while the NRA never gets beyond "guns don't kill...".

What Gruener says about the AOPA rings true to my experience. The only thing the AOPA talks about more than user fees is safety, and the individual and system-wide changes that can reduce the accident level.

So far, more than 24 hours after the killings in Newtown, Conn., the NRA hasn't said a peep about it.

Saturday 15 December 2012 10:10:13 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Aviation | US#
Friday 14 December 2012

I think it's time for this, so we don't have to watch more children die:

28th Article of Amendment

1. Notwithstanding the second Article of Amendment to this Constitution, the Congress and the several States shall have the power to regulate the keeping and bearing of arms to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare of the People.

2. Nothing in this Article shall prohibit the manufacture, sale, importation, or possession of arms within prevailing community standards.

3. The right of the States to form and arm well-regulated militias shall not be abridged.

4. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

This language wouldn't prohibit people from owning guns; in fact, it explicitly requires states to allow people to own whatever guns their community believes is appropriate. Federalism, right?

It would, however, allow states and cities to prevent people from owning .223-caliber assault rifles. And it would allow states to prohibit concealed carrying.

On the same day a demented man killed 18 children with a gun in Connecticut, another demented man slashed 22 children in China. Do you think for one minute if the guy in China had access to guns he would have hesitated to use one?

I'm outraged. Absolutely outraged. And I'm not willing to accept 9,200 gun murders per year as the price of keeping around a 223-year-old law whose author could not possibly have imagined what happened in Newtown today.

Is England (41 gun murders) or Canada (173) really that much less free than the U.S.? Do we need 270 million guns in civilian hands? Or can we end the insanity?

Friday 14 December 2012 14:06:32 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#

This caught my eye as I walked to work from the El this morning:

History buffs and Chicagoans may recognize this spot as the place where the Great Flood of 1992 started.

Friday 14 December 2012 10:22:12 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Photography#
Thursday 13 December 2012

Last night I continued reducing local computing costs by turning off my home desktop PC. The old PC has a ton of space and a lot of applications that my laptop doesn't have, plus a nifty dual-DVI video card. But a couple of things have changed since 2008.

First, my current laptop, a Dell Latitude E6420, has a faster processor, the same amount of RAM, and a solid-state drive, making it about twice as fast as the desktop. Second, Dell has a new, upgraded docking station that will drive two big monitors easily. (Sadly, though the docking station can drive two DVIs, my laptop's video chip can only do one DVI and one VGA.) Third, the laptop uses buttloads less power than the desktop. Fourth, portable terabyte drives are a lot less expensive today than in 2008—and a lot smaller. And finally, I take my laptop to and from work, meaning I have a minor hassle keeping it synchronized with my desktop.

Here's my office about three years ago (January 2010):

A few months later I got a second 24-inch monitor (November 2010 photo):

Notice the printer has moved to make room for the second monitor, but otherwise the setup remains the same. The monitors connect to the desktop under the desk to the left, while the laptop has its own cradle to the right.

Now this afternoon:

The printer has landed on the floor directly under where it used to sit (I print about 3 pages per month, so this isn't the inconvenience it seems), the laptop has moved over to the printer's old spot (and has connected to the monitors), and the old desktop machine sits quietly consuming 225 fewer Watts per hour. I also replaced the 10-year-old, no-longer-functioning 2+1 speaker set with a more compact set. The round thing between the keyboard and the laptop near the center of the photo is a speakerphone that I use with Skype.

I think everyone knows the dog under the desk by now, too. He's not happy that I rearranged his favorite sleeping cave, so I might get a couple of weeks without mounds of dog hair under my desk until he decides the printer is harmless.

So far today I have been unusually productive, whether because of the novelty or because I have a fire-under-the-ass deadline at work. So back to it.

Thursday 13 December 2012 13:58:53 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Parker | Business#

Cranky Flier analyzes the surprise Delta-Virgin merger in terms of JFK–LHR:

Of course, British Airways and American have the strongest position in London by far. Delta would have been hard-pressed to grow a position itself considering the slot restrictions at the airport along with the already ample capacity on these routes. With this deal, Delta becomes more relevant in London, but more importantly, it becomes more relevant in places like New York, from where London is one of the most important business destinations. This simple chart showing daily flights each way from all New York airports should make it very clear.

Routes AA/BA Delta Delta
+ Virgin

New York-Heathrow 15 2 8

I told you it was a simple one. Today, Delta is an afterthought. If its schedule fits a loyal traveler’s needs, then people will take it. But more often than not, that probably won’t happen. Combined with Virgin Atlantic, however, there is a very respectable schedule that now also covers the other side of the Hudson in Newark. Delta becomes relevant.

Whatever happens, I just hope there are at least three airlines left standing. That's enough for real competition on popular routes, and none is more popular for trans-Atlantic travel than New York to London.

Thursday 13 December 2012 09:00:42 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Aviation#
Wednesday 12 December 2012

All right, all right. It's 12-12-12 everyone! Happy?

Save time; call it 12³.

Wednesday 12 December 2012 08:18:42 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink#
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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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