Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog
Thursday 27 February 2014

Security guru Bruce Schneier wonders if the iOS security flaw recently reported was deliberate:

Last October, I speculated on the best ways to go about designing and implementing a software backdoor. I suggested three characteristics of a good backdoor: low chance of discovery, high deniability if discovered, and minimal conspiracy to implement.

The critical iOS vulnerability that Apple patched last week is an excellent example. Look at the code. What caused the vulnerability is a single line of code: a second "goto fail;" statement. Since that statement isn't a conditional, it causes the whole procedure to terminate.

If the Apple auditing system is any good, they would be able to trace this errant goto line not just to the source-code check-in details, but to the specific login that made the change. And they would quickly know whether this was just an error, or a deliberate change by a bad actor. Does anyone know what's going on inside Apple?

Schneier has argued previously that the NSA's biggest mistake was dishonesty. Because we don't know what they're up to, and because they've lied so often about it, people start to believe the worst about technology flaws. This Apple error could have been a stupid programmer error, merge conflict, or something in that category. But we no longer trust Apple to work in our best interests.

This is a sad state of affairs.

Thursday 27 February 2014 08:27:46 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US | Software | Business | Security#
Wednesday 26 February 2014

I shouldn't have done it, but I just smacked someone down on Facebook. The exchange started when a college friend posted this photo (click for full size):

You will recall that Connecticut passed a firearms law about a year ago in response to the horrific mass-murder of children at Newtown in December 2012. Connecticut's law prohibits certain assault weapons and larger magazines in an effort to make it harder to kill 26 children with one weapon at one sitting.

I happen to think this law doesn't go far enough, preferring Australia's response to a similar event. Unfortunately, too many Americans prefer more guns and more murders to fewer guns and "less liberty."

So, after I posted a gently sarcastic response to someone's line about Connecticut's "tyranny," the guy fired back, and then I unloaded in a six-point, well-reasoned response. I know, it was a futile waste of time.

Click through for the whole exchange.

Wednesday 26 February 2014 13:37:28 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#

Mother Jones' Climate Desk takes a look at the (actually scientific) argument between climatologists Jennifer Francis and Kevin Trenberth over whether the mid-latitude jet stream is changing permanently, making winters more intense:

Jennifer Francis, of Rutgers University, has advanced an influential theory suggesting that winters like this one may be growing more likely to occur. The hypothesis is that by rapidly melting the Arctic, global warming is slowing down the fast-moving river of air far above us known as the jet stream—in turn causing weather patterns to get stuck in place for longer, and leading to more extremes of the sort that we've all been experiencing. "There is a lot of pretty tantalizing evidence that our hypothesis seems to be bearing some fruit," Francis explained on the latest installment of the Inquiring Minds podcast. The current winter is a "perfect example" of the kind of jet stream pattern that her research predicts, Francis added (although she emphasized that no one atmospheric event can be directly blamed on climate change).

Francis's idea has gained rapid celebrity, no doubt because it seems to make sense of our mind-boggling weather. After all, it isn't often that an idea first published less than two years is strongly embraced by the president's science adviser in a widely watched YouTube video. And yet in a letter to the journal Science last week, five leading climate scientists—mainstream researchers who accept a number of other ideas about how global warming is changing the weather, from worsening heat waves to driving heavier rainfall—strongly contested Francis's jet stream claim, calling it "interesting" but contending that "alternative observational analyses and simulations have not confirmed the hypothesis." One of the authors was the highly influential climate researcher Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who also appeared on Inquiring Minds this week alongside Francis to debate the matter.

What's going on here? In climate science, too many of the "debates" that we hear about are fake, trumped up affairs generated by climate skeptics who aim to sow doubt. But that's not the case here: The argument over Francis's work is real, legitimate, and damn interesting to boot. There is, quite simply, a massive amount at stake. The weather touches all of us personally and immediately. Indeed, social scientists have shown that our recent weather experience is a powerful determinant of whether we believe in global warming in the first place. If Francis is right, the very way that we experience global warming will be vastly different than scientists had, until now, foreseen—and perhaps will stay that way for our entire lives.

Skepticism underpins scientific inquiry, so this should be a great and healthy debate. We'll also get more data in the next few years that may support or dispute Francis' position.

Meanwhile, here in Chicago, the temperature plunged overnight to -17°C (also know as "minus fuckall"), and will stay down there at least through next week. This means that for the entire meterological winter season, from December 1 to February 28, Chicago will have had only six low temperatures above freezing, and since January 1st only 5 days above freezing.

Go home, Arctic. You're an asshole.

Wednesday 26 February 2014 11:53:59 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | US | Weather#
Tuesday 25 February 2014

The Economist on Ukraine:

While politicians in Kiev are scared to mention federalisation because of its separatist undertones, in reality it is already happening. The biggest danger for Ukraine’s integrity is not federalisation, but that Russian interferes and exploits it. That could involve an attempt to annex Crimea, carelessly given to Soviet Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. Over the weekend 20,000 people were out on the streets in Crimea, welcoming back riot police from Kiev as heroes. Russian armoured vehicles have already been spotted around Sevastopol, home to the large Russian naval base.

Mr Putin clearly has no interest in defending Mr Yanukovych. He may have also decided that since Ukraine’s shift towards Europe now looks all but inevitable, grabbing Crimea quickly is the best Russia can do.

But don't forget Venezuela:

This degradation was years in the making. First, the opposition boycotted the 2005 parliamentary elections, which ended with a meager 25 percent voter turnout. This broke not only the checks and balances, but the opposition walked out of a space of dialogue. A culture of imposition was created inside the halls of the National Assembly, one we really haven’t shaken off yet. For five years the opposition was not to be represented in the central government, and no alternative outlet for discontent was provided.

The 2010 reforms, just weeks prior to a new legislature taking office, left the Parliament an institutional husk. This was exacerbated with every Enabling Law that gave the President the power to legislate by decree, of which we have had two since 2010. Add to that aggressive nationwide gerrymandering in 2009, which ensured the government ended up with 49 percent of the votes and 59 percent of the seats, and the Parliament’s emasculation was complete.

Still watching both stories.

Tuesday 25 February 2014 14:27:28 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | World#

Who can blame him? People using iOS and Android have millions of apps to choose from. It's worse than just having too many apps:

Nothing terrifies me more than an app with no moral conscience in the desperate pursuit of revenue that has full access to everything on my phone: contacts, address book, pictures, email, auth tokens, you name it. I'm not excited by the prospect of installing an app on my phone these days. It's more like a vague sense of impending dread, with my finger shakily hovering over the uninstall button the whole time. All I can think is what shitty thing is this "free" app going to do to me so they can satisfy their investors?

For the sake of argument, let's say the app is free, and the developers are ethical, so you trust that they won't do anything sketchy with the personal information on your device to make ends meet. Great! But they still have to make a living, don't they? Which means doing anything useful in the app requires buying three "optional" add-ons that cost $2.99 each. Or there are special fees for performing certain actions. Isn't this stuff you would want to know before installing the app? You betcha. Maybe the app is properly tagged as "offering in-app purchases" but the entire burden of discovering exactly what "in-app purchases" means, and how much the app will ultimately cost you, is placed completely on your shoulders. You, the poor, bedraggled user.

Fortunately, I have a Windows phone, so this is not a problem for me.

O____O

Tuesday 25 February 2014 08:15:42 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Business#
Monday 24 February 2014

A person was removed from a commuter train this morning and taken to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Why? It could have to do with where he was standing:

Passengers on the Metra Union Pacific North line train heading out of the city witnessed a person jumping from the top of the outbound train to the inbound train that was headed to downtown Chicago.

"We can see his shadow," passenger Mike Pastore told RedEye. "There's a building next to the train and we can see the shadow of the man on top of the train. We can't see him directly, but we can hear him running back and forth on top of the train."

In another story about a man being removed from somewhere he should never have been, CNN has fired Piers Morgan. Don't let the door hit your ass, Piers.

Monday 24 February 2014 11:25:09 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | US | World | Travel#
Sunday 23 February 2014

My friend in Ukraine gave me an update overnight:

It's not the opposition that has taken over president's residence; [Yanukovich] has abandoned it, and it was available for public to see. The Maidan guys are actually guarding it so it does not get burnt down.

The Opposition is not "controlling" the city. We have a fully-legitimate parliament that is working, and yes, patrols from Maidan are around to prevent crime as thousands of "titushkies" (thugs) are in Kiev, paid by the government.

Another very important point: the opposition for us is basically three guys who have their own political agenda. When it was starting peacefully back in November, they had their political rallies next door to Maidan, which is the main place. Soon they agreed to join efforts if they each of them stopped individually using the "Maidan," as the place represents every party. The protests were first for EU, and then changed into anti-Yanukovich issues once students's blood was shed in November. So our "opposition" is not the driving force. It's a bit of a façade. But they're not the power, and they get kicked by Maidan, too.

But the guys who were the majority of the Parliament, the Party of Regions, are gradually leaving the party. So there is no one "controlling" the parliament. They are simply scared for their future, so they change colors, and they vote vote vote with the majority.

The capital is quieter today, and Russia, preoccupied with the closing ceremonies in Sochi, haven't turned their attention back to their old province. That, I expect, will happen tomorrow.

Sunday 23 February 2014 10:12:45 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | World#
Saturday 22 February 2014

It's coming up on midnight in Ukraine, and former prime minister (and convicted felon) Yulia Tymoshenko is out of jail, addressing the crowds. The Beeb and Times are reporting that she's surrounded by ecstatic crowds, but other sources, including my friend in Kyiv, are not so enthusiastic. As political as Tymoshenko's trial was, there was enough truth to it that Ukrainians believe she deserved jail. I haven't got a strong opinion on that if for no other reason than Illinois' last governor is also in jail for corruption.

In fact, the exact phrase my friend used was "на воды СРОЧНО," which translates roughly to "get thee to a nunnery." She reports further that Ukrainians have moved past both Tymoshenko and Yanukovich, and are ready for a real government now, thank you. Tymoshenko is a modern-day Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, shouting "there go my people, I must find out where they are going so I can lead them."

Yanukovich, for his part, has fled the capital, though without actually reading the histories of Louis XVI or Nicolae Ceaușescu. So he got caught, and now he appears to be in the eastern city of Kharkiv, waiting desperately for the Olympics to finish so he can once again get Russian help. Only, like Ceaușescu before him, it looks unlikely Russia will do anything at all as long as Ukraine doesn't slip into total chaos.

Wait, let me revise and extend those comments. My non-expert bet would be that Russia announces new sanctions against Ukraine on Monday, and then shuts off their gas. Europe simply doesn't have enough to send east to Ukraine, so I expect people in Kyiv will be awfully cold for a few weeks.

Still, Yanukovich's plight brings Oscar Wilde's Lady Bricknell to mind: "To lose one's country to a popular uprising, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose it twice looks like carelessness."

Update, Sunday, 10:49am: Julia Ioffe agrees.

Saturday 22 February 2014 16:09:55 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | World#

While things go from scary to stunning in Ukraine, the New Republic's Julia Ioffe has kept me riveted with her series of posts about Russia.

Yesterday, for example. "The Kremlin, the Russian Liberals, and the West All See What They Want to See in Ukraine:"

[T]he battle unfolding in the streets of Kiev today is proving to be yet another geopolitical blank slate, projected onto the shields and helmets and backs of the scurrying warriors on both sides. The storming of the Maidan of Independence, the rapidly mounting casualties, the guns, the bullets—all are subject to highly politicized debate. Because the details matter, and, flipped this way or that, plucked this way or that, totally change the story, and the message. And through the people on the streets, everyone else, near and far, is fighting their own fight.

The Russian Government: Most of the coverage coming from Kremlin-controlled media in Russia is about the mounting casualties ... among police officers.

Tuesday: "Russian Team Eliminated in Hockey, Surprising Only the Russians."

Monday: "What's Happening in Kiev Right Now Is Vladimir Putin's Worst Nightmare."

According to her Facebook page, she's in Kyiv right now. I'm looking forward to her dispatches.

Saturday 22 February 2014 08:59:57 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | World#

NPR reported earlier this morning that Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich has fled Kyiv and his supporters in Parliament have started resigning. Things are changing quickly on the ground, however. Here's the New York Times half an hour ago:

An opposition unit took control of the presidential palace outside Kiev on Saturday, as leaders in Parliament said Ukraine’s president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, had fled the capital a day after a deal was reached aimed at ending the country’s spiral of violence.

Members of an opposition group from Lviv called the 31st Hundred — carrying clubs and some of them wearing masks — were in control of the entryways to the palace Saturday morning. And Vitali Klitschko, one of three opposition leaders who signed the deal to end the violence, said that Mr. Yanukovych had “left the capital” but his whereabouts were unknown, with members of the opposition speculating that he had gone to Kharkiv, in the northeast part of Ukraine.

The BBC has a different story as of 10 minutes ago:

Ukrainian President Yanukovych has said he has no intention of quitting and has described events in the capital Kiev events as a "coup".

The opposition is effectively in control of the city and parliament.

NPR, just now:

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who has reportedly left the capital Kiev, was quoted by Russia's Interfax news agency as saying events in the country amounted to a coup.

"The events witnessed by our country and the whole world are an example of a coup d'etat," he was quoted as saying.

If true, it may constitute a coup, which is troubling. But the Parliament—now in control of the opposition—appears to be trying to keep the institutions of government functioning, with elections apparently scheduled for May 25th.

I'm hedging, because obviously no one knows what's going on there. My friend in Kyiv is still online, but doesn't have a direct view of the Maidan at the moment.

I'll be watching this closely today.

Saturday 22 February 2014 08:41:12 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | World#
Friday 21 February 2014

I was wrong. According to the National Weather Service, Chicago did in fact have an official day entirely above freezing yesterday. The temperature only only got down to 1°C, which turns out to be the warmest night we've had in Chicago since December 4th (4°C).

Spring is right around the corner, and could get here by mid-June even.

Friday 21 February 2014 08:46:40 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#

Via a colleague comes Mike Monteiro's famous presentation to Creative Mornings SF from two years ago. It's applicable to just about any creative endeavor, including software development:

Friday 21 February 2014 08:32:26 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Business#
Thursday 20 February 2014

The last 24-hour period of above-freezing temperatures in Chicago was back on December 28th. Usually we have multiple stretches above freezing every so often throughout winter. This year, not so much. In fact, since the start of meteorological winter on December 1st, we've only had three, for a total of five days.

Over the last two days we came this close. Sadly, though, the temperature briefly hit 0°C at 9pm yesterday evening, and the forecast calls for not just sub-zero (Celsius) temperatures tonight, but a sustained, week-long period where the temperature stays below freezing.

Really tired of this now.

Thursday 20 February 2014 13:03:04 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#
Wednesday 19 February 2014

Researcher Capers Jones has examined well-known "laws" of programming against the data. The one that jumped out at me:

Cunningham's Law of Technical Debt

Shortcuts and carelessness during development to save money or time lead to downstream expenses called "technical debt" that may exceed the upstream savings.

Empirical data supports the basic concept that early shortcuts lead to expensive downstream repairs. Ward Cunningham's technical debt concept is a great metaphor, but not such a great metric. Technical debt omits projects canceled due to poor quality. Since about 35% of large systems are never finished, this is a serious omission. These failing projects have huge costs, but zero technical debt because they are never delivered. Technical debt also omits the costs of litigation and damage payments for poor quality. I worked as an expert witness in a lawsuit for poor quality control where the damage award to the plaintiff was more than 1,000 times larger than the technical debt to fix the bug itself.

In other words, quality issues cause more damage than programmers think. There's no substitute for early quality.

Wednesday 19 February 2014 16:12:24 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Business#
Tuesday 18 February 2014

After getting another 100 mm of snow last night, today it's warmer than it's been since January 13. The 2pm O'Hare temperature was 6.7°C. If it hits 7.8°C, it will be warmer than any day since December 28th—which was also the last day the temperature did not fall below freezing.

Already the 340 mm of snow on the ground has started to melt. And the storm drains are covered in snow and ice. So we'll all be trading in our snow boots for flippers this time tomorrow.

Update: The 4pm temperature was, in fact, 7.8°C.

Tuesday 18 February 2014 14:17:05 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#
Monday 17 February 2014

In the last hour, we've gotten another 25 mm of snow, with more on the way:

The initial stages of snowfall will come in bands this morning (check weather radar pic above) – moving from southwest to northeast. A few locations are observing a mix of snow and sleet and this will continue on and off for the next couple hours, but the precipitation will change over to all snow and increase in intensity late morning and afternoon. Homewood in Cook County reported an inch of snow in an hour with a mix of sleet. Below is the 9AM CST visibility map depicting the variability of snowfall across the Chicago area.

A band of light to moderate snow is moving though the area this morning and could drop a quick inch of snow in many locations. This band will end and there will be a break before the main area of heavy snow arrives later this morning. Winter storm warnings are in effect and snowfall totals of 100-200 mm are expected before the system moves out this evening.

The original prediction called for just 25-50 mm; apparently the snow got excited.

Meteorological winter ends in just 11 days. Actual winter may last longer.

Monday 17 February 2014 11:39:02 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#

I spent 4½ hours today upgrading three low-traffic websites in order to shut down an Azure database that cost me $10 per month.

The problem is this: I continually improve the Inner Drive Extensible Architecture as I learn better techniques for doing my craft. The IDEA began in 2002, and the industry changes rapidly, so every so often it changes significantly enough that things using earlier versions break when they're upgraded. About a year ago, version 2 ended and version 3 came out, breaking everything that used version 2.

Except, I still had some things out there using version 2, including its clunky data architecture. Therefore, I had to keep its clunky data architecture running on its own Azure database, at a cost of about $10 a month.

The three sites involved date from 2004, 2006, and 2007. All three moved to Microsoft Windows Azure by mid-2012, but unfortunately that means all three used the Azure SDK 1.7, which Microsoft killed somewhere around November 2012.

Upgrading from a dead version to a live version requires some effort. So for 4½ hours today, I dealt with version conflicts, expired publishing certificates, niggling little configuration errors, and a virtual machine that needed a critical upgrade. Along the way I gained 10 Stack Overflow reputation points because other people have felt my pain, but didn't know how to get past it.

This is a good example of yak shaving, and also the fundamental principle of software development: enlightened laziness.* Had a client needed me to do this work, each upgrade would have cost the client around $300 (which, being a salaried consultant, I would not have actually received). So it wasn't horribly expensive, but remember: I did this to save $10 per month.

So, from a commercial perspective, today's activities made no sense. Yet I feel completely satisfied that I solved a problem today that had bothered me for months.

* Why spend 10 minutes on a task when you can spend 4 hours automating it? By these words ye shall know software professionals.

Sunday 16 February 2014 21:00:04 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Business | Cloud | Windows Azure#
Sunday 16 February 2014

I remember, back in .NET prehistory (2001), that one of .NET's biggest benefits was to be the end of DLL hell. Yet I spent half an hour this afternoon trying to get a common package (Entity Framework 6) to install in a project that never had that package in the first place—because of a version conflict with .NET itself.

When I tried to install EF6, the NuGet package installer failed the installation with the message "This operation would create an incorrectly structured document". A quick check of StackOverflow suggested a couple of possible causes:

  • The Entity Framework installer creates an invalid web.config file because it gets confused about the older project's XML namespaces.
  • The EF installer chokes on .NET 4.5 and .NET 4.5.1 because it's broken.

Anyone who's spent time with Microsoft products should immediately suspect that hypothesis #2 is unlikely. No, seriously: Microsoft releases things that have bad usability, rude behavior, and incomplete features all the time, but they have some incredible QA people. This fits that pattern: the installer script works fine. It just has pretty dismal error reporting.

So after removing every trace of EF from the relevant files, and downgrading the app to .NET 4.0 from .NET 4.5.1, EF still wouldn't install. Only at this point did I start thinking about the problem.

Let's review: I had an error message about an incorrectly-structured document. The document in question was almost certainly web.config, which I could tell because the EF6 installation kept changing it. The web.config file is an XML document. XML allows you to specify a namespace. This particular XML document had a namespace defined. A Stack Overflow commenter had mentioned namespaces. Um...

At this point I changed the web.config header element from this:

<configuration xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/.NetConfiguration/v2.0">

to this

<configuration>

That fixed it.

The moral of this story: read error messages carefully, form hypotheses based on the data you have available, and even before that, stop and think. And even if you're not a Microsoft developer working on NuGet package installer scripts, always give as much detail as possible in error messages, so that developers who read them can spend less time trying to understand why the operation they thought was simple took so long to accomplish.

Regular readers of this blog know how irritated I get when error messages don't actually explain the error. I'm on developers for this all the time. It's rude; it's lazy; it costs people irrecoverable time. This is one of those times.

Sunday 16 February 2014 17:35:55 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Software | Cloud | Windows Azure#
Saturday 15 February 2014

The Great Lakes have more ice cover than at any point in the last 20 years. Here's the view on the flight in last Monday morning:

If you don't mind a 150 MB download, NASA took a photo of the Great Lakes (and, incidentially, me) at almost that exact moment. The ice today (also 150 MB) looks about the same.

Saturday 15 February 2014 17:45:54 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Geography | Weather#

I got gas today, which isn't that interesting in itself, except that it's only the third time I've gotten gas in the past four months. Like the last time, I decided to fill up in case it got cold (a full tank is better for your car in winter), so really I've only gotten about 2½ tanks of gas since the beginning of November.

It's perfectly valid to wonder why I even own a car. I didn't for most of the time I lived in New York. Still, today I had about a half-dozen errands to run, and having a car made a huge difference, especially to Parker. If I only used Zipcar, for example, I wouldn't be able to bring him around either.

Still, this is why I like living in a big city.

Saturday 15 February 2014 16:39:40 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Geography#
Friday 14 February 2014

Yesterday, Chicago Midway Airport recorded a high temperature of 1.1°C, the first time it has seen a temperature above freezing in 15 days.

Unfortunately for our weather records, O'Hare is our official station, and it only got to 0°C yesterday. So officially we still have not had a day above freezing since January 30th, with a forecast for continued below-freezing weather through Monday at least.

Plus, we've had measurable snow on the ground for 47 days now, and we're all frankly sick of it. That's why we're looking forward to next Thursday, when the predicted high of 10°C will quickly change our thick blanket of snow into a cold lake of slush. At least it will be warmer.

Friday 14 February 2014 09:36:14 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#

Today seemed like the right moment to recollect this short poem from Luis d'Antin van Rooten's Mots D'Heures: Gousses, Rames:

Raseuse arrête, valet de Tsar bat loups,
Joues gare et suite, et sot voyou.

As van Rooten's commentary makes clear, the wolves were really at fault.

Friday 14 February 2014 07:51:49 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Jokes#
Wednesday 12 February 2014

So how do people at Maho Beach know when planes are landing? They check the surfboard:

And now my final Maho Beach photo for this trip, a US Airways A330 coming in from Charlotte:

We now return to your regularly-scheduled winter, already in progress...

Wednesday 12 February 2014 14:17:51 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Aviation | Travel#
Tuesday 11 February 2014

First, to give you a better sense of what it actually looks like, here's a Delta 737 approaching SXM normally:

And here's a (gorgeous) Air France A340 landing normally:

And here's an American 757 landing two meters above people's heads:

Sorry about the image quality—I had a long lens on the camera, and it was set for a different kind of photo than this. We didn't realize how low he was until just a few seconds before this happened. The entire beach yelled "Whooooooaaaaa!" and then broke into applause.

I love a place where people appreciate a good landing.

Tuesday 11 February 2014 12:00:23 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Aviation | Travel#

My dad highlighted a Washington Post article from the weekend outlining why Accenture may have been a bad choice (as I pointed out at the time) to manage the healthcare.gov project:

At the University of Michigan, students and faculty members are protesting the school’s use of Accenture to help cut costs, citing a report by a committee of alumni and graduate students that said the firm has “a disturbing pattern of problematic past performance.” In North Carolina, glitches in an Accenture-configured computer system contributed to massive backlogs for food-stamp recipients, leading the Obama administration last month to threaten to withdraw the state’s food-stamp funding.

Federal officials have also on occasion criticized the company’s integrity. The U.S. Postal Service Inspector General’s Office wrote in June that Accenture had “demonstrated an absence of business ethics” and said that the agency should consider terminating the firm’s more than $200 million in contracts. The office cited in part a 2011 settlement with the Justice Department in which Accenture paid $63 million to resolve alle­gations of what the government called “kickbacks” and “bid- rigging” in numerous federal contracts. The company denied wrongdoing in the case.

Accenture officials defended their past performance and commitment to ethics, pointing out that the firm has received strong ratings from industry analysts. In the United States alone, they said, the company has successfully worked on more than 1,000 federal, state and local projects in the past year.

Yes, "industry analysts" say they're a great company. What this has to do with their ethics, business practices, or general loathsomeness is left to the reader's inference.

Tuesday 11 February 2014 08:09:00 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Business#
Monday 10 February 2014

Wow. Getting off the plane in New York last night, then taking the bus into Manhattan during a gentle snowfall (during rush hour, on the Van Wyck and Grand Central Parkway), reminded me why I went to St. Maarten for the weekend. Getting home to this made me ask why I didn't stay longer:

Today was the 20th day this winter that temperatures have dipped below -18°C at O’Hare. Tomorrow should be the 21st. That is triple the average of 7 days per winter. The record number of sub-zero days for a winter was 25 set back in 1884-1885. The way this winter has been going that record is certainly within reach.  50 out of 72 days or 69% of days this winter have been below average.

The medium-range forecast calls for a change, however. By Thursday it might approach freezing; next week it may even get warmer than that.

Meanwhile, the current temperature at Princess Juliana Airport is 28°C.

Monday 10 February 2014 14:06:27 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#
Saturday 8 February 2014

I've figured out the hotel's WiFi. It's not the slowest Internet connection in the world; it's the slowest SSL in the world. In other words, they're not really throttling the Internet per se. But somewhere between here and the U.S., someone is only letting through a very few secure packets.

The genius of this is that things like restaurant reviews (think: TripAdvisor.com) come up normally. But just try to get your email, check your airline reservations, or heaven forbid, get to your bank's website. It's excruciating.

Normal port-80 traffic is running about 500 kbps. That's not especially fast, but it's not painful. But SSL traffic is getting to my laptop at 100 kbps peak speeds and 30 kbps average speeds. Let's party like it's 1999! W00t!

Further, I can't tell where the bottleneck is. Anyone from here to Miami could be throttling SSL: the local Sint Maarten ISP, the hotel, the government of Sint Maarten, the government of the U.S....there's no way to tell. It's just like the Chinese firewall, maddening, inefficient, almost certainly deliberate, but too difficult to diagnose to ever find the right face to punch.

I have a very simple problem to solve that my hotel's WiFi is preventing me from solving. That makes me very annoyed. This will, I assure you, go on my Trip Advisor review.

Saturday 8 February 2014 19:45:29 AST (UTC-04:00)  |  | Security | Travel#

When I last visited St. Martin five years ago, I struggled a bit to get through the heavily-defended border between the French and Dutch sides. I am happy to report that the two countries have made significant improvements to the border since then. For starters, they've put up a brand-new sign:

Unfortunately, it appears that an aggressor nation has taken over part of the French side:

All right, I'm wasting time writing a blog post when I could do it with something else. If only this Internet connection were faster, I could be offline a lot faster.

Saturday 8 February 2014 10:49:42 AST (UTC-04:00)  |  | Geography | Photography | Travel#
Friday 7 February 2014

This is why I love Sint Maarten:

Friday 7 February 2014 17:53:24 AST (UTC-04:00)  |  | Aviation | Geography | Travel#

I'm about to close my laptop for the remainder of the day, so I'm just noting these two for later reading:

And now, allons-y! The beach awaits.

Friday 7 February 2014 10:47:06 AST (UTC-04:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#

According to FlightAware, KLM 785 is over the central Atlantic and will land in just under 2½ hours. I've already showered and eaten, so it's likely I'll have time to make the 15-minute walk along the beach to the Sunset Bar & Grill to see it come in. The weather is -19°C and windy—sorry, that's back in Chicago. The weather here is 27°C with a gentle breeze from the east, same as the last 48 hours. (It did get all the way down to 24°C last night. Brr.)

After the 747 lands, I'm not exactly sure what I'll do, but it will probably involve lots of walking. And photos. Maybe a book; who knows? It's irie, mon.

Friday 7 February 2014 10:28:08 AST (UTC-04:00)  |  | Aviation | Travel | Weather#
Thursday 6 February 2014

Here you go:

This Internet connection, though. It's almost like I really shouldn't try, right?

Thursday 6 February 2014 19:50:38 AST (UTC-04:00)  |  | Travel#

It turned out that I had an actual task today. Two, in fact. Both were pure stupidity on my part. And both completely scotched my goal of doing nothing worthwhile for four days.

First, I had promised something to my team at work before I left, but didn't realize until I checked email this morning that, well, the task was not completed. (Notice the subtle use of passive voice there.) So I had that task, which took half an hour.

Second, mentioned forgetting a few vital items in my luggage, so I had to buy them. And I paid a stupidity tax. The cost of one hat, two pairs of shorts, one pair of sandals (which I didn't already own and therefore had planned to buy here anyway), and one bottle of sunscreen was two hundred bloody dollars. In other words, I paid a 100% tax on bad packing.

So to compensate for having to do things today, after accomplishing both tasks I put on my new shorts, sunscreen, and sandals, then walked the 800 meters from my hotel to the opposite side of Maho Beach and watched planes land for three hours. I need to point out that along the way, I walked through the Caribbean Sea. My new shorts got seawater on them. I think this is exactly what they're for. Especially since the seawater was about the same temperature as the air (27°C), and unlike walking through Lake Michigan on any day except that one day in the beginning of September when everything lines up perfectly, it felt really good. (My feet are, in fact, still wet.)

I also met a few good people, had a few good drinks, and learned that the best airplane landing of the week occurs tomorrow around lunchtime when KLM flight 785 lands. It's a 747-400, the largest plane that flies here. If I have to stand out in the rain, I'm going to see this thing land.

Of course, this means I now have a plan. Even though I came to this island with the explicit goal of not accomplishing or planning anything, except maybe reading a book or two, I just can't help myself. The Dude is onto something...I just can't get there yet...

My plan is:

  • Tomorrow: sleep late, eat something, walk across Maho Beach, take photos of the 747 landing, walk back to my hotel, change my shoes, walk somewhere else (possibly Marigot or Phillipsburg), have some drinks.
  • Saturday: sleep late, walk somewhere (maybe even take a bus and then walk), read something, walk somewhere else, read some more, have some drinks.
  • Sunday: sleep late, shove things into my suitcase, walk somewhere, retrieve my suitcase, go to New York, have some drinks.

Understand that "have some drinks" is an ongoing activity. And the happy accident is that the room I got for cheap through Bookings.com includes free drinks.

Someday, and that day may never come, I will do nothing for an entire week. Meanwhile, this is the least I can do right now. Baby steps.

Thursday 6 February 2014 17:12:37 AST (UTC-04:00)  |  | Aviation | Geography | Kitchen Sink | Travel#

I'm sitting in the only spot in my hotel that has free WiFi, with a dozen or so other people doing the same thing. Plus, it's possible this is the slowest WiFi in the world (I'm getting 150 kbps). These things make it easy to get out of the building, into island air that's currently 27°C.

I know, I said to people I wouldn't use the internet, but I actually needed a map and some local info that the giant book of wristwatch advertisements guidebook didn't actually tell me.

Plus, I forgot three somewhat useful things, so I'm waiting for the shops to open. Which I think they are now. So I can get the shorts, sunscreen, and hat I need to go for a hike, as the shorts, sunscreen, and hats I have back in Chicago (current temperature: -17°C) are kind of useless here.

Since I intend to be useless here, but I don't want to overheat or get sunburned, and all 300 emails that came in overnight have finished downloading, off I go.

Thursday 6 February 2014 11:13:06 AST (UTC-04:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | Travel | Weather#
Wednesday 5 February 2014

I'm all set to go to a warm little island this afternoon, except for this:

Light snow continues to fall across the Chicago area with more moderate bands of snow close to and along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Moderate snowfall in the past hour has brought the Midway Airport total up to 148 mm.

Winter Storm Warnings and Advisories across the Chicago area continue in effect until noon today. Snowfall is slowly diminishing here as the center of low pressure has already tracked up the Ohio River valley into southwestern Pennsylvania.

Snowfall reports are rolling in early this morning – it looks like totals will range from 50-75 mm along the Illinois-Wisconsin border to 125-175 mm south of Interstate-80. Chicago’s official observation site at O’Hare had recorded 125 mm so far at 6AM with Midway closing in on 114 mm. Across central Illinois snowfall totals are running 150-225 mm.

When I took Parker out a few minutes ago, we practically sledded down the back stairs, then I just let him porpoise through the snow drifts in our back alley. Three minutes later, my cuffs and gloves were damp, and my hat had proved inadequate against the whistling, windy snow.

I do not want to spend the night in Miami. I really don't. All I want is for my flight out of Chicago to leave close to on-time. I'll deal with walking into my Caribbean hotel room in winter boots.

Wednesday 5 February 2014 07:46:33 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Travel | Weather#
Tuesday 4 February 2014

While the eastern United States continue to freeze in between snowfalls, Alaska is experiencing an astounding heat wave:

To give people an idea how freaky an event this was for the 49th State, NASA has put together a visualization of phenomenal temperatures from January 23 to the 30th. Based on satellite readings, the map shows warm-weather abnormalities spreading in red all across the region. Areas of white were about average, meanwhile, and blue spots show cooler-than-normal temps:

One of the most jarring things about this weather has been its effect on the snowpack. Widespread melting triggered a number of January avalanches, with one of the worst flinging a 100-foot-high pile of snow onto the Richardson Highway. The blockage stretched for hundreds of feet and completely sealed off land access to Valdez, a fishing port of about 4,000 people.

The cause? NASA says:

A persistent ridge of high pressure off the Pacific Coast fueled the warm spell, shunting warm air and rainstorms to Alaska instead of California, where they normally end up. The last half of January was one of the warmest winter periods in Alaska’s history, with temperatures as much as 40°F (22°C) above normal on some days in the central and western portions of the state, according to Weather Underground’s Christopher Bart. The all-time warmest January temperature ever observed in Alaska was tied on January 27 when the temperature peaked at 62°F (16.7°C) at Port Alsworth. Numerous other locations—including Nome, Denali Park Headquarters, Palmer, Homer, Alyseka, Seward, Talkeetna, and Kotzebue—all set January records.

That's the same phenomenon sending frigid Canadian air down into the eastern U.S. So when people wonder how to square their perceptions of winter with the reality of antrhopogenic climate change, tell them to go to Alaska. They might not understand but at least they'll be far away.

Tuesday 4 February 2014 14:39:26 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US | Weather#

If most of what Jason Harrington wrote in Politico last week is true, I'm disappointed to have my suspicions confirmed:

Each day I had to look into the eyes of passengers in niqabs and thawbs undergoing full-body pat-downs, having been guilty of nothing besides holding passports from the wrong nations. As the son of a German-American mother and an African-American father who was born in the Jim Crow South, I can pass for Middle Eastern, so the glares directed at me felt particularly accusatory. The thought nagged at me that I was enabling the same government-sanctioned bigotry my father had fought so hard to escape.

Most of us knew the directives were questionable, but orders were orders. And in practice, officers with common sense were able to cut corners on the most absurd rules, provided supervisors or managers weren’t looking.

[T]he only people who hated the body-scanners more than the public were TSA employees themselves. Many of my co-workers felt uncomfortable even standing next to the radiation-emitting machines we were forcing members of the public to stand inside. Several told me they submitted formal requests for dosimeters, to measure their exposure to radiation. The agency’s stance was that dosimeters were not necessary—the radiation doses from the machines were perfectly acceptable, they told us. We would just have to take their word for it. When concerned passengers—usually pregnant women—asked how much radiation the machines emitted and whether they were safe, we were instructed by our superiors to assure them everything was fine.

In one of his blog posts, Harrington points to "the neurotic, collectively 9/11-traumatized, pathological nature of American airport security" as the source of all this wasted effort and money.

I've always thought TSA screeners are doing the best they can with the ridiculous, contradictory orders they have. It's got to be at least as frustrating for them as it is for us. Harrington pretty much confirms that.

Tuesday 4 February 2014 09:23:43 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Aviation | Security | Travel#
Sunday 2 February 2014

The huge furniture move is almost done. I finished moving the rooms around, so my office is now where my dining room used to be, etc. Here's where the office used to be:

Since the purpose of this exercise is to make my small apartment look a lot bigger, part of the plan requires moving a bunch of things to storage, including several nontrivial pieces of furniture. At that point the project will be complete. So I have to live with this mostly-finished living space for two weeks. That does not make me happy.

Nor does my primary WiFi connection. With the IDTWHQ in a completely different part of the space, it's not possible to have a wired connection to the primary DSL unless I move the laptop back to the other room. Which, I guess, is an appropriate thing to do with a laptop, so it's not such a hardship.

Wait, isn't there some kind of sports game on right now?

Sunday 2 February 2014 17:59:15 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink#

Via the IANA Time Zone Database mailing list, through Randy Olson, comes this map showing the difference between local solar time and what wall clocks show throughout the world:

At the time I’m writing, near the winter solstice, Madrid’s sunset is around 17:55, more than an hour later than the sunset in, for example, Naples, which is at a similar latitude. The same difference holds at the summer solstice and around the year. Just because it applies to most places I’ve been, a time like that in Naples feels more natural to me, and probably to most non-Spanish people. But is it?

Looking for other regions of the world having the same peculiarity of Spain, I edited a world map from Wikipedia to show the difference between solar and standard time. It turns out, there are many places where the sun rises and sets late in the day, like in Spain, but not a lot where it is very early (highlighted in red and green in the map, respectively). Most of Russia is heavily red, but mostly in zones with very scarce population; the exception is St. Petersburg, with a discrepancy of two hours, but the effect on time is mitigated by the high latitude. The most extreme example of Spain-like time is western China: the difference reaches three hours against solar time. For example, today the sun rises there at 10:15 and sets at 19:45, and solar noon is at 15:01.

If you live in the green areas of the map, the sun tends to rise and set earlier than in the red zones. Not coincidentally, the places that set time policy tend to be neutral: London, Washington, Sydney, Beijing, Ottawa...they're all nearly dead-center in their respective zones. The notable exception is Moscow, where time policy goes back and forth and may even change once more this year.

Finally, a commenter on the Reddit MapPorn post where this also appeared points out: "Fun fact: The small Afghan-Chinese border is the largest jump in timezone in the world. (3 and a half hour difference on each side) You'd get jet lag crossing that border."

Sunday 2 February 2014 10:05:58 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Geography | Astronomy#

Now that the Inner Drive Technology International Data Center (IDTIDC) has gone away, my apartment the IDT World Headquarters has a few more options. It's not a huge space, which has become a problem now that I'm trying to sell it.

Essentially, I'm rotating three rooms clockwise. That is, my office is moving to where my dining room is, which is moving into my living room, which is moving into my office.

That this is possible suggests the difficulties of having a server rack in the spot most people would ordinarily put a TV. I needed to put the rack next to an outlet I could isolate on a 30-amp circuit, right next to the main phone jack. That forced the TV, and therefore the living room, into the area most of my neighbors use for their dining rooms. So that forced the dining room into the are most of my neighbors put their desks.

I'll have the full "before" and "after" photos when I've moved all the furniture. (I may actually put some pieces in storage, because no amount of rearranging can reduce the volume of stuff in the place.)

Here's the "after," showing the true victim of all this disruption:

I looked through my old photos just now—yay indexing—and this is the closest analogue I could find:

(That's from March 2009, when I reinstalled windows at the office.)

The project should be complete in time for the game tonight.

Sunday 2 February 2014 09:10:25 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink#
Saturday 1 February 2014

Today we got our 33rd day of measurable snowfall this winter, the day after we ended the third snowiest and third coldest January on record. (Did I mention I'm done with this winter?)

At least someone likes the weather:

Saturday 1 February 2014 10:46:25 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Parker | Weather#
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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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