Adaptation

As I’ve mentioned, it has been cooling off around here lately. Not to the ridiculous extremes everywhere else in the country, but enough to be noticeable.

Tuxie and MM have been evaluating different approaches to maximizing sunlight acquisition and retention.

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Sharing body heat, in other words. MM has decided that Tuxie makes a darn good hot water bottle.

Though some positions work better than others.

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We’re pretty sure she wound up with a stiff neck after trying to sleep this way.

But it’s nice to see how nature adapts to changing conditions.

Batter Up

We’re about a month away from the beginning of Spring Training–pitchers and catchers report around February 15, depending on their team, and position players come in the following week–so it’s probably time for me to toss out a few thoughts on the upcoming season. Consider it my way of getting into shape before uncredentialed bloggers report.

I’ve seen several reports lately that MLB is planning to unilaterally institute a pitch clock in the majors this year.

Mark me down as neutral on that idea. I’ve seen several minor league games using it, and it really doesn’t get in the way. I’m not sure it speeds games up enough to matter, but I don’t think it hurts the quality of play enough to matter either.

There are already rules in place to limit how long the batter can delay between pitches. They were enforced when they were first introduced–2015, if memory serves–and they did make a noticeable, if minor, difference.

As long as those rules are enforced along with the pitcher’s clock, so defense and offense are subject to the same strictures, I’m willing to take the clock as a given and see how it works out on the field.

Moving on.

Another issue I’ve seen raised multiple times lately is the imbalance between what players are paid and what owners make. For example, Nathaniel Grow, points out that player payroll fell from 56% of league revenue in 2002 to 38% in 2015.

Naturally the players would like more. Hell, I’d like publishers to pay authors more. You probably want a raise too.

But let’s keep a couple of things in mind here. First, Nathan himself notes that 2002 was a record high for salaries as a percent of league revenue. That means the decline puts the current level in line with historic levels. And second, 38% just isn’t that low a number. Over at bizfluent, Elaine Severs states that “Most businesses should shoot for salaries in the 30 percent to 38 percent range…”.

Put another way, how many corporations are there where the CEO doesn’t make several hundred times as much as the average employee?

I’m not suggesting that income inequity is fair, nor do I think the owners couldn’t afford to give players more. It just strikes me as odd that there are so many complaints about the inequity in baseball, when the numbers are right in line with the rest of American business.

Granted, MLB is an unusual case–its anti-monopoly exemption guarantees it–but still.

The usual counter to ravings like mine is something along the lines of “Baseball could exist without the players, so they should get the bulk of the money.”

A doesn’t necessarily imply B here, but okay, let’s run with that.

Popular music couldn’t exist without the performers, so they should get the bulk of the money. Books couldn’t exist without the authors, so they should get the bulk of the money. Schools couldn’t exist without the studentsteachers, so they should get the bulk of the money. Food couldn’t exist without the farmers, so they should get the bulk of the money.

Need I go on?

Let’s face it, underpaying* the producers is a key tenet of American business. (And under the current regime, it’s only going to get more pronounced–but that’s beside the point.)

* As seen by those producers, of course.

That’s what leads to businesses closing when the minimum wage increases, even if the increase still leaves recipients with too little to cover the necessities of life. (Note: As the New York Times points out, that effect may be more perception than reality.)

It’s a systemic problem, and IMNSHO, one we should all be working to solve. But is baseball really where we should be starting?

Duck and Cover

Hopefully by now you’ve heard that Hawaii was not attacked with ballistic missiles Saturday. It was, however, attacked by poor software design or, quite possibly, poor QA.

Let’s recap here.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency erroneously sent a cell phone warning message to damn near every phone in the state. The message warned of an incoming missile attack. Naturally, this caused a certain amount of chaos, confusion, fear, and panic.

Fortunately, it did not, as far as I can tell, cause any injuries or deaths, nor was there widespread looting.

The backlash has been immense. Any misuse of the cell phone emergency warning message system is going to trigger outrage–does anyone else remember the commotion back in 2013 when the California Highway Patrol used the same functionality to send an AMBER alert to phones across the entire state of California?

Many people turned off the alert function on their phones in the wake of that and similar events elsewhere–although, let’s not forget that one level of warnings can not legally be turned off. I don’t know if HEMA used the “Presidential” alert level–certainly a nuclear attack would seem to qualify for that level of urgency–but it may be that only the White House can send those messages.

For the record, my current phone doesn’t allow me to disable Presidential or Test messages; the latter seems like an odd exclusion to me. In any case, I’ve turned off AMBER alerts, but have left the “Severe” and “Extreme” messages on. I suspect many who have gotten spurious or questionable alerts have turned those off.

Which puts those charged with public safety in an awkward position. The more often they use the capability, the more people are going to turn off alerts. I hope the people looking into a California wildfire alert system are keeping these lessons in mind.

But I digress. I had intended to talk about the Hawaii contretemps from a software perspective.

The cause of the problem, according to a HEMA spokesperson, was that “Someone clicked the wrong thing on the computer.” Later reports “clarify” that “someone doing a routine test hit the live alert button.” I put “clarify” in quotes, because the explanation actually raises more questions than it answers.

See, for a test to be meaningful, it has to replicate the real scenario as closely as possible. It’s would be unusual to have one button labeled “Click Here When Testing” and a second one that says “This Is the Real Button.” The more typical situation is for the system to be set to a test mode that disables the connection to the outside world or (better yet) routes it to a test connection that only sends its signal to a special device on the tester’s desk.

Or heck, maybe they do have a test mode switch, and the poor schlub who sent the alert didn’t notice the system wasn’t in test mode. If so, that points to poor system design. The difference between modes should be dramatic, so you can tell at a glance, before clicking that button, how the system is set.

If it’s not poor design, the reports suggest some seriously poor test planning. Though I should emphasize that it probably wasn’t a failure on QA’s fault. They probably wanted a test mode, but were overruled on cost or time-to-launch concerns.

Wait, it gets better: now we’re hearing the problem has been solved. According to the news stories, “the agency has changed protocols to require that two people send an alert.” In other words, the problem hasn’t been fixed at all. The possibility of a mistaken alert may have been reduced, but as long as people can click on a live “Send an alert” button while testing, they will.

Better still, by requiring two people to coordinate to send an alert, they’ve made it harder to send a real message. Let’s not forget that emergency messages are time critical. If the message is warning of, say, a nuclear attack or a volcanic eruption, seconds could be critical.

But have no fear: the Homeland Security Service assures us that we can “trust government systems. We test them every day.”

How nice. In the immortal words of Douglas Adams, “Please do not push this button again.”

Back On the Fence

Perhaps you remember that we had to replace our backyard fence last spring. If your memory of my meanderings goes back far enough, you might even remember that MM was very fond of the old fence.

It took a long time for her to warm up to the new one.

Oh, she spent plenty of time supervising its construction, and she certainly appreciates the fact that there’s more space between fence and ground at the back of the yard, so she can get in and out without mussing her fur.

But as a platform to display her inarguable superiority? That took longer.

The wait, however, is over.
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Honestly, that doesn’t look like a comfortable perch. There is an MM-sized flat surface there–a vertical 4×4–but I’d have thought the cold metal of the hinge would be more of a deterrent.

Perhaps she figures total air superiority over Tuxie, the deer, the possums, and the trash pandas is worth a little discomfort.

Nanny Speaks

A final thought on Spectre and Meltdown: while you’re updating your systems, don’t forget about your video cards. Modern cards have powerful processors. Even if the card itself isn’t vulnerable, there could be interactions between the video card and the main CPU that could be exploited. Nvidia is currently releasing new drivers that eliminate at least one such vulnerability.

Moving on.

In the latest sign of the impending Collapse of Civilization, a couple of Apple’s shareholders, the California State Teachers Retirement System and Jana Partners, are demanding that Apple modify their products to avoid hurting children.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Okay, ready to continue. Yes, there is evidence that overuse of smartphones (or, I suspect more accurately, apps) can result in feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression. But the key word there is “overuse”.

The groups say that because the iPhone is so successful, Apple has a responsibility to ensure they’re not abused.

Apparently, less-successful companies don’t have a similar responsibility to their users, but leave that aside.

Apple certainly doesn’t have an unfulfilled legal responsibility here. So I’m assuming the groups believe Apple’s responsibility is moral. The same moral responsibility that forces companies that make alcoholic beverages to make them less attractive to teenagers and to promote them in ways that don’t make them seem cool. Ditto for the companies that make smoking and smokeless tobacco products, automobiles, and guns.

There are bigger, more important targets for Jana Partners and CSTRS to go after, in other words. But leave that aside too.

What their argument seems to boil down to is that Apple isn’t doing enough to protect the children who use their devices.

Keep in mind that currently parents to can set restrictions in iOS to limit which apps kids can use (including locking them into one specific app) and to require parental approval to buy apps or make in-app purchases.

The groups’ letter asks that Apple implement even finer degrees of control, so that parents can lock out specific parts of apps while allowing access to others.

Technically, that could be done, but it would be a programming and testing nightmare–and make customer support even more hellish than it already is. Every app would have to be modularized far more completely than they are now. That often results in apps getting larger and more complicated as critical functionality gets duplicated across the app, because developers can’t count on being able to invoke it from another module.

And just how fine-grained would it have to be? Could a parent prevent their kids from, say, messaging anyone with certain words in their user name? Or only prevent them from messaging anyone? Would Apple have to implement time-based or location-based restrictions so certain parent- or teacher-selected functions couldn’t be used at school?

How about a camera restriction that prevents teenagers from taking pictures of anyone the age of eighteen? That’ll stop sexting dead in its tracks, right?

The groups’ other suggestion is that Apple implement notifications to remind parents to talk about device usage with their kids.

Sorry, but if the parents aren’t already paying attention to what their offspring are doing on their phones, popups aren’t going to suddenly make them behave responsibly.

And that’s really where the responsibility lies: with parents. Responsible parents don’t buy their underage children booze and smokes, they don’t let their kids get behind the wheel on I-5 before they have a driver’s license, and they don’t leave their guns where their rugrats can get to them.

It’s a good goal, guys, but the wrong approach.

The Spectre of Meltdown

I’m seeing so much “OMG, the Earth is doomed!” noise about Meltdown and Spectre, the recently-revealed Intel bugs, I just couldn’t resist adding my own.

I know some of you have managed to miss the fuss so far, so here’s a quick rundown of the problem: All Intel CPUs and some other manufacturers’ chips are vulnerable to one or both of a pair of issues that were just discovered recently. That includes the Apple-designed chips in iPhones and iPads; many of the CPUs in Android phones; some, if not all, AMD CPUs; and every Intel processor from the Pentium* on.

* I find it ironic that the bug dates back to the Pentium. Turns out that chip’s early inability to do division was the least of its problems.

Both bugs are related to something called “speculative execution”. The brief explanation is that in order to give faster results, CPUs are designed to guess what work they’ll have to do next and work on it when they would otherwise be idle. If they guess right–and a huge number of engineering hours have gone into establishing how to guess and how far ahead to work–the results are already there when they’re needed. If not, the wrong guesses are thrown away.

The details are way too deep for this blog, but the upshot is that because the bugs are in the hardware, there isn’t any perfect fix possible. Meltdown can be patched around, but Spectre is so closely tied into the design of the chips, that it can’t realistically be patched at all. It’s going to require complete hardware redesigns, and that’s not going to come soon. I’ve seen articles speculating that it could be five years before we see Intel CPUs completely immune to Spectre.

Personally, I suspect that’s insanely pessimistic. Yes, it’s a major architecture change, but Intel’s motivation is huge.

More worrisome is how many other hardware bugs are going to turn up, now that researchers are looking for them. Even if we get Spectre-free Intel chips this year–which is as optimistic as five years is pessimistic–the odds are overwhelmingly good we’ll see more such bugs discovered before the Spectre fix rolls out.

It’s also worth noting that the patches for Meltdown aren’t cost-free. According to Intel, depending on what kinds of things you do, you could see your computer running anywhere from five to thirty percent slower. Let’s be blunt here: if you mostly use your computer for email, looking at pictures, and web surfing, you’re not going to notice a five percent drop. You might not even notice thirty percent–but your workload isn’t going to be the kind that has a thirty percent slowdown*. The people who will get the bigger hits are the ones doing work that already stress their CPUs: video processing, crunching big databases, serving millions of web pages, and so on.

* Unless some website hijacks your computer to mine cryptocurrency. But if that happens, you’d notice your computer slow down anyway.

So the bottom line here: Eventually, replacing your computer will be a good idea, but we’re not there yet. (And yes, given the speed and power increases we’re going to see between now and then, even if it’s possible to just upgrade the CPU, it’ll probably make more sense to replace the whole computer.) And in the meantime, unless you’re running a big server, do what you’ve been doing all along: keep your OS up to date with all the vendor patches, don’t run programs from untrusted sources, and if your search engine tells you a web site is dangerous, don’t go there!

Here We Go Again

A quick question before I get into the main post. This is directed to those of you who have rear window wipers on your cars.

See, we had our first rain of the year yesterday, and noticed that only one driver out of a couple of dozen had turned on their rear window wipers.

So the question is, why not? Do the rear wipers not work? Do you forget they’re there? Do you just not care you can’t see anything in your rearview mirror? (The way many people change lanes these days makes me wonder if they even have rearview mirrors.)

Or is there an explanation I haven’t thought of?

Moving on.

Here we go again. The latest call for technology to rethink the book comes from David Pierce over at Wired. He might charge me with oversimplification, but I’m not seeing anything in his piece that differs from any of the “print is boring, we need to jazz it up” opinions we’ve gotten since the dawn of ebooks.

Mr. Pierce has a few more examples than we’ve seen before, because people keep experimenting, but it’s still the same idea: “books don’t have to consist only of hundreds of pages set in a row.”

Let’s skip the question of what a “book” is. Whether you consider something delivered as a series of tweets, something that allows readers to text with the characters, or something that comes with a musical soundtrack to be a book is beside the point. And yes, I’m including audiobooks as “maybe they’re books, maybe they’re not” here because they’re one of the earliest and most enduring approaches to “jazzing up the book”.

The critical problem with the idea of evolving the book is that people want books to remain books. Mr. Pierce himself points out that what made the Kindle popular was its replication of the reading experience. No pop-ups, no advertisements, no distractions from the act of moving the writer’s words into the reader’s brain. As a reader, you get to choose when to read, where to read, how fast to read, and how you react to what you read.

It’s about control. The more multimedia features you add to a “book,” the more you take control of the experience away from the reader. Add pictures, and you control the reader’s mental image. Add audio and video and you increase that control. Constrain the delivery options, and you limit the ability to decide where and when to read.

I have no problem with experiments in new ways of delivering stories–provided they don’t turn into advertisements–but any claim that such experiments will lead to the replacement of books-as-we-know-them should be regarded with great dubiety.

What I do see happening with books is that publishers will find ways to increase the reader’s control–and successful publishers will use those techniques.

A case in point: I recently purchased an ebook collection of short stories, the complete set of stories about a single character. In the foreword, the author notes that, while she would prefer people to read them in the order they were written, she recognizes that many people would prefer them in order of their internal chronology.

In a printed book, the author and editor would get to decide. If the reader prefers the other option, it means tedious flipping back to the table of contents, then flipping forward to the next story. But an ebook can be built to support both options. In this case, turning the pages as usual gives the “as written” story order, but at the end of each story there’s a link to go directly to the next story in internal chronological order. Either way, it’s a single click/tap/page turn to go to next story. At the reader’s discretion.

Convenience features, ideas to make the act of reading as we already know it more pleasant, are the future of books. Multimedia, text messages, and other bolt-on features are the future of something else.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year. If you bought an extended service plan on 2017, it has now expired, and the full cost of all repairs or replacements will have to be paid out of pocket. Regrettably, the Office of Chronological Mismanagement is no longer offering service plans of any sort. So enjoy 2018 while it still has that new car smell. Soon enough we’ll have to break out the duct tape and patch it up.

In any case, we had a very pleasant end to 2017 and beginning of 2018. You may have gotten the impression from my posts that this family likes fireworks–and that would be a correct impression. We go to New Year’s Eve and Fourth of July fireworks shows whenever we can.

Last year, we caught the show in Berkeley, but this year there wasn’t one. Nor, as far as I could tell, was there one anywhere in the East Bay. All the municipalities were very quiet about it; we don’t know if the lack of shows was due to financial problems, fire worries, security concerns, a lack of desire to compete with San Francisco’s show, or something even less sensical.

But regardless of the reasons, we had a firework gap that needed to be filled. We’ve always steered clear of San Francisco’s show, figuring it would be an enormous hassle, with an impossible parking situation, horrible crowds, and hours-long delays getting out of the city. Turned out we were wrong.

I won’t tell you exactly where we were. For one thing, the parking garage we found will be closing before the end of 2018, and for another, if all of the readers of this blog showed up in our spot this coming December 31, it would…well, okay, nobody would know the difference. But why take the chance of the post going viral? I’ll just say we were south of the Ferry Building and north of the Bay Bridge and let it go at that.

We arrived around noon–far earlier than we needed to–and had our choice of parking spots in the garage. With apologies to those of you north of Eureka or east of Carson City or Phoenix for sounding like I’m gloating, the temperature, even as midnight approached, was in the fifties with scattered high clouds and exactly three drops of rain. The city of San Francisco had kindly provided large planter boxes with cement walls that made excellent seats. And once we got through the line to pay for parking, our time from the garage onto the Bay Bridge was no more than twenty minutes. In rush hour, that same part of the drive frequently stretches to an hour or more.

If there was one downside to the day, it was that few businesses were open near the Embarcadero, and those that were closed early. I believe that, with the exception of a few restaurants, nothing was open past seven. Was it because NYE was a Sunday? Or is it standard for New Year’s Eve? Memo to San Francisco: encourage more vendors to show up and stay open later. It’ll bring more people into the city earlier in the day, they’ll spend more money, improving both vendor profits and city tax and parking revenue. Just a thought. And next time we do it, we’ll bring books, a deck of cards, or something else entertaining.

Because, yes, there will be a next time. The show was wonderful. If not the best ever, right up there at the top of the list. Yes, the hearts were all lazy, lying on their sides and all but a few of the smiley faces were significantly distorted, but those mishaps just added humor to the show. There was a good mix of high and low bursts, some effects we hadn’t seen before, and a clear–and spectacular–finale.

Consider this an open invitation to blog readers: if you’re freezing your tails off again in December 2018, come to San Francisco. We can hang out together and watch the show. I won’t promise you it’ll be as warm as it was Sunday, but I think it’s safe to promise it’ll be warmer than Times Square.

Christmas Gift

A couple of weeks ago we got home late after a games night.

Rufus had gotten tired of waiting for his dinner, and came down to the kitchen to see what the delay was. In our absence, he investigated the empty cans from the previous couple of nights’ feedings.
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That wasn’t the first time he’s spent time in the kitchen and dining room, but it was almost certainly the longest sojourn, and the first in which he didn’t slink around under the furniture trying to avoid notice.

Once he saw us start preparing his food, he returned to his usual haunts upstairs. But apparently he’s reached a new plateau in his general comfort level.

He visited the kitchen and dining room a couple of times over the following week, and then while Maggie and I were exchanging gifts Christmas morning, he strolled downstairs again and took possession of the catnip rug.
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That’s the designated stoner zone: there are catnip toys all over the house, but the bare herb gets distributed on that rug.

Anyway, Rufus hung out on the rug for the better part of an hour before an opportunity arose. Or rather, before I arose.
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A well-cushioned chair, nicely warmed by a biped’s rear end: what’s not to like?

I’m not sure how long he stayed in my chair, because I left the room first, but it was a significant length of time.

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Upstairs is still Rufus’ home turf, but the staircase doesn’t seem quite so long and forbidding as it once did. I forsee a new era of exploration, colonization, and diplomacy of the “swift paw to the top of the head” variety.