May 2003

Stupidity tax, part two

by Michael Alderete on 5/30/2003

So, getting ready for our trip, Rochelle was going to Xerox our passports, so we would have copies, just in case. I was in the tub, and she went to get mine. A minute later, she came down the hall, laughing, “A ha, Michael is a dumbass!” It turns out my passport expired on 30 April 2003. Oops.

We had exactly 18 hours to figure out what to do. Rochelle checked a Costa Rica web site, remembering that you could take a photo ID and your birth certificate, and that would be enough. It turned out that that had expired on 1 May. Oops.

A quick internet search turned up Plan B, travisa, which is able to do same-day passports in four cities in the U.S. One of them — thank god — is San Francisco. Rochelle called them, and the cut-off is 10am. It was 8:30am, so plenty of time. They even were able to take the photo.

The damage: the US Government takes an extra $60 to do an expedited passport renewal. travisa’s service fee was $139 + $10 for the photo. Doing the math, that’s an extra $210 above what it would have cost if we’d done this after getting back from France — which is when I should have noticed this.

What’s really fucked up about this is, we decided not to take the direct flight from SFO to San Jose, because it was an extra $110 per person. One hour of massage in Costa Rica is $20, so that would be five massages. So we decided we could do deal with the indirect flight by getting massages, and come out even, or ahead, really, because we were going to do the massages anyway.

Well, that’s how the stupidity tax works, you think you’re getting ahead, and in an instant you wipe it all out. Ah, well…

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DHI 126

by Michael Alderete on 5/25/2003

DHI 126: Cleared off my dresser top, mostly by shredding all the old ATM and credit card receipts I was keeping there. After two years, it seems unlikely I was ever really going to enter them into Quicken…

Wow, my worst week ever. I started well, working on the dresser crap while Rochelle watched the network movie Martha, Inc., but then did nothing for the rest of the week.

Oh, well…

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Phoenix rising into Firebird

by Michael Alderete on 5/23/2003

Mozilla Firebird, the latest milestone release of the browser-only version of Mozilla, shipped last weekend. I’d been using the last milestone for ages, and was really excited to finally be able to update to a more recent release.

I’ve been using it for almost a week now, on my Windows machine at work, and overall it’s fabulous, really a great piece of work. The prior release, Phoenix 0.5, was better in virtually every way than Internet Explorer, and the latest release, Firebird 0.6, is better in every way than Phoenix.

Well, almost.

The new default theme is wonderful, except in the places where it isn’t. A number of things seem unfinished, e.g., the default icon for bookmarks in the Bookmarks Toolbar is a generic document icon, and it ought to look like some kind of link. Another example is the beveled edges that appear around these same bookmarks in the Toolbar, to indicate you’re in a hover state. They’re too close to the edges, top and bottom, and that makes them look off.

Many of the icons in the toolbars are too cute and different from each other. There’s just a gratuitous use of extra colors that keeps them from looking completely unified. For example, the Forward and Back arrows are green, and the Reload arrow is blue. The Stop “X” is red, which makes sense, but why are the arrows different colors? I don’t see a user interface benefit, and an aesthetic problem.

The Home icon is a lot less abstract than the other buttons, and it’s at a different isometric perspective from all the others. Why? No idea, but it detracts from the unity of the theme elements.

Last problem with the theme I’ll mention — the activity indicator is stupid. What does it mean? It looks like a Quake symbol off-kilter. It’s pretty, but meaningless, and more importantly, it’s more difficult to notice that it’s in motion, it’s thinner and so less visible. Why not use the standard Mozilla activity animation, which is truly wonderful, has a symbol that means something related to it’s function, and is easily visible when activity is in progress.

Maybe I should say that the new theme sucks, except for where it doesn’t. It doesn’t suck in the Preferences dialog, where it’s beautiful. Of course, I try to stay out of the Preferences dialog, on a day-to-day basis.

Now, I’m sure that these are far from the most important usability issues in Mozilla Firebird, but I do have to wonder if anyone is thinking about them…

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Software McCarthyism

by Michael Alderete on 5/21/2003

Reading an article on CNet today, about the SCO Group’s latest moves in their infringement case against IBM, I came to a sudden realization: the SCO Group is engaging in “software McCarthyism”.

For those that don’t know the details, SCO alleges that IBM misappropriated trade secrets and other intellectual property from SCO and added them to Linux, thereby ruining SCO’s business. They want $1 billion.

Their lawsuit is not much more than a series of wild accusations, none of which is backed up with substance. Their senior executives have been giving quite a few interviews, where they talk of “clear evidence” of “hundreds” of infringements that they will “reveal soon”, but can’t right now.

In reality, the evidence is overwhelming that SCO didn’t have anything worth stealing, and that IBM hasn’t stolen anything. But that’s not stopping SCO from pounding the drums. It’s textbook McCarthyism, wave around wild claims but keep changing the specifics, so people are wondering, “Are there 232 infringements or 487 infringements?” and not “Is there any merit here at all?”

I don’t understand SCO’s motivations. They wanted to be acquired, and thought the lawsuit would put pressure on folks to buy them out. But IBM has stated publicly that they will “blacken the sky” with lawyers, and the lawsuit itself is riddled with factual inaccuracies, to the point where some are suggesting that SCO’s suit is knowingly deceptive to a degree that they should be sanctioned under Federal civil procedure. The industry-wide (excepting Microsoft) resistance to SCO can only be toughing their opponents’ resolve. So there is no way this is going to work out well for SCO.

It is working out well for Microsoft, who is using this opportunity to continue to sow the seeds of FUD around Linux, in the hopes of slowing down the erosion of their server business (which is getting killed by Linux). Microsoft recently paid SCO a bribe to continue the lawsuit. I wonder if there is an appropriate metaphorical link from their role here to the original McCarthy.

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Paying the stupidity tax

by Michael Alderete on 5/19/2003

Rochelle and I have a thing we call the “stupidity tax.” It’s where you pay more money than you should, for a really dumb reason. My most common stupidity tax is forgetting to send in rebate forms.

Last week I paid the stupidity tax three times:

  • Paid my car registration three days too late ($12)
  • Waited until too close to our vacation to order from, and had to pay for expedited shipping ($13)
  • Let Rochelle go to the MADE IN FRANCE open warehouse and moving sale unsupervised ($300)

At least I get to eat the cheese from the last one.

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SpamBayes for Outlook

by Michael Alderete on 5/18/2003

A while back I recommended an Outlook plug-in called SpamNet, from Cloudmark. At the time, it was a free tool for Outlook users to block spam, that worked quite reliably. Sadly, it’s no longer free. I get so little spam at work (where my e-mail address is relatively unpublished) that I can’t justify buying a subscription.

I do still get some spam, though. Fortunately, Jon Udell’s recent weblog entries and review at InfoWorld turned me onto a replacement that is free, and will remain so (it’s Open Source): SpamBayes.

Like SpamNet, it can be installed as an Outlook plug-in, and easily used via buttons on Outlook’s toolbar. But the technology behind it is very different, as it uses Bayesian filtering rather than distributed recognition. It’s also different in that the core project and recognition engine is command line-oriented; the Outlook-only plug-in is terrific, but only a side project. It’s not required, and there are plenty of ways for those who use something other than Outlook for e-mail to use SpamBayes.

You can read the review for a thorough look, but my experience was that it was just as easy to install as SpamNet, is extremely effective at blocking spam, and is also having fewer false positives. I think the reason for that is SpamNet uses other people’s spam reports to decide what to block in my Inbox, and there’s a lot of people who just block e-mails they signed up for (newsletters, promos, etc.), rather than unsubscribe from them. Those false reports pollute the knowledge base, and affect my results. Bayesian filtering is exactly the opposite — it only cares what I think is spam.

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DHI 122-125

by Michael Alderete on 5/18/2003

DHI 122: Rearranged BeBoxes and other crap to not take up so much floor space in the office.

DHI 123: Prepped for wine tasting event at our house.

DHI 124: Wine tasting event host.

DHI 125: Graffiti.

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Graduate education

by Michael Alderete on 5/17/2003

As many of you know, Rochelle and I have been involved in graduate studies for a couple years now, and we’re finally coming to the end of the program. We’ve been doing a lot of coursework, including extended exercises at home that are not required to graduate, but are required for complete mastery. Rochelle has just one class session left, while I have two, and then it’s just final exams for us.

We’re about to go on a short vacation, and are taking all our study materials with us. We’ll get home, and two days later take exams. Then we’ll get our Ph.D.s, and become eligible for field work with our favorite professor! If you can believe it, there’s actually a waiting list for volunteers for his trips, so it’ll probably be next year before we can head down to Mexico with him and do some original research.

There’s a short description of our program available online, if you’re interested in more details. Yes, it’s a Ph.D. in booze. What did you think we would be studying???

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Quotation of the year candidate

May 14, 2003

Definition of stubborn: when you want something that I don’t.

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Can I kiss Eliot Spitzer?

May 14, 2003

Can I vote for him for President?

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NoteTaker vs. NoteBook

May 13, 2003

Aquaminds NoteTaker has deservedly received some good press recently. But as it happens, it has a competitor from the same family tree. Circus Ponies NoteBook is based on the same source code, from a product originally written for NeXTSTEP. It’s just been released, and has a competitive upgrade price of only $10 — a no brainer.

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I need a calendar

May 12, 2003

I was recently trying to give someone a date for an upcoming event, and I didn’t have a good way to put a calendar in front of my face while sitting at my computer here at home. I don’t use iCal, because it doesn’t synchronize events with my Outlook schedule on Windows at work, making it essentially useless; for just a monthly calendar, it takes too long to launch. I want something very small, with a clean, simple interface. I don’t need a scheduler, I just want a small, navigable monthly calendar.

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