Missing the glaring similarities

March 23rd, 2009

It’s sometimes surprising just how narrow the focus of some people can be, when they compare themselves, or a group they identify with, to people who aren’t them.

People will tend to expect others to see them in a much better light than they would themselves see other people placed in the same situation. Or than how they would expect other people to see other people in the same situation.

An obvious, and loaded, source for examples around here (Israel) is how many Israeli citizens see the neighbouring Arabs and Muslims. All too many times people react quite severely to bad/improper/unacceptable behaviour from them, while fully admitting they’d behave very similarly in the same situation. And they don’t see a problem, because it’s different. Somehow. In a way they can rarely articulate.

I’ll probably, laziness permitting, write a lot more about quite a few conversations like this that I had in the past. But this particular post is about a single issue, though I did talk with several different people who feel the same as the single example I’ll present here.

This one is not about any issue specific to Israel, but rather about the rise in Islam, or in the amount of Muslims, in Europe.

I was talking with this person, an Israeli Jew, and he mentioned reading about the “problem” of Muslims in Europe. He kept on for a while about how the Europeans[1] are having a problem, how it’s becoming a large issue there, and how it’s going to end in riots and violence.

So far nothing you can’t find in the headlines of a lot of newspapers, though his opinion was certainly on the anti-Muslim side.

Then he went on to explain that he completely understands why the Europeans don’t like the Muslims . It’s because they live in their own segregations, keep their own different culture and their own different customs, dress differently, and generally try to keep themselves different and unique instead of trying to completely blend in and assimilate themselves in the local culture of the country.

Funny that. Seems to be nearly identical reasons for Anti-Semitism against Jews. Let’s say circa World War II ? Separate communities? Check. Keeping their own different culture? Different religion? Different rituals, special days, behaviour codes? Check. Different cloths? Check[2].

But according to him (another reminder, this “him” is actually several people), not liking Muslims because of these reasons is fine and understandable. Not liking Jews because of these reasons, though, was/is bad, racist, and completely unjustifiable.

I was already staring incredulously while listening to this, when I was exposed to another gem. It’s not just that these Muslims keep themselves different, you see. It’s that they plot to make everyone be like them, to take control of Europe by any means necessary, and then take over the rest of the world.

Seriously? All these people, many regular everyday people, all planning together to control the world?

No, I was told. Of course it’s not all of them. But they do what their elders and religious leaders tell them to. And those, who lead them, they have a plan, and are driving towards it.

Ahem. Right. I heard about that somewhere. A while ago. I think it was a little bit different when I heard about it, though. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, anyone?

After being persecuted and attacked by people believing such nonsensical hoaxes, I’m talking to Jews (some religious, some old enough to have personal experience) who have no problem believing the same things, based on the same proof (none whatsoever), because it is about some other group that they don’t like.

And no, I was told, of course it’s not the same. How isn’t it the same? Because The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are vicious lies, but these Muslim leaders really are out to control the world.

I admit that as a Jew living in Israel I’m not feeling very happy about growing percentage of Europe’s population being Muslim. Especially since the lack of love really does go both ways, and most of them are maybe being taught to hate me a lot more than I personally don’t like them. But this sort of tortured logic (or lack thereof), wild accusations, and outright hypocritical nonsense… appals me.

You don’t like people because of who they are, or what they believe? Fine, that’s your right. But be frank about it. And stop it there. For someone who has been, or whose parents have been, in the exact same situation, and thought it horrible, to now be on the complete other side? And to feel fine and justified about it? Not to notice the similarities? Not even after they’re pointed out to you, though it’s obvious enough that it shouldn’t be required? Enough to get me depressed about humanity.

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  1. Ignoring the fact that these Muslims are Europeans, and citizens of their respective countries. None of the people I talked to seemed to pay attention to this apparently minor fact.[back]
  2. In many places, though not all. Which I suppose is the same for the Muslims.[back]

Yes, that’s why you’re here

March 23rd, 2009

The head of the cleaning company in my office brought in a new worker with him today.

While she was cleaning the floor, and emptying the garbage bins, in our manufacturing room I heard her complaining to him “There is a lot of garbage here!”. With an obvious tone indicating that it’s bothering her, and prevents her from doing her work quickly and easily.

Maybe it didn’t occur to her that if we didn’t have any dirt and garbage then we wouldn’t need anyone to clean?

Pushing more impressive-sounding names

March 16th, 2009

Everyone wants to feel good about themselves, and marketers want people to feel good about their products. So it’s understandable that people will tend to present things in the most impressive and positive way possible. At some point, though, this can get too much, and too annoying.

When you want to get someone to cut your hair, you go to a barber, right? Well, wrong. Has anyone even seen a barber shop in the last few years? We have hair stylists and hairdressers, and go to them in the hair salon. Sounds much more impressive. Also longer, heavier, and (for most of them) somewhat ridiculous.

Some people have gardeners who come over occasionally to take care of their gardens, right? Wrong again. These guys are now landscape engineers, landscape artists, or landscape designers. Sounds very important, for someone who often just maws the lawn, pulls out weeds, and trims the roses, doesn’t it?

When a pipe leaks at your house, do you still call a plumber, or are you already surrounded by various sanitation engineers ?

There are plenty of occupations that get the same treatment, and the amount is growing. Someone feels that the label for their work is not prestigious enough, not impressive enough, doesn’t make them feel as important as they think they are, so instead of just getting over it they decide to do something and reinvent themselves. Except not really. Because reinventing yourself involves changing what you do, but here they just change how they call what they’re already doing.

In the case of occupations, this is somewhat aggravated by the fact that sometimes those fancy sounding names are actually used for something. As in something else, a different profession, implying a different skill-set or training. Doesn’t stop anyone, though.

And it’s not only occupations. It’s spreading to other fields, sometimes to an absurd level.

For example, ingredients. Take a look at the ingredient list on a shampoo bottle, or shower gel. These things contain a large percentage of water. Except that you won’t find water listed anywhere. It sounds mundane. Cheap. It comes out of the tap, after all, so why would anyone pay for a concoction that includes it? No, instead all these bottles proudly list aqua as the main ingredient. It sounds much more dignified. Even if it’s just the Latin term for… water.

OK, rant over. Maybe I’ll go see if there’s anything interesting on TV[1]. Oh, sorry, I meant on the Home Entertainment Centre.

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  1. Well, not really. I already know there isn’t, so why waste my time?[back]

Flat Earth – the second largest geographical method in the world

February 23rd, 2009

It’s very easy to be the second-largest anything in the world, when the first largest group is defined as everything that’s actually relevant, and you’re defined as everything else.

A very large forum/bulletin-boards website here in Israel, Tapuz (Hebrew only), recently opened a new forum about Classical Homoeopathy.

That by itself is fine. I mean, they do discuss pure nonsense in the forum, even dangerous nonsense given that they recommend to people not to take proper medical care for their problems, but a forum about homoeopathy can be expected to discuss homoeopathy.

What amused me was the launch publication they did in their other forums. They posted links to this new forum, with a text that can be roughly translated as:

Want to be exposed to the wonders of homoeopathy, the second largest healing method in the world?

And, well, technically it’s pretty correct. There’s the first largest healing method, being science-based medicine, that covers all sub-healing-methods that can be proven to work and heal people. And then there are the other healing methods, in this case grouped under the term Homoeopathy[1], the ones that give people a healing chance which is equivalent to the random chance of spontaneous recovery, or to the healing from a placebo effect.

Since all you have are the two options, it’s pretty obvious that the second is, by definition, the second largest of its kind in the world.

Being technically correct doesn’t make that statement semantically correct, though.

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  1. Yes, I’m aware that Homoeopathy is just one kind of woo pretending to be medicine, and not the whole basket of them. In this case, however, the forum seems to happily deal with the others as well, and they clearly refer to it as anything besides actual medicine[back]

Canada is not part of the united states

October 28th, 2008

Weird Tales are offering a free PDF copy of their July-August 2008 edition, as a promotion and a way for people to properly sample the magazine without having to gamble on the money to buy it.

The subscription price varies dramatically based on whether you are subscribing from within the US, or internationally. And by “dramatically” I mean the price doubles[1] for international shipping.

And if you look at the subscription option for US addresses, they want to really make sure you are from the US. They have this sections under “fine print” (all emphasis in the source):

This offer is only for addresses within the United States. Other countries, please use our discounted international subscription options:

Which, well, makes sense. But immediately bellow that, they also have:

CANADIANS PLEASE NOTE: YOU MUST USE THE INTERNATIONAL SUBSCRIPTION OPTION. CANADA IS NOT PART OF THE UNITED STATES. WE CANNOT SEND BULK MAIL TO CANADA, MUCH AS WE WOULD LIKE TO.

Which cracks me up. Are there really any Canadians out there who think that Canada is a part of the US? Real people, living in Canada, who actually believe that? And enough of them to make it an issue that justifies adding this to the page? That’s a weird tale right there.

And that’s not all. They also have a similar bit on the page for international subscription orders:

CANADIANS PLEASE NOTE: YOU MUST USE THIS INTERNATIONAL SUBSCRIPTION OPTION. CANADA IS NOT PART OF THE UNITED STATES. WE CANNOT SEND BULK MAIL TO CANADA, MUCH AS WE WOULD LIKE TO.

For anyone who wants to play spot-the-differences, in the US page the text says “You must use the international subscription option”, while in the international subscription page it says “You must use this international subscription option”. I guess it’s accurate enough, if also a bit amusing.

Apparently Canadians also either have much easier time reading in all-caps than the rest of us, or they generally enjoy being shouted at. Nothing else on those pages (except some very short headers, or “BUY” links) is in all-caps. HINT TO WEIRD TALES: DO NOT WRITE TEXT IN ALL CAPS. IT’S EXTREMELY HARD TO READ. AND IT’S RUDE. IF YOU WANT TO MAKE IT MORE OBVIOUS, USE A BIGGER OR STRONGER FONT. OK?

So, just to make it absolutely clear: Canada is not a part of the US. You might have been tipped by the fact that it has a different government, their own military force, a border, their own military force, independent legal system, their own military force, their own ambassadors and foreign relations, their own military force (it bears repeating, in case someone failed to notice), and so on and so forth. But if not, well, I’m glad I could join with Weird Tales and help to clarify matters.

On an unrelated issue (well, related to Weird Tales, not related to Canada), Weird Tales need to update the site link they print in the magazine. The free copy has in it at least 5 place where it asks you to go to www.WeirdTalesMagazine.com. That site just automatically redirects to their current actual address of WeirdTales.net. An address which was registered in Nov 2007, so it’s not quite a last-minute surprise, I should add. It’s not broken, but it looks unprofessional.

And it’s not just the old printed magazines (though, frankly July-August 2008 isn’t that old), the old address is still listed on the site used to order the subscriptions. That’s an online copy, easy to change.

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  1. $30 USD to $59.95 USD. That’s for 6 issues of Weird Tales, and apparently two special issues of H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror[back]

Fast police response

October 6th, 2008

The police, both here and in many (most? all?) other countries in the world, provide a short “emergency” phone number. The idea being that it will be easy to remember, work from all phones in all locations, and be fast to dial in case of a real emergency.

The police here in Israel also has such a number, 100.

Except, it would seem, sometimes they just don’t bother answering it.

Last Sunday (28 September 2008) I went with a friend to a restaurant in the Tel-Aviv north harbour area. On the way back to the car (around 22:45) we noticed a large group of kids around two bonfires which they started along the beach[1]. About 5 meters from there stands a large sign with warnings about prohibited activities, and starting fires is explicitly listed there.

Normally I wouldn’t exactly mind, but those kids were loud and annoying; and those fires were quite large, with one of them burning really close to nearby plants. Plus, I was in a, ahem, fitting mood. So I decided to do my civic duty, and call the police to report the fires and the kids.

I dialled 100 on my cellphone. And waited. One ring, two ring, three rings, four rings, nothing. At this point most automatic answering machines would assume nobody’s answering, and pick up. But this is an a police centre that should be manned non-stop around the clock, so I guess they don’t have answering machines[2]. I waited a bit more (1-2 rings) and still nothing. I was very surprised, and hang up.

My friend was also amazed that nobody picked up the phone. So he tried calling them himself, from his own cellphone. He waited for 13 rings. Nothing. Nobody answered.

Nobody tried to call us back to follow up later on, asking if there’s a problem and why we called the emergency police number. None of our cellphone numbers are blocked, so they could have seen these calls on their incoming call logs (if they bother keeping them).

Good things that it, while being something that should be reported to the police, wasn’t really an emergency.

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  1. well, technically along the bank of the Yarkon river, which connects to the sea at this area.[back]
  2. And, when operating properly, they really shouldn’t need them, I agree.[back]

Strange people by the side of the road

September 8th, 2008

Last night I saw two cases of cars stuck by the side of the road, and in both cases the drivers behaved very oddly. Well, the second behaved oddly, the first was just a stupid idiot.

Right at the top

Let’s start with the second case. It involved a single car standing on the road’s shoulder. When I came closer I saw something large on the car’s roof. When I came closer I saw that it was the driver, just standing on the car.

I may be mistaken. It was night, and I was going over at about 100km/h (~62mph).

But if I’m wrong then it just means that, instead of a person standing on the car’s roof, there was a dressed mannequin standing on the car’s roof. I hardly think it’s better. Or that someone who would place a mannequin on the roof of their car is somehow less odd than someone who would stand on the roof of their car themselves.

Playing chicken

The first case involved a group of three cars standing on the shoulder of the road. Two of them first, very close by, and one about 80-100 meters down the road. None of them seemed crashed, or banged, so there probably wasn’t an accident, and I’m not sure why they stopped.

Now, I’ll take a little aside, and get back to the story in a few paragraphs. A while ago[1] they passed a law here requiring people to carry light-reflecting vests in their cars, and to wear them whenever leaving the car[2].

Personally I thought the law was silly. After all, if you stop the car because of some problem (usually an accident, or a mechanical problem that you want to check) you’ll stay near the car. Meaning that we’re not talking about passing drivers missing a lone standing person, but are rather concerned about a passing driver missing an entire car at the side. That’s… difficult. A driver will only fail to notice a whole car if they’re sleeping, or drunk, and in none of these cases wearing a light-reflecting vest will help. Actually, there aren’t any cases[3] where a person in a light-reflecting vest, standing right next to a car, will be more visible than the car.

And a driver that sees a car on the side should, and would, expect people to be standing next to it, and so will pay attention, and keep a little distance.

There is, however, one case where wearing this vest isn’t just the law, but is also a good idea. The case where the person, on the side of a fast road, not only gets out of the car, but gets away from the car. Once a person is walking near the road by themselves, they’re hard to see.

Which takes us back to the story.

The guy driving the third car, 80-100 meters away, was walking slowly towards the two first cars.

And, despite the fact that the shoulder was wide enough to fit an entire car, he didn’t walk on the shoulder. He walked on the actual road, on the lane where cars were driving, near the edge of the shoulder.

And he did so without wearing the vest. At night.

I think quite a lot of people almost ran him over. And frankly, he would have deserved it. They, however, wouldn’t have, so it’s a good thing nothing happened (Probably. I did pass him while he was only half-way there, not all the way over)

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  1. One year? Two? It wasn’t exciting enough for me to remember the exact date[back]
  2. When it’s not properly parked, but rather stopped on the roadside. Of course if you park your car normally, and go out on a sidewalk, you don’t need the vest.[back]
  3. I mean real-world cases. If someone intentionally tries to camouflage their car then it can be done.[back]

Gasoline of the beast

September 7th, 2008

It’s pretty much a nonsense post, but I found it amusing, so why not bother the rest of humanity with it, right?

Last night I passed by the gas station to fill out my car’s tank.

The price of gasoline here has climbed to exactly 6.66 ILS per liter, which is what the display at the pump showed[1].

I passed my credit card in the pump, and entered my ID number. (A few years ago most pumps started to ask for ID numbers when you operate them yourself with a credit card. I have a hard time imagining a crime wave of people stealing credit cards only to rush to fill the gas tanks of their cars, but apparently that was imminent, as I can’t figure out another reason for this).

After the ID number the pump asked for my car’s license plate number. This is more recent, less than a year I think. Not all pumps on all gas stations do it, but the number is growing. In this case I think it’s not for crime prevention (it doesn’t stop you from entering whatever number you want), but rather to save work for people who need receipts for tax deductions. Previously you had to go to a worker at the station, and ask for a manual receipt, even if you filled the tank on your own. Something which wastes time and is quite bothersome.

I don’t tax-deduct my gas, so I don’t need my car’s license plate number on the receipt. And I don’t see any reason to give any more personal information than I really have to. So as a rule I just press the number “6″ once, and go with it[2].

And something happened to the keypad. This is a pump in a station, near my house, which I use a lot. And the keypad is usually clunky and unresponsive. But this night, I just gently touched the key, and it fired multiple time. First time this happened, in years. The result license plate number? “666″.

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  1. That’s 7 USD per gallon, with today’s exchange rate, just in case anyone is curious[back]
  2. I did mention that there’s no verification, right? “6″ is not a valid license plate number here, AFAIK[back]

This is why you should let someone experienced do surveys. Or, well, not.

July 1st, 2008

Surveys are complex. There is a lot that you can do wrong. Actually, looking at many surveys around, there is a lot that is done wrong. Time after time.

Sometime it’s the big stuff. Sometimes small.

Sometimes the surveys are not done to get answers, but to show what you want the answers to be, by skewing the questions. That’s bad for academic research, but very popular in politics.

And sometimes you really do want answers. Which is hard to do right. Ask the wrong question, ask them in the wrong way, or give the wrong options for answers, and the results may not say what you think they do, or may be impossible to analyse properly. That’s why there are those who deal professionally with surveys, know the theory (and, hopefully, statistics), have done it many times before, and should be able to avoid most of the mistakes.

They usually don’t do the really big mistakes.

A very long birth yearThey do, however, often do small, or really incomprehensible, mistakes. I guess finding a professional can be a problem as well.

Take, for example, a survey currently being run by iPerceptions , for InforWorld and ComputerWorld.

Both these clients are one client, belonging to the same company. And they do very similar things. So the surveys are practically identical (I did the ComputerWorld one originally, and just now noticed they also run it for InfoWorld. I progressed a little bit, and they’re the same questions in the same order with the same possible answers. Just the name of the company in the survey changed).

This survey has some strange points.

One main problem was that they apparently forgot that some questions may not apply. There was one (maybe 2-3) question where they did have an option to indicate the question is not relevant, or that I don’t know or can’t judge. For all the rest, and there were many of them, I was asked to rank the sites on many criteria, some of which really didn’t interest me and I didn’t know. But the options were just to rank.

Assuming that I’m not the only person who goes through a site that has many different sections, and doesn’t know (or use) all sections, this means that the answers they receive are worthless. What do you pick when you don’t know, or can’t rank? Do you say that it was excellent, since you don’t know it’s bad, causing a potential problematic part to appear good? Do you rank it as very lousy, since it didn’t do anything for you, thereby causing a potentially excellent service to appear bad? Do you rank it in the middle, trying not to judge either way, but still making anything really good, or really bad, seem more average and undeserving of attention?

This is why these things usually contain an answer to state that this question isn’t relevant for you, and you don’t have a real answer for it. But here, no. Good luck to them in the later analysis.

A second point is much less severe, but far more amusing and baffling.

In the personal details, at some point they asked for year of birth. And provided a field to type the year number in. With a maximum of 500 characters. Yes, you read that right, 500 characters to answer the question “In what year where you born?”. They also made the text box large enough to type a small essay in.

What sort of an answer where they expecting? Hmm… Maybe…

That’s a tough question, there. I don’t know what year I was born in. It was a cold, harsh, dark year for my family. My parents were moving a lot. I don’t have no birth certificate, ’cause they were always running from them cops. Who need a stinking certificate? My mom knew I was born. And I had a tough childhood, so people tell me I look 40, but I bet I’m younger. I don’t remember much from those years, really can’t say. Is this important? If it is, I can try remembering, just let me know. Yes?

That’s not a true story (for me, anyway), but it does have exactly 500 characters. For comparison, writing something like 2008, or 1912, takes 4 characters (as does “NOYB“). They could have even been generous, cover all their bases, and give 5-6 characters (You know, for time travellers, or for really really old people). Maybe 3 digits more, for a space followed by “AD”, in case they’re actually worried? A little longer still, so they can get “year of the dragon”? Why the heck 500 characters?

You want to know what’s even more strange? This is in the third part of the survey. In the first part they already asked most personal questions (gender, business, people working in same company, etc), including one about age. But there they just gave several age groups (e.g. 24-35 or something like that), so I suppose they really needed the birth year too.

Then again, if they ask for birth year, why bother asking for age? Odd, that.

Well, I was in a nice mood (this was more amusing than annoying), so I decided I’ll let them know. At the last page of the survey they had a link to provide feedback. I was actually impressed with that, since sometimes I have comments, and nobody official to tell them to. This was nice. Or so I thought.

It was a mailto style link, that contained an email address, and a prepared subject line with the code/number of this survey (Good idea, so they won’t have to wonder what survey it was, and I won’t have to try and describe it too much to ensure they identify it).

There was just one main problem with it. The email address they provided? It wasn’t correct.

I sent a message. I got back a bounce.

<info1@iperceptions.com>:
208.65.144.12 does not like recipient.
Remote host said: 553 mailbox info1@iperceptions.com is restricted (Mode: normal)
Giving up on 208.65.144.12.

Impressive. This is a company that specializes in running surveys. In getting feedback from people for their clients. Except they can’t seem to arrange to get feedback for themselves.

It seems like a typo. The “1″ in the email address does not belong. I checked later on their site, and this address is listed there, without the “1″, in their contact page. But, well, by that time I was out of the helpful mood, and into the annoyed and unimpressed one. Which I think is perfectly understandable.

If you can’t handle bidirectional text, don’t show bidirectional text

July 1st, 2008

Some ad companies think they can get better results by targeting the ads to the viewers. Some strategies are matching the ad with the viewed page, while others try to target the audience in different ways, based on location or language. Which makes sense.

One problem is finding the country of origin of the viewer. Most companies seem to have solved that by pretty accurate geotargeting. Though some, of course, are still stumbling in the dark. For example, as a Jew living in Israel, I still occasionally get ads for Muslim dating sites. Or for various deals which are only relevant to US residents. But these are becoming more rare.

When they do detect a location, the basic step is only to show ads relevant to people from that location. That’s the basic step, which most have been doing (or trying to do) for a while.

Ad with the Hebrew text going backwardThese ads often don’t only change content, but language as well. If the advertised product is sold internationally, people from different countries may pay more attention to ads in their own language[1].

One way to do it is to have a set of pre-made ads, and show them according to the location.

Another way, for those wanting to be more… efficient? is to have a single ad, with several localized text strings that can change inside this ad according to the source.

In theory, it’s nice. There is a need to keep only one copy of a picture, or interactive program, and yet still someone from the US will see English, and someone from, say, France, will see French. The main needed investment is to get the text lines translated into the relevant languages.

And then you have those that go the extra mile (backwards, usually, though) and pick languages that are harder to handle. They do the whole design with languages that go left to right, like English, and then put in right-to-left text, like Hebrew or Arabic.

In many of those cases that I saw, they then forget that the text has to be added to the pictures a little differently. And they don’t bother to show the finished result (calculated ad with the language) to someone who knows the language. They probably just verify the initial text strings, thinking that nothing can go wrong since the same exact text will go into the image.

The end result? Extremely unprofessional advertising, when all the words in the text, or even the whole sentence, go backward, letter by letter. ( !stoidi diputS )

Like this image taken from an ad I saw on several websites. It was on a page together with at least one more different ad, by the same advertiser, that contained the exact same problem.

Did I mention that it looks extremely unprofessional, silly, and pathetic? Because, well, it does. And it definitely gets you thinking that if they managed to screw the ads so bad, on something so basic, what else didn’t they bother to pay attention to, and was it important?

So, the advertising company (the one putting the ads, I don’t know who designed them) is fastclick.net , which redirects to ValueClick Media. Nice name, not so much value to the advertiser.

I thought I’d be nice, and let them know. So I went to their site, got the Contact page, and looked for an email address, or a form. No email address, but there is a contact form. A contact form where the required fields include things like phone number, company, location, how I heard about them, and so on.

This may be alright (OK, not really) for people who are potential customers. But for someone who just wants to do them a favour by dropping a quick helpful note? Completely unacceptable. I shouldn’t have to work, and provide lots of details, just to try and help them.

Required fields should be the message content, and a quick subject. Maybe not even the quick subject. Asking for email address is also fine, if the message may need a follow-up, but that should be left to the discretion of the person sending the message.

And this company is supposed to make money by selling things to people?! By marketing?! That’s supposed to be their strong side? Funny.

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  1. Personally it annoys me, and I always feel more comfortable when it’s English, rather than Hebrew or other language, if I read on a computer, but I’m really not representative here[back]

Updates, and getting back

July 1st, 2008

After neglecting this blog for too long, I now updated the software (WordPress) to a new version, updated the several plugins it uses, and am also planning to get back to actually using it.

In the meantime, if anything seems broken, or just strange, in the way the blog behaves, please let me know. It can be because of the large amounts of updates.

Real content to follow soon, in more posts…

There is an expiration date on medical privacy

January 23rd, 2008

There are a lot of debates about privacy, and about the balance between privacy and research (or possibly privacy and anything else of utility that can be derived from the private information).

Of all the areas of privacy, one of those where people object the most to violations of their privacy is in health and medical information. You’d be very hard-pressed to find anyone willing to disclose diseases, health problems, and medical examination reports.

And when disclosure of private information occur, people get the most annoyed, or concerned, when it comes to children. It may involve a lot of over-sensitivity, but it’s still the case.

Well, now there’s a new service, for any interested researcher, or any interested Internet user with some free time and a little curiosity. A website that allows to browse a comprehensive set of complete and full, uncensored, medical records from a large hospital for children.

You can search and browse by the real full names of the children[1]. You can get the full diagnoses, what diseases the doctors found when examining these children. For some of the children you can get the full case notes of the doctors who checked the sick children. You can see what were the treatments and medication given to each of these children, and whether they helped.

And you can even get the full, and real, physical home address of the patients. The people who digitized the information on the site actually invested quite a lot to make sure that the addresses are correct and, for example, none of the street names would be misspelled.

Sounds lovely, does it?

So why isn’t there a huge outcry over it? A major violation of privacy and data protection laws. Not to mention children. And it didn’t even hit the news. Why?

Because the details are from 1852 to 1914. Meaning that youngest patients would potentially be 94 years old now. Certainly in no condition to care, or complain, if they’re even alive. Just some interesting past cases for research.

I’m sure their children won’t mind at all that mom’s chronic illnesses are online for everyone to see. Mom is dead, so there’s no point in keeping her secrets, right?

Welcome to Small and Special, the site showing you all the gritty details from the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, in Britain.

A unique database lies at the heart of the Small and Special website. It is based on the information contained in the In-Patient Admission Registers from Great Ormond Street Hospital for the period 1852 to 1914, which have survived intact. The Registers have been carefully transcribed and indexed to allow flexible and accurate searching of this important resource. Users can search for children by name (first and last names), age, sex, and address. Other searchable fields include date of admission and discharge, admitting doctor, outcome of treatment and subsequent referrals (if any).

The database is supplemented by a collection of scanned images from 14 volumes of patient case notes of the founding physician, Dr Charles West. The case notes, which cover a period between 1852 and 1874, contain a wealth of information on the treatment and management of sick children in the mid-Victorian period.

Some of the information is accessible freely. For the rest you need to register. But the registration is easy, free, and they don’t require that you’d prove (or even claim to be) you are a researcher, doctor, or anything.

And what does it say about the future? About my own medical records, or yours? We trust[2] in doctor-patient confidentiality. In privacy laws. In that even if the doctor has to share the details with insurance companies, none of them could, or would, ever just list everything on the Internet for the curious masses.

Anyone having these expectations of privacy about your medical and health records? Just wait about a hundred years or so, and we’ll see. We most definitely will see. Everything. Free for searching and browsing.

After all, our friends in Kingston University are still working:

This outstanding resource will be further enhanced by the inclusion, at a later date, of the surviving Registers for Cromwell House (the Hospital’s convalescent home at Highgate), from 1869 to 1910.

Amusingly enough, when you register to the site they have a privacy policy, and they clearly state they won’t share your personal details with anyone. Which is admirable, and I wish more online services would be so clear about their privacy policy. It’s just that, well, they’d keep my name and email secret, but don’t feel any problem with showing me the names, addresses, medical history, and diagnoses, of many many past-children who never thought to agree to release it.

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  1. Some of the names have been anonymised. This is a minority of them. I’m not sure what were the criteria to choose. And even for the anonymous ones, you still have a full home address, just not the name[back]
  2. Want to trust, anyway?[back]

Some basic math for waiters

October 8th, 2007

When a group of several people eat together at a restaurant (or bar, coffee shop, etc…) there are common ways to split the bill:

  • One person pays everything.
  • Split evenly.
  • Each pays for their own portion.

The exact values are of course a bit fluid on the last two options, since the numbers may be rounded. Currency is discrete rather than continuous, after all. Not only that, but it’s often simpler to divide up to the main coin and not the sub-coins[1].

The payment can be done by cash. In that case the people would usually just collect enough, pay with it, and divide the change between themselves when the change comes back. The work on properly dividing the charge is on the customers in these cases.

Sometimes, though, people pay with credit cards. Which means that many times the waiters will just receive a bunch[2] of cards, with simple instructions on how to divide the charge between them.

The common one is of course “Split it evenly”. And these are the cases where money is often rounded to higher coins, since apparently most waiters have a problem with fractions. I can recall maybe 1-2 cases, ever, where the individual charges weren’t rounded with one person paying the extra.

When things are not split evenly, well, that’s when the fun begins. And by “fun” I mean an all too common tragic comedy of errors.

The simple case is when the customers still calculate the amounts in advance. In this case the waiter receives exact instructions in the style of “Put 100 on this card, and 150 on that card”. Simple. Easy.

And they still sometimes manage to get it wrong:

  1. The bill comes back split evenly.
  2. The amounts are charged correctly, but on the wrong cards. In this example, the first card is charged 150, and the second 100.
  3. All of the cards are charged the same amount, which is one of the sub-amounts. So, for example, for this 250 bill either both cards will be charged 100, or both will be charged 150.
  4. Some of the cards may be charged correctly, and some will be charged an unrelated amount. This is because the complexity of the task got the waiter confused and he/she charged an amount due for another customer entirely.

I had all of these happen to me, as a customer in restaurants.

One time I had two of them happen in a series. The waitress made a mistake (#3 above), I alerted her, and she came back with a “correction” that included another type of mistake (#4 above). When there’s a charge, and a cancellation, as a customer you’re requested to sign on both. If you simply don’t sign on the charge, it creates all sorts of complications. So I ended up having to sign five times for my bill that day. What did I tell you? Fun!

It also happens, though, that the job of dividing the charge is placed on the waiter. Sometimes the customers know the difference between what they’re supposed to be billed for, but not the final amount.

In which cases someone has to do the calculation. It’s a simple enough calculation, you know the total, and you know the differences.

And the natural tendency would be to let the waiter do it. People just had a meal, are finishing up, and they need to pay the bill. Why would they want to do the work, as easy as it is, when there’s a waiter that will have to process the charges anyway and is being paid for it?

Makes sense.

Except it doesn’t. Because many waiters seem a bit deficient in the math department.

The latest time this happened to me was a couple of weeks ago. I was finishing a meal with a friend. We basically shared the dishes, so almost everything was supposed to be split evenly. The only difference was that I had an extra glass of some medium-pricey alcohol.

The waitress arrived, and saw the two credit cards on the tray with the bill. The dialog between me and the waitress went something like that:

Waitress: Should I split this up?
Me: Yes, but it’s 70 more on this card.
Waitress: Right. 70 on this card, and the rest on the other card.
Me: No. Split it between the cards, so that this card is charged by 70 more than the other card.
Waitress: Eh…
Waitress: Hmm….
Waiterss: I’m…. err… not….
Me: It’s simple. Just split evenly, add 35 to this card, and reduce the other 35 from the other card.
Waitress: Ah. Yes. OK, sure.

And this is the math lesson for today. If you want to divide a sum X between N people so that everyone pays the same except for one who pays an extra Y, this is what you do:

  1. Divide X by N. Let’s call that A for average. You already know how to do that. This A would be what you’d charge each card if you had to split evenly.
  2. Divide Y by N. Let’s call that B. This value is like the average of the differences. Mathematically it’s the exact same process as the previous step, so if you knew how to do it, you know how to do that.
  3. Everyone, except the person who has to pay more, pays A-B. You know how to do subtraction already. It’s the same thing you’d do if someone paid part by cash and part by credit card, and you’d have had to reduce the cash amount from the total to get the credit card charge.
  4. The person who has to pay more pays A + [(N-1)*B]. Basically all the B’s you reduced from the bills of the other people, you add to this one’s bill. You already know how to do addition too. It’s just like what you’d do if someone asked you to charge the tip on the card as well, telling you how much is the charge and how much is the tip. You already know how to do multiplication as well, it’s what you’d do if you got everyone else’s cards and they all told you they have to pay B.

That’s it. Easy. Simple steps. And these are all things that waiters are supposed to know how to do already.

Except sometimes they don’t.

In this case, for example, I was indeed charged 35 more. The other card? Charged exactly the amount of an even split.

Wait, wait, I know what you’re thinking. In this case it would mean that the total would come to 35 more than the real total, right? So the waitress, or at least the cash register computer, should notice something is off, right?

Right.

But they had a simple solution for that. You see, the final bill came back printed with three items:

  • Credit card charge : A
  • Credit card charge : A+35
  • Refund : -35

So the total was absolutely correct, making the waitress feel perfectly happy about it. No problem if it all adds up, after all.

Except that, of course, we didn’t get that refund. The bill did not come back with 35 cash, nor did one of the credit cards get a refund (which would have kind of defeated the whole purpose, but at least would have meant the amount of money passed from us to the restaurant would have been correct).

Our poor waitress didn’t quite see the problem. It all adds up after all, and the total is right. Luckily another waitress/supervisor did see the light immediately after a very brief explanation.

Waiters should learn a little basic math. Me, I should learn not to trust waiters to do even the most basic math. I think I learned my lesson. Now it’s their turn.

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  1. OK, Poor terminology here. I mean that, for example, to split 25$ between to people you’d sometimes, often, see one charged 13$ and one 12$, rather than 12.5$ each.[back]
  2. 2 is also valid for “bunch”[back]

Now even random spammers believe I think too highly of myself

September 19th, 2007

From a spam email I received today, after the link to their site:

Greeting yaron
get rid of that self-esteem once and for all.

I think I’ll keep my self-esteem, but nice of them to offer.

Release notes should really include the release notes

September 18th, 2007

A new version of the Firefox browser was released today. A minor update from version 2.0.0.6 to version 2.0.0.7.

Even more minor than that, actually, since what came out was just an RC version for testing. Sometime in the past I downloaded an update that was considered a beta or RC, so I’m on the list to keep getting them on the automatic updates.

The problem is that there was no information provided on what exactly the update includes, and what is the purpose behind it. The release notes page did not contain any relevant info (I’m not promising they won’t change the page in the future. It doesn’t contain the info now, and haven’t for quite a few hours so far).

It had lots of other things, the general outline they put on each release-notes page. But the actual release notes, what was changed from the last version, no. Nothing.

There wasn’t even any link to a page where this information could be found. Because, well, in theory it would have been that exact same page.

That’s a very very poor way to roll out an update. If you ask someone to install a new version of a software, and especially if it’s a beta/RC that you want people to test and provide feedback for, you have to tell them why and what has changed.

Seems very sensible to me. Apparently doesn’t seem so sensible to some of the people in the Mozilla foundation. Don’t get me wrong, they’re doing a great job, and Firefox is terrific. But most people don’t follow all the bugs and progress on every single application they use, so it’s far from obvious what an update is for.

I do hope they’ll do better next time. I’m more than willing to install updates, but I need to know why.

In this particular case, if someone is interested, it’s a single fix for a single security vulnerability. Well, a potential whole class of problems, but only a single known point. Which was now actually more of a problem with the Quicktime plug-in (on Windows) and not in Firefox itself, but in this case it’s a good idea to fix it in Firefox as well, to prevent any future problems from the same direction. You can look at the actual bug report for more technical information, if you really want to.