Archive for November, 2004

Civil Driving

November 30th, 2004

[Update: While the bit at the end wasn't more than fun on one of my friends' expense, I've been asked to at least try and pretend to do it right. Overall I think it allows me to make even more fun on the friend's expense, so why not?]

If being rude, pushy and uncivil is the norm, does being civil constitute a social offense? Does the civil person really act wrongly by deviating from accepted behaviour?

I was driving along a highway, on my way to work this morning, when a large bus on the nearby slower lane signaled (well, the driver of the bus signaled, not the bus.) that it wanted to switch into my lane. Probably it wanted to overtake a slower car driving before it.

Since I was faster, I could have sped up, pass the lot of them, and let the bus do whatever it wanted once I was long gone. I could have also kept going at my current speed, since this was my lane, forcing the bus to wait at its lane until I’m done.

Instead I did the polite thing and hit the breaks (well, gently started to press the break pedal and slowly increased the pressure on it. Hit the breaks sounds more fun, though). Just enough to match speeds with the bus while staying behind it.

What the bus should have done at this point it switch lanes, and speed up. Instead it waited, and waited, and waited. All the time keeping the blinking signal lights on. This took long enough for the car that was far behind me to come closer and start flashing its headlights at me, urging me to move on.

Only then did the bus switch lanes.
Why did it take it so long? It wasn’t because it didn’t intend to switch originally and started signaling by mistake. It was because it expected me to ignore the fact it was signaling, and keep driving on at the same pace. It didn’t signal in order to signal, but because there’s a law someplace claiming you must.

See, the common driver here would have indeed ignored the signals. So the bus wants to switch lanes? So What? It can wait. And so, while it did signal, the driver waited until I passed it. And initially didn’t understand what’s taking me so long. It only switched lanes once the incredulous shock (I might be exaggerating here a bit, but maybe I’m not) wore out.

Result of me being civil, and respecting the signals of the bus: The bus was delayed, I was delayed and the car behind me was delayed.

Had I just kept driving on, which was rude but expected, only the bus would have been delayed. And probably by less than it eventually did.

What would have happened if everyone was polite?
Me being civil: Only I would have been delayed, and less than I actually was. The bus would have switched over instantly, since it knew once it signaled I would slow. And I could have gone forward immediately once it did.
Me being uncivil and driving on: Car crash between me and the bus. I’d drive on, and it would swerve into me. Likely it would have greatly delayed me, the bus, the car behind me, and lots of other cars. On the bright side it would have brought some economic benefits to our garages.

The best thing for me to do then is to drive as rudely as the rest of them. Would help me and not hurt anyone else.
Good to know.

Anyway, here would be a good place to stop reading this post.

OK, I’ve warned you.
Just for kicks, let’s model it using basic game theory.
Payoffs are 200 for no delays, 100 for small delays, 0 for large delays, -1000 for losing the car. The numbers are of course meaningless, only the relations matter.
Payoff pairs are (me, bus). The bus strategy is based on whether the society of driving is civil or not, since that determines the expectations of the bus driver regarding my behaviour when he signals. This in effect means that what’s modeled here is a game between a single driver (represented by yours truly) and a generic driver in the local culture (represented by our hapless bus driver).

 

Payoff Matrix
  society is civil society is uncivil
I’m civil (100,200) (0,0)
I’m uncivil (-1000,-1000) (200,100)

From my side:

  1. If the society is civil, it’s better for me to be civil. I’m slowed down a bit, but retain a working car.
  2. If the society is uncivil, it’s better for me to be uncivil. Otherwise (as actually happened) I suffer a delay.

From the bus driver’s side:

  1. If I’m civil, it’s better for the bus to be in a civil society. Otherwise (as happened) he suffers a long delay.
  2. If I’m uncivil, it’s better for the bus to be in an uncivil society. Otherwise the culture-shock (sorry, couldn’t help it) would have wrecked it.

A nice coordination game. Two Nash equilibria where me and the society act in tandem.
The fun begins when you consider that:

  1. Society is in fact composed of various individuals like me, so likely the society strategy will evolve due to the strategies that individual chooses.
  2. When society does already have strong preferences, it’s better to stick
    with them. So I must sadly assume drivers will not try to be civil in
    the forseeable future.
  3. Worst case scenario for me as an individual is when I’m uncivil. Worse case scenario for a general society member is when society is civil (I always knew I don’t represent the society here in general, but it’s nice to have a mathematical confirmation). This means that on a generally undecided society (where culture has not already developed strong preferences, and so everyone plays mixed strategies based on probabilities) repeated games, and sticking in some evolutionary model, will not converge into a single strategy. So people will crash into each other all over the place.

Of course, this is all so much hogwash, since drivers here are rude, pushy and uncivil for reasons which have nothing to do with their chances of getting into a car accident. It’s just a wonderful country in a wonderful world. Fresh smog and all that.

I did warn you to stop reading earlier. You can’t complain.

Getting More Money, Again (Not Me, Sadly Enough)

November 29th, 2004

[Update: Got a great reply from Mike Kainrath himself. Copied it, and added my own comments, on a new post]

Some people have a truly complicated life.
Like poor Mike Kainrath from Virginia, who got $1,789,830.61 deposited into his bank account by mistake. And he’s a chronic: that’s the third time such things happened to him.

What seems strange is that it took until he noticed it, and reported it (Well, he’s an honest person. Maybe not a particularly bright one, but honest), before it was taken care of. It means that whoever was supposed to receive this money did not notice for at least several days that the money was missing.

One thing I can promise is that if I was due to receive about $1.8 million, I’d check. Repeatedly. And if it was late, I would scream, and I would yell, and I would  generally raise hell (Hey, a spontaneous rhyme. Cool.).

The intended recipient didn’t. Nice to know there are people (corporations?) out there that can be indifferent to such small pittance. The economy must be perking up.

What’s worse, while they did get the money eventually, they lost the interest. Mike here thinks to set his account to interest-bearing to be prepared for next time. But someone that should have gotten the money and done something profitable with it, did not. I wonder if they’ll sue the bank? They could check what gave the best return-for-money during the period, and claim that this is what they wanted the money for. Easy for them to prove damages, hard for the bank to prove what would have really happened.

Why don’t I get these sort of mistakes? It’s not fair. He got three, and I got none…

University Debt

November 28th, 2004

[Update: Just added title to the monetary units, some people complained]

I’m at the finishing stages of a bachelor degree in economics, at TAU.
By finishing stages I mean that I’ve taken all the courses I need, and passed all the exams. Everything left is paperwork.

And the only thing needed before I can start the process is for me to get the grade for a seminary paper I submitted the previous semester.
Basically grades should be given within 2-3 weeks. It’s been somewhat over a month since I submitted the paper. This seminary group was, for some really inexplicable reason, quite popular, so I figured it may take the lecturer a while to check all papers.

Today I decided it’s getting too long, and started to get worried that maybe the reason I don’t see my grade in the university computer is because of a data-entry error, and not because the grades aren’t in yet.
I called the secretary at the university, and asked about my grade. She checked the system and informed me that indeed a grade has been entered into my record, and there is no problem.
I repeated that I don’t see the grade, and that the listed total academic hours to my credit do not include those of the seminar.

She checked, and informed me as to the reason. I still have an unpaid monetary debt to the university. Quite surprising since I pay for each semester in advance and on time. I inquired as to the amount of the debt, planning to start yelling at someone for forgetting to list several thousand ILS payments…

My standing debt to the university, due to which my grade is not properly fed into the computer system, and which is holding me from receiving my degree, is: 18.24 ILS. That’s about $4.18 USD.

When they want you to pay for a whole semester, they send you plenty of repeated notifications. For this they didn’t bother.
And the computer system doesn’t show it at a first glance, since my debt for this year is settled. I already paid 0 ILS out of the 0 ILS I need to pay, so the balance is good.

Operatic Cock-up

November 27th, 2004

[Update: Just added title to the monetary units, some people complained]

The original plan for this evening included going to see the Cinderella opera.

It’s a project of our local community center, though luckily singers are from the Israeli Opera and are supposed to be good and professional.
The production being local mostly means that there are a lot of local kids running around in the background, or something of the sort. Or at least I hope that what it means, because otherwise it may be too painful to listen too, or even see (Yea, yea, I’m a snob. But have you listened to non-opera singers trying to sing opera? Or to not particularly good opera-singers trying to sing opera? Once you gain even a little taste in this, it’s just horrid).

Our community center has been running (well, trying to run with varying levels of success, more at the end of this post) for several years now shows and performances. Last week we were at a jazz concert, and Smadar (Who is the community center executive in charge of the cultural aspects) reminded  everyone that the first run of Cinderella will be the following week (today).

We talked to her, and after being assured that the singers are pros, we asked for tickets. She didn’t have any on her, but as she is in charge of everything, and we do have some level of personal acquaintance, she said that she’ll reserve tickets for us to take (and pay for) on the concert evening.

Even better, she said that while the normal ticket price was 75 ILS, she’ll give us a discount to 45 ILS since we’re subscribed to some of the community center series (the Jazz one). We asked if we should call her the following day to make sure everything is alright, but were assured that there’s no need. This is not the first time we arranged tickets by talking with Smadar, so that was that.

Entering into the hall’s parking lot we got a small surprise, it was nearly full. This does not usually happen it. On the other hand, there are probably lots of proud parents of the little kid, so it was not completely unexpected.

We entered into the lobby. The place was jam-packed with people. I made my way to the ticket’s desk (a lady sitting in front of a small wooden table. This is a community center with a hall, not a concert hall by itself), and told the lady our name and that we have tickets reserved. She searched, and didn’t find anything.

We went to find Smadar. He initial response, in a semi-panicky and despairing voice "There are no tickets. We don’t have any tickets. Wait and I’ll see what we can do".

We waited a minute, to see what the heck is going on. Turns out that they had a huge amount of people coming. People who got mailed invitation. Invitations that did not have on them words such as "The Invitation is void unless confirmed by phone" or "Please confirm your invitation to reserve a ticket". Plenty of people assumed that the invitation means they can get a seat.
This apparently was the original idea, but they expected most invitations to be ignored…

So they were swamped by dozens of people wanting their free tickets.
Ah, yes, the invitations did not require to pay for a seat. This means that us, as long time customers and subscribers got a discount, while plenty of other people got a free invitation.
Under the circumstances we didn’t confront Smadar with this, but we’ll ask her.

Regardless of that, we did reserve tickets in advance, directly with Smadar. So we came to her again and told her that. To which she replied that:

  1. Tickets for this performance were not under her direct control, so she thought they had tickets while in fact they were already out of them last week. So while she tried to get us tickets, it was simply impossible.
  2. She completely forgot we asked her for tickets.

Yes, I did notice that the two claims are not consistent with each other.

She told us, and the other people there, that they’re trying to see if they have any unclaimed seats, and will try to put people there. It seemed to us that the hall was already quite full, and there were a lot of people outside, so we decided to give up and go home. For some strange reason it also seemed that Smadar’s priorities tended more towards finding place for the free invitees than to paying customers like us…

A bit on past community center cultural event in my city

Several examples springs to mind as illustrative.

One thing which doesn’t work is classical music. Last week Smadar tried to arrange a classical-music series. They managed to arrange very good orchestras. The concerts were located in the large hall (same one the opera today was at) with about (crude estimate by me) 300 seats.
How were the concerts? They stopped the series after only two concerts. In both concerts there were 10+ players on stage. In the first concert there were 4 people in the audience. In the second concert there were 8.
Enough said.

One thing which moderately works is the jazz series. Each year they
arrange about 5-6 jazz performances, each with a different jazz band
they bring over. There aren’t a lot of takers, but nearly enough. They
try to make it with a jazz-bar like feeling, so people are given seats
near round tables, and there’s a free drinks bar (water, soft drinks,
and beer of varying qualities They started by offering selection of
three types of beer, than stopped and picked by themselves). It’s nice,
and the bands range from decent to good. It feels that there aren’t a
lot of takers, but due to the arrangement it doesn’t feel deserted.

One thing which works exceptionally well? How about a theater show? Based on The Miser by Molière? What can I have against that, eh? A good cultural sign, right? They run several shows that sold out, and brought it over for another few rounds.
Oh, did I forget to mention? This is the version translated and adapted to the Arab-Moroccan language, and taking place in Casablanca.

This should be enough to give you an idea.

More on New Office Neighbours

November 26th, 2004

One of our new neighbours, from the firm settling in the floor above our office, have dropped by yesterday for an introductory chat.
I didn’t get a lot, since he was talking with my boss and not with me. But I did manage to get the main highlight.

The guy said they’re some sort of an investigation/detective agency, and work mainly with law firms.

Some coincidence.
Depending on who exactly their clients are, and what kind of work they do, this puts them either exactly on the same end of the spectrum with our previous casino operating criminal group friendly warehouse holders, or exactly on the opposite end.

We, again, get someone that may attract nice people who will want to burn their offices. But this time it doesn’t come with attached 24/7 guards.

My company is located in what amounts to an industrial area of the city, for crying out loud. We’re surrounded by various manufacturers, service centers, and various industry suppliers. So how come when someone new wants to enter our building, they have to do other stuff?

Well, at least I can’t say it’s boring.

Payments

November 25th, 2004

[Update: Just added title to the monetary units, some people complained]

My parents do most of their regular shoppings in two supermarket chains.

During their purchases today they noticed a new pricing policy for one of the chain’s Customer’s Club. Annual subscription is 97 ILS in one payment, or 80 ILS in four monthly payments.

Which left them, and me, baffled. Usually spreading purchase cost across multiple delayed payments costs more money than making a single cash payment, or at best costs the same. It makes sense, since the store:

  1. Loses interest money, since they get the exact same nominal amount of money, but at a later date (Unless the economy is in deflation, in which case it’s good for them, but that’s not the usual condition).
  2. Have less free money at the present time.
  3. Incur a risk, since something may happen to prevent future payments from coming.
  4. Provides more payments as a convenience to the customer, allowing the customer to delay the expense until they have more income. A sort of reverse of the 1 and 2 items for the customers. And since everyone is in the business of making money, providing utility for the customer is something that can be charged for.

Charging less, and about 20% less (which is a lot), is odd. It’s not done. It’s the exact opposite of the popular action of giving cash discount.

My parents didn’t jump on the offer, though. Last week this chain had a one-day offer for renewals of existing Customer’s Club memberships, for 60 ILS… In one single cash payment.

Go figure.

Biceps

November 25th, 2004

This is just too amusing.

The Guardian has published a correction to an article:

Jonny Wilkinson (Gregan’s Wallabies plot new England fall, page 27, November 23) is recovering from a biceps injury, not a bicep injury. The singular of biceps is biceps. The plural of biceps is biceps.

This doesn’t sound like an explanation, or an attempt to be educational. This rather sounds more like head-bashing.
The scene I imagine is of an editor catching the poor writer of the original article and repeating this to him in an angry what-kind-of-an-idiot-are-you patronizing tone of voice…
All that’s missing in the correction is the end of the quote going like "Now repeat this 100 times until you get it", which caused the writer such a trauma that they automatically also added the mantra to the apology.

And what may be slightly more amusing – while it’s true that The singular of biceps is biceps and not bicep, the plural can be biceps, but can also be bicepses.

Oh, well. As long as mine works.

Looking For Words

November 25th, 2004

A friend called me on the IM the other day, and asked for help spelling a word in English.
The friend, whose English is usually quite good, knew that the word sounded like "satel", and gave me an example case where this word would be used.
The exact example isn’t important here, just that the friend knew what the word meant.

The word wasn’t complex, it was "subtle". Didn’t took more than a second to come up with. The friend said thanks, and that while looking for various possible spellings, sticking a "B" in the middle of it did not came to mind.

And that was that.

But it got me thinking about this in a more general case.
Personally I rarely have the problem of knowing how a word sounds but not how it’s written, since most of my English comes from books, not from speaking or from TV. So if I know a word, it’s quite likely I saw it written, and could come up with something close enough for a dictionary/spell-checker to find. But if it’s a complex word, the problem may still happen. And of course a general solution could also benefit people whose vocabulary comes mostly from watching TV, speaking, or listening to radio/music.

So I decided to see if there’s a tool that can be used to locate a word, when what is known about it is how it’s supposed to sound like, and the general meaning. This is quite a lot of info.

The first attempt was just to run a dictionary search. On-line dictionaries tend to present possible spellings/corrections.

Usually I use services like Dictionary.com, since they collect definitions from a large number of dictionaries, increasing the odds of finding the right word. In this case is was not effective, the large number of sources allowed it to actually find a definition for the acronym "SATEL", so I got no spelling suggestions.

Trying to get a correction out of Google proved fruitless as well, it didn’t find any definition, and did not suggest a correction. Surprisingly it seems that Google doesn’t bother suggestion corrections to dictionary searches, only to regular searches. And only to regular searches that return few results. Satel, and variations, have tons of results, so no suggestions.
Several other dictionaries provided suggestions, but none useful.

Merriam Webster provided a list of 14 possible corrections, the 6th being "subtle". In this case it proved helpful, and could have been used.
In a general case it may not help, however, since it doesn’t provide suggestions to words it has a translation for. If the word searched is similar enough to a real word, you’re out of luck, or have to try searching for a specifically distorted word, making the chances of a successful match smaller.

There should be some sites that allow searching for words that sounds like other words. A quick search for "dictionary sound like" returned several likely (and lot of unlikely) suspects.

AnsMe provided a long list for a "sounds-like" search on "satel", but none of the results was "subtle". And #2/#1 with 90% match was "stela" ?! How does "stela" sounds like "satel" ?

RhymeZone for "Find similar sounding words" returned 0 results. It did provide a long list of "similarly spelled words", but again "Subtle" was not one of them.
Other places in this category seems to just point to, or take results from, RhymeZone.

So time to go look by meaning. Not to make it too complex, these are the first four basic ideas for meanings I had: "delicate", "gentle", "not obvious", "not blatant".

One option is to run a regular dictionary search and try to fish a result from there. In this case it might have worked, but only since I already knew what I was looking for.
Running a search for "delicate" on various dictionaries returned pages of results that had the word "subtle" in them. But they were not useful for this purpose, since it was not practical to find those without knowing the desired word. It takes a lot of time and effort to read many definitions, and go word by word to see if something seems similar. Doable, but not practical.

Another option is to run a search for synonyms of the first two words, and antonyms of the last two. This has the advantage that the results would usually be word-lists, so are easier to search for one sounding like what we’re looking for.

Giving RhymeZone another chance: "delicate" 23 synonyms including "subtle", "gentle" 25 synonyms without "subtle", "obvious" 3 antonyms without "subtle", "blatant" no antonyms. So there was a result, but still hard to fish. Requires going through a lot of false result to find it.

WordNet: This is a more complex and powerful tool, in that it allows to pick specific meanings of the word to search the synonyms/acronyms for, though it doesn’t require it. This of course takes the time to read the possible meanings, but allows by this to eliminate irrelevant words. It also provide examples for the usage of each of the returned words, so it’s easier to get a sense of their proper context, or how they will sound in a sentence. Here too only "delicate" returned "subtle" at the end of the search. And while it was included in some of the definitions of possible meanings for "delicate", no meaning was an exact match by itself. It might have helped very well, or it might have done quite badly.

And there’s one more, relatively new, option. I recalled that a while ago I noticed an announcement by OneLook that they had a reverse dictionary. For this purpose a reverse dictionary should work quite like a synonym search, only will potentially allow use of words which are not exact synonyms/antonyms but may be found as part of a description. This makes it easier to locate words for which you don’t have an exact single-word meaning, and allow more flexibility on the words used. But it may also return a lot more false results.

I decided it’s worth a short to try. And discovered that they have another feature, which is excellent for the sort of search I need here. It’s possible to search for partial matches on words by letters, and combine this with the reverse dictionary search.

The obvious nearly catch-all way to represent the "satel" sounds-like is s*t*l*. It may be a mistake, it’s possible to spell words otherwise, but not likely. If it wouldn’t have worked, maybe a search for c instead of s, or putting another wild-card character at the beginning, might have been warranted. But mostly I tried to go from the basis of having a word sounding like "satel", so probably the changes in spelling will be extra vowels, double letters, silent letters, and such. Something beginning with an "S", followed someplace by a "T", and followed someplace else by an "L", followed by whattever, seemed good.

With this pattern of searched words, I tried again my four basic meanings, even though a reverse dictionary actually allows to try for more complex meanings. "delicate" returned 7 results, the first of which was "subtle". "gentle" returned 2 results without "subtle". "not obvious" returned a huge number of results, with the claim that they are sorted by relatedness, and "subtle" was the first one. "not blatant" also returned a lot of results, but again "subtle" was the first one.

Overall I think OneLook receives best marks for this. The reason, I think, is that from all the common tools available it’s the only one that allows to automatically search for both the meaning and the way the word sounds like. The other services only allowed to automatically search for one, and then required time consuming effort to manually go over the results.

Neighbours, at Home

November 24th, 2004

If I mention neighbours at the office, it seems only fitting to also say some words about my relatively-new neighbours at home.
Our previous neighbours had the house for several years, but a few months ago received a good offer for it. So good that they completed the whole sale and transfer in about two weeks. And went to live in a newer apartment in the same city. This means that they must have been offered a tad more than the house is worth. So the new buyers must have loved it very much.

They loved the house so much, in fact, that a day later a lot of construction works came over to work on it, making a few minor modifications. Like replacing the entire balcony, replacing a large exterior wall that consisted of mostly windows, breaking and replacing most internal walls in order to rearrange the rooms, and some more changes.

And those workers were about the most motivated construction crew I have ever saw. They arrived very early in the morning and worked till very late at night.
They worked weekends.

Another thing being replaced was the fence. They had a low fence around the front of the house, and a connecting low-wall between their house and ours. This got replaced by a 2+ meters high thick and solid bricks wall. We had no desire to replace the connecting wall, so they agree to pay for it on their own. And since it looked pretty ugly, they even painted it and made it fit better.

The new gate is also 2+ meters high. All solid metal. With a mounted video camera and spotlight.

Some more spotlights are also now installed around their garden. I’m not sure about cameras.

The owner says he is a toy importer. Not being a major player in the toy import trade myself, I of course have no way of verifying this, but surely he has no reason to pretend.

I never imagined how much clout toy importers have. Those walls are high enough to require a special building permit. Which is usually not granted. Even when it is, it takes time. But here everything just came up rather quickly.

What can I say, just one toy importer who cares a great deal about his privacy. Good to know it’s possible to make so much money on toys. Just one more proof that the economy is good, people don’t need to spare money they spend on imported toys.

So far they’re nearly model neighbours. Can’t say much for their taste in music, or for how loud they sometime play it, but apart from that we had no problems with them at all.
I can live with that.

Neighbours, at Work

November 24th, 2004

The office space of the two floors above my company’s is getting occupied again. It was empty when we moved in, got later filled for about half a year, left vacant, and now we’re getting new neighbours again.

On the practical front, the only expected problem is that parking space is going to become a precious commodity again.

But currently we’re wondering how colourful are the new neighbours going to be, compared to the last ones.

Not that the last ones were something special. Oh, no. Of course not. Not at all. All they did was use the space as a warehouse, for storage. They were quite adamant about it, too.
And the way things happened, there was no reason for anyone to think the area was filled with anything other than storage.

Before they came in, workers came to fit the office area to the new requirement. They installed all the things needed in a regular warehouse.
Including air conditioning units, per each room near each window, not a central cooling unit.
And including several nice wooden half-circle tables with green padding. The kind you usually expect to see used for blackjack storage.
And including a large sign on the street, in horrid lovely red-green colors, stating nothing except the street name and house number.
And white paint for the walls. Lots of white paint. Can’t store anything near walls that were painted years ago.

Or the fact that several workers were in the place, almost 24 hours a day. Several quite well dressed people that stayed inside the warehouse. And a couple of muscular, tattooed, scarred, flashy dressed individuals who wandered outside all the time to help the visitors/clients park. And a couple of muscular, quiet, somberly dressed guys that just stood outside the door. And a bunch of scantily clad ladies (and I probably use the word "ladies" nearly as loosely as they were) that wandered around and attached themselves to visitors.

There were quite a lot of visitors for a warehouse too. And they didn’t seem to carry too many crates and boxes around. There were people going in and out all the time. Almost 24/5 (Well, maybe almost 24/7, can’t be sure since we only work 5 days a week. On the few times my boss got to the office on the weekend, they were usually there.).

At least I know that whatever was in storage was well protected. Police cars used to come over all the time. Cops came quite regularly for inspections, to make sure nothing was amiss I’m sure. At least every week.
As Scarface one of the nice parking attendants said (roughly, it’s been a while) "It’s very good they come regularly. If they’ll stop coming to get what they get, then we may all be in a big problem". He obviously meant the safety inspection reports.

I also assume that the merchandise kept there was perishable, or subject to wide market fluctuations. One of their customers arrived on one of the few days when they were closed, and so knocked on our door, asking where the gambling is. It’s nice to know that entrepreneurism isn’t dead, and people are willing to gamble with their investment money on new merchandise. Surely a sign that the economy was in a good shape.

Then they closed down, mumbling something about the police costing too much. I guess it was a clever way of saying that they couldn’t stay competitive with the taxes they pay, since the police (including those dispatched to look over their inventory) are financed mainly by taxes.
I agree, taxes in this country are too high. We get government supplied services, like police protection, for it, but it costs too much.

Luckily, about a month afterward they were back in business. The police cars for some reason seemed to come at a lower frequency. Maybe they got a tax cut by not insisting on having regular police safety inspection.
Alas, police visits frequency slowly rose back to the previous levels. And pretty soon they found a new location, and left us to wallow in loneliness (and spacious parking space) again.
All we have left are the memories, and the street sign.

The new ones aren’t in yet. We’ll just have to wait and see. They intend to use it as an office, though, and not just for storage.

Yahoo Problem Update

November 23rd, 2004

[Update, the last: They finally fixed it!]

[update: Well, They've done some more. And I'm practically livid.]
[update2: There seems to be some progress on the technical side, although I can't grasp the logic of it]
[update3+4: Some progress. Not done yet, but the filtering problem seems practically solved for now]
[update 5: Back to square one. Everything is as it was before they've started working on the problem, and I can't get anything sensible out of customer support]

There has been some progress changes regarding the problem I encountered with Yahoo! Mail’s bulk mail filtering and my futile attempts to get help through their official tech support system.

A certain
Brad Garlinghouse (VP, Communications Products) from Yahoo! made a post on the Yahoo! Search Blog regarding changes to Yahoo! Mail, and asked for general comments and suggestions.
So, being happy to finally have access to a real person involved with Yahoo! Mail, I talked about the problem, with links to my more detailed posts here.

And, not too surprisingly, some people at Yahoo! read it, and they tried to solve the problem.

I started sending myself test messages to see if there’s any change, and after a short while I noticed a rather big one. When I sent myself a problematical message, I was presented with a CAPTCHA challenge. One of those annoying pictures with distorted letters and numbers, used to make sure I’m a real person sending the message, and not some bot.
It came with an explanation that this is done to prevent outgoing spam out of Yahoo! accounts.

Which is overall fair enough if the message is highly suspected as spam. Only it probably isn’t since if I sent a similar message in from an outside account it would not get to the Bulk folder but to the Inbox one.
This is also not directly related to the fact that even if a message is suspected as spam, it should still get to the Inbox if the sender is in the Address Book.
But the important thing was that after passing the challenge, the message arrived to my inbox.

If I sent the same message to another Yahoo! address, I got the challenge. If I sent it to a non-Yahoo! address, I didn’t get it. It seemed a bit strange if the reason is suspected massive spamming (And never mind why is sending a geocities link in a message have to be considered spam). So I posted another comment on their blog post.
And they fixed the apparent problem. Later on when I sent the message outside of Yahoo I also got the challenge.

Again, sending such a message in from an outside non-Yahoo account always got it to the Inbox, so I’m still not sure the problem is spam detection per-se.

But the problem was officially solved. Even if it’s a case of curing the disease while killing the patient. After all, the reason I was sending myself emails with links is as a short and easy way to place reminders to places I’d like to look at again soon. But passing the CAPTCHA challenge made it long and cumbersome, so the net effect would be to just cause me not to use Yahoo! Mail for these messages but another email service. Which is a pity since overall I really do like Yahoo! Mail.
But the problem was solved, technically. If I did send such a message, it arrived to the inbox. I did suspect that the actual cause was not fixed, and this is just some ugly workaround, but there was no possible way for me to reproduce the problem, so that was it.

Until today.
Originally, beside having the mail problem, I also had a larger problem with the handling of my report by the support / customer-care team.
As I logged in this morning to check emails, I noticed a message from Clarence in Yahoo! Mail Customer Care. It was a followup to my previous correspondence with them on this problem. And by followup I don’t mean that they started a new thread about it, but that it was a reply to one of my messages to them. Not to the last one, mind you. In fact it was a reply to the exact one where I told them I’m not willing for them to log into my own account to check the problem.
And what did they want this time?
Well:

We would like to follow up with you regarding your recent inquiry to Yahoo! Customer Care. 

We understand you were receiving messages to your bulk mail folder.  We attempted to duplicate the issue by following the steps you outlined below, yet were unable to duplicate it.  Are you still experiencing problems of this sort?

If the problem continues, please reply to this email. 

For us to look into the problem you have encountered, it will be necessary for Yahoo! staff to enter your account and conduct some tests.
Please reply to this message, giving Yahoo! permission to enter your Yahoo! Mail account and take those steps necessary to pinpoint the cause of this problem and explore possible solutions.

We appreciate your assistance in troubleshooting this issue.

Notice that the "For us to look into…" paragraph is identical to the one they used the last time. This is particularly amusing considering that this is, as I wrote above, in direct reply to my message saying I’m not allowing them, which was in reply to them asking. And it’s all quoted in this message…

But in any case I was glad that I got a response. It means someone may have also noticed a problems in this front, and there may actually be someone there to talk to (Clarence?).

I was not surprised they were not able to reproduce the problem, since there were changes. So I decided I’ll reply stating the changes I know made, and thanking them for following up anyway. But before I sent the reply it seemed prudent to make another check and see if something changed.

Something did.
I sent the same message to myself, and was not presented with the CAPTCHA challenge. My initial reaction? Great, maybe the finally solved it properly and so removed the challenge that served as temporary work-around. I fired off one more message, and went to the Inbox to see them. The messages were not in the Inbox, they were in the Bulk mail folder.

Back to square one. Several changes along the way, and now the problem is just like it was before…

Which leaves me the possibility that the Customer Care people will be relevant and professional this time. Maybe Yahoo did something on that front, at least.
I sent them a message explaining the changes, and that maybe they need to try again now in order to reproduce the problem. (In a perfect world they should also be in synch with the development team, but…).
I also stated again that I don’t want them in my account. In case they will have a problem again, I did offer to create a new dummy account, verify that the problem occurs there as well (Shouldn’t be any different, it happens in several real accounts of friends), and give them full access to that one.
And I explained again how to reproduce the problem, in small and easy steps.

If any reader here wants to try, it goes about like this:

  1. Add yourself to your own address book. (This is to illustrate that the message goes to the Bulk folder even for AB contacts)
  2. Send yourself a plain text message with:
  • Subject: Test

(Can be pretty much anything as far as I noticed, but this one is verified)

  • Body: http://www.geocities.com/whatever

(You can as far as I noticed replace the "whatever" word with anything you want, as long as something is there, erasing it won’t work. adding further sub-directories, and a final  page, will still cause the problem.)

Then just sit back and watch it get delivered to your Bulk folder. Despite it being a message from you to yourself, and despite the sender address being in the address book.

Now I wait. I’ll keep updating this post if there are changes to the actual problem, or if there is some progress (or an active lack of of one) from the Customer Care people.

Update:
Instant messengers are wonderful. Especially those that come with email providers like Yahoo. Because when you get a new message, the IM let’s you know.
For example: When people from Yahoo! Customer Support log into my account DESPITE BEING SPECIFICALLY TOLD NOT TO, and start sending test messages, I get to bloody see it. Amazing, isn’t it?
Even if the messages are deleted immediately afterward, I know they were there.
Better still, I refreshed the Inbox page fast, and actually saw a message labeled as being sent from me, only from the wrong timezone and IP addresses. A message which was not subsequently deleted and is currently still there, I assume because I opened and read it (since the previous ones, that I didn’t see on the webmail interface, are not there now).

Where they told not to clear enough? Let’s see…
This is from the message I sent them, as specified above. Everything quoted here is quoted in the message body by the replies. I stripped irrelevant lines, but everything here is in the message, no additions. Notice that as this is an email, the oldest bits are in the bottom, and the newest at the top.

Let me start again by saying that I do NOT want you
logging into my account.
If you can’t see anything on your accounts, I’m
perfectly willing to open a new dummy account, make
sure the problem occurs there as well, and give that
to you. Is that acceptable?

Let me know whether you manage to reproduce it now or
not, and if you want me to create and hand over a demo
account.

— Yahoo! Mail <mail@yahoo-inc.com> wrote:

>
>
> If the problem continues, please reply to this
> email. 
>
> For us to look into the problem you have
> encountered, it will be
> necessary for Yahoo! staff to enter your account and
> conduct some tests.
> Please reply to this message, giving Yahoo!
> permission to enter your
> Yahoo! Mail account and take those steps necessary
> to pinpoint the cause
> of this problem and explore possible solutions.
>
>
> > Original Message Follows:
> > ————————-
> >
> > NO. The problem is general, and NOT just with my
> > account, so there is NO justification for you to
> see
> > any of my mail or enter my account.
> >
> > To make it clear: You do not have my permission to
> > enter my account.
> >
> >
> > — Yahoo! Mail <mail@cc.yahoo-inc.com> wrote:
> >
> > > For us to look into the problem you have
> > > encountered, it will be
> > > necessary for Yahoo! staff to enter your account
> > and
> > > conduct some tests.
> > > Please reply to this message, giving Yahoo!
> > > permission to enter your
> > > Yahoo! Mail account and take those steps
> necessary
> > > to pinpoint the cause
> > > of this problem and explore possible solutions.

Did the fact that I said "I do NOT want you logging into my account" mislead them? Could anyone possibly understand this phrase to mean that I don’t particularly want it, but won’t mind if they do?!

I know that technically they can log into all mailboxes/address-books/notepads/whatever and do anything they want with them, but it’s not accepted behaviour, and not something that their privacy policy allows. This is why they asked. But darn in, You must accept NO for an answer. I’m pretty sure this was decided by courts long ago…

True, one shouldn’t keep anything unencrypted that one doesn’t want the whole world to have access to, but there is still a fake feeling of privacy for things which can become public but shouldn’t. And knowing that support people are running around my mail and contacts is not a particularly nice feeling.
Even if I trust that they are professional enough not to touch anything not needed for the solution of the problem.

Do I trust that they are professional enough, with this past record? Not quite…
Heck, this one message that I did catch, that got into the Inbox? It had "test" in the subject, and "test" in the body. Not the URIs which cause the actual problem. Despite repeated explanations.
No wonder they were not capable of reproducing the problem. They either ignored the explanations, or are bloody morons (And yes, I can use mildly foul language when I’m in the mood I’m currently at).

I ran some more tests myself. The first one got to the Inbox and not the bulk folder. But for some reason it was not marked with the Rolodex icon (meaning that despite being sent from the same address, it’s not recognized as from someone in the address book). The two reached the Bulk folder as before. The following one took about 10-15 minutes to arrive, but arrived at the Bulk folder as well.
Problem not solved.

Update2:
I sent some more test messages to see where they’ll get to. Got some peculiar results, although overall I think it’s an improvement. Three different URIs in the message body caused three different results:

  1. http://wwww.geocities.com/testing/abc.htm  -> Message arrived to the Inbox as it should.
  2. http://www.geocities.com/whatever -> Message arrived to the Inbox, but there is no Rolodex icon next to it. Meaning that the Yahoo! Mail interface decided the sender is not in the Address Book. The sender of course is identical to the one in case 1, where the Rolodex icon does appear, and is in the address book. In this case there is no "View Contact Details" link next to the sender when reading the message. There is one in case 1. The address itself is displayed properly.
  3. http://www.geocities.com/bli -> Arrives at the Bulk folder. So the problem is not yet solved.

I sent several messages with each link, the results where exactly the same for each link. Separating case 1 from the other two seems straightforward (wwww instead of www), but I can see no conceptual difference between the 2 and 3 URIs. Trying to keep the same structure as case 2 and 3, replacing the work "whatever" and "bli" with other words, the messages arrived to the Bulk folder like in case 3.
Does it mean the word "whatever" got a special case ?! Or is there a rule that I just can’t see?

… After writing this I tried again with another word, and got the CAPTCHA test again… So either the handling is even more complex and obscure, or I just caught them smack down in the middle of work, which can account for odd behaviour.
So I’ll stop checking for now, and check again in after several hours.
The current CAPTCHA test is very barbaric, though… I apparently failed the first attempt (They didn’t bother getting rid of letters that look the same in both lowercase and uppercase), and instead of getting to try again I was told that I need to pass the test in order to send messages, so the message was not sent and was not saved. No options to go back.

Update3:
Shortly after the previous post the system seemed to revert to the original state, just as it was at the beginning, with the mail delivery problem.
Nothing much seemed to happen for a few days, I didn’t hear anything more from the Customer Care team, and sporadic test emails behaved in the same fashion.

Today I emailed another message to Yahoo Mail’s Customer Care, asking what is being done regarding the problem and if there’s any progress (There was a bit more there, like a complaint that they logged into my account, and asking if they need more explanations, but that’s the gist).

I don’t know if it’s related to my prompting, or just a coincidence of timing, but right now I sent some test messages of the same problematical patters, and they arrived into my inbox. Well, two out of three did, the third is in transit. I assume it would as well, if not I’ll update here again (Update4: Arrived into the inbox, same as the rest).

So why am I saying that the problem isn’t entirely solved? Since those messages (from me to me, with a geocities link in the body) are showing in my Inbox without the rolodex image (the one indicating that the sender is in the Address Book). But messages from me to me without a geocities link show in the Inbox with the rolodex image, as they should.

This means that whatever was done to solve the problem, was not geared toward correcting it, but toward making it appear as though it’s not there. The crucial symptom is gone, my messages do not get into the Bulk folder. But something is still wrong in the logic that classifies them differently than other messages.

Update5:
For the last several days the messages are back to being received into the Bulk folder. Everything seems to behave just like at the beginning, before anyone at Yahoo! started to deal with the problem.
Obviously they know something is there, or they wouldn’t have made the repeated changes I saw, but they can’t seem to actually solve it.
Personally, whatever else goes behind the scenes over there, I’d expect that a simple match against the Address Book should be enough, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

As for their Customer Care, I got a response to my message, but it only address the CAPTCHA challenge. A certain Jane explains that the challenge is meant to prevent automated spam tools (Yes, I’m certainly an automated spam tool, sending a single-digit number of messages per day at all, and a smaller single-digit number of messages to myself). She also informs me that they use "a variety of techniques" in order to decide when to present the challenge. And concludes by explaining to me how to pass the challenge (‘Cause obviously I can’t get by myself the idea of writing back the word I’m seeing).

Since the challenge is no longer presented to me on every sent messages, this is moot anyway.

I sent another reply explaining that the problem is not the challenge, but rather the messages getting to the Bulk folder, and that she should read further back in the message if it wasn’t clear. This is why you should let one person deal with a problem start-to-finish, and not pass each reply/iteration to a different person who doesn’t know what it’s about.

At this point I think I’ll give up on them.
The technical problem is obviously too complicated for Yahoo! to solve (Can’t match the sender with the AB entry, or match the sender with the recipient, or realize what’s the problem with geocities).
And the Customer Support ability to grasp simple English, or follow a conversation thread, have obviously not improved any.

It’s a pity that overall Yahoo! Mail is still much better than the competition. But apart from this problem, and as long as I don’t need anything from their support, it’s really good. I don’t quite get how they can deploy a generally very good service while using seemingly incompetent people, but they do.

More updates will come only if there’s something serious to report.

Games Trucks Play

November 21st, 2004

Why is it that whenever three or more trucks get together on a two-lane road, all their drivers immediately feel the need to start a prolonged game of leapfrogging?

One slow truck bypassing another is annoying, but understandable. The slightly-faster truck driver doesn’t like being delayed any more than I do.

But a whole group equally slow trucks changing speeds so that they could go on overtaking each other in turns…

OK, I’m calmer now. Thanks.

Teenagers’ Behaviour And Health Survey

November 19th, 2004

There was recently a survey (Sorry, Hebrew link only) here in Israel assessing the behaviour and health of teenagers. One part, the one I found amusing, deals with safety and terrorism.

Apparently 22% of children from 6th to 10th grade feel, due to "political instability and the security conditions", that their lives are in danger. Riiight. Sure thing. Look around in a school, and every fifth kid feels their lives are in danger from terror. I’m convinced. Friends who have children at these ages just constantly talk about how their kids are terrified and all their kid’s friends are too. Not.

In addition, 37% of teenagers (Possibly out of the 22% above, the article phrasing is unclear) reported a terror event occurring next to their home, or knowing someone hurt from an act of terror. To which what I have to say can be nicely summed by WTF?! . Terror acts are great attention grabbers. People pay attention to headlines about terror more than to headlines about other things, like traffic accidents for example. But there just aren’t that many acts of terror. Not that many people die from terrorist activities. There are a lot more casualties from traffic accidents. The idea that 8.14% (0.22*0.37) of children personally know people hurt in acts of terror (How many friends away from home do kids have, for crying out loud?) is preposterous.
Unless of course the survey was not on a representative selection of the population, but rather focused in the more terror-stricken areas. But if that is case, which is contrary to what is stated in the article, then it has no bearing upon the general population and should not be used for anything in global political decision making processes.

Also, 34% of teenagers reported that the feelings of insecurity effect their social lives. Yea, right.
No less than 46% reports that it prevents them from going to "various places". Unless those places include the Gaza strip, this makes no sense whatsoever. Kids in these ages don’t make travel decisions apart from where do they want to hang out with friends. I can safely report from personal observation that the amount of people in general, and of teenagers in particular, did not noticeably drop from cinemas (About same amounts of screaming brats interfering with me watching a film in quiet), coffee shops, and the likes. Certainly not a drop as serious as 46%. Although to be honest, for those who are afraid to hang out with friends, 42% by the survey, this can certainly explain the change in social life.

And the cinch? 27% reported feeling less focused in their studies. Pe-leeeease. Schoolkids are not focused on studying due to worries about terror attacks? As if schoolkids need an excuse not to be focused in studying. How many of them bloody want to study at all to begin with?! Sounds like an excellent spoon-fed excuse.

Interviewer: "Do you feel that worries about terrorist activities causes you to be less able to concentrate on your homework and school material?"
Kid: "Less able to concentrate… on homework… eh… yes! Sure! Right! That’s it! I really do want to study hard! I do! But I’m so afraid some suicide bomber will come over to my house and explode while I’m at my desk! Yes! That’s why I don’t do my homework so well! Honest!"

Great survey. I hope nobody pays much attention. Don’t know how the other parts measure up, but if they’re up to the same exacting quality…

Witness Protection

November 19th, 2004

There is this really nice person called Ze’ev Rosenstein. He’s so nice that the US have asked Israel to send him over, since they’d really like to keep him at their place, for ever and ever. They also asked for a couple of his close friends, since those friends agree to tell of all the wonderful things about him that he is too shy to say himself.
OK, enough of that, it’s not what I want to talk about. He’s a criminal (allegedly), and the two witnesses willing to testify against him are also criminals (allegedly). And I was reading that the two witnesses were sent to the US in secrecy and under guard, and once they testify in front of a grand jury they will enter the Witness Protection Program, to reduce the chance of revenge from the nice Mr. Rosenstein.

Which got me thinking about how effective Witness Protection is. The witness gets a whole set of manufactured identification, history, profession, and what’s not. Supposedly under the new identity nobody is supposed to know who the person really was, except the few people who put them there and who monitor them to make sure the new identity is not blown (And that the witness is not likewise blown up, naturally).

Now suppose someone searching for the elusive witness manages to find them. Suppose further that they manage to kill the witness. What do we, as the public and general media consumers, know about it?
If it was a really big case, someone talking against a very large crime organization boss, then the killers may publish the fact, in order to try and prevent other people from deciding to testify against them.
But many people placed under witness protection are not that popular, and their death is simple revenge without any lesson. Like in this example, once Rosenstein is behind bars he probably doesn’t need to intimidate anyone else from testifying against him. And making the identity of the killed person public will only put his protection and police under the spotlight and so increase the efforts of catching the killers.
So it’s possible to assume that in most cases nobody will rush to the media saying "We just offed1 this guy, who was so-and-so, because he testified against this-and-that".

This means that apart from the killers, and the protection team, no one will know the victim’s true identity. And the protection team sure as hell have no reason to come forward to the public.

Ergo, the minor headline in some local paper will be along the lines of "Window repairmen shot dead during home robbery. Unknown killer still at-large". Followed with a few lines explaining that the house wasn’t actually robbed, so maybe the culprit was surprised during the robbery, shot the homeowner, and ran off. And that would be it, no international coverage, and no followup.
No one else will know.

All those people that disappear into witness protection and you never hear from again? They may be safe behind a new identity, or they may most of them be dead. Could be witness protection has no effect whatsoever, except to keep people from knowing how bad it is so they will be willing to testify.
There’s no way to know if it’s like that, or it it’s indeed efficient.
The only guarantee is that it’s less efficient than what can be surmised from comparing the numbers of people getting witness protection to the known number of people found…

So if you have a reason to testify, do so only if the reason is good enough even under the assumption that you will be found. The only people promising otherwise can’t prove their point, even if they may be right.

1. Or iced, or eliminated, or cleansed, or whatever criminals nowadays like to use as euphemism for murdering someone.

Wonderful scientific research

November 17th, 2004

This has to be about the most amusing thing I read in quite a while "Hours in front of a computer screen may increase the risk of
glaucoma in people who are myopic or near-sighted, Japanese scientists
said Tuesday
".

Glaucoma is high intra-ocular pressure (There are cases of "Normal Pressure Glaucoma", but since reducing the pressure even further helps in those cases, it says something…). It is not "caused by damage to the optic nerve" as stated in the article, it causes it.

It does cause visual field defects. The effects of the increased pressure starts to destroy nerve fibers from the outside in. Most people who do not go for regular medical examinations usually only notice they have Glaucoma after getting to a state of nearly tunnel-vision. The process is slow and gradual however, which is why it takes years for the effects to be noticeable.

For most people (without hereditary background), the time to start yearly checkups is at the age of 40 where it is most likely to start. The average age of people checked in this article is 43, and so without knowing the distribution there’s no way to know if the results are high or low. If they were all 43, the percentage of people with visual field problems with "suspected" glaucoma, about 1.66%, is not above the normal percentage in the population.
Now if the average age where 25 or 30, they would have had a strong case, as the percentage of glaucoma at these ages is very very small…

The whole "suspected" glaucoma thing is pretty suspicious as well. Checking intra-ocular pressure by an eye doctor takes about a minute, usually less. There are also simpler screening devices which are less accurate but can be used by anyone, and can get a pretty good idea if people have glaucoma or not. Unless they think all of the cases are caused by rare normal pressure glaucoma, of course… This would be harder to check, but is very unlikely and is not explained here…

So we have 5 percent of people with visual field problems, probably many of them above the age where these problems crop up anyway. About a third of these visual field problem may, or may not, be related to glaucoma (Which is considered the #1 reason for blindness overall, and so could likely account for more that 30% of all visual field problems even without any other factors included). If all of them are indeed suffering from glaucoma, the percentage is not different than for normal/random population at the relevant ages.

And not a word of explanation about the mechanism by which sitting in front of the computer increases intra-ocular pressure, or increases the susceptibility of the retina to be damaged from the pressure.

Oh, yes, and high myopia is a risk factor by itself due related condition of the retina (very roughly high myopia can indicate larger eyes, so the retina is more stretched to start with). If they get slightly above average percentage for people with high myopia (and the overall percentages here are at or below average), they don’t need the computer usage to explain it…

Yep. A lot to worry about. Now I have a good reason to stop spending all this time in front of the computer.

I just love it when science is done so well…

Hat tip to David Akin.