Archive for June, 2005

When private economic development is considered a public necessity

June 27th, 2005

Local government in the US can legally seize people’s houses and businesses, in order to promote other private economic development of the land.

Yes, that precisely mean that they can take and raze houses in order to allow a mall, or a hotel, to be built, even if the property owners don’t want to sell:

The 5-4 ruling represented a defeat for some Connecticut residents whose homes are slated for destruction to make room for an office complex.

As a result, cities have wide power to bulldoze residences for projects such as shopping malls and hotel complexes to generate tax revenue.

I guess all those American action movies, of home-owners refusing to sell, and greedy land developers trying to scare them off the property using force, are now a thing of the past. All it takes is explaining to some city officials that the new development may bring money, and those home-owners won’t have a legal right to say they like to keep their houses… How lovely.

On the other hand, this would teach a lesson to those nasty people who buy real estate just because they think the area may be worth money sometime. Instead of negotiating with them for compensation that matches the land value, developers could get the local authorities to kick them off. Good riddance, eh?

Hmm… I wonder if we have similar laws here. That could be real useful in handling the current ill-conceived and badly planned disengagement plan. Instead of getting the people there away for the stated reasons, the government can say it wants to build many malls, bulldoze the houses over to make room, and then give the work and franchise to Palestinian contractors…

Can damage your health

June 26th, 2005

Many food items sold today aren’t particularly healthy, and contain unhealthy ingredients. Many of them are also quite fatty. And this is certainly a part of a general problem of health and obesity problems in the population. And since recent studies show that there are lots of fat Israeli kids, it was only a matter of time until someone would decide that solutions should be legislative.

A couple of weeks ago there was a law proposal, regarding publicity/commercials for food items meant for minors. The proposal suggests forming a committee that will examine food items, based on specified criteria. And foods which will be found to be “unhealthy” will have all sorts of publicity limitations, like being shown on TV only at late hours, preventing celebrities from endorsing them, and so on.

Plus one thing which I find amusing: Any such commercial will have to include a disclaimer stating that “Excessive consumption of this product damages the health”. Now, the statement is entirely valid and true. It’s just that even if you take the healthiest food around, an excessive consumption of it will certainly damage your health. An excessive consumption of anything will damage the health. So putting such a disclaimer won’t do anything except convince people that it’s just hogwash meant to frighten them, and they need to pay no attention. Plus, well, it’s just so absurd that it’s funny. If they put those disclaimers there, they should start putting them on bottled water ads as well.

Their criteria also limit sugar (Yep, the proposal says “sugar”, not “carbohydrates”. I wonder how will all those “sugar-free” foods containing Sorbitol and such will fare. It’s not technically “sugar” even if it turns to sugar once you metabolize it, and food sellers have been playing that game for a while) and fats based on the percentage of their caloric input in the food. I find that odd. It means that if you take the same item that contain certain amounts of fat which makes it just borderline, and then add a little sugar that will not pass the sugar limit, this food will suddenly become healthy. Is that amazing, or what?

Free invitations

June 26th, 2005

The invitation, that the Rav-Chen cinema wrote they’ll send me, finally arrived. Together with a printed copy of the same reply they attached to their answer email

Not too surprisingly, that double invitation to the cinema has a few limitations:

  • Only valid on Sunday through Wednesday (For those of you that have Sunday as a part of the weekend, this is like Mon-Thu)
  • Not valid during holidays, or holiday eves
  • Not valid for movies on the first two weeks they are shown

Which together basically say just one thing, that it’s valid in all cases where they are absolutely sure the cinema will have spare empty seats, so it will not cost them anything to have me there.

Not that I’m in a position to complain, considering I didn’t really suffer any damage, so the compensation at all is nice. But it is somewhat irking, to get a “gift” that bothers to emphasise so much how little it was worth. The invitation paper also have the look of something torn from a big notebook, with plenty of prepared forms (They even come numbered, though I do think having a 9000+ number does not mean they actually sent more than nine thousand of those), with a blank space to pen in the name, and an area to mark with a pen whether it’s a single, or double, invitation. I guess they send enough of those to justify the design work.

Funny, considering they still didn’t finish to design a much simpler form that can be used to list camera deposits…

Anyway, the time limit on the thing is for about one month. Which isn’t a lot, given the rate in which I see movies. Still, given the cost I’m sure I’ll manage to find something.

Now I just want to see that they really do improve their act, and make the whole procedure more professional. That’s basically what I wanted, and what they partially said they’ll do

One thing that I did see, before a movie I went to a few days ago, is that they showed a warning. The warning stated that anyone caught inside the cinema with a camera will be considered to be making a copy of the film, and so the camera will be impounded. I’d really want to see them explain to a judge in court how a turned-off stills camera was being used to film the movie, and what gave them the right to steal impound it.

Negative tolerance for violence

June 20th, 2005

According to reports we here in Israel have a big problem of violence among youth and teenagers. Ministers and Knesset members are talking about having zero tolerance for teen violence, and rush ahead to make new laws and regulations that would make us all safer. So far so good, teen violence bad, safer good.

Except some of these do not seem like zero tolerance. Having zero tolerance towards X means that you will not accept X in any form, will not forgive X, and will not take X lightly. For example, having zero tolerance towards arson would mean that people caught trying to light up fires will be punished to the full extent of the law, and the law could be changed to be harsh. But it would not normally mean that people who buy fuel will be also prosecuted, just because fuel can be used to start fires. Nobody would accept that, since fuel has other uses, and it’s legal to own fuel. Having fuel does not an arson make. If the police would be allowed to search people for fuel, and arrest people who have fuel, that would not be zero tolerance for arson, but maybe a crazy negative tolerance.

And in some aspects this is exactly what is going on now on the teen violence issue. Case in point – Knives.

Owning a knife is legal. There are plenty of things you can do with a knife. Many of them involve cutting things, and there are certainly a lot of things which it is perfectly normal, legal, and even desirable to cut.

This did not stop anyone from suggesting a law which would allow police to search teenagers for knives (yes, a body search. And just because someone is a teen, since I can’t believe there are other external indications for knife carrying. I think they need better cause to search someone for drugs, or guns). And to arrest them automatically if they are found with a knife on them, no discussion, no extenuating circumstances.

If this was about guns, I could at least understand. Guns really don’t have much uses in a city beyond shooting people, regardless of whether it’s self defence intended or not. Carrying a gun currently requires a license, and carrying a gun without a license is a felony. But I don’t think anyone out there is issuing knife licenses.

Heck, I’ve been carrying a knife myself for most of my life. A nice Victorinox swiss-army-knife sort of thing, which has all sorts of good stuff, like a screwdriver, pliers, and, yes, a knife. And you know what? The knife is useful. Cutting packages, strings, papers, all sorts of things. Many people carry similar tools by Victorinox, Leathermans, and other. Or maybe just utility knives, those are knives too.

Knives have many uses, besides stabbing people. Even for teenagers. The idea that being caught carrying a knife can get someone in jail is preposterous.

And why? Because some of those violent incidents involved these teens stabbing or slashing people. Fine, that’s bad. But they could do similar damage with their hands, so should all teens go handcuffed? They can stab someone, or poke their eyes, with a pen. So should any teenager caught carrying a pen, or pencil, be thrown into jail? And do you have any idea how many different ways are there to wound, and kill, people using a belt and belt-buckle? Let’s forbid teens from carrying belts as well. Anyone who wants to use violence will use it, whether they have a knife or not.

Plus, if some crazy angry teen would have jumped at me to attack me, carrying a legal crowbar, I’d have been very happy to have a knife.

Actually, personal story, I practically did. This was on a several-days school trip. Some of the more, er, active pupils decide that night was a wonderful time to have fun. So they picked doors of other pupils as they were asleep and poured all sorts of nasty things on them and into their clothes. They tried to enter through the windows, whether they were left open or not, in a similar way.

When I stood inside the window and told one of them to go away and not bother me that night, he took a large solid branch, and tried hitting me through the window several times. Just to make me move away, so he could throw stuff in. I nearly got my head bashed twice, and luckily was fast enough to avoid it, until I caught the branch and shoved it back.

To put it in context, there were several broken windows on several rooms by the next morning. The teachers didn’t care much, because we were just kids having fun.

Same thing when some broke the door to my room, and started throwing sand, sugar, and other stuff inside. A few kids decided to enter and pour stuff into our bags, and that while I was standing right there telling them to go away. When I pushed them out by force, they came at me in a group to hit me. so I took out a knife, and waved it about a little. That stopped them. They went away. Kids aren’t used to fighting, so they figured if they come at me in a group, I’m the only one who will get hurt. When they saw the knife, they realized they can get hurt. Frankly, they would have gotten seriously hurt without it, since I wasn’t taking being punched as a joke.

Ten minutes later there was a teacher there, finally. Why? To yell at me, and impound my dangerous weapon of mass destruction. Evil, wicked, violent me. I explained to the teacher the reasons I had for waving the knife, but she wasn’t convinced. I told her I’m keeping the knife. She argued, I didn’t budge, and she went away.

Nobody else bothered us that night, I was the crazy guy didn’t take the treatment quietly, as fun. Under the new proposed laws I see these days, I should have been arrested and thrown in jail. As it happened, nothing at all was done to me, since everyone was aware of the problem even if they didn’t want to talk about it. I’m happy I had that knife, or I’d have been forced to actually hurt people, instead of simply scaring them off. The knife prevented violence. And I really think I didn’t deserve to be arrested for that.

Oh, and just to clarify, that wasn’t my pocket knife. That was a butter knife, with a dull edge, of the kind you normally use to spread something on a bread. I didn’t trust the school to provide proper eating utensils, so I brought my own fork, spoon, and knife. Yes, a mundane butter knife. So after that riot, I don’t want to hear anyone telling me that the law will be only about certain kinds of knife. Those they include can still have other uses, and those they exclude can be used for violence, or perceived as being dangerous, just as well. The only sane options are all, or nothing. And the only sane options of these is not to disallow knives.

TV.com – What CNet did with TV-Tome

June 20th, 2005

TV-Tome was pretty much the site for information on American/British TV series. Actor information, episode information, broadcast times, and so on.

Unfortunately it seems that they didn’t do such a good job on the financial front, and the site kept showing more and more ads, to no avail. Around last week it went away, and now redirects to TV.com (What is it with site operating companies feeling the need to have the “.com” as a part of their names? I thought everyone already realized this was a bad idea, no?), which seems to have all the TV-Tome content.

TV.com is a part of the ever growing CNet conglomerate. I never visited TV.com before, so I don’t know what they did with it before TV Tome died. Right now it seems to be aligned along very similar lines. The most obvious difference is the high amount of screen area taken for community activities, like comments, forums, and ratings.

Saving the content and functionality that TV Tome provided is good, and CNet is in no danger of going broke in the near future. That said, they felt the need for a redesign, which is perfectly understandable, and some of the things they did were not so good.

The new design itself is probably supposed to feel slick and modern. Which it does, but that’s very different from the more warm and friendly design that TV-Tome had, and the drastic change is a bit alienating. Just my own initial impression here, and YMMV.

The fact that they seem to have totally missed the concept of putting content in the page, and design in the CSS, doesn’t help much either, if you know a little about web design. They have plenty of elements whose class/ID do not represent function but style, such as class=”f-bold f-medium f-white”. And take a look at a just a few bits, from long lists in the same vein, inside their CSS files:

.ml-5 {margin-left:5px;}
.ml-10 {margin-left:10px;}
.p-0 {padding:0px;}
.p-5 {padding:5px;}
.ls-1 {letter-spacing:1px}
.ls-2 {letter-spacing:2px;}
.f-off-white {color:#ffc;}
.f-lt-gray {color:#ccc;}
.lh-12 {line-height:12px;}
.lh-14 {line-height:14px;}
.f-xbig {font-size:16px;}
.f-xxbig {font-size:18px;}
.f-normal {font-weight:normal;}
.f-bold {font-weight:bold;}
.f-verdana {font-family:Verdana;}
.f-arial {font-family:Arial;}

Makes you want to cry when this is in a big site, from a big company that specializes in computer related stuff, isn’t it?

Anyway, I’m not really concerned about the colour scheme, that’s just eye candy, and as long as they don’t do something horrible like put tons of huge pictures, or turn the site into Flash, I’m good with it. Having the information easily accessible is more important.

And they missed a few on that front as well. Two problems are with the episode list feature. Formerly this was a single page containing the order and titles of all the episodes in all the seasons of a series. An excellent thing if you were looking for an episode by name, or wanted to quickly locate several episodes in the series’ timeline. Now the list is broken by seasons. Each season is in a seperate page. And that drastically reduces the functionality of episode list. Unless this was a way to ensure people will go to epguides.com instead, I have no idea why they did that.

In addition, the episode list which was previously directly accessible through a link on the main show page, now requires two steps to get to. I’d say this makes it less comfortable to use, but since it’s no longer useful, maybe that doesn’t matter

Another bad design idea was on the episode guide page. This is a page that lists information (guest actors and their characters, plus a plot summery) on all episodes in a season. Seperating these into individual seasons does make sense, it’s plenty of information, and is also the way it was before. But now there is a maximum amount of episodes which are shown in a single page. So now a full American season may be split over two pages. This is again highly annoying, and makes it much less simpler to do things like search for a guest actor across a season (yes, following to a second page is not just a minor annoyance, because it effectively doubles the time it takes, and requires searching inside a page twice). Plus, the page links on the top, for a series with 1-2 seasons, look similar enough to how you’d expect a season link to look, and I personally saw someone going to the second page of the first season, thinking it was the second season. Not fun, and very easy to mistakenly do in the current design.

Another problem is with the main show page. The new one is built to show all sorts of information at a glance, but it comes at the expense of not showing a complete anything. The previous design had at least included the full show summary. Now seeing a summary for an unfamiliar show requires one extra click. I know that this is a trade-off, people who already know the show do want the page as an index, and do not need the summary. Yet practically every single viewer who is not yet familiar with the show will want to see the summary, to know what the show is about. And this way requires more work, or gets people to decide based on less information.

The uniformity of the design of the main show page is also a problem . The first few sections are textual ones, and look exactly the same, but the kind of sections change from series to series. The uniformity is alright if you can get used to it, knowing that summary will always be followed, for example, by previous episode (their name for recently aired episode, I think). But it’s like that on some shows, while other shows have first episode followed by last episode, and yet other shows something else. This forces you to read the headers in order to know what’s there. Not terrible, but poor design. The visual cues should be clearer than that.

That said, I do like that the main page directly link to actor pages, and to recent news article relating to the show. I’m not sure how the headlines are selected, though, since I did see plenty of relevant news articles out there which were not on the list. I also don’t like that they open the articles in a frame inside the TV.com site, and not providing actual links.

The search results page is clearer, and the new version provides a short exerpts from show summaries, which can help when confronted with a list of several similarly named shows. On the other hand, an upper limit of 10 results per page is very limiting. And now the results for shows and persons are intermingled, which makes no sense, since usually a searcher only wants one of those. Luckily it’s easy to filter for only one kind, but for most seaches it does mean a little extra work, which a simple grouping of the results would have spared. The results also seem tweaked to show the more popular/likely hits on top, which is good, and very useful for common searches. Yet for cases with many results, the ability to choose alphabetical sorting would help tremendously.

TV-Tome, and now TV.com, also allow users to add and edit content. This makes a lot of sense, since there are plenty of people who care about series that they watch. But the new design puts “edit” button everywhere, which are only relevant for registered, and logged in, users. Pressing the button takes you to a registration page, which do not contain a special area for logging in as an existing user. This is alright, since a login form is placed near the top of every page, but if I were a registered user this would have annoyed me. As someone who isn’t a registered user, I think it would be a lot better to simply not show the edit buttons to anyone who isn’t logged in. That’s not critical, though, since currently the buttons blend well with the background colour, and are not very conspicous. Hiding them would also prevent the pages from being simple static pages, so will probably incur a lot of work for the web team.

Another advantage of the old design was that the TV-Tome URIs often had a simple structure, consisting of the show name, and page name. It was sometime easier to navigate by entering the address directly, or changing the one of the existing page, instead of searching and clicking links. The new design contain things like numerical IDs in the URIs, which removes this possibility.

As an interesting note, the redirects from old TV Tome pages sometimes work well enough to deliver the matching page on TV.com, and sometimes just go to the home page. This applies to pages of the exact same kind and same structure, so I don’t know what’s the rule.

As a second interesting note, and a bit of sheer speculation, a new TV.com Mycroft search plugin for FireFox became available recently, just at the switch was taking place. Since getting something to show up on Mycroft can take a long long time, this was either a very lucky coincidence, someone planning ahead, or someone maybe using money or connections. For the speculation part, the search plugin is made by a web design company, Matt Austin, which does not strike me as a regular FireFox enthusiast user. Are they related to CNet, and maybe did the design for them?

The little air conditioner that couldn’t

June 16th, 2005

The people working with me can be distributed into three groups: Those who like cold temperatures and want the AC working on hot summer days, those who do not enjoy cold temperatures and want the AC off (My boss’ secretary), and those who don’t care (my boss).

Quite often I turn the AC on and set it to a low temperature, only to find it later at a higher temperature. Sometime the culprit is obvious, since our secretary complain about being cold. Sometime it’s not so obvious, but we always assume it’s either her, or my boss (He doesn’t care, so won’t mind at all setting the thermostat to a higher temperature to save some on the electricity bill).

Other times it seems a bit odd, since we never notice anyone reaching the AC control panel. Still, we all have better things to do than stare at the AC all day, so we often dismiss the slight mystification with a shrug, and a claim that someone must have changed the temp when we didn’t notice.

Until yesterday. At a relatively early hour everyone else went home, and I was left alone in the office. It was a bit warm, so I went to the AC, and set the temperature lower. Later, when I was closing down and getting ready to leave, I went to turn off the AC. And lo and behold, the temperature that the thermostat was set to on the AC‘s control panel was higher than what I set it to earlier.

Just to be absolutely clear, the temperature shown there is not the measurement, it’s the destination temperature that the AC unit is supposed to maintain. So now I know for sure that it creeps up all on its own.

We have a lazy AC that tries to avoid working hard by pretending we asked it to do an easier job. How pathetic is that?

Road repairs

June 16th, 2005

Usually driving at night is relatively a pleasure, because there isn’t much traffic, and all the roads are free. In recent weeks, however, the night hours are being used for road repair and restructuring. The work itself is needed, and much welcomed, but it would have been nice had it been limited to the very low-traffic hours of, say, 3AM, instead of starting at 11PM when it creates traffic jams.

Normally, though, that doesn’t bother me too much, since like I said the end results justify the disturbance. Also, the road areas being blocked are usually small parts just around the locations where they work, so the traffic disturbances are usually short.

Yesterday night it wasn’t like that. It started regularly enough, with those orange-and-white stripped traffic cones blocking one lane of a two-lane highway. Traffic slowed, but I expected to see the work crews any minute, and that it will be over soon. I kept driving on the one available lane, on and on, and on. It went on for something like 15 kilometres (That’s a little more than 9 miles). A long stretch of road, and it took a long time.

Many people even crossed into the blocked lane, to drive in it. Doesn’t happen in most cases, but the situation here was practically begging for it, since there was no apparent reason for the lane being blocked, and the road there looked in just a good condition as the one we were driving on.

Eventually it was over, and at the end was a vehicle that seemed (it was hard to take a good look, since at that point the blockage, and the traffic jam, ended, and I had to speed up and clear the road) to be spraying new paint on the white dashed line between lanes. Which really wasn’t in order, the markings were perfectly clear, if slightly worn, while other stretches of road had their markings eroded to invisibility without anyone doing anything about it.

I can only assume that they carried a huge pile of traffic cones with them, and left them behind after each part of the road they painted over. And did not bother to set anyone with the task of picking up the unnecessary ones on the back, once everything dried. Very annoying.

Subscription auto-renewals

June 15th, 2005

With every time-limited service subscription, there comes a time when the subscription expires, and needs to be either cancelled or renewed.

Service providers of course prefer if you renew. You may either want to renew, or want to cancel. Which raises the issue of renewal policy. The basic concept would be that you subscribe for a certain length of time, and if you want to increase the time, you need to go and do something about it. Under this model, if you’re not interested, you just don’t do anything, and the subscription will expire. Since renewal means another payment, then it makes sense not to pay unless you explicitly want to.

The second model is the auto-renewal one. The subscription will be renewed automatically, unless you explicitly cancel it. This is unfortunately becoming more and more common, since the service providers really like it. Obviously, if people wanting to renew will always renew, and people not wanting to renew won’t renew, then the method won’t matter. So the differences are in convenience to the customers, and in what happens to customers who don’t pay attention.

The businesses involved usually claim they’re doing this “for your convenience”. Let’s take a look at the options, from the customer standpoint:

  • Wants to renew, without auto-renewal: In order to renew the customers have to be aware that the subscription is expiring, and have to manually go and renew the service. Being notified is easy, since the business involved has an incentive to make sure the customer will know. There is a little bit of a hassle in renewing, but in general the process should be very simple, since again it is in the best interest of the business to make the renewal easy. Worst case, if the customer forgets, then the service will stop. Since the customer cares about the service, they will likely notice that (if they don’t, they didn’t really need the service), and go renew. The cost of that will be a temporary disruption of the service, and as long as the service isn’t life-critical (air supply for your new lunar colony dome, for example) that should be just a small disruption, especially since many such services can be renewed retroactively from the expiration date.
  • Wants to renew, with auto-renewal: This is the most convenient option for people who want to renew the service. They don’t have to do anything, and everyone is happy.
  • Doesn’t want to renew, without auto-renewal: This is the most convenient option for people who don’t want to renew. They made a subscription to last a certain time, the time passed, and the subscription stopped. The business lost the customer, which is bad for the business, but the customer was not interested in the service anyway, so at least they parted ways amicably.
  • Doesn’t want to renew, with auto-renewal: The customers have to manually cancel the subscription. If they don’t, they will find that they again pay for a service they do not desire. The customers have to remember to cancel before the renewal date, and the business has an incentive to avoid clearly reminding them, because the business want them to renew. In addition, the manual cancellation may be more complicated than a manual renewal, since the business has little incentive to make sure it’s easy to cancel. An undesired service is also one that the customer is likely not using, and so is less aware of, so there is a decent chance the service will get renewed due to simple inattention. This is good for the service on the short term, since they will get the money for a subscription, but bad on the long term, since it may annoy customers. Worst case for the customer is when the customer forgets, in which case they pay money for a service they will not use, and don’t want to use.

So auto-renewal means that customer who want to renew are spared a simple chore of manually renewing, and people who don’t want to renew either go through a similar, or harder, manual chore, or get really annoyed discovering they unwittingly purchased more subscription time. Unless this is a subscription that absolutely everyone will always want to renew (hint: no such thing, unless you’re the monopolistic air supplier for that lunar dome we mentioned), this does not strike me as being for the customer’s convenience.

Personally, if I ever subscribe to anything with auto-renewal, one of the first things I do is cancel the renewal. If I’ll want to renew, I’ll do it when it’s time. But if I forget, I much prefer the small bother of a subscription lapse, to the huge bother of finding out I paid for a service I don’t want.

This post was started after taking a look at the on-line subscription page for The Economist (At this time I don’t have any intention of subscribing, I just took a look out of curiosity, since the subscribe buttons were there near an article I was trying to read, and wasn’t allowed access to). They have two subscription options, annualy or monthly, each with a link explaining their auto-renewal policies.

And yes, both automatically renew. Even the monthly one, which is typically what you’ll choose if you do not want to be a long-term subscriber, but just have temporary access. Not only that, but a yearly subscription costs $89.00, and a monthly one costs $19.95. This means that if you do a monthly subscription without reading the fine-print, expecting to pay for a month, you may well find yourself after a year having paid $239.40 for that annual subscription.

Nice, isn’t it? The auto-renewal for the annual subscription is bad, but all too standard these days. Monthly subscription auto-renewals, that’s just plain rude. Very rude, even. Those prices are high because people usually do this as a temporary one-time thing. Why force them through the hoops of cancellation, or make them pay if they, not surprisingly, not notice their one month subscription is going to increase itself automatically?

The Economist also don’t handle their own subscriptions, not even though this is a subscription to the web content only, on their own site, so it’s not clear why they need someone else to handle it for them. But when you subscribe, you get an account with a different service, and need to go cancel the subscription there. This is not customer friendly.

At least for the annual subscription option they say they will send an email notification one month before renewal, as a reminder. Nice, but not nearly enough, and these days very likely to just get caught by some spam filter. The monthly subscription, if you wonder, does not come with any such reassurance.

Who needs the human element?

June 15th, 2005

Every system can develop errors, and have incorrect data. And if all the decisions are made by the system, sometime there can be silly mistakes that simply cannot be corrected. This is one of the main reasons humans stay involved, even on cases where all they normally do is serve as a front-end to a computerized system.

Like a sales clerk. The job is to see what is it that you want to buy, enter the information into the system, take your money, and hand you the receipt (a bit oversimplified, maybe, but that’s the gist of it). Most of the time you could do just as well by passing the barcode reader on the products yourself, and swiping the credit card yourself when the transaction ends. With the idea of putting RFID tags on products in stores, you won’t even need to use the barcode reader. The shop employee sitting behind the cash register is usually redundant.

Except when there are problems, or when the information in the system (such as stock quantity, prices, product descriptions, and such) is incorrect. In this cases the human element is necessary, because the person can be shown the mistake, and take steps to correct it. If they don’t have the access required to correct the problem, they can at least exercise judgement and get someone higher up. That someone can, again, be talked to, and shown how the data in the system does not match reality. Having someone you can reason with, and who will not blindly follow the system database, can be invaluable.

But apparently on some stores, even the employees can look straight at the large pack of products from the kind you want to buy, and tell you that they are out of stock. The products are on the shelf, you could bring one to the cash register and shove it in their faces, but they’ll read the line on the computer screen, and tell you that they don’t have it on stock.

This is plain idiotic. Even the manager claimed they were out of stock. And store managers are supposed to have the authority to do something. Maybe change the stock information manually. And if not, at least take the customer’s money, make the transaction manually, and log it into the system later after the error is corrected. The important thing, both for the store and for the customer, is to make the sale. Not in this case, though.

I wonder what would have happened if he tried to just take what he was trying to buy, and walk out of the store. Instead of giving up, to just take it. Usually that would be stealing, right? But the store can’t complain someone is stealing from them an item they don’t have. If it’s not in stock, they don’t have it, so it can’t be taken away from them. Makes perfect sense. Imagine the (imaginary, but no more crazy than the actual one in the story) conversation:

Manager: Stop that, you thief!
Customer: What do you mean, thief? I’m not taking anything of yours!
Manager: That’s our product, you didn’t pay for it!
Customer: Are you sure? It’s yours? Fine, I’ll buy it then.
Manager: You can’t buy it.
Customer: Why not?
Manager: Because we don’t have it in stock.
Customer: You don’t have it in stock? Not even a single unit?
Manager: No.
Customer: Then this unit isn’t a part of your stock?
Manager: Right.
Customer: Fine, then it’s not yours, and you won’t mind if I take it, right?

Would have been interesting to see how that would have turned out…

Taking a camera to the cinema

June 14th, 2005

[UPDATE: The free invitation arrived]

A few weeks ago I went to see a movie with a friend, and carried on me my digital camera. Which resulted in a little unpleasantness. I sent an email to the company (Rav-Hen) running that cinema:

A few days ago I went to see a movie, in the Rav-Hen Dizengoff cinema.
I had with me a new digital camera, inside a small
holster on my belt. This was the first time I ever
arrived to a movie carrying a camera with me.

The security guard saw the holster, asked if I have a
camera inside it, and when I gave a positive response
he informed me that it is not allowed to take a camera
into the cinema, and I will need to deposit it with
security.

I tried to explain to the guard that this is not a
video camera, so I could not use it to make a pirate
copy of the movie even if I wanted to, but to no
avail. When I asked him what is the problem with
carrying cameras, and why are they not allowed, he was
unable to answer me, and only said it’s policy, and
that he doesn’t understand it either.

Worse, when giving the camera I was not provided with
any official deposit form. I was asked for my name,
and was given a simple hand-written note on a piece of
entirely common note paper, having my name and the
word Camera written on it by the women inside the
security room.

Had my friend not been there earlier, and saw people
giving those paper notes and getting cameras back, I
would have made a scene, since it looked entirely
unofficial, and made me seriously doubt that I’ll see
the camera again. If I wave a simple handwritten paper
and claim it’s a deposit receipt, in most places I
would fully expect to be told that’s nonsense.

In this case it ended well, I gave back the note, and
got back my camera, but the entire experience left me
mystified, and was very unprofessional.
In addition, no verification of either my personal
details or the camera details was done. Anyone
standing in the vicinity when I deposited the camera
could have easily written their own note, hand it
over, and get my camera. The current procedure is
entirely open to abuse.

Due to that I wanted to ask you:

  1. Why are simple (non-video) cameras not allowed
    inside the cinema?
  2. Why are the security guards are in charge of it?
    It’s not a security issue, and making other things a
    part of their duty hurts security.
  3. If this is indeed official procedure, why do you
    not issue proper forms, and trust on simple and sloppy
    hand-written notes?
  4. Why aren’t any checks done to better identify the
    identity of the people depositing, and withdrawing,
    the cameras? And that they are getting the right
    camera?
  5. Why are the people in charge of implementing the
    policy not informed as to the reasons for it?

Thank you for a reply, and for any better explanation
about the reasons for this policy, and these
procedures, that you could supply.

A couple of weeks passed, nothing happened. I decided to try this one more time, this time sending the message in Hebrew. Could be that they’re used to getting email in Hebrew, and so this one got ignored, or even discarded by some automatic filter.

I sent them what was effectively a translation of the above message, with some few styling changes. And this time, though it took them about a week, they did answer. The reply was in Hebrew, but this is a quick and rough translation:

We confirm receiving your complaint, and this our reply:

Company policy of the Rav-Hen network forbids inserting cameras from all kinds into the cinema halls, in the intention of preventing any sort of photography of the shown film, due to copyright issues. The policy apply to all kinds of photographic equipment, since our people do not have the expertise to observe the different functionality of each camera.

The enforcement of this guideline is increasing these days, mostly due to the problem of piratical distribution of cinematic movies in various ways, which usually start through cinema visitors who film the movie while it is projected, using cameras of different kinds.

Since these guidelines are new, and the scope of the phenomenon is still relatively small, the network did not yet determine the bureaucratic procedure for applying them in the cinemas.

In any case, in these days the final format for forms which will be transferred to the cinema managers, and will replace the currently existing temporary method, is being finalized.

We see very gravely the fact that the cinema staff was unaware of the meaning of the procedures, and following your complaint to us the procedure will be explained again.

They also said that they added to the message a double invitation for a movie in any of the network cinemas (under several limitations which will be printed on the invitation, and which they advise me to pay attention to). This was of course not actually attached to the message, but rather a note there asked me to provide them with a mailing address to send it to. Considering that while it was annoying, the event didn’t technically hurt the viewing of the movie, this is nice of them.

How did this reply answer my actual questions?

  1. Simple cameras are not allowed because their people, who do not understand anything about cameras (them being security guards), can’t tell if the cameras are problematical or not. This is actually fair. I suppose that it is quite possible to have video cameras that look small and harmless, and the technology just gets better and smaller. So erring on the side of caution is understandable. Still, I do doubt that a running film, on its third or fourth week of being shown, and after there are already numerous versions available either to download or to purchase piratically, is really a high risk. Even with a video camera, nobody would have a reason to try and shoot the film.
  2. No reply as to why the security guards are doing it. And no response about this hurting security. I’m not sure if that’s because they don’t want to talk about it, or that they see it as a non-issue. Bad either way. And has something to do with the lack of professionalism on this angle, since that’s not the field that the security people has to deal with, or understand something about. I assume the real reason has to do with, of course, money. That being that the security guards are already there, and get paid anyway.
  3. The procedure seemed haphazard because it was. They decided they don’t want cameras, sent out the instruction to not allow cameras, and only then started to plan how they actually want to do it. Considering that the problem wasn’t critical (as they say themselves), there wasn’t any extreme urgency, so they could have waited until they could do it properly. It has been about a month since the time the incident occurred, so even if I had the luck to stumble on the very first day of implementation, that’s still a whole month for setting a procedure while they already passed the instructions. This is a long time to run blind and without protocol.
  4. Taking the camera back is probably under the same category, so I hope this would improve as well once they implement proper procedures. I take it that not too many camera thefts has occurred in the meantime, or I’d have probably heard about it by now.
  5. The security guards apparently were supposed to be able to tell me that they have to take the camera because they can’t tell if the camera was a video camera or not. This despite the fact (oh, don’t bother anyone with facts) that the security guard appeared quite aware that the camera was not a video camera, and seemed to even recognize the model.

Still, all’s well that ends well, and this ended well enough. I did get the camera back at the time. They did reply. And they are aware of at least some of the problems, and intend to make the procedure more solid. In the meantime, if for some odd reason I’ll ever go to the cinema with the camera on me, I’ll just put it in my pants’ pocket instead, so nobody will notice it and have any problem (yes, it is that small, my wrongly suspected to be video-camera). Either that, or I’ll try and do it properly, just to see how are they handling it now.

I doubt that was by design

June 14th, 2005

Christianity Today, the Evangelical Christian periodical, also publishes various specific studies and publications, which they sell for a modest fee to pastors. Not being an evangelical Christian, I never noticed them until I stumbled upon the page for this study, titled Sex as God Designed It. Catchy name, and since I find it hard to take such a thing as designed, I decided to take a look.

I did not actually pay for the article, but there’s plenty on the product page to explore. Now, I know that Christianity is a big supporter of marriage. And I know that it probably isn’t too enthusiastic about free sex. But from there, to what this study seems to claim, well, there’s quite a bit of a distance.

The church has a vital part to play in spreading the good news about sex.

Good news? News? As in something new which people didn’t know until now, and was just recently discovered? And here I thought the church was somewhat conservative and old fashioned, not running cutting-edge research on topics like sex.

Overview:

Western civilization is overstimulated and oversexed, says Philip Yancey. We are thoroughly saturated with sexual images and constantly surveyed about sexual attitudes and practices.

I don’t know about Mr. Yancey, but personally I am not (unfortunately) overstimulated and oversexed. Not only that, but I am not constantly surveyed about sexual attitudes. Come to think of it, I think I was never once surveyed about my sexual attitudes. So who the heck keeps coming back to Mr. Yancey to survey him?

But something essential and precious has been lost. Sadly, a persuasive Christian approach to sexuality is missing that could act as a balance to secular cynicism and obsession and help believers rediscover the elements of sacredness in a healthy sexual life.

I know sex should be great, but people who refer to it as sacred, or holy, are usually taken away by the nice people in white jackets, and hospitalized. Besides, if the purpose of a sexual relation was to be sacred and worship god, it would have been, like other things in that category, even more exciting and fulfilling, right? Sex might have been as fun as taking communion, maybe even as exciting and uplifting as praying, or going to confession. But since sex really pales in comparison (Right? Be honest, which would you rather do? So there you have it), then it should be obvious it can’t be nearly as sacred.

In this study, we’ll endeavour to understand God’s design for sex and discuss how the church can help spread the word.

About the only seriously good thing I have to say about this study, is that at least the author think that it’s possible, and desired, to understand God’s working and decisions. There are plenty of religious attitudes that claim trying to understand and analyse God is wrong, and thankfully this isn’t one of them.

Still, there’s really no need for the church to spread the word about sex. People know. It’s one of the worst kept secrets of all times.

So far for the overview, let’s take a look at the main points of the study article, see what it’s really about:

—Teaching point one: God created and designed sex and sexual expression to be experienced in a marital relationship.

So what Mr. Yancey is saying here, is that God is a terribly bad designer, and had no idea what she was doing during the design phase, no? Because, let’s face it, the fact that sex and sexual expression were designed specifically to be experienced in marital relationship explains a lot. It explains, for example, why nobody is ever sexually attracted to a person they’re not married to. It also explains why people always remain sexually attracted to people that they are married to. And, last but not least, it explains why nobody who is married is ever sexually attracted to anyone beside their spouses, for even the briefest of instants. Yes, wonderful design job. If you’d have bought something home with that design spec, and that actual performance, you’ll be running back to the store for a refund, and sue the company for false advertisement and sloppy design.

Ah, and let us not forget, this of course means that ever since the day of creation, everyone married. Historically speaking, there was never a time, and never a civilization, that had sex, but did not have marital relationship. The two come hand in hand. Right? Otherwise it would mean that through major parts of human history all people were just blatantly ignoring God.

—Teaching point two: When society loses faith in God, the purposes and practices of sexual expression become perverted.

Because, of course, nobody who isn’t Christian ever had a proper marriage between a man and a women, just like Mr. Yancey God likes. And we should be grateful for being notified that if society will lose faith in God then, among all the other horrors, something terrible will happen… People may come to think that sex is… fun. Dreadful, isn’t it?

—Teaching point three: The church must reclaim its teaching and pastoral role to provide a godly perspective and a well-grounded witness for sexuality.

The way I read that point, he says that priests and pastors should provide sex-ed classes in church, and should sometime sneak into people houses to make sure the sex they are having is only with their spouses. But that can’t possibly be what he means, can it?

Apply Your Findings

No, I’m not kidding. In the study about sex, and the dangers and perversion of out-of-marriage sex, one of the topics is getting the priests to apply their findings. I have nothing to say about that, except to wonder if that refers to the married evangelical priests, or the unmarried evangelical priests. Probably both. Well, have fun applying your findings then, guys. Darn, I like that euphemism, and predict it’s only a matter of time before it will hit the mainstream. I wonder how “Hi there, gorgeous. Would you like to come with me and help me apply my findings?” will go as a pick-up line…

Comment spam, SMTP relays, and chanuka/Hanukkah

June 8th, 2005

A couple of days ago I was going over some blogs I read, and came on this post by David Weinberger which actually touched on a subject I apparently know much better than him, the Hebrew language. Specifically, a mention he made about the word “chanuka” in Hebrew.

He got it pretty wrong by deciding it means lighten-up, and his first commenter got it mildly wrong by saying it means dedication. The term is more like the “warming” part of “housewarming”, the first acknowledged usage of something new (or at least the time when the usage is declared/acknowledged). It applies to new houses, and public buildings and parks, but also to things like cars, television systems, or even wines. Or, on a different meaning, it is chocked, when related to a female (Hebrew verbs take different forms for each of the two male/female genders).

Of course, the holiday Hanukkah is based on the same word, so it’s also possible the entire thing is moot, since I don’t know if “chanuka” in Swahili has a similar sound or not. Just being similarly written is quite meaningless, considering that I know the Hebrew word, at least, doesn’t really sound like an English speaker will tend to pronounce it.

So I decided to be a good little Hebrew speaker, and leave a comment on his blog post.

And couldn’t. I was caught by an overzealous anti-comment-spam device, which is even not suitable to serve against comment spam.

A little aside to the few readers who don’t know what comment spam is. You all know what email spam is, right? Incoming messages you never requested, trying to convince you to do stuff, or buy stuff, that you don’t need. Well, blog posts often have the possibility to leave comments on them. So it was only a matter of time until spammers jumped on the bandwagon, and made automatic bots (computer programs that can do many of repetitive tasks, like sending an email, or filling a form on a web page, quickly) that will leave comments which are not relevant to the post, but contain links to their sites. Often these involve porn, and card games, but the variety is as large as on the email spam.

Meaning that many measures are now tried and used in order to keep comments in blogs free of these comment spam messages. Some more elaborate, some simple. The method I use here is a very simple one, requiring anyone writing a comment to fill in an extra field. This works because those bots are automated to work against the basic and common ways comments work, and do not (yet) try too hard to go around variations.

There are many other methods, but Weinberger decided, IMNSHO, to be too smart for his own good. He tied the comment posting to a system that checks the comment poster’s IP address (The unique Internet address of the computer) against a central database, with a list of bad address used as open SMTP relays.

Another aside, about open SMTP relays. SMTP is basically the communication protocol used to send email messages. So mail servers send messages using SMTP. Spammers (the email spammers this time, not comment spammers) don’t want to use their own mail server, because then it would be easy to block their messages, and so they look for email servers which are open relays. Being an open relay mean that this mail server will accept a message from anyone, without any verification and authentication, and send it onward. This is a bad problem in the age of spammers, and email server operators are encouraged to configure their email servers not to do that.

One of the things that happened is that there are several central repositories, like the Distributed Sender Blackhole List, which contain IP addresses of mail servers which are suspected of being badly behaved in that regard. This allow other mail servers to check every incoming mail message they receive against that list, and refuse to receive messages from the suspected servers, since those message may very well be spam.

This of course has very little to do with comment spam, since those mail servers are usually not the same computers used by comment spammers to run their bots. So telling me that my own computer’s IP address is on the list, and that therefore I cannot leave a comment, is irrelevant here. Had I been trying to directly send an email messages, that would have been a different matter, but I didn’t.

There is of course another problem there, that my personal computer’s address was on the list. This is because we get from our ISP a dynamic address, meaning that it changes from time to time, and goes to other users while we get a different one from the pool. It’s possible to get a static address, but this costs more, and isn’t necessary unless you are running a server that people on the outside need to be always able to find. Or simply put, the address was blocked because someone else on the past (They had one incident, logged at February 2004) sent an email message he shouldn’t have…

Overall, like I said, a very real problem, but a very wrong solution. I sent him an email message about this, but due to his big problem of comment spam (his blog is high profile, so a very popular target) he feels that using this is justified. He was nice about it, and offered to go and take my address of the list himself. But I can talk to dsbl myself if I want to. And I don’t want to. Both because this is a dynamic address, and because it’s a non-issue. Apart from his blog this only prevents me from running my own mail server. I have no intention of running my own mail server in the foreseeable future, though. So I declined the offer, explained my position again, and that was that.

Spam vs. SPAM

June 8th, 2005

Nobody much cares about the proper way to write the term spam, and the actual relation between all those pesky spam messages and the food SPAM. Except of course for SPAM maker Hormel, which after a few lawsuits gave up and also decided to take it easier, requesting only that SPAM will be capitalized appropriately. Those pesky messages should be referred to in lower-case – spam, and their food in upper-case – SPAM.

And like I said, nobody pays too much attention, with people mostly writing it in whichever way strikes their fancy.

Today I noticed a blog post, about some unrelated joke, in which the author mentioned both kinds of spam/SPAM. He decided to be nice and civilized, which is very nice considering that like I said nobody much bothers these days, and to take the extra step of writing them differently.

And then went straight ahead to capitalize them all wrong, with SPAM (food) written as spam, and spam (messages) written as SPAM.

I’d have left a comment, but there is only so much you can do with blogs that require registration in order to leave one, and don’t even provide an email address.

Adverse reaction

June 7th, 2005

I saw the Canadian Adverse Drug Reaction Monitoring Program (CADRMP) Adverse Reaction Database, and decided to go and take a look. It is supposed to be a compilation of reports about adverse reactions to various drugs and food products, and so can be a useful tool in assessing drug and food safety.

The main page has a link near the bottom to some documentation (mainly they want to make sure people had a chance to read that the information is from reports, and so they’re not legally responsible if anyone stakes their lives on it, and all the rest of the disclaimers. But also some general explanations about the database and usage). Once you open it, the bottom of that page gives the option to either search online, or download the thing.

I decided to run a search, and got to a search screen with a myriad of fields. I decided to search by name, and discovered that you can’t search by names, just browse by them. There’s a link, which opens an index page of the first letter of the name. Clicking on a letter opens an index page of drugs/ingredients starting in that letter.

So I picked Insulin 30/70, to see what adverse reactions were reported as associated with it. There was just one report, with the outcome listed as unknown, and the involvement of this Insulin in the incident as suspected.

So I clicked on the link to open the full report. The amount taken was listed as 3000 IU of insulin. For reference, a diabetic person injecting insulin would use total daily amounts in the ranges 30-80 IU. We’re talking something like taking a two month’s amount in one sitting. No wonder there were some, er, adverse effects.

Later in the report they list the exact adverse effects suspected caused by the usage. In this case those were hypokalaemia (low level of potassium in the blood. Not sure how that got there), hypoglaecemia (low blood sugar levels. I’d have been shocked if it wasn’t there after injecting so much insulin), and… the best adverse effect of them all… suicide attempt.

Now the thing is, there is no way whatsoever to get so much insulin into you accidentally. The largest vials and cartridges on insulin sold for diabetics do not contain these amounts. So the suicide attempt must have been the reason, not the effect. So yes, it’s pretty adverse, but I hardly think someone trying to kill themselves should have the suicide attempt listed as a result of the drug used…

The report was made by a pharmacist in a regional centre. Which I don’t quite get, because that would mean the guy bought his insulin, and then went straight ahead to inject everything there and then near the pharmacy. Makes no sense. Then again, suicide attempts rarely do.

And one note to Health Canada: Make all the site pages pass info in the URI instead of in cookies, so it would be possible to link to inside pages, please.

Tel-Aviv food festival, addendum

June 7th, 2005

Like I said in my previous post about the food festival, I forgot something which was worth mentioning.

Or more specifically, I forgot to mention the stand for the restaurant Kimel (kimel is also the Hebrew term for caraway). Their festival menu hasn’t changed in years and years, but all the dishes are excellent, so it doesn’t really matter. And it sort of became a tradition (of the friends I went with, I only joined with them last year, and only embraced the tradition then) to take their crown offering, a dish of mushrooms filled with goose liver, in figs and port sauce. An excellent dish, and it immediately gave me ideas for some recipes based on the concept of using figs when cooking in red-wine.

It also always was the most expensive dish on their, or the entire festival’s, menu, at 25 ILS. Which is plenty in a festival with an effective price cap of 20 ILS.

The dish also came with a glass of lemonade included, which isn’t common there since drinks are sold separately. The lemonade alone costs 5 ILS, and this may certainly explain the price difference.

This year they decided not to add lemonade with it. Looking at the large menu sign, it was obvious that the text “+ lemonade” was painted over (They reuse the same sign, big billboards cost money, so if everything is the same, why change it?). They also painted over the digit 5 in the 25, probably thinking this is sufficient to indicate the matching reduction in price.

And left it like that. Giving the appearance that the cost is 2 ILS, and greatly amusing us in the process. At first when we noticed the amazing price reduction we were sure it’s a mistake, but the menu was printed twice, on the two sides of the billboard, and it was the same on both sides.

Sadly enough, when it came time to order, they told us the price is 20 and not 2. And we did not really want to argue over the point of false advertising, and that the law requires sellers to stand behind their advertised prices if they make mistakes…