March 02, 2003

"But you might feel better if I gave you some cash"

An article in the newspaper today discussed the problem of how to successfully sue people over the Rhode Island nightclub fire. The article begins: "As families of the dead and injured struggle with their grief after one of the country's deadliest fires, some are starting to look for compensation."

Maybe I'd feel differently if I'd gone through something like this, but, as I've noted before, I've never understood how people, having just lost a loved one (or several loved ones) seem to so quickly think, "Damn, I need some money."

Underlining the greed behind all this, one attorney was quoted, "The most culpable people seem to be the owners of the bar and the band. But it would appear there is wholly inadequate coverage there. So you have to look elsewhere -- starting with the products involved, the people who supplied them, the people who prepared them and maintained them." The article continues: "Civil lawyers could go after the manufacturers of the pyrotechnics or the soundproofing material that it ignited. Concert promoters, even the architects of the building -- constructed in the early 1940s -- are potential defendants, Decof said."

So, if the people responsible -- or, perhaps more accurately, their insurance companies -- don't seem to have deep enough pockets, you go after whoever you can find with money? It's really hard for me to believe that someone who designed the building in 1940 should be held responsible for a fire that happened 60 years later.

How does this actually help anyone???

Posted by Mike at 09:18 PM

March 03, 2003

When fighting spam is overkill

Recently, Meredith discovered that her emails to Peter, one of her best friends from Yale and now a grad student at the University of Michigan, were being bounced. The error messages looked like this:

host []: 553
5.3.0 No access from your host

All of our email is relayed through a mail server that's run on a server in our home. The server is running 24/7, connected to the PacBell DSL line. It is NOT an open relay. Despite daily attempts by spammers to use the server to relay their spam, to date, exactly zero attempts have been successful. Nice try; now go away.

So why was our email being blocked? After emailing -- no easy task, since I had to find another server to relay the mail through -- they replied that they were getting a lot of spam from another server at one specific IP address connected via PacBell's DSL, so blocked all addresses that resolved as * This basically covers all of the Bay Area. Surely, I suggested, they could choose to block just the offending address, and not ALL of the Bay Area. At any rate, they removed the block, but warned that if they start getting spam from the other machine, they'd put the block back on.

And, sure enough, email yesterday bounced -- No access from your host.


Posted by Mike at 12:04 PM

March 04, 2003

News aggregator

I recently decided to try again to use a news aggregator as part of my daily routine. News aggregators, for those who have been as ignorant of this topic as I have been, are programs designed to download feeds from various sites and display them in one, easy to get at, place. It's good for sites that post entries with news -- blogs, news sites, etc. All this is possible because of various XML standards for publishing news lists -- see here for a collection of RSS sites if you're interested.

I'd tried Headline Viewer, which is supposedly one of the more popular Windows aggregators. My experience with it wasn't so good, though. I didn't find it easy to use, and, worse, it wasn't compatible with RSS 2.0, which more and more news sites use. Not so useful.

I tried a couple of others, but, again, none really seemed to impress me.

Then I stumbled on a program written, of all things, as .NET sample code by a Microsoft engineer. Called RSS Bandit, it's actually become my favorite program. You can download an installer from the MSDN site that gives you not only the program, but also the C# source code.

The one thing that it didn't do is support blogs that are password-protected. It's not exactly typical to see something like that, but there is one blog that I read all the time that is (hi Ms. L!). Fortunately, adding support for this was easy -- in about 40 minutes, I had it working, despite never having worked with the .NET web access components before. The help system in Visual Studio .NET is really nice.

Now I have one program that I can go to to check on updates from the various blogs I read and some of the computer news sites. Nice...

Posted by Mike at 10:45 PM | Comments (1)

March 05, 2003

More bad customer service

Most of last year, was hosted by I always had fairly good success with them. Their customer service department was very responsive, but I eventually switched to another company because of some additional capabilities that they offered that hostit365 did not.

So, on January 2, I put in a request to cancel my account. They sent a note back asking if there was anything else they could do to change my mind, which I forgot to reply to. On January 5, we were billed the normal monthly charge. I didn't think too much about it -- I understand that recurring transactions like that have some lead time, and assumed that I must have just gotten in a bit too late. On January 7, I sent a note back saying that no, there wasn't anything they could do; I just wanted the service canceled.

On February 5, we were billed again. I sent a note back saying, "I canceled this service on January 2. This is the second time I've been billed since the cancellation. Please cancel this charge." The reply came swiftly: "Did you receive a confirmation of your cancellation? I am looking into
this, and you will of course be refunded. Apologies." I replied, copying the email exchange of early January, and didn't hear anything back.

I never remembered to go make sure the refund showed up on my credit card.

Today is March 5. Can you see where this is going yet? I got another email saying that we'd been billed again. I wrote back saying that this was ridiculous and they had until the end of today to fix it or I was just going to call my credit card company and let them fix it. The reply:

"We had never received a confirmation or reply from you, which is why this issue was unfortunately left to hang. I apologize for the inconvenience, and I am looking into it."

Oh, I see. It's my fault. I wrote back again, explaining that my view, ah, differed. The quick reply: "... if you could please just email me the first six and last six digits of your credit card, full name on your card, domain, login and password I will make sure your account is cancelled right now and you are refunded in full for those months."

My credit card number has only fifteen digits. I'm not about to email twelve of those in the clear. This is absurd.

Think it'll ever end?


Posted by Mike at 12:09 PM | Comments (1)

New job

Friday, I start a new job. No, I'm not leaving Microsoft. I'm just moving one building over.

Since joining Microsoft, I've been working in the MSN TV group at Microsoft, working on software for a couple of different set-top boxes (UltimateTV and Dishplayer).

Day after tomorrow, I transfer into a new group, in MS TV (note the lack of an 'N' -- no more giant Butterflies for me), working on an entirely new project.

I'm really looking forward to it. It'll be different, but I think the change will be good. It'll be nice to go work on something entirely new -- something I haven't done in a very long time.

Posted by Mike at 06:54 PM

March 09, 2003

I just couldn't hold out forever...

Meredith got sick a week ago last Friday (2/28). She finally got better by Wednesday morning, then, Wednesday night, came home with a 102 degree fever. While it hasn't stayed that high, she's been unable to shake the fever until last night.

This morning, I woke up with a 100.2 deg fever.


Update: it later hit 102 degrees. At 102, you can almost feel your brain cooking. Nasty...

Posted by Mike at 08:58 AM | Comments (1)

March 10, 2003

MakeWebPictures (C# code)

I finally posted a program I wrote a while back to generate web pages with thumbnails of and links to pictures. I've been using for a while now to generate most of the recently-posted picture pages (e.g., the London pictures). It's written in C#, mostly because it was a good excuse for me to learn something about C# and the .NET framework. If you're interested in such things, check it out. Full source code is included.

Posted by Mike at 03:49 PM | Comments (1)

March 12, 2003

Miracles do still happen

I cannot belive they found Elizabeth Smart alive. After being missing for nine months, I would never have thought it possible. I cannot imagine how grateful the family must feel. God be praised!

Posted by Mike at 09:09 PM

March 16, 2003

Irony is...

The home page for lists:

The second article is all about the assurances that of course, the new travel screening won't invade anyone's privacy.

The first article is about a passenger who traveled with some signs saying "No war with Iraq" in his bags, then found that after his bags had been searched by the Transportation Security Administration, a note was left in his bag saying "Don't appreciate your anti-American attitude!"

Posted by Mike at 08:33 AM

The economics of racing a train

Economists have a way of measuring the value of a human life by how much someone would be willing to pay for safety. If you would pay $50,000 for something that would decrease the odds of you dying by one percent, then that is essentially saying that your life is worth $50,000 / 1% = $5,000,000. Steven Landsburg does a good job of explaining this in a column he wrote for Slate. In it, by the way, he observes that the average life these days is considered worth around four or five million dollars.

An article in this week's Mountain View Voice mentions the intersection of Central Expressway and Rengstorff Avenue as being one of the two intersections in the city with the highest number of accidents. The article notes:

The collisions at Rengstorff and Central can be attributed to the train tracks and drivers' impatience at getting past them. "Some people try to beat the train," continued Belluomini.

Sitting at this intersection rather frequently, I've observed this many times — someone will try to race their car to sneak under the gates and get across, just before the rushing train gets there.

This made me start to think about the economics behind this. If you can measure the value of a life by how much you would pay to make it safer, surely it is not unreasonable to also measure the value by how much you are willing to trade off by making your life less safe in order to achieve some gain. In this case, the gain is time. Because the people trying to beat the train are almost always going north on Rengstorff, and because those same people are the first to get the green light after the train has cleared, you can, if you beat it, save about two minutes. That's the entire gain.

But now we have to figure out the odds that you won't make it. In other words, how much less safe are you making your life? Well, let's suppose that there's a 1 in 1000 chance that you won't make it — that you get stuck under the gate or on the tracks, or blocked in by the car in front of you — whatever. Further suppose that there is a 1 in 100 chance that if this happens, you'll die. In other words, there is a 99% chance that even if your car gets stuck on the tracks, you'll get out of the car before the train hits it (I sure hope you don't have kids you need to unbuckle as well). Because, well, if the train does hit your car — you are dead. I saw a wreck once where the person didn't make it; the fire department had to use the 'jaws of life' to pry the car off the front of the train. Nasty.

So, what we're left with is a 1 in 100,000 chance that you will die. So, two minutes, divided by this chance, means that your life is worth 200,000 minutes — or 3333 hours. Now let us assume, to pick a random number, that you make $50/hour. (Certainly some people in this area make more, but a lot of people make less.) So, if you race the train to save two minutes, this means that your life is worth:


That's all.

Something to think about the next time the train is coming. Is that really all your life is worth?

Posted by Mike at 10:41 PM | Comments (2)

March 19, 2003

So it begins...

As I was driving back from church tonight, I listened to NPR's coverage of the three-hour old war.

At about 9:45 — a whole three hours after the first shots were fired — I listened to some newscaster saying, "Well, it seems clear that this hasn't gone according to plan. This war has really gotten off to a shaky start so far..."


And people wonder why there is such general contempt for journalists.

Posted by Mike at 11:51 PM

March 21, 2003

One year...

It was one year ago that I wrote my first blog entry in here. How time flies...

Posted by Mike at 11:00 PM

March 24, 2003


The Mountain View-Whisman School Board is trying to get a $2.5 million parcel tax measure passed in Mountain View at an election this coming June.

The school district (which has not, curiously, updated its web site with any information on this issue) is facing, like many California schools, crushing budget cuts because of the enormous California budget shortfall. Their solution is to try for a rather unique parcel tax: unlike many such measures, which tax some fixed dollar amount per parcel of land, this one taxes 5 cents per square foot on buildings and property improvements for each of the following five years.

The result of this is that businesses will end up footing an incredible portion of the bill. Articles in the Mountain View Voice 3/14 and 3/21 issues have noted that SGI, Microsoft, and HP combined will probably end up paying over $97,000 each year -- almost 4% of the total.

From the standpoint of wanting to pass the tax, I can understand the strategy of the school board. By forcing businesses to bear the lion's share of the tax, individual residents will have a much lower tax burden and are, therefore, more likely to vote for the measure. Large businesses tend to have a lot of people who live outside of Mountain View, and therefore can't vote on the issue (for example, I'm hard pressed to think of anyone else that I work with here at Microsoft who actually lives in Mountain View).

The articles mention the polling of 400 Mountain View residents about the tax before the school board placed it on the measure. I was one of those polled. The questions were about whether I would support the tax, whether I agreed that schools were having financial problems, how I would want the money spent, and, finally, a series of 'would you be more likely to vote for / no more likely to vote for the measure if X were included'. Note that 'less likely' wasn't a choice I was given. An interesting choice in polling methodology.

Do the ends justify the means? I don't think that businesses should be devoid of any fiscal responsibility to the communities in which they are based, but having just three companies pay 1/25 of the total bill, and not give those companies any real chance to have a voice in the issue, seems like taxation without representation at its worst. Further, having the tax paid so disproportionately seems fiscally foolish -- what happens to the school district's funding if one of those companies closes a building in the next five years?

In the end, I am torn. I do think the schools need more money to function at even basic levels. But I am alarmed by what seems to be a 'whatever it takes to pass it' mentality of the measure's backers. I could have supported a parcel tax measure, but I'm not sure that I can support this particular measure.

Posted by Mike at 07:46 PM | Comments (1)

March 25, 2003

New job

I'm finally starting to feel like I'm, well, starting in my new job. I missed the first day entirely because of being sick, and then spent the rest of the week still not feeling healthy.

Then last week I spent most of my time trying to come up to speed and trying to get one simple (and very much stand-alone) software component written for a demo that's happening later this week.

Finally, today, I sat down with a couple of other engineers and talked for a while about the requirements for the system that I'm supposed to be writing. By the time we finished the conversation, I had learned that there's enough work for a small team to work on this problem for a year or so. Well, assuming that the technology can even be done -- most of it is entirely new problems that no one has ever tried to address before.

I'm looking forward to it...

Posted by Mike at 10:57 PM

March 31, 2003

Journalists behaving badly

What a bad weekend for journalists. First Peter Arnett, a journalist for NBC currently in Baghdad, gave an interview to Iraqi state-run TV in which he said that the US "war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance", thanked the Iraqi government for giving him and other reporters a "degree of freedom which we appreciate", and "it is clear that within the United States there is growing challenge to President Bush about the conduct of the war and also opposition to the war. So our reports about civilian casualties here, about the resistance of the Iraqi forces, are going back to the United States. It helps those who oppose the war when you challenge the policy to develop their arguments. " (See the transcript.) NBC first issued a statement of support, then later realized that they were supporting an idiot, so fired him.

Now Arnett, claiming it was a 'midjudgement', is whining about how he is "still in shock and awe at being fired." He's already been hired again, too, by the staunchly anti-war British tabloid "The Daily Mirror".

I can understand having opinions against the war, and have no problem with stating such opinions. But stating them in a public interview with the government-run TV station of a country that the United States is at war with is awfully close to "giving [the enemy] Aid and Comfort."

Next up on the journalistic idiot parade is Geraldo Rivera (now there's a shock). Rivera, who is embedded with the 101st Airborne, gave his report for Fox News complete with diagrams in the sand of where he was, and where the 10st was going next. The New York Times reports "'At one point, he actually revealed the time of an attack prior to its occurrence,' Lt. Mark Kitchens, a spokesman at Central Command, said yesterday morning." Bye, bye, Rivera.

Posted by Mike at 11:13 PM