Category Archives: Ranting

If we were playing football, I’d hit a grand slam

It’s been a while since I ranted about politics, this, from Elenanor Clift, doing a post-mortem on the Clinton campaign:

She did run an extraordinarily close race, and if the Democrats had the same winner-take-all rules as the Republicans, she’d be the nominee. If Obama hadn’t outorganized her in small caucus states like Idaho, which the Democrats have no hope of winning in November, he wouldn’t be the nominee.

This may all be true, but it’s first unknowable and second condescending and manages to miss the point at once.

They both attempted to win the nomination under the rules set at the start (mostly, since Clinton later attempted to change them when it favored her). It’s like watching a baseball game and then saying “if the winner was determined by stolen bases, the Brewers would have won.”

Well, sure, had nothing else about the game changed. But if the winner was determined by stolen bases, both teams would have spent a ton of money on speedy baserunners instead of good fielders, they would have fielded only left-handed pitchers who could deter the runner on first, and they’d have devoted their farm systems to producing cannon-armed catchers who could throw out anyone.

Obama and his campaign showed an absolutely amazing ability to organize without the support of existing party structures, they raised astonishing amounts of money, and they worked the rules to their maximum advantage, and they won and won and won.

Who’s to say that if the rules were different, and both teams played on a different field, under different rules, that they couldn’t have won then as well?

The best we can say is that Obama won the contest at hand, and the rest is unknowable. And it’s okay to leave it at that.

Today’s baffling Craigslist find

I’ve had an eye out for a hybrid for a while — Mrs. Zumsteg in particular has an extremely short commute on city streets, and her car is going to need replacement at some point here.

Anyway, I saw this in a Prius ad:

Mileage is around 91k right now, which is considered pretty low for a hybrid.

What does that even mean? Are hybrids supposed to have high miles? And who considers that low? My insurance company figures that ~10k/year is normal. This thing isn’t far out off that pace, but that’s not low.

The really interesting thing to me is that someone composed that sentence thinking it was a selling point or even a mitigation strategy. Now, if it was highway miles, you might go “okay, well, that’s not 91k of stop and go, at least” but the author of this ad thought something like “I’ll disclose the miles… jeez, that seems high now that I’ve written it down. I should say something. Um, ‘At least it’s not 100k?’ No, that just reminds them it’s close. What do I do?”

And eventually settled on this bizarre nonseqiutor. What were the rejected second halves of this sentence?

Mileage is around 91k right now…
– later it’ll be around 81 if I can figure out how to reset this stupid tamper-proof odometer. Heck, 71.
– and 91 was a pretty good year, if you think about it, am I right?
– but that includes the time I went to the store for chips but they were all out and that shouldn’t count
– and I’m going to rack it up even faster after placing this ad
– most of it from driving back and forth to your mom’s house

Inexplicable usability choices: emusic

You can come to emusic in two states:
– logged in
– not logged in

If you’re not logged in, it could be because you’re a member or not.

So let’s say you’re not a member. You’ll look around as much as possible (emusic hasn’t historically made it easy to browse their selection, which I don’t understand) and either decide to sign up or leave.

If you’re a member and you’re not logged in, you may well hit the “login” button.

No one who is not a member, logically, would hit that button. If you were designing the next step, you should assume that your audience is members who are not currently logged in.

Right? So here’s their page.

I don’t mind so much that I’m taken to a login page. But it’s one of the worst examples of poor design I’ve ever seen on something this simple. A login screen should ask for
1. Username/email/whatever the ID is
2. Password

That’s it. Here, you’ve expressed an intention to login, and you get a radio button defaulted to “I am not a member”. Why would you be there if you weren’t a member?

Every time an emusic customer – someone who is subscribing to their service, handing over money every month – goes to login, that button is defaulted to no, and they have to click it to “Yes I have a password”. Every one of them.

Why would anyone who is not a member fill in their email and then hit “submit” on a login page? There’s no indication at all of what could happen next. If they do, by some miracle, they’re taken to the registration process.

Why? Why would a new customer go to “login” then fill in their email address as if they had an account, then hit submit?

Clearly, this page serves two masters: they want to let people log in, and then someone decided that they needed to let people register there as well. But if people wanted to subscribe, there’s a “sign up” button on the front page (!!!). If you were going to subscribe, that’s where you’d go.

It takes you to the registration page, the same as if you’d gone into the login page and blundered past the registration. That makes sense.

I don’t understand why they deliberately designed a page that annoys its intended audience every time it’s used. “I enjoy giving you money each month.” “Hang on, let me poke you in the eye real quick.”

I sent emusic a note about this as a user, where I said “please, if you’re not going to fix the page, could you at least default the button to ‘yes’?” and they said they’d pass the comment along.

It’s a line of HTML. It would take someone five, ten seconds to fix that default and then I don’t know how long to propagate it out. They haven’t done it.

When I work on user interface stuff, I always try and remember examples like this. What’s the user thinking when they come to the page? Are there rough edges we can smooth? If this page can’t easily serve two purposes, can we break it out?

Top Plumbing Tools

I was idly considering cataloging all the injuries I sustained, but instead, I’d like to recognize the indispensable tools of spending a week under the house repairing and rebuilding plumbing runs.

#1 Sawzall
I am so happy I bought one of these. I went through a lot of blades, because it’s hard to cut through galvanized pipes, but holy mackeral, compared to using a hacksaw, it doesn’t even compare. 3/4″ rusted pipe, tough. Drywall, CPVC, anything else? Like butter.

Saved me more time than anything, and fun to use, too.

#2 12″ pipe wrench and
#3 10″ pipe wrench
Bite and turn. Easy to adjust, use, and a decent hammer in a pinch. Heavy enough for stability, light enough to wield accurately. With two, it’s easy to brace piece A and then turn piece B against it.

#4 massive quality adjustable crescent wrench and
#5 smaller quality adjustable crescent wrench
Almost the same deal as above, except with fittings. A good adjustable crescent that keeps its sizing while in use and under torque is sweet.

#6 Map gas torch.
I can’t believe how handy this thing proved. Mostly used in soldering new copper joints, also handy for heating up stubborn rusted fittings. Also made me feel secure about being able to defend myself from spiders, though it never came to that.

Also of note: the nice 500w portable work light with protective grill, now severely dented. The surprisingly effective respirator mask. Neosporin. Flux. High-quality solder.

Derek of the mole people

Last weekend, a small thing got bigger and I ended up tearing out the master shower, at which point I discovered that (as I’d suspected) the people who did the last bit of work in there did a really horrible job. I did what I could tearing down the master, and then got through the week without it, working a little bit after work — the fiberglass insulation was moldy, so that had to go, and so on.

Pretty soon, I was tearing out the plumbing. Starting Friday after work, I started to go through and fix stuff. Hall hot water pressure’s always been pretty bad. I found it’s because the pipe was 90% clogged with corrosion.

And as I went down, I got angrier and angrier. Like this.

Things going on here:
– on the right, that white thing is a CPVC pipe, a hot water run. I don’t know when it went in, but it’s super fragile and breaks easily. I would later crack my head on that very joint, and it came apart, dumping water all over me. So I had to re-do the CPVC run. I did not use CPVC. No one uses CPVC.
– the rest of those pipes are the old steel pipes that have rusted. You can see they’re leaking corrosion at the joints
– the joint in the center there is, on the left, held together by electrical tape. At some point in this house’s history, someone went down there, saw a leak, and made a decision that they wouldn’t fix it. You can see that it’s dripping there.
– behind that piece, you can also see that there’s a different pipe run (cold) that comes in, hits a T, one leg of which continues, takes a 90 degree turn up to another T. All of those fittings were rusty and leaky

Or check out this piece of work:

On the left, a badly-done union. Note that it is leaking rust-heavy water.
On the right, that’s a 1/2 inch copper run from the master shower (which I tore out) to the cold water line. Note that it’s directly connected. Two different kinds of metals. This leads to all kinds of corrosion problems. This apparently didn’t occur to whoever did the conversion.

Anyway, my point is that in going through and making all these repairs at once, it’s good, but it’s essentially a re-piping job. Once I’ve replaced a broken CPVC run and the corroded fittings it’s attached to, I’ve broken the next run of rusted-out steel piping, and repairing that…

So my week’s run:
Friday: get home, plumb
Saturday: plumb (several hours of discussing plumbing while not doing plumbing)
Sunday: plumb
Mon-Wed: vacation
Thurs: plumb

I spent ~7 hours under my house today, which is down from Sunday’s 15. We’re four fittings away from being done, but the problem with plumbing – heh – is that getting those fittings working

Here’s what gets my goat, though. Every time I have to use a Sawzall to pull out a pipe or a set of fittings, I think “Someone made a decision to leave this for me, and I hate them”. And it’s true. Whoever welded those copper runs directly in either didn’t care enough to find out the right way to do that or didn’t care that it was wrong. And it goes all the way back — someone made the design decision to build this place with piping that would rust, even though they were laying it into interior walls.

And working all day in a crawlspace because someone didn’t want to put the time and effort in before me, well, that’s not the kind of situation that leads to happy thoughts about those who came before me.

Still, I have high hopes that the water pressure will finally leap back up when I’m finished. Here’s hoping.

Ow ow ow

Yesterday I spent ~15 hours working on my house’s plumbing, and as you’d expect I’m now covered in small cuts, scrapes, bruises, and one burn. The worst of these, functionally-speaking, is the side of my right thumb, which is exactly where I hit the spacebar while typing.

So writing this is a battle between mindfullness, negative reinforcement, and almost a lifetime of touch typing. It’s going badly.

Also, we still don’t have water. There are four outlets (two to sinks, two to toilets) that use compression fittings and last night I managed to get one of them to go from “spraying water everywhere” to “works” at the end of my long shift. I hate compression fittings.

Now that I think about it, the only thing I like about plumbing at all is running pipe, soldering, and doing the planning, because they’re binary: they either work or you screwed something up. This compression fitting type stuff, where I fix it, it leaks, I fix it, it leaks… oh, how I hate it.

This is why people hate eBay

Look up something popular, say… iPods. Go the actual category for MP3 Players > iPod. Even pick a particular model.

I did this with the nano, as I was considering replacing my venerable one. Searched for items with the “buy it now” option, sorted by price+shipping, lowest. 1,349 items.

The first two pages are all miscategorized items. And of course, ebay makes it hard for you to report those. You might get to some broken ones if you’re lucky. It’s all skins, batteries, adapters — everything that shouldn’t be there. But they can’t be bothered to police even the top-tier categories they spend money advertising on Google with. It’s crazy. Lord forbid people be forced to put their ipod cases in “Consumer Electronics > MP3 Accessories > Cases > Apple iPod” where I might go to shop for those.

It’s like if I went to Target and went to the housewares section, to the toaster aisle, and instead of toasters, there were 900 people trying to sell me bread, extension cords, power adapters, non-conductive forks for sticking into the toaster…. faaaaaaaaaaaaahk, man, it’s just ridiculous.

And now I can’t shop on Amazon, because I’m mad about the whole print-on-demand issue… drives me nuts. Is it really that much easier and cheaper to run a maddening cesspool that drives people like me away that it makes it worthwhile?

The upside of sickness

After over a week of pretty much coughing continuously, I have to say my abs haven’t looked this good in years. I’m two into my six pack, and I’m betting a couple more days and I’ll be showing another two. I should write some kind of best-selling fitness book. “The Sickness Solution: Your Shortcut to Losing Weight and Looking Great”.

Sure, I might have pneumonia, but isn’t that worth it?

Programming fiction

I haven’t coded seriously in almost five years. Actually, seven, and that was writing some testing tools to do log scanning in Perl. I’ve tinkered a little since then– when I was unemployed, I toyed with using Ruby to prototype a startup idea, for instance.

I’ve been writing an interactive fiction game (think Zork) relating to baseball, in which the player is a general manager of a baseball team, and hilarity ensues.

The funny thing is I’m having the exact same feeling I used to have when I was coding, where I don’t entirely know what I’m doing, so I’ll go in and write out the desired behavior, and then in implementing it resort to increasingly ugly hacks until I can get it to work. I can’t figure out how to get a character to only take certain objects, for instance, so for now I’ve got them accepting anything you give them. While it works, it makes me wince to play through when I can give someone two redundant objects.

Or following: for a plot point I need to get someone to follow the player and then stop when they meet someone else. The only way I’ve figured out how to do that is to turn the follow rule off when they’re near the someone else, which works okay, but it’s also not a particularly good way to do it. And I’ve ended up doing a lot of making environmental behavior location-specific to the player and it just seems unsatisfying.

Part of the problem is that there’s no K&R book for Inform 7. There’s documentation and a recipe book that almost but don’t quite ever seem to tell me what I’m trying to figure out. I have a wishlist for things I want to be able to do and can’t yet.

So my process right now goes:
– pick an item off the to-do list, be it feature or bug
– re-write it
– compile (if fail, troubleshoot)
– test (if fail, troubleshoot)
– repeat

It’s slow, slow going.

The game’s 4,000 words now, which I believe would make it the longest post in USSM history if I pushed it out now, and it’s still a ways from being finished.

The really weird thing is that as much as interactive fiction’s been a niche for ages, it’s been a fairly viable one, but I cannot figure out where to get help on this stuff. I joined a list, it’s dead — though the mod approved me that day. I don’t see updates. I feel like I’m wandering around a ghost town where everyone decided to leave in June of 2007 without bothering to pack up or anything.

Even when I was programming in Fortran 77 in college, you could still find other people tasked with the same kind of work maintaining obsolete systems. But this, this is a little eerie. I can’t seriously be the only person writing a text adventure, can I?

Interestingly (to me, anyway) the only place people seem to be actively discussing this stuff at all is on Usenet, which I haven’t used seriously in many, many years. To see that it’s still living on, well… it warms my heart a little.

Now that’s customer service

Netflix doesn’t let customers sign in on the front page, which is the most absurd, ridiculous design decision they could possibly make: they have a default no-cookies-detected home page which includes fields *with which you can register* but if you’re a returning customer there’s absolutely no way to sign in there. You have to click “login” each time, get a new page to render, then submit.

I can’t think of another large-scale ecommerce site that makes this so difficult, and certainly not one that, like Netflix, you have to return to continually.

But let’s say you want to drop them a line and say “look, instead of having the login page render on a second page, even if for some reason you don’t want to immediately draw one, why not just have the “login” link create a small box where you can enter your name/password, like many other sites do?”


Contact Us” has no contact information.

The Help Center supposedly offers ways to contact them, but you can’t actually send them an email: there weirdly is a “Answers by Phone” box when you dead-end, but there’s never any contact information besides that. So I have to call someone, wait on hold, and then talk to someone? Why? And running a call center is expensive — it’s far easier to do something useful with email feedback.

There’s a host of stuff like this — they recently made it impossible for not discernible reason to browse some things in the same way you used to be able to

It’s amazing that Netflix somehow managed to create a help system more difficult and frustrating to use than eBay’s. Congratulations, Netflix. That must have taken some doing.