Hi!

My name is Tom. Thanks for stopping by! I’m a veteran software developer in Richmond, Virginia. I have a fondness for writing, and this is one place where I do that. This blog mainly focuses on my life, technology, and current events. All of my opinions are entirely my own. Enjoy your stay!

Ukraine and Crimea

I’m trying to wrap my head around this Ukraine situation. I haven’t been paying a huge amount of attention to news lately, so I only get bits and pieces of it at a time. I seem to recall having difficulty the last time something happened in Ukraine, too. If I’m understanding the incredibly obtuse explanations from the media correctly, it’s something like this:

Grossly simplified, Ukraine is made up of two basic ethnic regions. The western side is more of a Ukrainian ethnicity, while the eastern side is more of a Russian ethnicity. The people of Crimea in the southeast, a penninsula sitting smack between Ukraine and Russia, want to leave Ukraine. I don’t know why, but I guess because they speak Russian while the rest of their country speaks Ukrainian. I’m not sure if the Crimean people want their own country, or if they just want to become part of Russia. The latter would make more sense, since they would probably be a shambles by themselves.

Unfortunately in these modern times, you can’t just up and decide to move your land from one country to another. The Ukrainian government doesn’t particularly want a big chunk of their territory to disappear. It would look bad on their yearly evaluations or something. Also, presumably, whatever revenue and resources come from Crimea would be lost.

Complicating matters is that the U.S. and Russia are on opposing sides. Russia seems fine with the idea of Crimea becoming Russian. The U.S., perhaps sympathetic because of its own Civil War, is firmly behind Ukraine. If Crimea left for Russia, it would be a big political black eye for us, as we would "lose" to Russia, and we certainly can’t have that.

To put this in terms more Americans might understand, it’s a bit like this hypothetical situation: California decides to leave the U.S. for Mexico. California is filled with Spanish-speaking people, right? I think so. Anyway, the U.S. obviously wouldn’t allow that to happen, because we set a rather harsh precedent during the Civil War that no State would be leaving the Union, or else. In this analogy, Ukraine is the U.S., Crimea is California, and Mexico is Russia.

It’s entirely possible that analogy is totally wrong, but it sounds good to me. (In reality, Mexico may not want California, given its generally horrible financial state.)

I have no strong feelings about the politics of the situation one way or another, which is to say that I don’t care if Crimea is part of Ukraine or part of Russia. I just feel horrible for the people living in that area. And as a U.S. citizen I don’t particularly want to get involved in a potential Ukrainian civil war, especially with Russia on the other side. Can’t we spend a little time not being involved in a conflict somewhere in the world? Just for a change of pace?

I’ve said before that I couldn’t conceive of how the Civil War came about, but this looks like a living example of it happening right before our eyes. Still, I can’t comprehend being so passionate about one’s national identity that one would be willing to start shooting people over it. That seems like an incredibly Middle Ages attitude to me. (Actually the entire concept of national identity in general seems obsolete, with the explosion of cross-border communciation possible through the Internet.)

Anyway, as of this writing, Crimea has essentially voted to become part of Russia. Of course, Ukraine (and the U.S.) doesn’t recognize their authority to make that decision. Let’s hope they find a way to resolve everything without creating a lot of innocent dead people.

Totally Insensitive Thoughts on Shooters

A thought struck me when I saw a Louisiana mass shooting headline in my news reader today. Actually a bunch of thoughts.

First I thought, "Ugh, not another one."

Then I pragmatically thought, "Well, at least he killed himself so there’s one less crazy person in the world."

Then I got mad at the shooter for not having the courage of his own convictions. I’m generally a "if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime" kind of person. So this shooter annoyed me for "cheating" and avoiding his punishment.

But then I thought the shooter probably didn’t have any convictions, and he probably just wanted attention. Then I got mad at him for just being stupid. What’s the point of getting attention if you’re not going to stick around to see it?

Then I thought that he must have thought that if he killed himself while he thought he was going to get attention, then he’d save himself from the burden of finding out that he really didn’t get any attention, because bloggers like me aren’t putting his name in their blog. So in a way killing himself assured his own success. So then I got mad at him again because now he was cheating by insulating himself from the possibility of failure that the rest of us have to face all the time.

Then I figured maybe I should actually read some details about the case before I make all these snap judgments.

Well, it wasn’t a random shooting spree like the headline led us to believe. It looks like there was a clear cause-and-effect in this case.

Then I got depressed because it’s one of those cases where all of the warning signs were there, but we can’t arrest people in this country for behaving like they might be dangerous. We have to wait for them to commit actual crimes before we can lock them up. Which I guess is one of the down sides of a free society. In this one area, the oppressive dictatorships that squash all human rights probably have us beat.

There should be a lesson to learn from this, but I’m not sure what it would be. I guess if you know someone acting like they might be dangerous, don’t expect the police to protect you. Everyone is ultimately responsible for their own safety.

I’m still mad at the shooter though. Something about murder-suicides particularly infuriates me. It’s like they’re "getting away with it" somehow.

But from a practical standpoint, it’s probably best for society as a whole if the shooter just goes ahead and kills himself. It would just be nice if they did it before shooting anyone.

In Which I Hate Shopping For Clothes

(This rant was inspired by fifteen incredibly frustrating minutes of looking for new clothes on my smart phone.)

I really detest shopping for clothes. I’m probably not alone in that, but I really, really hate it. I’ll wear clothes until they are literally falling apart before I go into a retail clothing store. It’s one of the creepiest environments imaginable, filled with obnoxious kids running around, moms standing in the middle of aisles yelling at their kids, and endless numbers of surfaces teeming with germs.

So you can probably guess how much I love the concept of shopping for clothes online. And yet, here we are at the end of 2013, and this technology is still nowhere near where it should be.

I play a lot of MMORPGs, and one of the biggest features of these games is character creation, and virtual costumes. You can easily choose how your character looks, and dress him or her in shirts, pants, hats, shoes, or whatever with a few clicks of some buttons. WHY CAN’T I DO THAT WHEN I SHOP FOR REAL. Why can’t I see what this shirt looks like next to those pants. It’s almost the year of Back to the Future, Part 2 for god’s sake.

Google says that "virtual dressing rooms" are barely even off the drawing boards, and if they exist, they are for women.

But that’s okay. I’ll just use trial-and-error, because that’s just as efficient, right? So I go to a typical clothing retailer’s web site. I probably have to navigate through the most awful search interface possible to narrow it down to button-down shirts. Maybe I use Amazon, which has marginally better searching abilities. Whatever. Eventually I find a picture of a shirt I like. Then it suddenly turns into advanced calculus and nuclear physics before I can even think about buying. What the hell is a size "3XB"? Is that bigger than "2XB?" What about "2 XLT"? WHAT THE HELL ARE THESE LETTERS AND NUMBERS. THEY SAID I WOULDN’T NEED MATH IN THE REAL WORLD.

Well, maybe I can find some pants. Pants are easier than shirts, right? Oh no they aren’t. What the hell is a "relaxed fit" and how does that compare to a "regular?" Where is the comparison diagram? WHY DOES ANYONE THINK I WOULD KNOW THESE THINGS? And then, as if things couldn’t get any more enragening, why isn’t there a 38×31? This isn’t my local K-Mart that’s been picked over like carcasses in the desert. This is the INTERNET! IT HAS EVERYTHING. MAKE ME A 38X31!

I heard about a place called Trunk Club from a conveniently-placed advertisement right at the start of the CBS Evening News podcast. It sounds like a gift from the gods. Until you dig down to find out how much the clothes cost. But then I remember how much I hate buying clothes and how bad clothing web sites are, and I think that maybe paying two or three times the amount I normally pay for clothes is a bargain. Perhaps it just might save me from having a stroke.

So Over Obamacare

I’m over the whole Obamacare apocalypse now. It’s no longer a topic of interest. I expect there will be some rollbacks/changes/fixes but I seriously doubt there will ever be a full repeal. I’d be willing to bet that even if a Republican wins in 2016 there won’t be a repeal. Though I could easily imagine their whole campaign would be based around ridding the country of the evil Obamacare. Certainly their primary campaign would be.

One thing I still find fascinating, though, is the post-mortem on the mechanics of the web site failure. It’s like a step-by-step guidebook on how to mis-manage a project. Everyone apparently suspected it was going to crash, but none of the bosses wanted to come out and say, "You know, maybe we should consider delaying this." Probably anyone who did that would have been seen as anti-Obamacare, and nobody who wanted to advance in their government career would have wanted that. It all looks like a textbook example of a project managed by bureaucrats instead of industry professionals.

There’s a lot of buzz about how the Obama administration ignored warnings that the site wasn’t ready. My take on that is it’s likely they were not adequately informed, or they simply didn’t understand. There’s no way anyone would have thought they could get away with launching a high-profile web site that didn’t work.

First, I find it hard to believe that anyone would have reported to their bosses that they were failing in their part of building the web site. They would have said something like, "We’re having some issues, but we’re working through them." The next question from the bosses would have been the only one they really cared about, which was whether they could still deliver on time. They would have responded, "Sure!" Then they would have gone off to play golf or something.

Speaking with some experience, most bureaucrats do not want to hear about the technical details of a web site. They think a web site is something that just springs forth from the aether like magic. Unless some programmer pounded their fists on a conference table and screamed profanities, dire warnings probably wouldn’t have made an impression on the bosses. The people who could have made those warnings (that is, the people actually doing the work) probably weren’t even in the meetings.

So I think it’s very plausible that upper administration officials simply didn’t see the warning signs. It’s likely that nobody in CMMS or HHS or wherever knew anything about managing the launch of a large, high-traffic web site, so they couldn’t have seen any warning signs. Besides, they’ve got elections and budgets and speeches and promotions to worry about. You know, important stuff.

As for Obamacare itself, I’ve stopped caring. A lot of people, television shows, radio programs, blogs, tweets, and Congressional representatives are ranting and raving all over the place about how much the new healthcare system is destroying the country, costing money, jobs, lives, etc., but I’m just not seeing it. Some people are clearly having issues in the new system, but the number of people having issues does not seem to be above the normal baseline of people who always have problems in any system.

It’s possible my lack of panic is because I have not the slightest clue what a "single-payer system" is, so I guess I just don’t understand the danger to the space-time continuum. ("Single-payer" is the bad way, right? Or is that the good way? I don’t even know that. By the way, if single-payer is the bad way, what’s the good way? Multi-payer?)

All I know is that what we had before didn’t seem that great, and what we have now doesn’t seem that much different. Before, some people couldn’t get insurance. Now, some other people can’t get insurance. The bottom line is that unless you’re rich or lucky, none of the miraculous medical advances researchers have been making over the last twenty years are likely to help you without also bankrupting you. That’s probably never going to change, at least until the miraculous medical advances come out from under patent protection.

A Lucky Political Disaster

I think it’s safe to say now that the Obamacare rollout has been a total disaster, and Democrats have no choice but to make some concessions (or "fixes"). Even if it wasn’t really a disaster, it’s solidified in the national consciousness as a disaster, and perception is reality in politics.

Okay but I have a question. Republican pundits are all like, "We told you this would happen all along! You should have listened to us!" According to Wikipedia, the bill signed into law in 2010 passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 219-212, with 34 Democrats voting against it. Are Republicans saying that they weren’t able to put forth a coherent enough argument against Obamacare to persuade four more Democrats to vote against it? Something that is so blindingly obvious to everyone now couldn’t be put into words back then?

I’m not buying it. Republicans didn’t have any more idea of what was in that law than Democrats did.

No, the reason Republicans now have a winning argument is that a bunch of IT people bungled the roll-out of a major web site and some insurance companies screwed over their customers. It’s remotely possible that Republicans now have a snowball’s chance in hell of finding someone palatable enough to win the 2016 election, all because of a fortuitous disaster.

Trying To Make Sense of Insurance Premiums

Normally if I see an article titled "Obamacare destroying lives, killing business," I skip it, because it’s obviously going to be partisan rhetoric, especially coming from RedState, a political blog which thrives on such. But for some reason I went through with reading this article, because I saw that it was a (supposedly) real-life example of someone who is being forced to buy a more expensive plan with less benefits under Obamacare.

Blue Cross Blue Shield told this guy his monthly payment is going to rise from $735 to $1115, with a much larger deductible, and less coverage. He is a self-employed real estate agent, which confirms my theory that it’s only the self-insured who are getting shafted under Obamacare.

What’s missing from RedState’s article is: If this guy’s so healthy, why did his insurance cost $735 a month to start with? Again I must remind the reader that I know nothing about healthcare insurance, but that sounds like a lot to me for a whole family of healthy people. Could that number include his business insurance? Or is he living in the middle of Manhattan where everything is five times more expensive just by default? There’s really not enough information in his testimonial to get a complete picture of what’s happening with him. (Which, I’m sure, is intentional. RedState only wants us to see those numbers and think, OMG Obamacare bad!)

Assuming those numbers are real, I can’t help but wonder why Blue Cross Blue Shield needs to raise their rates. They obviously have a business reason, and I doubt they could get away with something as simple as an opportunistic gouging. Do they have more costs to cover under Obamacare? I could see that, but it makes no sense that they would have that much to pay in taxes. Is it a preemptive strike because they predict more costs? Are they expecting a certain number of people will leave, so they’ll need to make it up by raising the rates on the remaining people? I know how much insurance people love to work with statistics and predictions. I just don’t get it. This is why I hate talking about healthcare and insurance, because it makes no sense.

Big Mistake or a Big Lie

Lots of talk about Obama’s "keep your existing plan" gaffe. I’m not one of those people who thinks that "making a big mistake" is the same as "lying," but in the political world, they pretty much are the same. When Obama said, "you can keep your existing plan," he probably had somebody telling him that you could, or he meant you could keep your existing employer-based insurance. But now that plenty of people are losing their existing plans, he’s getting hammered for lying to us.

(Technically he didn’t lie to me though, because I do still have my existing plan. Of course it’s not up for renewal until Spring, so there’s still plenty of time for it to be discontinued.)

I think insurance companies are dropping plans deliberately to make Obama look bad, because they are ticked off about the new regulations, but that’s just my own personal conspiracy theory which has not a single shred of supporting evidence. But you’ve got to believe the insurance industry had no desire to change the racket they had going before Obamacare. (You know, where they would only insure healthy people and kick out the sick people as soon as they were discovered.)

I really don’t understand why people seem to have an automatic distrust of Obama when he talks. I hear people say this all the time, both on blogs and in real life: "I just don’t trust him. He’s so arrogant. You just know he’s hiding something." I almost never get that vibe when I see him speaking. Sure he’s got a swagger about him, and he has that lawyer/politician demeanor that automatically inspires caution, but he’s the president of the frickin’ United States. He’s supposed to have some swagger. Generally speaking, we live in a culture which celebrates swagger.

If I were to rank politicians on trustworthiness based solely on their body language and speech patterns, I would put Obama fairly high. A lot higher than Joe Biden, who smiles way too much to be sincere. (I still think he’s funny, though.) I would probably rank George W. Bush somewhere between those two. Dick Cheney would probably have the lowest possible ranking on the scale. I would put Mitt Romney somewhere near Joe Biden. I’m not sure about Hilary though. She’s hard to read.

Discovering Comments On Old Posts

I’ve known from occasionally looking at my web logs that one particular post of mine is the most frequently visited place on my site: How to Rename a Windows Service. I suspect it’s popular because at the time I wrote it, there was no Google answer for it. I recall thinking myself an incredibly shrewd SEO genius to name my article the exact same as what you would type into a Google search. (Even though that’s actually the most basic of SEO tips and does not require any genius at all.)

Well I happened to look at that page recently and discovered there’s a boatload of comments on it! I had no idea. No idea that my old blog platform still accepted comments, no idea that anyone had commented on it, and no idea that people were still commenting on it, four years later. (Ugh, it’s been that long?)

P.S. Man, people can be hateful sometimes. It’s just a frickin’ Windows Service, for god’s sake.

P.P.S. Clearly there’s no moderation on those old comments. I bet there’s probably a slew of weird remarks all through my old posts. I should check that out sometime.

P.P.P.S. What happened to the emails I was supposed to get when people made comments??

Hacking Data Pipes Not That Bad

When all those stories were floating around about our government having direct access to Google and Facebook and whatnot, I dismissed them as impossible. The best the government (or anyone else) could do, I thought, was tap into the lines going into and out of Google and Facebook and whatnot. Well guess what?

http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2013/10/30/google-yahoo-hacked-by-us-government/

> The National Security Agency has broken into the highly secure data centers where Google and Yahoo store vast troves of data on their users by hacking an unencrypted weak point in the data pipeline linking the enormous centers…

Boldface added by me, because the first part of that sentence is completely stupid. I hate to crow when I’m right, but can you still hear me over the deafening sound of my own awesomeness?

> They’re tapping into the fiber optic cable,” Sutton said. “This is raw stuff in proprietary data format, so they had to have a system in place tor translate that to human readable format.”

Nobody hacked into or used back doors into anyone’s servers. They tapped into the raw data stream between the servers, and probably just saved everything on a big hard drive without having a clue what they got. It’s like when you print to a file (if you can even still do that). If you open up the file and look at it, it’s just a bunch of gibberish. You have to study it for a while to find out it’s a series of printer commands which form a picture, and then figure out how to reverse engineer the picture. Now imagine somebody at the NSA walks into an office and puts a big stack of paper with printer commands onto someone else’s desk. How long would it take to sort through them and figure out what all the pictures were? At the speed which the Internet operates, that person would have to decrypt millions of these stacks of paper every second. (Note: I know it’s a bad analogy, but I like the imagery of stacks of paper sitting in someone’s inbox.) That’s why I don’t worry about my own privacy too much with these kinds of stories. The NSA simply can’t have enough resources to reverse engineer all that data, and even if they did, the odds of them looking at my traffic is probably about the same as the odds of getting hit by a meteorite. It’d be like looking for a single drop within the torrent of water coming out of a fire hose. (Aren’t I full of analogies today.)

That’s not to say I don’t care that the NSA is trying to save a copy of all the traffic in the Internet. I think it’s super shady and they should stop, or at the very least, it should not be allowed as evidence unless they have a warrant for a specific crime. But I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised about it. I feel like governments have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to the Internet, both in terms of making laws and maintaining order. For example, there’s probably no law against saving bytes of data from data pipes, which might be why the NSA thought it was okay. So this would probably be a great time for some enterprising young Congressmen to introduce some pragmatic laws about this stuff.

Ha, I’m just joking with you. As if Congress would actually do anything about real issues.

Healthcare.gov Contractors Declare: Not It

I have to say, a national controversy about a web site makes me giddy, because it’s something I understand. Most of the time the nation talks about economics, healthcare, women’s issues, social issues, wars, foreign policy, and other things that are subjective and far outside the realm of my everyday experience. But a web site? Designing one? Building one? Launching one? That’s something I can sink my teeth into!

I wish I were watching the testimony of contractors who worked on healthcare.gov on C-SPAN, but instead I’m reading a live blog of the "Monkey Court." http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/24/obamacare-website-testify-congress-live (Best line ever: "I will not yield for this monkey court!") For some reason, I can’t find any C-SPAN apps for Android, and of course the web site doesn’t work on Mobile Chrome.

From what I can tell, CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) was the government organization tasked with standing up the web site. http://www.cms.gov/ They in turn contracted out work to 55 different vendors for various pieces of the system. According to testimony I’m reading, the contractors are saying that each piece was tested thoroughly and worked perfectly before it was delivered to CMS, who was then responsible for putting it all together, testing it, and rolling it out. It’s extremely clear what the contractors are saying: "Everything worked fine when we delivered it, so don’t blame us."

In my experience, what they’re saying is plausible. It’s entirely possible that each piece of a system can work perfectly, but in the process of putting them all together (called integration), everything fails. It was said that CMS only had two weeks to test the integration. ("The integrated system was tested in the last two weeks of September," Campbell says.) That is a laughably brief amount of testing time for a project of this magnitude. Particularly a project with at least 55 different parts to get working together.

I would be really curious to hear testimony from CMS, if we ever get to hear it.

By the way, a "tech surge" to fix the web site is not going to work. Everybody knows that throwing more people at a software problem not only doesn’t help, it usually makes it worse. It’s one of the classic disconnects between management and workers in the IT field.