Finding software

 
Three observations about the current state of free (speech or beer) software currently available:
  1. There is a lot of it.
  2. Most of it sucks.
  3. For any given area or program type, there is usually at least one really good free software package out there.
The problem is that even though number three is almost always true-that there usually is a free program that will do what you need somewhere-numbers one and two make it very often near impossible to find that program.  The result is that you have to sort through dozens of stupid or badly written programs before finding a good one that actually does the job you need.
 
One of the great things about the web, but sometimes also one of the worst things about it, is that the publishing entry barrier is essentially zero-meaning that any old fool can put up a website with whatever content or program downloads he wants. In other areas, like that of printed books, there was traditionally (and still is) a middle agent-publishing firms for example-whose job it is to filter out the crap and make sure that only the highest quality content makes it within reach of the consumer. (Now, looking at some of the books currently being published and sold you might not believe this to be true, but if you’d ever seen a sample of the types of manuscripts that end up in these publisher’s submission boxes you wouldn’t complain.) On the internet there isn’t a filtering agent between content creaters and content users, so it’s up to the users to attempt to find the good stuff and avoid the junk. Things like Google’s page rank and other directories and information collections attempt to solve this problem be showing users the "best" content, although it’s sometimes hard to say what exactly the best is.
 
I don’t really remember where I was going when I started this post, but it’s been sitting in my unfinished post bin for two weeks now, so I should probably put it up or something.

Yahoo Spam

I wonder if Yahoo! realizes that the spam filters in Yahoo Mail are so good that they actually filter out the spam that yahoo itself sends to its users?

yahoospam.jpg

New new design

I’m still tweaking the design of this blog trying to get everything to look good. As I said before, I have next to no design skills whatsoever. I changed the sun images for one of the earth today, and I think I like it. The sun was good, but the oranges and yellows were a little too strong for my tastes. The earth image blends in quite well with the other blues on the header and sidebar, so I think I’m going to keep it.

Casual Trust

How much do you trust random strangers you encounter every day as you go about your normal life? I’m not talking about lend them your car keys trust, but just the general assumption that the other person knows what he is doing or what is going on.

For example, say you’re in line for an ATM at the bank. The guy in front of you puts his card in, does a few things (you can’t really see what) and then takes his card and leaves without getting any money. As he’s walking away he turns to you and says, "It’s out of money."  Do you (a) trust that the machine really is out of money and leave or get in another line, or (b) walk up, put your card in and try to make a withdrawl yourself (possibly wasting your time there really is no cash, but maybe getting some money if the other guy was wrong)?

I was on the top floor of a building the other day, but when I pushed the down button to call the elevator (there was only a down button because it was the top floor) the button didn’t light up like it should have. I tried a few more times to make sure I had pushed it hard enough, and then assuming the button was just broken stood back and waited for the elevator to arrive.  Just then another guy shows up.  He looks at me, and then notices that the button isn’t lit. He looks back at me, and then back at the button and I could tell that he wasn’t sure if he should push it or not (since it was obvious that I was waiting to go down, and yet it wasn’t lit). Finally he goes up and pushes the button, and it doesn’t light up so he pushes it again (just like I had) and then decided that the light was broken and stood back to wait. About then he chuckles and says, "Not that I don’t trust you or anything…".

Well, doesn’t the fact that he had to go up and push the button just to make sure show that he really doesn’t trust me? And is there really anything wrong with that? We’d never seen each other in our respective lifes, so he really had no way of knowing that I hadn’t just forgotten to push the button. And yet when he showed that by pushing it himself he felt the need to almost apoligize or least explain that he wasn’t doing it out of a lack of trust (even though he most clearly was). Or maybe I’m reading too much into this or interpreting it all wrong. Comments? Use the feedback link. 

Solutions and Street Lights

One common mistake I’ve seen several examples of recently (both in and out of the software world) is when we look for solutions to our problems not where we’re most likely to find them but instead where ever we’re most comfortable looking. A few examples:

Several years ago I was at a friend’s house trying to scan a few documents on his computer. I tried several times, but the system always told me that the scanner wasn’t connected. Well, I checked the scanner, and it was definately connected, so I started looking for some explanation of the problem, and since I’m a programmer not an EE I was doing all software stuff. I reinstalled the scanner driver, downloaded a driver update from the scanner mfgr and installed that, even reinstalled all the software that I was using to attempt to scan the images. Nothing worked. Finally, after probably an hour or more of doing this, my friend comes over and I tell him that his scanner is broken. Surprised, he reaches down and plugs the scanner power cord into the power strip, and immediately the little "new hardware" notification comes up to say that the scanner had been recognized by the operating system. The problem here wasn’t that I didn’t know enough about computers, that problem was that I knew too much, that I was so comfortable debugging software and driver problems that it never occured to me that the problem could be so simple a thing as the scanner not being plugged in.

You’d think I would have learned from the above experience, but an almost identical thing happened to me just last week at work. I was attempting to install linux on an older (previously Windows 98) computer that we found unused in the server room. I stupidly picked Debian as the distro, only half realizing that although Debian is one of the coolest linux flavors, it is also one of the most difficult to install. They do have some sort of a GUI installer, but it stops at random intervals with requests like "Enter Kernel boot parameters:" (everyone has the linux kernel boot params memorized, right?). So this installation took longer than I had thought and I wasn’t very surprised when I finally booted it up and found out that (1) there were major display problems and (2) the network wasn’t working. After a few minutes I had a least got the display problems down to a workable level, but the network problems just wouldn’t go away. I must’ve ran the network setup wizard a dozen times, but I still couldn’t get it to detect or connect to anything. Then my bos walks in and asks how it’s going, and that’s about the time that I realized that I had never plugged in the network cable. What threw my off was that I was using a KVM switch to connect a windows system and the linux system to the same input and output devices, so at the same time as I was debugging the network on the linux system I was writing emails and reading web pages on the windows system. I had therefore forgotten that while I had only one moniter, keyboard, and mouse between the two of them, I needed a different network cable for each.

Well, this sort of reminds me of the old cub scout skit where someone’s on his knees below a street light looking for a contact lens (or quarter or whatever) and people start showing up and offering to help, until someone finally asks if he can point out exactly where he was when he lost it and he says, "Well I lost it over there (at least six feet away) but I thought it would be better to look over here by the light because it’s so dark over there that I can’t see a thing."

Now, I’ve been using examples from my own life here so that no one complains that I’m insulting someone else or being negative, but it’s examples from the real world that have lately reminded me of this problem. We all have areas of interest: things, methods, or software that we’re either good at or big fans of. This is usually a good thing, but when we’re seeking solutions to our and our employer’s problems, we need to make sure we’re not, like the boy in the skit, looking for the quarter where the light is and not where it was lost. Sometimes the best solution isn’t the one that’s the most fun or even the one we’re most familiar with. We need the intelligence to recognize these situations and the courage to admit it when one comes along.

Any thoughts? Use the comment form. 

Tomatoes, the High Court, and Internet Information Finding

Although the news has been (and still is) pretty much dominated with Katrina coverage this past week, another interesting story is the death of William H. Rehnquist, Chief Justice of the United States. This post isn’t about Rehnquist, but an interesting (to me at least) story about the Supreme Court and the Internet as a source of information.

Many of you may know that the tomato, while normally considered to a vegetable, is technically a fruit. But did you know that the United States Supreme Court once ruled that they are indeed vegetables? I first came across this little bit of trivia around four years ago, on some website I used to follow at the time. The problem was that, like many websites, they provided the useless fact, but not any proof or documentation that it was actually true. Knowing how fast and easy urban legends spread online, I decided to check this one out for myself, and see if it really happened or not.

I did a quick google search for “Tomatoes Supreme Court” which resulted in hundreds if not thousands of pages, all of which provided the exact same story, but not one of which backed it up with anything. Obviously, most of this sites had copied the information from other sites, who read it on other sites, and so on and so on. After reading through dozens of these pages (which were everything from garden sites to recipe books to your classic useless fact pages) I finally found that a few of them provided one piece of documentary evidence: a date, 1893, the year in which this case supposedly was heard. Still, it wasn’t enough to prove if it actually happened or not.

So I went looking on findlaw.com, where I knew that all the Supreme Court cases since the beginning of the union would be listed. I don’t remember how long it took me, but I eventually found the correct case (Nix v. Hedden, from May 10, 1893) where an importer of tomatoes had sued saying he shouldn’t be required to pay the vegetable tariff because he was actually importing fruits, not vegetables. The court ruled that although tomatoes might officially be fruits to a botanist, they are most certainly considered vegetables to most Americans, and it was this common definition of vegetable, not the official botanical one, that had to be used when interpreting the tariff laws. So it really did happen; the Supreme Court of the United States really did rule tomatoes to be vegetables.

Now, fast forward four years or so to last week, when I was unpacking an old box of random stuff and come across the little slip of paper on which I had written the case details from the tomato case when I had first found it online. Just out of curiosity, I did another google search for “Tomatoes Supreme Court” and found—to my great surprise—that four of the top five results all included at least the case name, Nix v. Hedden, from which this information could be verified. There was even a three-page wikipedia article devoted to the Nix v. Hedden case.

So why am I bringing this up here? Well, something happened in the last four years so that while it originally took me several hours to find the details of this case (and only managed then because I knew to look on findlaw) it can now be brought up in half a second with a simple google search. Now, this might be an isolated incident, but I’m thinking that it represents a more global trend, that finding real documented information on the Internet is a lot easier to do now than it was a few years ago.

What might be the cause of such a change? Google’s ranking algorithm might have improved, so that it is somehow better able to put the more professional pages (more likely to include details and not just stories copied from other pages) up front. Also, there are more web pages now than there was then, so the documented pages might not have existed four years ago. (The Wikipedia article, for example, was only written last November).

If anyone knows of a serious scientific study or research project done on this subject (that of the availability and accessibility of reverent accurate information on the Internet, and specifically tracking the same over time) let me know. I don’t have time to do any more detailed work on this myself right now, but I’d love to know if anyone else already has.

Good thing we’ve got a college education behind us

There are signs plastered all over campus this week advertising that the disability resource center needs volunteer note takers to help some disabled students. The last part of the sign reads [sic] "Volunteer note takers will receive a ten dollar gift certificate for the bookstore; at the end of the semester, for each credit of the class." So, let’s imagine that the person who wrote this is so grammatically impaired that he really thinks the use of the semicolon and the comma in that sentence is correct. It probably wasn’t an english major after all. Still, don’t you think that if you had written an ad that you were going to make 300 copies of and post where the entire university would read, that you could ask someone to proof read it real first?

Dates

There is a sign on the ATMs at the bank I use that says "These machines switch business days at 2:00 PM." I need to remember to put a note somewhere that says "This blog changes business days at 6:00PM." Because I list the date of the post in UTC, which is six hours ahead of my actual time zone, anything I post after six gets listed as having been posted the next day. I suppose that doesn’t really matter, but when I try to put up at least one thing a day I often forget and have to fake the time stamp to look like I posed it earlier than I did so that it won’t show up with the wrong date.

Give Blood

What I did this morning… 

I Donate. Do you?

My Google Rankings

Aaron Andersen: 2
"Aaron Andersen": 4
Aaron: 557
Andersen: 332

These ranking tell us how important Google thinks I am, and since Google’s rankings are based on democratic things like link populatiy, they also give us a pretty good idea of how important the rest of the web thinks I am. I expect these numbers to rise over time, as people come to realize how incredibly awesome this blog is, and decide to link to me (and tell all their friends to do the same).

Actually, I don’t currently have the slightest clue if any real people are actually visiting this blog, other than the spammer who tried to fill my comments with advertising for online poker sites yesterday. (It didn’t work, because the system detected the comments as possible spam, and didn’t post them until I had a chance to review (and in this case, delete) them).

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