The Podcast/Spam nexus

I listen to a lot of podcasts. They virtually are all sponsored by either MailChimp or Emma (some new Mailchimp clone).

What I want to know is why spammers (even opt-in, targeted email marketing solutions are spammers as far as I can tell) find that podcasts are listened to by their target market (i.e. other spammers).

Hmm. Maybe I should be spamming more…

The SQL backlash

I remember sitting in my databases class years ago and thinking, “This can’t possibly be the right way to store data.” It was a strange class, because it mixed theory and practice in a way that was anathema to the way I think. The theory part bored me to tears, and seemed ludicrously useless (first normal form? third normal form? who cares!). The practice part seemed ridiculously complicated and pointless. Why go to all that effort to write something down? Why not just write it? Yes, yes, I know, ACID and all that. I grudgingly learned it all, and I passed the class. But it never felt right to me. It felt like the students were putting on a performance to satisfy the teacher. It didn’t feel like Theory of Computing (i.e. Turing machines, regular expressions, the halting problem, etc), which just Felt Right.

So, you can imagine that it warms my heart immensely to read about NoSQL, a growing backlash against SQL/ACID data management.

What’s especially heart-warming about the backlash is that it’s coming from honest to god working computer scientists, not the academics, and not some bussinessmen who are trying to move SQL aside for their own profit. This is simply the next evolution of how to think about storing data: there are ways to process data where ACID is not a useful feature, and you need to have tools in your toolbox that respect that reality.

PS: A particularly philisophical reader might notice that I’m commenting here on the fundamental difference between the mathematics of computers and software engineering. Where the mathematicians lead us, the path (though steep and rocky) is usually an interesting trip. Where the software engineers lead us sometimes takes us into the malarial swamps of SQL. And the artisans of software, those who rightly reject the clunky boots and balky toolbelts that the software engineers wear? They put the sweet-smelling flowers into the meadows that the mathematical path takes us meandering by….

Trafigura’s West African dumping

Here’s an interesting story, well told, about an industrial process that takes refinery waste from the United States (derived from high-sulfur Mexican crude oil), cycles it through Europe, then dumps the result in West Africa.

The company running this racket (or “innovative commodity exchange”, as they call it) is Trafigura.

Learn more here:

Here’s a quick summary:

  • An arbitrage opportunity exists for energy traders based on differing regulatory frameworks in rich countries and poor ones.
  • A chemical process can turn a waste product in one jurisdiction into two outputs, gasoline usable in a lenient jurisdiction (West Africa), and the waste extracted from the original product.
  • If you buy one ship of high quality gas, you can dissolve the waste stream from several other tankers of coke gasoline into it, meaning that you can dispose of the waste stream by getting your customers to burn it for you in their cars.
  • A clever and immoral company can take advantage to squeeze profits where others just saw costs. The profits come from the externalities of burning high-sulfur gasoline (decreased longevity due to sulfur-rich smog)
  • None of this is precisely against the law. Tanfigura and it’s contractors made minor infractions here and there, playing fast and loose with the rules. But what they are doing is fundamentally not illegal — though it should be.
  • Trafigura was working towards, or achieved, the ability to reprocess this stuff at sea, likely to further reduce the power of regulators over their work.

How much other stuff like this is going on? Who are the people that organize and operate this kind of thing? How do they sleep at night?

Gates Foundation vs the Lancet

The Lancet has published an academic paper analyzing the deployment of funds at the Gates Foundation against a backdrop of the actual burden of disease. The bottom line is the Gates Foundation does not come out looking too good, seemingly interested in whizbang gadgets and not in focusing on the job at hand. Another really interesting and sad note was the extent to which being nearby the Gates Foundation, geographically or culturally gets you in the money. PATH and the University of Washington raked in the cash. African researchers? Not so much.

At the same time, the Lancet published an editorial and a commentary. Of course, being academics, you know the knives are going to come out and some serious backstabbing is going to happen. (“They fight so hard because the stakes are so low.” Sigh.) They saved the really rude things for the editorial, a particularly cowardly form of academic infighting, as that way no one has to put their name on the insults. At least the commentary is signed, though in keeping with the fact they will be held accountable for their words, they are much more restrained.

The thing that most pissed me off about the Lancet’s editorial is the stuff about transparency. They whine and moan about how the Gates Foundation didn’t come ask them what to do. You know what, all you Masters of the Public Health Universe? You had your chance. You wasted 100 fucking years, and things just got worse and worse. Some of you were wanking, writing useless papers. Some of you were too busy teaching the next generation of wankers to go out and find out what its like to be poor. The rest of you were on public health tourism packages, in business class and five star hotels. There are no poor people in the Addis Ababa Sheraton… except the waiters, but you don’t notice them anyway, I suppose.

If the Gates Foundation wants to know what works, the only way to know is to go ask the people doing it, those laboring in obscurity in tiny, underfunded local NGOs, and those laboring in sweaty, dirty, dangerous, uncomfortable places with overfunded and overexposed NGOs like MSF.

As for the commentary, it’s major point (made three times over, according to my underlines on the copy I read on the bus) is that the Gates Foundation should be investing in putting into practice things that we already know work, instead of whizbang things for the future. The whizzy MPH speak for this is “service delivery”: i.e. making sure the pharmacy wasn’t cleaned out by thieves the night before the sick baby arrives in the ambulance that someone remembered to put fuel into.

I would be amenable to this argument, except that we already know why service delivery is so bad. It’s because a few people in this world are corrupt assholes, and something is wrong with the cultures where service delivery is bad that lets the corrupt assholes ruin things for those who just want to be healthy. The fact that people are corrupt assholes is not a problem. England has plenty of corrupt assholes (in fact, they seem to be in charge of the parliament here), but the NHS keeps running anyway. In Switzerland every year there are probably two or three doctors who lose their license for insurance fraud, billing for stuff they didn’t do. What’s the difference between the corrupt assholes in Switzerland and places where service delivery is failing patients? It’s good governance and accountability.

Even a short little career in humanitarian aid like I have had can make you cynical, and I’ll freely admit I am cynical. But I see hope everywhere I look, too. Good people trying to make their health system work get torn down by the system, and the system is made of a thousand corrupt assholes, from big corruption (the Minister of Health of Uganda for example) all the way down to little corruption (the numerous minor staff problems we faced every single week in Saclepea, Liberia).

The answer is that people won’t be healthy until they and their neighbors take responsibility to make a health system that works. It doesn’t matter how much the Lancet whines to the Gates Foundation, and it doesn’t really matter what the Gates Foundation invests in anyway. The demand for healthy communities needs to come from educated, organized, and disciplined communities. Whatever helps get us there, we should invest in. Whatever is unrelated to that is a distraction and not an ethical use of time and money.

La promesse grippe – The Flu Code

Vinay Gupta published something called the flu code. Here it is in French:

La promesse grippe 0.1Beta, version français – Une service dans l’intérêt publique de L’institute pour efrondnomiques

  1. Si j’ai des signes d’une grippe éventuel, je vais rester chez moi.
  2. Je vais rester à distance des foules quand c’est possible, et je vais toujours porter une masque dans les lieux publiques.
  3. Je vais laver les mains a la porte chaque fois je arrive a ma destination.
  4. Je vais me engager de enseigner ces règles aux autres de protéger tous.

A long trip in Afghanistan

This is an interesting story by a BBC correspondent, which pulls no punches. Easy to see why he was left feeling bitter.

There are two sides to every story of course, and I’m sure the military folks would tell you about security rules, zero tolerance for violation of force protection imperatives, risk asessments, etc, etc, etc. But that’s all missing the point. When you are doing counterinsurgency work, you have to be close to the people. You have to earn their respect by finding out what earns respect in their culture and then finding a way to do it inside of your own culture. They, in turn, will come to know you and, if you deserve it, you’ll earn their respect in return.

It’s not easy, and it’s not fair: they have the right to reject your cultural assumptions, but you have to understand and take into consideration all of theirs. That’s because you are the guest in their country, and it’s not easy to be the guest. But the nature of counterinsurgency is that you are making yourself a guest (by force no less). So suck it up and be a good guest.

Come on NATO guys, get it together. The Brits learned how to do this in Iraq once (in the early 1900’s). The Americans relearned it. Now it is time to hit the books and re-re-learn the lessons.

PS: Force protection is thinly disguised CYA (Cover Your Ass), which is, in turn, just another form of cowardice. You don’t have to be stupid and get killed, but if you happen to get killed doing something important, then so be it. Life is too short to hide behind “force protection” and not achieve legitimate goals like “safe schools”, “water for kids”, etc. Just do it!

Exiting from xsltproc with an error

Does anyone out there know why xsltproc and the DocBooc stylesheets are so stuuuupid? When there’s a processing error, they just keep going. OK, fine, maybe useful. But then there’s no return value to say that there was a problem. The man page for xsltproc says it has return values, but it always returns 0 for me. And I’ve found the place in the DocBook stylesheets where the error is emitted. It looks like this:

        <xsl:text>XRef to nonexistent id: </xsl:text>
        <xsl:value-of select="@linkend"/>

The xsl:message tag supports an attribute of “terminate = yes”. So that should do it, but it doesn’t. When I add it, xsltproc terminates, but still returns result code 0.

How can it be that NO ONE has ever tried to put xsltproc into a makefile, and wanted make to correctly stop when there’s a problem with the input? What is WRONG with these DocBook bozos?


Global Warming is going to be an embarassment

In 15 years, the Global Warming hysteria is going to be one of those embarassing episodes in history. Several sociology and history of science PhDs will write their theses on “how they blew it on climate change”.

The latest person to risk his reputation by coming out and speaking truthiness to the enviro-powers is Freeman Dyson.

As I am not 80 years old, and I have to live with my reputation for a while longer, let me make my position clear again:

  • The way science works is that you observe something and you try to explain it. Sometimes it helps to make a model, and useful models make predictions that stick.
  • Climate change researchers haven’t been very successful at that, not because they are not smart enough or hard working enough, but because the climate is a really big complicated thing. Their models cannot explain past weather, and do not agree on future weather. Given that we cannot do large scale experiments on our climate, the best we have is the models. They don’t work.
  • Politics and popularism that sways funding degrades science, because scientists will naturally seek the easy money, and will not go out of their way to make their own life difficult by spitting in the face of the rich research sponsors. Even if some climate researchers know that they are caught up in a hysteria and that the evidence does not support the hysteria, some of them will take the easy way out: take the money and give the answer the model says (and just keep their worries about the reliability of the model to themselves — due to the next point).
  • When people cannot rationally discuss multiple theories about a natural phenomenon because those theories that contradict the status quo are perceived as “corrupt”, “dangerous”, “crackpot”, then science stops working right. This is happening now. Those who wish to investigate all possibilities are branded (most benignly) as “climate change deniers”, and usually much, much worse things. Read the rude comments sent Dyson’s way and be ashamed. This is one of our greatest living scientists. We should treat our elders with more respect than that.
  • The climate might be changing in ways that are dangerous for humans or it might not. Humans might have changed it or not. That gives us four possible “realities”. 3 out of 4 of them do not justify any radical action on our part. The fourth possibility (man is making significant changes and the climate is getting dangerous to us) is, due to feedback effects, likely too far along for us to stop. Instead, we’ll have to live with the legacy we gave ourselves. But we’re smart enough and still rich enough — but only if we get to work.
  • There are many excellent reasons to get off the fossil fuel addiction including: global security, local ecological reasons (well drilling is icky), and economic sustainability arguments. Human-generated climate change is not one of them.
  • Human development in resource-poor regions is fundamentally just, and any action we take regarding climate change must allow those countries to develop as fast as they possibly can. Nothing reduces sickness, early death, and sadness more than poverty reduction. Nothing. My MSF work is a great big waste of time (and a very small waste of money, comparatively). I know it, and most other MSFers know it too.
  • There is money, big money, to be made on green technologies. There are great reasons to go out and try to make that money. Climate change is just not one of them.

So, there you are, future socieology PhDs. When you find this blog post, you’ll see that the hysteria was not complete and utter. There were people who were willing to point to the angry mob and call it what it is.

PS: I found it cute that Dyson’s wife disagrees with him. When I told Marina I think global warming is a hoax, she almost called off the wedding…

Two things I like about England

I’ve been known to complain a bit, now and then, about my current hosts, the English. I reserve the right to continue complaining, to be sure, but I’d like to take a moment to point out two things I like about England:

  • ICICI Bank UK: This is one of the largest banks in India. In England, they are a very little fish in a very big nasty pond. English banks are incredibly expensive, arrogant, rude, and customer unfriendly. But because ICICI is tiny, and because it is focused on a small niche (immigrants who are sending remittances home), it gives excellent service. Go ICICI! I love you!
  • Muffins: The English make very nice muffins. The chocolate/chocolate-chip ones are totally decadent, so when you want to take it easy, go for the ones which merely have lemon curd inside and crystalized sugar on top.

PS: The English also display enormous muffin tops, but they are not really something you want to have…

Silverlight on Linux

Microsoft, what’s your problem? Why are you so stupid?

My current irritation is with Silverlight. First, it’s a redundant technology. Bringing .Net into browsers is not a compelling argument for redoing everything that Adobe Flash already does better than Silverlight. But fine, I’m not a shareholder anymore, you can waste their money all you want.

I wanted to see how well Moonlight (the Linux version of Silverlight) works. It’s partly because I’m compelled to poke my nose into the train crash that is Linux + Firefox + plugins + video + audio. It’s one of those things… so horrific, you can’t stop watching.

And the amazing thing is that it works, sort of. The install process for Moonlight is no more braindead than all the other plugins I’ve played with. The one dumb hangup is that Novell (sponsors of Mono/Moonlight) did not manage to get their code-signing XPI foo right, and so Firefox warns you the XPI is a scary dangerous virus ready to destroy your computer. Why couldn’t someone just GO SIT in Mozilla headquarters and FIND OUT how to make this work? I just don’t understand how companies like Novell think.

So then I head over to to see how it works. And it doesn’t. Over and over, in 10 different ways and places, Microsoft tries to get me to install their windows plugin. But I’m on Linux! Why are you pestering me? My silverlight support works, stop hassling me! This is the kind of crap that Flash managed to solve YEARS ago. This is why techno-redundancy sucks: the users have to suffer the SAME EXACT BUGS years later.

So I finally get through all the warnings, I don’t even know how, and I get to the showcase. I want to go see some Silverlight apps, find out if this thing works in any other situation then the Mono website (which damn well ought to work). And EVERY SINGLE ONE has the same bug, which is that it’s browser sniffing is not detecting that I have Moonlight and tells me in 12 different ways that I’m not allowed to see their content. Many of them send me back to Microsoft to “upgrade” my Silverlight, and then Microsoft sends me into an infinite hell of “you have to have Windows, you don’t have Windows, click here to upgrade to Silverlight 2 for Windows, you have to have windows, you don’t have windows…”

So, I’m here to tell you that Moonlight works. But that no one will let you use it. So don’t bother installing it, there’s nothing to see anyway.

And the traincrash continues… and I just can’t stop looking. Why do I do this to myself?