Judging a Book by Its Covers

Published at 15:36 on 31 October 2016

I spend altogether too much time on You Tube and when I ran across a channel called The Texas Snake Hunter, naturally I thought the worst. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I discovered it’s exactly the opposite sort of channel I feared it was.

The truth about rattlesnakes is exactly as the linked video shows: they are by nature shy and unaggressive to humans. They are deadly hunters of rodents, but what is the point of a rattlesnake biting a human? That venom is metabolically very expensive to purchase, and a human (even if it dies from the bite, and odds are it won’t, most snake bites are not fatal) is way too large for even the largest rattler to swallow.

Biting and envenomating only makes sense for a snake (a) if the creature being bitten is small enough to be swallowed after it dies, or (b) as a last resort defense measure. As to (b) the snake is much better off if it can slither away and escape without biting; it keeps its precious venom and can use it to invest in a nutritious meal to further its growth.

That’s why rattlesnakes evolved rattles in the first place: to warn away large animals that might trample them before a situation degrades to the point where a bite in self-defense becomes necessary for survival.

I’ve been in rattlesnake country many times, and doubtless passed within feet of them dozens of times without my even noticing them. I’ve only actually seen a wild rattlesnake twice. Both times the snake was completely unaggressive and just wanted to be left alone.

Naturally I obliged, and thus was in no danger. The two most common causes of snake bite are:

  1. Person being bitten doesn’t even notice the snake and steps on it.
  2. Person being bitten wants the snake to act stereotypically (coiling up, preparing to strike), starts teasing it to that end, and ends up getting more than he bargained for.

Ludwig von Mises, Supporter of Fascism

Published at 10:19 on 25 October 2016

Von Mises is one of the political economists the “libertarian” right is particularly fond of. They often point to his anti-fascist sayings in an attempt to refute any criticism that his ideas pose a right-wing threat to freedom.

Well, it turns out those sayings are mostly a case of selective editing and after-the-fact buyer’s remorse. Back when fascism was a shiny new thing, von Mises was a happy buyer. That doesn’t mean he was himself a fascist, just that like many on the non-fascist right he believed fascism would prove to be a temporarily useful iron fist with which to smash labor unions, socialists, communists, and anarchists.

He believed that fascism would prove self-limiting and thus ultimately refrain from pursuing the many of the other destructive and dangerous things it advocated. The end result would be a (in his eyes) beneficial purging of social elements he found to be distasteful and which threatened the power and ascendancy of his beloved capitalist ruling elite.

In that, his views were proven to be even more dangerously naïve than the standard view of most conservative enablers of fascism, which was that the non-fascist right would somehow be able to control and limit the the fascists once the latter gained power.

Demodulating ACARS

Published at 10:05 on 21 October 2016

ACARS is a digital protocol used by aircraft to transmit messages. It’s been around since the late 1970’s and is decodable using nothing but a sound card and the right software. But, after helping a friend (a technologically-sophisticated one; like me, he has a ham license) who has previously had no luck decoding the messages, it’s clear there’s some tricks involved.

  • Don’t use squelch. Squelch will chop off the first tiny fraction of information in a packet, causing decoding errors (typically, messages simply won’t decode). There’s no need to use squelch, anyhow. Squelch exists to prevent humans from being annoyed by listening to the background noise when a frequency is not in use. Computers don’t care about being forced to analyze static, and can easily distinguish between static and an ACARS packet.
  • Use a wide bandwidth. A big part of my friend’s problem was that he was using the default AM bandwidth on his communications receiver, which was apparently too narrow. I have myself tried using both the wide and narrow filters on my receiver; only the wide one works. ACARS is apparently a wide-bandwidth mode, and a narrow filter throws away critical information needed to decode a message.
  • If using ACARSD, configuration is critical. ACARSD is the most popular freeware package for decoding ACARS. Alas, it’s not exactly user-friendly. To install it you must first configure the installer and manually tell it to create the directories it needs. To configure it you must use a separate program that (re)writes the necessary .INI file. Moreover, that program doesn’t always default to reasonable values as advertised. It claims ACARSD will use the default sound card if none is specified. I found it necessary to explicitly specify the sound card for the default one to be used on my friend’s computer.

My Old Boss Just Quit Today

Published at 15:07 on 19 October 2016

Just by chance I met him as he disembarked from the ferry, and he shared the news with me. The short story he gave (it had to be short, as the ferry loaded soon thereafter) is that hs was demoted, saw that as completely unacceptable, and walked out the door for good.

My educated guess is that he was demoted for failing to achieve the impossible: bringing some of the least-maintainable code I have ever seen up to snuff. The only way to fix its problems is a complete rewrite, which is something that may in fact not be possible given the resources available to the firm in question. At any rate, it’s something that firm is unwilling to seriously entertain. The latter two facts were some of the things that was playing through my mind when deciding it was time to part ways myself.

The upshot of this news is that things would have gotten significantly worse had I decided to stick it out (he’s definitely one of the best people I’ve reported to, odds are the next guy wouldn’t be so good, plus morale and continuity would have suffered). I’d probably either be quitting myself of soon be asked to leave under that alternate scenario. In turn that would have put me in pretty much the same scenario I am now, but without the benefits of being able to make that late-season trip to Wyoming.

It all goes to show that honesty (with oneself as well as others) is almost always the best policy. Buying into a lie that there was a future in the work I was doing there would have simply made me worse off.

Taleo Sucks

Published at 10:26 on 19 October 2016

Taleo is a software-as-a-service (SAAS) package that some business’s personal departments use. As the title of this post implies, it sucks. I’m hardly alone in having this opinion, either. Just type “Taleo sucks” into your search engine and see.

I used to put up with its suckiness (clunky menus, duplicated data, bad browser compatibility, excessive use of crap Javascript, inability to view job description and application form at the same time, etc.) in the name of doing a more diligent job search. No more; if a link (or redirection) to Taleo happens during an application process, it’s game over.

I’m hardly alone in having this policy, either; if you read some of the hits you got in your search engine exercise above, you’ll find that others act as I do.

What tipped the balance for me was the realization, at the start of this current job search, that I have never received as much as a preliminary phone screen from any of the dozens of firms I put up with Taleo to apply for jobs at. That’s right, never. Not once. It’s as if my data vanish into a black hole.

My theory is that Taleo sucks not only for the applicant, but also for the person on the other end. Why shouldn’t it? Bad design is generally not confined to just one or two places in a software system; if it exists, it tends to be pervasive. As such, personnel departments also generally avoid using it. Thus, the way to land a job at a Taleo-using company is via some other channel.

But why should I? By the virtue of choosing Taleo, they’ve demonstrated their organizational incompetence by choosing to waste money on a demonstrably bad product. And I have no interest in working for incompetent organizations.

Back from Wyoming

Published at 19:15 on 14 October 2016

More precisely, back from a nearly 2-week road trip that went as far east as western Wyoming. It involved seeing a part of the country I had always wanted to see, revisiting the place I finished up my college degree, helping a friend collect environmental sensors from the field, a quick swing through Yellowstone National Park, seeing a significant chunk of Montana for the first time, and visiting some of my companion’s friends in rural Idaho.

I had always wanted to see the Malheur basin ever since the area caught my eye on highway maps as a teen. Alas, it’s been a dry year, and the Federal government is still (understandably) jittery that right-wing extremists will try re-occupying the refuge headquarters, which meant that:

  • The area was nowhere near as lush as I imagined it; water levels were sufficiently low that many of the wetlands had dried out, and
  • It was impossible to see Malheur Lake itself, because the only road providing access to it passes through the headquarters compound, which is still very much off-limits.

Before we got there, I was studying the DeLorme Atlas of Oregon while my companion drove and noticed a place called Glass Butte that our route would soon skirt. I surmised (correctly) that the name alluded to obsidian deposits, so an impromptu side-trip was scheduled in the hopes that it might prove to be the place where one can find the rare red-and-black obsidian I’ve seen in collections from Oregon (as opposed to the more common plain black kind). Indeed it was.

I did then visit a real oasis in the desert: the Cache Valley of northern Utah and southern Idaho. It’s an area I’m very familiar with, having attended Utah State University for two years. It was a nice surprise that the valley was still very much rural and had not filled in with houses. The extensive wetlands in its bottom were, in contrast to the mostly dried-out ones at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, very lush and green.

The college campus had of course changed a lot since I had visited, but I chose to focus on what had not changed. The administration has done a good job of preserving the integrity of the more historical parts of campus, focusing on putting the new buildings where large parking lots used to be, so many campus views were precisely as I had remembered them.

It’s little-known except by locals, but that region also has some of the most spectacular fall colors in all of North America: in the surrounding mountains, the red and oranges of maples and the clear gold of the aspens contrast with the sombre green of firs. Nowhere else I can think of has all three elements (northern New England comes close, but doesn’t have the large numbers of aspens). Alas, it’s a short display that comes early, and true to form a storm and cold spell the week before had already left the trees mostly bare and blasted, despite it being the first week of October.

Then it was on to western Wyoming to collect the data loggers. That’s a place I visited a few times on day trips in my college years, so I got to see what Kemmerer (not much different) and Jackson (lots of new construction) looked like after about thirty years. That involved learning the hard way that my partner will call just about anything a “pretty good road,” even a rough track only suitable for four-wheel drive vehicles (my truck is only two-wheel drive and not suited for such routes). No lasting harm was done, and he did readily agree to cover the resulting towing bill. The weather was cold with snow flurries.

Then a short trip through Yellowstone. We spent a day watching geysers and saw about ten different ones erupt. They were all frequent performers. I can’t really be disappointed that it fell short of what I saw thirty years ago. That involved a simultaneous display of four major geysers (including Giantess, which erupts only irregularly) jetting hundreds of feet into the air.

I wish I had studied the maps more on the following day. Had I known we were going to pass through Butte, I would have scheduled a detour to some labor history sites, including the grave of Frank Little. My efforts at trying to do something impromptu were frustrated by it being both a Monday and a holiday; both the visitor information center and the labor history museum were closed.

We camped just east of Lolo Pass and that night were treated to the heaviest snowfall of the trip. That may sound dramatic, but even that just amounted to a light dusting. There was actually more snow at our campsite than there was at the summit of the pass! Highway 12 west of the pass has to be one of the loneliest highways in the lower 48 states; we drove for hours through forested mountains before we finally reached the small town of Lowell. Traffic was very light, maybe one vehicle every five minutes.

After spending the night with my travel partner’s friends near Riggins, we resumed driving west. It was a relief to see the sign welcoming us back to Washington as we crossed the bridge from Lewiston to Clarkston, even though it was the opposite side of the state and many more hours of driving lay ahead. It was nice to see things get progressively greener and greener with each passing mile from The Dalles to Cascade Locks.

My travel partner lives in Portland, where I had planned to spend the night. After hearing about the series of storms due to hit (high winds, heavy rain) I changed those plans and decided to rest a few hours then press on and try to beat the worst of the weather. I’ve been unpacking and tidying up since and after spending over a day doing so, it was time to type in this post.

It was fun, but it was also time to end when it did.