The Toronto Star Online: Should we have to pay for it?

Apparently the majority of feedback on this question has been savagely negative. Everyone thinks the Star should be available online for free. I disagree.

Conversely the statement is, if you get the Star on paper, you will have access to the online version as well. Allow me to express doubt on this matter. Exactly what password will come with my acknowledgement of my payment for my subscription? (There is no acknowledgement of payment, just the paper stops if they think they weren’t paid.)

There is one extra catch in the online version being paid-only. I frequently point to informed sources in this blog. The Star is one such informed source. A blog can be read anywhere in the world, some readers might not be Star readers.

On the other hand, I have noticed that the free online Star sometimes does Not contain today’s news; it catches up a day or two later. (I’ve looked for current stuff I wanted to point to, eh?)

I suggest a hybrid approach. Allow the Star archives, say anything a week old, to be available for free. Charge for the Star online if you want to see today’s news.

And, find a way to do three things:

  • Allow print subscribers to see the online articles, and point to them.
  • Make the articles freely available, once they are old news.
  • Keep the url’s of those articles the same, even after they are freely available.

I submit that I am, inadvertently, advertising for the Star and its quality when I point to it. Frequent link-followers will have noticed that I use other sources too, depending on where a decent covering of an issue is to be found (all rating opinions are mine, of course).

As for Rosie Dimanno’s article today, here I make few comments. First, emoticons can be done even by the challenged, as this one {8;^<} or this one 🙁    . Second, I agree that a comment section in a news outlet may not be useful (note that this blog can be commented on anywhere, and that most comments are self-advertising and for that reason do not get approved). Third, I recommend everyone read the article. Dimanno isn’t my favourite person, but I do deeply respect her courage (some really tough reporting assignments), unwavering integrity, and quality of writing. Fourth, I often disagree with Rosie Dimanno, but today is not one of those occasions.

What’s Changed, re Police who Lie

In 2009 a police sting operation in Peel Region was determined to be tainted. As a result much of the evidence was thrown out, and a charged drug dealer got off with house arrest instead of five to eight years in prison.

In this article, the judge is quoted as saying, “The police showed contempt, not just for the basic rights of every accused, but for the sanctity of a courtroom.”

However, the police reviewing the case decided “After a comprehensive review of all of the available evidence and in consultation with the ministry, no criminal charges will be laid against any of the involved officers”

More recently, in this article, we are told “Ontario’s Crown attorneys will soon be required to report cases where they believe police officers have lied under oath.”

Don’t hold your breath waiting for things to change. What really will happen is this:

“Under the new system, if a judge makes findings or comments that an officer was deliberately untruthful, or the Crown attorney has reasonable evidence that the officer was lying, the trial prosecutor must report it to his local manager.

From there, the supervising Crown will review the case file and court transcripts to see if there are grounds to believe the officer deliberately lied.

If there are grounds, the case gets forwarded to a regional director, who makes the decision whether to send the case to police for investigation.”

In short, there are three places where the decision to proceed can be dropped. And then, ‘to proceed’ means, pass the case to the police, who will then investigate themselves.

So now for the dumb question: is anyone aware of any system that polices itself, that actually polices itself rigorously?

On Convergence: Is this a good thing?

Convergence means a lot of things. I am thinking about that sort of convergence where everything is done “one way” or “with one standard input”. Bear with me, my examples will make this clearer.

First, let’s take the famous Southwest Airlines. There is a Wikipedia article here. If you skip down to their fleet description, you will notice that, for quite some time, they have used only versions of the Boeing 737.

I read elsewhere that planes with digital instruments are specified so the digital instruments look just like the analog ones.

The point here is, any pilot can fly any plane with no familiarization. The pilot already knows the plane, its cockpit, its flying characteristics, and its instrument panel in particular.

This is an example of convergence, and it is a successful one.

However, not all instances of convergence are as reassuring.

Whirlpool bought out a number of competitive brands over the years. My list includes Maytag, Kitchen-Aid, Jenn-Air, Amana, Brastemp (Brazil), Consul (Brazil and Argentina), Bauknecht, Gladiator. Crosley apparently should have been in this list too.

Whirlpool had a recall of a number of dishwashers. A pointer to a Wall Street Journal article is here.

Dishwashers involved had been sold between February 2006 and April 2010 with a price range of $250 to $900. (All this is in the referenced article). Dishwashers involved included the following list of brands: Maytag, Jenn-Air, Amana, Crosley. 1.7 million units were recalled.

There were a few kitchen fires, some apparently pretty scary.

I submit that this is a clear evidence of unsuccessful convergence. I am willing to bet that all these machines used “the same” heating element / forced air system, and thus all had the same potential weakness.

Suppose every battery powered item in your entire life used a single battery type. (This is ridiculous, size and power needs vary enormously.) But it would mean, a small collection of spares could solve any dead battery problem. This works unless that type of battery goes out of production.

Ridiculous, you say. Yes, but remember when a single factory fire in Taiwan put a big dent in the computer manufacturing business, because they were most of the source for a key chip? Convergence creates vulnerability.

If all those lovely 737s turn out to have a single weakness – can’t stay in the air during solar storms, for example – the result could be catastrophic.

Similarly, every appliance in my house plugs into the mains. If the hydro goes out, I’m in deep trouble. It’s even worse at the shack, where I depend on power to filter drinking water.

I recall an analysis of a network that showed that one consisting of identical nodes was much more vulnerable to a certain type of crash, than a mixed network. The weakness is due to a sort of “resonance”- if you can get each machine to react to a message from another machine by sending such a reactive message, you can fill the network and computing bandwidth.

So, is convergence a good thing? The fact that all life on earth (at least the obvious, fun examples) depend on decent air is a similar fact of convergence with its subsequent dependence.

That’s today’s observation, and dumb question.

Where did all those Euros go?

Spanish banks made loans to property developers, and mortgages to home owners. There is a page on BBC news on this here.

Apparently Spain needs 59 billion euros to fill the current hole. Apparently as of August Spain had already borrowed 434 billion euros. This is 40% of GDP for Spain.

Here’s what I don’t understand. Banks made loans, to developers and mortgages. The value of the properties crashed. The loans are more or less all in default. The banks are in trouble because they need that money back. Now for the dumb question:

Who has those euros? Presumably transactions can be traced; the developers did something with the money, the homeowners did something with the money, generally paying the builders/developers, eh? So, are the developers simply defaulting, leaving the property as collateral, and keeping the cash?

Is that a dumb question? Anybody got an answer? Please post it here.

Spaghetti Code, and the Law

A program is a set of instructions that tell a computer what to do. Today’s programs are often very interactive, they tell the computer what to display and what to do in response to various possible user actions.

I submit that the laws of a nation, province, state, or municipality, in fact the laws of any civilized organization, are also a set of instructions.

The laws state what, in various legal situations, should be done, what questions should be asked, and what actions should be taken. Actions taken range from acquittal, or suit dismissal, to various penalties and fines.

Spaghetti Code is what developers call the instructions in a program that, instead of being organized, weave in and out doing various things and branching around old logic that has, perhaps for business reasons, become obsolete or rarely needed.

I submit that much of our legal code, the law that governs us day-to-day and resolves our disputes and crimes, is spaghetti code.

New laws are added on top; exceptions are inserted into existing law; special cases supposedly ensure that some clauses in the law are never invoked for certain special instances.

Spaghetti Code, in software development, eventually becomes too expensive to maintain, too difficult to understand intellectually, requiring too large a mental effort to understand what it might actually make the computer do in any reasonable set of circumstances.

The Law, which is now spaghetti code, is supposedly not too expensive to maintain, but you do need an expensive lawyer for some more complicated circumstances. Since the legal system observes the users (lawyers, plaintiffs, witnesses) it is possible to direct the attention of that user/observer group to specific parts of the legal program and to obtain a specific result – a result that might not have been possible without this direction of attention.

We have no process for re-architecting our laws, at least none of which I am aware.

So, who pays the cost of this spaghetti-like system of laws? We do: when we lose a potential case because we don’t have an exceptional lawyer to help us; when a criminal goes free due to clever, legal maneuvers; when a company gets off with a fine when a real human being would go to jail. I could go on and on.

We need some pressure on our legislators (most of whom graduated from being lawyers, eh?) to simplify the law, and actually rewrite portions of it in clear, organized language.

The Law needs the equivalent of an Architect to clean it up.

Comments, anyone? If the law applies to ordinary people, should they not be able to read, understand, and predict what it will do?

Programming: my background

With my next post, some of you will question what I know about programming and what I know about old, tangled programs as well. Those of you who trust my opinion can skip this post. It is boring.

I have written programs in a number of languages.

On the mainframe: Fortran, Assembler, PL/I, Cobol, APL, REXX.  I also wrote JCL (job control language), and documents in Script/GML (a document language preceding, and comparable to, HTML).

I also debugged and extended a CASE tool of 70,000 lines written in a private interpreted language. I consulted in improving performance in a device created by a bank, which had a private, interpreted language with the interpreter using FCL. I worked on the language, the interpreter, and the compiler (which in that version was a Big suite of Assembler H macros).

On the PC: Assembler, (Turbo) Pascal, Basic, Java, SmallTalk, .bat and .cmd files, and I wrote things like .pro files for DWScript (to support the FX-80, ProPrinter, and PCL-3). I have written a converter that takes script/gml and emits rtf format. (In FreeBasic, eh?)

I have seen a lot of code. I debugged the original version of Restart at BoM. I was test manager for the first IBM cash dispenser project in Canada. I could go on and on.

Believe me, I have seen a lot of code. I was the Application Architect of a major IBM Canada project for several years, and I learned a lot about cleaning up old code and writing nice, clean, extendable new code. I worked with good, smart people and I learned from them.

In my next post I will compare the law to software program code. This, above, is my background.

Is Afghanistan Broken?

I apologize for putting a humanitarian crisis into the category of dumb question, but it does need to be asked.

Hospitals built by donations can not be opened and likely will never run. See this Al Jazeera pointer. A lot of time, effort, and money seems to be at waste.

Meanwhile, we are warned that the Afghan government could collapse after troop withdrawal in 2014. See another pointer here. Search for this text: “Karzai seems more interested in perpetuating his own power by any means rather than ensuring credibility of the political system and long-term stability of the country”.

The United States has been training Afghanistan militias, but had to pause this because they feared infiltrators were in the classes. See here for this on CBC News.

I think Afghanistan is being pulled through several levels of civilization change at an unnatural pace. The folkways have not had time to adapt to what we consider normal, modern ideas. Equality of women is not taken seriously. Central government, and national loyalty, can be trumped by tribal alliances and obligations. Yet we are trying to set it up as if these difficulties could be swept away without a half-century of education and acculturation – which, should we attempt it, will be taken as interference, which in a strict sense, it is.

IMHO Afghanistan is a bit like Saudi Arabia. There is a ruling class and a city class. There is also a desert nomad class (or classes) that have never had deep loyalty to the others.

So, we have given them our ideas of democracy, and central government, which can only be kept working by general agreement or by force. Once the restraint of foreign troops is withdrawn, and the benefit (mostly lack of it) of foreign donations understood, the result is predicable.

Or is it? Is Afghanistan broken?

Laws I learned on the “Mech” project

Paper is not a lubricant.

Inappropriate reuse can be inefficient. The acquisition of an electric pencil sharpener faced the same review process as that for a mainframe disk drive.

Those who can, will be hired later. Major project initiations are marketing efforts.

MicroManagement will be resented. Persistent interference in everyday problem solving and decision making does not help, and does not improve the result.

Large Overdue Overbudget projects resemble each other. Low morale, absenteeism, rising exit rate, and the beginnings of finger-pointing are all common attributes. Marketing types, for whom visibility serves as oxygen, will make themselves obvious, often with finger-pointing.

All major project failures invoke the same top-management reflex: Search for the Guilty, Punish the Innocent, and Promote the Uninvolved.

Call Display Pricing, and other rants

When we started using call display, it was eight dollars on each of two land lines. It is now something like twelve dollars a line.

Exactly how is this price jump justified? There is zero extra infrastructure involved.

How come we pay extra for touch-tone service? I am tempted to go back to pulse-dial. I am sure that touch-tone speeds up the call, somewhat reducing network load. So Bell should reward us for this, instead of the current penalizing.

If anyone accidentally forgets to use the Yakk prefix, we get charged for the call plus a few bucks for the privilege of using “the network”. How come Yakk can do this for free, at a lower per-call-minute rate?

I guess the dumb question is, are we being shafted by a monopoly? Could such a thing be, with the CRTC protecting us?

Discount, Air Canada Style

In the highly irreverent book, “Up the Organization”, the newly hired president of Avis is clawing back market share from then-dominant Hertz. He then has an idea for a discount line of car rentals, one that would compete directly with their bread and butter business.

This particular chapter was on having someone who could tell top management that an idea was stupid. This person told the president something like this: “I don’t know what you call that, but we Polaks call it ‘pissing in the soup’.

So now Air Canada is going to have a discount airline. There has been a lot of pushback from the unions (of course).

In today’s Star there was a new development. Despite later claims of lots of new hires (50 pilots, for example), the new airline is only going to have four planes. And, it is not going to be a new airline – it will be part of Air Canada Vacations.

All of this could have been achieved simply by buying the four planes, so we are left to wonder if it was partly to prove, by doing it, that the unions could be ridden-over, roughshod.

Or it is possible that Air Canada has read Townsend’s book, perhaps recently.

In my opinion, Air Canada Vacations is not going to be a winner as currently configured. We travelled with them once. Once was enough. They damaged my luggage, and then said it was lost. They filled out a claim form on the wrong paper, with no claim number. And, on the aircraft, they charged for food and drinks that SunWing would have provided for free. For the two of us, travelling in two directions, it was over $60.00 Canadian. I perceive this as a form of surcharge. Not much of a discount, compared to their competition. And, on the return leg, the choices of meal were reduced.

Once was enough. Discount, Air Canada style.