Morton

“Your finger, sir.”

The Clerk stared disinterestedly off into the distance. Morton hadn’t been paying attention…that seemed to happen a lot these days.

“I’m sorry?”

“Umm…finger?”

She made a half-hearted gesture toward the device poking out at him from beside the credit card scanner at the front of the sales counter. Somewhat dazed, he apologized again.

“What is it you’re asking?”

She gave a sigh, part boredom part contempt, before corporate protocol kicked in.

“Sir, I need you to put your finger into the scanner before I can process this sale.”

“Ah…yes…of course…”

Morton tentatively placed his withered digit into the finger stirrup before him. A younger Morton would have thought he was past this. A younger Morton would have been wrong.

The Clerk’s eyebrows raised slightly as she scanned the screen before her.

“That will be $27.39, sir.”

“Excuse me?”

“$27.39.”

Already past her initial astonishment, The Clerk’s mind now wandered. By the clock, she’d be off in 2 hours or so; maybe Bobby would be off work by then, and…

“Excuse me, but I have a coupon…”

He’d caught her off-guard. Most of his kind didn’t put up this kind of fuss. Thank God for corporate protocol.

“I’m sorry sir, but we aren’t allowed to honor discounts for folks with your…signature.”

She spat out the last word with barely-concealed contempt.

“I don’t understand, young lady. I just wanted this Snickers bar…”

…but he did understand. All too well. Ever since the insurance lobbyists had convince the government that it would be in “everyone’s best interests” to collect personal health data on every individual with any kind of coverage, things had been headed down this path. …and the fact of the matter was, Morton happened to have a family history of diabetes. Add to that a high blood-glucose level – verified by a blood test at every CVS, Meijer, and Wal-mart he’d entered for the past several years, as a matter of course – and the Consumer Health and Wellness Act of 2011 hit him hard any time his sweet tooth came to call.

$1.39 for the candy, $26.00 for his “potential”.

[…nowhere near 500 words. I apologize, but I’m still fleshing this one out. We’ll be seeing Morton again…]

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Minimalism

Minimalism.

[Note: There is a certain appeal to just leaving the post at that, but the word counter is staring me in the face…]

It’s something I’ve always wanted to give a shot. Examples of people doing so abound on The Interwebs.

There’s Allmylifeforsale:

“…an online project that explored our relationship to the objects around us, their role in the concept of identity, as well as the emerging commercial systems of the Internet.”

So Dude sold all of his stuff – pretty crazy, eh? Well, check out Mark Boyle, who actually wrote a book about living on $0 a year. …and then you have Graham Hill, who talks about “Less stuff, more happiness.” Okay, so that last guy is kind of a smarmy designer prick who apparently has the money to throw at making a 420 sq. ft. place into a sexy Condo From the Future, but in general there seems to really be something to this “Less is More” concept.

So I’ve read all kinds of articles and watched talks and all of that, but I’m not really sure how I’d get started actually doing it.

For one thing, most of the guys who live this kind of lifestyle (and I’ve only ever seen guys talking about this kind of thing) are single. I’m pretty sure I could get rid of quite a bit of my stuff fairly easily; on the short list would be all the crap in the basement and at least 90% of the books I own. However, I’m positive that saying, “Babe, I’m gonna get rid of all my shit and all of your shit” wouldn’t go over so well.

I also don’t think any of these guys have pets. Having, say, a goldfish doesn’t really increase your “stuff footprint” much. You need a bowl, a place to put it, and mebbe a little canister of fish food. Having a dog, on the other hand, is fairly “stuff intensive”; giant bag of food, dishes, leashes, chew toys, little doggie clothes. (Yes, we occassionally dress our dog…and he likes it, so stop looking at me that way.)

Oh, and do any of these guys celebrate holidays? I mean, where on earth does Mr. Star Trek Apartment store his Christmas ornaments. Hmmm…actually, now that I think of it, if I were living alone I probably wouldn’t have any Christmas crap to store. Nothing against putting up a Christmas tree, I just doubt that I’d actually do it if it were just me.

Maybe some day we’ll move to a smaller place and that will be the catalyst for getting rid of all my crap. Maybe. Or maybe I’ll end up packing it all up and lugging it from place to place every time I move. Or maybe it’s time to go ahead and start throwing things out, giving things away, putting things up for sale on craigslist.

meh…I’ll start tomorrow…


Public by Default

The other day I was talking to my wife about privacy on Facebook – or rather, the lack therein. I can’t remember the specific context, but I was arguing that Facebook being more or less “public by default” isn’t the greatest policy – perhaps good for sharing, bad for privacy. Her take on it was something along the lines of, “Well, if you’re putting something on the Internet, you should realize that it’s going to be public.” Hmm…it’s hard to dispute that, particularly in an online space specifically designed for connecting with other people and sharing things with them. I still had kind of an “ooky” feeling about it, though, so I tried to back it up.

My first thought was to try the Principle of Least Surprise argument. It went something like: You should be able to post something on Facebook with a reasonable expectation that it won’t be blasted out to everyone who happens along – your grandma, your boss, etc. Well, this particular argument didn’t go over so well since “least surprise” for my wife in this case is summed up by “if you put it on the Internet, everyone will be able to see it.” I couldn’t talk her around to the point of view that you should be in control of how private your thoughts and conversations are, regardless of whether you’re on the Internet. It was a little like trying to apply the principle to pulling the pin on a hand grenade and releasing the lever; from her standpoint, you’d be an idiot if you expected not to get blown to smithereens.

So I think my next thought was to try to point out that it needn’t necessarily be that way. “Well, Google+ is ‘private by default’ and only shares your posts with other people that you explicitly include!” I don’t recall what she said specifically at this point – probably “Google+ blows because no one uses it and all of my friends are already on Facebook” (heh) – but even I know that comparing one social networking site to another in order to take the moral high ground on which of them “does it better” is kind of silly. Besides, I don’t have any reasonable way of proving – even to myself – that posts on Google+ are any more or less private than those on Facebook. Oh sure, I could set up two accounts and share things with some circles and not others or what-have-you…but at the end of the day, I have zero assurance that that shit isn’t getting read by folks that I didn’t want to share with. End of story.

Okay…so how about this. Let’s expand this to include anything you put on the web. It may not be entirely fair to extend an argument about social networking sites in this way, but I’m going to do it anyway. We can start off benignly: How about your Netflix viewing habits? They’re on the Internet; should they be public? What about all of the Google searches you’ve ever done. I’d throw out a random guess that for every Google search you do there are (at least) 1,000 machines that end up with a copy of that search and enough information to tie it back to you. That’s fairly “public”, right? So how comfortable would you be if Google had a policy of making those publicly available with your name attached? No? Okay, how about your bank? It’s on the Internet, right? So let’s just let anyone with a cable modem have your account numbers – no big deal, eh?

Okay, I think I’ve probably gone far enough toward the absurd here. Bank websites are clearly not social networking sites and it’s obvious that they must adhere to different standards. But Netflix? Google? Think about it. Think about what movies you’ve watched. Think about how different things would be if every time you searched for something you did so knowing that everyone you know – and even some you don’t know – would see what you’d searched for. Think long and hard about it and then try to tell me your search habits wouldn’t change. That is the problem that I have with “public by default”, and why I do not think I’m wrong in disliking it as a policy.


Things My Dog Taught Me

[This morning didn’t exactly go According to Plan ™, so I didn’t get a chance to write. Time to make up for it…]

My dog Jake is a decidedly dumb mutt. However, there are a number of things he’s taught me in the 7 years since we got him. I thought I’d share a few of these things.

  1. The stairs are a race. If you do not get to the top first, you lose. (Note: I always lose.)
  2. [corrolary to 1] Going down the steps needn’t be a race, provided (a) you won the race to the top (see 1) and (b) you obstruct the path of the guy who’s just trying to get to the first floor without killing himself.
  3. [corrolary to 2] In general, being underfoot is the God-given duty of any dog.
  4. Sleep close to your human. I mean, really close. The best way to go about this: wait until he’s settled, then flop down half-on/half-off his outside thigh so that you kind of slide down it. Maximum closeness: achieved.
  5. Loiter in the kitchen when food is being prepared. You might get lucky and end up with a little something extra to eat.*
  6. Ogden Nash put it best: “A door is what a dog is perpetually on the wrong side of.” Nuff said.
  7. Figure out the cues that signal when your humans are going to leave the house. Work, mom’s house, around the corner to grab some ice cream – whatever. Once you know the signs, flip right the fuck out when any of them are even hinted at. Seriously. If you hear the word “Go” and “Bye” in the same sentence – regardless of context – raise a proper ruckus.
  8. Peeing and pooping are properly done in two separate trips to the back yard. Doing both at once would be just…barbaric. (I mean what are you, some kind of animal?) Best to do #1, wait until your human gets good and comfortable, then let him know it’s time for #2.
  9. It is perfectly okay to wake up from a long night’s sleep, mozy on over to a different locale, and lay down for a long morning/afternoon’s nap.
  10. On getting in the car: You must be in the car first, as soon as any door is opened.
  11. On riding in the car: Attempt to stand for as long as possible. Yes, you’re going to get tossed onto the floor at the first red light. Totally worth it. After crashing to the floor at least once, you have the option of laying down. Whining and/or sticking your head out the window also optional.
  12. On getting out of the car: You must be out of the car first, as soon as any door is opened.

Okay, I’m sure there is more, but I’ve covered a lot of bases and 12 seems like a nice, round number. What has your dog taught you?

* – In all fairness, I do this, too.


WoWconomics

The in-game economy of World of Warcraft is an interesting thing. In some aspects, it works in the same way as a regular economy. There is an auction housein which the laws of supply and demand generally prevails; you can expect that rare and highly sought-after item to cost you an arm and a leg. In general, the more difficult and/or time-consuming and item is to obtain the more it will cost. There are vendors that sell fixed-price comodities, and people that will try to resell those comodities at an exorbitant markup to those unaware of the vendors’ existence.

Auctioneer Grizzlin

There is certainly inflation. There was a time when 1 gold was a lot of money in WoW. The leader of my guild is fond of reminiscing about the “good old days” of vanilla WoW when fast land mounts cost 1,000 gold and nobody could afford them except for rich guild leaders who taxed their “constituency” to get them. Having one of these mounts was a status symbol. Now everybody has them, and there are daily quests that pay out 16+ gold for 5 minutes of your time (and you can do up to 25 of these a day). There are various mechanisms in place to try to keep inflation at bay – namely “gold sinks” like ever more-expensive mounts and skills to take money back out of circulation – but at the end of the day when there is an infinite amount of currency inflation is just going to happen.

There are also some ways in which WoW’s economy works in the exact opposite way of what you would expect. IRL, typically raw materials + time spent = finished goods at some markup reflecting the time and skill required to create those goods. In WoW, raw materials typically cost more than finished products. This seems a little bit odd unless you understand a bit about WoW. First of all, the “work” put into producing goods is fairly trivial – the click of a button and a few seconds of waiting. Gathering of materials is typically more time-consuming/difficulty by far. Second – and more importantly – WoW is almost entirely a numbers game. Everyone is striving to achieve max level, min/max their stats, get all of the achievements…in short, he who has the biggest numbers “wins”. This generates a tremendous demand for the raw materials that can be used to increase one’s skill in a given profession on the way to maxing it out.

soulbound

There are also things in WoW that are simply not for sale in that it is impossible to sell them. There is a concept known as “soulbinding” or being “soulbound“; that is, an item will either bind itself to its owner when it is picked up or when it is first used. Once bound, that item can no longer be sold nor traded to another player. I can’t think of any RL analogue for soulbound items. I mean sure, I have a handful of things that I probably wouldn’t sell for any amount of money…but I can’t think of anything that I own for which I am able to say “I cannot sell this due to mechanics” or “The laws of physics have literally bound this item to my soul and I am unable to part with it.”

I’m sure there are other quirks of the WoW economy that I’m just not thinking of at the moment. They’ll have to wait for another time…


Mercedes: Tablet Edition

Not long ago, my mother was looking into buying an iPad. Despite the fact that I don’t own a tablet of any kind, she had some questions to ask me about it. This wasn’t all that surprising; I end up getting tech questions about all sorts of things from family and friends who assume I’ve done some amount of research on All Things Tech (and, generally, this assumption is correct). What was at least moderately interesting to me is that all of her questions were centered around the iPad itself: “How much storage should I get?”, “3G or no 3G?”, “Should I get this or that accessory with it?” At no point did she ask me “Would I be better off buying a different kind of tablet?” or even “Should I be buying this?”

…so I took the liberty of presenting these questions to her as the ones she probably should be asking.

For the former – “Should I be looking at the Xoom, TouchPad, or any one of the other available on the market today?” – my answer (for my mother) was “No.” She shrewdly flipped this question around on me: “What would you buy?” My laughing reply: “Not an iPad.” Well, she was kind of taken aback at this, so I trotted out the old apples and oranges metaphor. I don’t have a strong use case for buying a tablet other than “They’re kinda cool” so I can’t really say what features I would be looking for in one, but I know what I don’t want: overpriced proprietary hardware (right down to the charging connector), a proprietary OS and software that I can’t fiddle with, and an app store over which Apple has complete and total control. For my mother, the use case is similar – i.e., “They’re kinda cool” – but feature-wise I have a hunch that none of the above matter all that much to her. She just wants it to look sleek, work well, and integrate with all of the accessories she was also planning on getting. Well, it’s hard to beat the iPad on that front.

My mother doesn’t want a utilitarian piece of hardware to play around with, one that’s easy to get under the hood and work on. She doesn’t want a Chevy or a Ford. She wants a Mercedes. And in many ways, that’s what the iPad is: a luxury product for those that have the disposable income to be able to afford it. In fact, I would argue that all of Apple’s products are luxury products. Why else would a MacBook cost $1,200 when I can get nearly identical – even superior! – hardware in a PC for under $500? Because you’re paying a premium for that Apple symbol on the lid.

This brings us to the second question: Should she buy it? Well, that question is kind of moot at this point; she already did. …and I don’t really see anything wrong with that. She had a picture in her mind of what she wanted, and that’s what she got. I wouldn’t go so far as to call her a fanboy – I’m pretty sure this is the only Apple product she owns – but she definitely, at least this one time, caught “Apple Fever” and I don’t think she would’ve been satisfied with anything else. Had she bought the Chevy, all she would’ve thought about while driving it is “How much nicer would this have been if I were driving that Mercedes I was looking at?”

What’s my point? Well, I don’t know that I really had one to begin with, but if I did it’s probably something like this: If you’re going to buy something like this, attempt to have a well-defined use case. If you can’t do that, at least go into it with your eyes open as to what your motivations are for deciding on this technology or that. If you can’t do that…well…fuck it, it’s your money I guess; spend it however you like…but don’t come to me when your Mercedes breaks down, I don’t have the know-how or the equipment to work on it and you’re just gonna have to take it to the dealership.


Castle on a Cloud

I woke up singing this song to myself this morning. No idea why – I haven’t seen/listened to Les Miserables in a really long time – but along with a recent event it inspired this post.

A friend of mine recently left his job for an opportunity at another company. He had a handful of personal files on his computer at work that he didn’t want to lose, so on his second-to-last day he went about trying to put those files somewhere that he could get at them on his machine at home. So far this doesn’t sound all that unreasonable. …however, due to some fairly draconian security policies put in place by his employer he was blocked at every turn.

First thought: I’ll just zip up my files and transfer them to my phone. (This might not have actually been his first thought, per se, but it was one of the things he tried). No dice, I’m assuming because they disallow connecting USB devices to corporate workstations. Next up: email it to himself. This doesn’t work either, as outbound communications with attachments have some kind of encryption requirement and GMail is blocked. Oh, I know: Dropbox! Blocked. In fact, from this point forward consider every popular website that might be useful for this sort of thing to be blocked. So…what to do?

Well, that’s about the point that he sent me a panicked email: “Dude, brah, <my employer> put some blocks in their blocks so I could get blocked while I’m blocked. Help!”

…and this is the part where I get to say “To the Cloud!” heh

So what was my magic solution? Well, first I logged into Amazon EC2, on which I already have an account as I’m currently using it to host my personal web site, and I spun up a new Linux virtual machine instance. I spent 10-15 minutes wanking around getting a public/private keypair set up – largely because I didn’t have my private key at work and I’d forgotten how to set up a new one – and got logged into my new server. I installed Apache and PHP, and I Googled “PHP file uploader”. A few minutes and a little copy-and-paste work later and I had a workable (and, for the record, ridiculously insecure) file upload page. So I sent him the URL…and it failed miserably. A little more Googling to find the Secret Sauce for increasing PHP upload limits (if you’re curious, there are about 5 places where config changes have to take place to allow this) and voila! My buddy uploads his file, I pull it down off of the VM and email it to him.

So that’s the cloud. What about the “castle”? Well, I’m not feeling particularly clever this morning, so I’ll just give you the gist of the idea that’s been kicking around in my head. My buddy’s employer blocks all of the websites that they know about in order to improve “security”. Now, this is likely required for the auditors’ sake and that’s all well-and-good…but in what way is it really improving anything at all if someone with a free hour and a little know-how can circumvent it entirely for what are, I’d say, legitimate reasons? I think this sounds like a classic case of a pretty common practice that can be described with something like “Security through Inconvenience”; i.e., “If we make it harder to use then it will be secure because people will give up after 5 minutes of trying. We win!” Much like Security through Obscurity, it’s an illusion set up under false pretenses to give the appearance of being secure – a Castle on a Cloud.